Sunday, November 20, 2022

James Ziskin--Bombay Monsoon

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I'm a huge fan of James Ziskin's award-winning Ellie Stone novels, featuring 1960s New York reporter Ellie Stone, but his upcoming BOMBAY MONSOON, out December 6th, is something completely different. I absolutely cannot wait to read this book, and I asked Jim to tell us what inspired such a departure.


JAMES W. ZISKINBombay Monsoon is a new direction for me. I’ve had a lot of fun writing the seven Ellie Stone books, and I intend to write more, but I was overdue to try something else. The idea of a thriller set in India had been simmering in my mind for a long time. I’ve made fifty-six separate trips to India over the past twenty-five years and, all told, have spent nearly four years there. I even got married in India. It’s a second home to me.



The Ellie Stone books feature a twenty-something female first-person narrator. If you look at my photo above, you may understand why I wanted to try a male narrator for a change. Write something involving my own experience. And so India naturally came to mind. After all, I was an expat living a wonderfully rich life in Bangalore, Mumbai (Bombay), and Pune (Poona). Surely there was a story I could tell about that.

 SYNOPSIS

 Bombay Monsoon

The year is 1975. Danny Jacobs is an ambitious, young American journalist who’s just arrived in Bombay for a new assignment. He’s soon caught up in the chaos of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s domestic “Emergency.”

Willy Smets is Danny’s enigmatic expat neighbor. He’s a charming man, but with suspicious connections. As a monsoon drenches Bombay, Danny falls hard for Sushmita, Smets’s beguiling and clever lover—and the infatuation is mutual.

“The Emergency,” a virtual coup by the prime minister, is only the first twist in the high-stakes drama of Danny’s new life in India. The assassination of a police officer by a Marxist extremist, as well as Danny’s obsession with the inscrutable Sushmita, conspire to put his career—and life—in jeopardy. And, of course, the temptations of Willy Smets’s seductive personality sit squarely at the heart of the matter.

THE EMERGENCY

I love historical fiction. I love reading it and writing it. And while many people might not think a book set in 1975 qualifies as historical, I say it is. And I’ll fight you. If readers can ding you for anachronisms and historical errors, it’s a historical novel.

Article 352 of the Indian Constitution provides for broad powers in the event of a domestic emergency. On June 25, 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi invoked Article 352 and did precisely that. After the courts had ruled her 1971 election to parliament invalid (you can’t be PM if you’re not an MP), she declared an emergency and immediately started throwing her political opponents in jail, canceling elections, censoring the press, and suspending due process and civil liberties. Twenty-one months of rule by decree followed. The world’s largest democracy was anything but.


 What better time to set a thriller than during an existential threat to democracy? That’s what I asked myself when considering the book I wanted to write. I was fascinated by this period in history. The world was still engaged in its Cold War chess match. India was a non-aligned nation and, as such, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union courted Mrs. Gandhi. She was a powerful figure in the geopolitical landscape of 1975. So when she declared the Emergency, the world took notice. Here’s a scene from Bombay Monsoon where Danny meets an American businessman in a hotel.

 

“Mrs. Gandhi has taken over,” he said in a low voice. “Might as well be a coup. Mark my words, no court is going to throw her out of office. That conviction of hers will disappear faster than shit goes through a goose. World’s largest democracy, my ass. This country’s no better than a tinpot dictatorship.”

I considered his words. He might well have been right. One thing was for sure, though. He was an asshole. The ugly American. I wished I hadn’t sat down, but I wanted information, and he seemed to have some.

 

 WILLY SMETS

I’m a great admirer of Graham Greene’s and his “entertainments” involving strangers in foreign lands. I think my character Willy Smets would be right at home in a Greene story. He’s the charming, avuncular neighbor who takes Danny under his wing. But is he who he seems to be?

 

The first time I met Willy Smets, he told me I could think of Indians either as the obstacles to my happiness or the means to achieve it. Having materialized from the smoke and chatter behind me, he spoke directly into my ear and scared the hell out of me. I reeled around to see who belonged to the voice with an accent I couldn’t quite place. A European man of about forty-five or fifty.

