THE ENGLISH SPY by Daniel Silva

Yes, indeed, I am still very immersed in the world of the master Israeli spy and assassin Gabriel Allon, and, as ever, am in awe of the amazingly topical plots and their totally unpredictable twists and turns, in the hands of the master, Daniel Silva.

Gabriel Allon and his world have been my non-stop summer reading and to my horror, I have only one book in the series left to read, and am already going into depression at the thought.  I started out in the early days of our brutal Delhi summer with Book 1, and have read them all, in order, finishing the excellent “The English Spy” just now, on a hot September afternoon here in Delhi.

I said just now that the plots are topical.  They are, of course. That goes without saying.  But Mr. Silva seems to be prescient, too, and it is this uncanny ability to have his pulse not only on the contemporary world scene but also almost see into the future, that makes his books so riveting.

“The English Spy” sees Gabriel Allon at work in Ireland, as he tries to defeat his old nemesis from earlier novels…but I really can’t tell you much more without being a complete spoil sport, so I won’t.

One of the leitmotifs that run through this totally absorbing and clever series is that of art.  Jewish Gabriel is an art restorer of world renown, one of the world’s top restorers of Christian art, often undertaking commissions directly for the Vatican and for the Catholic churches of his beloved Venice.  This unlikely pairing of violence and art, of Judaism and Catholicism, of killing and healing, is just one of the clever devices Mr. Silva uses to weave stories that draw you into them on so many different levels.

Gabriel is a hero like no other, one of fiction’s most decent, honourable men. He is modest, an Israeli who is not in the least bit religious.  A man who loves Europe and the world of churches and art and history.  A man who adores his drop-dead gorgeous wife, and who cherishes his first wife…oh dear, if anyone is reading this and doesn’t know the earlier books, I do hope I’m not spoiling things for you…

Gabriel is also, yet another contradiction in his psyche, a killer who has great compassion, as illustrated in his reaction when he sees a victim of a bomb attack:

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Nearly all of the major characters who form Gabriel’s world make an appearance in the novel, including the wonderful Ari Shamron, who assumes almost Biblical stature in this description:

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Sad to say, Israel and Israelis are often not the world’s favourite people, and so it is refreshing to be treated to the total decency and honesty and probity of Gabriel and his team.  Speaking personally, here in India, we usually meet the aggressive young Israelis who flock to places like Ladakh and Himachal, and are, sadly, very often rude and unfriendly.  Huge generalisation, I know, I know, but there were a couple of bruising encounters with hard-eyed unsmiling Israelis in Leh last time I was there.  Sad.

So, hopefully without sounding too naive, to immerse oneself in the world of Gabriel Allon, is to restore one’s faith in a country and its people.  Everyone in Gabriel’s ambit is passionate about Israel, but without being overtly religious.  The love for their country shines through, as does their commitment to making sure the world does not forget the horrors of the Holocaust.  The sights and sounds and light of Israel, the food and the wine and the sunsets, the dangers and the fear and the constant threats are just one of the many joys of these books.  And, as I said, they restore one’s view of the country and its people.

How to kill a billionaire by Rajesh Talwar

Before we start –  cards on the table time.

I was sent “How to kill a billionaire” by Juggernaut, to test and review their new app for reading on your smartphone.  Click here to read my review in my other blog.

But boy oh boy, did ever I make a good choice when I picked this title out from a list Juggernaut kindly gave me to chose from (ouch – that’s a pretty ugly sentence).

“How to kill a billionaire” is an absolute cracker of a read, and I loved it from start to finish – I didn’t work one whole afternoon, ignoring my computer and a pile of editing, in order to finish this gripping book.

And what a clever book it is too.  You are told the facts of the crime almost at the outset, but it is the unravelling of the where’s and why’s and how’s that grips you.

I am (I like to flatter myself) by and large a nice person, so there won’t be any spoilers here.  Pukka.

But since the blurb says, upfront “When a billionaire’s son goes missing after a young girl commits suicide…”, you know from the outset that it’s going to be a book about dissecting a crime and its repercussions.  And that is as far as I’m going to go, otherwise I really will spoil the book for you.

The setting is “Thirty Thousand Courts” in Delhi, and it took me a page or two (e-page, I suppose one should call them) to twig.

Thirty Thousand Courts = Tis Hazari.  (Yeah, I’m quick like that.)

The descriptions of the cramped, squalid offices where so much of Delhi’s legal work is done are excellent and I learned some legal odds and ends along the way :

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Did not know cross examination was so crucial.

