THE UNEXPECTED INHERITANCE OF INSPECTOR CHOPRA by VASEEM KHAN

There are some books about India that are just so perfect that reading them is a total & utter joy.

“The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra” is one such book.Vaseem Khan’s novel is an absolute delightful and is so, well, quintessentially Indian, in that it manages to combine gritty police work with a baby elephant, and you don’t even question it for a moment.  Those defining co-existing elements of life in India – the horrors of poverty, the omni-present corruption, the heart-stopping sight of an elephant wandering down the street, the crowds, the noise – all of these find a home in this wonderful, whimsical, endearing novel.

The upright and honest Inspector Chopra has just retired from the Mumbai Police, on health grounds when, out of the blue, he inherits a baby elephant from his uncle.  Inspector Chopra lives in Mumbai with his wife Poppy, a woman he fell in love with the first time he saw her, back in the village, when she was just a teenager.

Inspector Chopra is not looking forward to retirement at all.  Police work has been his life and he dreads the thought of not working to make his beloved city of Mumbai a safer place.

The novel is as much about Mumbai, as it is about the mystery Inspector Chopra finds himself entangled in, despite retirement.

Mumbai is an ever present, noisy, always on-the-go, larger than life presence in the book.  If ever there was a love song to this greatest of Indian cities, it is here in this book about a middle aged cop and a baby elephant.

“Daredevil beggars slept on the ten-inch parapet of the airport flyover, oblivious to the fatal drop on one side and the hurtling traffic on the other.

This is what made Mumbaikers the greatest Indians in the land, Chopra felt.  This belief in their own invulnerability.

…he could not imagine living in a place without the noise and sheer energy that powered Mumbai at all times of the day or night.”

This description, below, of Mumbai in the middle of the night is powerful:

“The truck rumbled through the night-time city, past the trendy bars and the dhabas; past the sleeping beggars and the urchins; past the hand-cart wallah supine on their carts; past the ladies bars disgorging their woozy and satisfied clientele; past the call centres operating on foreign time; past the cows lying down by the side of the road; past the glittering pye-dogs prowling the empty streets, masters once again, if only for a short few hours, of their ancient dominion.”

Since this is a whodunit, I won’t spoil the plot by telling you too much about the good Inspector’s investigation, but suffice to say that in the current political climate in India (I live here, by the way) the exposure of corruption at the highest levels strikes a chilling chord.

But it is Baby Ganesh, the rather sad and traumatised elephant that Inspector Chopra inherits, who steals the show.

After the first monsoon downpour which floods the compound, poor little Ganesh is freezing, soaking, and frightened, so Inspector Chopra does the only thing he can – takes the baby elephant up to his apartment, much to the outrage of the battle-axe who likes to think she runs the building.

Poppy rises to the occasion, insisting that Ganesh can and will stay in their flat.  There is one scene that is too adorable, where, after giving the poor shivering creature a hot bath and a massage, they both settle down – Poppy on the sofa, Ganesh on a pile of quilts – to watch a Shah Rukh Khan movie on the telly, happily sharing a bag of banana chips.  A classic moment that makes you fall in love with Poppy.

Ganesh – well, I was already in love with him from the second we met him.

“And then something curious happened.  As the little calf continued to snuffle and sneeze, hunched down inside its quilts, the very picture of misery, Poppy felt her long-suppressed mothering instincts to the fore…suddenly she was overcome by a desire to nurse the baby elephant that her husband had seen fit to deposit inside her home.

“OK, young man,” she said determinedly, “first things first: let’s get you cleaned up.”

Inspector Chopra, despite retirement, is driven to investigate a killing which leads him further and further into the world of corrupt officials and big money. But, while he investigates one crime, he makes a discovery about an event from his own past. (No more, I promise, so as not to spoil your enjoyment.)

This is a great read.  Funny, endearing, and yet also a searing exposé of the seamier side of Mumbai.

This is the kind of book that, as you read, you know, you just know that Inspector Chopra & Ganesh are destined to make a great partnership, and that their relationship will endure – into many more books, one hopes.

I can’t wait to read the next book in the series, which is all ready and waiting.

If you would now like to order this delightful novel – you won’t regret it, pukka – just click on the link below.

TODAY WILL BE DIFFERENT by Maria Semple

“Today will be different” is a fun read, with many laugh-out-loud moments, & a main character who reaches out from the pages of the book & grabs you with both hands.

Eleanor Flood, almost 50 & pretty off-the-wall in her behaviour and outlook, is married to lovely, calm, capable Joe Wallace.

Joe is a surgeon, Eleanor an animator, & they live in Seattle which Eleanor ranks as dull but safe and clean and well-intentioned.  New York it isn’t.

Their 8 year old son Timby is a tad unusual, overweight, but pretty mature when it comes to dealing with his volatile mother.

Some of Eleanor’s moods and reactions are – dare one admit it – a little bit familiar to any woman of a certain age who has had a child and discovered that her previously good brain is not what it used to be… (oh yes, sadly, speaking from experience here):

The writing is caustic and funny:

The writing is also brilliantly descriptive, and the sections featuring New Orleans & Ivy’s marriage to Bucky are hypnotic. You can feel the heat and humidity, and the contrived elegance of white upper-crust society living in a Gone with the Wind world of devoted black staff, and ball gowns and long gloves and handwritten letters.  And cachepots.  Ah, that delicious cachepot.

The book shows us Eleanor and Joe from different perspectives & with a different optic, and these changes of focus highlight the twists in the narrative.  Maria Semple has many clever tricks up her sleeves, leading us to imagine one thing and then presenting us with quite another scenario.

The end of the novel is not what I had expected.

Let’s leave it there, with no plot spoiler.

A good, fun, entertaining read.

If you would like to buy the book now, having read this review – here you go.  Couldn’t be simpler.

THE JEERA PACKER by PRASHANT YADAV

What an extraordinarily good read this book is.

And, rather puzzlingly, what an extraordinarily uneven book it is too.

I dislike crisiticising someone’s writing, because it is such an intensely personal thing, but this excellent book is so uneven in its writing that it could almost have been written by two people – one of them fluent and funny and spot-on descriptive, and the other making silly, sloppy grammatical mistakes.

Take the opening page of the novel, for example:

“How I wish this candle trips over…”

“…sitting on the front counter…”

And then, a couple of paragraphs later:

“All-powerful, all-pervasive sameness this, it drags me in even on my day off…”

See what I mean?

From poor grammar to stunning prose in just a few lines.

I think tighter editing might have done the trick, for I do not for a moment believe that a writer of the obvious calibre of Mr. Yadav would say things like ” I pretend not hearing her” or “a couple of boys touching twenties”.

For a while, I wondered whether the grammatical mistakes were not deliberate, putting poor English into the mouths of his Hindi speaking politicians.

But I fear it might just be sloppy editing

Right, now that’s off my chest, let me rave about a great contemporary Indian novel.

I have mentioned in other reviews, that although the circumstances of reading a novel should not necessarily influence one’s appreciation of the writing, the fact still remains that very often they do.

And so, reading a book like this, living in North India as I do, and with non-stop talk and coverage of  the political shenanigans in the tumultuous, populous state of Uttar Pradesh, which goes to the polls in a few weeks – well, Mr. Yadav has painted us a vivid, all too imaginable scenario.  Corruption, internecine fighting, rent-a-crowd, all the elements of North Indian politics are brilliantly reflected in this novel.

The struggle for the Chief Ministership of India’s largest state, the dream of eventually becoming Prime Minister, are the guiding forces of Dada’s life, and his entourage of feckless family, hangers-on, corrupt cops, venal politicians…oh, it is all too familiar and therefore totally believable.

The noise and chaos and dirt and scruffiness that characterises so much of small town north India is perfectly described. You can hear the incessant noise from that traffic jam – actually, sitting in Delhi as I write this, I really CAN hear the racket from the traffic outside, but you take my meaning.

Mr. Yadav writes powerfully and brings his cast of characters to life, from the interesting jeera packer himself with his lovely wife Jyoti, to the Pathan who dreams of riding off into the sunset on his Bullet, to the about-to-retire policeman, terrified of life outside the toadying, protective bubble of official cars and drivers and the saluting deference which he has come to love.

This is a fast-paced, good read, and never for once does it tip over into clichés.  This is India “warts and all” and the ending is a cracker.

Heartlly recommended.

