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VINE VOICEon 30 August 2007
In my humble opinion the Isabel Dalhousie series are Alexander McCall Smith's best novels, and exceed even the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, which are brilliant.

His characters are utterly engaging and his portrayal of Edinburgh and Scotland so gentle, real and colourful I love reading these novels. His prose falls off the page painting beautiful pictures and characters which come to life as the reader turns the page!

It is difficult to explain what I love so much about this series, but I will try... I imagine Mr McCall Smith reading this and laughing as maybe I have got it all horribly wrong, but it seems to me that there is much left unsaid in these tales, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions. Life is seen through Isabel's eyes and a series of seemingly inconsequential events and conversations are cleverly woven together.

Isabel continues to believe that the age difference between herself and Jamie means he cannot love her quite enough to really want to marry her, and that he has `settled' for something rather less than Isabel's extremely self centred niece Cat, who dumped him in a (much) earlier novel. This particular reader believes that Jamie loves and respects Isabel very much, but fear of being thought a gold digger prevents him from pressing her further into formalising their relationship. In any case, they seem to have settled into a very satisfactory arrangement that defies definition and is warm and caring but still keeps the spark between them very much alive.

The introduction of Charlie, which I (oh so wrongly!) thought would never work, has brought further interest into Isabel's relationship with her housekeeper Grace as they subtly battle for authority over child care and gripe water, and many more opportunities for comedy as Isabel introduces him to her friends. And are those `oh so cute' tartan rompers for real or is Mr Smith really taking the mickey here?

Isabel's involvement with the `Review of Applied Ethics' continues and develops and there is a puzzle to be solved concerning two paintings which Isabel suspects are forgeries.

As the reviews say, it is `mental comfort food' which `captivates' and `enthrals'.
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 1 December 2007
"The Careful Use of Compliments" is the fourth and latest book in the Sunday Philosophy Club series. It picks up a year after "The Right Attitude to Rain". Isabel and Jamie now have a 3 month old son, Charlie - although they are still living in separate residences and are not necessarily committed to one another. Isabel's relationship with her niece Cat has been strained by the double whammy of the hook up with Jamie and arrival of Charlie.

Like the other books in the series, there is a mystery afoot. Isabel becomes intrigued by a painting which may or may not be a forgery. The artist died in an apparent suicide several years previously and she starts to wonder if his death was as straightforward as it seems. However this mystery only really takes over in the latter half of the book. The first part is very much about Isabel's relationships with Jamie, Charlie and Cat, as well as her scheming to retain her position as editor of the Review of Applied Ethics.

The thing I particularly like about the Isabel Dalhousie books is Isabel's lovely observations about life, and this book is rich in that regard. I love the way she gets me to think about everyday things in a way that I never have before: what is meant by everyday expressions, or how dentists are unappreciated by society, or the significance of the stamps that we use on our correspondence.

I felt that the series lost its way with the third book, but "The Careful Use of Compliments" brings it back on track. If you haven't read the others in the series, this is probably not a good place to start as it relies on knowing what has gone before. But if you are a fan of the series - as I am - you will find this is a very pleasing addition.
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The Careful Use of Compliments shows us Isabel Dalhousie, the practical philosopher of Edinburgh, as she grapples with becoming the unmarried mother of Charlie, keeping Charlie's father Jamie in her life, re-establishing her relationship with her niece Cat (who is miffed that her aunt has borne a child by Cat's ex-boyfriend), fending off a hostile takeover of her editorship of the Review of Applied Ethics, and checking out the authenticity of some paintings that attract her attention. In the course of these joys and trials, Isabel steers close to her notion that people who mean well should act ethically . . . even when it is to their disadvantage to do so. In the process, she learns that a careful use of compliments can open up doors to valuable information and perspectives.

Although Isabel and Jamie, her young lover, share parenthood of the adorable Charlie, they don't share as many other things as they should . . . including trust in one another. Jamie proposes marriage, but Isabel doesn't trust him to mean it. Jamie wants to know how much money Isabel has after she contemplates spending 25,000 pounds on a painting . . . and is chagrined to learn how wealthy she is. Jamie doesn't like Isabel's meddling so she keeps some of it to herself.

Isabel is also on a voyage of self discovery. When a ladder-climbing academic engineers her downfall as editor of her beloved Review, Isabel is shocked by her competitive reaction and what she does based on it. Isabel becomes jealous of Grace (her housekeeper) and her attempts to take good care of Charlie. Isabel is downright annoyed when Cat looks longingly at the covetous academic who is her enemy.

Ultimately, her meddling uncovers a secret she isn't supposed to know . . . and reveals a wrong that needs to be righted. Naturally, Isabel digs in to do the right thing.

The book moves smoothly and covers more interesting ground than many of the earlier books did. Isabel is a little more human and not quite so reluctant to stake her claim on the beloved Jamie.

I found it to be a quick and enjoyable read that left me wanting to see if Isabel and Jamie can build more common ground . . . at least for Charlie's sake.
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on 18 May 2015
I did not start with the first Isabel Dalhousie novel because the earlier books were not quite so highly rated - this was my first. Initially, I could not get to grips with the idea of the book. It seemed to me to be rather a dull, everyday story of Edinburgh folk. However, I soon became familiar with the characters that presumably feature earlier in the series, and from then on enjoyed the rather gentle and morally upright nature of the narrative.