Mr. Talwar writes well and cleverly, and through the voice of his main protagonist, we get a glimpse of life in the cramped, seedy, corrupt-but-functioning world of Thirty Thousand Courts:

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I also learned a little more about Indian food –  how have I never eaten a “fain”, in all my years in India?

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As the story unfolds, over tea and “fain” and sometimes kebabs and whisky, the lawyer talks to Lord Patel – and to we, the reader – explaining what happened, and no, don’t worry, I am not going to tell you & spoil what is a truly great read.

100% recommended for both Indian and overseas readers.  Since Lord Patel, to whom the narrator directs his story, is a foreign based Indian, who has supposedly lost touch with some of the ground realities of living in India, the narrator often explains things to him – a boon for readers who may not know India intimately.

Click here to read an interesting Q&A with the author.

To read this gripping novel, first download the Juggernaut app onto your smartphone if you don’t already have it, then download the book.

“How it works” THE HUSBAND – a Ladybird Book

For Christmas, I was given 2 of the brilliant Ladybird books for grown ups –  here’s one of the reviews – and so it was with great pleasure that I accepted a friend’s thoughtful gift for my husband when I was in London recently.

Though, actually, having read this handy manual “How it works The Husband” it is probably more useful for me, The Wife.

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.”

Couldn’t agree more.

And now let’s see what I have learned about how husbands work.

Well, I’ve learned this.

Nah, actually, knew it already…

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Ah yes.  All that reading about Real Things…

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I absolutely love the wholesome images in these grown up Ladybird books, that remind me SO much of my childhood reading, but now combined with the off-the-wall captions.

Like this gem:

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Love the pom-pom-poming older husband.  #justsaying.

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This extract, below, sums up perfectly the brilliant combo of images and oh-so-simple words and sentences, the hallmark of Ladybird books.

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You need this book, now don’t you?

Righty-ho, here we go –  order it right now (before you forget)

THE SECRET SERVANT by DANIEL SILVA

My current politico-thriller writer of choice is Daniel Silva, creator of the Gabriel Allon series, which I have been rattling through at a cracking pace.  The only trouble with a gripping series such as Mr. Silva’s books is that once started, you don’t pause for breath, nor (in my case) for time to review them.

And so I have stopped reading for just long enough to share with you my thoughts on “The Secret Servant”, the 7th novel in this exciting series.

Yup. Indeed.  6 books read, back to back, without pausing long enough to review them.  Guilty as charged.

What an interesting man Gabriel Allon is.  A spy and and assassin for the Israeli secret service,  Gabriel is Jewish without being overtly religious.  He is Israeli, but a polyglot, at home in much of Europe.  A talented art restorer, he is forever haunted by his own personal horrific backstory (don’t worry, no plot spoilers).

In other words, an interesting, complex figure, but one who still manages to keep a veil of secrecy around him.  We, the reader, instinctively like Gabriel.  We root for him, we worry about him, but yet we do not fully “know” him.

Gabriel’s foe in many of the books is extreme Islam, and there is little point being politically correct or beating about the bush. What Gabriel and the Israeli secret service face seems to be a pretty fair representation of much of what is currently wrecking our world.  Bombs aimed at innocent people, racking up the collateral damage that the hardline extremists we meet, seem to consider of no value whatsoever.  Lives are expendable.

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It’s not that the world of Gabriel Allon and the decent, likeable towering figure of Ari Shamron unfairly represents the growing conflict between Judeo-Christianity and militant Islam.  These books are not Israeli propaganda  It isn’t like that at all.  And yet…so many of the plots and terror threats that Gabriel has solved in the books thus far, involve the sort of terror threats that the world today increasingly faces.  And “The Secret Servant” was written in 2007, for goodness sake. So much horror has happened since.  Almost scarily prescient.

Mr. Silva’s books could never be described as light or humorous or frothy.  His stories are of terror and plots and spies and danger, of death and fear.

And yet, I found this excellent novel “blacker” and gloomier than some of its predecessors.  As we travel the road of counter-terrorism in the edgy company of the upright Gabriel, a killer with a very firm conscience and a deep awareness of the rights and wrongs of this world, we sense his growing weariness and occasional disenchantment.  He is heading towards middle-age, he has faced dangers and torture far too many times, and he knows that his life will always be at risk.  He has tackled so many terrorist outfits head-on that he has enemies galore.

