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The Five Lost Aunts of Harriet Bean Hardcover – May 2, 2006
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From School Library Journal
Grade 2-4–An offhand comment from her father sets nine-year-old Harriet Bean on the path of finding the five aunts whom she has never known. This seems like the perfect start of a juicy family mystery but it never quite turns into one. When given the full story of her father's loss of his five older sisters and a clue to the whereabouts of one of them, Harriet embarks on a hasty journey of collection. Useful coincidences make the women ridiculously easy to locate; it also helps that the final two are mind readers and come seeking her. The real mystery is how the father can possibly be absentminded enough to misplace five sisters. All of them are likable characters with interesting personality quirks and gadgets: strong-woman Veronica uses pedal power to drive her circus trailer from city to city, and twin detectives Thessalonika and Japonica are masters of disguise with convincing costumes. It is these two who give Harriet the chance to solve a mystery in the sequel, which takes place at a racetrack's stables. Masquerading as a jockey, Harriet is confronted with a villain who uses glue to stick a horse's feet to the floor so that he won't run well the next day. It's contrived stuff such as this that takes most of the charm out of this easy chapter-book series.–Kathleen Meulen, Blakely Elementary School, Bainbridge Island, WA
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About the Author
Laura Rankin is the illustrator of Rabbit Ears, Swan Harbor and The Handmade Alphabet. She lives in Maine.
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So without the frisson and stress, how does "The Lost Art of Gratitude" (and others in the series) grab the reader's attention and hold it? It may well be that the very stresslessness of living is what makes her story so interesting and enjoyable to the reader. You know that nothing terrible will ever really happen to Isabel and to the ones she loves. Who doesn't fantasize about a world where we are surrounded by beauty and intelligence that will never end? Where babies don't ever have to have their diapers changed nor do they ever get colic or throw tantrums. Where your SO, in addition to being beautiful/handsome and talented, respects you and intuitively connects with your every thought and impulse. And is always yin to your yang.
McCall Smith does provide a few gray clouds for his heroine in "The Lost Art..." in the form of a couple of Isabel's old adversaries--Minty Aucterlonie and Christopher Dove, but they have both been vanquished by Isabel in the past, and there is no doubt that she will prevail against them again.
Ultimately, the greatest pleasure from the book for this reader, was the time and space that Isabel Dalhousie is given to ruminate about the human condition and the interactions of people in ordinary day-to-day situations. This isn't peace in the Middle East or the answer to world poverty, but it is important reflection on how we behave toward each other as residents of shared communities. Hypocrisy and greed are two of the main identified enemies for Isabel, but all human folly is grist for her consideration. Respect and charity are always her goals.
McCall Smith's paragon does have interesting flaws--she is overly considerate and reasonable and therefore unable, at times, to correctly read the baser actions of others. These misunderstandings and her occasional outright cluelessness give the story needed zing and interest.
"The Lost Art of Gratitude" is another gentle and sweet installment in a series that you have to hope will hold McCall Smith's interest and enterprise for many years to come.
But the book, whose happenings pass over just a few days, is spelled out in terms of Isabel's thought process. While I found it similar to my own and therefore liked it, most novels are rendered in terms of dialogue. This one has dialogue, of course, but the reader is also privy to all of Isabel's thoughts between her utterances and those of her associates. It took some getting used to that, perhaps the first 100 pages or so. But the thread hangs together, and so in the end did not bog down as I was afraid it might. I would call it a unique writing style, and in the end it held personal resonance for me. (Beware, however, if you are afraid of "thought broadcasting.")
So, I read a sample and I was enchanted from the very beginning. For one thing, it's like a free trip to Edinburgh. I have been there only once, briefly, and I loved finding myself there again. So to speak.
I also enjoyed the writing, witty and fluid, and I felt I was really "inside" Isabel's mind by following her philosophical meanderings (mind you, we're not talking about references to Kant or Nietzsche here : it's more like following the ideas of a person more open and intent on doing the right thing than your average person). It gave an intimacy to Isabel's character tantamount to using the first person.
As for the "mysteries": there is an underlying story or two about a certain manipulative lady... One also gets acquainted with Isabel's baby and partner, and rather wild niece.
The beauty of it is that the story stays intriguing enough to hold the reader's interest (I'll admit I am easily bored) even though on the surface, only rather minor things happen. I am delighted I gave the book a chance - I will check out the others of the series!