NO ONE HOME by TIM WEAVER

Nothing like your kid sister leaving behind a big fat thriller she’s finished – and a hardback copy, to boot. Such a joy, in this Kindle world.

Let me state upfront that I haven’t read any books by Tim Weaver before.

Dunno if that somehow coloured my judgement.

Shortly after I’d plunged into the book, and asked Jane if this was a stand-alone story or part of a series, I enthusiastically decided that I’d finish this book and then go back and read all the earlier books in the David Raker series.

Now I’ve finally finished the book, I’m not sure I’ll bother.

This murder mystery was initially really gripping – a community of 9 neighbours in the hamlet of Blackgale has disappeared, totally and without leaving any trace whatsoever.

David Raker, the main protagonist, specialises in investigating cold cases of missing persons, taking up the trail long after the police have stopped investigating. He is engaged by the families of the 9 missing neighbours to try and solve this seemingly impossible conundrum.

By the end of the book, shame on me, I was bored and just wanted to find out if I‘d guessed correctly who dunnit.

I had, pretty much.

The first 100 pages or so are super gripping, and I raced through them, but somewhere, something changes and the pace slows down, and the detail gets too much and the repetition – well, it just repeats itself, and to be brutally honest, once I thought I’d figured it out, I just wanted the book to end. There are only so many descriptions of people walking through endless forests that a girl can take.

As Raker investigates the crime in Yorkshire, there is a parallel story of a murder investigation in 1970’s Los Angeles.

At some point, the 2 stories do eventually converge, but I respectfully suggest that Mr. Weaver could have axed the whole American narrative and his story would not have suffered an iota. Might have benefitted by being snappier.

The total disappearance of a group of people is an interesting premise. It’s sad that Mr. Weaver squandered his idea with way too much detail, lots of it superfluous to the main narrative.

FIFTY PLACES TO RUN BEFORE YOU DIE by CHRIS SANTELLA

Stretched out on my sofa, nursing a very painful torn meniscus that has seen me pull out of 2 marathons and one half marathon this winter season, guess what I’m reading?

One of my Christmas presents from my sister.

”Fifty places to run before you die.”

Talk about rubbing salt into the wound!

The text and photos of the 50 places to run – many of them in the US, but sadly none in India (where I live) – are enticing, to put it mildly.

There are temptations a plenty for an older runner like myself, who came to running late in life and is desperate to see/do/run/enjoy as much as possible – pause to curse the dratted torn meniscus…

Expert runners and athletes have picked their favourite places to run, and so they describe the courses with insider knowledge and affection. Many categories of runs are covered – marathons, ultras, 10ks and simple scenic trails. Since I want to start trail running, those are the photos over which I have lingered the most, just wishing I were fit enough to run in beautiful mountainous terrain.

This is a collective work, and each chapter ends with an “If you go” section, that includes tips on when to go, where to stay, and gives links to the race websites.

Personal favourites in the book, that made me dream the most?

The Big Five Marathon in our beloved South Africa.

The Antarctica Marathon – just because.

The Wall Marathon in China.

Such a great gift, and one that will keep me dreaming for as long as I’m fit enough to lace up my running shoes.

A shiny new year is as good as any time to dream and plan exciting adventures, so why not get hold of this lovely-looking book and set your 2020 goals?

Here’s the link, below, to order the book:

THE MARTIAN GIRL by ANDREW MARTIN

I started 2020 with this sensational book, and what an amazing tour de force it is. This is fiction writing at its finest, inter-weaving stories that take place 100 years apart, yet parallel each other and then converge.

At the start of “The Martian Girl”, we meet Jean, a young London-based woman in her late 30s who is having an affair with an older, married man called Coates (we never do learn his first name).

Their love affair is a strange mix of his seeming indifference and her need for affirmation and support for her project, which is writing the script for a one woman show. Jean is fascinated by the story of Kate French, a young mind-reader who toured the theatres and music halls of Victorian England until suddenly disappearing without trace.

