“To the Land of Long Lost Friends” by Alexander McCall Smith

To the Land of Long-Lost FriendsMany years ago, I raced through the first half-dozen Stephanie Plum books by Janet Evanovich before deciding that I never needed to read another one. “They’re all the same!” I thought. “She’s always going to destroy her car, and her love triangle with Morelli and Ranger will never be resolved!”

Somehow, though, I have persevered through all 20 of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels, despite the fact that they are just as similar to one another as Evanovich’s books are. However, for some reason, I still look forward to my annual visit to Botswana, perhaps because Mma Ramotswe, proprietor of the agency, is such wise and delightful company. I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to read these books without wishing they could spend an afternoon in her presence, enjoying a leisurely chat while sipping bush tea.

To the Land of Long Lost Friends has a typically thin plot, but it does find Mma Ramotswe in a reflective mood, as she runs into an old friend at a wedding. For years, she had thought Calviniah Ramoroka was dead, but it turns out that the newspaper made a mistake—a different woman named Calviniah Ramoroka had been killed in an accident, but the photo printed alongside the article was of the still-living one.

At lunch a few days later, Calviniah happens to tell Mma Ramotswe that her adult daughter Nametso suddenly stopped speaking to her, and she has no idea why. Business is slow at the detective agency (as it often is—it’s kind of a wonder they manage to keep the doors open), so Mma Ramotswe decides to investigate. Meanwhile, Mma Makutsi is looking into the case of a man whose wife had believed he was cheating on her; the case had been closed (the ladies’ associate detective, Charlie, had determined that the husband had simply been visiting a female mathematics teacher for lessons), but Mma Makutski is convinced that something fishy is going on. “Most men are up to something, Mma. This is something I have learned as a woman. Most men are up to something—and it is the job of us women to find out what that is.”

There’s a little detecting, a lot of philosophizing and tea-drinking, and it’s all as relaxing as a cool breeze on a warm day; a subplot about a young orphan named Daisy does provoke genuine feelings of sadness in the reader, but even this heartbreaking storyline ultimately has a positive outcome.

“The world can be a place of suffering and conflict, but that’s not the only part of the world,” McCall Smith told the Deseret News in a recent interview. “There’s another part of the world where people are good to each other and kind to each other. The danger is that we become so accustomed to entertaining ourselves with violence that we think that’s reality. It’s not.” Whether your tastes run to female bounty hunters in New Jersey or lady detectives in Botswana, it’s nice that there are still some series out there that reliably provide a few hours of escape into a pleasantly familiar world.

“My Sister, the Serial Killer” by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister, The Serial KillerFor some reason, I tend to feel a weird sense of responsibility to finish any book I start. I rarely abandon books even if I’m not enjoying them. But this week, I gave up on not one but two novels. (One of them was an Edgar Best Novel nominee; I hope that one doesn’t win.) Then I picked up My Sister, the Serial Killer, and I was hooked from the very first lines:

Ayoola summons me with these words—Korede, I killed him.

I had hoped I would never hear those words again.

Ayoola is the staggeringly beautiful younger sister of Korede, a nurse (a useful profession, as it means she’s unlikely to panic at the sight of blood). Bonded by traumatic events in their childhood, the two of them make an odd pair: gorgeous, flighty, flirty Ayoola, who has an unfortunate habit of stabbing to death any man who makes the mistake of falling in love with her; and clear-headed, homely, hard-working Korede, ready to tidy up any mess her sister may leave in her wake. (Be sure not to neglect any blood that may have “seeped in between the shower and the caulking. It’s an easy part to forget.”)

Why is Korede always there to help her sister, even in the most dire of circumstances? “I wondered what would happen if Ayoola were caught… I imagine her trying to blag her way out of it and being found guilty… I relish it for a moment, and then I force myself to set the fantasy aside. She is my sister. I don’t want her to rot in jail, and besides, Ayoola being Ayoola, she would probably convince the court that she was innocent. Her actions were the fault of her victims and she had acted as any reasonable, gorgeous person would under the circumstances.”

