Cover Image: Pianos and Flowers

Pianos and Flowers

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Member Reviews

A wonderfully written collection of stories created from simple photographs.
The author’s creativity really shines through with this gorgeous collection and I loved every word of it!
I wish it were a longer book though and rest assured I want to read every single of McCall Smith’s books.
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Pianos and Flowers
     By Alexander McCall Smith

      A Surprise out of the Ordinary!

     The combination of a fertile mind and a few photographs from the past join to create a pleasurable                                volume of individual short stories that hold your interest from the first to the last. Not the standard novel format with a beginning and an ending but a  series of self standing events created by the author totally from his mind based upon antique photos will hold your interest. The snippets of revelation from Mr. Smith's mind are, I'm sure, no where near the actual events portrayed in the photographs but run the gamut of emotion and each will delight you in it's own way. Haven't we all created pictures in our own minds based upon visuals we have encountered? Take a look at What Mr. Smith sees!

       Spencer Birt
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Pianos and Flowers is a collection of fourteen captivating tales all inspired by photos from the Times of London archive. It is a mix of tales about love, friendship, life, travel and romance. Some are profound, others are insightful though all are interesting and engaging to varying degrees. My favourite stories were "The Dwarf Tale-Teller of the Romanian Rom" and "Blackmail" but all of them were good. Highly recommended.

I received a complimentary copy of this novel at my request from Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Pantheon via NetGalley. This review is my own unbiased opinion.
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This was an enjoyable read and I would recommend it. thanks for letting me have an advance copy. I'm new to this author.
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Well, heck. I have so loved this author’s most famous #1 Ladies Detective series, and more recently have loved his new, satirical series starring Mr. Varg. When I saw this stand-alone collection of short stories—a genre I enjoy—I leapt at the chance to read and review it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday, but this one fell flat for me. 

The collection is scaffolded by vintage photographs from The Sunday Times. Smith provides one of these photos at the start of every story, and then writes something (fictional) about the people and events displayed. I am initially deflated by these, thinking it might be a good fit for some readers, but for me more of a cure for insomnia, because Zzzzzz, when I find the italicized portion, which is intended to be a you-are-there insert. Why, why, why does every Caucasian reader under the sun think that the best way to add some World War II spice to a story, is to interject some of the racist slurs used widely at that time against Japanese people? True, it was a much more mainstream practice back then for white people to use nasty, racist terms to describe anybody and everybody that wasn’t Caucasian; you weren’t entirely safe if you were from Eastern or Southern Europe, so predominant was this tendency. Yet every author understands that if your book is to see wide circulation, you’d better not go tossing anti-Black references in as casual conversational terms. But ah—the Japanese! Now, that’s different. The Japanese don’t fight back all that much, so probably it means they don’t care. (Pause while I retch for a moment or two.)

This cheap-and-easy bit of vile, racist pop culture took this collection down from three stars to two. However, I can assure the reader that had it initially been a four or five star read, it would nevertheless have dropped to an unfriendly rating when I ran across such ugly language. 

I am so done with that. 

This thing is for sale if you really want it.
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“She is smiling, the young woman perched on the cross-bar; she is smiling broadly as they follow the tram lines.
. . .
She did not know what possessed her to accept a ride into work from Professor Mactaggart. She barely knew him, although she had seen him in the library, of course, when he came in to request a book from the special collection, or to trace an obscure reference to the work of some philologist nobody had ever heard of.”

This the picture that is illustrated on the cover of the edition of the book I’ve just read. It’s a cheery, happy photograph, one of the early twentieth century photographs the author chose from ‘The Sunday Times’ archives to tell us a story about.

Photograph that inspired “Zeugma”

I enjoy word play, and it was nice seeing these probably ‘proper’ people having a bit of spontaneous fun. He was headed for the library on his bicycle and stops to offer her a lift, knowing she works there. It’s a long walk, so she accepts. He begins chatting to her.

“‘Bearing in mind that neither of us had really planned this, one might perhaps say: “She was carried into town on a cross-bar and a whim.”

She smiled. And that is the smile we see in the photograph.

But then the Professor continued, “On a cross-bar and a whim.” Do you know what that is?’

She shook her head.

‘It’s a zeugma,’ said the Professor. ‘It’s a well-known figure of speech. The classic example is, "She went straight home, in a flood of tears and a sedan chair." That’s Dickens, no less.

. . . The essence of a zeugma is the contrast between a literal expression and a metaphor.’”

He apologises for boring her, but she’s interested, and so was I. They went on to make up silly metaphors that brightened the day for both of them. I liked their characters, and I didn’t mind that McCall Smith might have been showing off his erudition, since it was all so good-natured.

