01
Feb

The four F’s go brilliantly together – fun, food, family and friends!

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Shana Susan Ninan: You have combined your love of many things in these books. How did you successfully manage that?

Smita Jee: I have had a very active and happy childhood – playing sports, doing athletics, learning new forms of arts and crafts, etc. (Hopefully my children have had the same – the neediness of a parent just creeps in.) So understanding the needs of a child comes naturally for me growing up in a joint family with guests and children flowing in and out of our home all the time. My love for food is in my genes. Yes, I am a foodie by birth though the love for trying new dishes developed only when I became a housewife. When I come to think of it, combining all these and more seemed as natural as breathing. Now whether it is a success or not is for you to judge coz I don’t think there is any other way for me.

SSN: How has the journey of self publishing been? 

SJ: That has been a tough ride and definitely not as easy as breathing! Knowing nothing about the industry or its working, I seemed to have got my foot caught in the doorway finding no means of escape but to step in. Luckily I had family and friends who themselves knew nothing about the ways and means of a publishing house but were ready to chip in and pitch in. In fact, it has been such a pleasant journey that I don’t think I would have it any other way. We have learnt so much in the process and our confidence has soared to such an extent that we are ready to help anyone wanting to hold their dream in their hand to self publish.

SSN: Tell us about the cover page choices for the three books.

SJ: Oh! They have been a breeze especially in the conceptualisation part. I knew exactly what I wanted on it and Mrs Neha Gupta and Mrs Mamta Agarwal (the illustrators and cover designers) brought out their best and put it in visual form with precision. The colour combinations and attractiveness of the covers were all their doing, making it catch the eye of children and parents alike.

SSN: How is this different from writing from a blog?

SJ: A blog for me is like a diary. You write what you feel at that particular moment. But while writing a book you need to stick to the plot. Although I had not really thought of the climax at the end of each book, I had a basic idea of what the circumstances would be. In fact, for The three on a Spree I had to change four or five chapters entirely towards the end as the plot seemed to have wavered according to Mrs Kusum Dhanania, my editor. I am glad I changed it because it did sound a lot better the way it has been published. I am not sure if we really need to do anything of this kind in a blog.

SSN: Food is a great choice to bind friendship, which you have used that beautifully in your books. Please share some anecdotes from your real life.

SJ: Being a sporty choice, I had an enormous appetite especially amongst by friends and colleagues. So have literally been laughed at for being a hog! Well I have had my share of fiascos in the kitchen to say the least and not with a very edible outcome especially when I cooked as a child with recipe books and all! Hahahhaha! But after the wedding and then after having children, I started enjoying the contentment on the faces of my family after eating an ordinary home cooked meal. (They didn’t have a choice really!) This encouraged me to experiment and make dishes trying to suit their individual palates. And then my children would help me in the kitchen giving me memories to keep with me forever. Today my kids are exceptional cooks especially for their age. In fact, for any age. And their is nothing ordinary left in our everyday meals! Every meal is special! The four Fs go brilliantly together fun-food-family and friends!

SSN: How did you come to choose the age group for your readers?

SJ: You know when I started writing Shreya’s Eighth, my children had already crossed that age. But somehow I didn’t really plan on the age bracket. I just wanted to write something that everyone could read and feel good about. That’s all! To be honest, when the initial draft was read by a few family and friends and I asked them to give me an age bracket – each had a different bracket! One thought it could be introduced to the children as soon as they began reading, the other thought the pre-teens and early teens would like it. There was even a suggestion that it was for new mothers who could just read into their child’s mind and live their childhood days with their children! One even went down her own nostalgic childhood journey and thought every grandparent should be reading the book. So be it a child, teenager, young adult, new parent, parent in general or even a grandparent, it’ll be relatable.

SSN: What books do you have in the pipeline?

SJ: The first book The Braces Club of my new series The Double Digit Club is scheduled to be released this year. The book, as the name suggests is about children needing braces. However, again, everyone will enjoy the books not only due to the feel good factor and family values imbibed in each of the writings but also because at some point of time in each individual’s life some experience mentioned in the books is most likely to have occurred to them. There are recipes blending into the storyline, especially for children with braces – mostly sweets and desserts. The second book in the series would be The Cycling Club and the third The Trekking Club. Keep tabs at www.smitajee.com or write to me at jeesmita@gmail.com.

