The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay

aunt who wouldnt die.jpgTitle: The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die

Author: Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: John Murray Press

Published: 9th July 2019

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 170

Price: $27.99

Synopsis:At eighteen, Somlata married into the Mitras: a once noble Bengali household whose descendants have taken to pawning off the family gold to keep up appearances.

When Pishima, the embittered matriarch, dies, Somlata is the first to discover her aunt-in-law’s body – and her sharp-tongued ghost.

First demanding that Somlata hide her gold from the family’s prying hands, Pishima’s ghost continues to wreak havoc on the Mitras. Secrets spilt, cooking spoilt, Somlata finds herself at the centre of the chaos. And as the family teeter on the brink of bankruptcy, it looks like it’s up to her to fix it.

The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die is a frenetic, funny and fresh novel about three generations of Mitra women, a jewellery box, and the rickety family they hold together

~*~

When Somlata marries into the Mitras household, she is poor, and they are doing their best to hold onto the wealth they once owned. Somlata is unsure of the family, especially the matriarch, Pishima, who lives alone in rooms on the second floor, hiding a jewellery box, her dowry, from the rest of the family so they cannot sell it to maintain their wealth.

When Pishima dies, she instructs Somlata to hide the jewels and gold, and despite the whispers from the family, her secret is never uncovered. Yet the ghost of Pishima will not leave Somlata alone and over the years, as her daughter grows, Somlata must find a way to rid herself of the ghost – a ghost that the rest of the family doesn’t believe in.

Through three generations – Pishima, Somlata and Boshon, the daughter of Somlata, the story of the aunt who died and her ever present ghost is told using humour, a light-heartedness and generational conflicts that all people of all cultures and nationalities can relate to at times.

It is funny, and charming, and a quick read – I managed it in one night. At first, the connections are not obvious. Yet they are cleverly revealed across the story, linking in with each other eventually to form a distinct and unique story of India and its traditions and the new world the characters of the story find themselves living in.

The ghost that haunts the pages of this story for me came across as someone watching over the family and mysterious jewellery box, presenting a different facet to the person it represents to Somlata and Boshon, who share different perspectives of the world and the ghost.

In a short book, it conveys the clash of three generations over traditional expectations, and what each woman wants or expects from life as family secrets and history are slowly revealed. Told in four parts from the perspectives of Somlata and Boshon, this unique, family story is entertaining and light, whilst dealing with the societal issues the women in the story overcome in a clear and concise way. A great read for all.

The Honeyman and the Hunter by Neil Grant

9781760631871Title: The Honeyman and the Hunter

Author: Neil Grant

Genre: Young Adult

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 1st April 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 288

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: Rudra is an Indian-Australian boy at a crossroads, poised to step into the world of adulthood and to discover his cultural heritage and how that might truly define him. A wonderful exploration of dual heritage, cultural identity, family and the power of storytelling.

The sea is inside his blood. Cursed, or blessed, on both sides.

When sixteen-year-old Rudra Solace dredges up a long-hidden secret in his father’s trawl net, his life in the sleepy fishing village of Patonga shifts dramatically. It is not long before Rudra is leaving Australia behind, bound for India on a journey of discovery and danger.

A wonderfully compelling tale of belonging and loss, of saltwater and mangroves, of migration and accepting change; a story of decisions that, once made, break through family histories like a cyclone swell.

~*~

Rudra Solace is sixteen, and about to start year eleven at school on the Central Coast of New South Wales when two things happen: his didima, his grandmother, arrives for a visit from India, and whilst on his father’s fishing boat, Rudra finds a tiger skull, and this sets forth a series of dreams and events that lead him and his mother on a journey back to India, and the village Nayna grew up in on a quest he never thought he would ever have to go on, let alone think about. What culminates is a family story crossing countries, cultures and continents, where the intersection is Rudra himself, and he is the anchor for all these stories.

I read a lot of Australian literature, and there is always something familiar about it, even if it is set in a place I have never been – perhaps this is because there are many versions of Australia we see in our media, and movies and television, so even if one has never been to a country town, if you’ve watched Blue Heelers orDoctor Doctor, you still understand the feel. Yet there is nothing like reading something set somewhere you have been or live and recognising the places and names. Not many books are set on the Central Coast of New South Wales, so when this one arrived and I saw that it was, I was very interested to see how the region would be used in the story.

Recognising the names and picturing the locations made the experience of reading the first half enjoyable and immersive, but the section set in India was just as immersive and felt just as real to me. It is a story driven by family and culture, by heritage and stories, where beliefs come into conflict with each other as Rudra works through what he knows, what he is taught and what those around him believe – and how to make sense of these things for himself in his own mind. Incorporating migration and how family histories affect us, The Honeyman and the Hunter does a good job of bringing all these themes together.

