THE BROKER by John Grisham

No doubt about it, John Grisham is a cracking storyteller, and “The Broker” is a gripping read from start to finish.

This is one of the least “legal” of Mr. Grisham’s novels (at least amongst the ones I have read) and even though the broker in question is indeed a lawyer, he is more of a political lobbyist. Joel Backman is in fact one of the most powerful men in Washington, the ultimate high-flyer, a man who wheels and deals at the highest echelons of the Washington power structure.

Until he ends up in jail, that is, disbarred, bankrupt and in solitary confinement.

One of the last acts of possibly the most ineffective US President ever, is to pardon Joel Backman, at the apparent behest of the CIA, who immediately fly him out of the US and off to Bologna in Italy, under an assumed name and with a handler, Luigi, whose sole mission is, it would appear, to get Joel to learn Italian as quickly and effectively as possible.

There is a lot of Italian in this book, and a lot of wandering through the historic city of Bologna which, one can only imagine, Mr. Grisham loves a lot.

The contrast between Italy and the US is often highlighted, be it the food, the long lunches, the smoky cheek-by-jowl tables in cafés, and we spend many a happy hour in Joel’s company as he discovers a new city, a new country, a new language and a whole new way of life.

But danger is never far away, and Joel Backman is soon on the run – but from whom?  His own country, in the guise of the the CIA and/or the FBI?  Or someone else?

To answer those questions would obviously be a major plot-spoiler, so I won’t.

Suffice it to say, you are gunning for Joel Backman all through this exciting, fast-paced book, and as he ducks and dives and weaves to escape from something he doesn’t fully understand, you the reader are hooked.

 

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And, yes, one day I definitely intend to visit Bologna, inspired by Mr. Grisham…

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TABLE by MADHUMITA MUKHERJEE

Disclaimer – if indeed there is a need for one: I was sent this book by the publishers, and asked to review it.

That’s it !

 

This début novel is an interesting read, which kept me involved until the end, as I read on with growing interest, keen to find out what happens, all the while hoping for a happy ending.

But…No, no, I am absolutely not going to spoil the plot for you, so worry not.

Suffice it to say that the narrative covers the years 1990-1999, and charts the friendship and relationship between a young London based NRI, Abhimanyu, known throughout as Abhi, and his Calcutta based friend Uma.

(Hey, it is written as Calcutta throughout by the author, so I am not being politically incorrect)

They are both doctors (as is the author) so there is a lot of medical speak throughout the book, and much of the story line takes place in and around hospitals.  The couple never physically meets in the book, and the whole narrative takes place via the exchange of letters.  At times, to be honest, this technique jarred, especially when you know that they had well and truly entered the email era.  Why would you write when you could email, was often my rather cynical reaction, but this issue is addressed, late in the book, when Abhi admits to preferring hand written letters to emails.

I like the book, and I am full of admiration (and not a little envy) for a first-time novelist, but there are a few very mild comments, which I hope will be taken in the right spirit.

At times, the “dialogue” seems a little stilted.  I realise these 2 young people who are writing to each other are very clever young people, but all the same, sometimes the writing does seem somewhat stiff :

 

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Or take this, when Abhi is telling Uma about a trip to Italy :

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Doesn’t ring true, in the way that other parts of the book do.

 

This extract, below, however, sounds as though it is written with genuine feeling :

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Or this moment, when her college romantic hopes are dashed :

 

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I think when the author speaks with her own voice, from the heart, she is at her best.  When she is trying to impart knowledge to we the reader, she sometimes sounds a little artificial.

I very much look forward to Ms Mukherjee’s next book, and hearing more of her perceptive and intelligent voice.  For she is without question an intelligent narrator.  I want to hear more from her.

Published in 2013 by Fingerprint, the paperback costs Rs 195.

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SONIA GANDHI by RANI SINGH

I was beyond excited to get my hands on a preview copy of the biography of the leading political figure in India.  Living in Delhi, as I do, we hear and read about Sonia-ji (and Rahul-ji) day after day.  Their every move is reported upon, usually in breathless, uncritical prose.  Yet very little is actually known about them, beyond the bare, essential facts.

So I had high hopes from this biography.  I wanted to better know the woman who is de facto in charge of the country where I live.

Alas, these hopes were dashed.

This is not a book that is going to tell you much you didn’t already know about Madam (as the Indian press often describes her) and that is precious little in itself.  This book will better serve the reader who is not fully immersed in India, as your reviewer is.  For such a reader, this slightly rose-tinted walk through Sonia’s life and times in India will, no doubt, be interesting.

Rani Singh has meticulously researched Indian contemporary political history, which is an integral and indispensible part of the Gandhi story.  Daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, who was herself the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minster of India.  Married to Rajiv Gandhi, who would “succeed” his mother as PM, when she was assassinated, Rajiv himself was killed in 1991.  Politics was the life-blood of the family into which she married, a young Italian girl, whose French was better than her English in the early days of her marriage.

It is true, no question about it, that to go from a traditional, small-town, middle-class Italian background to being the leading political figure in the world’s largest democracy is no mean feat. It is no mean feat at all.

It is true, no question about it, that Sonia Gandhi has had more than her fair share of tragedy, which she has borne with dignity.

But after reading the biography, which was not an authorised one, and so the biographer did not actually meet Mrs Gandhi, I am no closer to understanding Sonia-ji, a woman who says very little, but whose actions have far-reaching implications for all of us living here.

The earlier chapters of the book, covering the years when Sonia and Rajiv met in England, their marriage and their first years in India have more than a hint of romantic prose about them.

“In an instant, Sonia’s and Rajiv’s destinies has changed, and a new dawn was breaking in their lives”  –  that kind of thing.

But then, to be fair, there are tantalising little glimpses into her life.

We learn that a politician gave her a copy of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

We learn that on a holiday in the Lakshwadeep Islands, Rajiv and Rahul “often dressed in blue-and-white nautical-style beach wear.”

We even find out what flavour of juice they both drank at a reception in the late 1980s (coconut water for her, lime juice for him, by the way)

But what we never get is anything that defines Sonia other than a reflection of her husband, a keeper-alive of his legacy, and as a devoted mother to two children (adults now) who are always described in glowing terms.  The people to whom the biographer spoke have nothing but praise for Sonia.

The very fact of dynastic politics goes largely unquestioned :

“Though many circles are unhappy with the concept of dynastic leadership, it is a worldwide phenomenon, and dynastic heirs are deeply conscious of the preservation of values as assets.”

This is from the epilogue, when Ms Singh looks at Rahul, who may well take over from his mother.  And thus another generation of the same family may well be in charge of the country’s political future.

Read the book to get up to speed on Indian politics.  It’s an easy read, pleasantly written.

But what you will not really learn, sadly, is anything really new about Sonia Gandhi.

I know that I wanted to find out what really makes this enigmatic woman tick, but she remains as much as an enigma.

Published by Palgrave Macmillan, the hardback costs $26

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