THE LADYBIRD BOOK OF THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR

This is another cracker in the Ladybird Books for Grown Ups series, which taps into our nostalgia for these books that were so much a part of our childhood.

The look, the feel, the font, the illustrations – all are perfect clones of the wholesome books of yore.  Except that these books are for grown ups.

As I said in an earlier review of another grown up Ladybird book:

“The mission statement of these grown up Ladybird books is worth revisiting – probably because, as grown ups, we have all completely forgotten reading this the first time round:

This delightful book is the latest in the series of Ladybird books which have been specially planned to help grown-ups with the world about them.

The large clear script, the careful choice of words, the frequent repetition and the thoughtful matching of text with pictures all enable grown-ups to think they have taught themselves to cope. The subject of the book will greatly appeal to grown-ups.”

I had indeed forgotten sharing this with you, which all goes to show that the “frequent repetition” the editors mention is obviously much needed.

In “The People Next Door” we see pictured the peaceful suburban England of the 1950s.

With a twist.

This is a fun, quick read and makes for a great gift.
If you feel like buying it, couldn’t be easier. Just click on the link below. You know how to do that, right? You are grown-up, after all.

A VENETIAN RECKONING by DONNA LEON

I had owned up here, publicly, in a review a couple of weeks ago about having only recently discovered the wonderful Commissario Brunetti series, written by the talented Donna Leon.  Having got addicted, I am now binge-reading this series of gripping detective novels, set in Venice.  Catching up on the lost years, as it were.

In “A Venetian Reckoning” Donna Leon once again enchants us with her palpable love for Venice, a city which is as much a character, a presence in these books, and every bit as essential as the humans.

We re-meet, with great pleasure, Brunett’s intellectual wife, Paola, his affectionate daughter Chitra, fast morphing in front of our eyes into an adolescent.  We reconnect with his police colleagues – dependable, faithful Vianello, Brunetti’s impossibly conceited boss Vice-Questore Patta, as well as the latter’s delightful secretary, the organised, resourceful and beautiful Signorina Elettra, who likes to fill her office with fresh flowers and who manages to dazzle Brunetti by her computer knowledge and her vast network of contacts.

Against the backdrop of Venice, in all its beauty, Ms Leon shows us yet more of the sordid underbelly of La Serenissima.  In this case, it is human trafficking and prostitution, and as Brunetti tries to solve a series of murders of some of the city’s respectable and respected citizens, he is led ever deeper into a world of exploitation and despair.

But even when he is investigating death, Venice never ceases to take Brunetti’s breath away:

”Few people were out, and those who were all seemed lifted to joy by the unexpected sun and warmth.  Who would believe that, only yesterday, the city had been wrapped in fog and the vapourers forced to use their radar for the short ride  out to the Lido?  Yet here he was, wishing for sunglasses and a lighter suit, and when he walked out to the waterside, he was momentarily blinded by the reflected light that came flashing up from the water.  Opposite him, Brunetti could see the dome and tower of SAN Giorgio – yesterday they hadn’t been there- looking as though they had somehow crept into the city.”

The Venice we see through Brunetti’s eyes is essentially the Venice of Venetians, not that of the tourist hoards.  But occasionally, tourists do cross Brunetti’s path and on the day in question, lulled by the wonderful spring weather, he feels no rancour towards the visitors who otherwise seem to irritate most native-born Venetians:

”He turned right and walked up towards the Piazza, and Brunetti found himself, to his own vast surprise, looking kindly upon the tourists who strolled past him, mouths agape and steps slowed down by wonder.  She could still knock them down, this old whore of a city, and Brunetti, her true son, protective of her in her age, felt a surge of mingled pride and delight and hoped that those people who walked by would see him and somehow know him for a Venetian and, in that, part heir to and part owner of all of this.

The pigeons, usually stupid and hateful, appeared almost charming to him as they bobbed up and down at the feet of their many admirers.  Suddenly, for no reason, hundreds of them flocked up, swirled around, and settled back right where they had been, to continue with their bobbing and pecking.”

Venice, on a warm spring morning, in all her glory, and we the reader come to love the city as much as Brunetti.

One of the wonderful things about these Brunetti novels is his family life, which is (most of the time) a welcome haven for him, to de-stress from the horrors he sees during his working day.  Sometimes, of course, family life for the good Commissario involves the same kind of negotiation and manoeuvring that dealing with his unreasonable boss does.

In this bartering session with his young teenaged daughter Chiara, Brunetti wants her to go down and buy some wine for lunch:

“But why should I go?