There’s a baker’s dozen of stories here, and like any selection of bakery goodies, some are very plain bread rolls, some are substantial pies, and some are deliciously perfect treats, if you’ll pardon my metaphorical silliness. My favourite was one of the delicious ones, Blackmail, where two streetsweepers compare notes and conspire to right a wrong.

Photograph of streetsweepers and pedestrians

They happen to meet at a corner to rest on their brooms and chat. They make the best of their lot.

“‘The good thing about this job,’ said Nell, ‘is that you’re right at the bottom of the heap. After this, you can’t exactly fall any lower.’

They wonder what people mean by the phrases they overhear.

“‘I came round the corner one day and there were two women standing on the pavement saying goodbye to one another. And the one said to the other, “Send me a postcard when the baby can say banana.”

Harry chuckled. ‘Well, well …’

‘Joe and I often say that when we take leave of one another. Send me a postcard when the baby can say banana.”

They become observant and Nell points out to Harry a well-dressed man she’s seen meet a young woman “all lovey-dovey” at the café every day. She tells him that today, the man is talking to another fellow who is a café regular – because he’s spying on likely targets for blackmail.

“Harry let out a whistle. ‘You really know your patch,’ he said.

Nell looked proud. ‘I keep my eyes open.’”

So open, in fact, that she knows the blackmailer has spotted the wife with his target today, and is now pouncing to exact a price for his silence.

I will not give the ending away, other than to say it was delicious!

There’s one about an architect whose mother thinks he just draws stuff and she reckons she could do as good a job as he does – with disastrous consequences. Quite funny.

Some stories are tender and thoughtful and some go down too many side tracks to hold my interest, but the good ones are worth the price of admission. McCall Smith has a great imagination so you never know where he’ll take you, but you know you’ll enjoy the trip. (Send me a postcard when the baby can say banana!)

Thanks to NetGalley and Knopf for the review copy from which I’ve quoted and copied a couple of photographs.
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This was an interesting concept.  Some of the stories were cute and clever, but overall this was not one of my favorites by this author.  Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for an advanced reader’s copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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Pianos and Flowers is a collection of the sort of vignettes and whimsical recountings for which Alexander McCall Smith is world renowned. Originally released in 2019, this reformat and re-release from Knopf Doubleday on their Pantheon imprint was released 19th Jan 2021. It's 192 pages and is available in hardcover and ebook formats. It's worth noting that the ebook format has a handy interactive table of contents as well as interactive links and references throughout. I've really become enamored of ebooks with interactive formats lately.

For all the fans of Madame Ramotswe, Isabel Dalhousie, Bertie, and the gang at 44 Scotland Street, and his other kindly and gently written characters, this is something a little bit different. The author accessed photos from the archives of the Sunday Times and wrote a series of short vignettes inspired by the tableaux presented. They're whimsical and engaging, but not precisely the same humorous and gentle lyrical style of his better known series. 

It's a fascinating idea for a writing prompt. Find a vintage photo and write a story. Maybe something for writers groups to consider or for NaNoWriMo.

There are 14 stories in all, a few were previously published in the Sunday Times, the rest are new (according to the author's note). They're a varied lot, most were engaging, a few were indifferent, and none were unappealing. I would definitely recommend it for library acquisition or for die-hard fans of the author's oeuvre. The vintage photos also added a lot to the read.

Four stars.  

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher for review purposes.
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I am not one who reads a lot of anthologies or short stories, but this appealed to me. It was an interesting group of stories written by imagining the stories behind the people in a photograph. As with any anthology, some were better than others. This book contains 14 stories a various types. There was humour, drama, romance, friendship, family and business. I think the story I liked the best is the one I still think about. There was a picture of seven boys and it is sad, melancholy and a bit tragic. This is a collection of stories about everyday people and their everyday lives. It is not going to be for everyone, but is was definitely an interesting collection that I read off and on over a few weeks. A great premise.
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Cute and clever. I liked all the stories and the pictures were an added bonus. Nice to see a different type of book for this author!
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I hate to do this but I have to DNF this book. I love much of Alexander McCall Smith’s writing but some of his books leave me cold and this book is one of those. Thanks to Netgalley for the opportunity to give it a try but it just wasn’t for me.
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A beautiful book, a lovely set of characters richly drawn as always by McCall Smith in his inimitable fashion. A  book to savour and dip into again and again. 