Excitingly, this is a brand new book, published in 2017 and since the year is just a week old, you don’t get much more contemporary than this.

Published by the energetic Fingreprint! (& I do so love that ! in their name)

DVARCA by Madhav Mathur

When and where you read a book should not be an influencing factor in your appreciation of it.  Or should it?

Reading Madhav Mathur’s intriguing novel “Dvarca” in India (where I live), during the worst days of demonetisation, when millions of people found themselves with no access to their own cash, added a definite piquancy, I have to admit.  India in late 2016 – now very early 2017 – is a far cry from the Dvarca of the 22nd century, but I couldn’t help finding disturbing parallels as I read.  Growing intolerance of what are dubbed “minority” religions here (read Islam), the brazen way Hindu-fundamentalist trolls harass people on line, and, of course, the wholesale buying into the demonetisation move, with dissenters being labelled anti-national…again, I repeat, we are, thank goodness, far far away from 22nd century Dvarca.  But it makes you think.

And it’s a chilling thought.

Madhav Mathur’s Dvarca is a world where the (Hindu) state controls every aspects of one’s life, projecting images – literally – of a supposedly ideal world into your head, and monitoring every aspect of your life, from your moment of birth to your place in society. The state is all-seeing, and projects itself as all-knowing and all-caring, and the citizens of Dvarca are expected to follow the dictates of society without any questions.

The parallels with “1984” are telling, but even more frightening, for this is a world where love has been eradicated, where sexual contact is prohibited, and where women are impregnated by the state, at a time of the state’s choosing, with a baby designed for and by the state.  The scene when Jyoti is made pregnant is terrifying – little more than state ordered rape.

I found the book disturbing and thought-provoking, and every time I said “No, don’t be silly, this is just fiction…” I’d remember the millions of people getting up in the winter dark to stand in serpentine queues to try and get access to their own money, and then I’d be even more disturbed.

Initially, as a non-Indian – and a non-Hindu – some of the more Sanskrit-based words and religious concepts were a bit of a barrier, but with time, they became more familiar.

A good, interesting, thought-provoking read – especially in these disturbing times we live in.

Published by Fingerprint! and if you would like to read this book, just click on the link below.

CACTI CULTURE by Major General C.S.Bewli

This attractive-looking, beautifully photographed book is good-looking enough to be a coffee-table book, while also being a useful reference book that is well-written, and easy to read for a non-specialist.

Sharing his extensive knowledge with the reader, the author begins with basic facts about cacti and succulents, and then explains how to identify, grow, propagate, repot – just about everything the home gardener wants to know.

The book is lavishly illustrated with lovely photographs by Siegfried N. Lodwig – which enabled me to ID some of my own plants, which was pretty good going.

Inspired by Major General Bewli’s book, I’m going to try and make a terrarium in the New Year, cleverly using that unused fish tank we have.

Excellent and useful reference book, published by Fingerprint!

Highly recommended.

AND – since you now all want to buy one of these, now, don’t you? – here are the links to help you get hold of a copy straight away.

http://www.fingerprintpublishing.com/

THE STRONGMAN’S DAUGHTER by Madhuri Iyer

We are living in interesting times here in India, ever since the government decided to wage a high-profile campaign against black money, but – everyone believes – actually aimed at political opposition.  Which means that the just-published novel, “The Strongman’s Daughter” is deliciously bang up-to-date.

For in the character of Vithalrao Narvekar, the corrupt, domineering, larger than life Chief Minister of Goa, we have the perfect example of what is perceived to be wrong with so much of India’s political system.  Money greases the corrupt wheels of governance, the environment is wrecked for profit, money is looted from the public coffers, siphoned off, stashed away…Ms Iyer tells it as it is, making her novel totally credible.

But this novel only has corruption and strongman politics as part of its plot.  Set against all this illegal money and power-play is the 21 year old daughter of the Chief Minister, an idealistic young girl, just graduated, and eager to live life and to love life, on her own terms.

Her father, used to getting his own way in all things, decides that Aditi will enter politics and get married.  And when she refuses both options, all hell breaks loose.

This is a fun read – love story, clash of wills, politics, dirty business as usual –  and all set against the pretty backdrop of Goa, one of India’s most laid back places.

