BEST OF 2008: Pat’s picks

   Choosing among Alexander McCall Smith’s four series was the most challenging part of picking my favorite book of 2008. The prolific author keeps his fans busy with "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series," the "Isabel Dalhousie Series," the "Portuguese Irregular Verbs Series" and the "44 Scotland Street Series."
   It’s a lot like choosing your favorite type of chocolate — they’re all so good.
   In the end I went with “The Miracle at Speedy Motors,” this year’s installment in "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series." This was the first of Smith’s series that I read and I have grown most partial to Mma Ramotswe, her husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and her able assistant, Mma Makutsi, and their gentle adventures in Botswana.
   These clever mysteries turn on human nature and the day-to-day challenges people face. In “The Miracle at Speedy Motors,” Mma Ramotswe tries to help a woman find her family — if it even exists — while Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni raises his hopes that a doctor can cure his daughter’s paralysis so she can walk again. Meanwhile, Mma Makutsi faces a personal crisis as a result of the delivery of a new bed. Smith always seems to find the right blend of humor and poignancy in characters so realistic you would love to share a cup of red bush tea with them.
   Another character I always enjoy visiting in these books is Botswana itself. The country shows a different face of Africa from what we normally see on TV news without being sugary sweet.
   My runner-up for 2008 is a little closer to home, at least my home state. In “Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World,” by Vicki Myron (and Bret Witter), we learn about, yes, a cat, but also about a woman and the town of Spencer, Iowa. There are so many ways this book could have gone wrong, and yet it does not yield to a single temptation to be cloying.
   Dewey did help the library staff put aside its differences and grow closer. And he gave the struggling town of Spencer a positive symbol to see — and touch — that really did reach out to the wider world. But it’s the bond with Myron that grew far beyond the circumstances that brought them together that entertain and touch the heart.
   And it is all accomplished without Dewey saving a child from a well or some other spectacular feat. Dewey Readmore Books is never more than a lovable yellow cat with a big personality. And that is enough.

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