The more Jean researches Kate’s story, the more she realises that a one-woman show won’t work, and that to do Kate justice, it should be a novel. Her increasing (21st century) interest in Kate parallels Kate’s own (19th century) increasing doubts about her mind-reading partner, as well as (21st century) Coates’ increasing instability and suspicion of his lover, Jean.

The novel is a dazzling mix of history, and the world of late 19th century theatre, of contemporary London and the city’s darker underbelly. It is dark, it is is humorous, it is sometimes graphically shocking, and it is oh-so-clever, with a final plot twist in the closing pages.

A great read.

Thoroughly recommended.

Here’s a link, should you decide to buy.

THE ETYMOLOGICAN by Mark Forsyth

Who would have thought that a book about language and the etymology of the English language would make you laugh out loud?

Welcome to the most stunning book I’ve read in 2019 (indeed, in quite a long time). “The Etymologican” is brilliant, entertaining, hugely informative and totally captivating.

Reading it is like sitting and listening to a delightfully clever and enthusiastic friend share his/her passionate hobby.

Quirky linguistic facts follow one after the other, as the clearly insatiably curious Mr. Forsyth explains the connections between words, across languages and history.

It is a dazzling tour de force, but without any hint of showing off. You feel Mr. Forsyth’s enthusiasm as he links one word to another, and his joy at sharing his discoveries.

Although the book is written in bite-sized chapters, I found it difficult not to devour it all in one go.

A book to be savoured, enjoyed and (in my case) definitely shared with anyone who will follow my book recommendations!

Seriously, dear reader, do yourself a favour and read this smashing book.

Here’s the link to order it:

And don’t forget to let me know what you thought of it.

LADY IN WAITING: MY EXTRAORDINARY LIFE IN THE SHADOW OF THE CROWN by ANNE GLENCONNER

First, I watched That BBC interview with Prince Andrew.

Then I watched Season 3 of The Crown.

And sandwiched between these 2 “royal” events, I read a just-published memoir, with lots of jolly stories about how super and smashing the royal family is.

And let me own up – this book is an immensely fun read.

This autobiography, written by the sprightly 87 year old Lady Anne Glenconner, is a rattling good read, galloping along at a fairly breathless pace, and entertaining us all the way.

Anne Glenconner has lived a life of great privilege, and also one of great sorrow, losing 2 of her sons when they were still young men – one to AIDS and the other to heroin addiction. She nursed her 3rd son back from a coma, after he was badly injured in a horrific motorbike accident.

But not once in her book is there a hint of self pity, neither about these heartbreaking personal tragedies, nor about her eccentric and erratic husband, Lord Colin Tennant. The author speaks in a brisk, no-nonsense voice, accepting life’s vicissitudes, and comes across as a thoroughly lovely, gutsy lady.

A close friend of the royal family, as a little girl the young Anne played with the current Queen and her sister, and was famously one of the Queen’s 6 ladies in waiting at her coronation:

Lady Glenconner’s life story truly is an amazing one, taking us from her family home, Holkham Hall, an 18th century Palladian style house on the Norfolk coast, to the tropical island of Mustique, which her husband bought on a whim, and turned into a party destination for the very rich and the very famous.

Lady Glenconner became Lady in Waiting to Princess Margaret, and is a loyal, staunch supporter of a royal who has garnered much negative press. It is interesting to see the “other”, unknown side of the Queen’s younger sister.

And if ever there was a delicious case of life imitating art, it was the visit of the actress Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Princess Margaret in The Crown, researching the part, that prompted Lady Glenconner to write her memoirs.

Neatly trying all the threads of an extraordinary life together.

A fun read, showing us a lifestyle that has gone for ever – just as we are all rediscovering it thanks to Netflix.

Here you go. The link to order this most enjoyable of memoirs:

DIAMOND DUST by Peter Lovesey

I have only fairly recently encountered the wonderful Peter Diamond detective series, so forgive me if I’m late to this particular appreciation society.