Victoria and Abdul: The Extraordinary True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant by Shrabani Busi

victoria and abdul.jpgTitle: Victoria and Abdul: The Extraordinary True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant

Author: Shrabani Busi

Genre: Non-fiction, History

Publisher: The History Press

Published: 21st Jult 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 336

Price: $24.99

Synopsis:

Tall, handsome Abdul Karim was just twenty-four years old when he arrived in England from Agra to wait at tables during Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. An assistant clerk at Agra Central Jail, he suddenly found himself a personal attendant to the Empress of India herself. Within a year, he was established as a powerful figure at court, becoming the queen’s teacher, or Munshi. Devastated by the death of John Brown, her Scottish gillie, the queen had at last found his replacement, but her intense and controversial relationship with the Munshi led to a near revolt in the royal household.
Victoria & Abdul explores how a young Indian Muslim came to play a central role at the heart of the Empire at a time when independence movements in the sub-continent were growing in force. Yet, at its heart, it is a tender love story between an ordinary Indian and his elderly queen – a relationship that survived the best attempts to destroy it.

~*~

Often the most interesting stories that come from the historical record are the ones that we do not learn about on a school syllabus, but that we discover by chance, or that come out years after the event – whatever that event may be, and are told with a truthfulness and raw emotion, and that complement what we already know about history and add to our understandings and the record that was either wiped clean or hidden by those who did not want it known, and there are many examples of this throughout history. One such example is one that, until the movie came out last year, I had not known anything about, and ticks off the two movie categories in my Pop Sugar Reading Challenge, and my book bingo this year. After the movie, which spanned the final jubilee year of Queen Victoria, I was intrigued about the story, and where it had come from, and how Abdul had fared after he went back to India – as we were only given a small glimpse at the end of the movie. What I discovered was what we saw in the movie, and much, much more.

So I tracked down the book, Victoria and Abdul: The Extraordinary True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant. Starting more than ten years earlier than the movie, with the Golden Jubilee in 1887, and ending in 1901, after the Queen’s death in the January of that year. During his time in England, Abdul Karim saw two jubilee celebrations – the Gold and the Diamond, and the heart of the English Empire, and became a good friend and Munshi to the Queen. His arrival, and elevation to roles beyond that of servant, and the trust Queen Victoria placed in him during her last years was seen by her family and household staff as undesirable, and they tried at every turn to undermine the Queen and her decisions, in particular her son, Bertie, who would become King Edward the VII, whose subsequent line would consist of King George the VI, who saw England through World War Two, and the threat of the Nazis, after his brother, Edward the VIII abdicated to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

But Queen Victoria stuck to her guns and continued her Urdu lessons with Abdul filling many journals, so she could speak with her Indian servants, Abdul, and his family when they arrived to live with him in England, and she ensured that they were well-looked after, another thing her family and staff felt was an affront to the image of royalty and the empire. What follows is an intricate story of the inner workings of Queen Victoria’s house and her delightful friendship with Abdul, and the respect she showed him, giving him a decent wage, helping his family and learning his language. In a time in history when many people would have seen Abdul as a subservient in England, and very much did, the Queen treated Abdul with respect and as an equal, treasuring her journals and letters from him. Upon her death, Abdul and his family returned to India, and a parcel of land, but the correspondence he had had with his Queen, were destroyed by her family and household staff.

In a world of prejudice and racism, Abdul broke barriers with Queen Victoria and into her society, and was then scrubbed from history until recently, or if not scrubbed, largely ignored when his influence was so significant upon one of the longest reigning monarchs of England, known as the Empress of India at the time. This is a book that needs to be read by history lovers, and those intrigued by the hidden histories that we have not had much of a chance to hear about.

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The Most Marvellous Spelling Bee Mystery by Deborah Abela

xthe-most-marvellous-spelling-bee-mystery.jpg.pagespeed.ic.zY67unNXclTitle: The Most Marvellous Spelling Bee Mystery

Author: Deborah Abela

Genre: Children’s Fiction

Publisher: Penguin-Random House Australia

Published: 30th April 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 240

Price: $14.99

Synopsis: Just when India Wimple’s life is returning to normal after competing in the Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee, she’s invited to London for an international spelling showdown. But how can she go without her family? The Yungabilla community might have a solution!

In London, India is reunited with her friends Rajish and Summer. They meet new spellers, and are invited to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen.

