HOME BOY by H.M.Naqvi

“Home Boy” is the powerful début novel by the young, talented Pakistani writer H.M.Naqvi. A picaresque novel of post 9/11 America, it is hard-hitting and shocking in its depiction of a land, a landscape and a people changed for ever.

Three young Pakistani friends live in and around New York.  AC, Jimbo and Chuck work, or not, depending on their luck and inclination. They drink, they party, they hang out, they womanise, and in varying degrees live their version of the American Dream.

Although they have westernised their names and seem to turn their backs on their cultural roots, they are all tied, inevitably, to their Pakistani families. AC’s sister, Mini Auntie, is formidable, feisty and hugely likeable.  Jimbo’s dignified Pathan father, fiercely proud of New Jersey, and his affectionate daughter Amo, live their quiet lives waiting for the prodigal Jimbo to visit them.

The narrator, Chuck, the youngest in the trio, is the one still the most attached to Pakistan, thinking often of his widowed Ma, but never actually getting round to phoning her, usually because he has no money.

When the horrors of 9/11 happen, the trio face a totally changed America.  Suspicion of outsiders turns to hatred turns to horror, when the three are arrested under suspicion of being terrorists.

For this reviewer, the moment of the arrests was the turning point in the book, not only dramatically but also emotionally.  The writing becomes much more powerful, the language more compelling.  The 3 young men, not particularly engaging up until then, take on the dimensions of tragic heroes, and the reader is unquestioningly on their side, willing them on as they face extreme prejudice and racial hatred.  Chuck’s interrogation, incarceration and the emotional turmoil he feels in the aftermath of his release are ferociously well-written.

The souring of the American Dream, and the longing for the comforting noise and warmth of Home, combine to make this a moving read.

Home Boy is published by Harper Collins and the hardback retails in India for Rs 399.

WITNESS THE NIGHT by Kishwar Desai

This compelling first novel by Kishwar Desai takes the reader to the heart of Punjab, where a world of unexpected horror and deceit and sorrow lies just beneath the veneer of upper-class society.

A grisly series of murder has taken place, in the course of which all of the Atwal family has been wiped out.  The Atwals are rich and powerful and well-connected, and so their murders send shock-waves through the town of Jullunder.  Even more shocking is the fact that the sole survivor of the murders is their very own teenage daughter Durga.  And Durga is the main suspect.  Raped, traumatised, orphaned – and yet no-one in Jullunder society has any sympathy for the 14-year old Durga.

Simran Singh, a social worker, is brought from Delhi to try and communicate with the child.  45 years old, unmarried, an energetic drinker and smoker, Simran is the antithesis of a nice respectable Punjabi girl, and she knows it.  As does her poor long-suffering mother, who wants only to find her a husband.  Simran’s discoveries lead her way beyond the role of social worker and into a world of intrigue, passion, murder, infanticide.

For behind the walls of the lavishly painted and even more lavishly decorated homes of Jullunder, there is a universe of violence.  Violence of the worst kind.  In a society where boys are prized, the birth of a baby girl is bad news. So the solution is, quite simply, to get rid of the new-born.  The descriptions of the murder of new-born babies are horrific, and yet the practice is common.  In the Atwal household, we are never quite sure how many baby girls have been killed, but what we do know is that two girls escaped the death envisaged for them –  and one of them is missing, and the other is the prime suspect in the murder of her own parents and siblings.

A darkly fascinating read, this novel is well-written, and moves along at an energetic pace, cleverly combining narrative, e-mails and diary excerpts.  And welcome to a very likeable heroine, the wryly realistic Simran Singh.  She is middle-aged with a drinking problem.  And she knows it.

Witness the Night is published by HarperCollins, and the paperback retails for Rs 225 in India.

If, after reading this review, you would like to buy the book, nothing could be easier. 

