Review of The Right Attitude to Rain, by Alexander McCall Smith

The Right Attitude to Rain

by Alexander McCall Smith
performed by Davina Porter

Recorded Books, 2006. 8 CDs.

I started the Isabel Dalhousie series years ago, but lost interest. Now I’ve discovered the way to read them — on audio, when one can be entertained by the lovely Scottish accents.

It’s misleading that these are shelved in the mystery section, because they’re not traditional mysteries. Yes, a crime occurs — in the last part of the book, on the last CD. But Isabel doesn’t solve it, she philosophizes about it.

Isabel is a philosopher, independently wealthy, and the editor of an ethics journal. She keeps saying that she thinks too much, but the listener does enjoy the digressions which her thoughts take.

In this book, most of her musings are about her relationship with Jamie, a man 14 years younger than her, whom she has fallen in love with. So she thinks about every possible side of the ethics of that relationship. And Jamie was once the boyfriend of her niece Cat, so there’s that to consider as well. Meanwhile, Isabel’s cousin Mimi and her husband are visiting, and the whole group is invited to a house party given by a wealthy Texan and his fiancĂ©. But is the fiancĂ© just after his money? That’s what it seems like to Isabel.

Alexander McCall Smith’s books don’t have a plot that progresses at a rapid pace, and I think that has a lot to do with why I stopped reading this series. But listening to it in the car on the way to work and back is a delightful way to approach it. I find myself smiling at each new diversion and thinking about the philosophical implications during my day, but I haven’t had too much trouble shutting the car off when I get to work. (There were a couple times…) This book makes a pleasant travel companion, and I’m going to be quick to take up the next book in the series.

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Source: This review is based on a library audiobook from Fairfax County Public Library.

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Review of Another Piece of My Heart, by Jane Green

Another Piece of My Heart

by Jane Green

Macmillan Audiobooks, 2012. 11 CDs, 13.5 hours.

Another Piece of My Heart is chick lit for grown-ups, which I suppose I should give the label “women’s fiction.” The story begins with a woman who got married late in life and is dealing with facing the fact that she’s not going to get pregnant. Add to her troubles a truly awful teenage stepdaughter, and she’s not sure if she’s going to be able to stick it out, even though she loves her husband.

The story continues with more perspectives, including the stepdaughter, and even the view of the alcoholic first wife. There are complications when Emily, the stepdaughter, gets pregnant.

This audiobook was read by the author. Since the author has a British accent but the book is set in California, that seemed a little odd — but I am never one to complain about a British accent, and listening to the author’s delightful voice kept me listening toward the beginning when I wasn’t sure I was terribly interested. (That was a brief moment toward the beginning when I was afraid the main character was going to cheat on her husband. She didn’t, and I never was tempted to quit again.)

In spots the book did go on a little longer than it might have. But overall, it was a richly layered story about what it means to be a family and about the negotiations that go into giving your heart.

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Please use the comments if you’ve read the book and want to discuss spoilers!

Review of The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party

by Alexander McCall Smith

Pantheon Books, New York, 2011. 213 pages.
Starred Review

I do love the No. One Ladies’ Detective Agency books! This is the twelfth book in the series, and I really do think you will enjoy them more by reading them in order, though I’m sure you would also enjoy them jumping right in.

These books are for people who don’t mind a little author meandering. The fact that Mma Ramotswe is a detective adds some interesting cases, and plot related to that, but mostly the book is about the people and the interesting problems they encounter. Some of the problems always relate to their own personal lives, but they are also tied in with the problems brought to them in their role as detectives.

In The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, Mma Ramotswe seems to be haunted by the ghost of her beloved tiny white van; Mma Makotsi is finally preparing for her wedding, including finding the perfect shoes; the apprentice Charlie has gotten into bigger trouble than ever; and they have a large and complicated case, involving rich men, a possibly innocent child, and someone cruel enough to harm animals.

The details of the plot are not the point of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books. They are about spending time with dear friends, kind friends who take seriously the bad things out in the world, but also thoroughly enjoy the good things. I happened to read this volume in the hospital, and it was the perfect light pleasant reading, not requiring a lot of thought, but nicely taking my mind off how I was feeling.

