Tag Archives: Africa

‘Precious and Grace’ by Alexander McCall Smith

precious-and-gracestarstarstarFor fans of this author and his series, reading another instalment is like coming home and putting on an old sweatshirt at the end of a long and tiring workday. The languorous pace and comfort of familiarity kicks in immediately, along with the usual philosophical musings about the restorative nature of a cup of tea and such ponderings as how to approach forgiveness with grace. McCall  Smith uses gentle humour to address serious life lessons.

Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi have now been working together so long in this 17th instalment, offering their wisdom to the community in Gaborone, that there is a lot to recap in case someone is new to the series. The author does this skilfully, giving necessary background information that is necessary for newbies to this long running series, without making it cumbersome and boring for serious fans who have read them all. So I give the author kudos for doing that well. However, I didn’t find the mystery topics very intriguing this time.

A Canadian woman is looking to rediscover her childhood in Botswana and someone else close to Mma Ramotswe needs help unravelling from a dangerous pyramid scheme. Precious and Grace have other adventures and misadventures, one involving a puff adder (a traditionally built snake!), but in general the series is becoming much more ‘reflective’ than ‘detective’ which is too bad because its genius was always being able to be both of those in equal measures.

‘The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon’ by Alexander McCall Smith

The Minor Adjustment Beauty SalonstarstarstarIn case you need a Christmas gift for someone who is following the No. 1 Ladies Detective series, this is the latest and fourteenth instalment. The title made me smile because when we lived in Tanzania there were so many hair salons that had interesting names…in fact many of them were “Saloons”, making we wonder if they offered drinks as well as beauty treatments!

Mma Ramotswe is in fine form once again, even though she is short staffed at the Detective Agency because Mma Makutsi has had a baby! Sometimes it takes an absence to underscore how much someone means to us. It’s not always easy to identify your enemies, a snake can be an ally, and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is just trying so hard to be a modern husband! There is always tension between the modern and traditional ways!

One thing I appreciate about Smith is how he masterfully weaves in earlier points to “catch up” the new reader who may be picking up the 14th as their first instalment. I would imagine that is not an easy thing to do well, but he does it seamlessly, without boring the avid fan.

How much longer can this series go on? To be honest, I was going to comment on whether the books have been getting better or worse. But I just can’t, because these characters have become like family. It would just be wrong to make a judgement. They demand to be read because they have been written and because I want to keep up and spend time with the characters I have come to know so well. This gentle, much-loved series is still relaxing to read, wise about human nature, funny, and very African.

‘419’ by Will Ferguson

419starstarstarstar

Guest Post by Dirk Booy:

Most of us have received an email from nowhere promising great riches if we just help someone get through a tough situation. Usually it appeals to our sense of justice, offers a financial incentive, and suggests that a life is in danger if we do not help. The stories are so unbelievable that we simply hit the delete key and wonder who would get suckered into such a scam. ‘419’ explores what happens when someone actually does reply.

Will Ferguson’s book, winner of the 2012 Giller prize, is titled after the Nigerian criminal code, number 419, specifically written to control fraud like email scams. The story tells of how an elderly man responds to such a scam and is eventually ruined by his tormenters. It’s a fascinating behind the scenes look at how such scams operate and why people respond. In the end, it’s a tale of how a family fights back and tries to reverse the damage caused by the scam – both to their family as well as others indirectly involved.

I found it original and captivating. Ferguson weaves a story that takes place in Canada and Nigeria involving different families and shows how a simple email scam can affect so many people. I found his descriptions of Nigeria to be real and authentic. Although the plot and style are somewhat cumbersome, the originality of the story makes it well worth the read.

‘Little Bee’ by Chris Cleave

To avoid any confusion, right at the outset I must say that this book was given another title by UK publishers: “The Other Hand”. There are no other differences and the book is exactly the same. Often books in UK have different covers, in this case it is also the title, which is not a problem as long as you know about it. The main character is called  Little Bee.

I actually just read Chris Cleave’s “Gold”, and now I have read another book of his. He is that good. Cleave is master at the unfolding of a story. Just when you think everything is rolling along nicely and something is going to be resolved, he throws in a twist and the tension builds again. He has a third book ‘Incendiary’ which has also been made into a movie, which I hope to read soon.

The issues Cleave deals with in ‘Little Bee’ are important. He doesn’t shy away from hard topics and deals with them beautifully, building empathy for people in difficult circumstances and celebrating the human spirit. And all of this is wrapped up in a novel which is well written, compelling, easy to read, and not without moments of laughter and joy. In telling the story Cleave transforms what could be a sad and depressing topic, into something hopeful and compassionate.