“My name is Willy Smets,” he said. His thin lips stretched into a smile, baring a line of long teeth. “This is my place. And you, young man, have only recently arrived in Bombay.”

I blushed. “Is it so obvious?”

 

 

I also wanted to write something that echoed Greene’s themes and settings. India was the perfect locale for such a story, and the 1970s couldn’t have been more suitable. The novel I had in mind reminded me a bit of Gatsby, so the elevator pitch became: “Graham Greene meets Gatsby on the Subcontinent.” Catchy, no?


DANNY

Danny Jacobs is a young journalist looking to make a name for himself. He’s reported from Chile, from Africa, and from Vietnam. Now he arrives in Bombay just as Mrs. Gandhi clamps down on freedom of the press. What’s a reporter to do? Maybe embark on a dangerous, ill-advised romance with his expat neighbor’s lover? Sure. Why not? What could go wrong?

 

Her name was Sushmita. Easily half Smets’s age, she was a couple of years younger than I was, too. An extremely attractive girl, she was sexy, but hardly perfect. There was that one slightly crooked incisor, for example, and a small scar at the side of her right eye, caused perhaps by a childhood fall. And those matrimonial classifieds in Indian newspapers might have described her complexion as dusky. Shameful, I thought.

 

Look, I told myself, I had no intention of betraying my friend with his girl. But then, how well did I know him? And even if I allowed myself wild fantasies of what might happen with Sushmita, I certainly didn’t have the guts to act on my baser instincts. It was a game. Get as close as I dared to crossing the very desirable point of no return, then step back with honor intact. The only problem was determining where the point of no return began and where honor ended.

 

 SUSHMITA

The object of Danny’s obsession is the inscrutable Sushmita, who lives with Willy Smets in the penthouse apartment. Quite unexpectedly, she emerged as the driving force in my story. (That happens more often than you’d think. Characters take on a larger role that we had originally planned for them. It usually works out for the best.) Danny is never sure of where he stands with this Cambridge-educated woman who seems to return his affections. Until she doesn’t. She’s damaged, somehow, but Danny can’t possibly know why. Sushmita is perhaps the most complex character I’ve ever dreamt up.

  

PREJUDICE AND COLORISM


Through Danny’s eyes, I explored two important social themes in Indian society: the treatment of the plight of the servant class and the ever-present scourge of colorism, prejudice based on skin color. Upon his arrival in Bombay, Danny suffers major culture shock, particularly when confronted with the treatment of domestic help. He’s horrified by the indifferent and callous attitudes inherent in the rigid class system. Then there’s the obsession over fair skin. Sushmita clearly has experienced deep trauma over the darkness of her own complexion. Through her tears, she tells Danny how a matron at school had tormented her over the color of her skin.

 

“For seven years she made me feel ugly. Called me a black jungli. She stole my soap and replaced it with a jar of Afghan Snow. Then she invited the other girls to laugh at me.”

“Afghan Snow?”

She glowered. “Skin cream. It makes your skin lighter. Until you wash it off. Then you’re just as ugly as before.”

 

HORN OK PLEASE

 Anyone who’s ever traveled by road in India has seen the exhaust-belching trucks with their brightly painted signs proclaiming “HORN OK PLEASE.” This means it’s okay to sound your horn as a warning that you’re going to overtake (pass). In Bombay Monsoon, I went to great pains to describe the terror of driving in India, especially outside the city. Especially on dangerous mountain roads. I experienced this terror first hand when scaling the Western Ghats of Maharashtra more than twenty-five years ago. The Ghats are the mountains that rise from the coastal plain to the Deccan plateau. Today you climb the Ghats via a safe, modern highway, but my first trip up and down was on a two-lane, pockmarked road that hugged the side of the mountain. There were few, if any, guardrails. And if you think the drivers slowed down and took extra care due to the cliffs and the certain death awaiting a missed turn, think again. It was a rollercoaster ride without seatbelts or safety bars. It was and has remained the most terrifying ride of my life. And I wrote it into Bombay Monsoon. Happy reading!