Diamond Dust, published in 2002, is the best and the most moving of Mr. Lovesey’s books that I’ve read so far.

This book, the 7th in the series, is an emotional read and one that I literally couldn’t put down.

For obvious reasons, I can’t & won’t plot-spoil, but trust me when I say that this is a gripping whodunit like no other.

There are twists and turns in the plot that had me fooled right until the end. There is emotion a-plenty, and the writer carries the reader along in a masterly mix of drama, murder, and raw human emotion.

That’s about all I can say without spoiling your enjoyment of this murder mystery.

Personally recommended.

AGENT RUNNING IN THE FIELD by JOHN LE CARRE

What an interesting read “Agent running in the field” is.

Not that one would expect anything less from John Le Carré, but this latest addition to the world of spy fiction has a powerful parallel leitmotiv running through the book, that drives the plot.

It is Brexit, and how Britain is in the midst of a crisis of her own making, a country seemingly adrift.

Alongside a well-crafted Le Carré story of intelligence work and political loyalties, there is the story of Brexit and of a morally impoverished country, seemingly weary of the whole mess.

The city of London, the backdrop for much of the book, seems exhausted and a bit down at heel.

Nat, a 47 year old intelligence officer, is symptomatic of the malaise – after years abroad, Nat is slightly out of step with the UK, with his employers, and with the political reality of Britain drifting aimlessly towards Brexit.

Intelligence work takes place in this powerful book, but it is not the glamorous cloak and dagger stuff of yore. There are no elegant, charismatic heroes. No worthy (or even unworthy) villains. Just a dusty, almost-forgotten office, ironically called the Haven, and budget cuts, and cheap car rentals, and an overweening feeling of exhaustion.

Mr. Le Carré, other than using a few anachronistic words like “swain” and “bobby”, speaks in an altogether different tone for much of this book. You can feel the author’s palpable anger with the whole Brexit mess, and with the venality and incompetence of politicians, both British and American.

Take this powerful statement from Nat:

“…I reply, stung by the suggestion that I’ve somehow failed to notice that the country’s in free fall. “A minority Tory cabinet of tenth-raters. A pig-ignorant foreign secretary who I’m supposed to be serving. Labour no better. The sheer bloody lunacy of Brexit.”

I loved an early review of the book, where it was gleefully pointed out that the quote unquote pig-ignorant foreign secretary is now the British PM.

Mr Le Carré also clearly revels in some of the earthier new language used to describe the sheer disastrous levels of British politics these days:

“Guy Brammel has come up with a grudgefuck theory,” he runs on, delighting in the term like a naughty boy. “Ever heard that one before? Grudgefuck?”

“I’m afraid not. Cluster only recently, and never grudge. I’ve been abroad too long.

Me neither. Thought I’d heard everything…”

Great read, lots of typical Le Carré twists and turns, right up until the closing paragraphs – which obviously I’m not going to reveal and therefore spoil things for you.

Hats off to a veteran writer for an impassioned, outspoken spy thriller.

You all know how to order online.

So here you go!

FARZANA by JULIA KEAY

What a joy this biography is.

An absolute delight to read and oh-so interesting to learn about a fascinating historical figure, about whom I was – admission time – hitherto woefully ignorant.

The life of Farzana, known as Begum Samru, is a classic rags-to-riches story, told with verve and much admiration, by the late Ms Keay.

Born, an illegitimate girl, in the mid-18th century into poverty, sold off by her impoverished mother to become a “nautch” girl (a dancer -cum-prostitute) theoretically Farzana had absolutely nothing going for her in life. She could have easily slipped into sad oblivion.

But this young lady was obviously ambitious and had a vision of her own future which did not involve a life in the red-light district. She lived with a foreign mercenary two decades her senior, and as she moved around north India with the hapless Walter Reinhardt Sombre, she learned how to manage his mercenary troops, how to command their respect, how to manage land and finances.

