FIXING YOUR FEET by John Vonhof

Before I start, let me tell you that running has changed my life.  In so, so many ways.

Such as?
Well, one of them being that winning a book called “Fixing your feet’ in a competition organised by a local Delhi running group made me as pleased as punch.  Because now I could look up blackened toenails and pronation and how to treat blisters…oh sorry, is this too much information?!

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Since starting running 2 years ago, my feet have become of major importance to me, if that doesn’t sound silly –  a blister or a sore toe means no running.  End of story.  Miserable day….all you runners out there know the feeling.

So I cosset my feet now way more than I ever did my pre-running days.

And, of course, my feet look terrible, compared to pre-running days.   All those blackened toe nails.

This book is, therefore, a perfect reference book.  I have dipped in and out of the relevant chapters, and will keep it handy for any future aches and pains.

The book is published in the US by Wilderness Press and costs $18.95.  It was originally published in 1997 and has been reprinted many times over the years.

Should you wish to order it now, you can do so now by clicking on one of the links below.  Couldn’t be easier.

A Loyal Character Dancer by Qiu Xiaolong

I am not sure at which point enthusiasm becomes embarrassing, but I’m going to risk it anyway.

In Shanghai last week to visit my son who works there, I re-read all the Inspector Chen novels with great pleasure – as I have said before in other book reviews, there is nothing quite like being in the very place you are reading about.  It’s all the delightful, insider feeling of “Ah yes, I know exactly where that street/building/park is…”

And thus it was, when I found myself, early one misty April morning, in the little park on the Bund where Inspector Chen comes across a body, that I felt seriously excited.  I knew exactly where the action took place.  I, too, was there in the cool pre-dawn mist, listening to the clock tower chime, watching people practice tai-chi…yes, I should probably stop right here, before this all becomes too gushing.

For the record, the Bund Park is now way smaller than it was in the early 1990s, the time of the novel, but there I was at the Waibaidu end of the park

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I heard the music

FullSizeRender-1The colonial architecture along the Bund is even more impressive now than it (probably) was when Chen Cao saw it :

FullSizeRender-2And the tai chi still goes on…

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Chief Inspector Chen is an eminently likeable man.  A bachelor, an intellectual, a man who does his duty as a policeman even though it might oftentimes run counter to the all-important political needs of The Party.  He is something of an enigma to his colleagues –  a quiet, low-key, almost-reluctant policeman, who would rather be writing poetry much of the time.  This air of impenetrability around Chief Inspector Chen means that it is all the more to the credit of his assistant Detective Yu, that the latter trusts him so instinctively, and watches his back at every twist and turn.

Inspector Yu is a wonderful character.  No jolly side-kick here, but an older, poorly paid man whose youth was wasted by the Cultural Revolution, leaving him stuck without an education in a low-paying job.  His initial resentment of his younger, intellectual, better-paid boss has all but evaporated now, and even though he cannot always fathom his boss, he admires him and is fiercely loyal.

There is a death and a missing person in this book, but neither we nor the Shanghai police are sure whether they are connected.

What is fascinating about the Chief Inspector Chen books is not simply the whodunnit aspects of the stories, but also their setting –  Shanghai in the early 1990s, with the memory of Tiananmen still fresh in everyone’s minds, and the gradual, tentative emergence of capitalism, despite the strong grip The Party, Internal Security and the all-powerful state holds over the country.

Chen Cao is a man caught in the midst of these changes.  Young enough to have escaped the ravages and the waste of the Cultural Revolution – a theme that is a leitmotif through Qiu Xiaolong’s writing – and a man seen by the party to have a future, and treated accordingly, he is nevertheless a government employee on a paltry salary, battling his way on and off hot, over-crowded buses and metros, and often amazed by the way the other half lives.

Chen Cao is deputed to accompany an American marshal, Catherine Rohn, who is coming to Shanghai to escort the wife of a Chinese man the Americans have in a witness protection programme.  Feng Dexiang is thought to be involved in human trafficking to the US, but has decided to cooperate with the Americans to save his skin –  but won’t talk unless his wife, Wen Liping joins him.  So Inspector Rohn, a pretty blonde Chinese speaking young woman, has been sent out to escort Wen to the US.

