The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine, by Alexander McCall Smith*****

thewomanwhowalkedThe first week or two after Christmas is a sumptuous period for me as a reader. Nearly every book I read these days, fiction or non-, is a DRC, or Direct Reader’s Copy sent to me digitally by publishers via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.  However, each year there are invariably half a dozen titles, sometimes more, that I really want to read and haven’t been able to obtain free of charge. Sometimes I discover a book after it’s already been published some time ago, and sometimes it’s a book that I couldn’t get as a DRC. These books land on my wish list, and my family is faithful in purchasing them and placing them, clad in pretty paper and ribbon, beneath our Christmas tree. By Christmas night, I’m snuggled deep beneath a pile of fluffy covers, my spouse and hound dog snoring sonorously while I immerse myself in the books I am just about guaranteed to love, bathed in a soft yellow bedside light. This ritual is as significant to me as the more widespread traditions of feasting, wrapping gifts, and hanging stockings. I can’t recall a Christmas without it.

This year we had our gift exchange on Christmas Eve, and by bedtime I was snuggled up in flannel and reading this paperback book, the 16th in the series. The series, for those unfamiliar, is of the cozy variety rather than the pulse-pounding thrillers that absorb a good portion of my reading life. Precious Romotswe is the owner and founder of the #1 Ladies Detective Agency, and a good portion of those that read this book will already be familiar, as I am, with the main characters and their stories. Mma (Ms.) Ramotswe is married to JLB Matekone, who owns and runs the automobile repair shop adjacent to the detective agency; Mma Makutsi , Mma Ramotswe’s eccentric but capable assistant, believes that it’s time for her mentor to take a vacation. And indeed, Precious has never gone on holiday before; it’s about time, isn’t it?

Mma Ramotswe is reluctant. She hates to leave her business in anyone else’s hands; then too, she’s disconcerted when she learns that her husband, his employees, and her own assistants have discussed her need for time off when she wasn’t present. Is it a conspiracy, or is it loving concern?

The mysteries to be solved include the problem on which the temporary assistant hired on for the duration of Mma Ramotswe’s holiday stumbles; an additional situation involving a child named Samuel, an orphan who’s been trained to shake down drivers for coins in exchange for not damaging their cars; and a new school bearing her signature “#1 Ladies” logo, which appears to be not only misappropriating her trademark, but shady in other ways as well. Yet much of the story is dedicated to character development and the personal lives of the main characters, and it’s this that keeps me coming back.

Ultimately, the story is about trust, kindness, and learning to let go sometimes.

It occurred to me for the first time that I don’t know how the majority of Botswana feels about this series. McCall is a native-born Botswanan with Scottish predecessors. Are these characters true to the way the people of color in Botswana see themselves and their people?

Yet another part of me recalls that we are in the land of fiction. Unless I see some sign that the series is objectionable or offensive to those it represents, it will continue to be a happy retreat for me.

Highly recommended to those that love a cozy mystery and an opportunity to drop their blood pressure; the mesmerizing cadence here is better for us than any bottle of pills, and far cheaper than therapy.

The Handsome Man’s DeLuxe Cafe, by Alexander McCall Smith *****

thehandsomemansWithin the genre of the cozy mystery, this long-running series by Alexander McCall Smith reigns supreme. The magic is as much due to the cast of engaging secondary characters as it is to Precious Ramotswe herself. The Handsome Man’s DeLuxe Cafe is no exception. It comes out October 28; thanks to the publisher and edelweiss books for the chance to read and review it.

On the very first page, Mr. JLB Matekoni entered and I smiled. I don’t mean inwardly; I mean my face broadened into the kind of contented crease that lowers our blood pressure and would, were we cats and not people, cause us to purr. I snuggled deeper into my blankets and got ready for a splendid evening. And another. And another.

Smith creates each new entry in his series by either adding a new setting to Gabarone, where our protagonist lives and works, or by bringing in new people, and often, as here, he does both. And often he sets up two different problems, one a professional challenge for the #1 Ladies Detective Agency, and another a personal crisis for someone among the regular cast of characters. Sometimes the two dovetail neatly at the end, but he doesn’t do this all the time, lest the result become formulaic and lose its magic. And in this instance, having become momentarily guarded by a silly story that was a little over the top rather than charming (the lion story), I was therefore watching to see whether the problem regarding Mma Makutsi’s cafe would be resolved within the amnesia-client’s family.

But our writer didn’t do that. And this is why the series is so successful.

One more skillful and enjoyable protocol of Smith’s is that he introduces recurring characters very briefly, and it never jars the faithful reader who has gone through the entire series into wanting to say, “Oh, come on, come on, I know this already.” Rather, he injects it naturally into the narrative so that the familiar reader will nod happily and think, ‘Oh yes, I do remember. So dear Mma Potokwane is still at it, isn’t she? And it’s true. She does have a remarkable work ethic.’

Violet is in danger of becoming too great a stereotypic anti-hero, but it hasn’t happened yet. The author could just choose to drop her, but his habit is to continually point to the common humanity of all, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Violet were to have perhaps just one decent moment before being returned to her regular place as the exception-to-basic-goodness-among-us-all. But that is conjecture.

I read 6 to 8 books at a go, and yet, having quickly absorbed this delightful mystery, I am already anticipating the next in the series. This, ultimately, is the mark of entertaining literature.

My thanks to edelweiss review copies for the opportunity to advance-read and review this delightful story.