Even by 21st century standards, Farzana is an impressive figure.

But she was a total anomaly in the 18th century – practically illiterate, riding into battle with her men, respected by both Indians and the foreigners with whom she came into contact. She was fiercely loyal and stood by the Moghul Emperor through his years of turmoil and defeat at the hands of warring factions.

From illiterate poverty to the very heart of Moghul power was a quantum leap for anyone, but for a woman it was even more so. She held her own with men, including the colonial British, yet remained caring and considerate of the hundreds of people who depended on her for their existence, feeding and housing a huge number of people – including the widow of Walter, who lived in her care for decades.

She had estates bestowed on her, she converted to Catholicism & built a lavish church in the north Indian state of Haryana. She rode into battle wearing a turban, she fell in love with a dashing Irish mercenary, smoked hookahs with the men and, amazingly, was admired by the otherwise prim-and-proper British women of colonial India.

Ms Keay tells Farzana’s story, from abject poverty to being the only Catholic ruler in India, with obvious affection and a fair deal of feminist support. Comparing the destinies of another Indian warrior queen, the 13th century Raziya Sultana, Ms Keay writes:

“Historians to a man (gender studies have yet to catch up with Raziya) portray her as a victim of circumstance or a product of wishful romance. Exploits that would surely win approval in the case of a dashing young sultan evidently tax academic credulity when their agent is a gritty young sultana…Farzana has suffered in similar fashion. In fact when scrutinised by those armchair authorities who would interpret the exploits of India’s freelancers to future generations, her reputation has nosedived…”

A page-turning read, in which history is brought alive with colour and ( I warn you) sometimes stomach-churning brutality, I found myself cheering for this remarkable woman.

Highly recommended.

Do read this exciting story (you can order the book using the link below). You absolutely won’t regret it.

BROTHERS IN BLOOD by Amer Anwar

This novel was a curious read for me.

I am British, but I live full time and long term in India.

The novel is about Brits – of Indian and Pakistani heritage – living in London.

So it was a case of “my” Asian people living in “my” British town, which definitely added an interesting twist.

The brothers of the title are 2 close childhood friends, Zaq and Jags, who are British, but of Pakistani and Sikh heritage, respectively.

There is not much to indicate the differences, to be honest. Zaq and Jags are 2 likeable blokes, good mates who happily eat and drink together, go to the pub together. And get caught up in the underworld of west London.

Zaq, who has a criminal record, is pressurised by his coarse bully of a boss to track down the latter’s daughter, Rita, who has gone missing. If Zaq doesn’t find Rita, his boss threatens to have him sent back to jail, a threat which constantly weighs on Zaq’s conscience and colours his judgment.

The hunt for Rita takes Zaq deeper and deeper into a world of violence, hatred, and more.

The London of “Brothers in Blood” is the London of Asian immigrants, who still speak to each other in Punjabi…which leads me to my first grouse. I can speak Hindi, so could get some of the references by extrapolation, but for non-Indian-language speakers, there was way too much Punjabi and no translation offered.

(Hey, I’ll add a caveat here. I read this book on my Kindle. Perhaps the print edition has a lexicon. But even so, we Kindle readers could have used one, too)

So, yes, the excessive use of Punjabi might be off-putting to some.

I found the endless road directions a tad too much.

Initially, the names of road, the motorway exits were good for local colour, but as the book progressed, at times it seemed as though we were reading the A-Z.

And being admittedly squeamish, I admit to skipping some of the more violent boxing scenes.

I think the book could have done with a little tighter editing. There are only so many f-words, so many detailed fights, so many trips down the motorway.

A few less wouldn’t have impacted the story.

But a good earthy, gripping read, showcasing a side of London unknown (I suspect) to many.

Recommended.

If you would like to buy the book & read it, here’s the relevant link. You all know what to do.

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.