MASALA DABBA by Michael Swamy

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m not much of a cook.

Translation: I hardly know how to boil an egg.

So I am totally not the kind of person to seek out cookbooks, but “Masala Dhaba” is totally different.

Trust me.

Firstly, it is written by Michael Swamy, an absolutely charming, low-key, modest man I have met on a couple of occasions here in Delhi.

I wrote a story about Michael when he opened a Latin American restaurant, “Nueva” here in Delhi, and I follow him on social media, but that’s as far as it goes.

I didn’t even know he’d written this cookery book until I was asked whether I wanted to review it by the publishers, Om Books International.

So there you have it, full disclosure – including the fact that I am not a “food” person at all.

But this book might just change all that.

Michael Swamy has not only created the recipes in this elegant, attractive book, he has photographed them, too.  The book is a visual treat, absolutely gorgeous.

And the recipes, my dears, the recipes.

They are readable, simple, and brilliant.

What Chef has done is to take the traditional Indian spice “dabba” and turn it inside out, blending, mixing and re-thinking old favourites.

Chef takes familiar dishes and re-invents them, by using unusual spices, contrasting & unusual combinations, slightly different flavours, by pairing contrasting tastes.

On the day the book arrived from the publisher, I sat down and started reading it (truly I did.  Cross my heart and hope to die) and almost immediately came across Chef’s recipe for “Aloo matar tikki aur kurkuri bhindi” (everything is translated into English, by the way).

Now aloo tikkis are something I learned to enjoy in my Mumbai days, years ago, and we thought we knew how to make them.  My husband is half Sindhi and so his rellies always claim tikkis are typically Sindhi, and that they all know how to make them to perfection.

Well…Chef’s version was tikkis with a twist, let me tell you.

We’ve made it a couple of times since and it is set to become a new staple.

You have to excuse the photography, by the way.

I’m a photographer, as it so happens, but not a food photographer and food stylist, like the talented Chef Michael.  Not for nothing did I describe Chef as a “renaissance man” in my article – creating, cooking, writing, styling, photographing – he does it all.

Anyway, with that in mind, here is Michael’s version of tikkis:
And here is my photo of our attempt, exactly 3 hours after the book had been delivered (seriously!):

Yeah.  You’re right.  I need to learn food styling…

But, joking aside, these “tikki”s were delicious.

We have also tried and enjoyed the “chhole aur jau ka pulao” (chickpea and barley pilaf) and there are loads more recipes earmarked for trying.

Re the pulao recipe I just mentioned – there are just 5 steps in the cooking.  Well 4 actually, since the 5th instruction is “Serve hot with raita”.  For a non-cook like me, I don’t find this book in the last bit intimidating.  Recipes are succinct.  The instructions are clear and uncomplicated.

And some of the combos are amazing sounding –  yogurt chilli pepper cupcakes anyone?!

As well as a host of interesting recipes just begging to be tried, there is a section telling you how to make your own masalas, and lots of useful definitions.

For our complicated household –  vegetarian/no meat but fish/no fish but meat, this book is a godsend.

As I mentioned at the outset, I was sent a copy of the book by the publishers, but am under no obligation to write a review.

None at all.

But having read this cookery book, loved it, & already bought 2 copies to give to friends, I thoroughly recommend it.

Here you go.  A link to buy it online.

DEAD SIMPLE by PETER JAMES

Oh, the joy of “discovering” a new writer.

Whoops, the slight embarrassment when you realise that everyone else in the world except you already knows about said writer.

And so, having got that off my chest, let’s talk about Peter James.

I was riveted by “Dead Simple” – published in 2005, so how up to date am I? – and literally could not put the book down, with its clever plot twists and its gripping, macabre story line.

Reviewing a murder mystery inevitably involves being a little vague, because the last thing I would want to do is to spoil your enjoyment of this brilliant story.