I love Mma Ramotswe’s musings on life. Here is one brought on by a remembrance of her father:

“Later, much later, she remembered his words and pondered them. We cannot always stop the things we do not like. She knew now what he meant, of course — that nature had to be left to take its course — but she had realised that there was a far greater truth there too. There were some things that one could stop, or try to stop, but it was a mistake to go through life trying to interfere in things that were beyond your control, or which were going to happen anyway, no matter what you did. A certain amount of acceptance — which was not the same thing as cowardice, or indifference — was necessary or you would spend your life burning up with annoyance and rage.”

And here are her musings on weddings:

“She stood still for a while, thinking about marriage. A wedding was a strange ceremony, she thought, with all those formal words, those solemn vows made by one to another; whereas the real question that should be put to the two people involved was a very simple one. Are you happy with each other? was the only question that should be asked; to which they both should reply, preferably in unison, Yes. Simple questions — and simple answers — were what we needed in life. That was what Mma Ramotswe believed. Yes.”

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Review of Kat, Incorrigible, by Stephanie Burgis

Kat, Incorrigible

by Stephanie Burgis

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York, 2011. 298 pages.
Starred Review

I love the way this book begins:

“I was twelve years of age when I chopped off my hair, dressed as a boy, and set off to save my family from impending ruin.

“I almost made it to the end of the garden.

“‘Katherine Ann Stephenson!’ My oldest sister Elissa’s outraged voice pinned me like a dagger as she threw open her bedroom window. ‘What on earth do you think you’re doing?'”

Kat had heard their Stepmama telling their Papa that she had managed to get Elissa engaged to be married to a rich old man, thus saving the whole family from financial ruin.

Kat explains to her sisters how she was going to save Elissa and the family:

“‘I was going to London,’ I said. ‘I knew if I ran away, there would be such a scandal that Stepmama wouldn’t be able to sell Elissa off. And once I was there . . .’ I half closed my eyes, to see my dream past my sister’s skeptical face. ‘There are thousands of jobs a boy can get in London. I could sign on to a merchant ship and make my fortune in the Indies, or I could be a typesetter at a newspaper and see every part of London. All I’d have to do is get work, real work, earning money, and then I could send part of it home to you two, so at least you could both have real dowries and then –‘”

Kat’s sisters, of course, won’t allow her to go through with this plan, and quickly point out its shortcomings.

Kat truly is incorrigible, though. When she finds out her sister Angeline has been working with their Mama’s magic books, Kat takes a look herself — and gets more than she bargained for.

They all know that Mama’s magic was frowned upon by society. What they didn’t know was that their Mama was part of a secret Order that had power to regulate magic throughout the realm. Only one child from each generation inherits the power of the Order, and it looks like Kat is the one in this generation. But does she want training from people who disapprove of the kind of magic Angeline is doing? And Angeline’s magic looks to be causing its own trouble.

Meanwhile, Stepmama is still working to prepare Elissa to marry Sir Neville. Never mind the rumors that he killed his first wife. And why is he so interested in Kat’s powers? Add in romantic troubles for both sisters, a mysterious highwayman, and a visit to the elegant Grantham Abbey, and you end up with a rollicking tale of magic and manners both.

This book is a lot of fun. There are some coincidences (like Elissa falling in love with Sir Neville’s brother) and solutions that maybe come a little too easy — but it’s all in good fun and makes truly entertaining reading. Kat reminds me of Flavia DeLuce in her sheer incorrigibility that won’t be cowed by older sisters, and the book itself reminded me of Sorcery and Cecilia by combining Regency England with magic, though this one is for younger readers, since it’s Kat’s sisters who have the romance, not Kat herself.

But I’m totally on board with this book. Take a Jane Austen-like situation. Add magic. Add a feisty younger sister who doesn’t know her own power. Mix well. The result is delightful reading and bound to make you smile.

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Review of Minding Frankie, by Maeve Binchy

Minding Frankie

by Maeve Binchy

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011. 383 pages.
Starred Review

Maeve Binchy’s books always end up keeping me reading until the small hours of the morning. Why, oh why, didn’t I know better than to start reading this book late at night, thinking I could stop after only one chapter? It’s not that the plot is exciting or action-packed, but you definitely get to caring about these people and want to find out what happens to them.

I do love the way she brings characters we’ve already seen in her other books. You don’t by any means have to have read the other books, but you have the sense that these are old friends. Everybody has a story in Maeve Binchy’s books, and in each book she focuses on a set of intertwined lives and the beautiful way they get through.

Minding Frankie is about the birth of a little girl.

Josie and Charles Lynch live in 23 St. Jarlath’s Crescent with their son Noel. They had always hoped Noel would be a priest, and set aside money early on for that purpose. Noel, however, was definitely not interested.

