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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Love Jaipur_5242

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.

Inspector Singh Investigates: A deadly Cambodian crime spree by Shamini Flint

I am an unabashed fan of the Inspector Singh series, so please don’t misunderstand me when I say that “A deadly Cambodian crime spree” is possibly the best book in the series thus far.

The previous three books are all brilliant reads, don’t get me wrong.  Good, funny, insightful, all-round great detective novels.

But the Cambodian story reaches new heights.

Not only is it a cracking whodunnit, as we have come to expect from Ms Flint, but in this book we see Inspector Singh confront issues of morality on a colossal scale.  And in the process, we learn so much more about this larger than life man, whom up until now we know delights in irritating his Chinese bosses as he stubbornly refuses to conform to the Singaporean notion of policing.

But in this book we see him out of his usual world and confronted with the on-going trauma of a collective genocide that makes his hunt for the murderer of a trial witness at times seem a puny task. What is one death amongst so many millions?

But Inspector Singh has his own moral touchstone. He is a policeman and as such he will hunt down the killer of one man, whilst attending the court hearings into the genocide trials.

Sent to be the ASEAN watchdog at the War Crimes Tribunal in Phonm Penh, the Singaporean Sikh copper enters a realm of such collective evil and horror that he (and we the reader) often recoil in disbelief at the testimony we listen to. This was one of the aspects of this book that differentiates it from its predecessors – the delving into the history of this poor benighted country.

But all this is not to say that our good Inspector has lost his zest for life. True, Cambodia and the things he hears in court shake this good man to his moral core, but that doesn’t stop him being hungry all the time, and irritated that his trademark white sneakers get dirty as he pounds the dusty streets of Phonm Penh.

He hates the local food, hates the heat, is captivated by a beautiful, enigmatic Cambodian woman called Sovann, and, if the truth be known, he may just have met his match in his local sidekick, the feisty, outspoken, hard-working, driven Chhean.  She is a brilliant character, an orphan searching for her own missing family, and outspokenly contemptuous of the Cambodian police and the Cambodian government.

This delightful young lady is also unable to restrict herself to the limited role of being Singh’s interpreter.  Thank goodness that Chhean doesn’t just stick to translating from Khmer for the good Punjabi Inspector, because her no nonsense approach and her ability to deliver great hit-the-nail-on-the-head oneliners are one of the many joys of this book.

In Menhay, the embattled local policeman tasked to ensure the tribunal is seen to run efficiently, we have a fascinating man.  Stubborn, honest in a country where an honest cop is, seemingly, an uber-rare commodity, we watch the growing relationship between Singh and Menhay, as they are made joint in charge of the murder investigation that threatens the future of the tribunal.




As Inspector Singh delves deeper into the nitty gritty of Cambodia, he reflects (almost wistfully) on clean little Singapore :


He is also forced –  for a moment –  to reflect on the nature of family.  So many Cambodians are desperately searching for their loved ones or for closure about their disappearnce.  Chhean, poor girl, has no family and would love one.  Inspector Singh has a rare, fleeting moment of familial insight :



I loved this book, not only for the story and the brilliant plot, for the trademark humour and Singh’s observations about Cambodia, but also for the fact that this enjoyable story is encased within a wider scenario. I was moved by the horrors we hear about, and, like the good Inspector, ashamed that I knew so little about the recent history of this country.  Inspector Singh is growing in stature before our eyes – he may also be growing in girth, too – and he gets simply more and more delightful.

The ending of the book is spectacular.

Another excellent novel, and one that I cannot recommend too highly.

If you would like to buy the book after reading this review, simply click on the link below:

Inspector Singh investigates : The Singapore School of Villainy by Shamini Flint

Yup, guilty as charged

I am indeed becoming a bit of an Inspector Singh junkie, having just polished off the third in the series in the space of a week.

And books 4-6 are downloaded and ready to go.