When you are reading ‘Little Bee’ you have a book in your hands. It is likely that at the same time you have a small book somewhere in your house which is called a passport. When you are finished with ‘Little Bee’, I reckon you will never think about that small book in the same way, ever again.

With Little Bee it is best that you know almost nothing about the book before you read it. All I will give you is a small clue on the back of the book. “This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice. Two years later, they meet again – the story starts there…”

‘The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection’ by Alexander McCall Smith

Book series can be wonderfully addictive. The No. 1 Ladies Detective series is one of those for me. Here is the 13th instalment and I’m not tired of it yet. McCall Smith has several series to choose from, all helpfully listed on his website.

Alexander McCall Smith Website

In this one, the detection guru Clovis Andersen actually makes a guest appearance in Botswana, much to the delight of his ardent followers at the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency! There is also an interesting road trip into the bush where Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi are stuck on a deserted road in the Kalahari and are worried about lions. My favourite part though, is when Mma Ramotswe (a traditionally built woman) uncharacteristically goes for a beauty consult at the Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon. Of course there are the usual intriguing questions and problems involving the well known characters in the series, most of which get resolved eventually.

One reviewer on Amazon called this series ‘literary comfort food’. Exactly right. It won’t win a lot of literary awards, but fans will be nicely satisfied once more.

‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an acclaimed and award winning Nigerian author. This book won the Orange Prize in 2007. When asked why she wanted to write a book about the Biafran war she said this:

“I wrote this novel because I wanted to write about love and war, because I grew up in the shadow of Biafra, because I lost both grandfathers in the Nigeria-Biafra war, because I wanted to engage with my history in order to make sense of my present, because many of the issues that led to the war remain unresolved in Nigeria today, because my father has tears in his eyes when he speaks of losing his father, because my mother still cannot speak at length about losing her father in a refugee camp, because the brutal bequests of colonialism make me angry, because the thought of the egos and indifference of men leading to the unnecessary deaths of men and women and children enrages me, because I don’t ever want to forget. I have always known that I would write a novel about Biafra.”

Few of us can forget the images of starving children from the Biafran war. Stick thin arms, swollen bellies, blank expressions, but what caused the war and what was it really about? In the novel, there are three characters whose lives tell the story. Ugwu, a poor houseboy who works for a University professor and develops a passion for writing. Olanna, a young woman who abandons her life of privilege to live with her revolutionary and charismatic lover. Richard, an English writer who comes as an expatriate and never leaves Nigeria or Olanna’s twin sister.

Earlier this year I heard Adichie speak at a book conference. Her written and spoken voice is insightful, important, and articulate. Though she has studied at Harvard and Yale, she is dedicated to promoting the writer’s craft in her home country of Nigeria, leading yearly workshops in Lagos.

In 2009 Adichie held a TED Talk which captivated me. She talks about the danger of the single story. It is 20 minutes long, but listening to it is time well spent. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie )

‘Baking Cakes in Kigali’ by Gaile Parkin

This book made me homesick for East Africa, having lived there myself for many years! Very much in the style of Alexander McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective” series, Parkin creates a story full of African wisdom and nuance. The story is set in modern Rwanda, so in the course of the story, many truly African issues and problems arise. Wounds from the genocide are still fresh, but people are trying to overcome and focus on hope and healing,  They will find a way to celebrate once again, despite many obstacles.

Angel Tungaraza, a Tanzanian living in Rwanda,  bakes cakes for all occasions. She decorates them very creatively and her business is beginning to thrive, even in a place where there are still haunting memories of tragedies and other problems like HIV AIDS, child soldiers, and poverty. Angel says, “My cake business is doing well because there are almost no shops here that sell cakes. A cake business doesn’t do well in a place where people have nothing to celebrate.” But her business does begin to thrive and her business allows her to become involved in the lives of others, sometimes with surprising results. Her customers receive much more from Angel than a beautiful cake! She also portrays well the sometimes tricky relationship between Foreign Aid workers (wazungu) and locals in such a place as Tanzania or Rwanda. Angel says, “All wazungu are rich. They get an extra $100 a day to compensate for living in a dangerous country, while most Rwandans do not earn that in a month!” The author was born in Africa and knows it well. She herself has lived in Rwanda and has worked with survivors there. Many of the stories she tells were inspired by stories she was told by women she counselled. She does a marvellous job of capturing the African spirit.

This is her first novel and I do hope she writes more. ‘Baking Cakes in Kigali’ deals with heavy issues in an uplifting manner, creating  a deliciously funny, moving, and charming  (but not sugar-coated) story, showing the strength and tenacity of the human spirit.