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Friends, Lovers, Chocolate - Alexander McCall Smith

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Author: Alexander McCall Smith / Genre: Crime / Thriller

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      02.09.2009 16:47
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      This book is charming as ethical discourse, but as a mystery novel, it doesn't quite satisfy.

      Friends, Lovers, Chocolate by Alexander McCall Smith is the second in a series of novels featuring Isabel Dalhousie, editor of the Review of Applied Ethics.

      Set in the city of Edinburgh, this slim volume is a delightful hybrid that combines a touch of mystery with local color and gentle discussions on how one woman goes about living and working in a manner that is morally and ethically consistent. The result is a pleasing discourse on all manner of things--from forming and maintaining a variety of relationships, to how one integrates into the surrounding community, to coping with the unexpected results of today's medical miracles.

      By now, you probably know enough about this book to determine whether it might interest you. This is not a highbrow book, but rather a thoughtful one. It is not an appropriate choice for those seeking an action-packed scenario. If, however, you like the idea of wandering through an intelligent mind seeking to cope with the challenges of living life ethically against the backdrop of Scotland's most beautiful city, you might be in for a treat.

      As an author, Alexander McCall Smith is best known for his series of books featuring the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Smith plays a bit to type with his main characters. It really is not that difficult to find a bit of Mma Precious Ramotswe in Isabel Dalhousie. Both are strong but gentle women who think about what they do and why they do it. Both understand who they are and where they come from. They love their home and the culture that produced them. Both like men, not to mention a bit of romance in their lives, but both are well able to live fully on their own terms.

      The main plot of this book concerns Isabel's efforts to help her new friend Ian, who is a recent heart transplant recipient. Ian has been experiencing troubled dreams and visions suggesting that his unknown donor may have been murdered. He fears that the dreams are really a form of cellular memory transfer, and he turns to Isabel in search of answers that will give him a measure of peace.

      Subplots revolve around relationships--friends, family, and lovers. Many of these relationships are exceedingly complex, and Isabel expends a good deal of energy trying to identify ethically responsible pathways through the all-too-common human foibles that touch her life. A life well lived, as Isabel rationalizes, must make the best choices possible based on the knowledge available. Mistakes and apologies are, for her, an inevitable part of the process.

      Smith's writing style is . . . well, pleasant. As does Isabel with her practical pursuit of ethics, he lets context do much of the background labor. Smith doesn't follow a minimalist path in the manner of Hemingway, but having set his scene, he doesn't go to great lengths to provide long descriptive passages. Nonetheless, those who know Edinburgh will be satisfied to wander the streets and neighborhoods of this comely city. I'll likely read the book again for this alone.

      As a mystery writer, however, Smith is not quite at his best in this volume. For my part, his resolution of the various subplots surrounding Isabel's personal relationships is far more satisfactory than his resolution of the main plot. Characters introduced late for the purpose of solving the story's central mystery are incomplete and exaggerated. In my opinion, they don't really work.

      What of chocolate? Well, that's part of the minimalist approach. For more on that, you'll simply have to read the book.

      © LovesTravel (aka DAnneC, BawBaw)

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        05.08.2009 23:44
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        Set in Edinburgh, a story about friends, lovers and chocolate

        Friends, Lovers and Chocolate. I borrowed this book from my husband who was given a huge pile of Alexander McCall Smiths books at Christmas.

        Isabel Dalhousie has many friends, she is a spinster Philosopher living in Edinburgh, and is the Editor of "the Review of Applied Ethics", she enjoys a "Genteel" life, with housekeeper Grace looking after her, although she doesn't live-in. Grace is more down to earth but does enjoy going to spiritualist meetings and has met a nice man there.

        Jamie is a young Musician, a bassoonist and he teaches adolescents in his home and also plays in chamber orchestras when needed, he like many others enjoys a friendship with Isobel who treats her guests to glasses of wine and often meals. He had a friendship with Isabel's niece, but it fell through, although he remained friends with Isabel.

        Isabel's niece Cat plays a part too in this story and this is where the Chocolate comes in, as she runs a delicatessen and also attracts the Lovers! Or so we are lead to believe, more Lovers are included later in the story. A young man called Eddie helps in the shop, but he is not confident to be left alone for long.

