Hanif's debut novel, shortlisted for the Guardian first book award, is a political thriller which, like Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal and Robert Harris's Fatherland, offers an alternative "but-what-if" scenario to historical fact. In 1988, with the Soviet army making as little headway in Afghanistan as British and American troops today, Pakistan's military dictator, General Zia ul-Haq, in cahoots with Ronald Reagan and the CIA to combat the red menace on his doorstep, was killed in a mysterious plane crash. Russian agents, rival generals, home-grown revolutionaries - anyone might have been responsible, but Ali Shigri, Hanif's army cadet hero, has a personal motive: revenge. Did his distinguished war hero dad, Colonel Shigri, really hang himself, or was he liquidated on the general's orders? There are numerous plots and subplots, a delicately underplayed love story, much fascinating if not particularly useful technical information about stunt flying (Hanif is a qualified pilot) and how to extract the venom from a banded krait, descriptions of embassy parties in Islamabad where guests dressed as Red Army officers and Pashtu fighters play havoc with security, and tons of action. There's also a cast of characters Dickens would have envied, starting with Zia himself - paranoid, pathetic and constantly rehearsing his acceptance speech for the Nobel peace prize he never won. Reader Paul Bhattacharjee gives voice to torture chambers, social satire, bucolic lyricism ("night on the mountains is a black sheet flung from the skies") and Catch-22-style military slapstick with equal panache, though I suspect the real Zia was a little less cuddly than he makes him out to be.
Sue Arnold is a freelance journalist and, for many years, a popular columnist for the Observer. She has been a radio critic and currently reviews audiobooks for the Guardian. Having lost her sight as a result of a medical condition, she has written about the medical use of cannabis. She is a registered blind person