Because I work hard to support you all.

Mamma works, too.

Yes, but my money pays for the house and everything we buy for it.

She set her book face down on the bed. “Mamma says thats capitalistic blackmail and I don’t have to listen to you when you do it.”

“Chiara,” he said, speaking very softly, “your mother is a troublemaker, a malcontent, and an agitator.

Then how come you always tell me I have to do as she says?”

Family banter like this with his adored daughter takes on a deeper significance for Brunetti, when he later asks Chiara to help him ferret out some information for him, via one of her school friends, a decision he will bitterly regret.  In the sordid world he is investigating, where young women are being forced into prostitution, the innocence of his own child is shattered by things she learns of the world around her.

As Brunetti investigates the murders, he confronts moral and philosophical issues, such as the logic of jailing someone for theft in a country where the political class is largely assumed to be corrupt and looting the public coffers for themselves.

“Brunetti knew this mood and almost feared it, this recurring certainty of the futility of everything he did.  Why bother to put the boy who broke into a house in gaol when the man who stole billions from the health system was named ambassador to the country to which he had been sending the money for years?”

It is this grappling with the larger issues of life, being able to rise above the horrors of his job and squabble good-naturedly with his children, and his total compassion for the marginalised people he encounters in the course of his investigations, that make Guido Brunetti such a likeable detective, and a fitting hero for these wonderful books.

Oh yes.

Of course.

How could I forget?

Food.

There is always wonderful Italian food in Donna Leon’s books:

“He brought his attention back to the table, and their plates of fettuccine, glistening with the sheen of butter.  The owner came back, carrying a small truffle on a white plate in one hand, a metal grater in the other.  He bent over della Corte’s plate and shaved at the truffle, rose, and bent over Brunetti’s plate and did the same. The woody, musty odour wafted up from the still-steaming fettuccine, enveloping not only the three men, but the entire are around them.”

“A Venetian Reckoning” is every bit as enthralling as the earlier books in the series, with its skilful blending of crime, family, food and the dramatic beauty of La Serenissima.

If you  would like to read this book, it couldn’t be easier.

Here’s the link.   You all know what to do.

THE ANONYMOUS VENETIAN by Donna Leon

At times, it’s almost embarrassing how late I come to some parties.

Like the Donna Leon party.

How on earth did I miss Ms Leon’s utterly wonderful detective novels, set in Venice?  Where was I all the years that everyone else was reading and raving about Donna Leon’s wonderful writing, brilliant scene-setting and palpable love for Venice?

Luckily I have a ferociously well-read sister, who mentioned these books to me when we were all in Venice last year for her daughter’s wedding, and now I am binge-reading them.

Which is kind of wonderful as well, rather than reading and then having to wait a year…

“The Anonymous Venetian”, the 3rd in the Commissario Brunetti series brings us back into the world of this family-minded, decent Venetian detective.

We walk the streets with him, we travel along the canals by boat with him, we suffer through the stiflingly hot summer with him, somewhat relieved by chilled white wine and fresh figs.

Ms Leon loves Venice, and knows it in intimate detail, and her writing brings this stunning city to life.  The food, the markets, the regular, non touristy neighbourhoods, the under-belly –  for, sadly, every beautiful place has its less desirable side.

In this book, the under-belly involves murder and money, a fairly classic combination.

Ms Leon tells a gripping detective tale, woven through with the sights and smells and sounds of the city of Venice that is inhabited and frequented by Venetians, and not by the tourist throngs.

We can almost taste the food that Brunetti’s lovely, intelligent and long-suffering wife Paola prepares while quizzing him on the latest developments in the murder case he is investigating:

“She took some basil leaves, ran them under cold water for a moment, and chopped them into tiny pieces.  She sprinkled them on top of the tomato and mozzarella, added salt, and then poured olive oil generously over the top of everything.”

All this whilst discussing murder.

One of the many reasons that Commissario Brunetti is such a likeable man, is his compassionate nature.  Crime and exposure to violent death have not hardened him.

Here he goes to interview a suspect, and encounters the man’s bigoted “portiere” who is vulgarly voluble about his dislike of gays.

“Brunetti sighed tiredly.  Why couldn’t people learn to be more discriminating in whom they chose to hate, a bit more selective? Perhaps even a bit more intelligent?  Why not hate the Christian Democrats?  Or the Socialists? Or why not hate people who hated homosexuals?”