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THE BONE TIKI by David Hair

David Hair’s first novel, The Bone Tiki, is an impressive engaging debut, set in the author’s native New Zealand.
Mat Douglas is the young protagonist and hero of the novel, a seemingly typical, ordinary teenage boy, half Maori-half European, bored with life, saddened by his parent’s separation, and a bit of a loner.

As the novel opens, Mat is obliged to go to a funeral wake with his Maori father, and goes reluctantly, expecting nothing more than to be bored.  Things take a totally unexpected turn, however, when Mat acts on an impulse that is far too strong to ignore, and removes the tiki  –  a pendant –  from around the neck of the dead body.

From this moment on, Mat finds himself plunging ever deeper and deeper into an adventure that he never expected, and that gets progressively more dangerous and more surreal. For what Mat doesn’t realise is that the New Zealand in which he lives has a parallel world, a world of spirits and demons and heroes and dreams and mysteries.  Along with Kelly, his gutsy girl-clown friend and the stray dog Fitzy who adopts them and protects them through thick and thin and much more, this unlikely trio set off across 21st century New Zealand to escape from the gang trying to get their hands on the tiki.  As they plunge ever further into the power of the tiki –  for powerful indeed it proves to be –  the three friends travel back and forth between their current world of junk food and cars and small country towns, to the New Zealand of yore, and even further back into the world of Maori spirits and legends.

The book is lyrical, descriptive and a cracking good read.  It is also a love song to the lost world of Maori legend.

If there is one small critique, this reviewer would have liked a glossary of Maori words, which are used frequently throughout the book.

“The Bone Tiki” is published by Harper Collins, in paperback.

LOCKED ROOMS by Laurie R. King

The Mary Russell series of whodunnits –  also featuring her husband, one older gentleman named Sherlock Holmes –  is a joy to read.

Fun, ever so slightly irreverent, and good mysteries in their own right, regardless of the high profile husband and his famous friends.

This novel takes us to San Francisco, where the intrepid Mary Russell lived as a child, and where she lost her family in a car accident, of which she was the only survivor –  a traumatic event that has shaped her life.  All through the earlier Mary Russell books, we are aware of this trauma, of her recurring nightmares, her fears and her guilt at being the only one to survive.

The atmosphere of San Francisco during the killer earthquake at the dawn of the 20th century is captured in all its frightening intensity, and as Mary begins to investigate her past and her troubled memories of her childhood, we are drawn into a world of Chinatown, of Holmes’ Irregulars and lots of period details of the hedonistic 1920s in California.  We also meet Dashiell Hammett, who helps Holmes and Mary solve the mystery, in another of the author’s clever inter-twining of fact and fiction.

Or is it fiction and fiction ?

The plot is perhaps a tad convoluted, and there are many coincidences and meetings with people who have extraordinary long memories, but when the reader closes the final page, it is with satisfaction.

What is huge fun to the reader is the wealth of personal details scattered throughout the novel. We watch as the great Sherlock Holmes worries and frets over his young wife, as she battles her personal demons.  You can feel the great detective falling ever more in love with Mary.  But as the edges of Sherlock Holmes soften a little, the author is not above a little gentle mockery of her heroine’s husband.

In the closing pages of the book, as the threads of the mystery are coming together, Holmes says “Come, Russell –  the game’s afoot !” to which Dashiell Hammet asks Mary “He actually says that?” obviously slightly incredulous.

Mary’s answer is delightful.

“Only to annoy me.”

Utterly delicious.

Locked Rooms is published in paperback by Bantam Books and costs $6.99

If you would like to buy the book, it couldn’t be simpler.  Just click on one of the links below to order :

THE BEEKEEPER’S APPRENTICE by LAURIE R.KING

Having only recently discovered the wonderful Sherlock Holmes meets Kim whodunnit, “The Game” by Laurie R. King, this reviewer decided to go back to the first book in this eminently readable series, which is actually a series about the gutsy young Mary Russell.

aka Mrs. Sherlock Homes.

In “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice” we meet Mary Russell.  And what  a meeting between one of fiction’s stalwarts and someone who is to become a great fictional heroine, although she doesn’t yet realise it.

