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.

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.