Amidst the murder, and attempted murder, amidst the oppressive summer heat and the depressing industrial areas of Venice that the Commissario must tramp in search of clues, there are however, moments of humour.  Brunetti calls a journalist and asks him about the self-styled title he has given himself on his answering machine.  The journalist agrees he should perhaps update his answering machine:

“It takes me forever to change the message.  So many buttons to push.  The first time I did it, I recorded myself swearing at the machine.  No one left a message for a week, until I thought the thing wasn’t working and called myself from a phone booth.   Shocking, the language the machine used.   I dashed home and changed the message immediately.  But it’s still very confusing.”

And it’s moments like that, by the way, that ever so slightly, but only ever so slightly, date the books.  But they do not impact the pleasure or the storyline whatsoever, those non existent mobile phones…not one little bit.

Another light-hearted moment (and one which struck a chord) is on the subject of the ugliest Baby Jesus search Brunetti and his wife have going:

“Then, a little to the left of the fireplace, a Madonna, clearly Florentine and probably fifteenth-century, looking adoringly down at yet another ugly baby. One of the secrets Paola and Brunetti never revealed to anyone was their decades-long search for the ugliest Christ Child in western art.  At the moment, the title was held by a particularly bilious infant in Room 13 of the Pinacoteca di Siena.  Though the baby in front of Brunetti was no beauty, Siena’s title was not at risk.”

It is this combination of a gripping plot happy, set against the backdrop of a normal family life, food, and the sheer breath-taking beauty of Venice that never ceases to astound Brunetti and through him we, the reader, that makes “The Anonymous Venetian” such a great read.

Hugely enjoyable, and I can already tell that this series is going to be completely addictive.

If you would like to buy “The Anonymous Venetian”, it couldn’t be easier.

Here you go.

WHISPERINGS FROM BEYOND by Lakshmi Narayan

What an amazing world we live in.

You know someone for almost 30 years, and only now discover the hidden, almost-mystical side to them.

My Mumbai-based friend Lakshmi Narayan has just published her second book (& here’s a link to my review of her debut novel) and what a revelation it is.

“Whisperings from Beyond” is a collection of thoughts, precepts, call them what you will, one for each day of the year, making this a book to keep by your side and dip into regularly.

It was in her introduction to her book that I saw a side of my otherwise down-to-earth, no-nonsense friend, a side I never knew existed.  Couched in her own inimitable style, Lakshmi explains how this collection came to be:

“This collection of “thoughts” has been coming to me on a regular basis from November 2008 to present day.  Where do they ideate from? Is it my alter-ego? I’m your average aunt-next-door, averagely good, averagely bad, averagely intelligent, averagely mixed-up.  So why do these “thoughts” – so unlike my conscious concepts or leanings – bombard me?”

Now that’s the Lakshmi I know! Articulate, no nonsense, and delightfully self deprecating.

It is in this no-nonsense way of hers, that she opens her heart and shares her thoughts with us, explaining that prayer has always been important to her:

“From personal experience I can honestly say that prayer has been the single most motivating factor in my life and it has definitely moved mountains, making the impossible possible.”

The author offers us a thought – more like a short reading – for every day of the year and on opening the book, I turned straight to my birthday reading.

2 September

It is called “Accepting the unacceptable” and the final stanza of Lakshmi’s musing gave me pause for thought :

…If we stop resisting

and go with the flow

soon enough

good will come

out of the bad and

the seemingly bad”

There are thoughts on topics as varied as money, value systems, resisting temptation, negativity…something for everyone, which is part of the appeal of this book.

You can dip in and out, and always find something to make you think.

A good-looking book, attractively presented.

Published in 2017 by Hay House, “Whisperings from Beyond” costs Rs399.

You can order it here, by clicking on the link…but, hey! You all know how to do that without any explanations from me, right?

A NECESSARY EVIL by Abir Mukherjee

Reading Abir Mukherjee’s “A Necessary Evil” was a fine balancing act between dying to know what happened next, and dreading the approaching end of the book.

This absolute cracker of a novel is a fine and worthy successor to Mr. Mukherjee’s first novel “A Rising Man“, and it is with great pleasure that the reader re-acquaints him/herself with Captain Sam Wyndham of the Imperial Police Force in Calcutta, his wonderful assistant Sergeant Surrender-not Banerjee, and the lovely Annie Grant, who has captured Sam’s heart, but doesn’t seem to return the compliment.

Mr. Mukherjee’s first novel took place almost entirely in Calcutta, and though the action in “A Necessary Evil” begins in the city, the heart of imperial India, in June 1920, it quickly moves to the princely state of Sambalpore in the state of Orissa. The crown prince of the state is murdered in Calcutta, in the presence of Sam and Surrender-not, and so the duo heads to his state to try and find out who murdered the flamboyant but popular young prince.  And why.

Calcutta is but a fleeting presence in this novel, though a powerful one.

Sam, a troubled man after his experiences during the First World War, sometimes heads out at night for the opium dens of Calcutta:

“At night, though, Tangra transformed itself into a hive of shebeens, street kitchens, gambling house and opium dens.  In short, it housed all the things that made living in a sweltering, crumbling metropolis of several million people worthwhile.”

Since the murder victim is from one of the semi-independent princely states that were outside British colonial jurisdiction, there is a noted reluctance on the part of the British powers-that-be to follow up on the murder, for reasons of political expediency.

Sam is a caring man, but cynical about the trappings of Empire:

“That was the things about viceroys, they might assume the mantle of demigods, but in truth, since the time of Lord Curzon, the only thing that’s really mattered to any of them is to keep the plates spinning until they can move on.  No one wants to be remembered as the man in charge when the music stooped- the man who lost India. But that wasn’t my concern.  Everyone has their own priorities.  The Viceroy’s was the avoidance of anything that might rock the ship of state; mine was getting to the truth, and I wasn’t about to give up on this case now, just because the Viceroy might deem the results unpalatable.”

Through a clever slight of political hand Sam and Surrender-not go to Sambalpore for the prince’s funeral, Sam in a private capacity and Surrender-not as the official representative of the Imperial Police.

The wonderful Surrender-not is an intelligent, perceptive young man who went to Harrow with the prince, speaks flawless and eloquent English, but is hopelessly tongue-tied in the presence of women.

“Of course Surrender-not wasn’t his real name…His parents had named him Surendranath: it meant king of the gods: and while I could make a fair stab at the correct Bengali pronunciation, I never could get it quite right.  He’d told me it wasn’t my fault.  He’d said the English language just didn’t possess the right consonants – it lacked a soft “d,” apparently.  According to him, the English language lacked a great many things.”

Mr. Mukherjee’s descriptions of the glittering, bejewelled pomp and circumstance of princely India are glorious, with cremations and coronations and palace intrigue and zenana politics all on dazzling display.  Despite all the trappings of princely India, from the eunuchs to elephants, from jewels to private trains, Mr. Mukherjee never falls into cliché-dom.  There is enough intrigue and danger and dislike swirling around the palaces and forts to keep Sam & Surrender-not busy, and the reader enthralled.

It would really not be nice of me to reveal much more about the plot of this thoroughly enjoyable murder mystery, so suffice it to say that the 2 policemen have to unravel a clever, complicated skein of intrigue.

There are twists and turns, there is elegance, there are moments of pure horror, there is thwarted love – all the components of a great, historical read.

Thoroughly recommended.

For the record, I bought the book myself, and was not asked to write this review.

Published in 2017 by Harvill Secker, you can order the book now, by clicking on the link below:

HOLY HERBS by Sudhir Ahluwalia

“Holy Herbs

Modern connections to ancient plants”

 

What an erudite and interesting reference book this is.

For anyone curious about the history and origins, the uses and the science of herbs and plants, Mr. Ahluwalia’s book is one to refer to.

With many years of his career spent in the Indian Forestry Service, Mr. Ahluwalia clearly has a wealth of knowledge and shares it generously.

The book was especially interesting for me, on a purely personal level, since I am a Christian and since much of the book focuses on herbs and plants and trees mentioned in the Bible, many references were familiar from childhood bible study classes.

But the author covers ancient Greece and ancient Egypt, the Indus valley, Jewish traditions, and it is this very wide ranging nature of his research that makes this such a good reference work.

I dipped in and out of the book, but always ended up reading more and more.

For example, when I received my review copy of the book, I had just returned from a trip to Oman, and so the chapter on Frankincense was of particular interest.  From there it was just one small logical step to learn about the medicinal properties of African Frankincense, and suddenly I realised that, yes, I’d heard of Boswellia as a possible treatment against cognitive decline.  One further step and I learned that India, too, has its variety of Frankincense, something I didn’t know before.

As I said, one thing leads to another in this book, a bit like pieces of a jigsaw fitting together, as you connect plants with history, and culture, and folk medicine and modern medicine.

I was sent the book by the publishers, the delightfully named Fingerprint!  (the exclamation mark is theirs, not mine, by the way)

Colour photographs would have been lovely, and definitely added to the look of the book, but even so, this is a useful book to keep on your bookshelf, and to consult.

