The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star by Vaseem Khan #bookreview (@VaseemKhanUK) @HodderBooks

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“Mumbai thrives on extravagant spectacles and larger-than-life characters.

But even in the city of dreams, there is no guarantee of a happy ending.

Rising star and incorrigible playboy Vikram Verma has disappeared, leaving his latest film in jeopardy. Hired by Verma’s formidable mother to find him, Inspector Chopra and his sidekick, baby elephant Ganesha, embark on a journey deep into the world’s most flamboyant movie industry.

As they uncover feuding stars, failed investments and death threats, it seems that many people have a motive for wanting Verma out of the picture.

And yet, as Chopra has long suspected, in Bollywood the truth is often stranger than fiction…”

This is the third book in the Baby Ganesh Agency series by Vaseem Khan, but the first one I have read (I’d like to say it’s because I’m a maverick, but really it’s just because of my self-imposed book-buying moratorium and the fact that I was given this as a birthday gift!). It doesn’t appear to matter that I am reading them out of sequence, this book functions perfectly as a standalone novel, but I will definitely be going back to read the first two.

The central character of the novel is Inspector Chopra, a retired police officer-turned-private detective in Mumbai and the plot follows him as he tries to unravel the mystery of the kidnapping of a famous but wayward Bollywood actor. He is helped, and sometimes amusingly hindered, in his efforts by a colourful cast of supporting characters, including his cute little elephant sidekick, Ganesha, about whom there is more than a whiff of the supernatural – he appears to have attributes not bestowed on your average baby elephant.

This book is a light-hearted detective story, along the lines of Alistair McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series or the Agatha Raisin books by M.C. Beaton and I believe fans of those series would enjoy Vaseem Khan’s work. The main kidnapping plot is fun and frenzied, with enough twists and turns to keep the grey matter occupied, but the main joys of the book are the characters and the fabulous, exotic setting of Mumbai. The author truly does a wonderful job of bringing all the life and flavour of Mumbai alive in this book, and anyone who likes their stories set in an far-flung location, that is really captured as if it were an additional character in the tale, will not be disappointed.

Inspector Chopra is a character who is very easy to warm to, which is important for the central protagonist in a book of this nature – we need to be rooting for the hero. He is honest, unassuming, moral but very pragmatic and a with a healthy dose of impatience for his old colleagues in the police force and their rules and regulations when they get in the way of his pursuing the case – I really liked that about him. His wife, Poppy, I think perhaps was my favourite character. Not the subservient Indian housewife in a supporting role that you might expect to find, but an independent and feisty woman who is a true partner and support to Chopra, a woman after my own heart. I love writers who include strong and equal female characters in their work.

There is a lovely sub-plot in the book involving flamboyant eunuchs, a long-buried secret and Chopra’s ex-policeman colleague in a ‘fish-out-of-water’ situation that had me grinning from ear to ear. Fantastic fun.

This is a sweet, easy and amusing read with characters you will love, and imbued throughout with all the spice and spectacle of India. If you are looking for a book to warm your cockles and cheer you up, you couldn’t do much better.

The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star is out now and you can buy it here.

About the Author

Vaseem Khan first saw an elephant lumbering down the middle of the road in 1997 when he arrived in India to work as a management consultant. It was the most unusual thing he had ever encountered and served as the inspiration behind his series of crime novels.

He returned to the UK in 2006 and now works at University College London for the Department of Security and Crime Science where he is astonished on a daily basis by the way modern science is being employed to tackle crime. Elephants are third on his list of passions, first and second being great literature and cricket, not always in that order.

The Way Back Home by Freya North #bookreview (@freya_north) @HarperCollinsUK

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“One summer, something happened that changed everything forever…

Born and brought up in an artists’ commune in Derbyshire, Oriana Taylor had freedom at her fingertips in a home full of extraordinary people. The Bedwell brothers, Malachy and Jed, shared their childhood and adolescence with Oriana. In the rambling old house and tangled grounds, their dreams and desires could run free.

