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?

THE STRONGMAN’S DAUGHTER by Madhuri Iyer

We are living in interesting times here in India, ever since the government decided to wage a high-profile campaign against black money, but – everyone believes – actually aimed at political opposition.  Which means that the just-published novel, “The Strongman’s Daughter” is deliciously bang up-to-date.

For in the character of Vithalrao Narvekar, the corrupt, domineering, larger than life Chief Minister of Goa, we have the perfect example of what is perceived to be wrong with so much of India’s political system.  Money greases the corrupt wheels of governance, the environment is wrecked for profit, money is looted from the public coffers, siphoned off, stashed away…Ms Iyer tells it as it is, making her novel totally credible.

But this novel only has corruption and strongman politics as part of its plot.  Set against all this illegal money and power-play is the 21 year old daughter of the Chief Minister, an idealistic young girl, just graduated, and eager to live life and to love life, on her own terms.

Her father, used to getting his own way in all things, decides that Aditi will enter politics and get married.  And when she refuses both options, all hell breaks loose.

This is a fun read – love story, clash of wills, politics, dirty business as usual –  and all set against the pretty backdrop of Goa, one of India’s most laid back places.

There are some unexpected twists to the story, which I won’t share for fear of spoiling the book for you.

Very enjoyable, although it’s a bit of a sad reflection on the state of Indian politics that you, the reader, feel so familiar with the lies and money and bullying that make up Vithalrao Narvekar’s DNA.  Ms Iyer has him down to a T, the archetypal overweight, calculating politician, trampling over everyone (including his only child) to get what he wants.

A modern Goan love story with a strong political background – great fun.

Published by the young, energetic publishing house of Fingerprint! (with an !), The Strongman’s Daughter costs Rs 250 in paperback.

If you want to order it now, it couldn’t be easier.  Just click on the link…you know the rest!

LYING IN WAIT by Liz Nugent

Having just put down Liz Nugent’s fabulous “Unravelling Oliver” I immediately opened “Lying in Wait.” And this amazingly talented writer’s second novel is, possibly, even more stunning than her début book.

What a writer.

How exciting it is to discover such talent, even though everyone else clearly knew about Ms Nugent from the outset.

The story of “Lying in Wait” is, as in her fist novel, told from the points of view of the various characters, in their voice and from their own unique perspective, and this time this stylistic device works seamlessly.

The story begins in 1980 and ends in 2016, though this is, essentially, a novel of the 1980s, with spot-on references to the music and TV shows of the days.  There is even one delicious reference to shoulder pads.

“Lying in Wait” opens with a bang, literally, from the first sentence:

“My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it.”

And with that opening sentence, we are led into a world of lies, of cover ups, manipulation, truths, all in an ever-tightening web of intrigue and suspense.

This is such a gripping novel that I raced through it way too quickly, gobbling up the pages to see how this chilling, mesmerising, exciting thriller would end.

We inhabit the claustrophobic world of Avalon, a beautiful gracious home which plays such an important role in the novel. Avalon is the magnet which keeps Lydia living there, declining the chance to study ballet in London, refusing ever to go away on holiday, hardly venturing out into Dublin, such is her love for her childhood home.

Lydia, her husband Andrew and their only child Laurence live a strange, tense existence in this beautiful home which dominates their lives.

The repercussions of that opening line, in which Annie Doyle is killed, are the structure of this book, as we see how the killers handle the crime, how Annie’s family reacts, and how the ripple effects of this one single shocking event spread ever outwards, over the decades.

This is an absolutely riveting thriller, and confirms Liz Nugent as a huge talent.

Thoroughly, enthusiastically, totally recommended.

After reading both of Ms Nugent’s novels in a week, I’m a huge fan.

If you would like to buy the book, after reading this (& how nice would that be!), it couldn’t be easier. Here you go:

ELIGIBLE by Curtis Sittenfeld

What an unusual book “Eligible” is.

Unusual because it is an undoubtedly clever book, whilst being simultaneously rather obvious, and yet overall the book is totally compelling, because you “know” all the characters in the book.

So well.

So, so well.

You “know” the plot.

You “know” how it will end, for Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia…Bennet.

Quite.

Is there anyone who doesn’t know and love the Bennet family, and who doesn’t know exactly how their lives will pan out?

Except this Bennet family does not live in early 19th century England, but 21st century Cincinnati, and therein lies both the cleverness and the slight clunkiness of the plot.

