THE SWITCH by Olivia Goldsmith

Sometimes, what you really need is a sassy chick lit read.

I certainly did, last week.

Back from a tough trek, feeling tired and in need of both comfort food and comfort reading, I found “The Switch” on my bookshelf.

I’d bought the book at a second hand book shop in Johannesburg, years ago, and there it was, languishing on an inaccessible shelf, just waiting to be read, exactly when my brain was in easy-going, non-taxing mode.

“The Switch” is a fun read, full of Ms Goldsmith’s trademark witty, pithy comments.

The story is about 2 women who switch roles, in order to vie for the attention of the same man. The wife becomes the mistress and vice versa.

Setting aside the fact that you secretly think that there’s no way on God’s green earth that a classy intelligent woman like Sylvie would actually do a switcheroo, just to try and trap her erring husband…as I said, setting that fact aside, the plot makes for an easy, funny read.

Ms Goldsmith has an eye for family dynamics – cue teenage children who don’t even notice that their mother is no longer their mother (and this was in pre-cellphone days, when you feel that our attention span was better. Yikes!)

Sylvie’s mother, Mildred, is a show stopper, fiercely protecting her adult daughter, and generally holding together the whole shambolic plot to make Marla the young mistress into Sylvie the middle-aged wife and therefore her supposed daughter.

Marla is a total flake, hilariously misusing and mispronouncing words and phrases in a manner befitting of George W Bush. (Remember him?)

Enjoyable and strangely engaging, I found my emotions were surprisingly switched around as I read the book.

Published in 1999, the book has aged well over the past 20 years. Just the absence of mobile phones, really, but that’s it.

And now you really want to read this, don’t you?

Here you go.

You know what to do.

AND BROTHER IT’S STARTING TO RAIN by JAKE NEEDHAM

I am a card carrying Jake Needham fan, and of all his wonderful cast of characters, I think Samuel Tay is possibly my favourite.

I love Mr.Tay’s outspoken, curmudgeonly take on his home country Singapore, but it was precisely this very fact that slightly marred my enjoyment of the latest book in this series.

Because there is very little of Singapore in this book.

I got my Asian kick through the adventures in Pattaya and Hong Kong, of course, and since I was actually in Hong Kong last week when I read the book, that certainly added another dimension.

Mr. Needham is at his unsurpassable best describing the gritty neighbourhoods, the heat and the noise of Asia.

Not going to plot-spoil by telling you what happens. Suffice it to say it’s a clever wide-ranging story, with a distinctly worrying premise, which bears witness to the crazy political times we are all living through.

I enjoyed the book.

I truly did.

I enjoyed seeing Samuel out of context.

But I missed Singapore.

Here’s the link to buy this 5th book in the smashing Samuel Tay series.

Can’t wait for the 6th instalment!

If you’re not already up to speed with the Samuel Tay series, here’s a link to my review of the first book.

Enjoy 🙂


DRAGONFIRE by HUMPHREY HAWKSLEY

Having just read “This United State”, moving straight to “Dragonfire” was another disturbing look at what could happen in the ambitious world of politics in which we live. What made this book even more fascinating is that it centres on a part of the world where I live, Asia, and particularly India.

Although written in 2000 & supposedly taking place in 2007, this book is scarily prescient. The threat of Pakistan and India going to war is always there, and when tempers rise and enmities flare up (as they have done dramatically over the past few weeks) you could almost believe that “Dragonfire” is a work of fact not fiction.

Surprisingly, the technology referenced in the book has “aged” quite well, adding to this feeling of reality. I never once felt as though I wasn’t reading a bang-up-to-date book, especially where India was concerned.

Many external current factors played alongside the reading of this book, adding to the worrying idea that this piece of fiction could one day become reality. With the Brexit madness still unsolved in my native Britain, and India and Pakistan recently inching close to conflict over the Pulwama attack, with India weeks away from general elections & all the political manoeuvring that entails, the basic premise of the book seemed anything but far-fetched.

From Tibet to the corridors of power in Washington, from baking hot New Delhi to Downing Street, this story shows how the major (and sometimes minor) players in realpolitik are inter-connected and how they operate – sometimes selflessly, sometimes selfishly, but hardly ever without serious repercussions.

I got slightly overwhelmed by the technical statistics, and facts and figures that Mr. Hawksley employs in talking about weapons & ammunition & aircraft, and after a while I simply skipped them, knowing there was no way I’d remember any of the names and details anyway. It didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book at all.

With the passage of time – 19 years sine the book was written – you do notice some things. For example, it was even more of a man’s world then than it still is. 2 women protagonists, I think, and both with very minor roles.

You also realise how little has changed.

Tibet is still a flashpoint.

Taiwan is still a thorn in the Chinese flesh.

Pakistan and India are still at violent loggerheads.

India and China are still manoeuvring for dominance, although now, in 2019, there’s very little doubt which country has the upper economic hand.

If you look at it that way, it’s almost depressing to see how little we have all progressed, as a world community, in 2 decades.

But I digress.

This is a gripping read, which gets very tense towards the end, and when the Delhi suburb where I live is mentioned as a possible attack point, it became super intense, as fiction became a terrifyingly possible reality.

