Monthly Archives: November 2013

A Treacherous Paradise by Henning Mankell

I wanted to like this, I really did. I have devoured Mankell’s Kurt Wallander novels, even watched Kenneth Branagh’s PBS versions (better than I expected). However, I just couldn’t.
Days after finishing it, some scenes came back to me, that is true. But, overall, I just couldn’t accept the premise. Set in the first decade of the twentieth century in Portuguese East Africa, now Mozambique, the novel doesn’t seem from that time; it feels more modern. Perhaps it is the translation. It is difficult to tell since I don’t read Swedish!

A Treacherous Paradise begins in Sweden. A young girl, Hanna Renstrom, leaves her isolated rural home because her family can no longer feed all its members. Hanna secures a place as a cook on a Swedish steamship bound for Australia. She marries the third mate, who promptly dies of fever off the coast of Africa. When the ship reaches Lourenço Marques, Hanna jumps ship and make a new life.

She checks in to a hotel and has a miscarriage. When she recovers, she learns that she is in Lourenço Marques’s most prestigious brothel, O Paraiso. After just a few weeks the brothel keeper asks her to marry him. Then he also dies, and Hanna finds herself running the business in his place — with considerable self-assurance and success.

Hanna discovers that paradise can be treacherous. Hanna tries to save a young black woman who has killed her white husband. When she is found dead, horribly mutilated, in her jail cell, Hanna finds some comfort in the arms of the victim’s brother. She sells the brothel, leaves Lourenço Marques, and travels north to Beira. There, in the Africa Hotel, she hides the diary she’s been keeping since coming to Africa and disappears. She is never heard of again.

In his Afterwood, Mankell explains that there was, in fact, a Swedish woman who ran a brothel in Lourenço Marques at the beginning of the 20th century, but about whom nothing more is known. From this material, Mankell has constructed this story.

Could an eighteen-year-old be mature to handle all that Hanna does? It was difficult for me to reconcile the thoughts and actions of this character with Mankell’s description. The narrative was meandering; the story of Isabel seemed contrived, serving only to emphasize the racial component of life in colonial Africa. The finding of her diary in 2002 Mozambique in the crumbling Africa Hotel was theatrical.

The book felt hung together, not cohesive or believable. Mankell divides his time between Sweden and Mozambique; being intimate with these two countries, he seems to have seized on the story of the Swedish woman and imagined her story in an attempt to connect the two places. For me, it just wasn’t successful.


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The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr

The Italian Secretary features Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. This literary pastiche is an homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and had the approval of the Doyle estate, although in the Afterword, Jon Lellenberg, the representative of Conan Doyle Estate Ltd., mentions that he and his coeditors had hoped that Carr would bring Holmes and Dr. Kreizler, a protagonist of Carr’s first novel The Alienist, together to investigate a crime. This wasn’t done in the Italian Secretary, but Lellenberg expresses the wish that Carr would eventually write such a book.

Architect Sir Alistair Sinclair and his foreman, Dennis McKay, have been slain in the midst of rehabilitating the medieval west tower of Holyroodhouse Palace – the in which Mary, Queen of Scots, had lived, and where David Rizzio, the Italian secretary, had met his brutal, politically motivated end.

Mary’s husband, Lord Darnley, is said to have been jealous of their friendship, because of rumors that Rizzio had gotten Mary pregnant, and so joined in a conspiracy of Protestant nobles to murder Rizzio. The murder was the catalyst for the downfall of Darnley and had serious consequences for Mary.

Mycroft Holmes fears the murders of Sinclair and McKay signify threats against Queen Victoria, who occasionally lodges at the palace by a known assassin, perhaps in league with the German Kaiser. En route north to Holyroodhouse, Holmes and Watson are attacked aboard their private, royal train by a red-bearded bomb thrower (supposedly a rabid Scots nationalist), only to discover that greater perils wait for them, and others, at Holyroodhouse.

Mysterious, spectral events suggest the wreaking of harm by phantoms behind the recent crimes. In their investigation, Holmes and Watson deduce that greed, rather than ghosts, may be to blame.

Holyroodhouse is still the official Scottish residence; Balmoral, a favorite of Queen Victoria, is the private Scottish residence.

It has been a number of years since I read The Alienist, but I remember enjoying it. This book sounded appealing, but I was rather disappointed. The problem with a pastiche (a pastiche is an artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period) is that it can be neither one nor the other, so that a reader or observer isn’t satisfied with either. A pastiche can be a way for a beginner to learn by imitation (it is the most sincere form of flatter, after all), but I don’t think it is the best fiction. The consumer of the pastiche tends to compare the copy to the original, usually to the detriment of the copy (at least I do!). Originality, please.

For more information about the pastiche, see

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The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith

Know that, no matter how bleak things seem or how sad you may be, after reading a No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency book, life and the world will seem much better. With genuine warmth, sympathy, and wit, Alexander McCall Smith can be counted on to explore difficult questions about life, marriage, parenthood, grief, and the importance of the traditions that influence and guide our lives.

Modern ideas get tangled up with traditional ones in the fourteenth installment in the much-loved, best-selling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. The conflict between new ways and old ways is a major theme in The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon. Mma Ramotswe manages, as she does so well, to blend the two for a fulfilling life for her husband and children and all the others in her world.

In The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, Precious Ramotswe takes on two puzzling cases. First, she is approached by the lawyer Mma Sheba, who is the executor of a deceased farmer’s estate. Mma Sheba has a feeling that the young man who has stepped forward may not be who he says he is. Then the proprietor of the Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon comes to Mma Ramotswe for advice. The opening of her new salon has been has not been successful. Someone is spreading damaging rumors about her shop. Could someone be trying to put the salon out of business?

Meanwhile, at the office, Mma Ramotswe has noticed something different about Grace Makutsi lately. Though Mma Makutsi has mentioned nothing, it has become clear that she is pregnant . What will happen to the agency without the associate detective?

Does anyone know how to pronounce Mma or Rra? For the answer, check . There Smith informs us that: “Mma and Rra are the formal terms of greeting and respect in Botswana. Mma is pronounced ‘Ma’, with a gentle m sound and a shortish a. Rra is exactly as it is spelt, with a rolling R.” (Unfortunately, I have never learned to roll my R’s!)

HBO had a series based on the first few books in this series. I tried to watch but never really got into it, not because it wasn’t well-done, but because the actors and the setting didn’t fit the mental picture I had formed while reading the books. That’s always the problem with bringing a book to a screen.

Did you know that there are Alexander McCall Smith-approved tours of Gaborone in Botswana? Smith’s books do much to introduce the reader to the customs, history, and society of this country. In the same website, Smith answered the question “Why did you choose to write about Botswana?”

I suppose that the main reason is that I find Botswana a very interesting and admirable country. I respect the people who live there – they have built up their country very carefully and successfully. I admire their patience and their decency.

I thought, too, that it was a great pity that there are so many negative books and articles about Africa. I wanted to show readers in the rest of the world that there are many great and remarkable people living in southern Africa – people who lead good lives, with honour and integrity. Mma Ramotswe is one such person. There are many people like her – fine people, people with great gifts of intuition, intelligence, and humour. This is not to say that there are not many problems in that part of the world – there are. But the problems are only one side of the story – there is another, more positive side.

If you have not read any books in the series, I strongly suggest that you begin at the beginning. The books build on each other; you won’t get all the allusions unless you have read the other books. Never fear, though the effort is well worth it.

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