Trains and Lovers

( 34 )

Overview

As they journey by rail from Edinburgh to London, four strangers pass the time by sharing tales of trains that have changed their lives. A keen-eyed Scotsman recounts how he turned a friendship with a coworker into a romance by spotting an anachronistic train in an eighteenth-century painting. An Australian woman shares how her parents fell in love and spent their life together running a railroad siding in the remote Outback. A middle-aged American patron of the arts sees two young men saying goodbye in a train ...

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Overview

As they journey by rail from Edinburgh to London, four strangers pass the time by sharing tales of trains that have changed their lives. A keen-eyed Scotsman recounts how he turned a friendship with a coworker into a romance by spotting an anachronistic train in an eighteenth-century painting. An Australian woman shares how her parents fell in love and spent their life together running a railroad siding in the remote Outback. A middle-aged American patron of the arts sees two young men saying goodbye in a train station and recalls his own youthful crush on another man. And a young Englishman describes how exiting his train at the wrong station allowed him to meet an intriguing woman whom he impulsively invited to dinner-and into his life.
 
Here is Alexander McCall Smith at his most subtle and enchanting, exploring the nature of love—and trains—in this utterly captivating story.
 

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“The best thing McCall Smith has written so far. . . . He is a virtuoso storyteller.” —The Scotsman

“Wise and witty.” —Booklist
 
“A warm, understated serving of comfort food.” —Kirkus Reviews
 
“Both disarming and deeply affecting. . . . That four strangers should meet and tell such compelling stories is highly unlikely, but such is McCall Smith’s ability to draw us into his kindly world, [where] disbelief is more than willingly suspended.” —Sydney Morning Herald

“Their stories envelop us, each in its own way—we can smell the dust of the Outback and hear the gentle lap of waves against a rowboat—and they resist reducing emotion to platitudes. Love doesn’t always end happily, but even then it can end well, with hope, dignity and humanity, and that’s just what Trains and Lovers celebrates.” —The Wichita Eagle
 
“A lovely, quiet vacation that requires no packing, missed connections or meeting actual strangers on trains.” —Weekly Alibi (Albuquerque, NM)

“As each interwoven story gracefully unfolds, trains themselves play a part in the individual narrative arcs where the fleeting nature of love emerges as a unifying theme.” —Shelf Awareness
 

Praise for Alexander McCall Smith
 
“[McCall Smith’s writing is] beautifully precise and psychologically acute.” —The Independent (London)
 
“McCall Smith’s generous writing and dry humor, his gentleness and humanity, and his ability to evoke a place and a set of characters without caricature or condescension have endeared his books to readers.” —The New York Times
 
“McCall Smith creates unforgettable characters and stories that resonate with readers across generations.” —Booklist

From the Publisher
“Their stories envelop us, each in its own way—we can smell the dust of the Outback and hear the gentle lap of waves against a rowboat—and they resist reducing emotion to platitudes. Love doesn’t always end happily, but even then it can end well, with hope, dignity and humanity, and that’s just what Trains and Lovers celebrates.” —The Wichita Eagle
 
“A lovely, quiet vacation that requires no packing, missed connections or meeting actual strangers on trains.” —Weekly Alibi (Albuquerque, NM)

“As each interwoven story gracefully unfolds, trains themselves play a part in the individual narrative arcs where the fleeting nature of love emerges as a unifying theme.” —Shelf Awareness
 
“Wise and witty reflections on love and luck.” —Booklist
 
“A warm, understated serving of comfort food.” —Kirkus Reviews

“The best thing McCall Smith has written so far . . . He is a virtuoso storyteller whose tales from the human heart remain very definitely on track.” —The Scotsman
 
“McCall Smith’s deceivingly simple prose style can be both disarming and deeply affecting . . . That four strangers should meet and tell such compelling stories is highly unlikely, but such is McCall Smith’s ability to draw us into his kindly world, disbelief is more than willingly suspended.” —Sydney Morning Herald
 
Praise for Alexander McCall Smith
 
“[McCall Smith’s writing is] beautifully precise and psychologically acute.” —The Independent (London)
 
“McCall Smith’s generous writing and dry humor, his gentleness and humanity, and his ability to evoke a place and a set of characters without caricature or condescension have endeared his books to readers.” —The New York Times
 
“McCall Smith creates unforgettable characters and stories that resonate with readers across generations.” —Booklist

Library Journal
The human yearning for love—"to give it and to receive it in that familiar battle that all of us fight with loneliness"—is at the heart of McCall Smith's wistful stand-alone novel, as four strangers on an Edinburgh-to-London rail journey share stories of romance both thwarted and fulfilled. Art history student Andrew tells how he fell for the daughter of a disapproving business magnate. Hugh thinks his schoolteacher girlfriend might have an assumed identity. David recalls his unrequited affection for another man during summers spent in rural Maine. And in the book's most affecting tale, Kay recounts her Scottish father's emigration to the desolate Australian outback and pen pal courtship of her mother. VERDICT Subtle wit, leisurely pacing, copious references to W.H. Auden—the hallmarks of McCall Smith's storytelling are in full force here, as is his penchant for quiet vignettes. That's too bad, because the other story lines are less compelling than the evocative Australian scenes, which merit a full book of their own. Nonetheless, these interludes will provide the author's fans with another soothing literary sojourn. [See Prepub Alert, 11/30/12.]—Annabel Mortensen, Skokie P.L., IL
Kirkus Reviews
Four strangers sharing a railway carriage from Edinburgh to London recall their very different experiences of love in this stand-alone from McCall Smith (Unusual Uses for Olive Oil, 2012, etc.). Andrew, a Scot en route to a new job, begins by telling of his love for Hermione, who served with him as an intern at an auction house, and its principal obstacle: her wealthy, imperious father, an alpha male who brooks no opposition. In response, Andrew's fellow passenger David, an American academic, recalls a story too intimate for him to share aloud: his unconsummated love many years ago for Bruce, a Princeton math professor's son whom he saw only during his annual vacations. Kay, an Australian who lives in Perth, recounts the romance between her parents, a Scot who settled in the Outback to manage the remote railroad station of Hope Springs and the pen pal whom he persuaded during a brief trip to Sydney to follow him back to a posting far from anything she'd ever known. Trains also play a pivotal role in the story of Hugh, who absent-mindedly disembarks at the wrong station in Gloucestershire and ends up in a relationship with Jenny. All goes well until a former boyfriend warns Hugh that Jenny is not what she seems to be--a possibility Hugh struggles to deal with. The interplay among the four stories is mostly limited to aphorisms like "[l]oving others...is the good thing we do in our lives" and "[e]verything is possible in love." A warmhearted, understated serving of comfort food.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345805812
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/31/2013
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 50,116
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, the 44 Scotland Street series and the Corduroy Mansions series. He is professor emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh and has served with many national and international organizations concerned with bioethics. He lives in Scotland.

Biography

Alexander McCall Smith was born in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and went to school in Bulawayo, near the Botswana border. Although he moved to Scotland to attend college and eventually settled in Edinburgh, he always felt drawn to southern Africa and taught law for a while at the University of Botswana. He has written a book on the criminal law of Botswana, and among his successful children's books is a collection of African folk tales, Children of Wax.

Eventually, Smith had an urge to write a novel about a woman who would embody the qualities he admired in the people of Botswana, and the result, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, was a surprise hit, receiving two special Booker citations and a place on the Times Literary Supplement's International Books of the Year and the Millennium list. "The author's prose has the merits of simplicity, euphony and precision," Anthony Daniels wrote in the Sunday Telegraph. "His descriptions leave one as if standing in the Botswanan landscape. This is art that conceals art. I haven't read anything with such unalloyed pleasure for a long time."

Despite the book's success in the U.K., American publishers were slow to take an interest, and by the time The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency was picked up by Pantheon Books, Smith had already written two sequels. The books went from underground hits to national phenomena in the United States, spawning fan clubs and inspiring celebratory reviews. Smith is also the author of a detective series featuring the insatiably curious philosopher Isabel Dalhousie and the 44 Scotland Street novels, which present a witty portrait of Edinburgh society

In an interview on the publisher's web site, Smith says he thinks the country of Botswana "particularly chimes with many of the values which Americans feel very strongly about -- respect for the rule of law and for individual freedom. I hope that readers will also see in these portrayals of Botswana some of the great traditional virtues in Africa -- in particular, courtesy and a striking natural dignity."

Good To Know

As a professor at Edinburgh Law School, Smith specializes in criminal law and medical law, and has written about the legal and ethical aspects of euthanasia, medical research, and medical practice.

When he isn't writing books or teaching, Smith finds time to play the bassoon in the candidly named amateur ensemble he co-founded, The Really Terrible Orchestra.

