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.

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!

DEAD SIMPLE by PETER JAMES

Oh, the joy of “discovering” a new writer.

Whoops, the slight embarrassment when you realise that everyone else in the world except you already knows about said writer.

And so, having got that off my chest, let’s talk about Peter James.

I was riveted by “Dead Simple” – published in 2005, so how up to date am I? – and literally could not put the book down, with its clever plot twists and its gripping, macabre story line.

Reviewing a murder mystery inevitably involves being a little vague, because the last thing I would want to do is to spoil your enjoyment of this brilliant story.

We are introduced in this book to Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, a man we instantly like and trust and respect.  What makes Roy Grace so interesting a man is his own tragic back story.  9 years earlier, his adored wife Sandy disappeared, and he still has no idea what happened to her.  He wonders, constantly, whether Sandy is still alive and in his quest for answers, Roy consults mediums and fortune tellers, and has an interest in the occult – for which he is sometimes ridiculed, within the conventional world of modern policing.

Roy Grace lives in the southern English coastal town of Brighton, and the city features largely in the story.

I am not going to spoil the book by telling you anything more than the book’s blurb does:

“It was meant to be a harmless stag-night prank.  A few hours later Michael Harrison has disappeared and four of his friends are dead.”

As I said earlier, there are plot twists in this book, lots of them, but at one point I was cocky enough to think I’d “got it”.  That I’d figured out what was happening.

No way.  You are kept on your toes tight until the last sentence of this exciting book.

Personally recommended.

And if you would like to buy the book, here’s the link.  You know what to do.

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: