on March 25, 2007
Today's publishing world seems to be dominated by writers who produce violent crime/thrillers. These books are usually driven by bleak plotlines and blood spills off nearly every page. The crooks/evil ones are usually caught in the end, but there's nothing positive to take away from the experience.
While a good adrenaline rush gets the blood pumping, it's nice to slow down with sweet, uplifting fiction. With the release of his 8th book in the Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, Alexander McCall Smith is establishing himself as one of the preeminent writers of sweet, gentle fiction.
As with previous books, "The Good Husband of Zebra Drive" gives the reader a glimpse into the life of Precious Ramotswe, proprietor of a detective agency in Gaborone, Botswana.
Mma Ramotswe's agency is located adjacent to Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, a garage owned by her husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni.
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, the real husband of Zebra Drive, is about to investigate his first case, but is troubled about how to tell his wife about the assignment.
Mma Ramotswe's capable assistant, Grace Makutsi is troubled about several things, including a date for her wedding to Phuti Radiphuti, owner of the Double Comfort Furniture Store. Miss Makutsi is also concerned about her future. She's been working for Mma Ramotswe for sometime, without a promotion. She should be doing better. After all, she is a 97-percent graduate of the Botswana Secretarial College.
The agency investigates a wayward husband and three unexpected, mysterious deaths at a hospital. The puzzles are always solved in McCall Smith's books, but what keeps readers coming back for each book are the main characters and their rich, human relationships.
At the heart of soul of the stories is Mma Ramotswe, `a traditionally built' middle-aged woman who loves her family, her work and her country.
Supporting Mma Ramotswe is the solid, dependable Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. He's a good mechanic, a kind employer and a devoted husband.
Grace Makutsi, young and a bit vain, provides color in this volume. Grace provides drama in Mma Ramotswe's world, especially when she suddenly decides to leave the Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency one day, stunning everyone.
Providing comic relief this time around is Charlie, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's oldest apprentice. The naïve Charlie is determined to set out on his own. His brief foray into the real world provides some funny and poignant moments.
Spending time with these gracious people is like finding a calming and soothing oasis after a parched trip through the barren desert. Time spent in Precious Ramotswe's world is never wasted. You'll leave feeling happy, contented and lucky.
"The Good Husband of Zebra Drive" is the latest work in Alexander McCall Smith's Number One Ladies Detective Agency series. If you have not had a chance to purchase the Audio CD, do so for the opportunity to listen to Lisette Lecat narrate the book. She is a talented actor from South Africa. As an African, Lecat is able to bring the sound of Botswana to the listener. Hearing the accent and having the places and names pronounced correctly adds an additional layer of pleasure to this well written book.
on April 17, 2007
It has been some time since I read my last novel of the Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series, and I was originally displeased with this book. I thought about giving it 4 stars. Then I thought, I opened the book after dinner and finished it before bedtime: how bad can a book be if you don't put it down?
What I disliked was the reality of the characters, the reality of the issues, the reality that Botswana is modernizing. Mma Makutsi, like my teenager at home, too often chides other people, in a rude and in-your-face fashion. The new cases walking through their doors are not cow thieves or simple questions of trust. Clients seek to discover employees who steal - even though the employers are generous. Stock trading scandals are discovered. What next: pollution violations? Botswana now has modern day issues. Botswana is an uglier place.
McCall Smith seems less enchanted by the "Leave It To Beaver" simplicity of many of its gloriously gentle citizens. "There were all those unkindnesses, palpable, daily; so easily avoidable; but one could not think of those, thought Mma Ramotswe, or one would spend one's time in tears - and the unkindness would continue. So the small things came into their own: small acts of helping others, if one could; small ways of making one's own life better; acts of love, acts of tea, acts of laughter. Clever people might laugh at such simplicity, but, she asked herself, what was their solution?"
Botswana is changing, but it is not dead. McCall Smith reminds us, "That fine country, with its good people, was still there. . . "
Reading these books is like getting out of the rat race and flying off to where life is simpler, better. Social standards seem so good in Botswana. Maybe the "good old days" were better in Botswana than they are today; but, the present days still have a lot of good.
After engaging the characters in numerous "new vocations" whether from malaise or midlife crisis, the author has our beloved J.L.B. Matekoni return to his auto mechanic's life as Matekoni realizes that, "The things that we do best. . . are the things that we have always done best."