A short sighted, half American, partly Jewish, clever teenager bumps into Sherlock Holmes, literally. Mary trips over the recently retired and therefore rather bored and grumpy detective, as she is shortsightedly wandering over the hills near his cottage.

What follows is a clever rendition of the Conan Doyle style, era and characters – with a twist.

And that twist is our intrepid heroine who charms not only Sherlock Holmes but also Dr. Watson, whom she calls Uncle John, and Sherlock’s equally clever brother Mycroft. A slew of exciting adventures take place, from Wales to London to Palestine, and as we follow the progress of Mary, who is tutored by Sherlock during her vacations from Oxford, we watch her develop into a young lady and a formidable foil to her clever mentor.

They are still Miss Russell and Mr. Holmes at the end of this charming book, but we feel we know what will happen, eventually.  The great Mr.Holmes is clearly falling for his sparkling protegee –  as does the reader.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is published by Allison and Busby, and the paperback costs £7.99

This book truly is a great read, and is the start of a wonderful series of books, so if you wish to start and order, it couldn’t be simpler.  Just click on any of the links below :

KIPLING SAHIB by CHARLES ALLEN

“Kipling Sahib” by Charles Allen is a well-written, well-researched, fascinating look into the Indian part of Rudyard Kipling’s life, those relatively few years he spent in India, but which marked him for life.

And for literature.

Charles Allen brings to this book all the detailed yet seemingly relaxed research of every single book he writes about his beloved India.  He is a writer who wears his scholarship easily.

A writer who loves India, writing about a writer who loved India, and a reviewer who lives in and also loves India, obviously makes India an essential part of this review. And the country is there, in all her noise and confusion and contradictions, especially when seen in the Victorian context.

The book traces the life of “Ruddy’s” parents, Lockwood and Alice Kipling, and their arrival in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1865. Rudyard was born in Bombay and loved the city of his birth instinctively, and the sights and smells and sounds of those early childhood years would colour his imagination for ever.

Over 30 years later, he would write of Bombay with obvious affection :

“Mother of cities to me,
For I was born at her gate,
Between the palms and the sea,
Where the world-end steamers wait.”

It was in this happy, protected world “between the palms and the sea” that Ruddy and his younger sister Trix lived the cosseted life of all colonial children – slightly ignored by their parents, doted on by their Indian servants, and allowed to run wild.

Allen paints a portrait of British India, and its strict hierarchy, into which the Kiplings never quite fitted in –  neither parents nor their clever, talented, but rather unconventional son.  This sense of not quite fitting in colours so much of Rudyard Kipling’s writings –  both poetry and prose – and explains the fascination he always had with the Tommy, the underdog, the outcast, the other side of the imperial British coin.

Pitifully few letters of Rudyard’s have survived, somehow managing to escape the ruthless holocaust of his later years, which saw papers, letters, drafts, scraps –  all the tools on which a biographer depends – being burned by the author and his wife.
And he was such a prolific letter-writer, which makes their absence more keenly felt.  But Allen painstakingly and skilfully weaves the few letters that survived, with those sent to Rudyard, with newspaper reports, and with diaries, to give the reader a lively, colourful glimpse into India, and how it affected the young Kipling.

Being sent back Home – i.e. to cold, dreary England – at a very early age had a lasting effect on Ruddy and his sister Trix.  They hid the truth about their brutal school from their parents, and went for years never seeing their family, let alone the heat and noise and colour of India, which both children missed so badly.

When he eventually returned to India, as a fledgling journalist, Ruddy was by then a teenager, on the cusp of manhood. His family then lived in Lahore, in the hot plains of the Punjab, and the young man set about re-discovering the land of his birth.  He inherits the sense of social exclusion that dogged his parents, never quite feeling fully at ease in British India, while simultaneously subscribing to many of its views.  Many of Kipling’s writings, read in the cold, harsh light of 21st century PC thinking, are shockingly xenophobic, but Kipling did no more than echo the views of the society in which he lived.