Thus it is that the international terror plot that he must unravel and destroy in “The Secret Servant” reveals a frightening world of alienation and radicalisation, of European-born and educated Muslims who hate with a passion and are ready to kill and die for their beliefs.  This picture of Europe being radicalised from within is a deeply disturbing one:

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Like all its predecessors in this series, “The Secret Servant” is a gripping, often times gory and frightening, and, I must be frank, a disturbing picture of an alienated world.  The old continent has never looked more vulnerable.

This is a page-turner with a long-lasting message.

Highly recommended.

Now you’ve read this review, please go ahead and buy the book. Couldn’t be easier. Just click on one of the links below: 

THE LADYBIRD BOOK OF MINDFULNESS

This was another Christmas present from my clever sister, who clearly knows her older sibling oh-so-well.  After tackling midlife crisis, I now have a brilliant Ladybird book to guide me through the tricky waters of mindfulness:

“Mindfulness is the skill of thinking you are doing something when you are doing nothing.”

(Ouch, Jane, is there a hidden message here?)

Love the skewering of our middle-aged pretensions:

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I also love (& humour me here, folks) the sheer Englishness of these books.

The dotty text, the wholesome illustrations, the deliberate throw-back to our childhood books, the tweaking of our nostalgia – oh the whole thing is too clever and such light-hearted fun.

Meet my favourite mindful character…

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If you wish – mindfully of course – to buy this book, couldn’t be easier.

Just click on the link below.

The bestseller she wrote by Ravi Subramanian

This is now the third book by Mr. Subramanian that I have reviewed, courtesy of the wonderful folk at Blogadda. As befits a former banker, banking plays a definite role in Mr. Subramanian’s novel, as it did in his earlier books, The Bankster and God is a Gamer, but this time banking is more the backdrop, the corporate setting for the complex, gripping tale.  The corridors of corporate power are just part of the world of Mumbai-based middle-aged banker Aditya, who is also a hugely successful novelist.  This likeable, affable man transitions from corporate honcho to rockstar status writer with ease and remarkable humility, and with his loving nuclear family acting as his sounding board, Aditya truly does seem to have it all.

Until he gets entangled with a young woman.  The story of Aditya falling for Shreya is hardly the first time that a pretty woman has derailed the marriage of a middle-aged man, dazzled by the attention paid to him by a younger woman.

In the case of Shreya, however, the dominant figure in this novel, it is not just a question of a beautiful young girl ensnaring a middle-aged man, for Shreya is the complete package – super bright, slim, attractive, a business school graduate and a budding writer to boot.  From the moment we meet her, we realize that Shreya is also outspoken and determined to get her own way.

We the readers are, from the outset, more aware of what seems to be the dark side of Shreya’s ambitions and I know I, for one, kept willing Aditya not to be so trusting and loving, wanting him to see what this manipulative young woman was up to.  I don’t want to spoil the plot in any way, but trust me that the build up of the relationship between Aditya and Shreya is cleverly crafted by the talented Mr. Subramanian.  We are aware that Aditya is heading into ever deeper and more dangerous waters, but he seems maddeningly oblivious.  Enough clues are shown to us, whereas Aditya seems blind to them.  Lovely as Aditya is –  and he truly a nice, totally likable, empathetic man – I kept wanting to shake him by the shoulders and say “Wake up, man.  Just look at what she is doing!”.  But of course you can’t do that to a character in a book, so you read on, hoping and praying that Aditya avoids the pitfalls looming in front of him…and that’s as far as I’m going, otherwise I’ll be labelled a plot-spoiler.

The writing is crisp and to the point, though there are a few sloppy editing errors – mainly wrong spacing after commas, that kind of visually irritating thing.  A writer of Mr. Subramanian’s stature deserves better from his editor.

The plot is cleverly crafted with not one but several last minute twists in the tale, that keep your attention right to the very last pages.  The author has used last minute twists to great effects in his earlier novels, so I was sort of expecting one, but this one was totally unexpected.

I loved the insights into the world of publishing, which brought to life the process that takes place after the words are written.  I also loved the author’s trademark clever use of technology in the plot –  and if it’s not revealing too much (hope not!) if ever there was case for being vigilant about what you say or don’t say on your mobile phone…

Recommended.

If you would like to buy this book now –  and it’s a good read, trust me! –  then just click here :

I am reviewing ‘The Bestseller She Wrote’ by Ravi Subramanian as a part of the biggest Book Review Program for Indian Bloggers. Participate now to get free books!