 



THE FRAIL FOOTHOLD OF DEMOCRACY

 As I researched and began to write Bombay Monsoon, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between Mrs. Gandhi’s attempts to retain power and the failed insurrection of January 6, 2021 in our own country. In both cases, democracy was under siege. In June 1975, Mrs. Gandhi prevailed. In January 2021, our democracy did. As Danny reflects on the Emergency in Bombay Monsoon, he observes—somewhat sardonically—that only one year before, in 1974, Richard Nixon had resigned the presidency and set a higher ethical standard than did the Indian prime minister. Nixon did not attempt a coup to retain power. Whether he saw the writing on the wall or was forced to go, he did. No attacks on the Capitol. And, believe it or not, I am grateful to Richard Nixon for that.

Bombay Monsoon (Oceanview Publishing) will be available in hardcover, e-book, and audiobook versions on December 6, 2022.

 

BIO

James W. Ziskin (Jim) is the author of the Anthony, Barry, and Macavity Award-winning Ellie Stone Mysteries. His books have been finalists multiple times for the Edgar, Anthony, Barry, Lefty, and Macavity awards. His short story, “The Twenty-Five-Year Engagement,” was a finalist for the 2021 Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards for Best Short Story. His latest novel, Turn to Stone, won the Barry Award for Best Paperback Original, and the Macavity for Best Historical Mystery. Turn to Stone was also a finalist for the 2021 Sue Grafton Memorial Award and the Lefty Award for Best Historical Mystery. His next novel, Bombay Monsoon (Oceanview Publishing), is coming in December 2022.

His international experience includes two years working and studying in France, extensive time in Italy, and nearly four years in India. He speaks Italian and French.

James lives near Boston. He is represented by Kimberley Cameron of Kimberley Cameron and Associates,  https://www.kimberleycameron.com/


DEBS: Jim, your story about climbing the Western Ghats reminded me so much of trips on the old Pan American Highway to Mexico City when I was a child. That road was absolutely terrifying and I suspect those no-guardrail drop offs inspired my adult fear of heights.

Readers, have you visited India, and if not, is it on your bucket list?

Jim, I also want to know what Indian languages you speak! 

REDS ALERT: Pamela Priest is the winner of Maya Corrigan's BAKED OFF! Pamela, email me your address at deb at deborahcrombie dot com and I will forward it to Maya!

 

 

 

 


56 comments:

  1. “Bombay Monsoon” sounds so intriguing, James . . . I’m looking forward to reading it.
    I’ve never been to India, but it sounds like a fascinating place [although I believe I’d prefer to skip those mountain roads] . . . .

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    1. Thanks, Joan. If you go to India, yes, do skip the mountain roads!

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  2. I'm so excited for this book, Jim! And to learn about the country and the era. I was an adult (but a young one) in the mid-seventies, but I wasn't paying attention to that part of the world, instead heading off for a return visit to Brazil and then going to live in Japan. I have still never traveled to India but would love to. I've certainly traversed dangerous roads with crazy reckless drivers in West Africa, and Susan Oleksiw's photographs of women selling at an open market in southern India reminded me so much of the women in Mali and Burkina Faso.

    The Jan 6 failed insurrection came immediately to mind when I started reading this post.

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    1. Thank you, Edith! I hope you enjoy the book. It was wonderful seeing you again at Crimebake.

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  3. JIM: I greatly enjoyed reading an ARC of Bombay Monsoon earlier this year!!
    Danny is a fine fish out-of-water protagonist in 1975 India. Those drives on the Ghats in the dark and pouring rain were scary to read. I glad you survived those dangerous rides and the many trips to India.

    I was tempted to sign up for a guided culinary trip to Kerala with an award-winning Ottawa chef who grew up there. Sadly, the tour is taking place the same time as Tucson LCC (Left Coast Crime) next March so I had to pass.

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    1. Thanks, Grace! The Kerala trip sounds interesting. Maybe you’ll get to do it another time. I once spent a night on a boat in the Kerala backwaters. Fascinating!