Transposing a family of largely dependent young women and their mother who is anxiously looking for husbands for them, to 21st century middle America is an interesting literary conceit, but it doesn’t always seem as though these sisters are actually living in Cincinnati in 2013.

Despite the use of sms‘s and Google, there is a slight slowness to the rhythm of their lives, as they go for months without contacting people because of a misunderstanding, or elope (oh yes!) and when Mr. Darcy bows…well…

All through this 21st century re-imagining of “Pride & Prejudice” I kept waiting for the moment when Elizabeth Bennet would make a wry aside about their famous precursors. I kept expecting a joking insider reference to life imitating art, or some such, but it didn’t happen.

And for me, that was one of the weak spots in this otherwise entertaining novel.

Clever though it is to re-imagine the Bennet girls as yoga teachers and journalists, it might have been almost cleverer to have written a book about 5 sisters who were NOT named Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia, and leave us to guess.

Mr. Bingley, Caroline Bingley, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Charlotte Lucas, Mr. Collins – they all appear, under their “Pride & Prejudice” names, and it is all just a wee bit too obvious.

Which is why Jasper works so well as a character. Unlike the other characters, whose role was announced by their name, you have to work out who Jasper is, and there is one clever clue half way through the book – & I’m thrilled to say I’d guessed before then, but I am a bit of “P&P” fan-girl.

There is a lovely re-imagining of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and it was moments like Liz’s meeting with the veteran octogenarian feminist writer Ms de Bourgh, that made me wish that the talented Ms Sittenfeld had re-imagined her characters a little more.

Jasper also doesn’t follow the exact path Jane Austen set out for him, which is part of the success of his character, and along with that of Ms de Bourgh’s cameo appearance, it made me feel that had “Eligible” been based more loosely on “Pride & Prejudice,” it would have been even more of a fun read.

Because it is, undoubtedly, a fun read, but had the author made us guess a little more about her Cincinnati versions of these fictional greats, I think “Eligible” would have been very, very clever as well as just fun.

There is no famous opening line, and the closest we get to it is when Mrs. Bennet says of Mr. Collins:

“He’s a lawyer in Atlanta and he’s very active in his church. If that’s not the description of a man looking for a wife, I don’t know what is.”

Well played, Ms Sittenfeld. Super well played.

Of all the characters in the book, it is Mr. Bennet who pays the most homage to his 19th century avatar.

Take, for example, this delicious exchange:

“ “Fred!” the nurse said, though they had never met. “How are we today?”

Reading the nurse’s name tag, Mr. Bennet replied with fake enthusiasm, “Bernard! We’re mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?”

If Jane Austen’s Mr. Bennet had met a nurse in hospital, this is, one feels, exactly how he might have spoken.

A good read, and I must confess, one that got more engrossing the tackier the 2013 version of their lives became. There are no balls at Netherfield, no cotillions, but there is croquet and lashings of reality TV.

Fun, and the end is totally as it should be.

If you would like to read “Eligible” now, then it couldn’t be easier.  Just click on the link below, & you’re all sorted.

PENUMBRA by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay

Natural cynic that I am, when I read on a book cover a comment like “Make sure you have three clear hours when you pick this book up, because you won’t stop reading till you’ve finished it”, I’m ashamed to say that my first reaction is to mutter, “Yeah right” or something to that effect.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

“Penumbra” is totally un-put-down-able and I have just spent the last 2 hours, when I should’ve been writing an overdue article, absolutely devouring the book.

And, for the record, totally not guessing whodunit.

So, yes, indeed.  Make sure you have a nice clear afternoon, and settle down and enjoy a cracking murder mystery.

The book is set initially in Calcutta, and then in rural West Bengal, in an almost Agatha Christie-like setting.

A house party gathered for a celebration.

A murder.

Everyone trapped in the house together, isolated by a storm of almost Biblical proportions that brings down the phone lines, cause the power to flicker, makes the roads undrive-able…

At one point in the book I got too clever by half and thought I’d figured it all out.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.  Again.

I hadn’t a clue, right until the very end.

(And don’t worry, there are no plot-spoilers here.  Wouldn’t do that to you.)

The novel is told in the first person, through the mouth of Prakash Roy, a freelance journalist – and that, possibly, is the only v-e-r-y slight quibble I have with the author.  Prakash’s being a journalist is mentioned throughout the book, but he doesn’t seem to have much investigative get-up-and-go, and is content, rather, to serve as the foil to other people’s deductions.

