I loved this book. I bought a copy a few years ago at a used book store because I had heard really great things, and I started it a few times, but really had trouble getting into it. It should have really interested me right off the bat. I love detective stories, and I have always had a major interest in African history, but the start was very slow. My mom read it a few weeks ago and raved about it, so on my way home for Christmas I picked up the book on tape, and gave it a shot. (I don't know if books on tape break the Cannonball Read rules, but if it helps, I actually read the second half the book.)
Precious Ramotswe has always been a special woman. Born and reared in the African nation of Botswana, Mma Ramotswe is independent, kind, proud, and driven. After losing her mother to an accident at a young age, Precious was brought up by her father and her aunt. Both adults are very devoted Precious, and constantly encourage her learn about anything and everything that interests her. Precious's father spent most of his youth and early adulthood working in South Africa's diamond mines, but unlike many of his fellow miners, he saved up all of his wages, with which he buys cattle, a valuable commodity in Botswana.
The novel picks up around the time of Precious's father's death. Precious is in her thirties at this point, and as she is his only child and has devoted her adult life to caring for her father, she inherits his sizable herd of cattle. On his deathbed, her fathers bids Precious to use the money from the sale of the cattle to start a business. That is exactly her plan. She will buy a house, and start a small business, a detective agency. The first and only ladies' detective agency in Botswana.
The book is structured as a series of vignettes, some current, and some telling the histories of the characters in the novel. One section is devoted to Precious's father's time working in the mines. Another discusses Mma (the Botswana version of Ms.) Ramotswe's brief and volatile marriage as a young woman. But most of the chapters are devoted to the cases Mma Ramotswe takes on after opening her agency. The cases deal with everything from cheating husbands,odd doctors, missing dogs, to insurance fraud. There is one overarching storyline concerning a missing child suspected to have been abducted by witch doctors for sacrifice.
The book, though dealing with serious subjects such as the struggles of diamond mining, the effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Botswana, and child abduction, still manages to feel light and warm thanks to McCall Smith's deft storytelling abilities. Mma Ramotswe is clearly neither the most experienced, nor the best trained detective in literature, but she has common sense, natural intellect, a can-do attitude, and incredible amounts of confidence and optimism, all of which lead to her success. Mma Ramotswe is surrounded by an eccentric and often helpful group of friends, who provide both folly and humor. McCall Smith also does a beautiful job describing Botswana. Though McCall Smith was born in what is now Zimbabwe, and currently lives in Scotland, his sincere and deep connection with Botswana and its people manages to shine through in every line. It all comes together to make the book an incredibly fun read. After getting over the initial hump, I could not put the novel down, and when I had to put it down, I could not wait to pick it back up.