Sunshine on Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith

I’ve read a few of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie books, which I enjoyed – but not any of his 44 Scotland Street novels. So when I saw Sunshine on Scotland Street in the library, going off the blurb on the back cover, I thought it would be a change from the crime fiction and historical novels I’ve been reading recently.

From the back cover:

Scotland Street witnesses the wedding of the century of Angus Lordie to Domenica Macdonald, but as the newlyweds depart on honeymoon Edinburgh is in disarray. Recovering from the trauma of being best man, Matthew is taken up by a Dane called Bo, while Cyril eludes his dog-sitter and embarks on an odyssey involving fox-holes and the official residence of a cardinal. Narcissist Bruce meets his match in the form of a sinister doppelganger; Bertie, set up by his mother for fresh embarrassment at school, yearns for freedom; and Big Lou goes viral. But the residents of Scotland Street rally, and order – and Cyril – is restored by the combined effects of understanding, kindness, and, most of all, friendship.

My thoughts:

Even though I haven’t read the seven books before this one I had no difficulty in following the storylines, although it is obvious that the characters all have backstories and previous relationships that are hinted at in this book. In a way it’s very like the Isabel Dalhousie books as the action is interspersed with McCall Smith’s philosophical and ethical musings, his thoughts about human nature and relationships, which in general I liked more than the story.

It begins with an amusing account of the preparations for Angus and Domenica’s wedding, which Angus seems to think will just happen without much preparation by him – a hole in his kilt, his lack of a ring, and he has given no thought at all about where to go for thier honeymoon. But his bestman, Matthew helps him sort out the kilt and ring problem and Domenica has arranged both the reception and the honeymoon.

After that Angus and Domenica disappear from the book until the last chapter, leaving Cyril, Angus’s dog in the care of the Pollock family, the insufferable Irene, her long-suffering husband, Stuart, 6 year-old son Bertie and baby Ulysses. Cyril and Bertie are my favourite characters in the book and their ‘adventures’ caused me much concern, as Irene does not like Cyril and stifles both Bertie and Stuart. In fact I wasn’t too bothered about any of the other characters, apart from Bertie’s spindly-legged friend from cub scouts, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson and his mother who has no difficulty in putting Irene firmly in her place.

This is an easy read, meandering from one character to the next. It has a light, humorous tone that I enjoyed, along with thoughts about friendship, religion, spirituality and happiness. At the end as Angus looks round the group of people gathered for their homecoming party it strikes him that they are an ‘infinitely precious band of souls’:

And this realisation that he had was not specifically religious – although it could easily and appropriately be that. It was, rather, a spiritual notion – the idea that each of us, even the least of us, has a rich hinterland of value behind us: the lives we have led, the thoughts we have had, the love we have given and received – the little things of our lives that may not mean much to others unless and until they are granted the insight that brings love into the heart, sudden, exalting love. To see another as a soul was to acknowledge the magnifcent, epic course that life is for each of us, and to experience sympathy for the other in his or her negotiation of that course. It was quite different from seeing others simply as people. (pages 294 – 295)

Reading challenges: Read Scotland and What’s In a Name, in the category of a book with a country in the title.

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Abacus (18 July 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0349139164
  • ISBN-13: 978-0349139166
  • Source: Library book

Book Notes

I’ve been reading more than writing recently and there are four books that I have yet to write about on this blog. One of my reasons for writing is to remember more details of what I’ve read and to crystallise my thoughts about the books. But as it has been some time now since I read these I’m just going to write short notes on two of them.

This book follows on from Achebe’s Things Fall Apart being the third book about the family of Okonkwo in Nigeria from the time of European colonisation up to the 1950s. No Longer at Ease is set in the 1950s. Obi Okonkwo has been educated in England and returns to Lagos where he works as a civil servant. He has a fiancée, Clara and a lot of expectations to live up to from his family and tribe who paid for him to study in England. He soon falls victim to the corruption in the city and upsets his family, who disapprove of Clara. This is the story of pressure from a changing world that Obi doesn’t understand and struggles to adjust to.  It’s a downward spiral and a sense of foreboding pervades the whole book.  I preferred Things Fall Apart which I’d read quite a while ago now.

This is the first in the Isabel Dalhousie series. I’ve read a few of the later ones before getting to this one, which does fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of Isabel’s background. It is really better to read these books in order.

Isabel is a philosopher and the editor of the Review of Applied Ethics and as you would expect from this the book is packed with Isabel’s thoughts on the events that take place. I really like the gentle pace of these books and reflecting on the points made. It actually begins dramatically with the death of a young man who falls from the upper circle of the Usher Hall where Isabel had been at a concert. She saw him fall and becomes convinced that he had been pushed.

I like the mix of Isabel’s reflections and her concern over her actions and their consequences. I like the characters – Grace, Isabel’s down to earth housekeeper, Cat her niece who seems to go from one unsuitable boyfriend to the next, and particularly Jamie, Cat’s ex-boyfriend. I noted a few questions raised by Isabel’s reflections – questions about the nature of lying, whether there are good lies and bad lies, the blurring of truth and falsehood, what moral obligations do we have to other people, forgiveness, and hypocrisy.  Isabel finds it

… intellectually exciting to become involved. She wanted to know why things happened. She wanted to know why people did the things they did. She was curious. And what she wondered was wrong with that? (page 78)

And that’s why I like this book and the other Isabel Dalhousie books so much.

The other books I’ve read and not yet written about are both by S J Bolton – Awakening  and Blood Harvest. They are both great books, which I’ll write about soon.

Friday Finds

Friday Finds is  hosted by Should Be Reading.