“Not so definite, however, was what he actually would like to do. Noel was vague about this, except to say he might like to run an office. Not work in an office, but run one. He showed no interest in studying office management or bookkeeping or accounting or in any areas where the careers department tried to direct him. He liked art, he said, but he didn’t want to paint. If pushed, he would say that he liked looking at paintings and thinking about them. He was good at drawing; he always had a notebook and a pencil with him and he was often to be found curled up in a corner sketching a face or an animal. This did not, of course, lead to any career path, but Noel had never expected it to. He did his homework at the kitchen table, sighing now and then, but rarely ever excited or enthusiastic. At the parent-teacher meetings Josie and Charles had inquired about this. They wondered, Does anything at school fire him up? Anything at all?”

Later, Noel got an office job instead of continuing his schooling.

“He met his work colleagues but without any great enthusiasm. They would not be his friends and companions any more than his fellow students at the Brothers had become mates. He didn’t want to be alone all the time, but it was often easier….

“He took to coming home later and later. He also took to visiting Casey’s pub on the journey home — a big barn of a place, both comforting and anonymous at the same time. It was familiar because everyone knew his name.”

Meanwhile, Noel’s parents aren’t sure what to do with the money they had saved to train Noel for the priesthood. And then Charles Lynch is told they don’t want him at his job any longer.

Into this home comes a woman from America, Charles Lynch’s niece Emily. Emily’s father moved to America years ago, and never kept in touch with his family. The family isn’t sure what to expect, but Emily is the sort of person who changes people’s lives by getting to know who they truly are.

She helps Charles and Josie realize what they really want to do is build a statue to St. Jarlath. And she helps Noel realize that he’s an alcoholic and needs help.

But then Noel gets a life-changing phone call. A woman he knew once and spent a drinking weekend with wants him to visit her in the hospital. She tells him she’s pregnant, and he’s the father. And she’s about to die of cancer.

So the book is about Noel trying to get his life together and be a father. The social worker assigned to his case doesn’t think he can do it. But thanks to Emily, there is a community of people around St. Jarlath’s Crescent who care and who help him with minding the little girl, Frankie.

That description doesn’t sound like a book that would keep me up reading through the night. But Maeve Binchy’s books are about Community. The characters are quirky, and some are powerfully flawed, but as we watch them working together, helping each other, working out problems, making mistakes, being wonderfully kind, we get hooked into their stories.

Another uplifting and life-affirming book by Maeve Binchy. I highly recommend getting to know the wonderful people who live in her books.

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Review of The Double Comfort Safari Club, by Alexander McCall Smith

The Double Comfort Safari Club

by Alexander McCall Smith

Pantheon Books, New York, 2010. 211 pages.
Starred Review

This is now the eleventh installment of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Though I think it would be an enjoyable book as a stand-alone, I still recommend that people start at the beginning, and they will be all the more touched by these developments in the lives of old friends.

In The Double Comfort Safari Club, we again have a nice tangle of cases for Mma Ramotswe, Botswana’s premiere detective, to solve. One of them necessitates that she and Mma Makutsi take a business trip to a safari camp, which is where the book gets its name. (I love the titles in this series!)
As usual, the solutions to the mysteries don’t really involve intellectual puzzles, as in traditional detective tales. These are more a chance for Mma Ramotswe and her friends to reflect on human nature and draw wise conclusions about life.

In this book, a terrible accident happens to Phuti Radiphuti, and his aunt tries to use it as an opportunity to keep him from Mma Makutsi. The reader’s heart will be touched, but be glad that she has friends like Precious Ramotswe to find a way to help in a bad situation.

As always, reading this book is like spending time with wise and kind friends. And the variety of cases keep things interesting. Always fun.

“Mma Ramotswe thought about this. Having the right approach to life was a great gift in this life. Her father, the late Obed Ramotswe, had always had the right approach to life — she was sure of that. And for a moment, as she sat there with her friend, with the late-afternoon sun slanting in through the window, she thought about how she owed her father so much. He had taught her almost everything she knew about how to lead a good life, and the lessons she had learned from him were as fresh today as they had ever been. Do not complain about your life. Do not blame others for things that you have brought upon yourself. Be content with who you are and where you are, and do whatever you can do to bring to others such contentment, and joy, and understanding that you have managed to find yourself.

“She closed her eyes. You can do that in the company of an old friend — you can close your eyes and think of the land that gave you life and breath, and of all the reasons why you are glad that you are there, with the people you know, with the people you love.”