Except, Wen cannot be found.

And that is all I am going to tell you, otherwise it will spoil the plot for you.

There is travel to Fujian province in search of Wen, there are long train journeys, there is food galore, there is the barest hint of romance, and there is the totally fascinating, ever-evolving city of Shanghai, with its karaoke bars and banquets, its desperate housing shortage and traffic jams, with its tea houses and, as long as we have Chen Cao as our likeable hero, lots of poetry.

Lots and lots of poetry.

And food.

And tea.

 

Highly recommended.

Published originally by Soho Press, 01 Sep 2003

If this review has encouraged you to read the book for yourself (and I hope it has) you can buy it here and now:

BEAUTY STORY by LUKE JENNINGS

Some times I wonder if I should bluff more when I blog, but then I think…nah. Honesty is far and away the best policy.

So, the truth of the matter is that I was casting around for something to read, and pulled a book off my bookshelf.

“Beauty Story”.

Nice hardback, bought in Johannesburg several years ago.

Languished unread ever since.  And I have no reason why.  Stupid oversight.

What a revelation Luke Jennings is.  What a writer. I have subsequently googled him (as one does to correct one’s ignorance), and discovered that he is a writer of note, a journalist and, how fabulous, a dance critic.

None of this I knew as I devoured “Beauty Story”, which is as luscious a piece of mystery writing as you could hope to read.

The book is replete with gorgeous descriptions, that are so lush and so tactile that you can close your eyes and imagine yourself in the wonderful setting of Darne, a jewel of an Elizabethan house in Warwickshire, that is being used for a film commercial. Of course, now that I know that Mr. Jennings is a dance critic, and therefore a man who clearly spends hours in theatres, the theatricality that is at the heart of the book makes total sense, as do all the beautiful, detailed descriptions of the costumes and the settings for the filming.

The story is told in the first person, and we see everything through the eyes of Alison MacAteer, a fashion journalist who is commissioned to cover an elaborate ad campaign for a new perfume, “Eternal Summer.”  The commercial is filmed in the house and garden of Darne, as a homage to one of the ancestors of the Duboys family that still lives in Darne, a beautiful young woman who disappeared without trace some 400 years ago.  The commercial is filmed as an elaborate Elizabethan masque, and one of the joys of this book is the wealth of literary and artistic references.  Mr. Jennings wears his scholarship lightly, and I loved reading about Shakespeare and Elizabethan imagery and painting.

At the heart of the Duboys family history is the unexplained disappearance of Eleanor, and when the young American actress who stars in the commercial also disappears, there are obvious parallels.  Alison, in order to understand the present, must delve into the past, and as she does so, she must confront her own demons.  For Alison has her own dark history with which she must come to terms.

This is a dazzling book, and this review simply does not do it justice.

Read it for the story which is fascinating and very clever. Read it for the descriptions which are fabulous.  Read it for enchantment.

Goodness knows why my own copy of  “Beauty Story” was neglected for so long.

Highly recommended.

Published in 1998 by Hutchinson, my (old) hardback cost £17.99

The Himalayan Concerto by John Masters

You shouldn’t have to know a place and/or physically be in a place to enjoy a book, but there really is nothing like sitting in the Himalayas, relishing a book about the Himalayas.

John Masters’ “The Himalayan Concerto” was written in 1975, published in 1976, and purports to take place in 1979, and yet nearly 40 years on is still pertinent and quite alarmingly up to date.

 

Reading this book in Leh, the atmospheric little capital of Ladakh, while acclimatising for a climbing expedition to Chamser Kangri…no, wait, sorry…our climbing permit was refused because of a Chinese incursion over the border into Ladakh…as I was saying, this book about the balance of power in the Indian Himalayas in the 1970s remains as pertinent today as when Mr. Masters wrote it.

