Saturday, February 17, 2018

Books for March

At the end of 2017, one of my colleagues in Circulation asked patrons to vote for their favorite reads of the year. It produced an interesting and varied list, so I decided to offer some of the winners to the group this month. We liked so many of them that we have already decided on what we want to read next month as well!

Beartown is the second book by Swedish author Fredrik Backman, whose A Man Called Ove we enjoyed last year. Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate has been compared to Orphan Train and The Nightingale and won the Goodreads Choice Award for Historical Fiction in 2017.

Both are now available on the Nooks.

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize that the truth is much darker. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together—in a world of danger and uncertainty.

Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancĂ©, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions—and compels her to take a journey through her family's long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or redemption.

Monday, February 5, 2018

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.

As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy.

* * *

This is a book that I read a few years ago after watching the amazing film “Capote” with Philip Seymour Hoffman. Whilst I often read books and then recommend them to my friends, there are a few titles that I will push almost mercilessly and this is one of them: it is THAT good. It was the first non-fiction title that I suggested to the book group, but it took a few other enjoyable ventures into the genre before they finally choose to read it.

It is often credited with being the first ‘non-fiction novel’, although there are a few earlier examples, and it is certainly very different from other non-fiction titles that I have read in that there is no feeling of a narrator laying out their research. In this way it reads like a typical fiction novel: Capote presents everything as truth and adds no speculation or discussion of possible actions or motivations. This is most obvious in the details of the Clutters’ last day, where some events are related in explicit detail whilst others are barely mentioned, presumably because the witnesses involved refused to cooperate with him. At no time do we feel as if we are looking through the author’s eyes and this adds a disquieting tone of inevitability to the events that he relates. His matter-of-fact approach makes the events seem even more mundane, and thus more disturbing.

One of the group related the terror that she felt after watching the 1967 film based upon the book and it is easy to understand how the Clutter murders created such a sense of panic and unease in rural America. At that time people generally knew, and trusted, all of their neighbors and rarely locked their doors, even assuming that their doors were fitted with locks. This murder helped to shatter that sense of security and inject a feeling of paranoia into many peoples’ lives. If this could happen to the Clutters then what was to stop it happening to you or me or the Smiths down the road? Unfortunately, the case provided little comfort even when the culprits were caught because they had the thinnest of reasons for approaching the Clutter house and seemingly no motive for the ensuing carnage.

Capote creates an uncomfortable sense of dread by taking us through the Clutters’ last day. Not only does this make us sympathize with the victims, but it builds suspense before the inevitable crime. Their very niceness and ordinariness makes the murders even more horrific because they did absolutely nothing to justify what happened to them. The tension is heightened by interweaving their boringly normal day with details of the murderers’ road trip to Holcomb. The fact that Mr Clutter was notorious for NOT conducting his business in cash and so was a poor ‘mark’ for the intended robbery adds more pathos and makes us increasingly anxious as night falls and the perpetrators arrive. We hope that somehow history will re-write itself and the Clutters will escape to live the long and generally happy lives that they surely deserve.

We are spared a vicarious replay of the murders in favor of eye-witness testimony of the bodies being discovered, although this conveys its own horror as we see the reactions of friends and neighbors. A detailed recounting of what actually occurred is left until later in the book, when it is given during the suspects’ questioning. Whilst we will never know exactly who did what, the physical evidence does corroborate a lot of the account presented. Chillingly, we never learn why the Clutters’ were killed: whilst Smith claims to have killed all of them he provides no reason for killing Mr Clutter. Logically, once the father is dead Smith needs to kill the other family members to remove potential witnesses to the murder, but he never explains why he took that first step. He claims that Hickock repeatedly said that there should be no witnesses, but then recounts the first murder as if it happened without his conscious intent. Capote does not debate whether this is Smith minimizing his culpability or a true recounting of his loss of self-control.

The pointlessness of the crime is the most depressing and troubling aspect of the book, although the seemingly ordinary life stories of the two criminals add to a general sense of hopelessness and bewilderment. Capote leaves us to draw our own conclusions about the effects of the pair’s upbringing upon their actions and personalities. In doing so it seems to be much easier to find sympathy for Smith who had endured a classically ‘bad’ upbringing. He suffered prejudice as a half-Cherokee, his mother was a promiscuous alcoholic, his father was exploitative and abusive, he was abused by nuns in an orphanage because of his bed-wetting and then he suffered debilitating injuries in a motorcycle crash which left him with shortened legs and in continuous pain. A stint in the marines failed to instill him with personal discipline and he drifted into a life of petty crime and inevitable incarceration. In contrast, Hickock had a normal, happy childhood although he suffered severe head injuries in a car accident at the age of 19, which left him with a noticeably damaged face.