There are some unexpected twists to the story, which I won’t share for fear of spoiling the book for you.

Very enjoyable, although it’s a bit of a sad reflection on the state of Indian politics that you, the reader, feel so familiar with the lies and money and bullying that make up Vithalrao Narvekar’s DNA.  Ms Iyer has him down to a T, the archetypal overweight, calculating politician, trampling over everyone (including his only child) to get what he wants.

A modern Goan love story with a strong political background – great fun.

Published by the young, energetic publishing house of Fingerprint! (with an !), The Strongman’s Daughter costs Rs 250 in paperback.

If you want to order it now, it couldn’t be easier.  Just click on the link…you know the rest!

The Pain Handbook by Dr. Rajat Chauhan

Dr. Rajat Chauhan is a respected figure amongst the Indian running community, and the wider, international community of ultra-runners. A doctor who runs ultra-marathons. A specialist in pain management who has conceptualised and organized one of the world’s toughest ultra marathons, the high altitude “La Ultra” in the Indian Himalayas.

But more than anything else, Dr. Chauhan is respected as a man who speaks his mind candidly, and who believes firmly in plain-speaking and no-nonsense explanations.

Dr. Chauhan’s book “The Pain Handbook, A non-surgical way to managing back, neck and knee pain” is a master class in the art of his famed plain-speaking, and throughout this excellent and very readable book, the author strives to explain medical issues in the simplest lay-person-friendly terms.

Dr. Chauhan is a firm believer in the importance of people taking control of their own lives and their own bodies, and of investing in their own health, and not just passively accepting what a doctor says.

In the opening pages of this book, he makes the point forcibly:

“You need this book because you or your loved ones are suffering from pain. Stop outsourcing your problems. You need to solve them yourself. I will help you do it, but you have to participate proactively…It’s your job to be better informed rather than blaming the “experts” years later.”

There you have it: the good doctor’s mission statement. He will help. But you the reader/patient have to participate proactively.

Throughout his book, Dr. Chauhan exhorts his readers to question the doctors they consult, to think, to inform themselves, and above all to move, and to keep moving:

“To do justice to your body, you owe it to yourself to understand it better. It is of no interest to any other party to educate you. It is a waste of time for them.

What’s in it for the healthcare industry to educate you better and reduce their revenues? So, the onus is on you. It’s your body. Know it better.”

Through an entertaining combination of medical information, a little history, case studies and illustrated exercises, Dr. Chauhan tackles three areas of injury and pain management that especially concern him – the back, the neck and the knee.

Our increasingly computer-driven lifestyle, our penchant for video games over outside games, our reluctance to exercise and keep fit, these are the evils of modern society which the author wants us to be aware of and to learn how to handle them.

For the author, moving is a mantra, as is consciously taking control of one’s body and, if needs be, the pain that has possibly driven you to read this book. We need to move our bodies, and we need to be able to articulate our pain and fears:

“You aren’t born a piece of furniture. You moved to be born and you were born to move. More importantly, you can feel and think. There is something that initiates your movement…When you start looking at yourself as a piece of furniture, you cannot blame the doctors for doing the same. You have ceased to exist as an intelligent human being who moves and has feelings, too.”

This book is a great read – the furthest thing from a dry medical handbook you could ever imagine. It is lively, thought-provoking, full of advice and exercises, and above all, it is easy to read. Never once does the author try and blind us with science. Rather he speaks in a friendly, down-to-earth way, admonishing us a little, but always ready with pointers and advice.

For anyone who has had an injury, or who wishes to be better informed about their body, and the need to exercise and keep potential injuries at bay, this book is a must-read.

And now, if you want to order this excellent book, nothing could be easier.  Simply click on the link below:

LYING IN WAIT by Liz Nugent

Having just put down Liz Nugent’s fabulous “Unravelling Oliver” I immediately opened “Lying in Wait.” And this amazingly talented writer’s second novel is, possibly, even more stunning than her début book.

What a writer.

How exciting it is to discover such talent, even though everyone else clearly knew about Ms Nugent from the outset.

The story of “Lying in Wait” is, as in her fist novel, told from the points of view of the various characters, in their voice and from their own unique perspective, and this time this stylistic device works seamlessly.