In the third book in the series, Inspector Singh is on home turf, trying to find out who murdered a lawyer in a big international law firm.  Questioning highly trained lawyers was never going to be a cake walk and the good Inspector finds himself tackling a wall of corporate solidarity.  But, as he soon discovers, his irritating orders to investigate in the lawyers’ offices rather than at police HQ, to try and keep the press off the trail, does have some unexpected benefits:

Unlike the first two books in the series, where the overweight, chain-smoking, beer-loving detective was working overseas, first in Malaysia and then in Indonesia, in “The Singapore School of Villainy ” we get to see Inspector Singh in his home environment. And that means we finally get to meet Mrs. Singh, a woman who is very concerned about her reputation within the Singaporean Sikh community.  Since one of the lawyers who may be a possible suspect is not only a young unmarried Sikh boy, but also one to whom she is very, very distantly related, it is especially galling that her husband is seemingly unable to nail the culprit, when all the world and its wife and the local press and her sisters knows who has done it. (The wife.  Or the second wife. Open and shut case.)

Here Mrs. Singh defends the young Sikh man she doesn’t know –  but he is a Sikh, and is very very distant family, from India :


As in the previous two novels, Inspector Singh has a sidekick appointed to work with him – and cleverly, this is never the same person –  and it is always someone who is initially very uncomfortable around his unorthodox way of working.  And this being Singapore, the young local policeman seconded to this murder investigation is beyond nervous at his boss’s unconventional approach and what it might do to his own shiny-new career prospects.


For this is, after all, Singapore, a place where there are relatively few murders, and hardly ever a high profile one.



Singh, too, initially despairs of Corporal Fong, who keeps jumping to attention and is terrified of putting a foot wrong.


Ms Flint is, as ever, spot-on-perfect with he characterisation of the Chinese, the ex-pats, the Indians and the Filipinas who people this whodunnit.

One suspects that she doesn’t have much time for the entitled culture of European ex-pats.

Or perhaps it is just the portly Inspector Singh who doesn’t:


Ms Flint’s description of the hefty Singh sisters is oh-so-accurate:

I live in India, in New Delhi, so the baggy-trousered matrons ring true, as do the flappy arms:


This third novel in the series brings us closer to understanding Inspector Singh the man, as opposed to Inspector Singh the cheerfully rule-bending policeman who irritates the living daylights out of his superiors.  We see him, for example, in the presence of his wife, and sprawled in his comfy chair at home, and in this book, on his home turf, he seems to be more personally concerned about some of his suspects.  The end of the novel is bleaker and darker and more moving than anything we have seen of Inspector Singh thus far.  He becomes a more rounded character in this book (no pun intended), moving beyond his fat wheezy persona to a man with deep emotions, and he is all the more endearing for it.

But nevertheless, Singh the slightly ridiculous caricatural character (and fully aware of his own image) is as funny as ever:




He is nobody’s fool, and is realistic enough to know that he is a square peg in a round hole – an unorthodox Indian cop in an orderly Chinese set up:



Anyway, that’s enough from me.  I’m worried that if I share any more thoughts with you I may inadvertently spoil the plot, which is – as ever – a cracker, keeping you guessing until the last chapter.  Actually, if I can boast a wee bit, I sort-of-guessed who the murder might be, but, like the good Inspector, didn’t want it to be true.

Great read.


Go on, order the book right now.  You won’t regret it.  And if you want to order Book 1 and Book 2, just click on the relevant links.


Can there be many things better than reading 2 Alexander McCall Smith novels back to back ?  One day “The Forgotten Affairs of Youth”.

The next day, “The Importance of being seven”.

The joys of being on holiday.

Both of these novels are set in Edinburgh, but in different parts of the city, and they both featuring different social circles.

“The Importance of Being Seven” brings us up-to-date on the comings and goings of the group of people who love in 44 Scotland Street – neighbours, friends, even rivals at times – and their lives and loves.

Every single one of Mr. McCall Smith’s characters is a fully rounded, fleshed out, delightful individual in his or her own right, from Big Lou to the appallingly vain Bruce, from Matthew in his distressed oatmeal sweater to Cyril, the dog with a gold tooth and (in this book) a red spotted bandana.

But the undisputed star of  “The Importance of Being Seven” is the articulate, well-read, Italian speaking, much put-upon Bertie, aged 6 and a half, but oh-so-longing to be seven.