Rudyard Kipling emerges from this book as a fully-rounded man, at times very likeable, at times not so likeable at all.  He is brilliant but flawed, arrogant and insecure, and above all, never fully at ease in society.  “Kim” and the “Jungle Books” are just the most famous results of this feeling of not quite fitting in, of abandonment, observing one’s own society from the outside.  It is with a sense of pleasure that we learn that Alice Kipling called her infant Ruddy “little friend of all the world.”

In conclusion, a small personal aside : what strikes the 21st century reader of “Kipling Sahib”, especially if an Indian resident, is how some aspects of the country have changed so little.  The country that the Victorian Kiplings inhabited was as noisy, engaging, often maddening, sometimes frightening, and, sad to say, as insanitary then as now.

Just one example.

Here is Charles Allen quoting a history of Bombay by J.M.Maclean, who was writing before the senior Kiplings arrived in India, but he could well have been writing about India in 2010 :

“All round the island on Bombay was one foul cesspool, sewers discharging on the sands, rocks only used for the purposes of nature…To travel by rail…was to see in the foreshore the latrine of the whole population of the Native Town.”

“Kipling Sahib” is published by Little, Brown and sells in hardback, in India for Rs 795.

If you wish to buy the book, now you have read this review, just click on the link below.

Couldn’t be easier.

EVERY LAST ONE by ANNA QUINDLEN

There are books that move you, there are books that make you cry, and then there is “Every Last One”.  This book made the reviewer sob and cry more than any other book ever read.  Ever.  Great sobs of anguish and heart-wrenching emotion.

It is a novel to be cherished, and relished, both for the story-line and the writing.  It is beautifully, fabulously written, and if you are a parent, especially a mother, you spend much of the book saying “Yes, oh yes, I know exactly what she means, I know exactly how she feels.”

Reviewing without spoiling the book by revealing too much means, naturally, that only part of the plot can be shared here.  “Every Last One” is a minute, highly detailed, extra-ordinarily loving portrait of family life. Mary Beth Latham is the mother of 3 teenage children whom she loves passionately, and is not afraid of showing it, tip-toeing into her 14 year old twins’ bedroom  in the morning, to “bury my nose into their necks, beginning to smell the slightly pungent scent of male beneath the sweetness of child.”

Mary Beth, in a word, lives for her family.

She has put her own life and career pretty much on hold, to devote herself to her husband and children.  The book is a chronicle of sibling rivalry and growing pains, of the issues of handling twins who are very different, one a popular extrovert, one a secretive introvert.  There are friends, school-friends, and neighbours, and the children of neighbours, and Mary Beth’s oldest friend from college, and she cares about them all in varying degrees of exhaustion, as she tries to keep everything together and harmonious.

Her home is also a home from home for her pretty daughter’s oldest friend, Kiernan.  Ruby and Kiernan have been friends since they were pre-schoolers, and now they are a little bit in love –  or rather, Kiernan is besotted with Ruby, who knows he is.  At the outset, Ruby quite likes the adoration, and the attention.  Kiernan takes beautiful photos of the the beautiful Ruby, buys her gifts, leaves her little surprises in her own home, which is his 2nd home.  He spends much of his time there, and since May Beth loves him, and knows his distinctly dis-functional family life, she allows him to be part of her family, and meal times, and festivities.

The life of an average American family unfolds.

School, sports, camp, Halloween, Thanksgiving, thinking about college applications.  Prom dress shopping, step-parents, glasses of wine with the mothers after school. Cooking, supermarket, divorced neighbours, even a tragic drowning in a pool, an event which sends ripples of black misery through the book.  All the threads that make up the fabric of small-town, East coast family life are there.

There is a wonderful portrait of Alice, Mary Beth’s friend from her college days, who is an older, unmarried mother, having had her son Liam using donor sperm.  Alice phones regularly from New York to ask Mary Beth’s advice.  “I am not one of those crazy older mothers” is her leitmotiv, to which Mary Beth always says to herself, “She is one of those crazy older mothers.”