By providing a narrative of what the pair did both before and after the killings we are given a chilling glimpse into their thoughts. Both felt superior to their fellow man, and in many ways they were: both were of above average intelligence and had talents that they could have exploited to live productive, honest lives. However, both harbored a grievance at the unfairness of the world and saw people only as a means to acquiring what they wanted. Both had some seriously antisocial attitudes, possibly resulting from life experience or, in Hickock’s case, brain damage. It should be noted that two of Smith’s siblings committed suicide, whilst his surviving sister refused to have any contact with him or their father. It is also very telling that Smith insisted that he killed the Clutter women because he felt sorry for Hickock’s mother and did not want her to think of her son as a killer.

Their actions after the murders are bizarre in that they had a very good chance of remaining uncaught but instead chose to return to the United States from the anonymity of Mexico and continued to write bad checks, making it relatively easy for the police to find them once they became suspects. It is also chilling to realize that they spent some time actively seeking car owners to murder: one gentleman escaped death only due to the timely appearance of a hitchhiker. They bickered like a dysfunctional married couple adding to their aura of sad desperation and making us wonder why they stuck together at all. Their apparent inability to settle into any form of normal life suggests that they would have continued wandering around the States until they were caught for some crime or another and returned to prison. I am not a proponent of the death penalty, but these two men were a real danger to society and needed to be removed from it permanently. They remain the most likely suspects in another case where a family of four was murdered by shooting although no definitive evidence has been found to link them to the crime.

It is very rare for me to find myself impressed by a writer’s expertise as I am actually reading their work: but this is one of those cases. It is one of the most beautifully crafted pieces of writing that I have ever read and I heartily recommend it to everyone.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Books for February

During the last month we have suffered some unpleasant weather, so in an attempt to distract us from the ice and snow I offered a selection of books set in sunnier climates. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter will take us to one of my favorite destinations: Italy. Death Comes as the End is our first foray into Agatha Christie’s writing and is unusual because it is set in Ancient Egypt.

Both books are now available on the Nooks.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying.

And the story begins again today, half a world away, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio's back lot—searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier.

Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie

Imhotep, wealthy landowner and priest of Thebes, has outraged his sons and daughters by bringing a beautiful concubine into their fold. And the manipulative Nofret has already set about a plan to usurp her rivals' rightful legacies. When her lifeless body is discovered at the foot of a cliff, Imhotep's own flesh and blood become the apparent conspirators in her shocking murder. But vengeance and greed may not be the only motives...

Saturday, January 6, 2018

2017 in Review

Last year I built upon Goodreads’ review of our reading in a blog post. Here are this year’s numbers, with comparisons to 2016:

How much did we read?

As in 2016, the group met 9 times and read 19 titles. Altogether we read 6,334 pages, which is a huge drop from the amazing 7,247 that we managed last year, with the average dropping from an impressive 381 pages per book to a more sedate 333. Our shortest read was The Uncommon Reader, which is actually classed as a novella, at 120 pages. However, this was balanced by All the Light We Cannot See that filled a much more Pulitzer-worthy 531.

Who did we read?

This year the male authors outnumbered the females by 10 to 9, although both Terry Pratchett and Brandon Sanderson are authors that I love and will continue to suggest to the group. All the other authors, whether male or female, were new to the group, although I suspect that some of them will make repeat appearances in the future.

How old were they?

The oldest book we read this year was The Haunting of Hill House, which was published in 1959, a whole 6 years earlier than The Left Hand of Darkness, our oldie last year. Again, the newest titles were from the preceding year, with both Behind Closed Doors and My Name is Lucy Barton published in 2016. Also again, the others showed a definite skew towards newer reads, with 14 titles published after 2000. I keep looking for older titles, and I do suggest them at meetings, but the ladies seem to prefer something newer and unfamiliar.

What genre were they?