If you would like to order the book, you can do so directly from here, using the link below:

A RISING MAN by Abir Mukherjee

What a fabulous book “A Rising Man” is.

And what a prodigiously talented writer Mr. Mukherjee is. 

A murder mystery set in Calcutta in 1919, this is an absorbing page-turner from the very word go.

From the first moment you meet the narrator, Captain Sam Wyndham and his endearing deputy, Sergeant “Surrender Not” Banerjee, you know –  you just know – that this is a duo that was meant to be.  And that they will have many more adventures together.

Sam Wyndham arrives in Calcutta, emotionally drained after the horrors of World War 1.  He has seen such dreadful sights and experienced such loss, that his view of Calcutta, and India, and his fellow Brits is understandably jaundiced.  Sam is not a believer in the supremacy of the British in India, and he is a rare, compassionate man in a system that discourages such emotions, especially towards Indians.  

“There’s a special arrogance to be found in the Calcutta Englishman, something you don’t find in many other outposts of empire.  It may be born of familiarity.  After all, the English have been top dog in Bengal for a hundred and fifty years, and seemed to consider the natives, especially the Bengalis, as rather contemptible.

Sam doesn’t like Calcutta that much, nor does he buy into the whole colonial grandiloquence that has fashioned this city on the humid banks of a river.

“I set foot on the soil of India on the first of April, 1919.  All Fool’s Day. It seemed appropriate…

Pitching up in Calcutta for the first time without the assistance of drugs is not a pleasant experience.  Of course there’s the heat, the broiling, suffocating, relentless heat.  But that’s not the problem.  It’s the humidity that drives men mad…

Calcutta – we called it the City of Palaces.  Our Star in the East.  We’d built this city, erected mansions and monuments where previously had stood only jungle and thatch.  We’d paid our price in blood and now, we proclaimed, Calcutta was a British city.  Five minutes here would tell you it was no such thing.  But that didn’t mean it was Indian.

The truth was, Calcutta was unique.”

Calcutta is an integral part of this novel, both its geography as well as its social mores.

Take Dalhousie square, for example.  On his first visit to the iconic Writer’s Building, Sam passes Dalhousie Square with its fenced-off pool:

“Dalhousie was too big to be elegant.  At its centre sat a large, rectangular pool the colour of banana leaves.  Digby had mentioned that in the old days, the natives would use it for washing, swimming and religious purposes.  All that stopped after the mutiny of ’57.  Such things were no longer to be tolerated.  Now the pool stood empty, its bottle-green waters shimmering in the afternoon sun.  The natives – the ones we approved of, at any rate – now suited and booted in frock coats and buttoned-down collars, hurried around it…signs in English and Bengali warning of stiff penalties should they be tempted to revert to their base natures and go for a dip.”

No sooner has Sam arrived, than he is tasked with solving the murder of a British official.  The authorities want the murderer to be found as quickly as possible, mainly to show that the British cannot be trifled with, but Sam’s training as a Scotland Yard detective is somewhat at odds with the British agenda.

In “Surrender Not” Sam finds an intelligent, eloquent, impeccably spoken, well-educated assistant, and their relationship of trust and mutual respect is definitely at odds with the prevailing climate in Calcutta.

Surrender Not is an intriguing character, a perfect foil for Sam, who has to pick his way through the class and colour-ridden minefield that is colonial India.

There are moments when you, the reader, are embarrassed by the sheer crassness of the colonial Brit:

“Digby laughed. “you see what srt of people we’re dealing with here, Wyndham!  That’s the vanity of the Bengali for you.  Even the bloody coolies lie about their age!”

Banerjee squirmed.  “If I may, sir, I doubt vanity has much to do with it.  The fact is, the railways impose a policy of retirement at the age of fifty-eight.  Unfortunately, the pension provided to native Indians is generally too meagre for a family to live on.  By lowering their ages on the forms I beleive the men hope to work for a few years more and thus provide for their families just that little bit longer.”

Sam also has to pick his way through the tortuous relationship both the British and the Indians have with Anglo-Indians such as Annie Grant, a young lady who handles the sneering insults at her mixed race with great dignity.  She, of all people, has no illusions about the nature of colonial rule in India:

“I’m sorry”, she said…It’s just that I’ve seen it happen.  Nice middle-class chaps from the Shires, they come out here and the power and the privilege go to their heads.  All of a sudden they’re being waited on hand and foot and being dressed by a manservant.  They start to feel entitled.”

Along with the mystery of who has committed the two murders he is investigating, Sam gets a crash course in the current political climate in India, mainly through the interesting character of Benoy Sen, a patriot, an intellectual and exactly the kind of Indian to infuriate the colonial overlords, and – not surprisingly – interest Sam, even though he does get exasperated by him:

“This isn’t a political discussion,” I said. “Just answer the question.”

Sen laughed, thumping his hands down on the table.  “But it is, Captain!  How could it not be? You are a police officer,  I am an Indian.  You are a defender of a system that keeps my people in subjugation.  I am a man who seeks freedom.  The only type of discussion we could have is a political one.”

God, I hated politicals.  Give me a psychopath or a mass murderer any day.  Compared to a political, interrogating them was refreshingly straightforward.  They were generally all too eager to confess their crimes.”

“A Rising man” is a wonderful read.  A murder mystery, wrapped up in India a century ago, and introducing a detective duo that one hopes will return quickly to solve another crime.

Unstintingly recommended.  (And, by the way, neither Mr. Mukherjee nor his publisher, Vintage, know that I blog)

BLACK WATER LILIES by Michel Bussi

What a bewitchingly clever book Michel Bussi’s “Black Water Lilies” is, the original page turner if ever there was one, and a book that keeps you guessing right until the final sentence.

It is also a book that is virtually impossible to review without spoiling everything for those who still have this book to read.

A murder takes place in Giverny, the pretty French village that was home to the Impressionist painter Claude Monet, and is now a pilgrimage site for tourists the world over, who converge on Monet’s house, his famous garden and its even more famous pond of water lilies.

At the beginning of the novel, our narrator gives us a quick lowdown on what is to follow :

“Three women lived in a village.

The first was mean, the second a liar, and the third an egotist…

…All three were quite different.  But they had something in common, a secret  All three dreamed of leaving.  Yes, of leaving Giverny…”

Giverny is an essential part of this brilliantly constructed murder mystery, its beauty both a charm and a curse.

We are privileged to see much of this pretty place in the warm summer mornings, almost at daybreak, when one of the oldest residents of the village walks her dog Neptune through the pre-tourist-rush deserted streets, and muses about the changes she has witnessed in Giverny over the years.  Our narrator is waspish, and doesn’t like what she sees:

“Having seen all the changes that have taken place in the village over the years, I sometimes have the feeling that Giverny has become a giant theme park.”

She rues the car parks and the tourist buses, the crowds, the wannabe painters, the Babel of languages and the constant traffic, all of which floods into Giverny every morning, stays for a noisy day and then departs in the evening, leaving the village it used to be.

“But I won’t lie to you.  For most of the day, Monet’s meadow is, in fact, a giant car park.  Four car parks, to be precise, clustered around a bitumen stem like a water lily made of tarmac.  I think I can afford to say this thing, at my age.  I have seen the landscape transform itself, year after year.  Today Monet’s countryside is just a commercial backdrop.”

Our narrator who walks with difficulty, and has only her friendly Alsatian Neptune for company, walks virtually unnoticed though the streets of the village where she was born and has lived all her life. She accepts that as an old lady, in black, her head covered with a headscarf, she is largely invisible to the tourists who flock to Giverny every day.  Old age and loneliness are one of the leitmotivs in her narration.  She observes the world around her with a keen eye, whilst realising that the world largely ignores her very presence:

“Go and stand on a street corner, any corner, a Parisian boulevard, in the square by a village church, wherever you like…You turn to gaze at a girl’s bare navel, you push your way past the senior executive in a hurry, or the gang of young people filling the pavement, you glance at the buggy, the baby in it and the mother behind it.  But an old man or woman…They are invisible.  Precisely because they pass so slowly that they are almost part of the decor, like a tree or a street light.  If you don’t beleive me, just try it.  You’ll see.”

The village school teacher, the beautiful Stéphanie Dupain, is one of the 3 women mentioned by the narrator in the opening moments of the book.  Stéphanie is much loved by her young pupils, and she quickly captivates the newly arrived Police Inspector Laurenç Sérénac.  He knows that she is married, and that her husband might be a suspect in the murder he is investigating and yet, despite professional misgivings, he is drawn to her.  He admires her beauty although, in a telling moment infused with art, he wonders about her:

“As the teacher leans over and turns away slightly, the ray of sunlight shining through the window reflects off the white paper and illuminates her face, a reading woman bathed in a halo of light that is suggestive of Fragonard, Degas, Vermeer,  For just a moment, Sérénac is touched by a strange idea, an impression: not one of the young woman’s gestures is spontaneous; the grace of each movement is too perfect, calculated, studied. She is posing for him…”

The third woman mentioned is a child, the prodigiously talented Fanette, who has a gift and a talent for painting that she doesn’t fully understand, but that is so strong it governs her young life.  Against the wishes of her mother, and despite the petty playground jealousies of her school friends, Fanette knows one thing.  She has to paint.  And, like the narrator and Stéphanie, Fanette wants to leave the gilded cage that is Giverny.