But there is skulduggery afoot, with a series of mysterious mishaps. There is even talk of cancelling the competition altogether.

India and her friends are determined to find out who the culprit is and get the spelling bee back on track.

There are words to be spelled, nerves to be overcome, and a champion to be found!

~*~

India Wimple is trying to relax after returning from a trip to Sydney to the National Spelling Bee, an adventure covered in The Stupendously Spectacular Spelling Bee– which after reading this one, I want to read myself, when she receives a letter from London inviting her to the International Spelling Bee – with two other people from Australia. The top three winners of national spelling bees from each participating country will attend. But first, India and her family have to get to London – all of them! Once in London, India and her friends, Rajish and Summer, new spellers to meet – Holly Trifle and Peter Eriksson – and a mystery to solve! Who wants to ruin the spelling bee, and why? After meeting the Queen, and seeing Buckingham Palace, the first round is postponed – and then the finale is threatened. Between studying new words, adventures around London, and Holly’s rather embarrassing parents – will India and her friends solve the mystery so the spelling bee can go on and the winner can be announced?

AWW-2018-badge-roseThis was a delightful surprise from Penguin Random House this month, a very fun read, because it used words and a mystery in the story – two of my favourite things. Each chapter header has a word at the top, with the type of word it is – verb, noun, and so forth, a definition, and its usage – a great way to get kids to enjoy and learn spelling whilst reading a fun and engaging story with great diversity and lots of fun. Deborah Abela has fun with alliteration and strange but interesting names – Harrington Hathaway III, for example. The text is peppered with spelling, definitions and new words for readers to learn – Roald Dahl even gets a mention with some of his splendiferous words from his books such as The BFG.

Each character had their own quirks – which made it fun as well. I loved India and Rajish the most, and their families who were wonderfully supportive of Rajish and India, and each other throughout. Holly was another favourite – a character reminiscent of Matilda Wormwood, whose family doesn’t always appreciate her – but making friends might just change this. Peter was amazing – the type of character that many can relate to, and Summer was amusing and frustrating, though more amusing. It was delightful to see the growth of the characters throughout the book, and the solidifying of their friendship founded on a common interest.

The mystery in this book was a fun mystery, and the kind that kids might find they wish they could encounter for themselves – it had lashes of the Famous Five as well, with five children uncovering a dastardly plot to ruin their beloved spelling bee, meeting the Queen and making life-long friends – a very well written book and one that I devoured in a couple of sittings. In the end, it was friendship that I think is the more powerful message this book sends to it readers.

This is just the sort of book I would have loved as a child – and still love now, because it is about words, and books and spelling. I hope many other readers of all ages enjoy this book and find that they can relate to one or all of the characters.

When The Mountains Roared by Jess Butterworth

when the mountains roared.jpgTitle: When The Mountains Roared

Author: Jess Butterworth

Genre: Children’s Fiction

Publisher: Orion

Published: 10th April 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 282

Price: $15.99

Synopsis: A vivid, warm and atmospheric adventure set in the mountains of India, about a girl who is determined to protect the wild leopards of the mountain from poachers, perfect for fans of Katherine Rundell.

I thought we’d live here forever … but then, I thought Mum would be here forever too.

When Ruby’s dad uproots her from Australia to set up a hotel in the mountains of India, Ruby is devastated. Not only are they living in a run-down building in the middle of the wilderness surrounded by scorpions, bears and leopards, but Ruby is sure that India will never truly feel like home – not without her mum there.

Ever since her mum died, Ruby has been afraid. Of cars. Of the dark. Of going to sleep and never waking up.

But then the last remaining leopards of the mountain are threatened and everything changes. Ruby vows to do all she can to protect them – if she can only overcome her fears…

~*~

When Ruby arrives home one day, she finds the house in turmoil, with boxes and suitcases half packed. Her father announces they are moving to India, and she needs to pack her own bags. At twelve, Ruby wants nothing to do with this move – she wants to stay in Australia, the only home she knows. To leave now feels like she’d be leaving the memories of her mum, and it also means leaving all her friends and not being able to see them again. When intruders force the family to flee and leave earlier than planned. Soon, they are on a ship, with their dog, Polly, and a baby kangaroo in tow, sailing across the sea to a new life, and a new venture in India.

But the hotel Ruby’s father has been asked to run is not all that it seems. High up in the Himalayas, stories of previous owners being plagued by a vengeful mountain goddess abound, and the stories lend themselves to more sinister goings on, and hint at tragedy when Ruby and her new friend, Praveen, discover what Dad’s bosses are truly up to, and find out about the poaching of the majestic snow leopards. Ruby vows to do all she can to save them – if she can overcome her fears.