We read a wide range of genres this year, falling into 16 categories other than ‘Fiction’, up 1 from last year. Last year we read a lot of Fantasy (11 titles), but this year the most popular categories were Mystery (8 titles) and Historical (5 titles). I am not sure if this is due to me being more varied in my suggestions or just the luck of our selection procedure. Of course, it helps that so many of my favorite Fantasy / Sci-Fi titles are monstrous tomes that I can never suggest, even over the summer hiatus – I am looking at YOU George R. R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson!  

Did we like them?

Yes, although we were more ambivalent this year, with an average rating of 3.4, down from 4.2 last year.

We had one title that we all absolutely hated: Behind Closed Doors. Goodreads does not allow a 0 rating, but that is really what we wanted to give it. I personally could not complete it once a puppy arrived to be tortured and / or killed by the dastardly villain. Also it was badly written with poor characterization and a ludicrous plot. Many in the group were seriously under-impressed by The Woods by Harlan Coben and also Louise Penny’s Still Life, which both received 2 star ratings. All the other titles earned 3 or 4 stars, and whilst some of us would have given some of them a full 5 stars, no one title was unanimously declared outstanding, although A Man Called Ove and All The Light We Cannot See came closest.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Misery by Stephen King

Paul Sheldon is a bestselling novelist who has finally met his number one fan. Her name is Annie Wilkes, and she is more than a rabid reader—she is Paul’s nurse, tending his shattered body after an automobile accident. But she is also furious that the author has killed off her favorite character in his latest book. Annie becomes his captor, keeping him prisoner in her isolated house.

Annie wants Paul to write a book that brings Misery back to life—just for her. She has a lot of ways to spur him on. One is a needle. Another is an axe. And if they don’t work, she can get really nasty.

* * *

It seems amazing that this is our first venture into the works of Bangor’s most famous resident. Of course, as most of Mr King’s books are tomes of gigantic proportion, they are often too long to meet my criteria for nomination. I was looking for a diverse selection of Horror stories for our Halloween reading, and this fitted provided a nice alternative to all those vampires, ghosts, serial killers and ravening beasts.

Horror is a strange genre, in my opinion, because it can be difficult to predict what will be truly horrific. For example, I am much more upset when the victim is an animal, especially if it is a trusting domesticated one. I know that this is completely illogical, but it has stopped me reading books in the past; for example, Behind closed Doors by B. A. Paris, which involved the abuse of a puppy. However, I can be somewhat unmoved by the death and mutilation of humans, especially if they are disposable characters which the author sacrifices without even trying to get me emotionally attached to them. Some of the group could not cope with the physical aspects of Annie’s treatment of Paul and so did not finish the book, whilst I found it only moderately horrific. For me, the true horror was the way that Paul’s soul was slowly destroyed by the isolation and hopelessness of his situation.

The whole book is seen through Paul’s eyes, although there are a few sections where he imagines how events are unfolding in the outside world. He speaks to us in a stream of consciousness, so that we share thoughts and follow his dreams into some very disturbing visions. Perhaps it was this very intimate voice that made people highly uncomfortable reading Paul’s experience of Annie’s attacks. It was even more difficult to distance yourself from his pain because you were stuck in his head with him: and just as powerless to stop what was happening. Indeed, powerlessness is something that Paul experiences from the very beginning of the book, when Annie has to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He feels assaulted and invaded: describing it as rape even as it is occurring, before she has given him any reason to dislike or fear her. 

This first ‘assault’, dragging him away from the peaceful blackness of death, sets the scene for a series of attacks that become increasingly violent. At first it seems as if Annie, who is a trained nurse, is actually trying to help Paul to recover, but it soon becomes clear that she may never have intended him to leave. She splints his broken legs with no effort to set the bones in place, so that they are anything but straight and one is several inches shorter than the other. She also chooses to give him huge doses of an opioid whilst being totally aware that it is extremely addictive. All of this makes it surprising that she bothered to save him in the first place – especially as she did not know his identity until she checked his wallet. That she happens to be his ‘number one fan’ is pure coincidence, and one is left wondering what she might have done to him if he had just been a random person.

Of course, Annie’s adulation of Paul is cut short when she reads the latest Misery book and finds that her beloved character is dead. Paul is saved by his quick thinking exploitation of Annie’s desire to see Misery rise from the grave, and so begins his role as Scheherezade. At first he uses Misery’s Return as a way to postpone Annie’s decision to kill him, just as Scheherezade’s stories buy her night after night with the murderous king. However, it later becomes clear that Paul’s writing is also giving him a reason to live, so that he becomes Scheherezade to himself as he chooses not to commit suicide. Eventually, he values the book so highly that he decides to save it as part of his plan to escape captivity.

