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17th December
written by Steph
Yesterday, my good friend Abby sent me a copy of an interview conducted with Jasper Fforde over at Shelf Awareness (and note that because she is such a good friend, she entitled the email “Your BF”, and I immediately knew who she meant… despite having a husband… 😉 ).  The interview is quite short (and can be read here), and focuses on what Fforde is reading and who his literary influences are and all that delightful stuff that gives us fans a peak into the mind of this marvelous man. Now, largely I marveled at how similar my tastes in authors are to those of Mr. Fforde (clearly indicating that we are destined), but one thing jarred me.  I’m all for authors mentioning favorite books or authors that I’ve never heard of (I love the constant realization that there are far too many books in the world for me to ever keep track of them all… and it’s always nice to think that maybe one of these books or writers will become a new favorite), but it throws me for a loop when they list someone as a literary BFF who I do have some experience with and who I just… don’t really care for.  In this interview, Fforde lists Alexander McCall Smith as one of his Top Five Authors, which is no small deal in my book.  Everyone else on his list (Wodehouse, Bryson, Twain, & Vonnegut) are all writers I can get behind (and I’ve sung at least three of their praises on this here blog), but the McCall Smith mention stopped me dead in my tracks.  I tried several times (at least thrice) to read the first book in his Ladies’ Detective Series, and I just COULD NOT DO IT.  I was bored and just didn't get what all the hoopla was about, and I eventually wrote McCall Smith off as one of those writers that I assumed I just wasn’t going to get. And now because of Jasper Fforde, I have myself second-guessing myself and wondering if I have been too hasty in my dismissal.  Perhaps Jasper is referring to McCall’s non-Ladies’ Detective Series books?  To anyone who is well-versed in the ways of McCall Smith, would I be better served in trying some of his other series instead to see what I’m missing?  If I were to only read one McCall Smith book what would you suggest? I also found myself wondering if the rest of you book lovers are as impressionable as I am.  Are there any authors out there who would cause you to do a 180 and give an otherwise neglected–by-you writer another shot?  Or perhaps you have someone else in your life who you find gives unerringly good book advice and if they say to read it, said book automatically goes to the top of your list?  I have to say, with the exception of Jennifer Johnson is Sick of Being Single, on which we have agreed to disagree, Abby has pretty much never steered me wrong when it comes to book choices (which is good since she ultimately decides which books I’ll review for BookPage, and it would stink if she was always sticking me with stuff that was not my thing… and even when she does stick me with something that’s not my usual quirky "Steph" read, she is aware she’s doing it... which counts for something, right?  And that doesn't happen all that often anyway...).  And even if I do have a massive crush on Jasper Fforde (but in a totally professional/respectable and not at all creepy way, I assure you), my darling husband has a pretty good read (ha!  See what I did there?) on whether a book will be to my liking, and it’s rare that we disagree on anything, never mind books, all that often.  After all, Tony is the one who has me convinced that I have to give my literary nemesis, Charles Dickens, another go.  Because of him, I will eventually conquer Great Expectations!  True love will out!  And then of course, there are all of you book bloggers, who add at least three or four books to my teetering and tottering mammoth of a TBR pile... No wonder I never make any progress with that thing!


  1. 12/17/2009

    If it makes you feel better, IMO Fforde is right on in what there is to appreciate about McCall Smith, which to borrow one of your phrases, counts for something, right? I have not read any of the #1 Ladies books, but I did find the first in his philosophy club series entertaining and enjoyable, so if you want to give him another try you might start there.

  2. Eva

    I tried reading No. 1 Ladies’ etc. three times…the third time I got two chapters in and finally realised why I didn’t like it: it just felt so condescending towards black Botswana, and I was uncomfortable knowing Smith is white. So I tried The Sunday Philosophy Club, which since it’s set in Scotland I knew wouldn’t have the race issues. And I didn’t enjoy that one all that much. So I’ve accepted Smith just isn’t for me.

    I can’t say that there are any friends/bloggers/authors who, if I’ve already read two books by an author and didn’t like them, could convince me to do a 180. BUT if I’ve only read and disliked one book by an author, I could be convinced to give them another shot. And if I’ve just been avoiding an author without every actually read them, I could be convinced too. 🙂

    I’m not a huge fan of Dickens, but lately I’ve been thinking I *might* give him another try. Maybe. lol I’m eyeing Oliver Twist, but I’m still quite wary. 😉

  3. 12/17/2009

    Steph, I am so excited that Tony has convinced you to read Great Expectations! I really want to hear what you think about this book because up until I read it I was convinced that Dickens had absolutely nothing to offer me, and I am hoping that it will defy your expectations as well. As far as McCall Smith goes, I have not yet read any of his books, but I have the first in the Ladies’ Detective series on my shelf and have been wondering when I am going to give it a go. If you do end up reading anything else by him I will be very interested in your reactions.

  4. 12/17/2009

    I have tried several McCall Smith books and haven’t really liked them either. But you never know why an author likes a particular book or author – its kind of like spouses I think – somehow that other person meets the needs of the first person, and friends may find the whole thing incomprehensible but still like the first person in spite of it all. Or take coconut, or raisins in cheesecake. Would you still like a person who ate such things even if you found them egregious? Would you think there was something about raisins in cheesecake you just weren’t getting? No, you would think that person has some crazy, irrational aspects, but nevertheless is well, possibly even your own husband!

  5. 12/17/2009

    The first book in McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies” series has been on the TBR challenge list for two years now as I’ve been told over and over again by a multitude of people that I would enjoy it. I just cannot get past the first few pages, but I’m unwilling to give up because so many people have recommended it to me. Had just one person recommended this series to me, I would had just dropped it and agreed to disagree. But because multiple people (who know my reading tastes pretty well) had done so I just can’t let it go.

    Regardless, I wouldn’t say their is an author or one person who would make rethink my decision to not like a book. There certainly are people who I think have a better idea of what my taste are or who have similar tastes, and I would listen to their recommendations above other people. I’ve decided to give Wuthering Heights another go because I realize that I never gave it a proper chance in the first place, not because it is a friend’s favorite book ever.

  6. 12/18/2009

    @ Trisha: I am thinking the No. 1 Ladies may not be for me, and while I am no Philosophy buff, I will keep that series in mind should I feel the burning desire to revisit McCall Smith!
    @ Eva: Well, it does sound like you’ve certainly given McCall Smith a fair shot! And I think you make a good point that if you’ve already sampled quite heavily from an author and found them not to your taste, then it probably doesn’t much matter what anyone else says!
    @ zibilee: I had been meaning to try Great Expectations this year, and I actually made it about 70 pages in this summer, and then I lost steam and decided maybe the summer wasn’t the best time to read it… but I am going to try again. I want to be able to say I’ve at least read ONE Dickens… and I am hoping that I do like it!
    @ rhapsody: Raisins in cheesecake? That’s crazy talk! 😉 I guess I would feel like I should try them though before I pass any kind of judgment on the combination, and my fear here is that maybe I had too quickly dismissed McCall Smith from my reading repertoire. Of course I wont’ like every author out there, but I’d like to think that I’d given them a fair trial before condemning them to my “Nope! Not gonna do it for me!” list.
    @ Christina: You know, Wuthering Heights is on the list of “Not My Thing”, but I can say that I read the whole thing so I feel ok saying I don’t like it. I hope that you have a better experience with it if you do give it another go, but I’m quite happy to never read it ever again! 😉

  7. 12/17/2009

    Eva’s comment about why she doesn’t like No. 1 Ladies Dective agency is interesting as I recently got the mini-series and my husband said the same thing after watching the first episode with me. He also thought it was condescending to women, ironically. I say ironically because I think it shows a strong, independent woman. He thought it was over the top: if you have to show and mention how independent she is all the time, it’s not really showing her as independent.

