The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, #1)

By Alexander McCall Smith

Rating: 3 stars

Precious Ramotswe, known universal by the honorific Mme (which I’m still not entirely sure how to pronounce) uses her inheritance to set up Botswana’s first private detective agency run by a woman. This book discusses some of her cases, her life and that of the country and continent that she calls home.

It’s certainly a very easy to read book, and the prose is smooth, self-assured and steady, very much like its protagonist. But there was something about the repeated motifs that came up again and again that I found slightly patronising. Mme Ramotswe is, despite her progressive career, a conservative character in a conservative country. She likes the old ways and is wary of progress. The author obviously loves Botswana, and writes lovingly about the Limpopo and the Kalahari as well as the people of the country but with that same wistfulness for times gone.

The cases that Mme Ramotswe takes on are often small things, cheating partners, stolen items, but kidnapping and murder also raise their ugly heads, to be dealt with like everything else, with a cup of strong redbush tea and the help of Mr J. L. B. Matekoni (who is always referred to in that way, he never gets a first name).

The book was nice and easy enough to read, but I have no urge whatsoever to read any of the sequels.

Book details

Publisher: Abacus
Year of publication: 1998

Doom Patrol, Vol. 2: The Painting That Ate Paris

By Grant Morrison

Rating: 4 stars

Volume two of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol run sees things start to get really odd. This volume sees them first going up against the Brotherhood of Dada, the only villains that approach the Doom Patrol in strangeness. After they escape from the titular painting that ate Paris (part of the Brotherhood’s plan to make life ‘weirder’), Robotman has to go into Crazy Jane’s head to save her and then he has to cope with mutiny: from his own body! Possibly my favourite (or at least, most WTF?) moment was the kiss between Mallah and the Brain which came completely from nowhere!

I definitely enjoy the strangeness of Morrison’s Doom Patrol, which is entertaining, but not ramped up to saturation point, where it just gets wearing. There’s still recognisable story here and even recognisable traditional superhero tropes, but all just a little squint.

Book details

ISBN: 9781401203429
Publisher: Vertigo
Year of publication: 2004

The Crucible of Time

By John Brunner

Rating: 4 stars

This is one heck of an ambitious book, charting the history of an entire planetary civilisation, from the discovery of metal-working up to their first spaceflight, and without a single Human in sight.

Each section of the book is a snapshot into the (never named) world of ‘the folk’, the first following the invention of the first telescope and the beginnings of astronomy, and then the discovery that their solar system is heading right into a crowded area of space, where collisions or disturbances by solar or planetary bodies would herald the extinction of their race. The rest of the book is built on this foundation: the knowledge that, in the long term, their homeworld is doomed, so they need to be able to leave it. They suffer ice-ages, thaws, meteor collisions and more, but the vision never falters.

Brunner does an impressive job in creating an alien race that is similar enough to ourselves that we can still relate to them, but alien at the same time. From their physical form, to their weather-sense and pheromones that mean that it is difficult, if not impossible, for them to lie to each other, he creates a believable race. The technology of the folk is almost entirely biological, and they discover genetic manipulation very early on, and even the radio-analogues and ‘vehicles’ that we see later on are living things. Another strange disjunction with our own history is the lack of any large-scale conflict. In many ways, this is an Eden planet, lacking war, eating fruit grown in the walls of your (also-grown) house, but with the always-present knowledge that Eden is doomed.

An ‘ambitious’ book isn’t necessarily an entertaining one, but this probably ranks up with Stapledon’s Last and First Men as literary history and entertainment in one marvellous package.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099348504
Publisher: Arrow Books
Year of publication: 1983

4.50 From Paddington

By Agatha Christie

Rating: 4 stars

This was my first Miss Marple story, although I am a firm fan of Ms Christie’s other famous creation, Hercule Poirot. This is a very different kind of book, with Miss Marple herself staying very much in the shadows: being an old lady, she can’t really get around, so she relies on the thoroughly competent Lucy Eyelesbarrow to be her eyes and ears. Lucy is an intriguing character in her own right, and I liked the idea of this very intelligent, well-educated young woman deciding to turn domestic service into a Profession, and charging outrageous amounts of money to come in and ‘look after’ people for a few weeks or months, before moving on.

The central mystery of the story concerns Mrs Elspeth McGillicuddy witnessing a murder as another train pulls up alongside her own for a few minutes. Nobody really believes her, except her old friend Miss Marple, who makes it her business to find out who the murderer is, not to mention the identity of the victim.