Jess Butterworth has again created a story, set in the Himalayas and India, where the characters are full of life and complex, and deals with issues of poaching, and what happens when someone gets involved with the wrong people in a clever and accessible way for younger audiences. Grief is explored through Ruby’s reaction to her move and the changes in her life – how she responds to the dark, and going to sleep, and of cars. But this hurried move, and the smuggled joey, and quest to uncover her dad’s secret drives Ruby to overcome her fears. Together with Praveen and her grandmother, Ruby will follow her heart, and instincts, and use her photography talents to bring some rather evil men to justice.

When The Mountains Roared has diverse characters, and a setting that is vastly different to what many readers will have experienced, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed it – it allows the reader to travel without leaving the comfort of home, and go on an adventure with Ruby and Praveen to save the snow leopards of the mountains that they call home, and save Ruby’s dad from getting into trouble with men like the ones who drove them from their home in Australia.

A great read for middle grade and younger teen readers, or anyone who enjoys a good story.

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The Strange Disppearance of a Bollywood Star by Vaseem Khan (Baby Ganesha Agency #3)

baby ganesh 3.jpgTitle: The Strange Disppearance of a Bollywood Star

Author: Vaseem Khan

Genre: Crime and Mystery

Publisher: Mulholland Books/Hachette Australia

Published: 16th May 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 360

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: In the third delightful Baby Ganesh Agency novel, Inspector Chopra investigates the darkly glittering underbelly of Bollywood when a film star vanishes into thin air…

The enchanting new Baby Ganesh Agency novel sees Inspector Chopra and his elephant sidekick investigating the dark side of Bollywood.

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…

~*~

Ashwin Chopra, his wife, Poppy, and their little elephant, Ganesha return in this third instalment of the wonderful Baby Ganesh Agency series. This time, the star of an upcoming Bollywood movie, Vicky Verma, has gone missing at a promotional performance for the movie and his role, with Chopra and Ganesha in the audience. Together, they watch him vanish and supposedly reappear on stage, and from there, the investigation begins. Chopra speaks to the movie company, and the director, PK Das, Bijli Verma, Vicky’s mother and anyone else who has ever worked with or known Vicky during his attempts to find him. At the same time, Chopra’s partner, Rangwalla is caught up in an investigation amongst a eunuch community, where he goes undercover to investigate the activities they are being lured into, and so, he agrees to help the Queen find out what is going on. As Rangwalla and Chopra investigate their cases, ACP Rao, the officer whom Chopra bested in the last book during the Koh-I-Noor investigation, simmers in the background as a threat to Chopra and his case, leading to a series of events that Chopra, Ganesha, Poppy and their friends must find a way to get out of so that Chopra can find Verma and the person, or people who took him. But, as with any case, things are not what they seem, nor are they as simple as one might think, and Chopra’s confusion and disillusionment with the Bollywood industry and the way they operate, illuminating the way these people treat others, and this is contrasted with the case Rangwalla looks into, and the slums where the eunuchs live, their isolation from society and the way they are seen by others, as something to be discarded almost – but still retain their humanity and appreciate what Rangwalla does for them.

The contrast between the cases shows the spectrum of society in Chopra’s Mumbai, and shows that money cannot buy affections or humanity, a theme that weaves through both cases eventually, and as Chopra comes to the conclusion of his third case, the flaws of humanity and the way people react in the face of the truth illustrates that you cannot judge someone without knowing them or only knowing a public persona that they might hide behind – but the way Vaseem Khan has presented this moral was effective and done in a way that wasn’t overtly obvious, but could still be understood by the reader.

Poppy was at her finest in this book – she is a strong, capable character who has flaws and vulnerability and can be every bit as sneaky and deceptive as her husband – skills that she has picked up from Chopra. She is fast becoming a favourite of mine, because she takes no prisoners and doesn’t give up on those she cares about. And how could I not mention the star of the series, Baby Ganesha, the little elephant that started it all when he came to Chopra as an inheritance from a dead relative. Ganesha is more than just a pet – he is a special elephant whose diet consists mainly of Cadbury’s Milk Chocolate, a habit that not even Chef Lucknowwallah or Poppy can break him of. Ganesha knows when to help, and when his Chopra is in trouble – and he has saved the day before, and is loyal to Chopra, Poppy and Irfan in the fiercest way possible.