The story begins in 1980 and ends in 2016, though this is, essentially, a novel of the 1980s, with spot-on references to the music and TV shows of the days.  There is even one delicious reference to shoulder pads.

“Lying in Wait” opens with a bang, literally, from the first sentence:

“My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it.”

And with that opening sentence, we are led into a world of lies, of cover ups, manipulation, truths, all in an ever-tightening web of intrigue and suspense.

This is such a gripping novel that I raced through it way too quickly, gobbling up the pages to see how this chilling, mesmerising, exciting thriller would end.

We inhabit the claustrophobic world of Avalon, a beautiful gracious home which plays such an important role in the novel. Avalon is the magnet which keeps Lydia living there, declining the chance to study ballet in London, refusing ever to go away on holiday, hardly venturing out into Dublin, such is her love for her childhood home.

Lydia, her husband Andrew and their only child Laurence live a strange, tense existence in this beautiful home which dominates their lives.

The repercussions of that opening line, in which Annie Doyle is killed, are the structure of this book, as we see how the killers handle the crime, how Annie’s family reacts, and how the ripple effects of this one single shocking event spread ever outwards, over the decades.

This is an absolutely riveting thriller, and confirms Liz Nugent as a huge talent.

Thoroughly, enthusiastically, totally recommended.

After reading both of Ms Nugent’s novels in a week, I’m a huge fan.

If you would like to buy the book, after reading this (& how nice would that be!), it couldn’t be easier. Here you go:

ELIGIBLE by Curtis Sittenfeld

What an unusual book “Eligible” is.

Unusual because it is an undoubtedly clever book, whilst being simultaneously rather obvious, and yet overall the book is totally compelling, because you “know” all the characters in the book.

So well.

So, so well.

You “know” the plot.

You “know” how it will end, for Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia…Bennet.

Quite.

Is there anyone who doesn’t know and love the Bennet family, and who doesn’t know exactly how their lives will pan out?

Except this Bennet family does not live in early 19th century England, but 21st century Cincinnati, and therein lies both the cleverness and the slight clunkiness of the plot.

Transposing a family of largely dependent young women and their mother who is anxiously looking for husbands for them, to 21st century middle America is an interesting literary conceit, but it doesn’t always seem as though these sisters are actually living in Cincinnati in 2013.

Despite the use of sms‘s and Google, there is a slight slowness to the rhythm of their lives, as they go for months without contacting people because of a misunderstanding, or elope (oh yes!) and when Mr. Darcy bows…well…

All through this 21st century re-imagining of “Pride & Prejudice” I kept waiting for the moment when Elizabeth Bennet would make a wry aside about their famous precursors. I kept expecting a joking insider reference to life imitating art, or some such, but it didn’t happen.

And for me, that was one of the weak spots in this otherwise entertaining novel.

Clever though it is to re-imagine the Bennet girls as yoga teachers and journalists, it might have been almost cleverer to have written a book about 5 sisters who were NOT named Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia, and leave us to guess.

Mr. Bingley, Caroline Bingley, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Charlotte Lucas, Mr. Collins – they all appear, under their “Pride & Prejudice” names, and it is all just a wee bit too obvious.

Which is why Jasper works so well as a character. Unlike the other characters, whose role was announced by their name, you have to work out who Jasper is, and there is one clever clue half way through the book – & I’m thrilled to say I’d guessed before then, but I am a bit of “P&P” fan-girl.

There is a lovely re-imagining of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and it was moments like Liz’s meeting with the veteran octogenarian feminist writer Ms de Bourgh, that made me wish that the talented Ms Sittenfeld had re-imagined her characters a little more.

Jasper also doesn’t follow the exact path Jane Austen set out for him, which is part of the success of his character, and along with that of Ms de Bourgh’s cameo appearance, it made me feel that had “Eligible” been based more loosely on “Pride & Prejudice,” it would have been even more of a fun read.

Because it is, undoubtedly, a fun read, but had the author made us guess a little more about her Cincinnati versions of these fictional greats, I think “Eligible” would have been very, very clever as well as just fun.

There is no famous opening line, and the closest we get to it is when Mrs. Bennet says of Mr. Collins:

“He’s a lawyer in Atlanta and he’s very active in his church. If that’s not the description of a man looking for a wife, I don’t know what is.”

Well played, Ms Sittenfeld. Super well played.

