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.

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!

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…

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.

PENUMBRA by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay

Natural cynic that I am, when I read on a book cover a comment like “Make sure you have three clear hours when you pick this book up, because you won’t stop reading till you’ve finished it”, I’m ashamed to say that my first reaction is to mutter, “Yeah right” or something to that effect.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

“Penumbra” is totally un-put-down-able and I have just spent the last 2 hours, when I should’ve been writing an overdue article, absolutely devouring the book.

And, for the record, totally not guessing whodunit.

So, yes, indeed.  Make sure you have a nice clear afternoon, and settle down and enjoy a cracking murder mystery.

The book is set initially in Calcutta, and then in rural West Bengal, in an almost Agatha Christie-like setting.

A house party gathered for a celebration.

A murder.

Everyone trapped in the house together, isolated by a storm of almost Biblical proportions that brings down the phone lines, cause the power to flicker, makes the roads undrive-able…

At one point in the book I got too clever by half and thought I’d figured it all out.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.  Again.

I hadn’t a clue, right until the very end.

(And don’t worry, there are no plot-spoilers here.  Wouldn’t do that to you.)

The novel is told in the first person, through the mouth of Prakash Roy, a freelance journalist – and that, possibly, is the only v-e-r-y slight quibble I have with the author.  Prakash’s being a journalist is mentioned throughout the book, but he doesn’t seem to have much investigative get-up-and-go, and is content, rather, to serve as the foil to other people’s deductions.

But it doesn’t detract from him as a character at all  –  which is why I said it was a mere quibble.

Good read.

Good plot.

Thoroughly recommended.

If you would like to buy the book –  and it’s a great read – it couldn’t be easier.

Just click on one of the links below, & you’ll be on your way.

I was sent this book to review by the publishers, Fingerprint!

VINEGAR GIRL by Anne Tyler

Gosh.

To think I’d never read an Anne Tyler novel until now.

What an omission.

We chose “Vinegar Girl” to read in our Delhi book club this month, and what a nice read it is, too.

Hmm…”nice”.  Not a very literary word, agreed.

What a fun book.  Is that a little better?

“Vinegar Girl” is a contemporary re-working of “The Taming of the Shrew” with the main character called –  yes, indeed – Kate.

Kate Battista.

To spare you from a listing here of all the clever word-play & references to Shakespeare, just let me tell you that the 21st century Baltimore names are affectionate nods in the direction of their historical counterparts.

It is a long time since a novel has made me laugh out loud, and that’s always such a lovely feeling, and “Vinegar Girl” is, indeed, a fun, clever, witty read.

Kate is prickly, a bit galumphing, and resigned to her uneventful life as a teaching assistant in a pre-school.  She has her moments though –  I love the scene where she tells a class of four year olds that pasta smells like wet dog:

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I won’t plot-spoil, but Pyotr Shcherbakov is a cracker of a character from the second we meet him :

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Pyotr’s language, both his use thereof and his pronunciation, is a delightful leit motiv running through the book:

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He constantly quotes proverbs from his country, much to Kate’s exasperation:

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Pyotr absorbs language greedily, especially idioms, and in one scene when everyone else eats burgers, he orders a complicated chichi meal :

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A clever, fun read.

If I have one reservation, it is the Epilogue.  A wee bit too twee.  But that really is a small reservation

Do yourself a favour and read “Vinegar Girl” –  and if you want to order it right now, couldn’t be easier – just click on the link below:

“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)