Love Jaipur by Fiona Caulfield

Whoever said that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover has obviously never read any of Fiona Caulfield’s travel guides.

They are simply stunning.

And that’s before you even start to read them.

Just the look and the feel of Ms Caulfield’s gorgeously produced guide book are enough to make you fall in love with Jaipur, and that’s before you follow her, as she wanders through the city, sharing her insider knowledge on shopping and eating and drinking and exploring and yet more shopping…

Enveloped in a lovely case, the book has a retro feel to it, and yes, a luxurious aura.

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Ms Caulfield writes about Jaipur with huge affection and shares her special places generously, wearing her knowledge lightly.  She sounds like a fun person to go exploring with.  Food, drink, shopping, hotels –  all are tackled efficiently, in separate sections, with lots of her personal tips and advice thrown in for good measure.  The book never for a second reads like an advertorial.

Even though we used the first edition of the book, published in 2010, all the shops and places we visited were exactly as she described them, and she is remembered with a certain amount of esteem and respect.

For those people who want to move beyond the bland and the predictable and who also want to get out into the city and explore –  this is your book.

Recommended.  (Indeed my book is looking a tad exhausted, after a hectic 3 days in Jaipur last week).

If you feel like buying “Love Jaipur” right now, then it couldn’t be easier.  Just click on the link below.

FIXING YOUR FEET by John Vonhof

Before I start, let me tell you that running has changed my life.  In so, so many ways.

Such as?
Well, one of them being that winning a book called “Fixing your feet’ in a competition organised by a local Delhi running group made me as pleased as punch.  Because now I could look up blackened toenails and pronation and how to treat blisters…oh sorry, is this too much information?!

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Since starting running 2 years ago, my feet have become of major importance to me, if that doesn’t sound silly –  a blister or a sore toe means no running.  End of story.  Miserable day….all you runners out there know the feeling.

So I cosset my feet now way more than I ever did my pre-running days.

And, of course, my feet look terrible, compared to pre-running days.   All those blackened toe nails.

This book is, therefore, a perfect reference book.  I have dipped in and out of the relevant chapters, and will keep it handy for any future aches and pains.

The book is published in the US by Wilderness Press and costs $18.95.  It was originally published in 1997 and has been reprinted many times over the years.

Should you wish to order it now, you can do so now by clicking on one of the links below.  Couldn’t be easier.

AARUSHI by Avirook Sen

Let me start this review by nailing my colours to the mast.

“Aarushi” is a brilliantly written, meticulously detailed, gripping piece of work, and should be read by every single person who cares about India and justice.

This is a book that should be made compulsory reading for every student of law, for every aspiring policeman or policewoman, and for every student of journalism.

For this book holds up a mirror to the first two professions, revealing their flaws and defects and, in parallel, the huge moral responsibility they both bear.

And any student of journalism should be proud to take a leaf out of Mr. Sen’s book –  his research and attention to detail are meticulous, his research is thorough, unbiased and clearly presented.

Reading Avirook Sen’s extraordinary book “Aarushi” is an emotional experience in so many ways. Reliving the horror of the murder of a 13 year old girl is traumatic, even for we the readers.  For anyone who was living in India at the time – May 2008 – the memory of the gruesome murder, the arrest of the child’s father, his release, then the subsequent arrest, trial and the shocking conviction of both parents for her murder –  all those memories are still surprisingly fresh, for this was a sensational case, which had every one of us gripped.

I remember blogging about the case, willing the parents to be innocent.

But the lurid details of wife swapping in Noida, the widely circulated theory that the 13 year old was having a consensual sexual relationship with a middle aged male servant, all of this was fodder to what passes for journalism here in India.

Sorry if that sounds harsh, but there you go.

We have a hysterical TV press at the best of times, and this cocktail of sex, murder, servants, wife swapping, golf clubs, locked doors, seemingly unemotional parents (that must prove they were guilty, right? No public hysteria was suspicious, right?)…oh, it was all too good for the TV ratings.  No matter that most of it was hearsay, unproven, salacious tidbits leaked by an irresponsible investigating team.

Don’t believe me?

Well, read this astonishing book, and you soon will.

In the first few pages of the book, we see the police at work.  It is a truly terrifying catalogue of incompetence, to put it mildly.  The words I would actually like to use would not make for polite reading.

Read this extract below, and pray that you never, ever, ever find yourself at the receiving end of such inept, unprofessional, insensitive “policing” :

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Mr. Sen writes in a clear, unbiased voice about the chaos and cacophony surrounding the trial of 2 bereaved parents, and though never taking an overt stand, you know where his sympathies lie.  With the dignified, grieving Talwars, rather than the servile, incompetent authorities.