Stéphanie compares living in Giverny to living in a painting:

“…the décor is frozen.  Petrified.  You’re not allowed to redecorate any of the houses in a different way, repaint a wall, pick so much as a single flower.  There are laws forbidding it.  We live in a painting here.  We’re walled in…”

The plot of this novel is dazzlingly clever, but I absolutely cannot share it with you here.  If you haven’t yet read the book, there is no way I’m going to spoil one single moment of it for you.

The extent of M. Bussi’s cleverness only reveals itself right at the end of the book, and then you sit there, blinking at the brilliance, and re-thinking the storyline, and suddenly realising how all the parts fit together even more superbly than you had realised.

Originally published in French, in 2011, Shaun Whiteside has done a brilliant job of translating it into English.

The English version was published in 2016 by Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

The paperback sells for £7.99 in the UK & for Rs 399 in India.

If you haven’t already read this book, and now wish to do so, it couldn’t be easier.  Here are two links for you – and you don’t need guiding through the online ordering process, now, do you?

A CASE OF EXPLODING MANGOES by Mohammed Hanif

What a pleasure to re-read a book after some 8 years and find it every bit as entertaining.

My Delhi book club was bang on trend when we read this book in late 2008, and I thoroughly enjoyed it at the time.  We all did, I seem to remember.  In the intervening years, the book club has changed its membership totally – the downside of being a “lifer” in a largely ex-pat group –  and in our new avatar we are reading this extraordinarily entertaining book again.

Mr. Hanif is a fine writer, cleverly weaving history with fiction and huge dollops of quirky imagination, to bring us an absorbing story of the last days of the Pakistani President, Zia ul Haq, who was killed in August 1988 when his official plane, Pak One, blew up in flight, killing everyone on board.

What Mr. Hanif has done is take the main protagonists –  Zia, his wife, the American Ambassador, the generals –  and mix them up in a nice masala mix with fictional characters – Under Officer Ali Shigri, the wonderful Baby O, Brigadier TM, and the minor but colourful character of Uncle Starchy.

The novel is an indictment of the growing Islamisation of Pakistan, and the Army in particular, by an unpopular man, who supported the Afghan Muhajaddin and steamrollered his own country along an increasingly Islamic path.

To explain the explosion on board Pak One –  still an unsolved mystery – the author has a case of exploding mangoes loaded onto the plane.  But since we know from the very first moments of the book that the plane will explode  –  well, yes, obviously, we also know that fact from history – there is no plot spoiler, just a zany unravelling of the tangled web of actions and ambitions and treachery that led to the inevitable dénouement.

A great read, with some equally great writing and lots of laugh-aloud moments.

The scene where Zia exhorts his generals to pray before a staff meeting is a gem:

Another great laugh-aloud moment is when Brigadier TM is faced with 200 or so hastily assembled widows for a presidential photo op when Zia will give them alms. How can men search burqa-clad, face-covered, head-covered women?  Especially when the TV crews are already in place.  TM makes an on-the-spot decision that, Presidential photo op or not, there can be no “ninjas whose faces I can’t see,” so all the widows in burqas are ordered to leave the queue. Their loud protests and offers to remove their burqas are ignored and the poor about-to-be-given-presidential-charity widows are unceremoniously bundled off.

Zia ul Haq’s fanatical piety robs Pakistan of some of its Islamic colour and variety:

Sad.

The First Lady is a great character.

Supremely disinterested in her husband’s politics, preferring to watch Dallas, looked down on and yet feared by her husband, she rises to the occasion when she sees a photo of her oh-so-pious husband ogling the cleavage of an American reporter:

There are moments that are almost slapstick, such as the black Texan barber trimming the President’s moustache:

There are dark moments, when we encounter the torture and terror that keeps much of the country in line.

But overall, there is a zany streak running through this novel, pushing us on – through the unbearable heat of a Pakistani summer, through a dreadful 4 July party, towards that moment when the case of mangoes explodes.