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  4. This sounds wonderful--I love fiction set in India. I've visited once and will never forget any of it, especially the rickshaw ride through New Delhi... 56 trips, wow!

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    1. Thanks! Was it an auto rickshaw or a guy pulling it? 56 trips and counting!

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  5. Sounds like a great read. LCC or culinary trip to Kerala? That's a tough choice!!

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  6. Jim, welcome! I pre-ordered Bombay Monsoon months ago and soon it will be in my lap! I adore your Ellie Stone series and commend you for writing this very different story. For any commenters who haven't read Jim's series, it is one of my favorites!

    Interesting timing. In early July of 1975, I moved to Israel with the intention of making alliah. Two years later, I came home. The upheaval in India was barely on my radar and I have never traveled there.

    Congratulations on all the acclaim coming your way with this book.

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    1. Thank you, Judy! So nice that you’ve enjoyed Ellie. I hope you’ll enjoy Bombay Monsoon as well! Jim

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  7. I have always been fascinated with India, both of the Raj and modern day. Travel to the subcontinent is on my bucket list.

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    1. Cat hit publish before I was ready. I wanted to add that the book sounds fascinating. Quite a departure from the Ellie novels. Looking forward to reading it.

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    2. It’s a country you must visit, Kait. Thank you for the kind words. Hope you enjoy Bombay Monsoon. Jim

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  8. India is not on my bucket list, but your book sounds like a great way to experience it from my armchair. And I agree that 1975 makes it historical -- it is last century, after all!

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    1. Thanks, Amanda. Hope you enjoy your armchair visit with Danny Jacobs as your guide!

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  9. Bombay Monsoon sounds great! I love historical fiction. The threat to democracy theme is certainly timely. I have not been to India, but my twin sister was there for a couple of months. She went with our friend who was in medical school and was doing one of her rotations in India (I think she was in Bangalore) and needed someone to care for her 4 year old daughter. My sister had a great time and her future husband came over to travel with them at the end of the trip. They got engaged in India.

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    1. Gillian, I’d already finished the book when Jan 6 happened. It was a coincidence, but indeed timely, as you say. Your sister’s visit sounds like an amazing one! Jim

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  10. Oh, I love historical and foreign settings - Bombay Monsoon ticks all of my boxes! Congrats ont he new venture, James. I can't wait to read it!

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    1. Thank you, Jenn! So glad to be able to discuss it here with you Jungle Reds! Jim

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  11. Hi, Jim, what an amazing life you've led! What has taken you to India so many times?

    I love stories set in all kinds of exotic places, and to learn ways of life that are vastly different from my own. India is such a vast country, and there are so many kinds of lives there--similar to our own diversity, but in such a different way from ours. After seeing the Marigold Hotel movies, I am less concerned about the challenges of visiting such a vibrant place teeming with life.

    While we have never been on a mountain road such as the one you describe in India, driving in the Rockies back in the day were almost as challenging. Steep gorges on every little switchback, and no guardrails, had me green for hours. The same with the road to Alta in Salt Lake City. That area gets feet of snow, and they lose vehicles in winter. We were there in July and it was terrifying enough without the added issue of no visibility and slippery surfaces. Shudder.

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    1. Hi, Karen. First trip to INdia was to get married, my wife being Indian. Then many trips to visit family. And finally, my wife and I set up a couple of companies in India for our employer. Four or five trips a year over ten years adds up. And we lived in Pune (Poona in 1975) for a year and a half. India can be challenging at times for foreigners, but it’s so very rewarding and worth it! Your mountain roads sound as scary as mine. Yes, steep gorges on every switchback, and drivers who seem indifferent to the dangers! Jim

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    2. Thank you for your answers, Jim. Yes, that indifference is particularly unsettling, because it's out of your control!

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  12. Great post, Jim! Thought-provoking! And intriguing. Can I just say, this story has 'movie' written all over it? In fact, your shared snippets unspooled like scenes from a movie as I read. It reminded me of a movie I loved--The Year of Living Dangerously (1982).

