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Tamarind & The Star of Ishta - Jasbinder Bilan

Another of the plethora of books arriving last week, this one has some serious 'clout' behind it, being the follow-up novel from Jasbinder Bilan, author of 'Asha and the Spirit Bird', which won last year's Costa Children's Book Award, as well as being nominated for a multitude of others. This one doesn't disappoint, and is more than worthy of being held up alongside its prizewinning older sibling!

Only a few weeks ago, I was involved in a series of messages with the wonderful Mat Tobin (@Mat_at_Brookes) on Twitter, in which we discussed the links that existed between books we read, and whether the reading of one book inadvertently led us to another due to themes/messages/genre etc.

Having recently read and reviewed H.S. Norup's wonderful 'The Hungry Ghost', I was surprised to find that (by pure coincidence) the next book from my pile of 'to be reads' featured many similar themes: ghosts, Asian folktales, lost family and the search for truth and understanding. I loved that book, and I love this one too. Despite the many similarities, it was different enough to hold me entranced throughout on its own merits, and I read it in one sitting, so keen was I to get to the end and discover the secret of the mysteries it set out!

On the plane, as she travels towards India, Tamarind, the main character, states: 'the closer we get to India and the family she left behind, the more tangled it's feeling'

The story follows Tamarind's journey and quest to 'untangle' her past, as she is left by her father with never-before-met family (on her late mother's side) at her ancestral home in the Himalayas while he goes on honeymoon with his new wife. The search for the truth and knowledge about her deceased birth mother is the main thrust of the narrative. Tamarind is desperately trying to find out facts, but being denied along the way by secret-holding staff of the grand house, relatives who will not speak of their lost loved-one, and a bitter step-sister who cruelly misreats the outsider, Tamarind, upon her arrival at the family house for upsetting the hierarchy and bringing painful memories back for all involved.

As she searches for clues about her family history and mother, a magical and spiritual element is introduced to the tale, with heavy reliance on characters and stories from the author's own Indian heritage to drive and aid Tam on her quest to the truth. Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of the book's title, plays a major part, as do a secret garden, a ring with magical powers, and a friendly, gold-dust sprinkling monkey. The story has been carefully researched, and is rich in the language and culture of the author's own upbringing, traditional folk stories and the Himalayan setting of the book, adding authenticity and a real sense of place and atmosphere.

Sense is an important feature of the description and imagery in the book, with the author including frequent reference to the foods, flavours, scents and spices of the house and surrounding gardens: from bitter chutneys, to samosas and cardamom rice, with a Himalayan chilli-challenge thrown in for added heat, too! The housekeeper/cook, Uma, with her enticing sweet treats to encourage Tamarind to eat, and her feast of beloved family dishes to bring them together and remind them of past celebrations, are an important element of the story and a plot device guaranteed to leave you feeling hungry and desirous of a plate of gulab jaman for yourself!!

The story is a delight, with emotion, action, gravity and light-hearted moments alike that keep the story moving at a rapid pace towards the final discoveries that Tamarind makes. Author's notes and background to the story are included after the story concludes, and add detail and further opportunity to explore the tales mentioned and the character of Ishtar.

Easy to see why the author received such glowing praise for her last book if this is anything to go by - I wouldn't be surprised if this one doesn't receive much the same, well-deserved, praise and comment too.

'Tamarind & the Star of Ishta' is published by Chicken House (@chickenhsebooks)

Written by Jasbinder Bilan (@jasinbath on Twitter)

Review by Rich Simpson (@richreadalot) September 2020

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