Read this book to brush up on recent political history, to get a feel for the way Pakistan was, and  – in my case – to yearn to be in that adorable cottage on Shigri Hill, with the clouds drifting through the picture windows and the views of K2.

If you would like to read this award-winning novel, you can order your copy right now.

Just click on the link below.

THE UNEXPECTED INHERITANCE OF INSPECTOR CHOPRA by VASEEM KHAN

There are some books about India that are just so perfect that reading them is a total & utter joy.

“The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra” is one such book.Vaseem Khan’s novel is an absolute delightful and is so, well, quintessentially Indian, in that it manages to combine gritty police work with a baby elephant, and you don’t even question it for a moment.  Those defining co-existing elements of life in India – the horrors of poverty, the omni-present corruption, the heart-stopping sight of an elephant wandering down the street, the crowds, the noise – all of these find a home in this wonderful, whimsical, endearing novel.

The upright and honest Inspector Chopra has just retired from the Mumbai Police, on health grounds when, out of the blue, he inherits a baby elephant from his uncle.  Inspector Chopra lives in Mumbai with his wife Poppy, a woman he fell in love with the first time he saw her, back in the village, when she was just a teenager.

Inspector Chopra is not looking forward to retirement at all.  Police work has been his life and he dreads the thought of not working to make his beloved city of Mumbai a safer place.

The novel is as much about Mumbai, as it is about the mystery Inspector Chopra finds himself entangled in, despite retirement.

Mumbai is an ever present, noisy, always on-the-go, larger than life presence in the book.  If ever there was a love song to this greatest of Indian cities, it is here in this book about a middle aged cop and a baby elephant.

“Daredevil beggars slept on the ten-inch parapet of the airport flyover, oblivious to the fatal drop on one side and the hurtling traffic on the other.

This is what made Mumbaikers the greatest Indians in the land, Chopra felt.  This belief in their own invulnerability.

…he could not imagine living in a place without the noise and sheer energy that powered Mumbai at all times of the day or night.”

This description, below, of Mumbai in the middle of the night is powerful:

“The truck rumbled through the night-time city, past the trendy bars and the dhabas; past the sleeping beggars and the urchins; past the hand-cart wallah supine on their carts; past the ladies bars disgorging their woozy and satisfied clientele; past the call centres operating on foreign time; past the cows lying down by the side of the road; past the glittering pye-dogs prowling the empty streets, masters once again, if only for a short few hours, of their ancient dominion.”

Since this is a whodunit, I won’t spoil the plot by telling you too much about the good Inspector’s investigation, but suffice to say that in the current political climate in India (I live here, by the way) the exposure of corruption at the highest levels strikes a chilling chord.

But it is Baby Ganesh, the rather sad and traumatised elephant that Inspector Chopra inherits, who steals the show.

After the first monsoon downpour which floods the compound, poor little Ganesh is freezing, soaking, and frightened, so Inspector Chopra does the only thing he can – takes the baby elephant up to his apartment, much to the outrage of the battle-axe who likes to think she runs the building.

Poppy rises to the occasion, insisting that Ganesh can and will stay in their flat.  There is one scene that is too adorable, where, after giving the poor shivering creature a hot bath and a massage, they both settle down – Poppy on the sofa, Ganesh on a pile of quilts – to watch a Shah Rukh Khan movie on the telly, happily sharing a bag of banana chips.  A classic moment that makes you fall in love with Poppy.

Ganesh – well, I was already in love with him from the second we met him.

“And then something curious happened.  As the little calf continued to snuffle and sneeze, hunched down inside its quilts, the very picture of misery, Poppy felt her long-suppressed mothering instincts to the fore…suddenly she was overcome by a desire to nurse the baby elephant that her husband had seen fit to deposit inside her home.

“OK, young man,” she said determinedly, “first things first: let’s get you cleaned up.”

Inspector Chopra, despite retirement, is driven to investigate a killing which leads him further and further into the world of corrupt officials and big money. But, while he investigates one crime, he makes a discovery about an event from his own past. (No more, I promise, so as not to spoil your enjoyment.)

This is a great read.  Funny, endearing, and yet also a searing exposé of the seamier side of Mumbai.

This is the kind of book that, as you read, you know, you just know that Inspector Chopra & Ganesh are destined to make a great partnership, and that their relationship will endure – into many more books, one hopes.

I can’t wait to read the next book in the series, which is all ready and waiting.

If you would now like to order this delightful novel – you won’t regret it, pukka – just click on the link below.