Quite alarmingly pertinent, in fact.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel about Rodney Bateman, a British composer from a family that has long loved and served in India, but is currently unhappily married to an Indian.  Rodney is trying to write his Himalayan Concerto, about the music that binds the mountains and the adjoining countries, and as he travels the length and breadth of the mountains, he is also trying to sort out his own personal life.  Plus investigating some strange happenings on the Tibetan border for the Indian government.  His cover – travelling to research music –  affords him a degree of freedom to wander and chat, and he willingly undertakes to observe whatever is going on and report back to the Indian authorities.

Call it nostalgia, but I love the idea of a foreigner, but one who is known to love India, being co-opted to  – well –  spy for India.  This is a world of climbing, and fishing, and camping, and Kashmiri houseboats, and little private planes dropping off supplies in the highest most unreachable parts of the Himalayas.

That world has long since gone, but the charm of this story remains bang up-to-date, with its twists and turns and politics and downright “old fashioned” adventure.  Mr. Masters writes about Chinese incursions into India, and the Maoist threat in Bengal, and Pakistani sabre rattling…yes, 40 years down the line, open the Indian papers and what do you get?

A good old nostalgic read for a way of life that has gone, and yet…

 

THE BROKER by John Grisham

No doubt about it, John Grisham is a cracking storyteller, and “The Broker” is a gripping read from start to finish.

This is one of the least “legal” of Mr. Grisham’s novels (at least amongst the ones I have read) and even though the broker in question is indeed a lawyer, he is more of a political lobbyist. Joel Backman is in fact one of the most powerful men in Washington, the ultimate high-flyer, a man who wheels and deals at the highest echelons of the Washington power structure.

Until he ends up in jail, that is, disbarred, bankrupt and in solitary confinement.

One of the last acts of possibly the most ineffective US President ever, is to pardon Joel Backman, at the apparent behest of the CIA, who immediately fly him out of the US and off to Bologna in Italy, under an assumed name and with a handler, Luigi, whose sole mission is, it would appear, to get Joel to learn Italian as quickly and effectively as possible.

There is a lot of Italian in this book, and a lot of wandering through the historic city of Bologna which, one can only imagine, Mr. Grisham loves a lot.

The contrast between Italy and the US is often highlighted, be it the food, the long lunches, the smoky cheek-by-jowl tables in cafés, and we spend many a happy hour in Joel’s company as he discovers a new city, a new country, a new language and a whole new way of life.

But danger is never far away, and Joel Backman is soon on the run – but from whom?  His own country, in the guise of the the CIA and/or the FBI?  Or someone else?

To answer those questions would obviously be a major plot-spoiler, so I won’t.

Suffice it to say, you are gunning for Joel Backman all through this exciting, fast-paced book, and as he ducks and dives and weaves to escape from something he doesn’t fully understand, you the reader are hooked.

 

To order this gripping page-turner right now – whether as a book or as an e-book –  simply click on one of the links below :

 

And, yes, one day I definitely intend to visit Bologna, inspired by Mr. Grisham…

Chasing the Monsoon by Alexander Frater

It has been a few years since I re-re-read Alexander Frater’s  “Chasing the Monsoon”, one of those books that so perfectly captures India that it is, well, perfect.

(And yes, what a shockingly inadequate sentence that is.)

I loved this book the first time I read it, when I was fairly new to India.

A couple of decades later, this book is every bit as marvellous and funny and oh-so-beautifully written.  A truly sensational piece of writing.

But this time, my 3rd (or is it 4th?) reading of “Chasing the monsoon” made me very nostalgic, for I fear that the India Mr. Frater describes in such luminous prose is slowly but surely disappearing.

The India of 1987 when he travelled across India following the monsoon was a slower, gentler paced India than the country where I now live circa 2014.  India in 1987 was a country of poor telecommunications (oh, how I remember those days…how well…) of erratic internal flights (oh, how I remember those days…how well…) but of a chattiness and friendliness and generous warmth and slight dottiness that I loved and adored, and now miss.

Mr. Frater travels from Kanyakumari to Cherrapunji, the famed wettest place in earth (though it was dry as a bone when we visited a few years ago) tracking the monsoon as it makes its slow and life-giving way across India.

