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.

HOUSE OF SPIES by Daniel Silva

Daniel Silva’s latest book in the brilliant Gabriel Allon series takes up where “The Black Widow” left off, though you absolutely do not have to have read the former to enjoy the later.

Gabriel, the thoroughly likeable, decent, honourable man who heads up the Israeli Secret Service has unfinished business with one of the most dangerous men on the planet, Saladin, whose network of terror spreads death and destruction all over the world.  The novel opens with a vicious, well planned attack on London, and from there it is a matter of racing against time to find Saladin before he strikes again.

Because strike he will.

With painstaking investigation, one loose thread in Saladin’s careful plot is discovered, unpicked and the combined brains and resources of the French, British, American and Israeli intelligence communities work frantically to locate the man who dispenses death with impunity.

What is striking about this book is its bang-up-to-date-ness.

At times, you wonder if Mr, Silva isn’t writing about actual events, so contemporary and realistic are they.

It is a sad reflection of our times that the line between fact and fiction is so impermeable, when it comes to the war on terror.

The realistic contemporary plot makes this book even more nail-biting than Mr. Silva’s earlier books, each one of which is a study in keeping readers on the edge of their seats.

Though there are many familiar characters in “House of Spies” there is less personal, family detail in this book, less of the daily life of Gabriel and Chiara in Jerusalem that we have come to enjoy in the books.  The focus is solidly on Gabriel and his team, as they plot and plan their way through drug dealers and arms dealers and terrorists in a chase that takes us through Marseilles, Casablanca, and London.

A gripping read, “House of Spies” seems more intense and a shade darker than some of the earlier books.

There is no art, there is very little food and wine, almost as though the increased threat level from the likes of Saladin does not allow for relaxation.

We meet new characters in this book who will play pivotal roles – Jean-Luc Martel and his partner Olivia Watson.  The world of the uber rich, living a life of self-indulgent luxury on the French Riviera is laid bare for us, as the couple is drawn into the complicated trap being laid to locate the mysterious, shadowy Saladin.

Well-written, with twists and turns right up until the final page, this is a cracker of a read.  It is contemporary, it is disturbingly realistic and it makes the reader think about the state of the world we live in.

If you would like to order the book, nothing could be simpler.

Here you go.

A link to Amazon:

THE LADYBIRD BOOK OF THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR

This is another cracker in the Ladybird Books for Grown Ups series, which taps into our nostalgia for these books that were so much a part of our childhood.

The look, the feel, the font, the illustrations – all are perfect clones of the wholesome books of yore.  Except that these books are for grown ups.

As I said in an earlier review of another grown up Ladybird book:

“The mission statement of these grown up Ladybird books is worth revisiting – probably because, as grown ups, we have all completely forgotten reading this the first time round:

This delightful book is the latest in the series of Ladybird books which have been specially planned to help grown-ups with the world about them.

The large clear script, the careful choice of words, the frequent repetition and the thoughtful matching of text with pictures all enable grown-ups to think they have taught themselves to cope. The subject of the book will greatly appeal to grown-ups.”

I had indeed forgotten sharing this with you, which all goes to show that the “frequent repetition” the editors mention is obviously much needed.

In “The People Next Door” we see pictured the peaceful suburban England of the 1950s.

With a twist.

This is a fun, quick read and makes for a great gift.
If you feel like buying it, couldn’t be easier. Just click on the link below. You know how to do that, right? You are grown-up, after all.