We are introduced in this book to Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, a man we instantly like and trust and respect.  What makes Roy Grace so interesting a man is his own tragic back story.  9 years earlier, his adored wife Sandy disappeared, and he still has no idea what happened to her.  He wonders, constantly, whether Sandy is still alive and in his quest for answers, Roy consults mediums and fortune tellers, and has an interest in the occult – for which he is sometimes ridiculed, within the conventional world of modern policing.

Roy Grace lives in the southern English coastal town of Brighton, and the city features largely in the story.

I am not going to spoil the book by telling you anything more than the book’s blurb does:

“It was meant to be a harmless stag-night prank.  A few hours later Michael Harrison has disappeared and four of his friends are dead.”

As I said earlier, there are plot twists in this book, lots of them, but at one point I was cocky enough to think I’d “got it”.  That I’d figured out what was happening.

No way.  You are kept on your toes tight until the last sentence of this exciting book.

Personally recommended.

And if you would like to buy the book, here’s the link.  You know what to do.

CRAZY RICH ASIANS by Kevin Kwan

Although I tell myself I really don’t care what other people think, secretly I was a little worried at quite how much I enjoyed “Crazy Rich Asians”.

So obviously I googled reviews of the book, & was relieved beyond measure when I read this comment in a 2013 review of the book in the New York Times:

Mr. Kwan knows how to deliver guilty pleasures. He keeps the repartee nicely outrageous, the excess wretched and the details wickedly delectable.”

Wickedly delectable.

Totally spot on.

This book is a light-hearted, un-judge-y romp through the lives and times and shopping binges of the crazily rich of Singapore.

There is delicious designer-name-dropping throughout the novel, and it rapidly becomes totally addictive to see who is buying what and wearing what.

The premise of the book is quite simple.

Rachel Chu, ethnically Chinese but brought up and educated in the US, falls in love with another academic like herself, handsome and charming and low-key Nick Young.

They live together in New York, and life is good.  Until Nick invites her to join him in his home, Singapore, for his best friend’s wedding, where he is best man.

I don’t think I’m spoiling the plot for you when I say that when she visits Singapore, Rachel is confronted with wealth and opulence on a scale she has never imagined (let’s face it, it’s all on a scale that not many of us have imagined).  Nick’s world, the world into which he was born, is that of the uber-rich and as a wealthy single man, he is considered way too valuable a catch to fall into the hands of this unknown, clearly not very wealthy ABC (American Born Chinese).

Plotting and scheming ensue, on a scale that would make old Machiavelli himself blush.

Nick is blisffully in love, and blissfully unaware of how much of a catch he is considered to be, and totally unaware of the lengths to which his family will go to put a spanner in the works.

The wedding that is the anchor-point of the novel is so grand and so opulent that you literally can’t stop turning the pages, to see just what excessive display of wealth will come next.

Quick aside: I live in India, where eye-wateringly expensive weddings take place.  Fortunes are spent on impressing everyone how wealthy you are, so the excesses of the Colin & Araminta wedding didn’t strike me as being in the realm of fiction.  I could even imagine some Indian mothers of the bride reading this novel and thinking “Ah, now I could do that for my daughter’s wedding…”

But I digress.

This is a jolly, happy read – though I did shed a tear at one point, I must confess.  The opulence and wealth and sheer bonkers-ness of the excesses of the idle rich are vicariously fun to read.  I mean, who doesn’t dream of climate controlled wardrobes, with different temperatures for the shoes and the furs?  And a camera in the mirror that takes a photo of you, and records what you’re wearing, thus ensuring you never repeat an outfit?

The city state of Singapore is depicted with great affection by Mr. Kwan, and the descriptions of the gardens of Nick’s ancestral home are lyrical and beautiful.

This is a fun read, showcasing the struggle for true love, and good vs evil.  And lots of fabulous frocks.

Enjoy this “wickedly delectable” novel.

And don’t even feel guilty about so doing for a moment.

Go on!

Order the book now.

You know you want to!

HALF THE NIGHT IS GONE by AMITABHA BAGCHI

“Like an old man, which I am, I found myself yearning for the time, no, not the time, for the life that has gone by.  Not my own biological, chronological life, but the life of the place where I was born.”