    Anyway, I enjoyed the series, and I read the whole series a lot before blogging. But I can’t pick it up now–so much other good stuff I’m dying to read. I also read most of McCall-Smith’s books pre-blogging. I always thought No. 1 Ladies was best.

    I think bloggers can change my mind about books and/or an author. Not just any blogger, but certain ones and/or persuasive posts. I don’t care about author/critic commentary most of the time.

  8. 12/17/2009

    I haven’t read McCall Smith either, but did want to try the No. 1 Ladies, just because it sounds like fun. I might be convinced to try or re-try an author out of the recommendation of someone whose taste I trust, but if the writing style doesn’t really appeal to me after a few pages, I’d give up. But as we know, and I remember you said this in a comment on my blog recently, that reading is very personal, and there are just things someone sees in a book that we might not, and vice versa.

    I’m with Tony on Great Expectations. I love love love that book. In fact, just you mentioning it makes me want to reread. I hope your next try is more successful.

  9. 12/17/2009

    I was unenthusiatstic about No. 1 Ladies as well. I just thought they were unsuccessful at detective stories, relying too much on the main character’s intuition and not enough on actual clue-hunting. But it’s funny that you also mention Fforde because was also unenthused about The Eyre Affair and he is sometime I *may* try again someday because so many bloggers whose tastes I trust like him, and I didn’t dislike The Eyre Affair, it was just so-so. The trouble is that when I know I wasn’t thrilled the first time I find it hard to make it a priority to try again.

    Given that she and I share a blog, I doubt it’ll come as much of a surprise that Jenny is probably the person whose recommendations carry the most weight with me. She knows my own tastes well, and they’re pretty close to her own, although we sometimes like different aspects of the same books and like them to different degrees. But I don’t think she’s ever recommended a book to me that I didn’t at least like–and I’ve loved most of them.

  10. 12/18/2009

    I’ve never read anything by McCall-Smith, so I can’t help you there, but yes, there are people who influence my life that have made me turn around and try things that I always thought I didn’t/wouldn’t like. Sometimes that comes out well, sometimes not.

  11. 12/18/2009

    @ Rebecca: That’s so funny about how you and your husband had such different reactions to the televised version of the books! I also think it’s interesting that you find blogger recommendations to be the most useful to you, rather than authors or professionals. I guess we must be doing something right! 😉
    @ claire: I always try very hard when giving a recommendation to someone to really think hard about what I know they enjoy reading, so that I’m not simply suggesting books that I like (but that might not be to their taste). I have a friend who recommends a lot of books to me, and I find that her recs are very hit & miss, because I think she doesn’t really take into account what my preferences are and how these might differ from her own. Normally I only take her suggestions because she actually lends me the books so it’s easy enough to give them a try, but I’ve given several of them back unfinished (she is the person who inflicted “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” on me… ; ) ).
    @ Teresa: Well, you know that I do actually enjoy detective novels, so I think that was part of why I thought I might like the No. 1 Ladies books… Of course I can’t comment on whether they were successful mystery novels, since I read so little of them, but the more I read, the more I think it just might not be meant to be! And I will second Claire’s notion that even if The Eyre Affair wasn’t your thing, I really do feel like the Thursday books really come into their own in the next book in the series, Lost in a Good Book. That’s where I feel Fforde really starts to play with the questions and the world that are the true focus of the series. I hope you find the time to give him another shot one of these days!
    @ Amanda: It sounds like at least among most book bloggers, McCall Smith may not be the literary hero he is in other circles. I am starting to feel better about my decision to read others instead of him!

  12. I read the 1st Ladies Detective Agency book, but didn’t enjoy it, so avoided the rest of his books.

    Recently I have been listening to his Cordoroy Mansions books and am enjoying them. They don’t work well as a novel, or on paper, but I love listening to the little snippets each day. Perhaps you could try this. Mee Books had a great post about it today:

  13. I too raised an eyebrow when he cited Alexander McCall Smith (I read the interview first); I gave up on the first #1 Ladies’ Detective book as it didn’t seem to be for me.