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    1. Flora, that's exactly what I thought. Jim should cast the movie for us!

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    2. Flora and Debs, I’d love to see this as a movie. And The Year of Living Dangerously is a good comp. I’m too old to play the starring role, alas, so we’ll have to find someone else. Someone who can act! ;-)

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  13. Oh standing ovation, standing ovation! Every word of this is riveting— I love how character driven it is, and setting driven, and how all of those elements combine to make such a compelling story. It was a real joy to chat with you at CrimeBake about your book – – tell the cool story about the obituary! Your adventures in research are incredible. Absolutely cannot wait to read this.

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    1. I'd love to have been at Crime Bake!

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    2. Two days after the Emergency was declared, one brave soul published a short obituary in The TImes of India classifieds. It read, “ D’OCracy – D.E.M., beloved husband of T. Ruth, loving father of L.I. Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope, Justicia, expired on June 26.”

      Thank you, dear Hank, for your kind words and ovation. I loved seeing you and chatting at CrimeBake. Hope to see you again soon!

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  14. First, Jim, sorry about my dyslexic typo in the title! It is fixed!!

    I'm very interested in India these days, partly because it figures in the backgrounds of two of my characters, partly because of Britain's long involvement there. Did anyone else see the series Miss Marvel? I know you're thinking comic book + teenager, nope, but the backstory is about Partition (the division of India and Pakistan) and it's so interesting. Besides, great cast, great writing, and great depiction of an American Muslim family.

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    1. Dear Debs, no worries about the typo. It actually gave me an idea for a sequel… Thank you!

      I haven’t seen Miss Marvel, but I’ve put it on my list. Partition is such a momentous—and tragic—event in Indian/Pakistani history. So many heartbreaking stories.

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  15. I'm not exactly one to do much travelling so no, going to India is not on any kind of bucket list for me. Hell, it takes a great effort just to drive 30 minutes away to the closest bookstore when I want to browse in person.

    But that doesn't mean I don't want to read about these far off places. And James, I have to say that BOMBAY MOON does strike my fancy for some reason. So it is definitely going on the list to pick up.

    I was lucky enough to meet James a few years back at New England Mobile Book Fair (Either for a signing with Steven Cooper or Bruce Robert Coffin, I can't recall which though it was of course pre-pandemic) Got to spend a few minutes talking with him so it was very cool.

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    1. Jay, I remember that evening well. It was great chatting with you. Sorry to hear about Mystery Scene folding tents. I know you did so much great work for them. Best, Jim

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  16. I was already eager to read BOMBAY MOON, but this interview put me over the top. It sounds splendid. I've never been to India, and plan to do so by reading about it...in 1975. I'm especially intrigued by the parallels to our own flirtation with ditching democracy.

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  17. Bombay Moon sounds fascinating and intriguing. Yes, I have been to India and it was an experience I will treasure forever. I enjoy your Ellie Stone novels greatly. What a wonderful interview.

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    1. Thank you, Traveler! (Not sure of the name. Sorry!) I’m so flattered you enjoy my Ellie Stone books. Thank you! Jim

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  18. Historical fiction is my favorite reading enjoyment. Bombay Moon would be memorable and captivating. Your life is an adventure. Travel is so exceptional and unforgettable.

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    1. Thank you! I hope you enjoy it. Agree about travel. Jim

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  19. Welcome to Jungle Red, Jim.
    Don’t tell anyone, but I had the pleasure of reading Bombay Monsoon last summer. It is so different from the Ellie Stone books, which of course I love. Comparisons being odious, I won’t!

    Bombay Monsoon has award written all over it. Jim has given us a great preview of the setting, the characters, and the political climate. I knew nothing about the Emergency except that it existed. His description of this is eye opening, especially for anyone who ever admired Indira Ghandi!

    Get ready to snuggle down in front of a fire, eggnog — or Dewars — at hand, and lose yourself in this incredible book

    Much love, Jim

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    1. I KNEW it was you, Ann! Thank you for your kind words. I, too, admired Indira Gandhi. Still do in some ways. But the Emergency was too far. In her defense, she did lift the Emergency eventually and was promptly voted out of office.

