WITNESS THE NIGHT by Kishwar Desai

This compelling first novel by Kishwar Desai takes the reader to the heart of Punjab, where a world of unexpected horror and deceit and sorrow lies just beneath the veneer of upper-class society.

A grisly series of murder has taken place, in the course of which all of the Atwal family has been wiped out.  The Atwals are rich and powerful and well-connected, and so their murders send shock-waves through the town of Jullunder.  Even more shocking is the fact that the sole survivor of the murders is their very own teenage daughter Durga.  And Durga is the main suspect.  Raped, traumatised, orphaned – and yet no-one in Jullunder society has any sympathy for the 14-year old Durga.

Simran Singh, a social worker, is brought from Delhi to try and communicate with the child.  45 years old, unmarried, an energetic drinker and smoker, Simran is the antithesis of a nice respectable Punjabi girl, and she knows it.  As does her poor long-suffering mother, who wants only to find her a husband.  Simran’s discoveries lead her way beyond the role of social worker and into a world of intrigue, passion, murder, infanticide.

For behind the walls of the lavishly painted and even more lavishly decorated homes of Jullunder, there is a universe of violence.  Violence of the worst kind.  In a society where boys are prized, the birth of a baby girl is bad news. So the solution is, quite simply, to get rid of the new-born.  The descriptions of the murder of new-born babies are horrific, and yet the practice is common.  In the Atwal household, we are never quite sure how many baby girls have been killed, but what we do know is that two girls escaped the death envisaged for them –  and one of them is missing, and the other is the prime suspect in the murder of her own parents and siblings.

A darkly fascinating read, this novel is well-written, and moves along at an energetic pace, cleverly combining narrative, e-mails and diary excerpts.  And welcome to a very likeable heroine, the wryly realistic Simran Singh.  She is middle-aged with a drinking problem.  And she knows it.

Witness the Night is published by HarperCollins, and the paperback retails for Rs 225 in India.

If, after reading this review, you would like to buy the book, nothing could be easier. 

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THE BEEKEEPER’S APPRENTICE by LAURIE R.KING

Having only recently discovered the wonderful Sherlock Holmes meets Kim whodunnit, “The Game” by Laurie R. King, this reviewer decided to go back to the first book in this eminently readable series, which is actually a series about the gutsy young Mary Russell.

aka Mrs. Sherlock Homes.

In “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice” we meet Mary Russell.  And what  a meeting between one of fiction’s stalwarts and someone who is to become a great fictional heroine, although she doesn’t yet realise it.

A short sighted, half American, partly Jewish, clever teenager bumps into Sherlock Holmes, literally. Mary trips over the recently retired and therefore rather bored and grumpy detective, as she is shortsightedly wandering over the hills near his cottage.

What follows is a clever rendition of the Conan Doyle style, era and characters – with a twist.

And that twist is our intrepid heroine who charms not only Sherlock Holmes but also Dr. Watson, whom she calls Uncle John, and Sherlock’s equally clever brother Mycroft. A slew of exciting adventures take place, from Wales to London to Palestine, and as we follow the progress of Mary, who is tutored by Sherlock during her vacations from Oxford, we watch her develop into a young lady and a formidable foil to her clever mentor.

They are still Miss Russell and Mr. Holmes at the end of this charming book, but we feel we know what will happen, eventually.  The great Mr.Holmes is clearly falling for his sparkling protegee –  as does the reader.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is published by Allison and Busby, and the paperback costs £7.99

This book truly is a great read, and is the start of a wonderful series of books, so if you wish to start and order, it couldn’t be simpler.  Just click on any of the links below :

EVERY LAST ONE by ANNA QUINDLEN

There are books that move you, there are books that make you cry, and then there is “Every Last One”.  This book made the reviewer sob and cry more than any other book ever read.  Ever.  Great sobs of anguish and heart-wrenching emotion.

It is a novel to be cherished, and relished, both for the story-line and the writing.  It is beautifully, fabulously written, and if you are a parent, especially a mother, you spend much of the book saying “Yes, oh yes, I know exactly what she means, I know exactly how she feels.”

