Monday 25 November 2019

The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star by Vaseem Kahn

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star is the third book by Vaseem Kahn in his Baby Ganesh Detective series – and possibly the most engaging yet.

Chopra’s beloved wife Poppy is delighted when he manages to get tickets to attend an extravaganza starring Bollywood’s latest hot property, Vicky Verma. But when Verma vanishes from the stage at the end of the show, apparently kidnapped, Chopra is called in to investigate. Before the end, you can be sure that Chopra will have given the long suffering Poppy more than a little cause for anxiety, but that she, their adopted street urchin Irfan and the elephant Baby Ganesh will have combined to come to the rescue.

The sub-plot of the story is even more fascinating, as Chopra’s new assistant, Rangwalla, is forced to go undercover with Mumbai’s eunuchs – the city’s ancient and despised transgender community – and learns to see them in a whole new light.

This all takes place in the build up to the Festival of Holi – the Indian festival that, as Chopra reflects, ‘transcended the barriers that so often kept people apart’, a colourful explosion of madness that Poppy, Ganesh and Irfan all adore - and the ever-digified Chopra merely tolerates.

As always, Kahn’s gentle humour allows him to poke fun some of the absurdities of Mumbai society, while at the same time turning over a few stones and exposing some of the city’s darker elements.

I suspect that if you are familiar with Bollywood films, you might spot references to familiar tropes and plot lines that passed me by. I did enjoy what I’m guessing was a nod to the famous long-running court case at the heart of Dickens Bleak House, as Inspector Chopra takes a similar pot-shot at the slow-moving Indian legal system.

This is the sort of book you curl up with in the expectation of being charmed, entertained, comforted and – just on the sly while you’re not really looking – taught something new. Kahn is a prolific writer, and I am by now well behind with this series. Two more - Murder at the Grand Raj Hotel and Bad Day at the Vulture Club - have already been published.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Honey Trap by JJ Marsh; The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson; anything else in the Baby Ganesh series by Vaseem Khan

Avoid If You Dislike: Warm and cosy Crime Fiction with a soupçon of peril and a flavour of India

Perfect Accompaniment: Chana Masala and saffron rice

Genre: Crime Fiction

Friday 15 November 2019

Lowborn by Kerry Hudson

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“Shall we start with a happy ending? I made it. I rose. I escaped poverty. I escaped bad food because that’s all you can afford. I escaped threadbare clothes and too-tight shoes. I escaped drinking and drugging myself into oblivion because ... because.”

Reading Kerry Hudson’s memoir, Lowborn, straight after Candice Carty-Williams’s novel, Queenie was fascinating and troubling. Hudson’s story doesn’t have the dimensions of race and immigration, but in so many other ways, the parallels are clear. Poverty. Deprivation. Toxic masculinity. Generational Trauma. Deeply damaged women not recognising that they are passing on the same hurts to their daughters and granddaughters. And the consequences for those daughters: night traumas, panic attacks and self esteem that remains desperately fragile even when you have far, far exceeded the low expectations you were set as a child.

The books is, as the author says, “the outcome of questions that still disturb my peace.” It is a journey through all the places – from Aberdeen to Great Yarmouth – where she spent her childhood. Part memoir, part assessment of how things have changed – for better or for worse – for young people growing up in those towns.

It is also a raging protest against all those who have spent the last few years demonising the poor – calling them lazy, work-shy, scroungers. True poverty, she says, is “all-encompassing, grinding, brutal and often dehumanising.”

She describes the hyper-vigilance of a child constantly in foreign environments with strange people. The impact of being constantly told not to utter a word about what was happening in your childhood – your body seizing up, your mouth refusing to form words. “The words I heard spoken to me in my first twenty years are tattooed everywhere under my skin.”

For those of us who grew up in a different kind of world, it can seem as if Hudson is speaking from another planet, such is the divide that has been created and sustained in our society. And recent government policy has done little to improve things and much to make them far, far worse.

A necessary reality check and an antidote to the distorted portrayals of poverty in programmes such as Benefits Street.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Queenie by Candice Carty-Willams, Natives by Akala, Stopping Places by Damian le Bas, Common People (ed Kit de Waal)

Avoid If You Dislike: Being reminded what a desperately unequal society we live in

Perfect Accompaniment: An Aberdeen smokie (smoked kipper)

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir

Tuesday 5 November 2019

Overture (L'Alouette trilogy Book 1) by Vanessa Couchman

Reviewer: Liza Perrat, author of the French Historical, The Bone Angel trilogy (Spirit of Lost Angels, Wolfsangel, Blood Rose Angel) and Australian 1970s series: The Silent Kookaburra and The Swooping Magpie.

I love the way Vanessa Couchman effortlessly breathes life into history, and her latest novel, Overture, is no exception.

Young Marie-Thérèse has a talent for singing but living in a poor family in rural Aveyron, she must work on the farm, and forget her singing dreams.

When tragedy forces Marie-Thérèse and her mother to leave Aveyron and seek refuge with her aunt and uncle in Paris, they are forced to work long, hard hours in their restaurant, Bistrot Mazars.

However, Marie-Thérèse also gets the chance to delve into the world of music and opera in the capital. And, when she meets someone who is certain she has a bright future, she dares to think her childhood dream might come true after all.

The author deftly evokes the contrasts of the countryside of rural Aveyron, with Paris city life at the turn of the last century. Disasters such as the sinking of the Titanic and the build-up to WWI are also woven through the storyline as we accompany Marie-Thérèse in her struggles, despairs and triumphs.

We want her to succeed as much as she does herself.

I was sorry when I reached the end of this beautifully-written and engaging story, but also pleased to see that Overture is the first of L’Alouette trilogy. I’m now looking forward to the second installment, and continuing this story with the characters I’ve come to know and care about.

You’ll like this if you enjoy: historical novels set in France, and tales of chasing your dreams against all odds.

Avoid if you don’t like: Leisurely-paced, coming-of-age historical stories.

Ideal accompaniments: baguette, cheese and French wine.

Genre: Historical Fiction.

Buy this book here