But too much freedom comes at a price. Something happened the summer they were fifteen. And now, having been gone eighteen years, Oriana is back.

This is their story.”

 

I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to get round to reading this book by Freya North. It was published in 2015 and, being a huge fan of Freya since I first read Sally and always buying her books on publication, it has been sitting on my TBR since then. I have read The Turning Point, which was published last year. I am wondering if I have been subconsciously pushing this down my TBR because of some unfavourable reviews it has been given on Goodreads. If so, it was a mistake – this is Freya North at her best. My apologies, Freya: after all the years we’ve spent together, I should have had more faith in you.

This is the story of Oriana, her childhood growing up in an artists’ colony in Derbyshire, her childhood friendship with two brothers, and the tragic event which drove them apart. Anyone expecting a light, sugar-sweet romance, or a psychological thriller with a twist in the tail would undoubtedly be disappointed in this book. It is neither of those things because that is not, and never has been, what Freya’s writing is about.

What this book is, is typical of Freya’s novels. It is a beautiful and honest portrayal of human emotion, human relationships and human failings. It is bittersweet, moving, genuine–and totally engrossing if you let yourself connect with these characters, who are damaged and far from perfect, but totally real and believable. One of the comments I have read was that people could not relate to the characters because they weren’t totally likeable, particularly Oriana. I think that is part of the genius of Freya’s work – making us care about characters who maybe aren’t immediately warm and cuddly and someone that you would want as a best friend, but are totally plausible and, if you give them time and try and see what Freya is showing you about why they are as they are, you will find that connection with their humanity.

This book is a slow burn, and it is an insight into the minds, thoughts and feelings of the three main protagonists. I guess some people may not appreciate this style of story-telling but it is what gives you that insight into, and connection with, their emotional story. I have seen complaints that the ‘twist’ is too obvious and there is no ‘big reveal’. I think that misses the point. I don’t believe Freya ever meant for the novel to be some big build up to a shocking conclusion, that isn’t her stock in trade. In fact, it is refreshing to read something currently that isn’t hingeing on that particular device to sell itself. This book requires a bit more effort, a bit more emotional involvement on the part of the reader to get the most from it.

I recently read a comment by the author Jane Green, in answer to a question she was asked about the best bit of writing advice she had ever been given. Her reply was that the best advice had been given to her by Freya North and it was to get to know her characters and let them tell the story. Freya obviously practices what she preaches as she writes people as well as, if not better, than almost any writer out there. Her characters are always totally three-dimensional and fully developed and, likeable or not, they are completely authentic in everything they do. And I have never known anyone write such honest sex scenes (although my friends took me to task for a long while after I made this comment and they then read the one involving clowns in Pip, but I stand by my assertion. And no, I won’t go into any more detail, you will have to go and buy it and read it yourselves!). You know these people. If you let yourself invest in their story, you will be rewarded with an intense emotional journey that will leave you wanting to know what happens to them but also not wanting the story to end.

I loved this book. It made me cry twice. It made me stay up until 1 am on a weeknight when I had to be up at 6.30 am the next day because I had to know the end. And it made me wish I had not left it so long before I read it. I can’t give a book higher praise than that. Go and read it immediately. Then read The Turning Point, because it’s even better.

Having read Freya’s work from the very beginning, I can see how it has matured as the years have passed, much as she and I have done (we are a similar age) and I cannot wait to see what is coming next.

The Way Back Home is out now and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

Freya North gave up a PhD to write her first novel, Sally, in 1991. For four years she turned deaf ears to parents and friends who pleaded with her to ‘get a proper job’. She went on the dole and did a succession of freelance and temping jobs to support her writing days. In 1995, throwing caution to the wind, she sent three chapters and a page of completely fabricated reviews to Jonathan Lloyd, and met with success: five publishers entered a bidding war for her book.

In 1996 Sally was published to great acclaim and Freya was heralded as a fresh voice in fiction. Her following books have all been bestsellers. Her novel Pillow Talk won the 2008 Romantic Novel of the Year Award. Freya’s most recent novel, The Turning Point, was published in June 2015 (HarperCollins).