Very enjoyable read. Thank you Net Galley for the ARC
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Pianos and Flowers is a collection of  fourteen stories inspired by photos from the Times of London archives The author takes us behind the scenes to learn the true stories behind the people in the pictures. The pictures were all taken in the 20th Century. The people in the stories vary in age, ethnicity, relationships and values. One family is fractured when war comes to their town. Other individuals find love. One set of twin sisters have an unusual twist ion their joint wedding day. These are interesting human stories. I recommend this book.
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This was such an interesting concept and imaginative endeavor for Alexander McCall Smith.  My hat is off to him for this brilliant and creative collection of short stories inspired by photographs in The Sunday Times archives.  As we have always known, every picture tells a story, and what a pleasure to have someone of Mr. Smith's caliber and intelligence create fictitious stories for these old photos.  Sometimes his insight paralleled mine, and sometimes we were going down a different path at interpreting the photos, thus creating a joyful reading experience and a wonderful book that I thoroughly enjoyed.
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Another sweet book by Alexander McCall Smith. These are short stories inspired by old photographs (the second book he has written using this format). I thoroughly enjoyed it. His writing always feels like spending time with a friend.
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A delightful collection of stories and photographs from the author of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, imagining the lives and loves of everyday people in the twentieth century

Pictures capture moments in time, presenting the viewer with a window into another life. But a picture can go only so far. Who are the people in the image? What are their fears? What are their dreams?

I wondered how much Alexander McCall Smith knew about photography, at first glance they may appear to represent small moments, these photographs in fact speak volumes, uncovering possibilities of love, friendship, and happiness. With his indomitable charm, Alexander McCall Smith takes us behind the lens to explore the hidden lives of those photographed; in so doing, he reveals the humanity in us all.
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What a marvellously prolific writer Mr McCall Smith is! This is his second book of short stories inspired by old photographs, and a charming collection it is. I must confess that the Scotland Street books are my favourites, but I am always happy to read other works from this author.
Thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
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From the publisher, “In these delightful stories, McCall Smith imagines the lives and loves behind some of the everyday people featured in the Sunday Times photographic archive.” A photograph, unmarked, undated. McCall Smith imagines ordinary lives. As expected, the stories are clean and the characters are mostly kind. 

The stories are short, more of a magazine length – which was a nice change of pace from reading novels. Some stories are tender, others more detached with social commentary on a forgotten era. Some went in surprising directions – that spurred my imagination to see what I would have come up with. Most of the tales are light with an old-fashioned touch of wistfulness. Perhaps a little more whimsy would have invited me in more. 

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Alexander McCall Smith’s short story collection, Pianos and Flowers: Brief Encounters of the Romantic Kind, in exchange for an honest review.

I’m a huge fan of Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series and I was thrilled to have the chance to review his latest short story collection. In Piano and Flowers, Smith uses vintage photographs ( shown at the start of each story) as an inspiration for his fictional tales. The concept is interesting and a majority of the stories went a completely different direction than I anticipated.

I enjoyed the story about a woman living and working in London, who has an instant connection with a man that she meets. She gives him her address and when he fails to contact her, she leaves notes at an Egyptian statue that he mentioned as a spot he loves to visit. Time passes and she becomes engaged to a stable, yet far less exciting man, yet she never loses hope for the brief encounter that sparked so much passion. This beautiful story has a tone of longing and hope.

The other stand-out story involves a friendship between two boys that carries them through World War Two and adulthood. The opening of the story shows the boys at a hunting lodge that belongs to the family of the wealthier of the boys. We see the expectations that are placed on this child, yet the boy is very sensitive and uncertain. He is able to share this intimate aspect of his personality with his friend, the only person with whom he can truly let his guard down. It’s quite touching.

Overall, I was disappointed with the collection. A majority of the stories failed to hold my interest. I was considering why and I think it may have to do with the very thing that makes me love The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series and its protagonist, Mma Ramotswe, which is a certain touch of sweetness that borders on unrealistic. Sure, Mama Ramotswe handles difficult cases and personal issues that are not trite, yet her stories usually end on an upbeat note, leaving readers happy. In Pianos and Flowers, Smith wraps up several of his stories in a similar manner, and in the short story format it felt rushed or too neatly resolved. 

If you’re a fan of Smith’s you will want to read Pianos and Flowers, however, if you are new to his work, I would encourage you to start with one of his series. He is an excellent storyteller and master of creating memorable characters. I usually finish his stories feeling delighted, but I’m sad to report that Pianos and Flowers was not his best work.
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This is an eclectic and  entertaining collection of short stories, each one inspired by a photograph from The Times' archive; each one with a certain poignancy and with an interesting twist in the tail. They are beautifully written, and the only niggling criticism I have is that the same comment (from Homer) is given in two stories.
I had intended to read one story a night at bedtime, but I ended up having one very late night, because it was impossible to put down.
With thanks to the publisher and to Netgalley for giving me a copy in exchange fo this honest review.
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