There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to [email protected]
Cold War Spy
Every July, Daniel Silva releases a new Gabriel Allon novel, and for fans that year seems too long a wait. Silva’s books are politically outspoken and so well-researched, they seem to be happening in real time, sometimes eerily predicting events before they happen.
His hero is the green-eyed art restorer and Israeli spy, who has risen from assassin to chief of the secret service, but does not shy away from going into the field when required. The Other Woman, is the eighteenth Gabriel Allon book, and a tour de force—deftly blending reality with fiction, so that one of the best known spies of the twentieth century comes alive for the reader.
To recap for those who haven’t encountered Allon before—he was plucked out of art school by his mentor and father figure, Ari Shamron to join a crack team and avenge the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. When he returned, he had aged much beyond his years and also become almost indestructible, although he came close to death several times. He becomes Shamron’s best intelligence officer in the field and also the world’s best restorer of art treasures. During the course of the seventeen earlier books in the series, he lost his infant son in a bomb blast that left his first wife, Leah, in an almost vegetative state. He met and fell in love with fellow intelligence operative Chiara and married her. She gave birth to twins and is temporarily out of action.
In this book and a few of the previous ones, Allon has done no art restoring, but when he did, Silva gave readers a concise history of classic works of European art. His mentor and father figure remains Ari Shamron, his friend and rival is Uri Navot, and with him is his loyal team of spies, computer wizards and destroyers of evil everywhere. The adversary has moved from Islamic terrorism to Russia, and the days of the Cold War return in this book, in more ways than one.
An agent codenamed Heathcliff who was about to defect to the UK is murdered in a street of Vienna, and Allon blamed for it. His life has been threatened any number of times, but with the outrage over this killing, his career is on the line. As he starts to untangle the threads of intrigue, he finds that a Russian mole has buried deep into Britain’s secret service, MI6. The search takes Allon to the height of the Cold War, and a woman living in exile in Andalusia, who holds the key—the other woman of the title.
The novel like all others, is topical, fast-paced and action-packed, with amazing plot twists. If there’s a glitch, it is a bit of contrivance towards the end-- a character takes a somewhat unconvincing detour, when the climax could well have taken place few pages earlier.
As always, Silva’s note at the end, is a chilling reminder of the way the world is going, and why the relations between the US and Russia are a matter of concern-- he doesn’t name the presidents, but it’s obvious who they are. Even those who are not fans of espionage thrillers, will not regret picking up this one—strongly recommended.
The Other Woman
By Daniel Silva
Excerpt of The Other Woman
None of it would have come to pass—not the desperate quest for the traitor, not the strained alliances nor the needless deaths—were it not for poor Heathcliff. He was their tragic figure, their broken promise. In the end, he would prove to be yet another feather in Gabriel’s cap. That said, Gabriel would have preferred that Heathcliff were still on his side of the ledger. Assets like Heathcliff did not come along every day, sometimes only once in a career, rarely twice. Such was the nature of espionage, Gabriel would lament. Such was life itself.
It was not his true name, Heathcliff; it had been generated at random, or so his handlers claimed, by computer. The program deliberately chose a code name that bore no resemblance to the asset’s real name, nationality, or line of work. In this regard, it had succeeded. The man to whom Heathcliff’s name had been attached was neither a foundling nor a hopeless romantic. Nor was he bitter or vengeful or violent in nature. In truth, he had nothing in common with Brontë’s Heathcliff other than his dark complexion, for his mother was from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The same republic, she was proud to point out, as Comrade Stalin, whose portrait still hung in the sitting room of her Moscow apartment.
Heathcliff spoke and read English fluently, however, and was fond of the Victorian novel. In fact, he had flirted with the idea of studying English literature before coming to his senses and enrolling at the Moscow Institute for Foreign Languages, regarded as the second-most prestigious university in the Soviet Union. His faculty adviser was a talent-spotter for the SVR, the Foreign Intelligence Service, and upon graduation Heathcliff was invited to enter the SVR’s academy. His mother, drunk with joy, placed flowers and fresh fruit at the foot of Comrade Stalin’s portrait. “He is watching you,” she said. “One day you will be a man to be reckoned with. A man to be feared.” In his mother’s eyes, there was no finer thing for a man to be.