Freya was born in London but lives in rural Hertfordshire with her family and other animals where she writes from a stable in her back garden.

A passionate reader since childhood, she was originally inspired by Mary Wesley, Rose Tremain and Barbara Trapido to write fiction with strong female leads and original, sometimes eccentric characters. In 2012 she set up and now runs the Hertford Children’s Book Festival. She is also judge for the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England’s ‘Rural Living Awards’ and Ambassador for Beating Bowel Cancer.

A Snow Garden & Other Stories by Rachel Joyce #bookreview (@R_Joyce_Books) @TransworldBooks

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“In the course of a fortnight at the end of a year; a woman finds a cure for a broken heart where she least expects it; a husband and wife build their son a bicycle and, in the process, deconstruct their happy marriage; freak weather brings the airport to a standstill on Christmas Day; a young woman will change her life by saying one word; a father foolishly promises his sons snow; the most famous young man in the world goes back to his childhood home; and a law-abiding old man discovers guerilla gardening…”

I have to start this review with a humiliating admission – I have not read any of Rachel Joyce’s other work. I know this is awful. I have a copy of The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry sat in my TBR pile and for some reason I just have not got round to reading it yet. I intend to rectify this very soon, having read A Snow Garden & Other Stories.

This is a small book containing seven short stories which revolve around peripheral characters that were cut from her other works, but whom she has been unable to let go of completely. She describes them as ‘making a nuisance of themselves’ so she decided to try and quieten them by giving them short stories of their own. I love that idea – the thought  that these characters have a life of their own and won’t settle until their story has been told.

In the foreword to this book, Joyce says, ‘We are at the centre of our own stories. And sometimes it is hard to believe that we are not at the centre of other people’s. But I love the fact that you can brush past a person with your own story, your own life, so big in your mind and at the same time be a simple passer-by in someone else’s. A walk-on part.’ This is the theme that binds these stories together – they intersect almost imperceptibly, but the link is there, cemented by one recurring image throughout the book, so the book feels whole and not discordant despite the seven divergent story lines.

Joyce’s writing is very clever, she brings the various protagonists fully to life skilfully in the brief span provided by the short story form, and she manages to give us a very clear insight into their experiences and characters through a snapshot of a single moment in their lives. The stories are poignant and bittersweet, with an indefinable air of magic and melancholy about them, whilst at the same time as being totally real and relatable, and very, very moving. I was left affected by each story for a long while afterwards. ‘A Faraway Smell of Lemon’ and ‘A Snow Garden’ were my particular favourites and resonated deeply with me for personal reasons, and it is testimony to Joyce’s expertise that her writing has managed to connect with her reader in this way in such a short space of time.

I particularly love her use of language, and the way she manages to communicate a very clear image with the use of only a few words. This is a complete contrast to some of the unnecessary verbiage and over-wrought imagery I have seen in a good deal of literary fiction recently, where I sometimes feel figurative language is used for the sake of cleverness rather than clarity. I especially loved her description of ‘...birds sat pegged on the black branches of the trees.‘- can’t you just precisely imagine the scene.

Each of the stories is set in the period between early December and New Year’s Eve and it is the perfect winter book. However, I would not let this put you off picking it up now – it would be a great read at any time. I devoured it in one afternoon, curled in a cosy armchair, but it is one of those books that you continue to think about long after you have closed the final page. I loved this book and would highly recommend it. I look forward to reading Joyce’s other books that I have so sorely and misguidedly neglected until now.

A Snow Garden and Other Stories is out now.

About the Author

Rachel Joyce is the author of the Sunday Times and international bestsellers The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Perfect and The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and has been translated into 34 languages. Rachel Joyce was awarded the Specsavers National Book Awards ‘New Writer of the Year’ in December 2012 and shortlisted for the ‘Writer of the Year’ 2014.

She is the award-winning writer of over 30 original afternoon plays and classic adaptations for BBC Radio 4.

Rachel Joyce lives with her family in Gloucestershire.