Mr. Frater wears his obvious scholarship very lightly, seamlessly weaving into his picaresque story snippets of history, lots of personal memories from an extraordinary childhood in the New Hebrides, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of climatology.

He is a man who travels lightly and well. The kind of man one would love for a travel companion. Observant, affectionate, ready to go with whatever flow takes him gradually across India. He clearly loves India, and even the bad moments (usually bureaucracy) bear witness to a resigned shrug of the shoulders and an acceptance.

And what a fabulous cast of characters we meet as we wander across India in Mr. Frater’s company. He meets and chats with and describes people so well, that I was often sorry when his travels took him on and away from such characters who positively leap out of the pages.

My latest reading of this book took place in my home, Delhi, in that week in late June when you pray for the rains. 29 June (the “traditional” day for the onset) came and went, with only a couple of showers, and just as Mr. Frater read the met reports assiduously in 1987, so I found myself reading my 2014 versions with a little more interest than usual, comparing the language.

2014 not looking good this late June, what with the monsoon being in a tailspin…

met report

I have said in other book reviews that you don’t necessarily have to be in a particular place to enjoy a book, but if you are in situ, then the pleasure is heightened, and the fact that I am languishing in hot, powercut-y Delhi, all of us waiting for the monsoon, made “Chasing the Monsoon ” absolutely perfect.

There are too many wonderful encounters to detail them all, but I do have my favourites. Such as the naked sadhu who made a century for the West Bengal Water Board. This encounter in the shimmering heat of Deeg in Rajasthan is delicious and utterly delightful :

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There are some moments that make you laugh out loud at the sheer dottiness of it all, such as this vignette from Shillong :

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It is from Shillong that the author has to make a dash to the airport to leave a restricted area, since his permit is about to run out.  To anyone who has driven in India, this fabulous description will ring a hilarious (but scary) bell :

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This is a marvellous book, written with elegance, and I finished it with sadness. I didn’t want the quest to be over.  So it is fitting that one of the very last people we meet in India in Mr. Frater’s company is 75 year old Tom Richmond, who came to India in 1933 and never left :

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I cannot recommend “Chasing the Monsoon” too highly.

If you now feel like buying the book (and for Indian readers, it would make perfect monsoon/pre-monsoon reading) then nothing could be simpler. Simply click on the links below:

You can also buy this as an ebook :

BANGKOK EIGHT by JOHN BURDETT

There is such a delight in discovering (admittedly well after everyone else) a fabulous new detective hero, and after reading “Bangkok Eight” I am a fan, a firm, verging-on-embarrassingly-enthusiastic fan of Sonchai Jitpleecheep.

Sonchai Jitpleecheep is an unusual Bangkok cop.

For one thing he is only half Thai.

For another thing, he is not on the take, which is why he knows he will pretty much always languish at the bottom of the police food chain.

And since he can see people’s past lives, he has a unique take on the people he meets as he works the streets of Bangkok. Hmm…using the word “works” makes him sound rather like the hookers who people his world – hardly surprising, given that his delightful mother, Nong, is a former whore. His father, one of her clients we learn, he has never met, but he is part of Sonchai’s thoughts. Not obsessively so, but he does wonder about his father. And his fabulously practical mother refuses to tell him what he wants to know.

His half and half status (and his excellent lingustic skills, rare in the Bangkok Police force) give this delightful man a totally different perspective on life, on Thailand, on Bangkok, on Buddhism, on morality, on prostitution, on corruption. On any and all of the many strands, in fact, that make this clever beautifully written narrative such a good, entertaining read.

The story opens with a shocking brutal murder, and the death of Sonchai’s closest friend and partner, so within a few seconds we are plunged headlong into a world of death and horror and retribution, and the pace doesn’t let up from that point onwards.

The drawback of reviewing a crime novel is that you don’t want to spoil the plot. So I won’t.

But this much I will say : be prepared for action, humour, drugs, food, sex, and a voyage of discovery into the world of Bangkok prostitution which makes these young women some of the most likeable people you will meet.