Alice and Liam’s visit to stay with the Lathams is lovely.  3 year old Liam trots happily away with the twins, preferring to hang out with them rather than with his slightly disappointed mother. While the teenage boys negoitate diapers, Ruby drinks with her godmother and mother, the latter a little discomfited by the obvious bond of trust between her daughter and her own best friend.

All of these family and friend vignettes are so familiar in essence, that the book is almost like reading a diary, but all along there is a slight, way-below-the-surface suspicion that it is all a tad too perfect, too loving.  Then comes what the back-cover blurb describes as “a shocking act of violence” and the second half of this powerful novel describes the aftermath of this act, and how Mary Beth and her family deal with it.

To say any more would be a spoiler.

Read.

Enjoy.

Be prepared to cry and gasp out loud with pain at times, and at the end, to sit, as this reviewer did, dazed with emotion.

An unequivocal 10/10.

“Every Last One” is published by Hutchinson and sells in India for Rs 550.

If you wish to buy the book –  and it is an amazing read –  simply click on the link below.  Couldn’t be easier :

THE MANDALA OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by Jamyang Norbu

Ever wondered what happened to Sherlock Homes, after he fell over the Reichenbach Falls and was presumed drowned ?

The only clue generations of Sherlock Homes fans had were two meagre sentences beginning “I travelled for 2 years in Tibet…”

Jamyang Norbu’s clever, well-written novel fills in these missing 2 years, thanks to a cache of documents which were in the possession of a well-known Bengali scholar who goes by the name of Hurree Chunder Mookerjee.

Yes. The very same.  Hurree Chunder Mookerjee of “Kim” fame.

The tone for this fun, light-hearted book is set in the preface, when the author tells us how he came upon Hurree’s documents, which a retired tea-planter in Darjeeling had found hidden in a wall that fell down during an earthquake.  The tea-planter is the great grandson of Hurree Chunder Mookerjee –  and from this moment on, the line between fact and fiction has been so skilfully blurred, that you do not know quite where it lies.

What ensues is a clever fusing of two worlds and two great characters, who then set off on an exciting adventure together in Tibet.  No reviewer ever wishes to spoil the pleasures of a great read,  by revealing too many details, but suffice it to say that Holmes’s arch-enemy and bitter rival, Moriarty, is also a character in the book.

There are so many period details, and references and anecdotes that from time to time you catch yourself believing in the whole adventure.  Of course, why shouldn’t Hurree Chunder and Sherlock Holmes have met up ?

You read how irritated Hurree Chunder Mookerjee is with the flippancy with which “one Mr Rudyard Kipling, late of the Allahabad Pioneer” coined the term the Great Game, which he feels isn’t respectful enough to the diplomatic work of the Ethnological Survey…And it’s at that point that you realise you have been caught in a web of great skill.

The combination of Conan Doyle + Rudyard Kipling, set against the backdrop of mysterious Lhasa makes for a winning formula.

 

“The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes” is published in India by Harper Collins and is priced at Rs 250.

It’s a great read, and if you feel like buying the book now you have read this review, then just click on the link below :

RED SUN by Sudeep Chakravarti

What does one do, as a mere reader, when a book so profoundly shakes you up, frightens you even ? Review it, in the fervent hope that more people will thereby read it.

It’s not much of a contribution to one of India’s most alarming social problems, but if one more person reads this disturbing book, as a result of this review, then this reviewer will feel a little vindicated.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s book “Red Sun. Travels in Naxalite Country” is not an easy read, not easy at all, but in this reviewer’s opinion it is an essential read. Essential for anyone who cares about India, who cares about the poor, or who is interested in how a healthy, noisily democratic political system can consistently fail so many of its people.