Reviewing without spoiling the book by revealing too much means, naturally, that only part of the plot can be shared here.  “Every Last One” is a minute, highly detailed, extra-ordinarily loving portrait of family life. Mary Beth Latham is the mother of 3 teenage children whom she loves passionately, and is not afraid of showing it, tip-toeing into her 14 year old twins’ bedroom  in the morning, to “bury my nose into their necks, beginning to smell the slightly pungent scent of male beneath the sweetness of child.”

Mary Beth, in a word, lives for her family.

She has put her own life and career pretty much on hold, to devote herself to her husband and children.  The book is a chronicle of sibling rivalry and growing pains, of the issues of handling twins who are very different, one a popular extrovert, one a secretive introvert.  There are friends, school-friends, and neighbours, and the children of neighbours, and Mary Beth’s oldest friend from college, and she cares about them all in varying degrees of exhaustion, as she tries to keep everything together and harmonious.

Her home is also a home from home for her pretty daughter’s oldest friend, Kiernan.  Ruby and Kiernan have been friends since they were pre-schoolers, and now they are a little bit in love –  or rather, Kiernan is besotted with Ruby, who knows he is.  At the outset, Ruby quite likes the adoration, and the attention.  Kiernan takes beautiful photos of the the beautiful Ruby, buys her gifts, leaves her little surprises in her own home, which is his 2nd home.  He spends much of his time there, and since May Beth loves him, and knows his distinctly dis-functional family life, she allows him to be part of her family, and meal times, and festivities.

The life of an average American family unfolds.

School, sports, camp, Halloween, Thanksgiving, thinking about college applications.  Prom dress shopping, step-parents, glasses of wine with the mothers after school. Cooking, supermarket, divorced neighbours, even a tragic drowning in a pool, an event which sends ripples of black misery through the book.  All the threads that make up the fabric of small-town, East coast family life are there.

There is a wonderful portrait of Alice, Mary Beth’s friend from her college days, who is an older, unmarried mother, having had her son Liam using donor sperm.  Alice phones regularly from New York to ask Mary Beth’s advice.  “I am not one of those crazy older mothers” is her leitmotiv, to which Mary Beth always says to herself, “She is one of those crazy older mothers.”

Alice and Liam’s visit to stay with the Lathams is lovely.  3 year old Liam trots happily away with the twins, preferring to hang out with them rather than with his slightly disappointed mother. While the teenage boys negoitate diapers, Ruby drinks with her godmother and mother, the latter a little discomfited by the obvious bond of trust between her daughter and her own best friend.

All of these family and friend vignettes are so familiar in essence, that the book is almost like reading a diary, but all along there is a slight, way-below-the-surface suspicion that it is all a tad too perfect, too loving.  Then comes what the back-cover blurb describes as “a shocking act of violence” and the second half of this powerful novel describes the aftermath of this act, and how Mary Beth and her family deal with it.

To say any more would be a spoiler.

Read.

Enjoy.

Be prepared to cry and gasp out loud with pain at times, and at the end, to sit, as this reviewer did, dazed with emotion.

An unequivocal 10/10.

“Every Last One” is published by Hutchinson and sells in India for Rs 550.

If you wish to buy the book –  and it is an amazing read –  simply click on the link below.  Couldn’t be easier :

THE MANDALA OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by Jamyang Norbu

Ever wondered what happened to Sherlock Homes, after he fell over the Reichenbach Falls and was presumed drowned ?

The only clue generations of Sherlock Homes fans had were two meagre sentences beginning “I travelled for 2 years in Tibet…”

Jamyang Norbu’s clever, well-written novel fills in these missing 2 years, thanks to a cache of documents which were in the possession of a well-known Bengali scholar who goes by the name of Hurree Chunder Mookerjee.

Yes. The very same.  Hurree Chunder Mookerjee of “Kim” fame.

The tone for this fun, light-hearted book is set in the preface, when the author tells us how he came upon Hurree’s documents, which a retired tea-planter in Darjeeling had found hidden in a wall that fell down during an earthquake.  The tea-planter is the great grandson of Hurree Chunder Mookerjee –  and from this moment on, the line between fact and fiction has been so skilfully blurred, that you do not know quite where it lies.