Mr. Burdett wears his obvious scholarship and deep knowledge of Thailand lightly, while letting his equally obvious love and affection for the country and her people shine through. As you read, you learn about Thai culture and manners and thought processes, but all done in such a way that it is a natural part of the narrative.

A great read. And I can’t wait to start on the next book in the series…

Published 2003 (so, yes, agreed, it took me a while to discover Sonchai).

Recommended.

Great read.

If you now feel like reading this book, it couldn’t be easier.  Just click on any of the links below.

Happy reading.


A LIE ABOUT MY FATHER by JOHN BURNSIDE

Perhaps I am taking this whole “lie” thing in the title too seriously, but I was a little torn as to whether or not to tell the truth in this review.

Should I fib or not ?

No, you’re right.  No fibbing.  Tell the truth, embarrassing as it is, which is as follows :

This is the first time I have ever read a complete e-book from (cyber) cover to (cyber) cover  – which means that there was no helpful blurb.

Which means that until I finished it and (inevitably) googled the book, did I discover that it wasn’t a work of fiction after all, but a memoir.

Ah.

So?

Would my opinion of “A lie about my father” have changed substantially had I known I was reading fact rather than fiction ?

Yes, I suppose it would have, but all I can say is that I read it as fiction (though I did suppose there was a huge bedrock of memories underpinning the story ).  Had I known it was a memoir, possibly I would have found it less same old, same old-ey.  There were moments when I groaned at the thought of yet another childhood memory or another drug induced explanation, so possibly I would have been a little more understanding.

But anyway, that’s how I read the book, and you can’t re-do first impressions.

As it was, despite moments of great lyricism, I found “A lie about my father” to be just far too “nombriliste” –  if the writer can thrown in the odd Rimbaud quotation without translation, then surely I can respond in kind ?

The childhood parts of the book resonated much more – possibly because of a shared northern, Catholic DNA, but ironically it was that same northern, Catholic DNA that made me impatient with the endless maundering. I empathised far more with the 2 women who were for me far more courageous than their menfolk.  While the latter drank and drugged their way into parallel, self-destructive spirals of oblivion, these 2 stoic women tried to soldier on.  We never really get to know much about Margaret (husband ?  childrens’ names? that kind of thing) but she is the one who remains loyal and solidly caring.  John’s mother is more fleshed out and eminently more likeable than her husband.  She is the person I felt the sorriest for throughout the whole saga.  She I could visualise, unlike the father.

The very heart of the book, the tortured, destructive relationship between the 2 men left me cold.  Horribly, uncaringly cold.  His mother moved me.

There are moments of beautiful lyricism and lovely writing, words that spear a moment perfectly:

“tumbling off when we reached the bottom and making delicious red scrapes on our hands and knees, those red scrapes with hard little pieces of coal and slag buried just under the skin.”

As I read that, I glanced at my own knee, which still has a tiny bit of grit embedded, after a spectacular childhood tumble down a hill.  I can still remember the painful tweezering out of grit and muck from my shredded knee, all these decades later.

I loved this early passage :

“If there is an afterlife, for me it will be limbo, the one truly great Catholic invention: a no man’s land of mystery and haunting music, with nobody good or holy around to be compared to – they will all be in heaven – just the interesting outsiders, the unbaptised and the pagan, and the faultless sceptics God cannot quite find it in himself to send to hell.”

The writer spends much of his adolescence and early adult life in a limbo of his own self destructive making but (now that I know it is a memoir) he clearly pulls himself out of the morass, and the final images of him holding the hand of his excited 3 year old son, pottering around the harbour looking at crabs, augurs well.

I am glad the writer now has a son, and appears to have found inner peace.  He has been brave to share so much sadness.

I loved the final moment of the wake for his father, when his friends produce a photo of him – possibly  – playing football.  So, did he play for Lothian or not?

Ah…back to the lies that are at the very heart of this book…

A brave book, that is not always a comfortable read.