Among all of the series written by McCall Smith, this is his best. And we can only hope that he realizes this fact and continues to do his best by delivering more novels for this series.
on April 17, 2007
Other reviews tell the plotline, so I won't do that here, but it is a truly wonderful book that is a perfect member of an idyllic series - McCall Smith is the Master of the novel that is a perfect antidote to the all too hectic society in which we live today. Plenty happens in this novel - if not more than usual - and lots of fascinating ethical and other issues are raised, but the sense of calm that one gets reading any Botswana novel by him pervades here too. This is the perfect book to read to soothe the troubled 21st century brow, as well as a great yarn in its own right. Read it, then buy copies to give to all your colleagues at work - they will thank you for it! Christopher Catherwood, author of A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE MIDDLE EAST (Carroll and Graf 2006) and CHURCH HISTORY: A CRASH COURSE FOR THE CURIOUS (Crossway 2007), and a no.1 McCall Smith enthusiast
on April 30, 2007
Dear Mma Ramotswe,
After reading this latest book about your detective agency, I suspect that you may soon be looking to hire a new assistant detective. Although I trained as a librarian, I believe I have the qualities you are looking for on Tlokweng Road. First of all I achieved a grade of 98 percent on my library exams, which I believe betters the score of a certain graduate of the Botswana Secretarial College. Through all of your mysteries I have come to love the peaceful nation of Botswana, its father Seretse Khama, its cattle, your daddy Obed, bush tea, the tiny white van, and, most importantly, traditionally built ladies. Of all the mysteries that we order for my library, yours are my favorite. True, each one is much like the other. But that is what I love, the ability to almost complete your sentences, read your thoughts, to know what you will be having for dinner (stewed pumpkin). I never feel more at peace than I do upon re-entering your world in Gabarone. In this book, I love the way familiar friends are placed in unfamiliar situations. Mma Makutsi's red dress and talking shoes alone provide enough drama for an excellent addition to the series, never mind that philandering husband or that unlucky hospital bed. A novel a year is simply not enough for me though--I would like to spend every day with you, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni and even those good for nothing apprentices who are so like some of my feckless after school volunteers. Patron references available upon request. The Stern Librarian (I also understand engines).
What's so remarkable about this series is that not only do you develop such a resonating bond with these wonderfully drawn characters, but you also feel completely transported to another place. His ongoing love letter to Africa continues to surprise and delight, and although it wasn't my personal favorite of the series, it was nice to sit with Precious and her gang for a few hours,
Mma Grace Makutsi enjoys shopping. New dresses are a fine thing to buy, but for Grace, shoes are nearly an obsession. While most people are limited in their available shopping times, Grace has a bit more flexibility. One day, she follows her impulse to visit the shops. What follows is a cascade of events with unexpected results. Among other things, it brings on a clash with her employer, Mma Precious Ramotswe of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. The confrontation is rather intense for two such mild-mannered ladies, but the success of the business may be at stake - as well as the type of lifepath each lady will follow. Grace makes a decision regarding her future. It's the first of several mis-steps that occur in this tale.
McCall Smith may have reached a new peak with this book. Each character seems enlarged through this volume - particularly when compared to the earlier works. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, proprietor of the Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors facility - which also houses the Agency - takes on a richer role here. As Precious' husband, he is challenged as never before, as a man and as a mentor. The author grants him more introspective opportunities, and we learn even more about him than the earlier books conveyed. Even Charlie the apprentice mechanic becomes something more than just an aggravation to both Mr Matekoni and Grace. For one thing, Charlie has also determined to enlarge his role - in unexpected ways. It, too, proves a difficult, almost tragic, step in the wrong direction.
The "mysteries" the Agency must resolve are of the usual type. There is the suspected unfaithful husband. A printing shop is being victimised by one of its own employees. And in distant Mochudi, patients in the local hospital have died under mysterious circumstances. Mochudi, of course, is a special place to Mma Ramotswe, and she must travel there to investigate this bizarre circumstance. Meanwhile, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni has taken it upon himself to address the adultery issue with surprising results. Is he going to become a detective instead of keeping to his beloved mechanic's role?
McCall Smith seems to add triumph upon triumph in this series. His ability to depict characters is unexcelled, brought here to new heights. He has already given vivid life portrayals to both Precious and Grace. They are more fully revealed in this book. The added thoughts and feelings of Mr J.L.B. Matekoni are especially moving. Although most of these novels may be read without reference to the other works, this one's value cannot be fully embraced without having at least the first one under the reader's belt. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on February 17, 2007
This whole series of books are the most gracious literature I have read in a long time and make one think of the kinder times. Its wonderful to get caught up in the different pace of life and become reminded of such wonderful values.