These words, written by a distinguished Hindi author, Vishwanath, in a letter to a friend, are at the very heart of this complex, densely-woven, generation-spanning novel.

An old man, a writer, clever with words, is writing.

As he writes, he reminisces about the Delhi that he knew as a child, he writes about family, he writes about the child he has lost, he writes about regret.

These themes – family, loss, regret, emotion, memory – are the warp and weft of this sweeping novel.

Family is at the very heart of the book.  Well, families, more precisely, since we follow the stories of different families, with their stories paralleling each other and intertwining over the generations.

Lineage, protecting your family and its wealth, passing the baton to future generations – these sentiments are counterpointed against the sad reality of exclusion, of love unfulfilled, of the inability to express the love that steers so many of the emotions and reaction in the novel.

Mr. Bagchi writes beautifully, offering us lovely, long complex sentences that are a joy to read, quite apart from their narrative value.  One imagines the author to be a deeply thoughtful and eloquent man, so well does he understand the driving force of a writer, and of one who yearns to learn more about religion and philosophy.

His male characters, across the generations and the class divisions are strongly drawn.  Although a couple of his female characters are also strongly portrayed, men dominate this story, their histories the ones that bind the generations.  The connection between a family’s history and its forefathers is constantly played out and replayed in this novel, which spans generations of the same families.

As the rich trader Lala Motichand musing about family and its origins and future obligations puts it:

“After all, they belonged to the class of people for whom the family and its generations are like a single living organism whose long lifespan…is an unending thread woven into the unrolling tapestry of human history.”

This is a novel to be savoured – for its fine writing, its beautiful prose and for a long, languorous telling of the history of ordinary men and women, of their families, of their errors, and very often their regrets.

I was sent a copy of the book by the publishers Juggernaut, but absolutely no pressure was put on me for a review, favourable or otherwise.  Thank you.

Do read this novel.  It is a great read.

Here’s the link to buy it online:

The Ladybird Book of Red Tape

Yet another laugh out loud book in the brilliant series, “Ladybird Books for Grown-Ups”.

This book, about the dreaded red tape that we all have to deal with, struck a particular chord, especially on a day when I’d had to call my bank a record 7 times, being passed from pillar to post, back to pillar and back to a different post, endlessly giving my poor late mother’s maiden name and my date of birth to people who would then pass me onto the wrong department…sorry, sorry…you’re right. This isn’t about me.  This is a book review.  So yes, back to reviewing a fun book about red tape.

As the book says:

“Your call is important to us, says the lady on the help-line,

The call is important because it is currently making the company 48p per minute.”

Quite.

Another part that resonated was this extract (below).

As someone who battles to remember the myriad passwords we all need in order to do anything these days, this all sounded dolefully familiar:
I love the old-fashioned illustrations – which is how we all remember Ladybird books, of course –  which are totally at variance with the text.

A fun read, as ever with this series, combining childhood nostalgia with wearied adult reality.

And here you go, a link so you can buy this fun book right now – just so long as you can remember all those dratted password 😛

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Schaffer & Annie Barrows

A second reading of this book was most definitely called for, after seeing the trailer for the film of the same name.  (The film is  yet to be seen, though I’m saddened by the lukewarm reviews it got).  I’d read the book almost immediately after it was published in 2008 & enjoyed it then, and a second reading, 10 years on, did not disappoint.

I enjoyed the book, and yes, OK, perhaps it is a tad whimsy, but it is charming and what I especially like is that is covers a period of history that is little known, even by Brits like me.  The fact that the Nazis occupied the Channel Islands is a part of war history that I feel is much neglected and anything that corrects and informs this lack of knowledge is welcome.

The fact that the author died before this book, her first novel, was published only adds an element of tragedy to the story.

So, yes, I’m a fan.

I admire the characters, I applaud the author’s skill in keeping so many distinct voices going, and all through the medium of letters.  The skilful weaving together of different writing styles, distinct vocabulary, as well as their choice of subject, is an impiressive literary tour de force.