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Review of The Boy Next Door, by Meg Cabot

The Boy Next Door

by Meg Cabot

Avon Books (HarperCollins), 2002. 379 pages.

I’m a little embarrassed that when I was shelving books in the Romance section, I actually picked one up, checked it out, read it in one sitting, and thoroughly enjoyed it. To be fair, at least it doesn’t have a picture of anyone’s bare chest on the cover. I was in the mood for something light and fluffy and fun after reading some heavier books, and light and fluffy and fun was exactly what I got.

The story is told through e-mails, and that’s actually carried off well. Fortunately, they don’t use the annoying text message shorthand and it comes out as a fun and believable way people would talk about the madcap adventures of a slightly ditzy but good-hearted co-worker like Mel.

We first meet Mel Fuller in a series of e-mails from her co-workers wondering why she is so late to work. Especially amusing is the one from Human Resources urging counseling if she has serious personal problems causing her excessive tardiness.

It turns out that Mel was late because she found her elderly neighbor had been attacked in her apartment. So she didn’t think to call her employer. In fact, she took care of feeding her neighbor’s cats and walking her Great Dane before she came to work. Isn’t that what anyone would do?

So begins some time where caring and thoughtful Mel takes care of the enormous dog Paco while Mrs. Friedlander is in a coma. Her work does not appreciate her continued tardiness. When Mel finally manages to track down Mrs. Friedlander’s nephew, a notorious womanizer, photographer Max Friedlander, and sends him an e-mail, he’s off at an island with a celebrity model, and doesn’t want to be bothered by a little thing like his aunt’s attack. But neither does he want his aunt to cut him out of her will.

So Max e-mails an old college friend, John Trent, calls in an old favor, and asks John to go to his aunt’s apartment, pretending to be Max Friedlander. John can take care of the dog until Mrs. Friedlander gets out of the coma, and Max’s aunt will never know that her nephew couldn’t be bothered to come to her bedside.

It all might have gone well, if Mel hadn’t found “Max Friedlander” so different from what his reputation suggested. And if John hadn’t had a thing for redheads, combined with never before having known a girl who wasn’t more interested in his money than in him. But you know there’s going to be trouble with a relationship that began with lies.

Reading the flirting, the gossipy e-mails, and the funny misunderstandings is a lot of fun if you’re in the mood for fluff, and this book hit me right when that’s exactly the mood I was in. There are a couple of sex scenes, but they are also kept pretty light, and at least it doesn’t have a steamy cover! There’s even a mystery along the way: Who attacked old Mrs. Friedlander? Is their apartment building safe?

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Review of Suite Scarlett, by Maureen Johnson

Suite Scarlett

by Maureen Johnson

Point (Scholastic), 2008. 353 pages.

In Scarlett’s family, when you hit your fifteenth birthday, you get keys. But these are not keys to a shiny new car. These are keys to a hotel room in an old Art Deco hotel in New York City.

Scarlett’s family owns the Hopewell Hotel, and a fifteenth birthday tradition has developed:

“At age fifteen, each Martin was ‘given’ a room in the hotel to care for. This was not an ancient tradition — it had started with Spencer four years earlier. He had gotten the rough-and-ready Sterling Suite. Lola had the attractive but small Metro Suite. The Empire Suite was something else entirely — the showpiece, and the most expensive of the hotel’s twenty-one guest rooms. It was rarely occupied, except for the occasional honeymoon couple or the lost businessman who couldn’t get a room at the W.

“So this was either an honor or a ‘we don’t actually want you to have to deal with any guests’ gesture.”

But soon after Scarlett receives the key, a guest arrives, planning to stay the whole summer. Her name is Amy Amberson, and she’s a former actress. She’s extremely interested in manipulating other people’s lives, and soon is messing with Scarlett’s, and manipulating Scarlett into messing with other people.

Meanwhile, the Hopewell is not doing well. They’ve had to let their cook go, and Scarlett will not be able to get a summer job, so that she can help at the hotel. Meanwhile, her brother Spencer is running out of time on the deal he made with their parents. If he doesn’t get a role on Broadway before his scholarship offer to culinary school expires — next week — then he needs to give up acting long enough to go to culinary school.

So when Spencer gets a part in a version of Hamlet that’s not on Broadway in the usual sense (it’s in a parking garage on the street called Broadway), he wants to make it work. And he wants Scarlett to help him. And Spencer’s new friend on the cast happens to be tremendously handsome. But things don’t go smoothly, so of course Mrs. Amberson wants to get involved.