Isabel is the successful editor of a small scale, academic magazine with philosophy as its subject matter. She does all the editing work from a room in her Edinburgh home from where she interacts with an intimate circle of family, friends and acquaintances. It emerges that she possesses two unusual qualities - she is very rich and she can not resist the temptation of righting wrongs. The money gives her power which she is loathe to wield for moral reasons, and her determined efforts to follow her principled instincts lead us through a set of mild adventures of an entertaining kind.

Once I got into it, I very much enjoyed the book and was always keen to pick up the story once again. Alexander McCall Smith provides a pleasing amount of mystery, if little suspense. His characters are always convincingly drawn.

The chapters are slightly too long for my taste. I would have appreciated more "pause points" in the middle of a chapter (perhaps marked by three asterisks) where I could safely stop reading and easily pick up again later. The shifts of time and scene were present, just not marked as such.

The eBook was of a high standard and I could only find one editing problem with it. A number of words clearly must have wrapped around in the original text and so were hyphenated. However, I need to increase the font size, which alters the original wrapping and causes the hyphenated words to appear illogically in the middle of a line. Not a big problem because I could easily see what was meant.

I look forward to reading further Dalhousie stories and will attempt to tackle them in the correct sequence.
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on 23 December 2009
With this being the fourth in the series of the Sunday Philosophy Club series, I was worried that the character Isabel Dalhousie would have started to run out of steam. But of course I should never have doubted Alexander McCall Smith! This is a great addition to the series that I devoured in just a few days, despite me trying to eek it out.

The novel starts about a year after the last book ends and this time, with the addition of baby Charlie, Isabel's life has become just a little bit more complicated. As well as having this very cute distraction (imagine a tartan romper suit!), there are plenty of other things for Isabel to be concerned about - her ongoing relationship with Jamie (Charlie's father) is causing a few problems between her and her niece Cat, her housekeeper Grace seems determined to take over the day-to-day care of Charlie and trouble is brewing with the Review of Applied Ethnics, the philosophy magazine that Isabel is the editor of. And on top of all that, she has a mystery involving a possible art forgery to solve!

Some other reviewers felt that the demands which inevitably come with a needy, first baby had been given a rose-tinted sheen in this novel. But when I pick up one of McCall Smith's novels, I want to be able to see life through his gentle, ever-inventive eyes. I don't expect an 'overflowing-nappy' slice of real life. That's not my idea of escapism!

Fear not as this is classic Dalhousie and once again we are able to ponder the big (and not-so-big) philosophical issues of daily life along with Isabel. This is fast becoming my favourite of McCall Smith's three main series. Hopefully it's one that will run and run.
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on 31 May 2015
All the charm of Miss Pym has been reignited by Mr Smith. The switch from external description to interior rumination is, thankfully, with us again.
Mr Smith is pure class, but not quite as good. But it is like choosing between Bobby Moore and Beckenbauer. Who knows who is better but both are as good as it gets.
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on 24 January 2014
Another gripping and funny episode in the lives of Dear Isabele, Jamie, Cat, Eddie and assorted regulars, not forgetting Bro Fox. McCall Smith continues to delight his readers with his insights into life, love and all things Scottish. Enjoyable even for the beginner of McCall Smith readers. These get better with each book.
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VINE VOICEon 14 January 2008
By now you know what to expect of this series, light entertainment and a little bit of Philosophy thrown in along the way. In its way it's as predictable as Enid Blyton and probably no worse for that.

This is very competently executed, if a little safe and this time something like a crime has been committed (at least). It potters along quite well, although the Isabel Dalhousie character still reads more like a cypher than a real character. The least convincing part of the book is the depiction of life with a baby - a small child turns your life upside down and it's well seen that AMS has never looked after children!

If you're a fan of the previous books in this series, you'll like this, but it's probably only for the real fans.
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on 9 August 2013
The basic problem with this series is that it is not based on economic reality. Because of her very convenient huge inheritance, Isabel does not live in the real world and has masses of time on her hands to piddle about with philanthropic gestures, philosophical musing and poking her nose into other people's business. At least the traditionally built ladies had to put in a little graft to earn their redbush tea and prime Botswana beef. If Isabel has a difficulty to resolve, she just gets out her chequebook. Instead of transporting genteel Edinburgh values and creating a sanitised, idealised Africa (the heart of kindness, the cradle of cooperation), we are presented in this series with middle-class Edinburgh values full on. As with the Botswana ladies, we end up with a light, easy read, although one suspects that one is being fed smug, unchallenging writing as comfort food. The author's production line has certainly become very skilled at spinning three slight plot threads into 250 pages of profit. The African series is in danger of running out of steam with too much repetition and trivial story lines. This series seems to be heading the same way. One hopes at the bottom of one's heart that this author is not spreading himself too thinly.
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on 2 July 2015
I enjoy Alexander McCall Smith's stories but some may find them a rather gentle representation of life in Edinburgh. It is best to read these books in sequence as the characters are developed during them. Unlike many books I read, they do not give me nightmares or leave me feeling sad about the world we live in.
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