“The Careful Use of Compliments” by Alexander McCall Smith

The fourth of The Sunday Philosophy Club Series see us back with Isabel Dalhousie, who having fallen in love with Jamie, who is not only her niece’s ex-boyfriend but also fourteen years her junior, also fell pregnant and at the start of this book has had her first son, Charlie. Isabel is not only a mother, she is also the editor of the philosophical magazine Review of Applied Ethics, but her professional life is in trouble with the arrival of radical Professor Christopher Dove.

As with any working mother, Isabel tries to balance the various parts of her life, family life with Jamie and Charlie, managing the home with opinionated housekeeper Grace, her strained relationship with niece Cat, and her career with the magazine.

The joy of the Isabel Dalhousie novels is that Alexander McCall Smith uses his heroine to give the reader time to contemplate the moral and ethical challenges that face each of us every day. Whilst on the surface, the mystery of the authenticity of the paintings of a Scottish artist are the main plot of the book, this story is really just an extension of the previous novels and continue our journey through Isabel’s thoughts and ethics. I thoroughly enjoy these novels, and welcome the opportunity to sit back and consider the implications of the moral decisions we each make every day. Isabel is never allowed to preach to us as readers, and instead, is a vehicle for the author to give us the various choices we have when thinking about situations we find ourselves in, without ever saying one way is the right way, and always showing that whichever path we choose may still not give us the outcome we would like.

I love reading this series of novels so much, that it is one of the few books I will buy in hardback and not wait for either the paperback or reserve through my local library. The Careful Use of Compliments does not disappoint. We see Isabel with new challenges to give her consideration to, and for me, she is a genuine heroine. Her character develops and grows with every new book, and I aspire to have her intelligence and compassion. While she lives a privileged lifestyle, she is never ostentatious with her fortune, and strives to be a good person.

Edinburgh is also a character of its own in these books, and Alexander McCall Smith writes about it and its society with such warmth, that I feel I know the city without ever having visited. In my opinion, he writes Edinburgh as Richard Curtis portrays London in his films.

Wonderful book, charming location and lively characters, a great addition to the Isabel Dalhousie series. I loved it.

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“Size 14 Is Not Fat Either” by Meg Cabot

Heather Wells is a former pop-star whose manager stole all her money and ran off – sounds bad, but to make it worse her manager is her mother! Her pop career over, she then finds her fiancé with another woman, a younger pop-star, so penniless she takes the offer of her ex-finance’s brother, Cooper, to live in his home, and takes a job as an assistant director of the college residence halls, in return for remission on her tuition fees to allow her to finally finish her education. As if life isn’t complicated enough, Heather is completely in love with Cooper, her father has been in jail for the last twenty years, and last year she solved the mysterious deaths of two girls in her residence hall, which is now dubbed “Death Dorm”.

At the start of this second Heather Wells mystery, Heather is trying to deal with a new boss, start her remedial math classes, and look after college kids turning twenty-one and legally getting so drunk they have to be accompanied to the emergency room. Her day is not exactly going well, when she’s called to the kitchens of the cafeteria to deal with a situation – a cheerleaders severed head has been left boiling in a pot on the stove, but with no sign of the rest of her body. Even though she has promised Cooper that she won’t get involved in this murder investigation, she then promises her friend Magda she will try to make sure the killer is caught. She soon finds herself caught up in the nastier side of college life … and in some very dangerous situations of her own.

I love Meg Cabot! Reading her books, whether kids books like The Princess Diaries series, teenage books like The Mediator series, or adult books such as these Heather Wells mysteries, feels like catching up with a good friend who has a far more interesting life than me. She is a great storyteller, and I find all her books real page turners, and really relaxing to read. Her writing always seems to talk to the audiences she’s writing for, without talking down to anyone. The heroines of her books feel like real people, and as such are never one dimensional, but always fully rounded characters, with emotions, feelings, faults and their own individual personalities.