It was the ambition of most cadets to serve abroad in a rezidentura, an SVR station, where they would recruit and run enemy spies. It took a certain type of officer to perform such work. He had to be brash, confident, talkative, quick on his feet, a natural seducer. Heathcliff, unfortunately, was blessed with none of these qualities. Nor did he possess the physical attributes required for some of the SVR’s more unsavory tasks. What he had was a facility for languages—he spoke fluent German and Dutch as well as English—and a memory that even by the SVR’s high standards was deemed to be exceptional. He was given a choice, a rarity in the hierarchical world of the SVR. He could work at Moscow Center as a translator or serve in the field as a courier. He chose the latter, thus sealing his fate.
It was not glamorous work, but vital. With his four languages and a briefcase full of false passports, he roamed the world in service of the motherland, a clandestine delivery boy, a secret postman. He cleaned out dead drops, stuffed cash into safe-deposit boxes, and on occasion even rubbed shoulders with an actual paid agent of Moscow Center. There were vastly more sophisticated means of transmitting intelligence these days, it was true. But the SVR, for all its technical prowess—or, perhaps, because of it— was innately distrustful of computers and mobile phones, preferring the old ways to the new.
Consequently, Heathcliff was a man constantly on the move. It was not uncommon for him to spend three hundred nights a year outside Russia. The work left him unsuited for marriage or even a serious relationship. The SVR provided him with female comfort when he was in Moscow—beautiful young girls who under normal circumstances would never look at him twice—but when traveling he was prone to bouts of intense loneliness.
The Leapfroggers by VP Sandlas is an insider’s account with unique insights into ISRO, one of India’s most iconic institutions. According to the summary, “We are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society, and the courage to leapfrog to state-of-the-art engineering and technology pursuits rather than step-by-step scientific developments.’ These famous words of Dr Vikram Sarabhai propel every initiative of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). The Leapfroggers, too, is an outcome of the same spirit.
“Featured in the book is Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the first Project Director of SLV-3, India’s most prestigious space project in the 1970s.
Ved Prakash Sandlas was part of Kalam’s core team and eventually took over from him after the first successful launch in 1980. Sandlas was one of the first engineers to join ISRO in its formative years in the 1960s. In this book, he reflects on the ISRO culture: the styles, values and characteristics of its people; their aspirations and ambitions; and their beliefs, prejudices, superstitions and limitations. Woven with interesting anecdotes and scientific detail, The Leapfroggers is the human story of ISRO’s and India’s technological advancement.”
By VP Sandlas
Publisher: Harper Collins
Translated from Tamil, Sharmila Seyyid’s Ummath spans three decades of the deadly Sri Lankan civil war, and highlights the plight of women across communal and ethnic divides. Says the synopsis, “Through the lives of three women, Thawakkul, Yoga and Theivanai – one a social activist, the other a Tamil Tiger forced into joining the movement as a child, and the third a disillusioned fighter for the Eelam – the novel lays bare the complex equations that ruled life in Sri Lankan society during and in the aftermath of the civil war.
“In Ummath, Sharmila Seyyid – once forced to live in exile for her outspoken, liberal views – interrogates Islamist fundamentalism, Tamil nationalism and Sri Lankan majoritarian chauvinism with her characteristic courage, honesty and sensitivity.”
By Sharmila Seyyid
Translated by: Gita Subramanian
Publisher: Harper Collins
From Jessica Knoll, author of the bestselling debut novel of 2015 Luckiest Girl Alive, comes a new thriller, The Favourite Sister, featuring a pair of competitive and uber-successful sisters whose secrets and lies result in murder.
“According to the synopsis, “Brett and Kelly Courtney are the shining jewels in a New York-based reality TV show called Goal Diggers. One of the most popular shows on American national television, its fiercely competitive cast of five self-made women are defined by their success, beauty and ruthless drive to reach the top by whatever means necessary.
“The Courtney sisters’ rivalry goes skin deep despite the blossoming business they have built together that helps disadvantaged women in Morocco. Harbouring bitter jealousies and dark secrets about their manufactured screen lives they’re joined by three other hyper-competitive women who all have their own agendas. And the latest season promises sparks to fly in the quest for even higher ratings.
“Vicious backstabbing, scathing social media attacks and finely-tuned scripting draw in the viewing public every week, all orchestrated by the show’s omnipotent producers. But even they don’t know that season 4 will end in murder . . .”
The Favourite Sister
By Jessica Knoll
Publisher: Pan MacMillan