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Pianos and Flowers–stories birthed from photos

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Pianos and Flowers

by Alexander McCall Smith

It is not uncommon for teachers to present students with a photograph and ask them to write about it. The result is usually nonfiction and descriptive of what is seen in the picture. The Sunday Times asked Alexander McCall Smith, the Scottish writer famous for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series set in Botswana, to select photographs from their archives of everyday people in everyday settings. He then created short stories, one for each picture, which fictionalized what was happening to the people in the picture as well as their background. The result is a collection of unrelated stories that bring these people to life. Naturally some appealed to me more than others. “Sphinx” is a gentle romance set in the 1930’s. “Pianos and Flowers” is about Brits working and living in China and how it affected their families. “Architect” had interesting observations about family relationships and culminated in a surprise ending. “Urchins” contained sad stories about the plight of the pictured street urchins and what the future held for them. I smile as I recall “St. John’s Wort,” the story of a retired man who was worried about everything. A friend of the wife gave her some timely advice. As you can see, each story in Pianos and Flowers is unique. There was only one story of the fourteen that I actually noted as not liking.

I read these at the rate of one or two stories a night at bedtime. They were a nice way to end the day on a calm and gentle note.

I would like to extend my thanks to NetGalley and to Knopf Doubleday (Pantheon) for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Short Stories

Publication: January 19, 2021— Knopf Doubleday (Pantheon)

Notes: The subtitle is Brief Encounters of the Romantic Kind, but I found that to be a misnomer. The stories are fictionalized snippets of life so there is some romance, but not very much.

Memorable Lines:

Parents are inexplicably embarrassing to sixteen-year-olds—they always have been.

We belittle the things we secretly want ourselves.

“A metaphor must be strange—it must make us sit up and take notice in a way in which a literal expression does not.”


  1. I’m not usually big on short stories, but what an interesting concept to create a tale from just 1 photograph. And yes, a nice way to unwind and end your day!

    Liked by 1 person

    • lghiggins says:

      As a teenager I was fascinated with the skills of O.Henry and Poe in creating short stories, but I must admit I have not read many lately. Popular magazines used to have short stories too, but that has rather gone by the wayside. I enjoyed my dip back into the medium.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. WendyW says:

    , It’s nice to read just one or two a night that’s what is nice about short stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lghiggins says:

      Absolutely. I noticed a book on my shelves by Henry James that was labeled short fiction. Unfortunately, it was a collection of short novels. Not that short novels are bad, just not what I was browsing for. I wonder if “novellas” is a new term.


  3. I never seem to have time to read books but this one would be perfect for me! Thank you!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Carla says:

    I also enjoyed this book reading it over a week or so. Street Urchins was the story that really stayed with me. I agree there was only one I didn’t care for and I skimmed most of it. So glad you enjoyed this one, Linda.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lghiggins says:

      Street Urchins was a good one. As much as I enjoy modern clean romances, I will be the first to admit that life is not fairy tale perfect. His stories about the urchins, both their pasts and what happened to them were poignant, and they do stay with you long after you close the book.

      Liked by 1 person

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