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Unlike the TV anchors going after ratings (and did one of them really dip his hands in red paint to simulate blood on camera?) Mr. Sen attended all the court hearings, quietly interviewed as many of the protagonists as he could, and, in a hugely chilling end to the book, he re-visits and re-chats with the main players once the trial is over, and the Talwars are incarcerated.  Even in jail, bereaved, the Talwars remain dignified.

And if your blood hasn’t already boiled with the parade of self-serving, incompetent police, CBI and lawyers who were let loose on the Talwars, then the conclusion of this fine book will certainly make you angry.  And very, very scared for anyone fighting for justice.

Trust me.

The most frightening interview in the book is the one Mr. Sen has with Shyam Lal, the now retired judge who sentenced the Talwars, and promptly retired a few days after sentencing.

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The above is straight out of the realm of buffoonery.  But to be fair, not everyone can speak and write well in English, but why the system allows such a travesty as this is mystifying.

But it is the final moments of the book that should make you sit up and make you very angry:

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The only thing I still can’t quite comprehend, even after reading this fine book is this: why?

Why did 2 people have to bear the brunt not only of a personal tragedy of unimaginable horror, but also the full weight of a conniving, incompetent system?

Evidence was withheld, was blatantly tampered with, and yet no-one seemed to be in the least concerned.  The case of the purple pillow is so shocking that you keep wondering if you have somehow misunderstood the implications.  But no.  Evidence was tampered with.  And no-one other than the Talwars seems bothered.  Certainly not the investigative agencies.

If the Talwars had been politicians or industrial giants or CEOs or cricketers or Bollywood stars, you could (with perhaps some justification) claim such a travesty of justice to be a cover up or a vendetta – whatever was appropriate.

But these were 2 ordinary middle class people.  Professionals.  Educated.  Loving parents.  So why the massive all-encompassing travesty of justice?  It can’t surely all have been a self-serving cover-up, with everyone too scared to admit to their mistakes and failures?  So just bluff your way out and compound the situation?  Surely not?

But, terrifyingly, that seems to be the only conclusion.

If you haven’t already bought this book, then please do so now by clicking on one of the links.  You owe it to yourself.  And to the Talwars.

Autobiography of a Mad Nation by Sriram Karri

What an interesting book this is.

A criminal and political whodunnit that takes place in contemporary India, and at the very highest levels – we meet the President of India in the opening moments of the book, and yet leaves us puzzling over the nature of the crime, the motives for it and indeed who really carried it out, right up until the final pages of the book.

The novel opens with great panache and style, as the President shows his trusted confidant and the former head of the Intelligence Service, Dr. Vidyasagar, a plea for clemency he has received.  A mentally unstable young man, Iqbal, has been beheaded in Hyderabad and the author of the letter, Vikrant, is the convicted killer, who actually called the police to confess.  Now on death row, he writes to the President asking not for clemency but for justice.  He says he has proof as to who really killed Iqbal.  And he sends the proof to the President, whom he refers to as the People’s President.

This is perhaps the moment to say that one of the things I enjoyed about this book was trying to guess who was who, for the very nice, compassionate People’s President is never named per se, but there are enough clues for me to venture a suggestion – the still very popular former President A.P.J.Abdul Kalam.  Even if I’m wrong, while reading reading this novel, I imagined our fictional President to have the same genial face and kind, gentle nature of President Kalam.

I was sent this book for review by the publisher, Fingerprint!, but the problem with reviewing a whodunnit is that you really cannot reveal too much of the plot, for glaringly obvious reasons.

Suffice it to say that the first section of the book is seriously gripping, as Vidyasagar, racing against time (for the clock is ticking down both to the end of the President’s term of office and Vikrant’s execution) has to figure out whether or not Vikrant is a killer and if not, who was Iqbal’s murderer and why on earth would Vikrant have confessed to such a crime?

I am not going to spoil the plot for you, worry not.

The second part of the book consists of a long and very detailed flashback, and as you read it, you slowly begin to put together some of the pieces of this complex jigsaw puzzle of a book.

But not all of them, which means you start the third and final section sort-of-beginning-to-understand some things, and not understanding others at all.

Which is why this is a good read right until the very last paragraph.

Recommended.  Loved the first part, which is gripping and mystifying at the same time.

To buy the book right now, all you have to do is click on one of the links below.