THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY

by Alexander McCall Smith

GENRE: cultural, detective fiction, humour

CEFR LEVEL: B1+ and above

“Women are the ones who know what’s going on. They are the ones with eyes.

Have you not heard of Agatha Christie?”

Alexander McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Books can transport us anywhere, can’t they? Well, how does Botswana sound?

I recently recommended The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency to one of my strong intermediate-level students, Gloria. Why? Because this is a great novel for English learners, written in a simple and effective way and with short chapters. McCall Smith touches on some difficult topics but when you have a wonderful character like Mma Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s leading (and only!) female private detective, it is difficult not to finish the book feeling uplifted and with a smile on your face!

Let’s see what Gloria has to say about it and if she agrees with me…

Introduction

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is a story about an African woman who deeply loves her country and continent.

Plot

Precious Ramotswe is a fat and proud African woman, a real Mma, but before becoming an adult, the book tells us about her childhood and father’s life, all this against the African backdrop.

Education, culture, jobs, and diverse types of domestic and foreign exploitation in African mines … all these topics/issues take us to the heart of sub-Saharan Africa and portray their daily lives with their positives and negatives.

Once her father dies, Precious decides to buy a house and set up a detective agency, the first ladies’ detective agency in Botswana, but the real goal is to be a free and independent woman in a mostly sexist continent. After having different bad/negative experiences, she reached the conclusion that marriage would in fact prevent her from doing her job effectively.

In the book, you will be able to enjoy the cases that clients have entrusted to Precious and the evolution of her investigations.

However, the best is at the end of the reading. I invite you to discover it!

My opinion/conclusion

This has been my second book in English. In addition to learning vocabulary, structures and thinking that my level of the language may have improved, I have been excited, moved and amused by the development of the case investigations.

Moreover, the best part is to have the opportunity to get to know the different realities of the African continent and specifically, the life of a woman who overcomes obstacles with her common sense and her love for her perfectly imperfect land.

…So, what are you waiting for? Stop talking about reading more in English and start reading. As Mma Ramotse herself said,

“Talking about pumpkins doesn’t make them grow.” 😉

Mma Precious Ramotswe

A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS

by Khaled Hosseini

GENRE: historical fiction, domestic fiction

CEFR LEVEL: B2+ and above

“One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,

Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.”

Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns

It’s not often that I read a book more than once. I have far too many books on my to-be-read pile that are in desperate need of my attention 😉.

This summer, however, the news of what is happening in Afghanistan made me immediately think of Mariam and Laila, two characters in a novel that I read in 2008 with some of my upper-intermediate students, and I felt I simply had to pick up the book again.

The novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, was written in 2007 by Khaled Hosseini and is divided into 4 parts. Part 1 tells the story of Mariam, a young girl born in Afghanistan in the 1950s. In Part 2, you are introduced to Laila, a city girl born in Kabul in the late 1970s. The lives of these two women intersect in Part 3 and in the final part, the story finishes from Laila’s perspective.

Throughout the novel, you discover how both global and regional power struggles bring chaos and destruction to Afghanistan and to these characters’ lives. As Hosseini was born in Kabul, he gives you a real insight into daily life in the city both before and during the previous reign of the Taliban.

It’s a powerful read and totally heartbreaking in places due to the topic matter. That said, I strongly recommend this book to you if you want a more intimate look at life in Afghanistan. The chapters are short and the novel is well structured, so it is suitable for strong upper-intermediate English learners. What’s more, Hosseini’s gift of being such a wonderful storyteller means that, as happened to me, you will fall in love with Mariam and Laila … and they will stay with you long after you have finished the novel.

Student review

Here’s what one of my lovely students had to say about it:


I have very much enjoyed reading the novel and discussing it every week with Jenny. From the first chapter, the characters caught my attention and the more I read, the more I was hooked on the story.

The novel reflects very well the lack of rights and opportunities that Afghan women suffer and therefore the story is hard and sad. Nevertheless, I would recommend it to everyone. 

Reading it in English has been an exciting experience for me, sometimes a little challenging because I have felt that I lost some nuances and information. Nevertheless, I think that it’s an interesting novel for English learners with an upper-intermediate level because it’s very well written and it’s easy to follow the full story even without knowing the meaning of a lot of words, especially adjectives. 


Asun

The Khaled Hosseini Foundation funds grantees who provide humanitarian relief and shelter to families, economic opportunity for women, and healthcare and education for children in Afghanistan. You can find more information here


WHY READ?

