24 March 2017

Review: PRECIOUS AND GRACE, Alexander McCall Smith

  • this edition published 2016, large print, by Wheeler Publishing
  • source: my local library, 
  • 370 pages
  • ISBN-10: 1-4104-9339-3
  • #17 in the No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series
Synopsis (Fantastic Fiction)

In this latest installment of the beloved and best-selling No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi help a young woman on a quest to find someone from her past.

Changes are afoot at the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, where Mma Makutsi, who has recently been promoted to co-director, has been encouraging Mma Ramotswe to update to more modern office practices. However, an unusual case will require both of them to turn their attention firmly to the past. A young Canadian woman who spent her early childhood in Botswana requests the agency's help in recovering important pieces of her life there. With only a faded photograph - and, of course, some good old-fashioned detective skills - to guide them, Precious and Grace set out to locate the house that the woman used to live in and the caretaker who looked after her many years ago. But when the journey takes an unexpected turn, they are forced to consider whether some lost things may be better off unfound.

Busy as she is with this challenging investigation, Mma Ramotswe can always be relied on to come to the aid of her friends - who seem to have a special knack for landing in hot water. Mr. Polopetsi, an occasional assistant at the agency, has made an ill-advised business decision that may lead to serious trouble. And next door at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, Fanwell, the junior mechanic, has become helplessly attached to a stray dog who proves to be a bigger responsibility than he can handle. With Mma Makutsi by her side, Mma Ramotswe dispenses help and sympathy with the graciousness and warmth for which she is so well known, and everyone is led to surprising insights into the healing power of compassion, forgiveness, and new beginnings.

My take

These books really are the reading equivalent of comfort food. I met someone today who told me that she had "never been able to get on with them." I was surprised because for me it is the opposite: I always expect to enjoy them. They are not deep mysteries but the situations depicted them show an incredible understanding of what makes people tick, and the solutions are dispensed with just a touch of philosophy.

There are reminders always that the setting is not the West, but Botswana, a country struggling to find its place in the 21st century. Technology is changing the world. Even Precious Ramotswe's husband Mr. J.L.B Matekone comments on how much cars have changed, making them so difficult for him to repair.

Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi are now co-directors of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and that situation breeds its own frictions, and I enjoyed their interaction.

So if you haven't ever read these, and would like something light and cozy to read, give this series a try. But I would advise starting at the beginning.

My rating: 4.5

I've also read


20 March 2017

Review: SILVER WATTLE, Belinda Alexandra

  • this edition published Harper Collins Publishers Australia 2007
  • ISBN 978-0-7322-8134-2
  • 479 pages
  • source: my local library
  • author website
Synopsis (author website)

A dazzling novel about two exceptional sisters, set in the Australian film world of the 1920s.

Two sisters, Adéla and Klára, must flee their home in Prague in 1920 after their mother is murdered by their duplicitous stepfather. They seek refuge with their estranged uncle and his Indian wife in Sydney, Australia.

Falling in love with the landscape and unique wildlife of her adopted country, Adéla becomes a film director at a time when the early local industry is starting to feel the competition from Hollywood.
But Hollywood is not Adéla’s only adversary. Separated from her true love by deceit, she must deal with conflicted feelings about marriage to a man she likes but does not love and her sister’s deepening mental illness. Danger from her past returns and ultimately dreams of the silver screen must compete with the bonds of a lifetime …

Weaving fact into inspiring fiction with great flair and imagination, this is a novel as full of hope, glamour and heartbreak as the film industry itself.

My Take

This was really on the border of what I generally read. Some crimes in it, but not really crime fiction, more romance, and family saga.
While the setting was historical, I felt that historical detail didn't play a great part. Perhaps I mean that in a political sense. I was never sure what was happening in the "outside" world, how much time was passing. I think I am right in saying that the time frame does not get beyond the 1920s. At the end of that decade "talkies" became  dominant in the film industry here and in America, and signalled the end of the cheap silent film.
The social picture of Australia is carefully created and the characters are engaging and well drawn.

But just not really my sort of book: not enough mystery, not enough tension, and too much romance.

My rating: 4.2

About the author (author website)
An Australian born writer.
I hear many writers claim that they write to please themselves, but I can’t do that. I’m a born storyteller and I love to entertain people. I picture my readers while I’m writing – as if we were huddled around a campfire together swapping tales. I imagine that the people reading my stories, no matter where they live in the world, are people who love the same things I do – history, drama, family, mystery, romance, nature, animals and triumph over adversity. In that way, I think of my readers as my extended circle of friends.
The setting and historical periods in which I write are very important to me. I research my books almost like an actress preparing to play a part. As well as research about events, characters and the society of the period, I listen to the music, learn as much as I can of the language and culture, read the books that were popular, and pore over the interior design and cookbooks of the time.