“Red Sun” should be read by any citizen or resident of India, by each and every urban India who sees the ever increasing traffic and profusion of malls and Americanized fast food joints as proof that India is shining, that India has arrived, that India –  the much touted world’s largest democracy – is now well and truly out there, a global figure to be reckoned with.  Read this and reflect.

The book is not an easy read because the subject matter is uncomfortable, shocking and profoundly unsettling.  The author, a former journalist, spent years researching and living with the disaffected poor who support –  actively or tacitly –  the Naxalism, one of the biggest extreme left wing movements on the world, India’s home grown Maoism.

The Naxalite movement began in 1967 in a village called Naxalbari, which means that for over 40 years the simmering discontent and grinding poverty that launched the movement are still there, unaddressed by the politicians who govern India Shining from the safety and prosperity of far-away New Delhi.

What Sudeep Chakravarti delivers is a dense, scholarly book, that is sometimes written in a slightly breathless journalistic way, and other times packed with facts and figure and statistics –  all of them disturbing.

Take this paragraph in the introduction to the book :

“There is little debate that the spread of Maoist influence is at its core the consequence of bad governance – or plain non-governance – and crushing exploitation in the world’s next superpower. There have been instances in Bihar and Jharkhand where illiterate tribals have been told that they own just six inches of their land ; what lies below the six inches belongs to others : the state, the local trader, the local moneylender – now established via-media for mining interests. Such reality makes the congratulatory data and conclusions about today’s India, much of it true, seem a little hollow.”

What follows is an account of the author’s years of travelling in these far-off almost forgotten parts of India.  He interviews politicians, social workers, local officials, and the people themselves, the very people so let down by their government that they have little choice but to turn the other way when Naxals raid their villages.

As a reader, oftentimes you have to work hard to remember the many acronyms that are scattered throughout the book, to piece together the bits and pieces of the political jigsaw puzzle of local politics and administration, and to remember who the various players in this complex book are – many of Mr.Chakravarti’s sources are referred to only by their initials.

There is hardly a day goes by without a report in the Indian press about someone dying at the hands of Naxalites, another village being attacked, another family devastated.  Read this powerful, alarming book and you will better understand why.

RED SUN is published by Penguin/Viking and the hardback costs Rs 495.

You really should read this book, if you want to understand the nature of the threats facing contemporary India.

Do yourself a favour.  Buy it and read it.  Couldn’t be easier – just click on the link below :

BESIEGED by Mahmood Farooqui

Does a reviewer have a moral obligation to finish a book ?

If so, then this review must carry a caveat.  Half way through, mired down by too much information, and  too heavy a writing style, this reviewer abandoned “Besieged”.

The writer has done a hugely impressive job of tracking down and translating hitherto unseen papers from the First Indian War of Independence/Indian Mutiny of 1857.  He has read, translated, catalogued and shared with his reader thousands of letters and fragments of correspondence written by the many people caught up on the side-lines of the epic struggle of the colonial British for domination in India.

There are requests for money for troops, complaints from the very same troops about unpaid wages.  There are requistion orders, legal hassles, reports of blocked drains – no detail of the minutiae of Delhi life in the turbulent days of 1857 is too small to be excluded.

Wherein lies one of the flaws of this impressive scholarly work.  There is almost too much information, and since it is arranged by theme, after a while it gets – sad to say – a wee bit “same -y”.

It is all to easy to be an armchair expert, but this body of material is just crying out to be a novel.

The clichéd “cast of thousands” is already assembled here – administrators, prostitutes, coolies, butchers, the King, beggars, and the delightfully monnikered “loiterers”.  British, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim – all these voices are present, clamouring for attention.

Free all these grumbling, loud, confrontational voices from their strict thematically arranged categories. Jumble them all up. And let the noisy, chaotic story of life in Delhi, on the sidelines of history, emerge.  That, in this reviewer’s opinion, will make a truly marvellous book.

Besieged Voices from Delhi 1857 by Mahmood Farooqui is published by Penguin Viking.  Published in 2010.

The hardback sells in India for Rs 699.