Checkmate The Murderer

Even Dead Men Play Chess and The Grandmaster’s King; Michael Weitz; Musa Publishing 2012 and 2013

- Tiya Mary Joshi

The book opens with the death of Erica, a girl who dies in a horrific accident on her seventh birthday in an explosion caused by the fumes of preparation of methamphetamine at her home. The narrator and the protagonist is Ray Gordon who is a chess teacher to this little girl’s brother.

Ray teaches chess to many, and among them is Walter Kelly who is two and a half hours’ drive away from him, and this time when he goes the Kelly family tell him Walter (an expert in wood working) has died from accidentally falling on his table saw. Ray trusts his instincts and believes that it is a murder. But why is a 65-year-old without any vices, murdered? To uncover this he plays detective in action, goofs up a bit, finds evidences knowingly and unknowingly and discovers that it is the family property, a wooden cabin which seems to be the center of the problems. Heading out there he finds a meth lab, gets caught sneaking. He realises that Walter himself had left him clues in his chess book with reference to the Evergreen Game (a tactic in Chess). He just has to find that hidden move, which will seal it. A lot of action follows which ends with him finally finding that Walter’s trusted neighbor and friend was the drug dealer who had chanced upon Walter’s cabin, and when Walter found this out had murdered him to keep his business going.

A Super short read, but be prepared to read it at one go, because once you pick it up you don’t feel like keeping it down unless you are done with it. continue reading…

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Rating: 9.7/10 (3 votes cast)

Picked up, Here and There

Review of Musings of a Wandering Ministrel; Ravi Trivedy; Patridge India 2013; pp 80

- Shana Susan Ninan

Poet Ravi Trivedy stays true to the heading that he’s given to his eclectic collection of poems and sketches, in Musings of a Wandering Ministrel. Drawn from real and imagined people and situations, the poems vary in size, form and tone. Definitely written at different times, when in diverse moods, they reflect slices of life experienced.

There are mixtures of short- and medium-sized lines, small and large paragraphs, rhyming and metaphors. Some poems are very symbolic – take, for instance, the great giving bosom of a tree and its shade. The picture that comes to minds is an all-giving mother.

Themes range from an ode to Ogden Nash, a poem on Bjorn Borg the Tennis great, a lost wanderer in a desert, loathing and derision, temptation, Bombay streets, awakening, youth in America… the last section on humour was refreshing.

The poet’s ability to touch a chord with his readers can be best seen in this piece of the poem, ‘A Traveler Grieves’:

Friends and selves,

left by the wayside.

Swept by tides,

of time and distance.


Had I seen you,

standing by the road,

we could have travelled

a few miles together.


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Rating: 10.0/10 (1 vote cast)

On The Sage, And Over

Review of Riders Of The Purple Sage; Zane Grey; First published in 1912; pp 196

- Shana Susan Ninan

I was introduced to Western novels before I had my hands on Famous Five and the Hardy Boys, by way of my parents’ love for lasso-wielding, cowboys of the American West. Movies and books introduced me to the desert life and culture. But I’d never read Zane Grey’s masterpiece, somehow. So reading this work, later in life, took me back to my childhood reading days on our farm.

Jane Withersteen has come to a lot of wealth – land, horses and riches – that her rich Mormon father had left her after his death. And she’s the kind of Mormon woman who hires a hundred or more Gentiles on her property – one, as charity; two, in order to bring them to her faith and ways – and earns the ire of the elders and ministers of her church. But her generosity rubs off on those around her – the riders, workers, her employees and the women of the society, who in turn help people who come to them.

Lassiter is a known name in western Utah as well as in Cottonwood, where Jane lives. His arrival in the town doesn’t exactly bring cheer to the church elders. And in the year 1871 when there’s already unrest regarding the black farmhands on the property, hiring non-Mormons in a Mormon stronghold, and the ubiquitous question of a woman who’s running a household or one who makes her own decisions, comes this man whose infamous deeds precede him. Quick-gunned and living with a vengeance to fulfil, he is charmed by Jane’s soft manner and soothing philosophies.

The subplot of Venters’ and Bess’ story is woven well into the flow. And Venters became my hero after reading one of the best horse chases in history! Sitting on the edge of the chair and flipping pages, I could feel the horses’ mane hit my face, the swift night wind encompass me.

Held in high regard, Jane finds it a personal turmoil to choose between her love of the religion and the love she feels in her heart, deep down, for a man. Although her love of religion greys her general outlook about other things, her allegiance to the Mormon Church doesn’t wane her concern for humanity.

The ever-present Sage is the central character of the book. It is wild country; the purple sage which is vast and unconquerable truly represents the large-hearted woman who finally picks her heart over her head, when it came to living a life of choice.

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Rating: 5.5/10 (2 votes cast)

Wings to your Dreams

Review of The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly; Sun-Mi-Hwang, Translation by Chi-Young Kim, Illustrations by Nomoco; Penguin USA 2013 (published in Korean in 2000); Rs 299; pp 134

- Shana Susan Ninan

If the English translation had been published two years ago, and I’d read it then, the effect it had on me would have been different. Having experienced birth pangs and then blissfully enjoying motherhood, now I can relate to Sprout the hen much better. The protagonist is an egg-laying hen, cooped up in a box that’s home to her. Laying an egg doesn’t mean that the hen gets to hatch it. Her eggs are taken away by the farmer’s wife, minutes after she laid them, warm and still soft.

Sprout (a name that the hen gave herself) has just one dream – to hatch an egg, to hold the baby dear to her heart. The story is about her will to realise this dream. Her struggles include having to escape the coop, facing the barnyard animals headed by the rooster and guarded by the dog, sleeping on the fringes of the farm almost falling prey to the weasel and finally, accepting the fact that the Baby she hatched isn’t one of her own, or might never look or feel like she does.

Human emotions and egos find life in the animals and birds in the plot. Avarice, hatred, low self-esteem, pride, jealousy, complacency, tolerance, love, grief, sacrifice… and more. Pointing a finger at the authoritarian mindset and system of the country, Hwang reveals much about the nation through the characters in her book. This is the first novel of the author I’m reading, and I hadn’t even heard about her earlier. I was casually ordering books online when this book popped up and reviews called it the South Korean version of Animal Farm. And, in a way, it is. Though more poetic and empathising than Orwell’s work. A little grim at times, and horrifically visual, Hwang’s work reflects Korean society and people.

The illustrations are typical of a person wielding the graceful calligraphy brush. And after Googling the name, yes my instincts were right – Nomoco is a Japanese artist and illustrator. Thoroughly enjoyed the book! A classic worth reading and sharing.


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Rating: 5.5/10 (2 votes cast)

Eerie Stories!

Review of Boarding School Buddies – Bizarre Escapades; Wyn la Bouchardiére, Foreword By Ruskin Bond; CinnamonTeal 2012; pp 54

-  Shana Susan Ninan

Just over 50 pages, Wyn La Bouchardiére’s book Boarding School Buddies – Bizarre Escapades is a great one for young readers. I love bizarre stories, and as a person who has scoured cemeteries and graveyards, enjoyed narrating and listening to ‘ghost stories’ in school and college, I found this book something to identify with. Wyn has neatly outlined the stories with a pencil sketch illustration at the beginning of each, thereby giving us a glimpse of the story’s plot.

Ponnu, Eddy, Sam and Abu are four boarding school buddies – their school is in the Nilgiris – and share the same hometown, too. The stories are spread across both the locations, with spooky characters all along. But they aren’t spooky enough to scare a teen reader out of her wits. The secure presence of an elder or a parent, especially towards the end of a story, is quite reassuring and comforting.

Themes such as the haunted pond, the gravedigger, the black magic neighbour and the terrifying tree all make for interesting reading. The cover page in sombre maroon, black and dusty colours of a Christian cemetery is definitely a scoring point. This is one book I’m sure I’d read to my son when he’s older; but that’s years away!

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Rating: 6.0/10 (2 votes cast)

Tracing India’s Geography, Historically

Review of The Land of the Seven Rivers – A Brief History of India’s Geography; Sanjeev Sanyal; Penguin Books 2012; Rs 399; pp 331

- Shana Susan Ninan

A non-fiction book that looks into the history and geography of a sub-continent, across centuries, across cultures and times. An author who passionately weaves history, geography into the readers’ urge to discover more about the past – especially that of India, Pakistan and other areas of the sub-continent.

Sanjeev Sanyal does the work of a historian, presents his book with details and nuances, and leaves the reader with much enthusiasm to read up more on the topics covered. And this isn’t your average history tome I’m talking about. In fact, there’s a lot of veiled history, details that were never taught in school history lessons, and quite a bit of humour. But what excited and appeased me the most was the fact that Sanyal has personally visited several historical and religious sites across the Indian sub-continent. He didn’t just Google information and images for the Asokha Pillar and then include the same in his book. Such dedication from an author’s side shows he or she isn’t just looking at publishing a book that people will read, but in making sure the facts in the book are at least close to the truth, and also that the author is passionate about the topic he’s chosen to write about.

Heavily touching upon the history of India’s geography, her civilizations and her cities, the ancient trade systems and routes, the appearance and vanishing of animals, motifs and peoples across the nation, conquerors and the conquered, gene pools in India, India’s influence in Southeast Asia, the changing cityscape of the country, etc. Sanyal gives you more than just a bird’s eye view of India.

Irving Finkel’s book, The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood deals with The Flood that finds plenty mention in Sanyal’s work. Sanyal explains several possibilities of the myth and also how it came to be included in the Bible, the greatest propounder of the event. Another issue that piqued my interest was the presence of ‘beef-eating culture’ in the Rig Veda, common among the early Hindus of the Indus area.

This is a book that a contemporary traveller across India would find useful on his trips. Neat chunks of history that’s palatable and lingering.

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Rating: 5.3/10 (3 votes cast)

Robin Hood – Boy to Man

Review of Wolf’s Head; Steven McKay; Self Publishing 2013; pp 328

- Shana Susan Ninan

The first book in The Forest Lord trilogy, Wolf’s Head took my breath away. No, it isn’t a romance fiction. But because it’s action from the word Go. The action starts right on the cover page – an arrow in flight that suggests a chase. Robin Hood, the much loved character in movies, books, cartoons and other media comes to life in Steven MacKay’s debut work. Outlawed and separated from his family and his love, he’s practically chased; he flees into the forests of England and joins a gang of violent men. Under the leadership of Adam Bell, the men move from clearing to clearing in the forest, loot rich travellers and wait for a pardon on their heads.

An historical thriller, Wolf’s Head looks at and treats Robin Hood differently. For one, he’s very human, with flaws of his own.  In the author’s words, Wolf’s Head is about a normal young man fighting to survive and live a regular life without being hunted down and killed like an animal. And this urge to live keeps Robin going.

Robin faces several hurdles, from getting his band members to trust him to finally holding them together in the face of hardship and betrayal. The sub plot of Robin’s romance doesn’t take away the heat of the action, it only spurs it forward. Steven’s use of dramatic descriptions, casual expletives and gory scenes add authenticity to the narrative. The readers, I’m sure, can definitely feel the whiz of an arrow, hear the crunch of dried leaves on forest floor and even the emotions of a band member on discovering that he’s lost his family forever.

I won’t let on more, except that you’re in for a double treat here. And, the sequel The Wolf and The Raven is around the corner, just a few months away.

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Rating: 7.3/10 (7 votes cast)

That Something Between Them

Review of Her Sister’s Wedding; Jane Ainslie; Decadent Publishing Ebook

- Shana Susan Ninan

From a pretty taut and serious narrative in her debut work, Chai For Beginners, author Jane Ainslie has given us a cute romance fiction – Her Sister’s Wedding. The story is based in Melbourne, Australia, with a dash of Paris included. It is the kind of romantic plot that’s light on the mind, and one that melts away any tensions in the head, just like Mandy’s does as she sips a bubbly to calm her nerves.

Mandy Evans is a journalist and painter who’s waiting to fly to Paris and join art school. Jake Pearson is a gorgeous chef and hotel chain owner who believes himself to be logical and all things in life planned out well.  But love doesn’t give you what you expect. At her sister Charlotte’s wedding, Mandy is the step-in bridesmaid and Jake is the groom’s best man. The two are totally opposite in manner and looks, and she’s not at all like the sophisticated women in his circles. He’s prim and proper; she doesn’t give a damn about her unruly auburn hair. He’s careful with his words; she’s as oblivious to her surroundings as possible. In fact, at their first meeting (when she didn’t recognise Jake the person) she even told Jake that she dislikes the idea of chains of hotels around the globe, and that Jake Pearson’s hotel might just be another McDonald’s!

Jane knows when to raise the readers’ heartbeats, to create flutters in our tummies and when to settle us down, almost with dim lighting in the background. She evokes several feelings in us as we read her work – and that’s coming from me who refuses to read romance fiction, if given a choice.

The newly-fallen-in-love couple find it difficult to take their romance forward as both of them have plans for their near future, with no space for the other in their lives right now. Out comes Dario, Mandy’s best friend, handyman, adviser and fashion guru. When he’s at hand, nothing can go wrong.

Jane’s writing is casual, easy on the eye, with light humour in every page.  And having read the book in the Valentine’s Week, just made it all the more special!

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Rating: 4.3/10 (4 votes cast)

Fidel Castro vs JFK

Review of The Tragedy of Fidel Castro; Joao Cerqueira; River Groove Books 2013; pp 168

- Shana Susan Ninan

I’ve grown up reading extensively on Che’s and Castro’s works, as well as those written by others about these two historical figures. So when Cerqueira offered to send me his book, The Tragedy of Fidel Castro I agreed, wanting to look at a contemporary perspective. And it was worth it. I read the translated version of the book, and not the Portuguese one, which I’m sure must be pretty high on readers’ lists in the Portuguese-reading and understanding parts of the world.

This satirical piece of work fabulously weaves fictional historical and religious figures into an interesting plot. Although the author states at the beginning of the book itself that except Castro, none of the other characters – God, Christ, Fatima and JFK – have any similarities with religious or historical persons, we can cite many instances and events where the real and the imagined merge. The use of metaphors, political satire, poetic phrases and vivid imagery makes for an entertaining plot. And those familiar with Communist works as well as the Cuban revolution will be able to identify with minor characters and situations that are tapped from history.

Christ is summoned by God, on Fatima’s request, to once again visit Earth to solve a certain matter. The issue is nothing short of a battle between JFK and Castro, Capitalism taking over where Communism seemed to have failed. The book shows us a highly modernized version of God, Christ and Fatima, much like the nuclear family of today:

It was dawn when Fatima was woken by the phone ringing…. Maybe it was God himself… My son and I were thinking about the JFK-Castro war, and we came to the following conclusion… I’m going to send my son to knock some sense into them, and I need your help.

In between chapters, the author’s own opinion come across strongly, leaving the reader no room to formulate his own. In a way, that’s good; especially, considering the genre of the book – alternative history. Even after more than four decades after Che’s death, and the downside of Communism revealed in the following years, Fidel Castro is still a large and looming figure in history.

The end of Communism can’t have been better captured than on the striking and symbolic cover picture – a skull with a cigar in its mouth, curly black smoke rising up, and the word ‘tragedy’ written in red. And I loved the coined term for Christ – International Conflict Mediator.

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Rating: 7.5/10 (4 votes cast)

Inside Iora’s world

Review of Iora and the Quest of Five; Arefa Tehsin; Fingerprint 2012

- Joanne Jons David

Iora and the Quest of Five is an enchanting tale by Arefa Tehsin about an 11-year-old girl in the hidden forest civilisation of Twitterland. The whole rainforest is threatened and Iora’s father’s life is in danger -she has to find the mysterious five before it’s too late. The journey goes on as Iora with her friend Beetle the agogwe and her funny foe Owlus come across different places and creatures like Daddy Long Legs, Homo-lamia,post chimps and Pebbles.

Later they are joined by Baba, an old orangutan and Chinar, a boy from the human world who wholeheartedly helps them in their quest. Determined and daring are the words that can describe Iora, who is an adorable and lovable character. A journey full of thorns and roses, their mission tells the reader to be courageous and nothing is impossible. Each creature with its own characteristics makes the wonderful world complete. This book more suitable for 9-13 year-olds, swallows the reader into a whole new world.

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Rating: 8.2/10 (5 votes cast)