If you haven't read any other books in the series, don't start with this one! Why? Most of the plot's impact relies on long-standing character and relationship developments developed in the prior seven books. Alexander McCall Smith does a fine job of referencing those histories, but the impact won't be the same without having read about those events in the earlier books. This is particularly important to the extreme sense of fun that the book can bring to you.
The theme of this book could be summarized in the humorous Joel Osteen aphorism, "The grass may look greener on the other side of the fence, but it still has to be mowed." Precious Ramotswe's world is turned upside down when many of those closest to her decide that they want changes in their lives. Her husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, wants to take a turn at being a detective. Mma. Makutsi, her able assistant, is increasingly restive as she looks forward to marriage to the wealthy Phutti Radiphutti and doesn't see herself in the assistant role any more. In fact, she decides she wants a new job! The woman-chasing Charlie decides to drop out of his apprenticeship with Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni and start his own taxi business. Never has Precious faced so many changes in those who are closest to her since her father, Obed Ramotswe, died.
Talk about a great set-up for a book. Wow!
Obviously, life isn't as easy to change as that. You have to know how to work with clients and detect in order to be a detective. The easy-going Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is easily cowed by his client, the very rude Mma. Botumile. In fact, he just follows her direction.
Mma. Makutsi has forgotten that most offices in Botswana want to hire help for their appearance rather than for their skill. She also forgets that much of what she does with Precious is prepare tea and chat.
Charlie would probably be fine as a taxi driver, as long as there aren't any women to look at. Put a woman near him, and all bets are off!
Like the better books in the series, The Good Husband of Zebra Drive has several mysteries in it:
1. Patients on ventilators in the same hospital bed have unexpectedly died on three different Fridays. The ventilators check out and no one can think of any explanation for what has happened.
2. Mma. Botumile feels that her husband has taken up with another woman and wants to know who her rival is.
3. Valuable supplies are being stolen from a printing company. The owner thinks she knows who the thief is, but lacks proof.
Only the first of these mysteries provides satisfaction for the mystery fan. The other two mysteries are mere backdrops for character development.
As the book ended, I found myself a little disappointed by the facile resolutions (albeit humorous) put forward for the three seekers' desires to take a step up. I had hoped for more in those plot developments.
So the ending left me feeling that the promise of the book's premise hadn't really been met as well as I would have liked.
But none of the stories has more funny situations in it. You'll be laughing aloud throughout the book . . . especially if you enjoy Mma. Makutsi's fascination with shoes.
You won't put the book down. I started late and stayed up until 1 a.m. to finish. I was smiling as I did.
Fiction has the ability to transport a reader into the world of the author's choosing. The best fiction enhances the reader's ability to deal with reality. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series, of which this volume is the eighth installment, brings the reader to Botswana--an African nation struggling to maintain its identity as it adopts modern ways--and shows the power to be had in moral living, in trying to do good and be good. No reader can or will regret time spent in Mma Ramotswe's world.
The author's love of Africa pervades his stories. His characters are good people who deal with their circumstances and foibles in an honest and forthright manner so lacking in more "modern" cultures and settings. Africa seems to have retained habits of polite respect, habits now rarely found in this Californian's world. By this eighth volume we have come to know and respect Mma Ramotswe as a person with a singular gift of insight. By now we have seen her deal with numerous difficulties and the author is concentrating on her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni who must deal with a mid-life crisis, her friend Grace Makutsi who must adapt to success, Charlie the Apprentice who is apt to make a mess of things as well as the typical clientele of the Agency; problems are solved.
The genius of Mr. Smith's series is the pacing. There are no hurries. He takes the time to explore his characters' feelings and reactions to life and does so in an engaging, surprisingly readable manner. In a very telling scene, though there may be dangerous crocodiles in the water, Mr. Smith demonstrates that Mma Ramotswe can still, though wary, appreciate the beauty of her wild country. Likewise, though our world is inhabited by crocodiles of a different sort, we learn that happiness can still be found and enjoyed despite all difficulties.
There is an unequalled depth to these characters and their stories are mixed with wry commentary on the human condition that is alone worth the price of the book--there is wisdom in these stories that far exceeds most of the drivel masquerading as literature. Marriage is sanctified, virtue is rewarded, mercy is extended and rewarded; Mr. Smith convincingly portrays the conditions precedent to happiness and true satisfaction with life. His stories give hope.
I prescribe all eight volumes for anyone who is weary of the world in which we live. These books demonstrate that a gentle, peaceful life can still be had amongst the crocodiles.