Published by Vintage books in 2007, you can buy the book now by clicking on the link below :

 

THE HIDDEN LAND by URSULA GRAHAM BOWER

Ursula Bower, author and anthropologist (died November 1988). She lived with the Naga tribesmen and fought against the Japanese in World War II

I read this sadly out of print book a year ago, when I visited Nagaland and became fascinated with the tale of Ursula Graham Bower.  Ms Graham Bower’s “Naga Path” (that is a link to my review, obviously) covers her years in Nagaland, and “The Hidden Land” takes up the story.  Ursula is now married – only just –  and with her husband, Lt. Col Tim Betts, they set off on their new posting, to the virtually unknown, uncharted Lower Subansiri region of Arunachal Pradesh.

Now, let me stop here for a moment and give you some background information.

Ursula and Tim’s daughter, Catriona Child is a friend of mine in Delhi, and we have just returned from an amazing trip together to Arunachal, following in the steps of her parents.  A friend and passionate historian accompanied us, identifying places where Catriona’s parents lived, camped, visited – nothing short of amazing, recreating a journey of over 60 years ago.

So, having read “The Hidden Land” once and found it poignantly sad compared with “Naga Path,” I re-read the book before our trip, and no sooner had I closed the last page, on a frosty morning in the Apa Tani valley, than I turned right back to the first page and re-re-read it.

And that I have never done.  Ever.  Read a book literally back to back.

But so fascinating was it to put faces to names, and to put the exciting adventure that the Betts couple live into perspective, that it made sense to keep on reading this book which is still so fresh that it is hard to imagine that the events in it took place in a very different India.  To read about the men whose families we would meet was both moving and highly emotional.

Ms Graham Bower is still desperately in love with the tribal North East during her years in Arunachal, but their time in the Lower Subansiri district was a trying one, with feuding and sparring tribes to contend with, as well as the couple’s growing anxiety about their future in India after Independence. (I did just say that they lived in a very different India, remember).

Their mission statement would have terrified many a current politician:Untitled 3

And so off they set, to trek into this virtually uncharted land –  the hidden land of the title – in their pragmatic, down-to-earth way.  Supplies were in desperately short supply, in those years immediately after the Second World War.  Porters were hard to find.  They had no idea if the tribes would be hostile.  And the going was physically tough, but from the very start, from the opening paragraph, you are captivated and ready to accompany Ursula and Tim on their big adventure :

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The famed Apa Tani valley, a place that captured the heart and the imagination of this intrepid couple still is beautiful, despite “progress” in the form of buildings and traffic and satellite dishes, but to the Betts’ it was literally breathtaking :

Untitled 2Their final departure from this beautiful land, when India becomes Independent, is heart-breaking.

They loved the country with a passion, and the hidden land of the title becomes hidden to them for ever, as they walk out of the Valley for the last time, unable to look back, such is their grief.

This book is a wonderful read.

If you know India and especially the north east it is compelling.

Track it down online – I have added an Amazon link below – and let yourself be swept back to a time when voyages of discovery were literally possible.

The Perfect Murder by H.R.F.Keating

Re-reading “The Perfect Murder” was every bit as delightful the 3rd time round, as it was the first.

Yes, of course I knew whodunnit, but the writing and the scene setting and the use of language in the book are all so delicious that you read it as much for the writing as for the story.

This book is a truly dazzling literary tour de force once you know that the author had never, ever been to India when he wrote the book.  And yet Bombay (it was, back then) springs to loud, noisy, colourful life in front of your eyes.  The characters are 100% credible, the language is spot-on, and you marvel at how perfect (no pun intended) the depiction of one of the world’s great cities is.

And Mr. Keating had never visited.  Not once.

This book is the first in what would become a long, delightful series, and in it we meet the dogged, determined, definitely put-upon Inspector Ghote, from the Bombay CID.  We meet his feisty wife Protima, their beloved son Ved, and an array of characters as lifelike, as dodgy, as suspicious, as likeable as you could wish to meet.

My old, battered paperback, dating from my first trip to Bombay was published by Hamlyn, and cost the then princely sum of £1.10p though the book was first published in 1964.

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