What ensues is a clever fusing of two worlds and two great characters, who then set off on an exciting adventure together in Tibet.  No reviewer ever wishes to spoil the pleasures of a great read,  by revealing too many details, but suffice it to say that Holmes’s arch-enemy and bitter rival, Moriarty, is also a character in the book.

There are so many period details, and references and anecdotes that from time to time you catch yourself believing in the whole adventure.  Of course, why shouldn’t Hurree Chunder and Sherlock Holmes have met up ?

You read how irritated Hurree Chunder Mookerjee is with the flippancy with which “one Mr Rudyard Kipling, late of the Allahabad Pioneer” coined the term the Great Game, which he feels isn’t respectful enough to the diplomatic work of the Ethnological Survey…And it’s at that point that you realise you have been caught in a web of great skill.

The combination of Conan Doyle + Rudyard Kipling, set against the backdrop of mysterious Lhasa makes for a winning formula.

 

“The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes” is published in India by Harper Collins and is priced at Rs 250.

It’s a great read, and if you feel like buying the book now you have read this review, then just click on the link below :

DREAMING IN HINDI by Katherine Russell Rich

An Oprah-validated book, “Dreaming in Hindi” is a fascinating account of a middle-aged American’s woman’s foray not only into India and learning Hindi, but into living in small-town India, and in a joint family to boot.

Part auto-biography, part academic treatise on linguistics and neurology, full of humour and self-mockery, “Dreaming in Hindi” is a fascinating read.  The sort of book that makes this reviewer say, ruefully, “Now, why didn’t I think of that ?”

From New York, where she has survived cancer and being fired from her job, the author travels to India on a free-lance assignment.  Fascinated by the country, she decides to move to India for a year, to immerse herself in the Hindi that she had started to learn back in the USA.

Thus Katherine Rusell Rich –  a clever, intellectual but slightly world-weary New Yorker –  ends up in Udaipur, a pretty (but small)  town in the desert sate of Rajasthan.  On one level, her adventures with language and life, with India and her eccentric fellow language students pretty much follow the path of any classic memoir of living in India.  A good entertaining read, with huge dollops of indiscretion.  This reviewer, for one, would love to know more about Helaena and her Maharaja.

The writer is eager to learn and to adapt to India, and her portrayal of her new home is full of aching love and misgiving, of frustration and hilarity, and above all of deep affection for this new world she is exploring simultaneously on several levels.

What distinguishes this book from any common-or-garden romp through India, is the academic analysis that accompanies her hilarious sorties and inevitable linguistic gaffes.  The author consults neurobiologists, experts in linguistics, and researches the meaning and impact of second language learning, skilfully weaving it all into her narrative.

As we follow her progress through India and into the complexities of the Hindi language, we also learn the whys and hows of thinking in another language.

Make no mistake, this is not a light, fluffy read.  Parts of it are hilarious.  Some parts are slightly coy.  Much of it is intellectual.  It all adds up to a thought-provoking read.

Dreaming in Hindi is published by Tranquebar and sells in India for Rs 395.

If you feel like buying the book after reading this review, nothing could be easier.  Just click on the link below :

THE GAME by Laurie R. King

What a pleasure to discover a whole new genre of fiction, even though the rest of the world has seemingly known about it for years.

Meet Mary Russell, the fictional wife of the equally fictional Sherlock Holmes.

Miss Russell has to be one of the most charming derring-do heroines a reader could hope to meet. Young, short-sighted and a feminist long before her time, in “The Game” Mary and her husband set off for India on the trail of… ?

Well, who else but Kim ?

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, naturally.

This delicious detective novel cleverly weaves the lives of two fictional greats together, with just enough literary detail that occasionally you catch yourself wondering “What if..” and “Could they really…”

Mary is the driving force in the novel, and is a hugely attractive heroine, putting up with all the cloak-and-dagger-y stuff that life with Sherlock Holmes (and Kim) demands.

“The Game” is her story, her adventure,  and her good-natured sense of humour drives the exciting plot along, though her love, respect and trust in her husband are clearly the mainstay of her life.  To see the great Sherlock Holmes in love with a charming young woman is to see one of fiction’s greats through a different lens.