Then something finally comes between the sisters: a man. Specifically Tade, a doctor at Korede’s hospital, whom she’s had an unrequited crush on for ages. When Ayoola shows up one day to visit Korede at work, Tade spots her and is instantly besotted. It was one thing if Ayoola killed someone who was a stranger to Korede, but she simply can’t let Tade die at the hands of her sister. But how can she convince him that he needs to tread carefully around Ayoola without coming off as a jealous shrew?

Despite the grim subject matter, My Sister is not overly gory, and while Ayoola seems not to have a conscience, that’s definitely not true of Korede. Nigerian author Oyinkan Braithwaite skillfully balances humor, heartbreak and suspense in this audacious debut novel.

“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.

“The House of Unexpected Sisters” and “My Italian Bulldozer” by Alexander McCall Smith

The House of Unexpected SistersI always look forward to my annual visit with Precious Ramotswe and her colleagues at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, but as I read The House of Unexpected Sisters, it struck me as… even more slight than most of the books in this series. There are never murders in these mysteries, but there are always a couple good puzzles to solve. In this one, there are two, and they are rather flimsy: first, there’s a woman who claims she was unjustly fired from her job at an office-furniture store; second, during the course of that investigation, Mma Ramotswe finds out that there’s another woman with her same last name in the area, and wonders who she is. (Spoiler alert: check out the book’s title.)

The novel hits all the usual beats readers expect from these series: Mma Ramotswe’s ever-fraught relationship with the prickly Mma Makutsi, her secretary-turned-Principal Investigating Officer; long afternoons spent eating fruitcake and discussing matters with the wise Mma Potokwane; thoughts about the importance of cattle; an appearance by perpetual antagonist Violet Sephotho; etc. However, about three-quarters of the way into this rather slim volume, Mma Ramotswe learns some truths about her late father, and readers get to see an emotional side of her that we’ve never before encountered. I will admit that by the time I finished the book, I felt pretty satisfied.

Even though I wound up enjoying The House of Unexpected Sisters, I do hope that next year’s cases are a little meatier. And that Mma Makutsi remembers that she has a baby (seriously, there’s a point in this book where she seems to have forgotten).

My Italian BulldozerAlexander McCall Smith’s bibliography now spans two full pages at the front of his books, and he seems to publish at least three novels a year, but the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is the only one I’ve ever really gotten into (Sisters is #18, and I’ve read them all). After finishing Sisters, I decided to try one of his recent stand-alones, My Italian Bulldozer. It’s a breezy read about a Scottish travel writer who is forced to rent a bulldozer to get around the Tuscan countryside (shrug! What can you do? It’s Italy!). His girlfriend has recently left him for her personal trainer, and Paul, the writer, is hoping to finish his latest book. There may be life lessons along the way. And romance.

Once you get past the whole bulldozer thing, the book plays out fairly predictably, but there are worse ways to spend a couple hours than reading about Tuscan food and scenery.

“Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah

Born A CrimeI think Trevor Noah is doing a great job as host of “The Daily Show.” He’s funny, charismatic and attractive, and his accent work is killer. However, I spent eight long years slogging through the George W. Bush administration with Jon Stewart, and when Trump got elected, I just couldn’t bring myself to tune into the madness on a daily basis. So I’m now an occasional “TDS” viewer.

Noah’s autobiography, however, is one I’d recommend to anyone, be they fans of his comedy or folks who have only the vaguest idea of who he is. There are a couple chapters that allude to his success (he was a huge star in his native South Africa before he made a splash in the U.S.), but 95% of the book deals with his childhood. It’s a remarkable tale, and Noah tells it very well.

Born a Crime is truly a singular story. Trevor Noah was in no way a typical South African child, thanks largely to his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. She decided to get pregnant by a Swiss-German neighbor, despite the fact that interracial relationships were illegal. Since the son’s skin was conspicuously lighter than his mother’s, Patricia frequently had to find a colored woman willing to walk young Trevor to school (his mother would follow behind, “like she was the maid working for the colored woman”).