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Read an Excerpt

1

“I think that’s a fishing boat.”
 
It was. He saw it from the train, but not for more than a minute or two, as the line followed that bit of coastline only for a short time before it suddenly swerved off, as railway lines will do. The view of the North Sea was lost, and trees closed in; there was the blue of the sea one moment and then the blurred green of foliage rapidly passing the window; there was slanting morning sun, like an intermittent signal flashed through the trees.
 
This is the story of four people, all strangers to one another, who met on that train, and of how love touched their lives, in very different ways. Love is nothing out of the ordinary, even if we think it is; even if we idealise it, celebrate it in poetry, sentimentalise it in coy valentines. Love happens to just about everyone; it is like measles or the diseases of childhood; it is as predictable as the losing of milk teeth, or the breaking of a boy’s voice. It may visit us at any time, in our youth but also when we are much older and believe we are beyond its reach; but we are not. It has been described as a toothache, a madness, a divine intoxication—metaphors that reflect the disturbing effect it has on our lives. It may bring surprise, joy, despair and, occasionally, perfect happiness.
 
But for each person who is made happy by love, there will be many for whom it turns out to be a cause of regret. That is because it can be so fleeting; one moment it may take our breath away, the next it may leave us bereft. When it does that, love can be like a haunting, staying with us for year after year; we know that it is gone, but somehow we persuade ourselves that it is still there. The heart has more than its fair share of ghosts, and these ghosts may be love, in any of its many forms. I knew one who fell deeply in love at nineteen—smitten, overwhelmed; astonished to find that all he wanted to think about was the other; unbelieving, at first, that this had happened to him. Thirty years later, he found the person he had loved, to whom timidity, if not shame itself, had prevented him from declaring his feelings, regularly coming to him in his dreams. So much had happened in those intervening years, but none of it had been shared, as life had taken them in very different directions. Nobody would choose to be in love like that, to hold on so strongly to something that was no longer there. Yet we admire such instances of tenacity, finding nobility in loss and in the way in which some people bear it.
 
If it were not for the train journey on that day, these four would never have met. Journeys may be like that, may bring together people who would otherwise never have known of each other’s existence. In that respect, long journeys have something in common with military service or boarding school, or even the shared experience of some natural disaster. Such things bring us into contact with people we would never have encountered but for the sharing of danger or unhappiness.
 
Journeys are not only about places, they are also about people, and it may be the people, rather than the places, that we remember. Those with whom one shares a carriage on the Trans-Siberian Railway may well be remembered, even if the names of the places in which the train stops are soon lost. Of Kirov, Perm, Omsk and Ussuriysk, all of them stops on that long journey, most travellers, other than the locals, will probably remember only Omsk—for its sheer, prosaic finality, and for the fact that of all possible railway stations in the world, we are here in one called Omsk. I know nothing of Omsk, but it seems to me that its name is redolent of ending, a full stop; not a place for honeymoons or rhapsodies. Omsk.
 
Or Adelstrop. Yes, I remember Adelstrop, for the train stopped there in the heat—that is Edward Thomas. The poet was on a train journey into rural Oxfordshire, at a time when there was still an England of quiet villages and hedge-bound fields, and when a train might unexpectedly draw to a halt at a small place and there might be birdsong audible behind the hissing of steam. Nothing happens there, other than the stopping of a train and the escape of pent-up steam, but it brings home how suddenly and surprisingly we may be struck by the beauty of a particular place and moment.
 
Edward Thomas was not alone in sensing the poetic possibilities of the train. Auden’s “Night Mail” is entirely concerned with a rail journey: This is the Night Mail crossing the border / Bringing the cheque and the postal order. You can hear the train in those lines; you can feel its rocking motion.
 
And then there is the poet Kenneth Koch, who while travelling in Kenya came to a railroad crossing at which this sign was posted: One train may hide another. This was meant, of course, as a warning to drivers of the fact that the train you see may not be the only train to reckon with, but it also meant, as Koch points out in his poem, that there are many things in this life that conceal other things. One letter may mean another is on the way; one hitch-hiker may deliberately hide another one by the side of the road; offer to carry one bag and you may find there is another one hidden behind it, with the result that you must carry two. And so on through life. Do not count on things coming in ones.
 