This second Heather Wells mystery is another cracking read, and I finished it easily in a day. Considering it’s a murder mystery, there’s no gratuitous violence or graphic descriptions of the murder. Heather feels like someone I know, and I can completely put myself in her place, providing the perfect escapism I look for in books. The character development from the first book continues, and there are a few tantalising threads left at the end to be woven in to the next one, Big Boned, due to be published early next year. I can’t wait!!!

“Me and Mr. Darcy” by Alexandra Potter

New Yorker Emily Albright is on yet another hopeless date, with a man who can’t even hold the door open for her. As a bookworm since an early age, she knows the type of man she’d love to meet – Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr Darcy! Brooding, intelligent and handsome, he’s recently been voted the man most women would love to date, and Emily is no exception. Desperate to avoid an 18-30 holiday in Mexico her best friend has organised, she finds a flyer for a literary tour of Jane Austen’s England and immediately signs up.

When she arrives, however, she finds she’s on a tour-bus full of elderly ladies, and wonders if she’s done the right thing, especially when the objectionable journalist, Spike, joins them so that he can interview the ladies to find out more about why women love Mr. Darcy.

Me and Mr. Darcy is a lovely, easy, fun read, perfect for chilling out with in the evening, or a beach read on holiday. Personally, I didn’t like the magic realism elements that had been added to the plot, and would have preferred for the story to be based on reality instead.

Alexandra Potter is one of my favourite writers of romantic comedy books, Going La-La being my favourite chick-lit book ever, with that one and What’s New, Pussycat? as her first two novels standing out as her best work. In addition to a smart, funny story, I also loved cover designs of the books. I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but the covers of these two books perfectly matched the style and content of the stories. I was disappointed with the next three books, the stories weren’t as strong, and had lost some of the humour and the sassy style of the heroines, and with a couple of changes of publishers, I didn’t like the cover designs either! Me and Mr. Darcy looks like the start of a return to her earlier form, although, for me, not quite there yet.

If you love funny, romantic stories to relax with, I would recommend you read Going La-La and What’s New, Pussycat? first, and if you like those, try this one next. By all means read the others in between, but for me they aren’t as good as the first two.

“First Among Sequels” by Jasper Fforde

The latest in the Thursday Next series, finds us moving forward fifteen years to 2002. With Landen uneradicated, Thursday and her husband are dealing with their son, Friday, who is being a typically awkward teenager, refusing to join the Chronoguard, even though the whole family know it is his destiny, and are also bringing up their two daughters, Tuesday and (trying to break the days of the week formula) Jenny.

SpecOps has been disbanded, and Thursday is running the a carpet and flooring company … or is she? It’s actually a front for former SpecOps agents who are still carrying out their work underground, and Thursday is still working for Jurisfiction in BookWorld.

Trying to juggle family life and her job, whilst not letting onto Landen and the children that she is still effectively working as both a SpecOps and a Jurisfiction agent, Thursday is struggling to maintain normality in the real world, as well as having to deal with not one, but two very familiar cadets trying to become Jurisfiction agents.

Another great story from Jasper Fforde, with some wonderful twists and turns, for both major and minor plot points and characters. The thing I love about these series of books is that they don’t really seem to be separate stories, and that even though they all have a definite ending, there are always some little threads of plot that are picked up on and woven into one of the next books, and it feels like a warm, comfy place to revisit on each occasion. First Among Sequels is both funny and clever, with a loving nod to both classic and contemporary fiction and fictional characters, although as I’m a huge Austen fan, I would have loved to have had more Pride and Prejudice involvement in the plot, just because it’s one of my favourites and would have loved to have seen it have the same involvement in the plot as Jane Eyre did in The Eyre Affair, but that’s just me being picky. I did, however, love the idea that all the comedy had been stolen out of the Thomas Hardy novels.

Overall, another great novel by Jasper Fforde, and I’m already anxiously waiting for the next one!