Suite Scarlett is a whole lot of fun. I’ve been meaning to read it for awhile. I actually started listening to it in audiobook form, but the narrator was too perky for me. However, I was already interested, so I finished the book in print form.

This book is a big elaborate comedy with plots and counterplots all fitting together in the end. The characters are varied and believable, from meddling Mrs. Amberson to Scarlett’s spoiled little sister Marlene, who recovered from cancer and now thinks the world revolves around herself. I like the interaction in the Martin family — They definitely love each other, but have some realistic bumps in the relationships between siblings.

This light-hearted book is a lot of fun to read.

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Fluffy Holiday Reading

by Janet Evanovich

Well, on Teaser Tuesday I posted two teasers and asked you to help me choose which to read. I got one comment on Facebook, and I went ahead and ignored that comment!

Yep, my friend Missy told me to skip the Janet Evanovich holiday book, but Wednesday night I went ahead and knocked it off. She said that she’d been disappointed in a different Evanovich holiday book. But I had wanted something light and fluffy, and something I could read in less than two hours.

Sure enough, I read Thanksgiving in about the same amount of time it would have taken to watch a chick flick, it had about that much depth and characterization (not much), was that much fun (lots), and hurt my head a lot less, because it didn’t involve any bright light. So it was exactly what I was in the mood for.

But it was light and fluffy and not highly believable or lasting literature and sexy and silly and fun and not necessarily what I want to be known for recommending. So — I thought I’d just talk about it on this blog but not post a review on the main site. But that way, you’d know how the Teaser Tuesday turned out.

And today I had another long wait at a hospital for an MRI, and read further on The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Okay, it’s quite dry reading, but I’m getting pulled in, little by little. I probably should stop reading it when I have a headache, though, I think, as it needs a little more focus than what I’m giving it.

Thanksgiving, on the other hand, did not need much powers of concentration at all! Basically a young woman with a history of being dumped has moved to Williamsburg and meets a fresh-out-of-medical-school pediatrician when his rabbit (of all things) nibbles her skirt. Then a young teen mother mistakes them for a married couple and dumps a baby on them, and Megan falls for the baby (yeah, right) and they take care of it and have a perfect Thanksgiving with their families and confront her former fiance and have a comedy of errors (of course) and go through lust and love and decide whether to live happily ever after.

Light and fluffy, completely unrealistic, but quite a bit of fun. I was a little annoyed that the rabbit hardly ever came into it after the initial scene where it engineers their meeting, but okay that wasn’t the only quibble. And it certainly didn’t have any more plot holes than a similar chick flick and would make a delightful one.

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Review of The Marriage Bureau for Rich People, by Farahad Zama

marriage_bureauThe Marriage Bureau for Rich People

by Farahad Zama

Amy Einhorn Books (Putnam’s), 2009. 293 pages.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #7 Fiction

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People is one I will be recommending to many, many library patrons as a pleasant, light-hearted read that will lift your spirits. It also gives you a taste of life in India.

Mr. Ali needs something to do after retirement. His wife tells him,

“After retiring, you’ve been like an unemployed barber who shaves his cat for want of anything better to do. Let’s hope that from today you will be a bit busier and I get some peace.”

Mr. Ali has decided to open a Marriage Bureau for Rich People. And in fact, he gets so much business he can’t handle it all himself. He deals with Muslims, Hindus, and Christians, and people of different castes. Sometimes parents, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles seek his services for their relatives, and sometimes the prospective matches come themselves. He learns much about human nature and has many insights on what leads to happiness.

Mrs. Ali finds her husband an assistant, Aruna, to help with the work load. Aruna has her own sad story, since her father’s recent illness strapped the family finances and destroyed her marriage prospects.

The book tells stories of some of the people they successfully match up, and some with whom they are not so lucky. Through it all, we hear about the Alis’ conflicts with their own son, who is involved in political protests, as well as Aruna’s difficulties. Fortunately, events take a happy turn.

This book introduces you to delightful people, tells interesting stories about them, and gives you a taste of India. Thinking about it still makes me smile. In some ways, this reminded me of The Number One Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith — the same pleasant tone, and the same basic idea: friendly main characters interacting with a wide variety of people, with insights on human nature given along the way. Both give a taste of the country where they are set, with The Marriage Bureau for Rich People in India, instead of Botswana.

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