This book is Bertie’s, and in his charming preface Mr. McCall Smith shares with us his affection for this little boy, and the fact that so many of us are on Bertie’s side, willing him on to escape from the clutches of his quite dreadful (though doubtlessly well-intentioned) mother Irene.

Poor (ghastly) Irene.

Who hasn’t met a version of this Dragon Mum in real life ?  Ruthlessly steering their child along the path the mother has chosen, no deviation allowed, cramming their young lives with a bewildering array of activities, leaving no time for play.  And, in poor little Bertie’s case, certainly no place for crisps, chocolate or Irn-Bru.

My Irene was a breathtakingly ruthless Ballet Mum in Johannesburg, reliving her own cut-short-through-marriage ballet career through the lives of her pliant, ultra-obedient, quiet daughters.  My poor daughter never stood a chance of getting the lead in the annual concert.  How could she, when Ballet Mum organized private classes for her daughters, and always secretly sewed on more ribbons and sequins than we had been told to ?

But I digress, almost as though I were an Alexander McCall Smith character.

Pliancy – and Bertie’s inherent good manners – are what allow Irene to march this little fellow off to psychotherapy and yoga, and to force him to speak Italian, all of which he hates, but is too polite to refuse.

And then there’s baby Ulysses, he of the sticky-out ears, so unlike his father’s but so like those of Bertie’s previous psychotherapist.  Although not yet able to speak, Ulysses lets known his hatred of his mother, by vomiting all over her whenever she approaches him.  I have high hopes for baby Ulysses in future 44 Scotland Street books.

There are many funny bits in this book, that made me laugh out loud, which is always a wonderful moment when you read.

Such as this delicious conversation between Bertie and his new friend Andy, who leads such an exotic life in Bertie’s eyes – being allowed knives and Meccano and Irn-Bru, and with the promise of being allowed to stalk deer.  When he’s eight.


Dear little Bertie.

One does so hope that life will change dramatically for him when he turns seven, but to be honest, with friends like Olive and Tofu and Pansy and Hiawatha, his little future does look rather bleak.

There is love and pregnancy (and what a pregnancy) and manipulation and decency, and moments of joy in this delightful, beautifully crafted book.

Mr. McCall Smith is a master of elegant prose, of gentle humour and of great affection for his motley array of characters, including the one and only Cyril,  who has the order of “cane-cavaliere” bestowed on him for…ah, but that would only spoil the pleasure of reading about Cyril’s adventures in Pisa.

And, by the way, whoever knew that Factor 40 sunscreen makes a good thinner for oil paints…

Published by Abacus, the paperback costs £7.99.

After reading this review, should you wish to buy the book (and how flattering would that be) simply click on the link below :


There is something deeply moving, reading an extraordinary book like Fergal Keane’s “Road of Bones” whilst staying in Kohima, the little town that is the centrepiece for the dramatic events of 1944.

I was in Nagaland (incidentally the most un-Indian feeling place I have ever been to in 30 years of Indian travels), for the Hornbill Festival, and so it made sense to take this book with me for the long train journeys.

“Road of Bones The Epic Siege of Kohima” documents the events of what is often referred to as the Forgotten War, the battle between the Japanese and the British & Indian troops in the Burmese theatre of war.  While the events leading up to the Normandy invasion were unfolding in Europe, thousands of troops in this hot, difficult, mountainous, tropical corner of Asia battled for supremacy, literally.  The ultimate field of battle came down to the tennis court of the DC’s Bungalow, where Japanese and Allied troops lobbed grenades at each other across a burned out few yards of tennis court.

The book is a gripping, often horrific, account of this campaign which pitted Japanese and Allied troops in a deathly, deadly campaign, with the tribals of Nagaland caught up in this war of attrition.

The book is often very hard to read.

War and battle and suffering and starvation and fear are not pretty, and Fergal Keane tells the story of this campaign in gritty, realistic terms.  More importantly, he tells the stories of men, not anonymous soldiers.  He introduces us to the ordinary men on both sides of the battle, ordinary young boys from Kent, apprehensive young Japanese men, who all found themselves fighting inch by inch for terrain in a far corner of India.