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Rating: 6.3/10 (16 votes cast)
30
Jan

Murder, Greek style

Col

Review of House of Names; Colm Tóibín; Penguin Viking; pp 272

– Shana Susan Ninan

By blending the protagonists of the Iliad and some of the characters of the plays by Aeschylus and Euripides, Tóibín has woven a story that puts legends and mortals in the same room. He has humanised the narrative and given a definitely new perspective here.

Iphigenia, one of the two daughters of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, is sacrificed to appease the gods before a journey to Troy. Murder and death are a large part of the plot. Agamemnon’s and his wife’s deaths…planned and executed within the family.

Tóibín has a way with words. As with my reading of his other books, I loved the author’s sparse but intense writing. The details are vivid and visual. You could near smell the silence. Yes, silence plays a significant role in his stories, maybe more than dialogues do. Whispers and midnight tip-toes in the corridors, secretive guards, mounting conspiracies and plotting plans all add to his innate capacity to hold us enthralled.

The gods have nearly disappeared in the plot – there’s barely any mention, and if at all, very fleetingly. Another notable feature is the relationship between Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. The return of Orestes to the family adds heightened curiosity in the palace. He reunites with his sister Electra to avenge his father’s murder.

House of Names, with its reworked set of characters and story, is inventive and intelligent. This oft-told tale sees new light through the words of Tóibín. This tale isn’t for everyone, especially not for those who have had their share of Greek myths redone. It can get a wee bit tardy towards the middle of the book, otherwise it’s a great weekend read.

The author is the award-winning author of nine internationally acclaimed novels, including The Blackwater Lightship, The Master, and The Testament of Mary, all three of which were nominated for the Man Booker Prize. His two acclaimed short story collections are The Empty Family and Mothers and Sons. He is also the author of many works of non-fiction. He mainly lives in Dublin, Ireland.

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Rating: 4.4/10 (14 votes cast)
08
Dec

GRANDMA’S KITCHEN

 

“Don’t you ever touch the fire,
you’ll get hurt, you’ll get burnt.”
grandma warned;
golden orange flowers
fluttering in the breeze’
how can they hurt? how can they burn?
she touched them as grandma turned;
up surged the pain,
scream pierced the air,
fingers turned yellow,
red, purple, blue,
brown and black in hues;
scars remained a while,
skin turned back to pink.
As wheels of time turned
fires alluringly burned,
embers glowed and turned
into burnt sienna and umber;
tinder triggered sparks,
sparks triggered bursts
oils smoked, aromas wafted,
mustard spluttered,
greens steamed,
red meat roasted, white meat stewed.
Round and round in circles
second hand sprinted,
minute hand trundled,
hour hand crawled,
fires rekindled, flamed re-surged,
hurting, burning, scarring, healing;.
flames died down, embers turned black,
a handful of ash does remain
in the brown earthen-ware urn.
– Sara Mammen Calleeckal
(July 18, 2017)
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Rating: 5.7/10 (15 votes cast)
30
Aug

Venture into Yummy Land

SIT venture

Review of Samira’s S-I-T Venture (The 3 sisters’ monthly countdown series); Smita Jee; Illustrations: Neha Gupta, Mamta Agarwal; Smita Jee Publications 2015; pp 157

Literature gives us access to a range of emotions. It puts us through a number of exciting moments we might never get to experience firsthand. Children’s literature in particular helps mould these emotions and gives foundation to a child’s dormant aspirations. Samira’s SIT Venture is a children’s book adapted with a kiddie audience in mind and it is successful in portraying the silly but seemingly important dilemmas a child is faced with. The second book in the Three Sister Monthly Countdown Series, the book features the narration of an adolescent who aspires to be a chef.

It all starts with the seasonal Stay Indoors Tournament, better known as SIT, the event that every child of Cozy Heights longs for. However, Samira and her sisters land in utter confusion with a new rule in place which has limited them to participate in just one contest. After a long running debate with herself, she decides to participate in the cooking competition. What follows is a narration of her relationship with her family and friends and her preparation for the upcoming competition.

Samira’s SIT Venture is a fairly good attempt in creating a new world for children while teaching them (quite blatantly at times) about the world and its residents. Though the conversations between the children at times might seem too grownup, it is guaranteed that it will make your child scurry in search for the meanings of these new found words. What makes the book interesting are the simple yet delicious recipes which encourages a child to try them by themselves and create great dishes.

The explanations for rainbows occurred unnecessary to me as they are best saved for the future and it tends to spoil the fantasy world of magical rainbows and pots of gold for the child. Printing mistakes have been overlooked and certain pages have been reprinted and certain others, missing. It’s good to have a hardback cover for children’s books, for obvious reasons.

This book is successful in helping kids understand the value of patience and the importance in nurturing their passions. If your child is looking for a good read to sit down to on a rainy day, this is their go-to book.

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Three on a spree

Review of The Three on a Spree; Smita Jee; Illustrators: Neha Gupta and Mamta Agarwal; Smita Jee Publications 2016; pp 180

Nothing is more golden than those days spent basking in the happiness of the mid-noon sun and those days spent caring for the deep wounds of a chasing game. Nothing is more golden than those seemingly never ending days of childhood when there were spring in our feet and when our eyes never rested. In an attempt to capture the beauty of the bygone days, Smita Jee uses her favourite trio, Samira, Shreya and Sarah and paints their vacation days which are quite the same for any child.

The holidays, annual sports day, Christmas and the family vacation are waiting for the three sisters and Sammy in particular has another special event in stock; her first school trip. With Sarah in Mickey World and Shreya excited for the sports activities, the sisters have chalked out their own vacation plans. The third book in The Three Sisters Monthly Countdown Series, The Three on a Spree narrates the individual and collective lives of the three sisters. From the teeth-chattering appointments with the dentist to the sheer excitement in shopping for Christmas, the book brings back good memories for adults and helps relate the same for children.

The DIY recipes always come in handy and this helps the book get a life outside the realms of fiction. The large font makes it easy to read helping the child attain a fast pace. However, the illustrations can be more creative as it is meant for young eyes, and the imagination quotient in the writing can be upped.

The POV shifts enable the reader to adjust and get into the minds of the three sisters in addition to helping him/her realise how different people can be. What might be most interesting is Sarah’s vacation days and her deep connection with her favourite cartoon characters. Her excitement reflects the innate childish goodness of all kids. An entertaining read for children of all ages, the book qualifies to be placed in the book shelves of young readers.

– Paavana Varma

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Rating: 6.2/10 (20 votes cast)
28
Aug

Raising Feminists

Dear Ijeawele

Review of Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Knopf 2017; pp 80

– Shana Susan Ninan

Author and essayist Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions is definitely a manifesto to raise sons as Feminists, too. This you-can-finish-over-breakfast book is a reply she gave her friend who’d recently birthed a girl and wanted to know how to raise her daughter a Feminist. They’re straight from the heart and very practical. Adichie’s words are thought-provoking but simple. It’s not laden with Feminist jargon nor tricky sentences. It’s warming, one mother’s experiences shared with another.

It starts off on two solid starting points: the first one is a premise that ‘I matter. I matter equally.’ The second is a question, ‘Can you reverse X and get the same results?’ and the example she cites for the latter is a powerful one – should a woman leave her husband as a response to his infidelity. And that if she were to sleep with another man, would her man forgive her, then her choice to stay in the first place can be a Feminist choice, too.

The very first suggestion lays the foundation for all the 15, that you should be a ‘full person’, not just a woman, a mother. Not to be defined by only one of the many roles a woman dons. She herself is an accomplished woman but doesn’t let the accolades haze her womanly and maternal roles. Her works have been translated into 30 languages and has won many national and international awards for her Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah.

Being in the last few weeks of my second pregnancy I can only identify very well with the third suggestion about gender roles. Blue and pink for boy and girl babies! In Adichie’s opinion, toys and baby accessories should be arranged according to age and ability, not colour. The fourth one is apt – ‘Being a Feminist is like being pregnant. You either are or you are not.’ The watch-phrases tell her friend to teach her daughter to read, and to find pride in the African people and culture, to look for Black heroes and histories.

The most important is to talk about sex in the language of children, no shaming just open talk. Teaching about sex is teaching responsibilities. So beautifully compared. Parents of girls should be able to talk freely and share about anything and everything from periods and virginity to romance and sex.

 

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Rating: 5.1/10 (17 votes cast)
25
Aug

Shreya’s Birthday Countdown

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Review of Shreya’s Eighth; Smita Ganeriwala; Illustrators: Neha Gupta and Mamta Agarwal; Smita Jee Publications 2014; Rs 350; pp 71

– Shana Susan Ninan

The first book in the series, Three Sisters Monthly Countdown Series, Shreya’s Eighth deals with a month of activity in Shreya’s life just before she turns eight. Her sisters are four and thirteen and are quite a huge part of the fun festival. The eight child-friendly recipes in the book are a major highlight.

Cozy Heights, where the family lives, is a mini town and would be an ideal place for any child to grow up in. The foodie fun starts with a kitty party Shreya’s grandma is organizing. Easy recipes and cooking classes follow.

Shreya is a grand planner – she wants everything picture perfect for her eighth birthday. From the décor and colours to the food and fellowship. And this is something that all children love. Follow her as she goes on a month-long spree of plans and tick-offs.

As a Children’s Book, it would have been better and more reader-friendly if there were more lively conversations and dialogues than large chunks of narrative text. The big font size and wide gutters are good the young eyes. The birthday itself – games, gifts and surprises – make for a good and memorable read. The illustrations are interestingly detailed.

The author Smita Ganeriwala is a working mom, Chartered Accountant, writer, sportsperson and a musician. As an ardent foodie herself, she’s combined that passion with writing to weave beautiful stories for children.

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Rating: 6.3/10 (12 votes cast)
15
Aug

Devam

In the thick night,

the lamps are lit.

A lone drum plays

and then more.

Cymbals join.

He comes on stage,

in all the glory.

anklets in rhythm.

The regal head gear,

a face fiercely painted

and yet so divine…

body dark as the night.

the legs move,

hands gesture,

every muscle alive,

eyes capture.

Me in rapture.

The music rises

falls. rises.

Movements blur,

flows, blur.

His body glistens,

in fire and vigour.

my heart pounds.

His eyes ablaze.

Me ablaze.

As he swirls,

I shake with joy,

so pure.

I bow to THE divine,

so enigmatic.

The show is done.

i long to see him,

THE divine.

I meet –

a disrobing man

ordinary

plain

human!

I return.

  • – Sajitha Rasheed

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Rating: 4.4/10 (12 votes cast)
25
Jul

Of Daughters and Women

Three Daughters of Eve

Review of Three Daughters of Eve; Elif Shafak; Viking 2017; Rs 477; pp 384

– Shana Susan Ninan

Turkey and Peri are metaphors for each other: flanked by a religious side and a more Western one. Always having to choose between religious ideals and liberal lifestyles. Elif Shafak’s revealing work, Three Daughters of Eve is a medley of three perspectives/ ideologies, three women who represent a larger section of society, within and outside Istanbul: a believer, a rebel and a confused soul. In fact, the three can be anyone – three men, young women, people of any religion or background. Starting at the present and going back a decade or more to their youth, the book kicks off at a lavish party in the capital of Turkey.

The three protagonist women end up sharing the same living space in Oxford University and a common course. All three are similar for the facts that they are highly independent, strong-willed and often live against societal norms. Peri’s life in Istanbul is much like the city again: a liberal father and a highly religious mother. And two very different brothers. Growing up in that household has been a tug of war for her.

Her study years in England are decisive and life-changing. For someone who keeps a ‘God diary’, getting into a course at the Oxford called ‘God’, would only seem natural. The seminar, led by the infamous Professor Azur, informs and debates more about the self than God. The students don’t choose the seminar, the professor screens them and hand-picks the few who’d attend it. He doesn’t force his opinions of the self or about god on any of his students or peers, but gives them various perspectives to look at.

The dramatic, Hollywood-like ending spoiled my reading and marred the beautiful feeling that had built inside me. As a reader who loved her previous works, this ending seemed a little hurried and very filmy. As opposed to, say, the dense poetry that’s

The metaphors are superbly crafted: my personal favourite being ‘the night was a swollen river’. And the reference to Eve in the title is a major thought-provoking usage. Why Eve? Had Eve borne any daughters? And why three? Since the story happens in 2015, it’s very recent and relatable. The ‘baby in the mist’ that Peri often witnesses in her dreams and otherwise is a source of mystery for the reader. And as the story progresses, it unravels beautifully.

 

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Rating: 4.8/10 (14 votes cast)
19
Jul

The page

The page lay open,
It had no name,
It had no color.
“will you be free
on Friday evening? ”
I blurted out blushingly.
“I live just for the moment,
can’t we make it today? ”
you replied nonchalantly.
I sad to myself
“today is an extension of yesterday and a prelude to tomorrow!
So welcome home stranger
and be my lord of the day!”
Then you say beside me,
watched my days and nights
bloom and glow into
glorious verses.
– Sara Caleeckal

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Rating: 5.6/10 (16 votes cast)
29
Jun

Drums of War, of History

Empress EMerald

Review of The Empress Emerald; J.G. Harlond; Penmore Press LLC 2016; pp 295

– Paavana Varma

Every once in a while you come across a piece of literature which marks its territory in your heart. From the romantic works of Austen to the fantastical themes that Gaiman provides, the list is endless. Written by J.G. Harlond, The Empress Emerald is yet another brilliant work that is certain to stay with the reader for quite a long time.

The protagonist of the novel, Leo Kazan is a Russian-Indian orphan; a thief and a talented linguist. Just the way a moth gets attracted to flame, Leo is drawn to everything that glitters. Discovering Leo’s talents is the District Political Officer in Bombay, Sir Lionel Pinecoffin who realizes that he is sharp-witted and capable even as a young boy. Leo’s talents in stealing, socialising and languages makes an excellent spy of him and thus he becomes Mr. Pinecoffin’s protégé. The story then follows Leo’s life through forty years over several continents and his adventures as a spy as he gets involved in international espionage and diamond smuggling.

The author is successful in painting an intriguing picture of the political instability in India at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is impressive how Harlond turns on the historical lane and makes the characters interact in the background of rising political turmoil. However, in addition to discussing political drama, she has skillfully interwoven personal events of the characters into the work which helps the readers delve into a new hitherto untouched side of the protagonist. We see this in Leo’s romance with Davina Dymond during his time in London which evokes a new found adoration  for him thus enriching the reading experience. However, moral values and principles are also judged when Leo has to leave a pregnant Davina as he has been assigned to go to Russia where the Bolshevik Revolution has taken place.

Harlond’s characters are near to the realistic as she refuses from rendering a thoroughly positive picture of them. She draws our attention to their good, bad and ugly sides. It is up to the readers to judge Leo as he decides to never depart from the strict requirements that come with his profession. The characters are as clear as they are vague for it never becomes certain what we are to make of them and this applies to the bitter reality of our lives too for it seems impossible to figure out the confusing set of people in our lives and at times, ourselves. The various numbers of subplots and tales can be a bit confusing but gives it ample time to come together as a finely devised novel making it all the more dramatic; the apt ingredient required for any piece of historical fiction.

Though the abrupt perspective shifts may, at times, set the reader off track, the language makes up for it. It is powerful and the author seems to have an eye for detail. Her vivid descriptions of the people and places are sure to take the reader on a magnificent journey through Spain, UK, Russia and India over a span of 40 years. At times, it even feels as though the words have been put into a reel because the wonderful panorama of the places has been portrayed in such an effective cinematic style.

This is a tale of love and separation, of faithlessness and treachery. We learn an essential truth from the novel that time can do a lot to people. It can hurt as much as it can heal. It should be appreciated how the author has captured a number of themes, countries and four decades in all of 295 pages. A thoroughly engaging work and an absolute page turner, the book is self-contained and teaches us a thing or two about the world and its residents.

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Rating: 6.0/10 (18 votes cast)