Telling their stories via letters, and bringing the protagonists vividly to life, we relive the dark days of the German occupation of Guernsey and gradually uncover the horrors that took place, and the tragedy that unites a group of islanders who formed their book club as a way to defy the German occupation.

Highly recommended.

SANJAY DUTT by Yasser Usman

Having lived in Mumbai during the tumultuous days of 1992 and 1993, when this most cosmopolitan of Indian cities city lived through anti-Muslim riots and the subsequent bomb attacks, I was naturally intrigued by the story of Sanjay Dutt.

Mr. Dutt, a Bollywood star, and the son of a well-respected, secular politician, was embroiled in the traumatic and violent events after the 1993 attacks, and spent several years in jail as a result.

Yasser Usman’s “Sanjay Dutt” is well-written, well-researched and is an easy read.

The book is as fast-paced as the life of the central figure in his book, Sanjay Dutt.

The original little prince, if ever there was one, born of Bollywood “royalty” and given every privilege in life, Dutt would, we are told, turn out to be a spoiled brat, an entitled child who seems to enjoy breaking rules just for the heck of it.  He is unmotivated at school, drops out of college, and then decides to make it in Bollywood, the son of an iconic Bollywood couple.

Sanjay Dutt has spent much of his life mired in drugs and alcohol, and – to his credit – has never shied away from the truth.  He is known to be a frank, outspoken man, even if the narrative is not always  in his favour and it is clear that the author respects him for this.

Mr. Usman has researched every stage of Sanjay Dutt’s life, but the book reads easily, without any hint of judgment.

We feel that the author probably has a soft spot for his subject, but he never judges him on our behalf.

We are told all the facts of Mr. Dutt’s life and behaviour, and allowed to make up our own minds.

The writer does not try to influence our opinion : Mr. Usman simply shines a light on the conduct and behaviour of a man used to being indulged all his life, and allows us to draw our own conclusions.

I confess to not having been as passionately supportive of Sanjay Dutt as many of my acquaintances were, in those weird, frightening Mumbai days.

Most people I knew were absolutely incredulous that an actor like him, from his background, would have any truck with terrorism.

Most people really wanted to believe Mr. Dutt, when he claimed he had weapons to protect himself because he was half Muslim.

This claim is put forward in the book, but in his even-handed way, the author also recounts the many contacts Mr. Dutt had with the underworld. It is left to us to make our own minds up.

It is a fascinating look at a life of privilege that becomes a life of horror for those who care for Mr. Dutt, a man who inspired affection and loyalty amongst his close circle, though he appears to take this love and loyalty somewhat for granted.

Alcohol, drugs on a terrifying scale, detox, rehab, failed marriages, jail – to use an easy analogy, Mr. Dutt’s life reads a lot like the many forgettable run-of-the-mill Bollywood potboilers in which he acted.

Mr. Usman is not shy of quoting comments over the years, from various people, that suggest Mr. Dutt is nothing worse than immature and impetuous.

That appears to be the general consensus.

He is not considered to be a criminal or a terrorist, which is what he was initially convicted of, but rather a stupid man, who had an unhealthy love of guns, and an equally unhealthy interest in the criminal underworld.

“This incident aptly describes the Sanjay Dutt of those times: an impulsive, immature, egotist junkie.”

An interesting read, and I found it fascinating to flesh out my memories of those traumatic times, with an insight that I certainly didn’t have at the time.

Disclaimer: I was sent a review copy of the book by the publishers, Juggernaut Books, but (as in the past) they have scrupulously sent me the book with absolutely no strings attached.

And now you want to read the book, don’t you?

Do.  It’s a cracking good read.

You don’t need me to explain how to order online, do you?  Thought not.

Here you go:

The subtle art of not giving a f*ck by Mark Manson

Obviously the title of the book has something to do with it.

Even at my age, who can resist being seen reading something with such an in-your-face title?

“The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” certainly delivers on the shock value, with the F word peppering the earlier chapters, but you know what, it’s actually not a bad read at all, shock tactics notwithstanding.

Mark Manson, the 30-something author, has achieved maturity and wisdom beyond his years, and much of what he says made sense.