This third story with its dual plot meanders at a gentle pace, and without a hint of unnecessary gore and violence. When things get complicated and dangerous, Poppy finds a way to sort things out and ensure nobody gets hurt. As in the first two books, Ganesha comes to Chopra’s rescue at least once, and is perhaps the true hero of the series, even though it is usually Rangwalla and Chopra who uncover the truth, sometimes in unconventional and unexpected ways. The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star is a wonderful addition to a series with a difference, and one that will hopefully continue for many years to come. I look forward to next year’s book, and hopefully, many more after that.

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The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond Merchant, Magician and Spy by John Zubrzycki

The Mysterious Mr Jacob.jpg

Title: The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond Merchant, Magician and Spy

Author: John Zubrzycki

Genre: Non-fiction, biography

Publisher: Transit Lounge

Published: 1st April, 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 304 plus 8 page illustration insert

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: It was a scandal that rocked the highest echelons of the British Raj. In 1891, a notorious jeweller and curio dealer from Simla offered to sell the world’s largest brilliant-cut diamond to the fabulously wealthy Nizam of Hyderabad. If the audacious deal succeeded it would set the merchant up for life. But the transaction went horribly wrong. The Nizam accused him of fraud, triggering a sensational trial in the Calcutta High Court that made headlines around the world.

The dealer was Alexander Malcolm Jacob, a man of mysterious origins. After arriving penniless in Bombay in 1865, he became the most famous purveyor of precious stones in princely India, and a confidante of Viceroys and Maharajas. Jacob also excelled in the magical arts. He inspired all those who met him, including Rudyard Kipling who immortalised him as Lurgan Sahib, the ‘healer of sick pearls’, in his novel Kim.

Now for the first time, John Zubrzycki, author of The Last Nizam, conveys the page-turning colour, romance and adventure of Jacob’s astonishing life. Starting on the banks of the Tigris in modern-day Turkey where Jacob was born, Zubrzycki strips away the myths and legends. He follows Jacob’s journey from the slums of Bombay, to the fabulous court of the Nizam of Hyderabad, from the hedonistic heights of Simla, the summer capital of the Raj, to the Calcutta High Court. This is a story of India, of strange twists and unexpected outcomes. Most importantly Zubrzycki enters into and truly captures the spirit of the mysterious Mr Jacob, one of the most enigmatic and charismatic figures of his time.

~*~

The story of Alexander Malcolm Jacob is one that I did not know until I read John Zubrzycki’s book about him. Following his life in India and the surrounding area, The Mysterious Mr Jacob reveals how Alexander Malcolm Jacob arrived in India, and gradually, grew his diamond trade, using his activities to spy on everyone and report back to various contacts who were often enemies, gaining the best price he could for the diamonds, and following a path that incorporated aspects of magic into his faith. However, these nefarious activities come to a crashing halt in 1891, when Mr Jacob faces fraud charges, and a trial in the Calcutta High Court that would make worldwide headlines.

Alexander Malcolm Jacob’s story is one of mystery and intrigue, in a land that has been written about as an exotic mystery by authors such as Rudyard Kipling, at a time when the mysteries of India were looked at through a lens obscured by fascination of another world, different to the one most British subjects of Victorian England knew. It is also set against the back drop of the British Empire of the nineteenth century that had a far reach across the world, including towards India, and during the time Mr Jacob was operating, Queen Victoria proclaimed herself Empress of India, and took possession of the Koh-I-Noor Diamond.

Jacob’s world at one point is destined to become larger, as a friend invites him to London, where he will have the chance to meet Queen Victoria, and gain citizenship, but his choice to remain behind furthers his career, and ultimately, leads to the 1891 trial with an outcome that most at the time would not have seen coming, and that leads into Jacob’s isolated future until his death in 1921, aged seventy one.

More than just non-fiction, John Zubrzycki’s work is a narrative history, where Jacob’s world is revealed in rich and vivid descriptions, and contrasted against the modern India that the author visited whilst writing the book. We get a vision of two worlds: one trapped by an imperialistic empire forging its own identity in a modern world – through the eyes of Alexander Malcolm Jacob as he traverses India and the surrounding countries in search of diamonds.

It is an intriguing read, and was a surprise addition to my review stack from Transit Lounge and Quikmark Media. The victors and winners, or the figures that become well known write most history. There are some events and figures in history that are famous in spite of the failures, such as Bonnie Prince Charlie and Culloden. It is rare to find stories such as Alexander Malcolm Jacob’s in history books. Books such as John Zubrzycki’s bring to light the stories of lesser known but just as fascinating events and people, and show the diversity of these figures in their backgrounds, their personalities and the lives that they led.

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