        The story starts in an Edinburgh churchyard, where a man called Ian goes to pay his respects to a poet who had died many years before. He thinks this will be his last visit, when he is distracted by a woman calling to him to say that the time has come for him to go into hospital for a heart transplant.

        Isabel looks after the shop whilst Cat goes away to Italy, and I found myself so involved in the goings on that in Tesco the other day looking at triangular oatcakes I thought who wanted these, and then remembered it was in the book! In Italy she meets Tomasso from Palermo, and having visited there earlier this year I pictured the attractive olive skinned gentleman quite easily. He drives his Bugatti over to Scotland,to see Cat and Isabel is sure he must be part of the Mafia!

        The story involves several other people and an urban fox that comes into Isabel's garden, there are times when I feel it is moving too slowly, but at others it proceeds well. Without giving too much of the story away, Isabel meets Ian after his transplant and he asks her help to discover more about the donor because of things which have happened to him. On the back cover it says "he is being plagued by memories that cannot be rationally explained and which he feels do not belong to him". Could it be possible that a transplanted heart can cause this? As the story unfolds, the reader is taken on visits around Edinburgh and the surrounding area meeting other characters, not all works out well, and Isabel wonders if she is interfering where she shouldn't be.

        At one point Isabel goes into a public house where she treats a woman to a drink and the woman replies "Thank you Hen". As I live near Edinburgh I know that "Hen" is a term of affection, like Duck in Yorkshire, and this is explained for non Scottish readers. There are lots of descriptions and names of areas that I know, but it is written in such a way that it doesn't matter if you don't know the area. Chocolate comes under attack when Isabel considers writing a paper on food.

        Just under 300 pages, and one in a series called "The Sunday Philosophy Club" this book sells at £7.99 but I believe was one of several from the Book People. Available used for 1p on Amazon or under 35 new. I quite enjoyed the story, at times I felt it too slow, with too much information about things I didn't need to know, but others may enjoy that part of the book.

        Alexander McCall Smith has written over 60 books on many subjects. He was a Professor of Medical Law at Edinburgh University and lives in Edinburgh. I like his way of writing and several well known magazines and papers have written good reviews on this story. Do I recommend it? Yes, probably not the best book I've read but I enjoyed it and strangely so did my husband, it's not his usual book either!

        Genre is Crime/Thriller and ISBN 978-0-349-11804-8

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      • Product Details

        If you've got the key to literary success, it is a risky business indeed to make an abrupt change of subject that may lose you some readers. Has Alexander McCall Smith done this with Friends, Lovers, Chocolate? After all, his much-loved No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series has won him a legion of admirers, with its vividly evoked African settings, quirky plotting and (most of all) his likeable, 'generously proportioned' sleuth Precious Ramotswe. These gentle, indulgently enjoyable books were quite unlike anything else being published today, and found a ready audience. But McCall Smith, not content to rest on his laurels, produced The Sunday Philosophy Club, with a new female detective, the philosopher Isabel Dalhousie. This was a very different kettle of fish, with an Edinburgh setting replacing sultry Botswana, and more philosophical concerns replacing the homely adages. The book was a success, without seducing readers in quite the numbers that the previous series had done. And now we have the second outing for Isabel Dalhousie -- and Friends, Lovers, Chocolate bids fair to cement McCall Smith's new heroine in readers’ affections – though she’ll never replace Precious. Isabel is trying to deal with her uncertain feelings for an attractive young man, Jamie, who is planning to marry her niece, Cat. Things become even more complicated when Cat takes an Italian vacation and asks Isabel to look after her delicatessen. Isabel finds out that one of the customers has had a heart transplant, and seems to be accessing memories that he is convinced belong to another person. As Isabel digs deeper, things suddenly become dangerous. The appeal of the new book is (like its predecessor) more to the mind than the emotions, but it's none the worse for that. McCall Smith's brittle dialogue and situations are as entertainingly off-kilter as ever, and even fans of the ample Precious should put this on their lists.