Trains may hide one another, but they may also hide from us what they have in store—the meetings, the disclosures, the exchanged glances, the decisions we make or the insights that strike us on a journey. Trains are everyday, prosaic things, but they can be involved in, be the agents of, so much else, including that part of our human life that for so many far outweighs any other—our need for love—to give it and to receive it in that familiar battle that all of us fight with loneliness.

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Reading Group Guide

1. What is the importance of poetry in this novel, and in life? Which poets are discussed and why does Alexander McCall Smith choose these particular poets? Do you agree with the narrator that trains are poetic? How?

2. “Trains are everyday, prosaic things, but they can be involved in, be the agents of, so much else” (p. 7). What is the narrator referring to here about trains and life?

3. Do you agree with the statement that our need for love is “that part of our human life that for so many far outweighs any other” (p. 7)? Is love our most basic need?

4. Describe the four people on the train into whose lives we get a glimpse. Why do you think McCall Smith has chosen this particular assortment of four? Why not two men and two women? Why not all older characters who might have more stories and more experience with love? With which of the characters do you most identify? Whose story did you like the best? Why?

5. What simple message can you distill from each of the four characters’ stories?

6. Do you believe that a life achieving “a well-kept station and some flowers in the desert” (p. 239) is enough as long as you have love? Why or why not?

7. At the close of the novel, as the train enters King’s Cross station and the four are saying goodbye and going their separate ways, Kay contemplates that “each of us has his or her reasons, for making this journey, for being as we are, for continuing with the lives we lead” (p. 240) and that we all travel ordinary paths “touched here and there with moments of understanding and insight, and sheer marvel.” What is the epiphany Kay comes to, which summarizes the underlying theme of the novel?

8. The Examined Life by Robert Nozick is referenced in Trains and Lovers. Have you read this philosophical best seller, and, if so, how do you feel about it? One of the characters says that “the unexamined life was not worth leading” (p. 198), and in order to make sense of life, we need to look at our individual paths, our stories, our decisions, and so on, and ask why. Do you agree or disagree?

9. Why does David not tell his story aloud?

10. How do you feel about each of the stories? Do you sympathize with the characters and their predicaments? Does each of the stories offer universal life lessons?

11. Natural beauty is important in all of McCall Smith’s novels. Kay’s mother created beauty in an unexpected place and brought happiness to her husband, herself, and many travelers. How does natural beauty affect you? Do you surround yourself with it, seek it out, or create it yourself?

12. Andrew doesn’t create beauty but studies it in the history of art and working at an auction house. Against the wishes of his parents, he studied art history instead of accountancy, law, or medicine. This, he said, “led me out of the narrow world of my life in a small Scottish town and into a world of light and intellectual passion” (p. 20). Were his parents wrong to wish otherwise? Was he? Or must everyone follow his or her own dreams and paths?

13. “Journeys are not only about places, they are also about people, and it may be the people, rather than the places, that we remember” (p. 5). Discuss this statement and give examples from your own life.

14. Ethical dilemmas always arise in McCall Smith novels and the characters, especially in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and Isabel Dalhousie series, deal with them in gallant and sometimes surprising ways. What are the ethical dilemmas in this novel? How do the characters deal with them and how are they resolved?

15. How does forgiveness play a role in this novel, particularly in the stories of Andrew and Hugh? And what does the narrator imply about judging others too harshly?

16. Why do you think McCall Smith chose the simple plotline of four travelers swapping stories for this novel about love?  How does the language and rhythm correspond to the message of Trains and Lovers? What is the author saying about love and about life? If you’ve read McCall Smith’s other novels, do you agree that this is the most romantic of his works?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 34 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 34 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 11, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    I loved this book. Taking a simple premise - strangers on a trai

    I loved this book. Taking a simple premise - strangers on a train passing the time with conversation - author Alexander McCall Smith paints a beautiful portrait with his gift for words. The story moves at a relaxed pace, but never gets too slow. I couldn't put it down until I was done.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 11, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Alexander McCall Smith's new book, Trains and Lovers, is a stand

    Alexander McCall Smith's new book, Trains and Lovers, is a stand-alone novel not tied to any of his series.

    "A friendship maybe be conceived in four hours; a short book finished and put away; a life remembered."

    I love Alexander McCall Smith's writing style. His characters and stories need no pageantry. He can say so much in so few words! I find it absolutely stunning.

    Trains and Lovers dances on the edge of being a collection of four short stories. The four travelers sporadically and spontaneously pause the story with their own introspection or to briefly converse with each other. This brings it all together into one cohesive novel.