India of the early 1920s is brilliantly brought to life, in all its avatars.  From colonial Delhi, to fly-blown villages and caravanserai, to the fabulous but troublesome kingdom of Khanpur, our intrepid heroine (and her husband) travel in search of Kim, who is by now middle-aged.

Of course he is.

Jimmy, the hugely rich but hugely bored Maharajah of Khanpur is brought to brilliant life, his intelligence, charm and sense of grievance making him a compelling, increasingly worrying figure.

This literary tour-de-force is charming, fun, and a genuine page-turner.  You really don’t want the book to end, whilst simultaneously longing to find out what happens.

 

“The Game” is published by Allison & Busby and costs £7.99.

If you enjoyed this review (and I hope you did) and now wish to buy the book, just click on the link below :

 

THE DOUBLE COMFORT SAFARI CLUB by Alexander McCall Smith

The eleventh novel in the delightful No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series, “The Double Comfort Safari Club” takes the reader on yet another series of sleuthing adventures across Botswana, with the charming, compassionate, and very traditionally built Precious Ramotswe.

With his elegant and affectionate prose, Alexander McCall Smith evokes the sights and sounds, the smells and the dust, and the very essence of Botswana. People are kind and considerate. They retain their traditional values – and their traditional build – and never lose sight of their village origins. There is a palpable sense of community and compassion in the world of Precious Ramotswe – values that have been lost in many other seemingly more developed parts of the world.

“The Double Comfort Safari Club” features two of the secondary characters whom we have met over the preceding books.

Poor Phuti Radiphuti – soon to marry the clever Grace Makutsi, or so we hope – meets with an accident.

And the woman we all love to hate, the scheming, shameless “arch-Jezebel” Violet Sephotho (who could only manage 50% in the final exams of the Botswana Secretarial Ciollege) shows her true colours. And she is certainly no shrinking Violet.

This novel also travels further afield, out of Gaborone, Botswana’s dusty, friendly, low-key capital city, and off to Maun and the Okavango Delta.

Alexander McCall Smith has done more to put Botswana on the literary map than anyone else, and his unerring ear for dialogue and his obvious love of Africa and her people, all combine to make this eleventh novel in the series every bit as charming as the earlier books.

“The Double Comfort Safari Club” is published by Little Brown and costs £12.99

CALL ME DAN by Anish Trivedi

This début novel of Mumbai-based Anish Trivedi is well-written, sharply-observed, and a great read.

The main character, Gautam, is a 30-year old lower middle-class young man, still living at home with his parents and sister.  Their life is frugal, traditional and distinctly joy-less. To his parents’ despair, Gautam doesn’t have what they term a real job, for he works in a call centre.

At work, in the world without time-zones, Gautam morphs into Dan.  Dan is witty,  rather the young man about town.  Dan drinks, which Gautam certainly wouldn’t.  Dan is cosmopolitan, a bit of a flirt.  Dan is, well, quite different from Gautam.

Anish Trivedi successfully brings both voices to life, steering his character(s) through surburban life, through the grind of work and daily commuting, through love’s ups and downs, through family dramas.

The author is a keen observer of social mores.  Seeing Dan interacting with Sondra, his foreign female colleague –  all blonde hair and throwaway lines – we watch as “Dan” wings it through water-cooler moments with her, making mental notes to himself to google the words he doesn’t understand, without ever missing a conversational beat.  His need to learn, to widen his horizons, to keep the veneer of sophistication in place is finely noted.

The prejudices in suburbia are finely chronicled by the author.  Michelle, Gautam’s long-suffering girlfriend, is a Christian and automatically perceived by his family to be unsuitable.  To be fair, Michelle’s family is equally unenthused by Gautam. Gautam’s best friend Naseer is a Muslim, much to his parent’s dismay.  Anish Trivedi sketches this world of petty prejudice and mistrust without ever falling into clichés, and we wince with discomfort at the un-PC world Gautam/Dan inhabits, while acknowledging just how horribly true to life it all is.

A fun read.  An affectionate portrayal of a hero trying to be more than the sum of his parts.  And an utterly delicious cameo of the station chai-wala.

CALL ME DAN was published in August 2010 by Penguin, and costs Rs 250.

If you would like to buy the book, nothing could be simpler.  Just click on the link below :