I tried yet again to read along and try and figure out who the murderer was in this, and I failed yet again. I was astounded at the end when the reveal happened, as Christie had laid a marvellous false trail. But I wonder if it was too well laid, and there weren’t enough clues to determine the real identity of the killer. But it was a fun novel to read anyway and I enjoyed it.

I did spent the whole novel hearing Miss Marple’s voice as that of Peggy from The Archers though.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330238915
Publisher: Pan; New Impression edition
Year of publication: 1957

Doom Patrol, Vol. 1: Crawling from the Wreckage

By Grant Morrison

Rating: 4 stars

My roleplaying group has just started a superhero campaign and the GM handed out some graphic novels to get people in the mood. I borrowed this very odd volume. I’ve read other Grant Morrison so came to this with a degree of wariness (The Invisibles is a little too odd for my tastes) but ended up really enjoying it. The book starts with the Chief, Prof Niles Caulder, putting the Doom Patrol back together after previous events that I don’t know about. The Doom Patrol’s defining feature is that its heroes are ‘defective’ in some way. Robot Man is a human brain residing in a robot body with barely any human senses; Crazy Jane has a multiple-personality disorder, with each personality having a different superpower; Rebis was formed by joining a man, a woman and a strange spirit-thing; Dorothy is a teenager with a Neanderthal’s face and who can project her inner consciousness into the physical world. The most ‘normal’ member, Joshua, who can shoot energy beams from his arms, has no desire to be a superhero and stays back to provide medical assistance where required.

Once he pulls himself out of his depression, mostly to help Crazy Jane, Robot Man proves to have a sharp wit and cracks great one-liners (“sorry about the writing, robot fingers, you know?”), and is the de-facto leader of the Doom Patrol as they face a city that’s trying to break out of fiction into reality, with pretty damn scary Scissormen literally cutting people out of reality. And after that, they have to deal with someone with a penchant for pain who may or may not be God. “Strange” merely scrapes the surface of what this is. But not so strange (so far, at least) that I get freaked out and leave it behind (*cough*The Invisibles*cough*). I’ll certainly be asking to borrow volume 2 soon.

Book details

ISBN: 9781563890345
Publisher: Vertigo
Year of publication: 1989

Dungeon Crawlin’ Fools (The Order of the Stick, #1)

By Rich Burlew

Rating: 4 stars

Being a fan of the webcomic it was nice to go back to the beginning and read a large chunk of it in a short space of time [1]. I had forgotten just how much the early part of the strip was based around role-playing humour with characters explicitly making skill checks and the very first strip being a joke on the change from D&D 3rd edition to 3.5. The scripts are funny though and there were many laugh out loud moments (the “bluff the stupid ogre” line still makes me giggle when I think about it). I think I’ll definitely pick up the other volumes once they’re back in print [2], since the strip becomes much more story-oriented later on and I found it difficult to follow online.

While I imagine that this volume would be difficult for non-roleplayers to follow, that being what much of the humour is based on, it’s definitely very entertaining for those in the know. And for others, it’s worth persevering as the plot starts to take over before too long.

[1] one of the problems I have with webcomics is the wait between pages. It makes it difficult for me to keep track of what’s going on and who the characters are

[2] huzzah for Kickstarter!

Book details

ISBN: 9780976658009
Publisher: Giant in the Playground Games
Year of publication: 2005

Something Fresh (Blandings Castle, #1)

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 4 stars

This book provided my first visit to Blandings Castle and, having read it, it certainly won’t be my last. Filled with the sort of eccentric cast that I’ve come to expect from Wodehouse, Blandings is led by the sort of absent-minded English peer who gave the House of Lords a bad name. In his extreme absent-mindedness, he pockets a priceless scarab from the collection of his future daughter-in-law’s father, while the latter is distracted. Hilarity, as they say, ensues as not one but two different people are determined to retrieve it.

What I thought was somewhat interesting about this novel was that we see beyond the upper classes and get a glimpse into the the lives of those who serve them and, what do you know, they are just as strange, neurotic and downright odd as those they serve. Well, what else should one expect from Wodehouse?

His touch is as light as ever, his characters engaging (or at least ridiculous, which is sometimes the same thing). I enjoyed meeting the absent-minded Lord Elmsworth and the entire Blandings clan and I shall certainly look forward to reading more about them.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099513780
Publisher: Arrow Books
Year of publication: 1915

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