    Each story held my attention page after page. I couldn't stop reading the mini-mystery that came along with the Englishman's story. But my favorite of all was the Australian woman's account of her parents and the profound impact of their very simple, well-lived, and well-loved life.

    Trains and Lovers is an experience; the pages flew by. Alexander McCall Smith did not disappoint!

    I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive any other compensation for this review.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    This is by far Alexander McCall Smith's best work to date. I lo

    This is by far Alexander McCall Smith's best work to date. I loved the characterizations. The storytelling was magnificent. Two thumbs up.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 21, 2013

    This is a very enjoyable book that I read in one long sitting. T

    This is a very enjoyable book that I read in one long sitting. The characters and their stories of love found, or not, are absorbing. The author's quiet way of telling a story and setting a scene are soothing and his comments on life and love are thought -provoking. This is also a beautifully made little book, from type- design (William Martin, 1790) to size, proportions, and page design.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2013

    Very enjoyable!

    I am a fan of Alexander McCall Smith's books, mainly his #1 Ladies Detective Agency series.(I have already preordered the newest title!). Trains and Lovers was an enjoyable read as it moved quickly and held your interest.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 7, 2013

    Trains and Lovers is a stand-alone novel by popular Scottish aut

    Trains and Lovers is a stand-alone novel by popular Scottish author, Alexander McCall Smith. This novel takes the reader on a train journey where any boredom is dispelled by the stories that four strangers in a railway carriage relate, stories that involve trains (both real and of the art variety) and lovers (variously realised, possibly dangerous and unrequited). McCall Smith gives us four very different characters and chooses a novel way of telling four discrete tales. As always, McCall Smith offers up gentle philosophy as he touches on subjects as diverse as modern-day connectedness and loneliness; identity theft; issues of trust and how powerful and persistent the seeds of doubt, once sown, can be; the comparison of communication today with the bygone era (emails and texts versus telegrams and pen friends); and the concept of moral luck. McCall Smith’s prose is charming and evocative: “…wonderful, exotic languages including one that had clicks and whistles in it…It’s called !Kung. And it has an exclamation mark in front of it. Imagine talking !English or !French with an exclamation mark. It was lovely to listen to – rather like the sound of the wind in the reeds, or a pair of exotic birds talking to one another on the branch of a tree.” And “There are many ways of falling off the high moral ground you’ve carefully built up for yourself. Moral ground is like that – slippery at the edges.” Charming, humorous and insightful.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 10, 2013

    Disappointing

    This was not at all what I had expected. I was disappointed with this book. Four people met on the train and exchanged their "story" to one another either by speech or in one case only by thoughts. Then it was over.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 9, 2013

    Another gift from Alexander McCall Smith!

    I found this to be a gentle read and a lovely reminder that love takes many forms.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 6, 2013

    Highly Recommend

    Alexander McCall Smith has interwoven the stories of four strangers beautifully. I found myself unable to put it down and so sorry that it had to come to an end.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 5, 2013

    If you read A M Smith you will love this one too

    Smith is a master of exploring the personalities of everyday people. Here he takes four people on a train who begin talking to each other about falling in love. Their stories are interesting and believable and don't always go the way you expect. Delightful peek into the lives of people.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2014

    FORGE

    Open 24/7

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2014

    Cody

    She needs a master!!!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2014

    Pat to cody

    Hi

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2014

    Kimber

    "I have to go..." pulls out

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2014

    Dusbdud

    Dhdudv

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  • Posted September 11, 2013

    If you like this author...

    I enjoy Alexander McCall Smith, especially the Isabel Dalhousie series. This volume of his is a stand-alone novel telling the stories of four strangers meeting on a train ride. It is short and easy-reading but expresses a depth of philosophy that would make for good discussion at a Book Club venue. I enjoy the calming influence of his literary expressions as well as his mature approach to what life is all about. And yes, I might even consider re-reading it again to savor all the enjoyment I get from this author!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 6, 2013

    Great Book, quick read, lots of interesting scenes

    This book would be great for a book club!!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 19, 2013

    Trains are my life!

    Choo choo!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2013

    Enjoyed this quick reading book

    I always enjoy Alexander McCall Smith books....

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 5, 2013

    Wish it had been longer.

    It was a fun read and I loved the characters. But I wish it had been longer and we learned even more about everyone.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 34 Customer Reviews

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