Three book recommendations for 2019

Three fascinating books leapt to the top of the pile at Christmas. While in different genres, they all shed some light on some of the issues facing us all in 2019.

In the novel The Great Believers Rebecca Makkai brings the world of the mid-1980s Chicago gay community vividly to life. While protagonist Yale Tishman watches helplessly as his friends die from AIDS, a parallel story unfolds in Paris in 2015 in which a middle-aged American woman, Fiona, seeks to track down her wayward daughter. At the denouement the plot lines coincide.

In The Fifth Risk the inimitable Michael Lewis, author of such great non-fiction exposés as Moneyball, Liar’s Poker, The Big Short,and Flash Boys, examines the trouble brewing thanks to the deliberate understaffing of the US Government under President Trump.

In Chernobyl, Harvard professor Serhii Plokhy, an American citizen born in Russia and brought up in Ukraine, shows how, for citizens of the Soviet Union (and Ukraine in particular), the flaws in the failing communist system crystallised in the explosion of the nuclear reactor in 1986. He argues convincingly that this tragedy sheds light on how and why the Soviet Union imploded only 5 years after the Chernobyl explosion. Plokhy’s Chernobyl won the Bailey Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction in 2018.

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Sikkim at JLF 2016

The Jaipur Literature Festival is a fabulous annual extravaganza of literature, music and much more. I first went in 2011 and couldn’t resist another visit in 2012. I then vowed not to return until my first book was published and I was invited as an author.

It was a wonderful feeling therefore to be invited to the 2016 Festival to talk about Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom. I was particularly delighted to be on stage with the Sikkimese poet Guru Tshering Ladakhi. Guru’s poetry captures with great intelligence what it means to be Sikkimese in the 21st century – seeking to understand the past and full of hope for the future. The session was expertly chaired by C Raja Mohan from The Indian Express (India Director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace).

The video is below. (Many apologies for the dreadful gurn that they chose for the cover of the video but worth watching for Guru’s readings of his own excellent poetry alone.)

I’m also delighted to report that Penguin Random House India will be bringing out a paperback version of the book next month.


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Sikkim at the Beyond Borders Festival 2015

In August I spoke about Sikkim at the sixth Beyond Borders Festival of Literature and Thought. A recording of the session in the wonderful chapel at Traquair House is available below and on Youtube. I was interviewed by Sir Kieran Prendergast, the former British ambassador to Zimbabwe, Kenya and Turkey who later became Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs at the United Nations between 1997 and 2005.

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Grace Kelly of the East: video footage of the 1963 marriage of Hope Cooke in Sikkim

In the spring of 1963, 22-year-old American Hope Cooke gave up her US citizenship and boarded a plane bound for a remote Himalayan Kingdom, Sikkim. She was on her way to marry the Crown Prince. Already she was being touted in the Washington Post as ‘Grace Kelly of the East’. Her life would never be the same again. ed4

Sikkim, a beautiful but tiny mountainous country wedged between Nepal and Bhutan and nestling up against the plateau of Tibet, had emerged from the end of the British Empire as a semi-autonomous protectorate of the new Republic of India. It was what one British administrator had called a ‘good old patriarchal monarchy’, run by a Buddhist royal family, the Namgyals,  whose authority was as much spiritual as practical.

Hope Cooke had met the Crown Prince in 1959 when she was just 19 years old. Cooke was from a wealthy but complicated family background; she had travelled to India with a college friend in search of excitement, venturing up to Darjeeling (the hill town that acts as the gateway to the Sikkim Himalayas) on a whim. In the bar of the colonial era Windamere Hotel, she and the Crown Prince, Thondup, fell in love.

The story of how their wedding thrust Sikkim into the global spotlight is at the heart of my new book, Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom.Mono untitled 5 copy The ambassadors of nations from all over the world including JK Galbraith, the ambassador of the USA, made the long journey up to Sikkim’s capital Gangtok. The event was covered in Time magazine, National Geographic, and across the world.

The video below gives a sense of the excitement it generated – and of the geopolitical tensions with China that lurked in the background. (The Chinese Communists had established complete control in neighbouring Tibet, forcing the Dalai Lama to flee to India in 1959,  the year Hope Cooke first visited Sikkim.) It was these tensions that led to an extraordinary denouement ten years later when Indira Gandhi used its newly formed External Intelligence organisation, the Research & Analysis Wing, to annex Sikkim.

In 1973 Hope Cooke left Sikkim for the last time, accused of being a CIA plant, returning to New York where she still lives today.

Read the whole story in Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom, published by Birlinn in the UK (buy from Amazon UK) and Penguin in India (buy from Amazon India).

More videos bringing the story of Sikkim to life available here

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Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom

Very pleased to announce the launch of my first book, available in all good bookshops, and on Amazon. It’s being published by Birlinn in the UK, and by Penguin in India.

If you’d like to know more, click here for my Facebook page where you’ll find a regularly updated list of events I’m speaking at this summer (Hay Festival on 27 May, Chalke Valley Festival on 27 June, and Edinburgh Festival on 26 August among others).

I’ll also be using Facebook to post background information, photographs and videos to bring the book to life over the next few weeks.

Cover for the Penguin India edition - out May 24

Cover for the Penguin India edition – out May 24

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Obituary: Martha Steedman

It was on a cold February morning in 2010 that I first knocked on the door of Martha Steedman’s beautiful Fife home. A tall, impeccably dressed woman opened the door and ushered me in. It felt like we’d known each other for years.

I was there because I had an idea that I’d like to write a book on Sikkim, a tiny Indian state perched between Bhutan and Nepal that had once been a Himalayan Kingdom. A year earlier, I had retraced a journey that my grandfather had made in 1922, walking 120 miles into a hilltop Buddhist monastery in the heart of Sikkim. Continue reading

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Catastrophes, Iron Curtains, and Currencies


 I looked across at my Budapest taxi-driver from whence the bellow had issued.

“CATASTROPH!” he repeated, this time causing a slight tingle on my tympanums. We had been acquainted for less than a minute, but he seemed determined to let me know that even this brief interaction had caused him immense pain. Continue reading

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