Patricia was devoutly religious, insisting that her son accompany her to three separate church services on Sundays, as well as various Bible studies during the week. Despite all of that time spent in houses of worship, Trevor was quite the handful as a child. At age seven, he accidentally burned down a white family’s house (he was playing with their maid’s son). Decades later, Noah is unapologetic: “Things catch fire sometimes. That’s why there’s a fire brigade. But everyone in my family will tell you, ‘Trevor burned down a house.’ If people thought I was naughty before, after the fire I was notorious. One of my uncles stopped calling me Trevor. He called me ‘Terror’ instead. ‘Don’t leave that kid alone in your home,’ he’d say. ‘He’ll burn it to the ground.'”

There are plenty more crazy anecdotes in the book, which is just a delight from start to finish. By the end, even nonbelievers may find themselves convinced that somebody up there is looking out for Patricia, whose terrifying brush with death is detailed in the final chapter.

Noah vividly captures the grit and determination it took to escape poverty and abuse (at one point, Trevor, his mom and stepfather were so broke they had to eat caterpillars, a.k.a. “Mopane worms,” in order to survive: “there’s poor and then there’s ‘Wait, I’m eating worms,'” writes Noah). Born a Crime is a compelling memoir, as well as a loving tribute to the powerful woman who raised her son “as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do”—a fine rebuke to the dehumanizing system of apartheid.

“Precious and Grace” by Alexander McCall Smith

Precious and GraceNote: This review contains a mild spoiler.

A couple days after Sept. 11, 2001, having immersed myself in the tragic news, I reached the point where I needed a little bit of an escape. This was in the days before Netflix and Amazon Prime, but I had recorded some movies and shows on my trusty old VCR, and for some reason decided to watch a TV movie called “Mazes and Monsters.” It was based on a Rona Jaffe novel that came out during the height of the satanic panic over Dungeons & Dragons, and starred a young Tom Hanks in his first major role. I assumed it would be campy fun.

Hanks’ character Robbie begins suffering from psychotic delusions that he truly is the cleric he portrays in his fantasy role-playing game. All these years later, I have forgotten the plot details, but here’s Wikipedia: Robbie “start[s] drawing maps that will lead him to a sacred person he has seen in his dreams called the Great Hall. In his dream, the Great Hall tells him to go to the Two Towers, which is in fact the World Trade Center, and he believes that by jumping off one of them and casting a spell, he will finally join the Great Hall.” I remember sitting in front of the TV with my jaw dropped, feeling shocked that the silly film I had planned to watch in order to get a break from the news actually featured a big climax starring the Twin Towers. I mean, what are the odds?

I found myself thinking about that situation a few days ago after finishing Precious and Grace, the newest novel in one of my favorite series: Alexander McCall Smith’s gentle, lyrical non-murder mysteries about Botswana’s number-one lady detective, Mma Ramotswe, and her secretary-turned-co-detective Mma Makutsi. I had turned to Precious and Grace hoping for a respite from the election madness. In most respects the book did not disappoint, but one of the subplots… well, let’s just say that it also involved an election. There were two candidates, one of them so narcissistic and irresponsible that there’s simply no way the person could ever emerge victorious. Of course, that is exactly what happens.

“I have no appetite,” said Mma Makutsi upon hearing the news. “I could not touch food. Not tonight. Not for some days, I fear… My heart is broken, broken, broken.”

“Mma Makutsi shook her head in disbelief… Did people not realize? Were people such poor judges of character as to be unable to see [winning candidate] for what she was?”

Mma Ramotswe responded: “There are many things in the world that are not right. You only have to look about you and you see them.”

All in all, it wasn’t quite as on the nose as the “Mazes and Monsters” coincidence, but it still brought me back to reality. In fiction, just like in real life, the people you root against don’t always get their comeuppance.