19 March 2017

Review: LUSTRUM, Robert Harris - audio book

  • first published 2009
  • this audio book from Audible.com
  • Narrated by: Bill Wallis
  • Length: 15 hrs and 41 mins 
  • Unabridged Audiobook, released 01-12-15
Synopsis (Audible.com)

Rome, 63 BC. In a city on the brink of acquiring a vast empire, seven men are struggling for power. Cicero is consul, Caesar his ruthless young rival, Pompey the republic's greatest general, Crassus its richest man, Cato a political fanatic, Catilina a psychopath, Clodius an ambitious playboy.

From the discovery of a child's mutilated body, through judicial execution and a scandalous trial, to the brutal unleashing of the Roman mob, Lustrum is a study in the timeless enticements and horrors of power.

My Take

Once again this was engrossing listening.  Told through the eyes of Cicero's scribe Tiro, a slave, it has such a modern feel to it. Events that occurred in Rome over 2,000 years ago come to life. You need to begin this series at the beginning with IMPERIUM, and I have no doubt that we will continue to the final, DICTATOR.

At the beginning of LUSTRUM Cicero is Consul, truly the father of Rome, but he is also a man of principle, determined to root out corruption. He makes many enemies and from the beginning of his consulship there are those plotting his downfall, even his assassination. By the end of the book his chickens have come home to roost.

In Latin, the word Lustrum is a period of 5 years. The book covers Roman politics, and Cicero's fortunes, for the period roughly 63-58 BC.
Check Cicero's timeline here.

My rating: 4.6

I've also read

14 March 2017

Review: BLACK WATER LILIES, Michel Bussi

  • first published in France as Nymphias Noirs in 2011
  • translated into English by Shaun Whiteside
  • this edition published in Great Britain in 2016
  • ISBN 9-781474-601757
  • 350 pages
Synopsis (Amazon UK)

Giverny. During the day, tourists flock to the former home of the famous artist Claude Monet and the gardens where he painted his Water Lilies. But when silence returns, there is a darker side to the peaceful French village.

This is the story of thirteen days that begin with one murder and end with another. Jérôme Morval, a man whose passion for art was matched only by his passion for women, has been found dead in the stream that runs through the gardens. In his pocket is a postcard of Monet's Water Lilies with the words: Eleven years old. Happy Birthday.

Entangled in the mystery are three women: a young painting prodigy, the seductive village schoolteacher and an old widow who watches over the village from a mill by the stream. All three of them share a secret. But what do they know about the discovery of Jérôme Morval's corpse? And what is the connection to the mysterious, rumoured painting of Black Water Lilies?

My Take

I was absolutely gobsmacked by the ending of this book. Nothing had prepared me for the way the author had played with various time frames, and with my mind. Initially I was left feeling that perhaps I hadn't read it carefully enough.  But then as I looked back over the pages I could see how he had done it.

We see most of the book's action through the eyes of an elderly woman, a recluse who lives in the water mill next to stream that runs through Monet's Garden. She lives on the 4th floor, a vantage point that allows her to observe most of what goes on in the small village. Nothing escapes her attention it seems.

We are so taken up with the investigation into the death of Jerome Morval and the possibility of a lost Monet painting that we don't recognise the signs that our path meanders. I wonder if the author has played fair with the reader?  What strikes at the end though is that the novel is itself a tribute to impressionism.

My rating: 4.8

About the author
Michel Bussi (born 29 April 1965 in Louviers, Eure, France) is a French writer of detective novels, and a political analyst and Professor of Geography at the University of Rouen, where he leads a Public Scientific and Technical Research Establishment (French: Unité mixte de recherche, "UMR") in the French National Centre for Scientific Research (French: Centre national de la recherche scientifique, "CNRS"), where he is a specialist in electoral geography.

According to the Le Figaro/GfK list of bestsellers, he was one of the ten bestselling French writers of 2013, selling around 480,000 books.

11 March 2017


  • format: Kindle (Amazon)
  • File Size: 1485 KB
  • Print Length: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Text Publishing (September 23, 2015)
  • Publication Date: September 23, 2015
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B010KFBP4E
  • #1 in the Tannie Maria series
Synopsis (Amazon)

Tannie Maria used to write a recipe column for the Klein Karoo Gazette. Then Head Office decided they wanted an advice column instead, so now she gives advice. In the form of recipes. Because, as she says, she may not know much about love, but food—that’s her life.

Everything has been going well. A tongue-tied mechanic wins his girl with text messages and Welsh rarebit. A frightened teenager gets some much-needed sex ed with her chocolate-coated bananas.

But then there is a letter from Martine, whose husband beats her, and Tannie Maria feels a pang of recognition and dread. This may be a problem that cooking can’t solve…

Warm, funny, poignant: Sally Andrew’s irresistible heroine brings mystery, romance and amazing cooking together in the most entertaining new series in years. And all Tannie Maria’s mouthwatering recipes are right there in the book!

