“The Colors of All the Cattle” by Alexander McCall Smith

The Colors of All the CattleSometimes, we all could use a do-over. Let’s say that there’s a big election, and the results break your heart. Then two years later there’s another election, and this one has an outcome that’s much more to your liking.

Do you think I’m talking about the presidential election of 2016 and the 2018 midterms? Don’t be silly! This is Botswana, home to Mma Ramotswe, proprietor of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and her secretary-turned-business partner, Mma Makutsi. If this gentle series, now numbering 19 volumes, has a big bad, it’s Violet Sephotho, Mma Makutsi’s sworn nemesis since their days together at the Botswana Secretarial College. In 2016’s Precious and Grace, Violet was in the running for Botswana’s Woman of the Year award, which she won (“My heart is broken, broken, broken,” lamented Mma Makutsi upon hearing the news).

And now, in 2018’s The Colors of All the Cattle, Violet is a candidate for Gaborone city council. She’s running unopposed, and is in favor of a large hotel being built next to a cemetery—which just happens to be where Mma Potokwane’s mother is buried. Mma Potokwane is Mma Ramotswe’s best friend, the matron of the local Orphan Farm and a woman of great persuasive powers. She is convinced that only one woman can defeat Violet and prevent the council from approving the Big Fun Hotel: Mma Ramotswe.

Mma Ramotswe has no desire to get involved in politics, but you can’t say no to Mma Potokwane, so of course she winds up on the ballot. She comes up with her own campaign slogan: “I am not much, but I promise you I’ll do my best.” Meanwhile, Violet is making all sorts of promises, like eliminating various registration fees and making free tea available throughout the city. Will the citizens of Gaborone vote for the preening and narcissistic Violet or the down-to-earth Mma Ramotswe? Surely Alexander McCall Smith wouldn’t want to break Mma Makutsi’s heart twice, now would he?

The agency itself is busy investigating a hit-and-run accident that injured an old friend of Mma Ramotswe’s late father, and Charlie—apprentice mechanic at Mma Ramotswe’s husband’s garage and part-time assistant at the detective agency—is threatened by someone who doesn’t want him to find out who was behind the wheel. A brick thrown through a window is about as violent as this series gets.

After last year’s rather disappointing The House of Unexpected Sisters, my expectations were set kind of low, but I must admit that I found The Colors of All the Cattle to be a total delight from start to finish. It’s funny and charming and has a few genuinely heartbreaking and poignant moments, several of them involving Charlie, who has grown from a feckless teenager into an increasingly lovable part of the ensemble. As to what happens with Mma Ramotswe’s budding political career, there are a few unexpected twists, but McCall Smith comes up with a resolution that just seems perfectly right, as deliciously satisfying as a cup of red bush tea and a slice of Mma Potokwane’s fruitcake.

“All the Answers” by Michael Kupperman

All the AnswersWho were the Quiz Kids? I had never heard of them, but my guess is that the name will definitely ring a bell for anyone who was around in the 1940s and 50s. The Quiz Kids were brainy children who answered tough questions on a radio program based out of Chicago, and eventually a TV show, that ran between 1940 and 1956. It was a phenomenon, especially during the WWII years, when the Kids toured the country to sell war bonds and boost morale.

The Kids hobnobbed with celebrities like Milton Berle, Bing Crosby and Henry Ford. When each Kid turned 16, now more of an adult than a cute child prodigy, he or she “graduated” and left the show. Except for one, the most famous Kid of all: Joel Kupperman, the math genius who first appeared on the show at the age of six and continued until he was in college. Despite his dad’s decade-plus of fame, Joel’s son Michael knew very little about the Quiz Kids years; now a college professor, Joel shunned Quiz Kid reunions and didn’t give interviews, and treated his childhood as a “forbidden subject.”

After Joel is diagnosed with dementia, Michael realizes that it’s his last chance to find out what really happened to his father. An exhaustive search of the family home finally turns up several scrapbooks stuffed with Quiz Kids memorabilia. Michael begins to research the life of Joel Kupperman, kid genius, and makes some disturbing discoveries.

This graphic novel is a quick read, with bold, simple and effective black-and-white drawings, but the author manages to develop a lot of big themes in the book’s 220 pages, including the importance of several of the Kids’ Jewishness (particularly during WWII and its aftermath), the way “special” children were commonly put on display back then (the Quiz Kids had some things in common with the Dionne quintuplets, who were a tourist attraction in a sort of human zoo until they turned eight), and the game show scandals of the 1950s.

Quotes at the beginning of each chapter show what a pop-culture phenomenon the Quiz Kids were in their day. (Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Philip Roth referenced Joel Kupperman in his 1983 novel The Anatomy Lesson.) All the Answers is often tragic, and constantly fascinating.

“The Proposal” by Jasmine Guillory

The ProposalPublic proposals of marriage are everywhere lately. There was the contestant on “Jeopardy!” who popped the question to his girlfriend during the portion of the show usually reserved for anodyne chats with Alex Trebek. Director Glenn Weiss, immediately after winning an Emmy Award, looked down from the stage and asked his lady love to marry him. The boyfriend of a New York City marathoner couldn’t wait until she crossed the finish line, and he was criticized for breaking out the ring at Mile 16. Not even author events are safe; Tom Hanks, on tour to promote his book Uncommon Type, helped an audience member propose during the Q&A session. Who wouldn’t want the voice of Woody from “Toy Story” involved in their special moment?

“Luckily, she said yes,” People magazine noted about the Hanks-aided proposal. But what if she’d said no—and footage of the event, posted online by onlookers, had gone viral?

That’s the clever concept behind Jasmine Guillory’s The Proposal, the charming follow-up to her delightful debut, The Wedding Date. Nikole Patterson was not expecting her boyfriend of five months to ask for her hand in marriage during a Dodgers game, via a message on the Jumbotron. (The fact that he misspelled her name didn’t help.) Despite the cameras in her face, a flustered Nik knows she doesn’t want to accept the ring; she just wants to get away. A brother and sister sitting nearby help her escape the stadium, but there’s still enough video of Nik to make the “SportsCenter” highlights show. Suddenly, her Twitter mentions are blowing up, and not in a good way.

Nik’s relationship with the man who proposed is over, but she can’t stop thinking of the guy who helped her get away after the fiasco at the game. Carlos is a handsome, single doctor; Nik tracks him down and sends him a thank-you email. One thing leads to another, and before long, they’re enjoying a rebound relationship. But Nik, who is busy building her career as a freelance journalist, is adamant that she only wants some no-strings-attached fun. Is Carlos willing to accept her terms?

The Proposal has a lot of great supporting characters, including Nik’s best friends Dana and Courtney, and Carlos’s extended family; his cousin Jessie, pregnant with her first child, has been diagnosed with a condition that confines her to bed, and the rest of the clan is worried sick. After his father’s death, Carlos has taken on the role of patriarch and family problem-solver, something that isn’t always great for his own health and stress levels.

One way Carlos relaxes is by cooking, and there are a lot of descriptions of food in this book—don’t read it on an empty stomach! Nik’s pal Courtney owns a cupcake shop, too. The Proposal is the literary equivalent of a chilled glass of rosé (Nik’s favorite wine) and a chocolate cupcake with sprinkles: sweet and refreshing.

“Give Me Your Hand” by Megan Abbott

Give Me Your HandI was about 100 pages into Give Me Your Hand when I read a column about thrillers by Mark Harris in the New York Times Book Review. This passage really resonated with me:

Split timelines—the bad past that explains the bad present—are a genre staple, and the emergence of something awful and long-suppressed is such a consistent motif that it has turned many novels into waiting games: “What exactly happened back then? Tell!” Readers speed ahead not because they’re gripped but because they’re impatient with so much calculated withholding.

That described Give Me Your Hand to a tee. Kit, the book’s narrator, learned her best friend Diane’s horrible secret when they were both high school seniors. That shared confidence “showed me what darkness was, and is, and how it works, and how it never goes away or ends.” The novel switches back and forth between “Now” and “Then,” as Kit, who hasn’t seen Diane in years, is suddenly reunited with her when she comes to work at the lab where Kit is employed as a research scientist. The flashbacks give us a look at their teenage years, when they were friends as well as competitors. Kit was the salutatorian to Diane’s valedictorian in their high school, and they competed for the same scholarship.

Kit’s lab is presided over by Dr. Lena Severin, a brilliant and driven biochemist who has recently received a large NIH grant to study premenstrual dysmorphic disorder. Only a couple of postdocs will be chosen for the research team, and Kit is the only female, at least until Diane comes along. They are rivals once more, with Diane’s secret looming between them and, of course, leading to chaos and murder.

With You Will Know Me, about a frighteningly ambitious gymnast, and now Give Me Your Hand, Abbott is becoming an expert at crafting disturbing tales of women who will let nothing stand in their way. I didn’t find Give Me Your Hand quite as compelling plot-wise as You Will Know Me, and it gets overly Grand Guignol at points (if you think the early mention of a menstruation study foreshadows that a lot of blood will be spilled later in the book, you’d be right). By the end, like Kit after her high school graduation, I was grateful that I didn’t have to spend any more time in Diane’s creepy company.