Sections of Misery’s Return are included in the text, and it should be noted that we all found them laughably awful! They are horribly melodramatic, with massively improbably plot lines, terrible dialogue and totally unlikable central characters. We all agreed that we would never want to read the book in its entirety. At the beginning of the book, Paul would probably agree with our assessment of the series: he hates it and resents its popularity in comparison to what he considers to be his more literary works. Of course, we have no idea if they are equally badly written, although it seems that Paul probably has an inflated opinion of his ability as an artist. He is genuinely shocked when there is little effort made to search for him until his car is found: it seems that nobody is really upset that he has gone missing. We wondered how much this reflects Stephen King’s opinion about his own work and value to society.

Annie Wilkes is possibly one of the best villains ever written and is especially creepy because she can appear very normal at times. Perhaps her ability to seem normal is what allowed her to remain undetected for so many years as she killed patients in her care, although it seems likely that she was also cunning enough to move on before suspicion led to hospitals to act against her. Interestingly, unlike that other famous serial killer, Hannibal Lector, she is not godlike in control of her environment: she seems to suffer from some form of mental illness, although we do not know if that caused her murderous behavior or is a symptom of it. I suspect that she is an amalgamation of many fans that have been ‘over zealous’ in their admiration of Mr King’s writings and is his way of telling fans that they have no say in what an author chooses to write.

For those with a strong stomach, I would heartily recommend this claustrophobic exploration of powerlessness and obsession. It will also make you much more careful when driving your lawn tractor!

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Books for January

As I write this, the snow is drifting past the library windows with the promise of several inches to come. We have had surprisingly little snow and ice so far this winter, so I thought a few ‘cold’-themed books would be appropriate. The selections for the January meeting are The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

Both books are now available on the Nooks.

The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman

Be careful what you wish for. A small town librarian lives a quiet life without much excitement. One day, she mutters an idle wish and, while standing in her house, is struck by lightning. But instead of ending her life, this cataclysmic event sparks it into a new beginning.

She goes in search of Lazarus Jones, a fellow survivor who was struck dead, then simply got up and walked away. Perhaps this stranger who has seen death face to face can teach her to live without fear. When she finds him, he is her opposite, a burning man whose breath can boil water and whose touch scorches. As an obsessive love affair begins between them, both are forced to hide their most dangerous secrets--what turned one to ice and the other to fire.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.

As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Meeting Schedule for 2018

We will meet at 6pm in the Business Centre on the second floor of the library

January 18th

February 15th

March 15th

April 12th

May 10th

June 7th

Books for December

After the horror of Halloween this month’s selections took their inspiration from Veteran’s Day. The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell follows one of Arthur’s soldiers in this retelling of mythology whilst The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman recounts how non-combatants fought against the Nazis in occupied Poland.

Both books are now available on the Nooks.

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell

Uther, the High King, has died, leaving the infant Mordred as his only heir. His uncle, the loyal and gifted warlord Arthur, now rules as caretaker for a country which has fallen into chaos - threats emerge from within the British kingdoms while vicious Saxon armies stand ready to invade. As he struggles to unite Britain and hold back the enemy at the gates, Arthur is embroiled in a doomed romance with beautiful Guinevere. Will the old-world magic of Merlin be enough to turn the tide of war in his favor?

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

When Germany invaded Poland, Stuka bombers devastated Warsaw—and the city’s zoo along with it. With most of their animals dead, zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski began smuggling Jews into empty cages. Another dozen “guests” hid inside the Zabinskis’ villa, emerging after dark for dinner, socializing, and, during rare moments of calm, piano concerts. Jan, active in the Polish resistance, kept ammunition buried in the elephant enclosure and stashed explosives in the animal hospital. Meanwhile, Antonina kept her unusual household afloat, caring for both its human and its animal inhabitants—otters, a badger, hyena pups, lynxes.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf

It happens quietly one August morning. As dawn's shimmering light drenches the humid Iowa air, two families awaken to find their little girls have gone missing in the night.