I thought it was just me, getting old, and no longer caring so much about so many of the things that used up my energies in earlier decades…but apparently, it’s actually more a case of “in life, we have a limited amount of fucks to give. So you must choose your fucks wisely.”

Seriously, why couldn’t I have read this book in my 30s?

It might well have given me the courage I so clearly lacked at the time to say “no” to so many futile things.

School art projects, for one…helping the kiddos make a model of the Great Pyramid of Giza out of toilet rolls and kitchen paper rolls being one of the worst time-wasters of my life.

Ah well, I didn’t have the benefit of Mr. Manson’s trenchant advice at the time.

The author makes some very interesting and thought provoking statements to make his pretty-much central premise that 99.99% of us are, in point of fact, not special.

In Mr. Manson’s view, until we disabuse ourselves of the notion that we are special/talented/beautiful/desirable, and therefore somehow “deserve” gratification/success/money/adulation because of the aforementioned, we are destined to go through life feeling cheated:

“It turns out that merely feeling good about yourself doesn’t really mean anything unless you have a good reason to feel good about yourself. It turns out that adversity and failure are actually useful and even necessary for developing strong-minded and successful adults. It turns out that teaching people to believe they’re exceptional and to feel good about themselves no matter what doesn’t lead to a population full of Bill Gates and Martin Luther Kings.”

Mr. Manson is refreshingly harsh about the current sense of entitlement and molly-coddling that seems to have seeped into society the world over:

“Numerous professors and educators have noted a lack of emotional resilience and an excess of selfish demands in today’s young people. It’s not uncommon for books to be removed from a class’s curriculum for no other reason than that they made someone feel bad…School counsellors note that more students than ever are exhibiting severe signs of emotional distress over what are otherwise run-of-the-Mlle daily college experiences, such as an argument with a roommate, or getting a low grade in a class.”

The author goes on to say, “It’s strange that in an age when we are more connected than ever, entitlement seems to be at an all-time high. Something about recently technology seems to allow our insecurities to run amok like never before. The more freedom we’re given to express ourselves, the more we want to be free of having to deal with anyone who I may disagree with us or upset us.”

Whew! Spoken like an old fogey like me, not a youngster. How refreshing!

Mr. Manson is spot-on when he says, talking of the internet and social media: “Perhaps these same technologies that have liberated and educated so many are simultaneously enabling people’s sense of entitlement more than ever before.”

I enjoyed the book, and it made me smile in many places. Anyone who quotes Yoda is a star in my book.

I enjoyed the author’s vivid use of language, truly I did, including that fabulous verb “to unpretzel”.

I applaud his view of how to live your life.

An all-round good read.

Since this is a review of a book encouraging a counterintuitive approach to life, I won’t tell you how to go ahead & order your copy…you can work it out for yourselves, right?!

The Girl of His Dreams by Donna Leon

In “The Girl of his dreams”, the 17th in the wonderful Commissario Brunetti series, we once again are privileged to witness the author Donna Leon on top form.

Every single book in the series is excellent.

Each book, and they are all stand-alone books by the way, is a love-song to Venice.

Each one is also a cracking mystery.

And – and this is what makes Ms Leon’s books so very, very absorbing – in each book, she shines her spotlight ioto another aspect of the city.

In this book, it is the plight of the refugees and the gypsies (“Rom” we are often reminded to call them, by various characters in the book) who flock to the city and who are viewed with great suspicion and open dislike by so many residents.

We meet up again, with great pleasure, with the thoroughly decent, thoroughly likeable Commissario Brunetti, his wife Paola and their 2 now-teenaged children, Raffi and Chiara.

One never tires of joining the Brunettis at table, as they eat, and enjoy their wine and post-dinner grappa on their terrace, as the children recount their day, and quiz their parents about current affairs. There is always talk of English literature, thanks to the ferociously well-read Paola, there is hearty criticism of much of what ails Italy – politics and corruption, and there is much robust criticism of the church.

Through these dinner-table conversations, we feel fully immersed in the day to day life of Venice and her citizens.