    A point to Teresa: I wasn’t wowed by The Eyre Affair (I liked it but I didn’t think it lived up to the hype) but then I read the rest of the series and loved them; sometimes our expectations need to be lowered.

    I adore Dickens! Great Expectations is the best place to start or restart.

  14. 12/18/2009

    @ Jackie: I am thinking that you might be on the right track in terms of me trying some of McCall Smith’s serial stuff. The investment would not be that large and it would allow me to quickly determine whether he’s really just not for me or if that series was just a poor fit. Thanks for reminding me of his new series!
    @ Claire: I know how you feel about Jasper as well, so I’m glad to hear I wasn’t the only one who was discomposed by this admission! And I agree that you’re right about how The Eyre Affair is perhaps the weakest in the Thursday series. And yes, I know, if I’m only going to read one Dickens then it really must be GE!

  15. 12/18/2009

    I actually love The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series – they are just light reads that hit the spot on those days when you don’t want to bogged down by serious reads. As far as Alexander McCall Smith’s other works, well, I just cannot seem to get into any of them at all. UGH! I get what you mean when you say you were jolted a bit at finding out that one of Fforde’s favorites was McCall Smith – I’m always disappointed when I find out something I don’t like about my favorite authors. Then again, I love their work so much that I try to keep their private life separate from their work life. Of course, being writers, that is a bit hard, since they are most likely influenced by authors they like. Hmmm. Well, I suppose at the end of the day, you can just be glad that Fforde is still an amazing writer whose work you love and that this one unlikeable thing is so tiny that it will not mar your opinion of him – he is after all human, which means he is prone to mistakes 🙂

  16. 12/19/2009

    Like Fforde, I’ve loved the McCall Smith I’ve read but can see he wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. For the doubters, I’d suggest No 44 Scotland Street- it follows a group of people living at one Edinburgh address, and has some great characters (my favourite is six year old Bertie.

  17. 12/19/2009

    First off, I am so excited because Jasper Fforde is coming to Atlanta in January so it’s my plan to go and meet him!(and hopefully come off a bit cooler than I did when I met David Sedaris)

    I have never tried to read the Ladies Detective Agency series, because honestly, they just don’t interest me. I did start to read 44 Scotland Street and although it reminded me a bit of a Scottish Tales of the City, I never did finish it. Now I’ve got La’s Orchestra Saves the World on my nightstand, waiting to be read. I have to admit, the fact that Fforde is a fan does have some influence. And yes, I do find that when someone whose work or reading tastes I admire recommends or mentions a book/author they like, I do at least investigate said book/author and see if I will like them, too. Sometimes, yes, and sometimes – not so much.

    And as for Great Expectations – I got about halfway (not even) through it earlier this year and it took me more than two months to get that far. Since I’ve never read anything by Dickens before, and Nick Hornby loves his work, AND I really want to read Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip, I was hoping I would enjoy GE a lot more than I did. Maybe I’ll try again …

  18. 12/19/2009

    @ Nadia: It seems like McCall Smith’s books are volatile! It sounds like even if one enjoys one of his series, this may not necessarily translate into liking his other works, which I find really interesting. Maybe this does mean that even though No. 1 didn’t work for me that something else might!
    @ Sarah: I’ve lost track of all the series that McCall Smith has on the go, so thank you for reminding me about his Scotland Street series!
    @ Lesley: I hope you do go get to meet Jasper in January! I’ve seen him speak three times and he’s really a joy to behold in person!
    I am thinking I might take Great Expectations home with me as my “Xmas read”… I am determined that I will read this book one of these days, and perhaps the sooner I can overcome it, the better!

  19. 12/30/2009

    I have read only the 1st book of the Ladies Detective series. I was charmed by it, just not enough to read any other of his books

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