A lot of emphasis is placed on extensive listening (listening to lots of content) if you want to improve your English. How many times have you been told by your English teacher to watch authentic series and films in English and to listen to English every day?

I totally agree that improving your listening skills is vital if you want to be able to communicate effectively. However, there is also an important place for reading in your language development, especially extensive reading (also known as free reading or reading for pleasure).

Why? Here are my top 3 reasons:

1. You increase your vocabulary and consolidate your grammar

When you read a lot, you meet thousands of words, structures and collocations (common word partnerships) that you probably won’t find in a coursebook or be able to pay much attention to when you are watching a series. You will see these words and structures frequently and in different contexts when you read a lot. The context will help you to understand how the grammar and vocabulary are really used and repeated exposure means that you will remember them.

2. You improve your productive skills (writing and speaking)

This follows on logically from the previous point. If you are seeing language repeatedly and in context, you will find it much easier to reproduce it yourself in writing and speaking. Reading helps speed up the normal language learning process where passive comprehension becomes active knowledge. The more you read, the more quickly your spoken English will improve.

3. You build confidence and gain motivation

It is extremely rewarding when you discover that you have read your first novel in English and that you have actually enjoyed it too! This sense of achievement gives you more confidence in your language abilities and more motivation to continue practising and progressing.  

So, what do you think? Are you ready to try your first extensive reading challenge with an authentic novel?

If you are already a bookworm, what was the first novel that you read in English? I would love to hear about your experience. Don’t be shy. 😊


WONDER

by R.J. Palacio

GENRE: realistic fiction, young adult

CEFR LEVEL: B1+ and above

“When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.””

R.J. Palacio, Wonder

If you love reading in your native language, imagine the satisfaction of reading and enjoying your first authentic novel in English. You will always remember that first book you read!

When my “bookworm” students reach a B1+ level, I love to encourage them to read their first authentic novel in English. At this level, novels that are aimed at the young adult market (but that also appeal to the adult market) work particularly well.

Gloria, one of my students with a B1+ level, has just finished reading Wonder, her first authentic English novel.

Let’s see what she has to say about it…

Introduction

Wonder, a novel by R.J. Palacio, is a wonderful story about a marvellous kid and his family.

Plot

August is a special kid who has never been to school because he has always studied at home with his mother.

When he goes to school, his first impression of the school, his relationship with his classmates, his teachers, and especially his course director, will be decisive to his personal development. School as a promoter of values is fundamental in our education, especially at the age of 11, but emotions and feelings such as friendship, fear, envy, courage, and companionship are also added.

And what happens if the protagonist is not considered “normal”? A WONDER adventure!

My opinion/conclusion

Wonder is a marvellous story and a lesson about the concept of “normal” or “the hegemony of the normality of our appearance” in our society. This book is nice and easy to read. For me, it is my first English book and I feel very proud to have read it!

So, what are you waiting for? If you have a B1+ level, make Wonder the first book that you read in English too!


BORN A CRIME: STORIES FROM A SOUTH AFRICAN CHILDHOOD

by Trevor Noah

GENRE: memoir, autobiography, humour

CEFR LEVEL: B2 and above

“As a kid I understood that people were different colors, but in my head white and black and brown were like types of chocolate. Dad was the white chocolate, mom was the dark chocolate, and I was the milk chocolate. But we were all just chocolate.”

Trevor Noah, Born a Crime

If you don’t know who Trevor Noah is, then let me introduce you to him. He is the TV host of The Daily Show in the US, a comedian, political commentator, writer, producer and actor … oh, and did I tell you that he also speaks 6 languages fluently?

Luckily for us, Noah is also a great storyteller because he has some amazing stories to tell. He was born in apartheid South Africa. As if that wasn’t hard enough, his existence was an actual crime because he was the child of a white father and a black mother. In this memoir, we learn all about his childhood up until when he was starting his comedy career after high school. Each chapter is a story in itself, beginning with a short preface, generally about the social and historical context behind the events that Noah recounts.

The stories are a combination of funny, dramatic, and very sad and moving: surviving first loves in high school, being thrown out of a moving car, attending a private Catholic school, to name a few. And as you read, you build a picture of Noah’s mother, Patricia, and her unconventional and unconditional love for her son; a woman who was determined to give her son the best life.