Seven-year-old Calli Clark is sweet, gentle, a dreamer who suffers from selective mutism brought on by tragedy that pulled her deep into silence as a toddler. Calli's mother, Antonia, tried to be the best mother she could within the confines of marriage to a mostly absent, often angry husband. Now, though she denies that her husband could be involved in the possible abductions, she fears her decision to stay in her marriage has cost her more than her daughter's voice.

Petra Gregory is Calli's best friend, her soul mate and her voice. But neither Petra nor Calli has been heard from since their disappearance was discovered. Desperate to find his child, Martin Gregory is forced to confront a side of himself he did not know existed beneath his intellectual, professorial demeanor.

* * *

Sometimes I struggle to find inspiration when I am compiling the list of choices for the book group. One way around this is to pick a theme and use Goodreads to find suggestions: it has an excellent, searchable List feature compiled by its users. This has the great advantage of highlighting books and authors that I have never really noticed before, and in this case it led me to find this excellent debut title.

At the outset, the story seems rather predictable: two young girls go missing and the alcoholic, abusive father of one seems a good fit for role of the typical ‘Bad Guy’. However, there is much more going on in this seemingly peaceful neighborhood and crucial events in the past are slowly revealed as the search continues. Whilst we soon learn that Petra is the girl in true danger, the mystery of Calli’s selective mutism is almost as important to revealing the truth of why these events occurred. Following the multiple POV characters, we gradually piece together the disaster that is Calli’s home-life, which becomes ever more heartbreaking as we discover the depth of the abuse that she has suffered and witnessed. I do not want to discuss important plot points, but while some are pretty obvious, others are skillfully hidden until the answers are revealed.

Looking at the more negative reviews for this title, I saw that many people are highly critical of Calli’s mother, Toni. They see cowardice in her failure to protect herself and her children from Griff’s abuse and believe that she should have left long before this tragic event unfolds. We thought that this was a rather simplistic way to view another person’s life. It is clear that Toni was very much in love with Griff when they first set up home and that she knows that sometimes he can be a great father. She also knows that he is dangerous once he has consumed a certain number of beers, and will remove the children from the home when he gets to that point. We concluded that his job in Alaska also contributed to her inertia: because he only returned for short periods, she could always see a return to ‘normal’ in the near future and so was never pushed far enough to feel the need to leave him.

Perhaps more deserving of criticism was Louis, the police officer. His past relationship with Toni occupied far more of his attention than seemed reasonable in this situation. He and the other local police were rather lax in their investigation of the scene of the abduction and in finding some of the prime suspects. We were not sure if this was normal operating procedure, but I would have wanted someone else searching for my lost child.

Another point of criticism for us was the historical treatment of Calli’s mutism. Apart from Mr Wilson, the school counselor, nobody, not even her mother, uses writing or drawing as a mode of communication. The school is particularly appalling in its attitude to her, including one incident where she is punished for refusing to speak and Petra is punished for trying to communicate for her friend. With regard to Toni, we could understand that she might have been unwilling to push too deeply into the reasons behind the mutism, because she would then have to confront the unpleasantness of her relationship with Griff. However, we were generally appalled that nobody really expressed concern about what trauma had caused Calli’s psychological damage.

Indeed, the writer emphasized this damage by recounting Calli’s chapters in the third person, past tense. All the other POV chapters were given in the first person, present, so that we had a constant reminder of how badly Calli had disassociated with the world around her. It made it seem as if she were viewing her life as an observer, rather than a participant, as a way of defending her true self from the pain of experiencing her real life. Remembering that she was only seven years old made this all the more painful.    

This is a compelling exploration of domestic abuse and how different people respond to a horrific crisis. The group thoroughly recommends it.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Mma Ramotswe—with help from her loyal associate, Grace Makutsi—navigates her cases and her personal life with wisdom, good humor, and the occasional cup of tea.

This is the story of the delightfully cunning and enormously engaging Precious Ramotswe, who is drawn to her profession to “help people with problems in their lives.” Immediately upon setting up shop in a small storefront in Gaborone, she is hired to track down a missing husband, uncover a con man, and follow a wayward daughter. But the case that tugs at her heart, and lands her in danger, is a missing eleven-year-old boy, who may have been snatched by witchdoctors.

* * *

“Women are the ones who know what's going on,' she said quietly. 'They are the ones with eyes. Have you not heard of Agatha Christie?”

