A good read

Alexander McCall Smith created his 44 Scotland Street and Isabel Dalhousie novels using Edinburgh as a backdrop. Why is using real places so important to his fiction?

We like stories to be located – if you don’t give someone a sense of place it is less engaging to the imagination. Once people know where they are, they can visualise it and it makes it feel real.

Alexander McCall Smith

But one doesn’t want to clutter too much with authentic reference, or it could become a little like a gazetteer. In my books I put in some real shops and businesses, and sometimes an institution such as a gallery, but you need to use a light brush.

People are so influenced by their setting. I’m always interested to see differences in people according to where they live and work. Edinburgh is a slightly reserved city; it’s not cold but the people are cautious. If you look at the skyline the architecture is spiky, slightly haughty. And elegant, too.

The best portrayal ever of the old-fashioned attitude was Miss Jean Brodie. And there are people like her, oh yes. But she had her sense of humour, too.

People say we shouldn’t pay attention to stereotypes but they exist: they have to come from somewhere. It is a ridiculous notion that we are all the same. If someone comes from New York, then of course you can say they are a typical New Yorker. That’s what they are.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Bertie Plays The Blues, from the 44 Scotland Street series, is now out in paperback. Abacus, £7.99

Turn a new page

The Baroness: The Search for Nica, The Rebellious Rothschild, Hannah Rothschild

VIRAGO, £20

Pannonica Rothschild: her name was as exotic as it was socially charged. With a life story that was broadly interpreted as extraordinary and extreme, this lithe account by her great-niece Hannah has a compelling fondness at its heart. Nica, as she was known, was wrapped in a cloud of teasing stories: she flew Lancaster bombers during the war; she fell in love with a tune and New York; she left her intensely privileged life to move in with jazz legend Thelonious Monk.

As Hannah becomes almost obsessed with learning about Nica, she discovers that “investigating her life made me understand my own”.

A History of Food in 100 Recipes, William Sitwell

COLLINS, £20

There is “nothing new about chefs today being mad, bad, passionate, obsessive foodie fanatics”, says William Sitwell, resident expert on BBC2’s A Question of Taste. And, he reveals in this zesty food-through-history/history-through-food journey, there’s nothing new about arguments over who makes the best cheesecake, either. The ancient Greeks were, apparently, at it in their dinner-party togas. From medieval bread-making to the Welsh rarebit, Carême’s petits soufflés à la rose to Jamie’s steamed salmon with tomato basil couscous – this is a smart dipping sauce for those who love to talk about food.

The Beginner’s Goodbye, Anne Tyler

CHATTO & WIND US, £14.98

Aaron is tall, Dorothy is short. Wrong parts of them meet when they hug. With wonderful simplicity, Pulitzer Prize-winner Anne Tyler etches out the story of a marriage and what happens when death interrupts. After Dorothy is killed in an accident, Aaron carries on his work editing Beginner’s Books Of…, and sends thank-you notes for the food gifts and condolences.

Then, in an average, everyday way, Dorothy returns from the dead their reunion bringing Aaron a new comfort. Bright with quiet humour and tenderness, this is a story of hope after loss: a lesson for a beginner’s goodbye.

And for book lovers who share Alexander McCall Smith’s importance of a sense of place, the British Library’s Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands exhibition highlights the places in British fiction that have captured our imagination.

From 11 May to 25 September.

For more information, visit www.bl.uk/writingbritain

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