We recently discussed one of the chapters/stories in my book club and it was very well received. If you have a B2 level but the idea of starting a novel feels too much, I totally recommend this memoir. The chapters are so accessible, Noah’s writing style is direct and although he deals with some tough issues, you will find yourself laughing and crying in equal measure. Try it. You won’t regret it.


MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER

by Oyinkan Braithwaite

GENRE: crime, satire

CEFR LEVEL: B2 and above

 “That’s how it has always been. Ayoola would break a glass, and I would receive the blame for giving her the drink. Ayoola would fail a class, and I would be blamed for not coaching her. Ayoola would take an apple and leave the store without paying for it, and I would be blamed for letting her get hungry.”

Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, The Serial Killer

This novel caught my attention when I was at the airport once, back in the days when I was able to travel every 6 weeks to the UK (oh I miss those days). I used to get on the plane carrying at least 2 brand-new novels in my bag. Did you know that collecting books is also a hobby of mine as well as reading them? 😂

Well, I am glad both the title and the cover caught my eye. This book is not really a crime thriller despite the title and that is perfect for me as I often read at night and have a very vivid imagination! 😱 The real focus of the story is the relationship between two sisters who are total opposites: Ayoola is beautiful and carefree (and a serial killer!) while Korede is dependable and practical, and she will do anything to protect her sister.

But what happens when Ayoola decides that she wants to go out with the doctor that Korede adores? Will he be Ayoola’s next victim? How will Korede react to this love triangle?

I really enjoyed this debut novel from Nigerian author Braithwaite, who gives us an insight into her home country but doesn’t play into stereotypes. The story is full of dark humour and packs a real punch 🤛 (= has a powerful effect/impact). What’s more, it’s a fairly easy read as the writing style is direct and simple and the chapters are short. It is suitable for learners with a B2 level and above. If you are a fan of dark humour, try it and let me know what you think!


EXPECTATION

by Anna Hope

GENRE: psychological fiction, domestic fiction

CEFR LEVEL: C1 and above

What happened to the women we were supposed to become?

Anna Hope, Expectation

There is nothing nicer than discovering a great novel and being able to share it with someone who you know will appreciate it. Expectation is a novel written by Anna Hope, a writer from England, and I recommended it to one of my lovely students, Amaia. Let’s see what she had to say about it:

Lissa, Hannah and Cate, friends and women of our time. The story begins with a spirited but carefree version of the characters: they share and enjoy a home and a socially and culturally vibrant and trendy lifestyle in London. They work hard, party, go to the theatre, visit galleries, spend long afternoons drinking wine and talking…

They are no longer young, but they do not feel old. Life is still malleable and full of potential.

As they move on to navigate their own separate paths, they tend to grow apart and sometimes feel stranded in the midst of their own anxieties and expectations: love, jobs, husbands, maternity, children…They experience moments of loneliness, jealousy and disappointment and, as happens to many of us, they come to realise that their reality has not lived up to their expectations.

The book covers many hot topics such as homosexuality, IVF, depression and infidelity that will keep you engrossed. A real page-turner! I would recommend it to women of all types and backgrounds with a C1-level in English. You are bound to relate to some of the situations or personalities of the characters.”

I agree with Amaia. This novel resonated with me. I identified with each of the main characters in some way and so I was completely invested in each character’s story and development. I had not read anything by this author before but I loved her writing style, which was lucid and accessible.

Expectation … why do we feel we have to follow a specific path and in a specific manner? What is the perfect life?

This novel will make you think about these questions and more.


ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE

by Gail Honeyman

GENRE: psychological fiction, humour

CEFR LEVEL: B2 and above

If there is one thing I love, it is showing my students that they can read a novel in English, enjoy it and learn so much in the process. I recently finished a course on this novel with one of my phone students, Laura. Let’s see what she had to say about it:

“I personally liked the novel because it’s an ode to friendship. Without friends, life is not as much fun and as we say in Spanish: “If you have a friend, you have a treasure”. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a story about overcoming obstacles. The author writes about serious issues like alcoholism and depression with a touch of humour that leaves no place for boredom.

The story keeps you hooked. It’s a heartwarming, emotional and dramatic novel that I would recommend undoubtedly for English learners who have a B2 level. Moreover, as an English learner, it helps you to enhance your vocabulary and to learn the basic formulas for the English language in a clear and natural way. It provides you with a lot of new idioms, phrasal verbs as well which, placed in context, make you understand and remember them easily.

Be brave and try it!  :0)

So what are you waiting for? I am sure you will love Eleanor just as much as I did.

Happy reading! 😊📚