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    2. Ann,how are you doing up in the snowy north? Hope you are safe and warm!!

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    3. No snow here. It’s all in Buffalo, which is 50 miles SW of here. We have sunshine!

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  20. I really look forward to reading this book! I love historical fiction and so far the books I've read set in India have taken place not long after the Great War. A friend and I went on a tour in India several years back to the region the travel industry calls the golden triangle. It was fascinating and exhausting and I would do it again in a heartbeat!

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    1. Hi, Pat. I’ve done the Golden Triangle. Amazing visit. We stayed in a luxury tent in Jaipur. Jim

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  21. Hello, Jim! I have so missed seeing you at Bouchercon over the last few years. I'm set to go next year in San Diego, and although I don't yet see your name on the list of attendees, I'm expecting you to be there. I look forward to having drinks, and if I can get my author and reader dinner together, having you there. Congratulations on Bombay Monsoon and all your success.

    For those who might not yet have read Jim's Ellie Stone mysteries, I encourage you to start them right away. It is a favorite series of mine. Set in the early 60s, it's a thrill to me to come across the allusions to that time of my early childhood, and Jim does them so well. Here is what I said about that in one of my reviews. "Once again, James Ziskin puts the mark of the 60s on this Ellie Stone story, and he does so seamlessly, never forced or superfluous are the details that place the setting as the 1960s." And, settings? Well, no one is better at making a setting come alive and drawing you into it. I probably sound like I'm a huge fan of Jim, and I am. His resume is stunning, and, yet, he is as unassuming as they come. And, of course, I have to mention that hair, that gorgeous, envy-inducing hair.

    At this point in my year of reading, I am realizing the mistakes I made in waiting to read a book close to its publication date. I am, of course, behind. But, I'm gaining. I have a reading schedule for the rest of the year that will hopefully let me get in my "must read 2022 books." I'm reading Rhys' Peril in Paris and have only about 40 more pages (I'll be reading that when I finish here), and I love this Lady Georgie, as I do all of them. Next is Catriona McPherson's Scot in a Trap and then Jim's Bombay Monsoon. So, I should get those last two read by their publication date of Dec. 6th. I have to get the house ready for Thanksgiving dinner and then the cooking and dinner, but I plan on sneaking in as much reading as I can.

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    1. Dearest Kathy. Thank you so much for your wonderfully supportive words. I’m blushing. I can’t wait to hear what you think of Bombay Monsoon! Happy Thanksgiving and happy reading! Jim

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  22. I can't wait for this book, Jim. I, too, have long been a fan of Graham Greene's "entertainments." I'm so excited you're exploring this new direction!

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    1. Thanks, Kim. I’m so happy your Love and Saffron is doing so well! Jim

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  23. Hi, Jim. I'm so glad to see you here on Jungle Red with Debs and to read your great introduction to BOMBAY MONSOON. Like many who've already written above, I'm a big Ellie Stone fan, and I, too, have been privileged to read an earlier version of the novel, which I loved. I can't wait to get the final book at last, which has long been preordered, and read it again. Sushmita is such an intriguing character! No, I have never been to India, but this book made me feel I had been there.

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    1. Thank you, Kim! Your kind words mean so much to me. I’m such an admirer of your first book, Pesticide, and can’t wait to read the next! Jim

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  24. My husband is originally from India, so I've been fortunate to visit Chennai and Bangalore 7 times. I love India. We always have stayed with his family, but he's from a large family, so we did a lot of visiting and I've got tons of good recipes. (They are all good cooks.) The traffic was always pretty wild, though. So many bells and horns all in different pitches! I would love to read Bombay Monsoon. It's definitely on my TBR list.

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    1. HORN OK PLEASE! Yes. Even in the cities, traffic is scary. But once you leave the metropolises, it get hairy. In the mountains it’s terrifying. I’ve visited Chennai, and spent many, many months in Bangalore. Thanks, Elizabeth! Jim

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  25. Thank you, all! Great chatting with everyone!

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