This is how Precious Ramotswe explains her decision to become the very first lady detective in Botswana. Indeed, it is easy to draw comparisons between Precious and Christie’s Miss Marple. Both operate in a small, village-like situation, relying on sharp observation and local knowledge to solve crimes. They are both underestimated by many people because they do not ‘look’ like the expected image of a detective, and they often use this to their advantage. However, to view this title as simply another cozy mystery is to underestimate the beautifully evocative way in which it depicts Botswana and its people.

Africa is a huge continent with a multitude of peoples and cultures, but we tend to get a very narrow view of it here in the West. Of course, this is mostly because news organizations fail to report peace and tranquility, especially when it occurs in other countries. We see the wars, famine, poverty, disease and corruption because they are deemed ‘news-worthy’ while the ‘feel good’ stories are restricted to local cats stuck in trees and the like. Then, of course, we tend to view Africa as one homogenous entity, forgetting that it is bigger than Europe, the US, China and India all added together and divided into 54 countries. The colonialism and exploitation of past centuries also acts as a lens to distort our view of the African peoples and their lives. For these reasons, it is a delight to read a book that presents the world view of a proud Motswana woman even though the author is a white British man born in Zimbabwe. It is clear that Mr McCall Smith has a deep love and respect for Botswana, where he spent several years helping to found the Department of Law at the University of Botswana in Gabrone.

The Botswana that we encounter here is a mostly peaceful, democratic place that has avoided some of the pitfalls of independence that still disrupt daily life in other African nations. Precious is very proud of this and attributes it to the influence of the first President, Sir Seretse Kharma, who placed emphasis on infrastructure, industry, education and corruption-free government. Because of the largely law-abiding populace, most of her cases are relatively benign: a wayward teenager with an overprotective father, a cheating husband, a stolen car, insurance fraud and a man abusing the tradition of supporting your family. Some of them are more serious, involving a missing husband or medical malpractice, but the most disturbing case is one that involves the kidnap and possible dismemberment of a young boy for muti (traditional medicine / witchcraft).

The range of cases reflects a ‘warts and all’ portrait of the country: Precious loves Botswana but is critical of many aspects of its people and attitudes. She sees tradition as mostly very important, but despises the use of muti and resents the sexism that she sees constraining women. Indeed, her attitude towards ‘men’ is rather negative and she tends to expect the worst of them. However, this is hardly surprising once we learn about her history with her husband, Note Makote, and we can see why she is jaded and cautious in trusting men that she does not know. In contrast, she has deep respect and love for several men that have earned her trust. Primary amongst these is Obed, her Daddy. We hear his story in his own voice, relating a horrifying story of working in the mines of South Africa, which took him away from home and also wrecked his lungs. He is a quiet, observant man who is devoted to his small family and an excellent judge of cattle. His gentle support allows Precious to blossom into a strong, independent woman with a sharp intelligence, a powerful sense of right and wrong and a burning desire to help others with their problems.

The other major male character in the book is Mr JLB Matekoni, the owner of Tlokwneg Road Speedy Motors. He is the complete opposite of Note in that he is much more like her father: gentle, careful and quiet. However, he loves her completely, has dreams where she is improbably naked, and his dearest wish is that she will agree to marry him. Given that she is a very strong-willed person, his more easy-going, passive attitude to life makes it very easy for her to walk all over him, something that may cause problems if they do marry in the future.

However, the success of this title rests firmly on the ample shoulders of Precious herself. She is a rather refreshing character, being very comfortable with herself and seemingly immune to the self-doubt that plagues so many female characters. She does not worry about performing as well as a man – she knows that she is superior to them! She is proud to be ‘traditionally built’ and pities thin women, although this possibly reflects cultural attitudes to the ideal woman in Botswana rather than her own personal indifference to fat-shaming. She looks at her world with positivity and love, enjoying life and feeling blessed to be living when and where she is. This is wonderfully uplifting and helps us to overlook her rather negative character traits. She is very quick to judgment, sometimes too quick, and that can lead her to incorrect conclusions. It also suggests a certain intolerance of other peoples’ decisions and preferences. She is also rather bull-like in her impatience to do things: she sometimes rushes in without really planning what she will do. Fortunately, she is quick-witted enough to change direction as needed, but a little more caution might be advisable.

It is no wonder that this series is wildly popular, with Volume 18 scheduled for publication later this year and a spin-off series of Children’s books recounting Precious’ first cases. If you want books to restore your faith in humanity and put a smile on your face, give the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency a try!