There are the big players, of course –  Slim and Churchill and Mountbatten and Mutagutchi – but it is the heroic actions and the courage under fire of the individuals rather than the collective, that makes this book so moving.  You weep when you learn of deaths.  You sigh with relief when an injured young man makes it onto a convoy out of Kohima.

Naturally, I visited the beautiful Commonwealth War Cemetery in Kohima, while I was still reading the book, and to stand in front of the memorials, and recognise names from the book was profoundly moving.

To add to the poignancy around this book, one of my companions in Kohima was Catriona, the daughter of Ursula Graham Bower, who both figure in the book, and so the whole experience took on an extra vividness.

Kohima was all decked out for the Hornbill Festival and in advance for Christmas, and yet the traces of those events remain.  The names of the hills and roads are still there.  The beautifully maintained cemetery.  A parade of World War II vehicles, compete with everyone dressed up in period clothing.

It was all very time-warp-ish.

It may seem a little unnecessary for a mere reviewer to compliment Fergal Keane on his research for “Road of Bones,” but I must.

The wealth of material is truly astounding, and Mr. Keane has woven it all together into a minutely detailed canvas, telling the story of the campaign and the siege in brilliant detail.  Often the account reads almost minute by minute, with the threads of many different lives caught up together.

He is even-handed in his portrayal of both sides in this desperate conflict.  No one is lionised, no one is demonised.

What we are presented with is a superbly well-written book about ordinary men fighting to the death, thousands of miles from home, in circumstances of great privation.

Highly recommended.

I am going with 10/10 for a tale well-researched, well-written and so fairly told.

Published by Harper Press, the paperback costs £9.99.

After reading this, should you wish you buy the book –  and it is a stunning read – then nothing could be easier.  Simply click on the link below :

WITNESS THE NIGHT by Kishwar Desai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The life of an average American family unfolds.

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

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

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

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

To say any more would be a spoiler.



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

An unequivocal 10/10.

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

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

BESIEGED by Mahmood Farooqui

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hardback sells in India for Rs 699.

CALL ME DAN by Anish Trivedi

This début novel of Mumbai-based Anish Trivedi is well-written, sharply-observed, and a great read.

The main character, Gautam, is a 30-year old lower middle-class young man, still living at home with his parents and sister.  Their life is frugal, traditional and distinctly joy-less. To his parents’ despair, Gautam doesn’t have what they term a real job, for he works in a call centre.

At work, in the world without time-zones, Gautam morphs into Dan.  Dan is witty,  rather the young man about town.  Dan drinks, which Gautam certainly wouldn’t.  Dan is cosmopolitan, a bit of a flirt.  Dan is, well, quite different from Gautam.

Anish Trivedi successfully brings both voices to life, steering his character(s) through surburban life, through the grind of work and daily commuting, through love’s ups and downs, through family dramas.

The author is a keen observer of social mores.  Seeing Dan interacting with Sondra, his foreign female colleague –  all blonde hair and throwaway lines – we watch as “Dan” wings it through water-cooler moments with her, making mental notes to himself to google the words he doesn’t understand, without ever missing a conversational beat.  His need to learn, to widen his horizons, to keep the veneer of sophistication in place is finely noted.

The prejudices in suburbia are finely chronicled by the author.  Michelle, Gautam’s long-suffering girlfriend, is a Christian and automatically perceived by his family to be unsuitable.  To be fair, Michelle’s family is equally unenthused by Gautam. Gautam’s best friend Naseer is a Muslim, much to his parent’s dismay.  Anish Trivedi sketches this world of petty prejudice and mistrust without ever falling into clichés, and we wince with discomfort at the un-PC world Gautam/Dan inhabits, while acknowledging just how horribly true to life it all is.

A fun read.  An affectionate portrayal of a hero trying to be more than the sum of his parts.  And an utterly delicious cameo of the station chai-wala.

CALL ME DAN was published in August 2010 by Penguin, and costs Rs 250.

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