Despite all the political manoeuvring, some of the politicians came across as decent men, genuinely concerned about the greater good. Not sure one could say that today, 19 years after the book was written…but perhaps I’m just feeling unusually cynical about our current political masters (reference Brexit and the upcoming Indian elections).

If you haven’t yet read this clever, well-written, exciting book, I urge you to do so. For those of us living in Asia, where the threat of conflict is a real possibility, there is no time like the present. Read this book and reflect on the current state of play.

If you do want to order it, here you go.

You all know what to do with this link.

THIS UNITED STATE by COLIN FORBES

Not quite sure how or why I’d never read any Colin Forbes before.

Bit of (probably unnecessary) scene -setting before I start.

This big, satisfying chunky novel was bought years ago, in a second hand bookshop in Johannesburg, when we lived there, and has travelled back to India with us, and sat, unread, on a shelf for years.

Cue a bout of spring cleaning and I saw this book, read the blurb “The Island state – Britain – is in mortal danger” and thought it was perfect for the current Brexit mess we’re living through.

What I hadn’t realised until I was a fair bit into the novel is that it is one of a series. Unlike many authors, Mr. Forbes doesn’t do the quick recap & potted history of his characters for new readers, so I battled a bit working out who was whom. Turns out I plunged right into the murky world of international politics with the 16th book in the series.

The story line was interesting & almost prescient in some respects – the US trying to make Britain its next state, planning to take over the country, in an attempt to shore up its defences against the perceived European and Muslim threats just waiting to engulf the UK.

The story is reasonably gripping but a tad repetitive. There are only so many dark, wintery, freezing cold European cities I can take, and ditto smart hotels, and ditto car trips through said cold, dark wintery European countries. I felt Mr. Forbes could have axed several days of expensive hotel stays and the plot wouldn’t have suffered.

The book was written in 1999 (which is only 20 years ago, remember), so the technology side of things reads a little dated, but it is the character of Paula who best illustates how attitudes have changed in 20 years. Each time she got up to pour coffee or hang up someone’s coat, I felt like shouting “Sit down, Paula. Let one of the blokes get the drinks.”

Was the world really like this only 20 years ago?

Were London cabbies really plucky, patriotic fellows?

Was England, Europe & the US so white? Unless I missed it, I don’t think there’s a non-white character in the book.

Reading “The United State” was like reading about a different-but-vaguely-familiar world.

Nevertheless, a fun-enough read in these confused days, where Britain’s place in the world is being assessed by millions of puzzled and baffled observers, including her own citizens like me.

Listen to the US Secretary of State speaking to a Brit:

When we look east we see Europe losing all its strength with their crazy idea of merging countries – nations all with different languages, histories, ways of life. History shows us the Austrian-HungarianEmpire, also a hitch-pitch of nations who detested each other, was held together by Tito for a time. Tito dies. Yugoslavia, as a similar federation to the one proposed for Europe, collapses in a bloodbath. The Soviet Empire is another example of different nationalities which broke down into chaos. You see why Washington is so worried about Europe.

Will i go back and read the preceding 15 novels?

Not sure, to be honest.


BEAU DEATH by Peter Lovesey

Everyone needs a sister like mine.

A voracious reader, Jane generously shares her books, her reading lists, her favourite authors, and has introduced me to many good reads over the years.

Latest discovery, via kid sister, is Peter Lovesey, whom I am only just now discovering, decades after everyone else.

Jane was reading “Beau Death” whilst on holiday with us in India, and kindly left it for me to read.

And thus I discovered that just about everyone else in the world has been raving about the Peter Diamond series for decades, as I plunge into this long-running series, starting with (I learn) the 17th book in the series.

The mark of a great writer of a string of successful books, like this Peter Diamond series, is the ability to engage a first time reader, who may not have all the background info that faithful readers have accumulated over the years. Starting off with Book 17, I never once felt out of my depth, nor that I was not picking up references.

What an intriguing novel this is, as Diamond sets out to solve an 18th century murder. Set in Bath, the book opens as a wrecking ball destroys condemned houses and uncovers a skeleton, dressed in what looks to be authentic 18th century clothing. From the period clothes and, especially, a distinctive tricorne hat, the skeleton is thought to be that of Beau Nash, an infamous dandy who lived in 18th century Bath.

And from this bizarre discovery, the 21st century police force is drawn into investigating what may/may not be a 250 year old unsolved murder. If the skeleton is indeed that of Beau Nash, this would totally rewrite Bath history and folklore.

The clever interweaving of several different narrative threads, the delving into local history, is superbly done and it isn’t until the closing paragraphs of the book that the various threads and leads and hints are conclusively drawn together.

I enjoyed exploring Bath with Peter Diamond, and the city and its history and architecture are all an integral part of the story.

I’m not going plot-spoil, so I’ll leave it there.

Suffice it to say that I will now go back to the beginning of the Peter Diamond series, and binge read my way through whodunnits that everyone else has savoured for years.

If you feel like reading this novel, couldn’t be easier.

Click on the link below, and you know the drill!

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 😛