Of all the characters in the book, it is Mr. Bennet who pays the most homage to his 19th century avatar.

Take, for example, this delicious exchange:

“ “Fred!” the nurse said, though they had never met. “How are we today?”

Reading the nurse’s name tag, Mr. Bennet replied with fake enthusiasm, “Bernard! We’re mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?”

If Jane Austen’s Mr. Bennet had met a nurse in hospital, this is, one feels, exactly how he might have spoken.

A good read, and I must confess, one that got more engrossing the tackier the 2013 version of their lives became. There are no balls at Netherfield, no cotillions, but there is croquet and lashings of reality TV.

Fun, and the end is totally as it should be.

If you would like to read “Eligible” now, then it couldn’t be easier.  Just click on the link below, & you’re all sorted.

UNRAVELLING OLIVER by Liz Nugent

How is it possible that this stunning novel eluded me for 2 years?

What a read.

I sat up in the misty Himalayas, wrapped in a duvet against the damp chill, and read and read and read and didn’t go exploring.  Just gobbled up this dark, gripping, clever book.

The book opens with a bang:

“I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her.”

And from that sentence on, we start unravelling the man behind the public persona of handsome, urbane, successful Oliver Ryan.

The format of the book, telling the story mainly in flashback, and always from a different person’s perspective, is initially a little unsettling.  For the first few chapters, until the characters all settled into place, I had to keep double checking who was now speaking, but after a while, as the story proceeds, the cleverness (and the consummate skill) of hearing all these different voices, from different time frames, and seeing different perspectives and views add to the mystery.

“Unravelling Oliver” is a psychological thriller of note.

Oliver is a man who has just beaten his wife into a coma in the opening moments of the book.  He is a man with many secrets.  And yet, such is the skill of Ms Nugent’s spare prose, that there are moments when we feel genuinely sorry for this manipulative man.

For make no mistake, Oliver manipulates people shamelessly, from his earliest days of getting to know women in his student days in early 1970s Dublin:

“I have learned over the years how to charm them.  It’s not too hard if you are handsome and can appear to be clever with a dry wit. Then, gradually, begin to take an interest, as if she is a specimen in a laboratory.  Poke her a bit with a long stick while keeping your distance.  Ignore her for long periods to see how she reacts and then give her a good shake.  It almost always works.”

There are so many layers to the story, and as you the reader, peel back each new layer, the story gets progressively deeper and more mysterious.  With hindsight, you realise that echoes and precursors of the truth behind Oliver are scattered throughout the book.

Here, for example, where Véronique talks about her father, a man who suffered much at the hands of the Gestapo:

“He had told nobody and, despite his heroics, he felt nothing but shame.  I think it an honourable thing not to visit your horror upon those that you love, but I suspect that the pain of keeping it inside must also cause a lesion to the soul.”

With hindsight, we realise that these words – well, some of them – could apply equally to Oliver.  Oliver is not heroic, but he does have secrets that he will not and cannot share.

This is a story with dark tragedy at its centre, but yet there are moments of pure beauty, too.

When you read this toddler’s reactions to a story being told to him, it is such a joyous vignette:

“As Monsieur began to tell the story, I watched the boy’s face as he perched on his papi’s knee.  He was transfixed by the tale of a happy young prince of a fantastical land and would exclaim in the middle of the telling, would hide his eyes at the arrival of the bad witch, and clap his hands in excitement at our hero’s escape in the end.”

Books and stories, and the telling of stories, and the not telling of stories, are all part of the fabric of this clever book.  There are twists and turns right up until the closing paragraph.

Consummate story-telling.

Ireland per se isn’t a character as such in the book, but the social situation and the mores of 1970s Dublin, are a leitmotiv running through the book, influencing the decisions and behaviour of the characters.

For example, the parlous state of Irish food in the 1970s comes in for gentle criticism, when Michael spends a summer in France:

“Ireland in those days was a gastronomic wilderness.  Parsley sauce was considered the height of sophistication.  Here, I learned that boiling was not the only way to teat a vegetable…and that garlic existed.”

A great read.  A gripping story.  Totally recommended.

If you would like to buy the book after reading this review, here you go.

Couldn’t be easier. Just click on the link, and yes, of course, you know the rest…