My Take

An interesting and captivating read which I must admit I began reading as a paperback from my local library but then swapped to an e-version on my Kindle because of the size of the print.

As another reviewer commented, it looks like a cosy, but doesn't shirk from major topics like South African history, and social problems like domestic violence. A murder mystery is interwoven with Afrikaans and local recipes, as a small team from the local paper investigates and members of their team are targetted by the murderer.

Tannie Maria's character is well fleshed out and is a good basis for a second novel, already published, THE SATANIC MECHANIC.

My rating: 4.4

About the author

Sally Andrew lives in a mud-brick house on a nature reserve near Ladismith in the Klein Karoo (South Africa). She has published a number of non-fiction books and educational articles. Recipes for Love and Murder is her first novel

Book vs Film, Agatha Christie's DUMB WITNESS

Having recently reviewed DUMB WITNESS, I decided to watch a TV version to see what changes the dramatisation made to the Christie story.
The one I chose to watch was produced in 1996 with David Suchet playing Poirot and Hugh Fraser playing Captain Hastings.

The first thing that strikes you is the change of setting: from Berkshire to Windermere (Coniston Water).
The second is the change of time frame: Charles Arundell is attempting to set a new water speed record, so the time frame has been changed from the mid 1930s to around 1949/1950. (Donald Campbell is mentioned in passing).

Here are some of the other modifications
  • Hastings and Poirot have come to Coniston Water to watch Arundell's attempt because Hastings is a friend of Arundell's
  • Emily Arundell confides her worries to Hercule Poirot prior to her death, and he persuades her to re write her will.
  • There is no letter from Lady Arundell to Hercule Poirot (in the book posted after her death)
  • after Emily Arundell dies there is a second murder (I won't tell you who)
  • the companion Minnie Lawson is involved romantically with the local Doctor - in the book it is Theresa Arundell.
  • Bob's ball is always kept in his basket, not in the drawer of the hall stand
  • the problem of who becomes the eventual owner of Bob the dog is solved (in the book Poirot has to take him)
  • Poirot's own form of justice (mentioned in my book review) does not eventuate because he never gives the murderer a written version of his understanding of what has happened.
The actual plot/murderer is unchanged, and all is revealed, Poirot-style, in a final denouement when all the characters in the story are assembled. However because of the changes I've listed above, many of the red herrings are either left out or do not work.

Which did I prefer? well, the book actually. I think the suspense was better there and the characters better drawn.

6 March 2017

Review: DUMB WITNESS, Agatha Christie

  • this edition Center Point Large Print published 2013
  • originally published 1937 AKA USA edition POIROT LOSES A CLIENT
  • ISBN 978-1-61173-683-0
  • large print edition, 382 pages
  • source: my local library
Synopsis (Agatha Christie Wikia)

The story is set in Berkshire and centres on Emily Arundell, a wealthy spinster surrounded by grasping young relatives. She is injured by falling down a staircase, and everyone believes that she tripped over a ball left by her pet fox terrier, Bob. Emily later dies of natural causes (or so it is believed), and her estate is unexpectedly left to her companion, Miss Lawson. A letter written before her death to Hercule Poirot by Emily arrives too late to save her, but puts Poirot on the case. 

The book features the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and is the second to last Poirot novel (the last being 1975's Curtain: Poirot's Last Case) to be published that features Hastings as narrator.

Dumb Witness was based on a short story entitled The Incident of the Dog's Ball. This short story was lost for many years but found by the authoress's daughter in a crate of her personal effects, in 2004. The Incident of the Dog's Ball was published in Britain in September 2009 in John Curran's Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years Of Mysteries. The short story was also published by The Strand Magazine in their tenth anniversary issue.

My Take

One of the focal points of this novel is the unreliable narrator. The assumption is that if the dog, Bob, could tell his story, he would be able to narrate what actually happened. But in fact Bob does not see all.

The principal narration is through the eyes of Captain Hastings, and the reader has come to expect that he often gets things wrong. But there are other points of view expressed including Poirot's. Under Hastings' influence we either dismiss or accept these other points of view, but which is the right one?

This is also a classic Poirot. Various red herrings are laid, and various scenarios and alibis tested, accepted or rejected. And then of course there is the final denouement. But Poirot has already meted out his own peculiar form of justice.

I thought there were at least a couple of unsatisfactory plot elements: I couldn't imagine anyone hammering a tack into wood in the middle of the night and expecting to go undetected, and I thought the murderer changed character too much. Unexpectedly Poirot becomes the owner of Bob the dog.

I originally reviewed this novel in 2011 and gave it the same rating. I have re-read it to participate in this month's Crime Fiction of the Year Challenge for 1937 at Past Offences.

My rating: 4.5
Check my other reviews in the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge.


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