With each book, we learn another detail or two about the Commissario, his wife and his children – a family that is totally engaging and endearing.

In this book, we see a little more of the home life of Brunetti’s trusty assistant, Vianello and his wife Nadia, and with great pleasure, we catch up with the ever-glamorous and ever-resourceful Signorina Elettra Zorzi.  Signorina Elettra is a wonderfullly resourceful young woman, casually navigating her way through the city’s computer systems, mining information to help Brunetti and Vianello, though she actually works for the vain and self-absorbed Vice-Questore Patta.

Patta is on top form in this book, trying to use English buzz-words such as “inter-cultural dynamics” despite his impenetrable Sicilian accent, and – as ever – firmly on the side of the rich and famous, rather than the rule of law.

There are two story lines running through this book, one involving religion and the other the death of a child.

There is genuine sorrow and horror amongst the policemen and forensic technicians who, although used to death, are still horrified at the sight of the drowned corpse of a little girl with long blond hair:

“Bocchese, Rizzardi, and the first technician knelt around the body, and something perverse in Brunetti led his mind to the Magi and the countless paintings he had seen of three men kneeling around another child.”

The investigation into the death of the child leads Brunetti and Vianello into a world they have not hitherto encountered, that of the secretive and unfriendly gypises – Rom – who exist on the margins of Italian society, and are both disliked and misunderstood by the Venetians.

We see another side of the city, that of dispossessed people and there is a roughness and ugliness to the world they inhabit, especially when seen through the eyes of a man with the aesthetic sense of Commissario Brunetti.

An excellent read – as are all the Brunetti novels – with death and religion as the central themes that are woven into the narrative. An enthralling plot, lots of twists and turns and, as ever, the magnificent canvas of La Serenissima.

If you haven’t already read this book, please do go ahead and order your copy right now.

Couldn’t be easier – the link is below.

SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN by Donna Leon

I am at that stage in my binge-reading of the wonderful Commissario Brunetti’s series when I need to slow down.

In no time at all, I’ve reached the end of the 16th in this stunning series of detective novels set in Venice, and –  yet again – I close the book with a sigh of enjoyment, mingled with sadness at another book being finished, and unbridled admiration for Ms Leon.

In every one of these novels, Venice is there, centre-stage, a stunning backdrop for the crimes that the sensitive, family-loving Commissario must solve.  In every book –  and they are all total stand-alone novels, by the way – Ms Leon manages to highlight a different aspect of the city, so even though we see the city and the canals and the churches in all her books, we always see them through a different prism.

The central characters are all here, yet again, thank goodness.

The Commissario, a good man, if ever there was one.  Thoughtful, loving, honest.  In love with his family and his city.

His delightful wife Paola.

His children, Raffi and Chiara, who have grown up before our eyes, as it were, over the course of the books.  The children appear in this 16th book, as usual, around the family dinner table, but they also appear in a different way.  Commissario Brunetti is investigating a racket in the city concerning adopted babies, and every time he has a sad or a disturbing encounter involving babies, unwanted or otherwise, he remembers his own children when they were babies and toddlers, his fierce, unqualified love for them so wonderfully obvious.

The  loyal Viannello is at the Commissario’s side, as is the fabulous Signorina Elettra, always glamorous and always delving deep into the computers of the city’s municipal services, banks, government offices -wherever she can mine information for Brunetti and Vianello.  The latter has, over the course of the years (read novels) familiarised himself with computers and the internet, so he can fully appreciate Elettra’s skills.  Brunetti remains something of a Luddite where computers are concerned and, more over, prefers not to ask too many questions as to where exactly the young lady gets the invaluable information she finds.

The venal Vice-Questore Patta is, as ever, more concerned by appearances than solving crimes.

We enjoy the wine that invariably accompanies the happy family meals that are so important for Guido Brunetti.  We savour the food with them.  We listen to the children chat about school.  We are part of a Venetian family, in other words.

Another wonderful instalment in this engrossing series.

Should you wish to buy the book now, it couldn’t be simpler.  Here’s the link to Amazon.