I have just one ‘find’ this week. I’ve only recently discovered how good Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie novels are. There are seven in the series and I’ve read just two of them so far. The latest one in the series is due out in September. It is:

The Charming Quirks of Others

Description from the publishers Little, Brown Book Group:

Isabel Dalhousie, Edinburgh philosopher and curious observer of the behaviour of her fellow man, is approached by a friend at a local boarding school that is planning to appoint a new headmaster; an anonymous letter has arrived suggesting that one of the shortlisted candidates has a compromising past. But which one is it? Isabel is once again drawn into an investigation, and finds herself exploring dilemmas of human weakness and forgiveness. She turns to her fiancé Jamie for advice, but he too appears to have something to hide . . .

That gives me time to catch up reading the others in the series before this one is published (links to Alexander McCall Smith’s website):

  • The Sunday Philosophy Club
  • Friends, Lovers, Chocolate
  • The Right Attitude to Rain – read
  • The Careful Use of Compliments – read
  • The Comfort of Saturdays – waiting to be read
  • The Lost Art of Gratitude
  • Library Loot

    I’ve been reading lots of library books  recently and still have quite a pile left unread. Here are just some of the books I’ve borrowed that I haven’t started to read yet.

    From top to bottom:

    • Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore. I haven’t read any of her books. The title of this drew my attention – Zennor is a village in Cornwall just north of Penzance, one of the places we used to go to years ago when Dave used to go rock climbing. But this book is different – it’s set in 1917 and U-boats are attacking ships on the Cornish coastline. D H Lawrence and his wife Frieda come into this novel, which won the McKitterick Prize in 1994.
    • Passenger to Frankfurt by Agatha Christie. I’m steadily reading Christie’s books, just in the order I find them. This is one of her later books and was written in 1970, published to mark her eightieth birthday. It’s a spy novel.
    • The Right Attitude to Rain by Alexander McCall Smith. I picked this one because I’d enjoyed The Careful Use of Compliments so much. This is the previous Isabel Dalhousie Novel in his Sunday Philosophy Club series and the third one in the series.  I’m looking forward to reading Isabel’s thoughts on moral and ethical dilemmas.
    • The Vicar of Sorrows by A N Wilson. I have a mixed reaction to Wilson’s books, some I like and some just turn me off. I liked A Jealous Ghost and Incline Our Hearts, but shied away from My Name is Legion. I also like his non-fiction – After the Victorians and some of his biographies. The Vicar of Sorrows is about a clergyman who does not believe in God and does not love his wife. It remains to be seen if I’ll like it.

    The Careful Use of Compliments by Alexander McCall Smith

    I’ve resisted reading Alexander McCall Smith’s books up to now partly because I couldn’t quite believe they would live up to my expectations and partly because I don’t like the style of the book covers. This one is quite off-putting because of its colours, which is really a trivial reason not to read a book.  I am so pleased that I overcame my resistance as I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one. I’ll be looking for more.

    The Careful Use of Compliments  is an Isabel Dalhousie Novel, one of the Sunday Philosophy Club series. It’s number 4 in the series, but I had no problem following it as it stands well on its own. I’ve just seen the US cover – much better. My quibble with the cover is my only criticism of this book – I loved it.

    Isabel has just had a baby, Charlie, and is in a relationship with his father, Jamie (14 years her junior) who is her niece’s, ex-boyfriend. Cat (her niece)  is upset and resentful and embarrassed even though she broke up her relationship with Jamie, and despite Isabel’s best efforts to bring about a reconciliation is barely speaking to her.

    Cat said nothing, and Isabel realised that she was witnessing pure envy; unspoken, inexpressible. Envy makes us hate what we ourselves want, she reminded herself. We hate it because we can’t have it. (page 4)

    In addition Isabel has to deal with an attempt from Professor Dove to take over her editorship of the philosophical journal,  Review of Applied Ethics. As well as coping with these two difficult situations Isabel tries to buy a painting by Andrew McInnes at auction and fails. This is a previously unknown painting by McInnes of a scene on the isle of Jura in the Inner Hebrides, where McInnes had drowned in mysterious circumstances. She thinks there is something odd about the painting and sets out to discover more about him and his paintings, becoming convinced that this one is a forgery.

    But it’s not really the mystery that captivated me. It’s the philosophical questions that are always uppermost in Isabel’s mind and conversations. It’s her way of ‘interferring’ in matters which she considers ‘helping’, and her kind hearted nature (but she suffers few qualms at getting the upperhand over Dove). It’s the little gems of wisdom scattered through the book. It’s the descriptions of Scotland and Scottishness, of Edinburgh and the islands. It’s about the nuances of understanding the use of language as expressions of general goodwill, about the meaning of money and how it should or should not be used, about late motherhood and family relationships, and about morality and justice.

    There are many passages I could quote. I think this one relating to the title of the book is a good one. Here Isabel is talking to Walter, who had tried to sell her McInnes’s painting:

    ‘Please’, she said, impulsively reaching out to lay a hand upon his sleeve. ‘Please. That came out all wrong. I’m not suggesting that you tried to sell me a forgery.’

    He seemed to be puzzling something out. Now he looked up at her. ‘I suppose you thought that because I wanted to sell it quickly.’

    ‘I was surprised,’ she said. ‘but I thought that there must be a perfectly reasonable explanation.’ That was a lie, she knew. I am lying as a result of having made an unfair assumption. And I lied too, when I paid a compliment to that unpleasant dog of his. But I have to lie. And what would life be like if we paid one another no compliments? (pages 222-3)