But it doesn’t detract from him as a character at all  –  which is why I said it was a mere quibble.

Good read.

Good plot.

Thoroughly recommended.

If you would like to buy the book –  and it’s a great read – it couldn’t be easier.

Just click on one of the links below, & you’ll be on your way.

I was sent this book to review by the publishers, Fingerprint!

How to kill a billionaire by Rajesh Talwar

Before we start –  cards on the table time.

I was sent “How to kill a billionaire” by Juggernaut, to test and review their new app for reading on your smartphone.  Click here to read my review in my other blog.

But boy oh boy, did ever I make a good choice when I picked this title out from a list Juggernaut kindly gave me to chose from (ouch – that’s a pretty ugly sentence).

“How to kill a billionaire” is an absolute cracker of a read, and I loved it from start to finish – I didn’t work one whole afternoon, ignoring my computer and a pile of editing, in order to finish this gripping book.

And what a clever book it is too.  You are told the facts of the crime almost at the outset, but it is the unravelling of the where’s and why’s and how’s that grips you.

I am (I like to flatter myself) by and large a nice person, so there won’t be any spoilers here.  Pukka.

But since the blurb says, upfront “When a billionaire’s son goes missing after a young girl commits suicide…”, you know from the outset that it’s going to be a book about dissecting a crime and its repercussions.  And that is as far as I’m going to go, otherwise I really will spoil the book for you.

The setting is “Thirty Thousand Courts” in Delhi, and it took me a page or two (e-page, I suppose one should call them) to twig.

Thirty Thousand Courts = Tis Hazari.  (Yeah, I’m quick like that.)

The descriptions of the cramped, squalid offices where so much of Delhi’s legal work is done are excellent and I learned some legal odds and ends along the way :

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Did not know cross examination was so crucial.

Mr. Talwar writes well and cleverly, and through the voice of his main protagonist, we get a glimpse of life in the cramped, seedy, corrupt-but-functioning world of Thirty Thousand Courts:

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I also learned a little more about Indian food –  how have I never eaten a “fain”, in all my years in India?

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As the story unfolds, over tea and “fain” and sometimes kebabs and whisky, the lawyer talks to Lord Patel – and to we, the reader – explaining what happened, and no, don’t worry, I am not going to tell you & spoil what is a truly great read.

100% recommended for both Indian and overseas readers.  Since Lord Patel, to whom the narrator directs his story, is a foreign based Indian, who has supposedly lost touch with some of the ground realities of living in India, the narrator often explains things to him – a boon for readers who may not know India intimately.

Click here to read an interesting Q&A with the author.

To read this gripping novel, first download the Juggernaut app onto your smartphone if you don’t already have it, then download the book.

VINEGAR GIRL by Anne Tyler

Gosh.

To think I’d never read an Anne Tyler novel until now.

What an omission.

We chose “Vinegar Girl” to read in our Delhi book club this month, and what a nice read it is, too.

Hmm…”nice”.  Not a very literary word, agreed.

What a fun book.  Is that a little better?

“Vinegar Girl” is a contemporary re-working of “The Taming of the Shrew” with the main character called –  yes, indeed – Kate.

Kate Battista.

To spare you from a listing here of all the clever word-play & references to Shakespeare, just let me tell you that the 21st century Baltimore names are affectionate nods in the direction of their historical counterparts.

It is a long time since a novel has made me laugh out loud, and that’s always such a lovely feeling, and “Vinegar Girl” is, indeed, a fun, clever, witty read.

Kate is prickly, a bit galumphing, and resigned to her uneventful life as a teaching assistant in a pre-school.  She has her moments though –  I love the scene where she tells a class of four year olds that pasta smells like wet dog:

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I won’t plot-spoil, but Pyotr Shcherbakov is a cracker of a character from the second we meet him :

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Pyotr’s language, both his use thereof and his pronunciation, is a delightful leit motiv running through the book:

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He constantly quotes proverbs from his country, much to Kate’s exasperation:

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Pyotr absorbs language greedily, especially idioms, and in one scene when everyone else eats burgers, he orders a complicated chichi meal :

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A clever, fun read.

If I have one reservation, it is the Epilogue.  A wee bit too twee.  But that really is a small reservation

Do yourself a favour and read “Vinegar Girl” –  and if you want to order it right now, couldn’t be easier – just click on the link below: