Beetles, cheetahs, hyenas…

Review of The Land of the Setting Sun and other Nature Tales; Arefa and Raza Tehsin; TERI – The Energy and Resources Institute 2014; Rs 225; pp 168

- Shana Susan Ninan

For the first 10 years of my life I grew up on a lush farm, surrounded by animals and greenery. My father used to narrate many stories – real life experiences and hearsays – at bedtime and when we travelled. Probably why I am still a nature lover. So when I read Arefa and Raza Tehsin’s The Land of the Setting Sun and other Nature Tales, I could identify with the characters and the life portrayed in the stories.

As much as they are satirical, the eight tales in the book refreshingly point a finger at the reader, making us stop and think, every few pages or so. Scarab the dung beetle is a typical portrayal of the people in our society who are sidelined – the ones who do all the dirty work but are seldom noticed. ‘The Six Riddles’ highlights the virtue of patience, a quality we must watch and learn from animals. ‘The Nectar of the Angels’ talks about the much-discussed topic of the angels deciding to share honey or nectar with earthlings. ‘The Steeds of Witches’ is a tale I enjoyed reading. I’ve read about and watched jackals very closely; so a story about a member of their family, the hyena was a welcome read.

The owl and its characteristics takes centrestage in ‘The Owl-Man Coin’. ‘Hanu and Sheru’ looks at rivalry and tolerance from a different perceptive. In ‘The Best Kept Secret’, what struck me was nature’s designs and symmetry. Animals, birds, plants and natural formations all have symmetry in them, a mark of their maker. Ending the storytelling in a very unique way, the authors describe the lithe and lovable animal, the Cheetah, in ‘One Thousandth Cheetah’. I liked the way Arefa and Raza have given human emotions and attributes to most of the animal characters in the tales.

The raised golden letters of the book’s title stand out against the silhouette-light colour background of the cover. The black and white sketches in each story is neatly done to reflect the mood of the tale narrated.

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Rating: 10.0/10 (1 vote cast)

Her Mother’s Champion

Review of Hiding Places:A Mother, A daughter, an uncovered life; Diane Wyshogrod; Excelsior Editions 2012; pp 298

- Shana Susan Ninan

All of us have memories, people and feelings we’ve hidden away in the dark and deep recesses of our minds. The kind that we don’t allow to surface, to occupy spaces in our daily lives. But sometimes, just sometimes, we allow our loved ones to gain access to them, and at other times, we open to them, on self-will or by persuasion.

Dina’s Hiding Places is one such attempt, I’d say – she is her mother’s champion in unraveling a part of her mother’s youthful days, peeling off layers of years. As painful as it is, Dina gets her mother to speak about her years during the Nazi Occupation of Poland, specifically the 16 long months she’d spent in a 4ft by 6ft cellar. Although her mother at first disagrees with sharing her disturbing past with the world, Dina successfully convinces her mother to do so. But, as the author goes deeper into the processing of taking down the notes directly from her mother, both are overwhelmed at times, by the sheer expanse of what her mother went through.

In the middle of the book is a beautiful session on how Dina’s mother, Lutka and others who’ve suffered under the Nazi regime “revisit” Zolkiew, their hometown. The narration covers several pages, and Is skillfully crafted to reflect the emotions that the group experiences as they travel through a city that was once theirs.

Now, riding through the night, I feel myself trying to absorb Israel into my skin, through all my senses…. I feel my identity – even my age – shifting. I am Lutka’s daughter, the granddaughter of Josef Rosenberg, the town pharmacist. I suddenly feel like a precocious youngster being taken on an adult outing. I almost forgot that I am already in the middle of my own life, a professional, a wife, a mother with school-age children.

A psychologist’s perspective and scientific background comes through, in some parts of the book, though not over powering that the smooth flow of a non-fiction novel is affected by it. Dina’s words are poignant, with deep meanings and attributes. Very few people who have lived through trauma can write about it with this kind of detachment, at the same time not leaving out the intensity of the situations. Readers will feel like they are in the midst of a dinner time conversation, or stuck in the tiny cellar, or travelling in the bus with Dina, her mother and others… they are so many more examples to elucidate that. The vivid and varied photographs only enhance the read.

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Rating: 9.8/10 (4 votes cast)

Leader of the Pack

Review of The Wolf and The Raven; Steven McKay; Self-published 2014; pp327

- Shana Susan Ninan

Steven McKay leads us from right where he stopped in Wolf Head. The second book in the Forest Lord series, The Wolf and The Raven is a delight to read, from the very first page to the last. You’re keep having to remind yourself at points to relax and breathe, and then to continue on!

Where there are wolves, there are ravens, surely. And Sir Guy de Gisbourne, knighted bounty hunter is no meek raven. Dressed in all-black, muscular and fearless, he looms large over the lives of the wolf heads, threatening to wipe them off. And, succeeding in taking the life of Robin Hood’s most trusted friends. The raven and the wolf are animals of the dusk – dark and mysterious. Both Hood and Sir Guy are famous and capable in their own respects. We just have to wait and see who will be triumphant, as well.

The sub plot of the Hospitaller Knight Sir Richard’s life takes a backseat at places, and in some places needing a firmer grasp. But then again, when Robin’s part of the story is quick-paced and adrenaline-pumped, the much milder dealing of Sir Richard’s story drags down the pace.

Violence, betrayal, brutality and death – that’s what Steven brings to life in this book. Emotions and attachments run riot in the plot. What touched me most was the fact that Robin, a to-be father is forced to spend time in the forest, facing his enemies and gathering his friends, often losing minor battles. Readers, at the end of the page, are left with a note of revenge. Something that’ll keep us waiting for the sequel!

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Rating: 6.9/10 (9 votes cast)

Surviving Love

Review of Don’s Wife – …What You See is Only Half the Truth; Vinod Pande; Mahaveer Publishers 2013; Rs 295; pp 501

- Shana Susan Ninan

Vinod Pande’s debut novel, Don’s Wife reads like a movie script. And, not surprisingly, Pande is a documentary and film-maker and ex-broadcaster with BBC, now settled in Bombay. A city infamously known for its seedy underbelly. The plot revolves around Kamini, the wife of Don Harsh, and her life. She’s flamboyant, self-driven and a passionate lover. Her life is as intriguing as her death.

With a colourful cover page that leads the reader in Kamini’s world, Pande takes us through several cities of Maharashtra, the many places she visits, and the people that populate her vibrant life. She’s torn between ardent love and ever present responsibility. Her choices will decide her future, and that of her family’s.

The sexual content in the book is badly written, to say the least. Sex is a topic one has to deal with, carefully, irrespective of the genre. In a novel, just like in a film, sex cannot, and should not, be portrayed in a clinical manner, full of jargon and unintelligible layers. I found the sex scenes in this novel comparable to a low-rate blue film, only meant to tickle a certain section of the audience, and not meant to create a soothing and lasting feeling in the minds of a majority of its readers. I’m sure the author can definitely improve on that note.

And, as with most Indian fiction writers, a strong and sensible editor could’ve provided a tighter flow of the story, something that would ensure uninterrupted reading.

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Rating: 7.7/10 (3 votes cast)

Touching Them Wrong

Review of The Bad Touch; Payal Shah Karwa; Hay House 2014; p 264

- Shana Susan Ninan

No amount of field work, sessions with victims of Child Sexual Abuse and reading articles and watching videos had prepared me for this. To actually read first-person accounts of CSA, incest and child rape was a totally different experience. There was an ache in my heart as the pages flew by, finishing the book in two short sittings. Since my teenage I’ve been working in several social and community circles, helping CSA victims reclaim their lives. I’ve spoken at various forums, voiced my dissent to many people and institutions. The difference probably lies in the fact that I’m the mother of a two-year-old boy now. Yes, that’s it. Reading Payal Shah Karwa’s The Bad Touch brought me closer to the topic on a personal level.

Known filmmakers Harish Iyer and Anurag Kashyap narrate the incidents from their life. It is followed up by the stories of other men and women who’ve suffered in their childhood. The traumatic situations are brought back to life, the painful episodes opened up, layer by layer. Readers, in spite of their background and exposure, will be able to identify with the real life stories in the book.

In India, it is said that almost 64% of children have endured some form of sexual abuse or another. And in majority of cases, the perpetrator was known to them closely. I hope this book opens up this taboo topic, enough for people to frankly discuss and address issues of Child Sexual Abuse. The book is positive in the sense that it inspires the older, mature generation to take note of the little ones more carefully. And also for the fact that it encourages the survivors to speak up boldly about their experience.

In the middle of the reading of Payal’s book, I’d left it on the table when I went for a bath. My mother, not a voracious reader like me but someone who used to read a lot in her younger days, picked up the book and read almost half of it at one go. As a kindergarten coordinator and a person who works with young children day in and day out, she found the book deep and insightful.

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Rating: 6.8/10 (5 votes cast)

Vengeance, Thy Name is Woman


Review of Murder by Bequest; John Spencer Yantiss; Amazon Digital Services – Kindle Edition 2012; pp 346

- Shana Susan Ninan

Sherrod Reynard Colsne (pronounced kōn, with silent “l” and “s”) and Montague Boyd “Monty” Weston, the protagonists of Yantiss’ Murder by Bequest reminds me of Sherlock Holmes and Watson. And, rightly so. The author’s style of writing, the tone and treatment of the plot, the visual appetite of the story, luring murder mysteries, and of course, the Holmes-ian dialogues.

Criss-crossing three continents, are the lives of an American aristocratic family’s past. And the past certainly caught up with them. When multiple murders haunt the Harkness family, we’re pulled into a murder spiral. After the murder of Bertrand Wellman Harkness, IV, his elder daughter Eleanor Catherine Harkness, hires the two detectives to solve the puzzle. Their presence on home turf isn’t well-taken, and they end up having to almost prise open mouths to get closer to the murderer.

Colsne and Weston, put Eleanor up at Colsne’s Townhouse, as she’s desperate to get away from the clutches of her large and imposing family, including her mother, Camille. The next couple of days are packed with more murders and plots, scrutinized investigation by Colsne and then a superb climax. I thought I’d stop breathing, at one point, towards the end of the story and the book!

John Spencer Yantiss was born to parents of Anglo-Scotch-Irish, and Lithuanian descent. In 1993 he began writing classic detective mysteries, based on the character Sherrod Reynard Colsne, in the transatlantic and cumulative tradition of Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe. He’s musician and singer, he started piano lessons at age 5, and began writing poems and songs at age eight.



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Rating: 9.3/10 (3 votes cast)

The Woman on the Roof

Review of The Roof Beneath Their Feet; Geetanjali Shree; translated by Rahul Soni; Rs 299; pp 156

- Shana Susan Ninan

On the first glance, the title was oxymoronic – don’t we always talk about the roof above our heads? But here, the roof plays two different roles – one that stifles people inside it, and one that’s liberating when people are on it. In the author’s words, “a story is not necessarily ‘told’, it is ‘experienced’. People’s past and memories are reconstructed and rearranged, things left out, added on.

In her novels, Geetanjali Shree brings forward conversations and narrations that deal with people’s past and memories, the idea of physical space, and of course, strong women characters. In The Roof Beneath Their Feet, memories take a tactile form, weaving in and out of the readers’ minds. Strong and memorable metaphors, the roof being the most used and the most significant one, are a signature of the author. Lalna, one of the protagonists, is compared to the stories that wander the roof: carefree and unrestrained. Lalna belongs to no home nor hearth, but to the roof. A place where she can be herself.

The roof represents freedom and uninhibited expression of the freedom – people gather together for hanging clothes, flying kites, meeting clandestinely, and to generally chill out. The roof is an extension of their minds. For Chhacho and Lalna, the friendship that forms between them takes shape on the roof, at night, when the rest of the mohalla have slept. They sneak up to watch the sky, to let their hair down, to leave their goonghats on the parapets, to lift their blouses and fan themselves in the horrid heat, to… and many things that women are usually forbidden from.

After Chhacho’s death, her nephew and Lalna piece together their memories of her, amid the chaotic households that surround them. In real life, too, it’s often after a person’s death we put together our thoughts and memories of them, trying to figure out how and why they shaped our lives.

The book is special for me for three reasons – it was gifted by a close friend; the book’s cover photo was shot by my husband’s uncle and famous photographer Saibal Das; a one-line review of the book in one of the inside pages is written by a professor who taught me in CIEFL!

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Rating: 9.7/10 (3 votes cast)

Fulfilling Sivakami’s Oath

Review of Sivakamiyim Sabatham Volumes 3 and 4; English translation by Nandini Vijayaraghavan; Pothi 2012; pp 249

- Shana Susan Ninan

Much of the action in the third volume of this literature is centred on the life after the siege of the Kanchi Fort. Naganandi Adigal, the Buddhist bikshu and secret admirer of Sivakami gets prominence as her savior. Once the young prince, Mamallan and his chief aide Paranjyothi set out to seek revenge on Pulikesi, there’s no turning back. But in a clash of events, Pulikesi and his Vatapi army take Sivakami hostage and Aayanar’s leg is maimed in the process. The father and daughter are separated, and she’s ‘imprisoned’ in the Vatapi Palace. Although she refuses to dance at the request of Pulikesi, she’s forced to dance at street corners in order to spare prisoners from Kanchi from being beaten up.

The fourth and last volume is a somber one – marked by the destruction of the city of Vatapi and Sivakami’s realisation about Mamallar’s queen consort and children. Earlier, before he breathed his last, Mahendra Pallavar secured the permission of the Ministers’ Council to wage war against Vatapi and to get Sivakami back to Kanchi. He also emotionally blackmails his son Mamallar to agree to a wedding he wasn’t dreaming of.

The emotions portrayed in the book vary from jealousy and pride to anger and haste. And it’s explained and characterised in a befitting manner. Egotistic Sivakami is a tad bit late to understand that her oath of leaving the Vatapi city only after Mamallar raises to the ground and seeks her hand makes things hard for all, especially the citizens. Mamallar and Paranjyothi once visit Vatapi in disguise and ask Sivakami to join them, but she refuses saying she would leave the city only after the oath’s fulfilled. What happens then is a war of emotions and feelings. Sivakami with her stubbornness and Mamallar with his pride. Suffice to say that it took 10 years to prepare for her release. And in between, Naganandi has his own plans – for himself and for his brother Pulikesi’s kingdom.

Nandini’s translation is poetic and precise, lending a lyrical voice to the narration. My only bone of contention is the clamping together of dialogues into paragraphs, without clear demarcation between the speakers. The ending is poignant. Sivakami is released. Mamallar wins the war. Paranjyothi is the head of a victorious army. But are the three of them satisfied with how life has turned out?

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Rating: 10.0/10 (3 votes cast)

Deconstructing Love

Review of Love, That Shit!; Chandru Bhojwani; OM Books 2014; Rs 195; pp 143

- Shana Susan Ninan

From Phil Collins to Sylvester Stallone, and everyone in between have had their share of ups and downs in their life. And love, or the lack of it sometimes, played a major part in their successes. Chandru deals with a delicate topic by drawing from the lives of people around us – celebrities, musicians, ordinary men and women – to show us how to tame life. A common thread that runs through the various chapters in the book is the fact that there’s just one You. No one can be Youer than You.

It’s the third work of the author I’m reading and I feel he’s matured as an author. The strength from which one can write such a book is immense – any fool can fall in love, but it takes a brave person to advice others on the matters of love.

Chandru weaves the fabric of love, intricately. It’s almost as if, when we read the book, you can feel the author standing behind your shoulders, reading out those words to you. Neatly stacked into small chapters, everything from being single and matrimonial pressures to unhealthy relationships and arranged marriage, culminating with the pregnant husband! The little human stories within each part make it authentic and identifiable.


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Rating: 10.0/10 (1 vote cast)

Unceasing Gladness for Everything

Review of Pollyana; Eleanor H. Porter; Puffin Classics, first published by Harrap 1927; pp 269

- Shana Susan Ninan

I haven’t seen many people who can remain ‘glad’ even in the darkest of times. And here’s a teeny girl, cheerful and with unbounded joy, looking optimistic at life. This was my second reading of the book (the first being in my teenage), and as an adult, I now see the story from Aunt Polly’s and the other adults’ eyes.

Pollyanna Whittier – her mom named her after her two sisters, Polly and Anna! – a recently orphaned girl, comes to live with her aunt, Polly. Now, Ms Polly is a stern spinster, who rarely smiles, let alone have the capacity to be glad about something in her life.

The little girl spreads cheer to all around her, whether at home or in the neighbourhood. And Aunt Polly finds it amusing, and irritating, that Pollyanna would even be happy to be punished! The young girl’s laughter and bubbling nature fills the house, to the point where when an accident befalls her, the whole place goes quiet and sad. Pollyanna’s optimism sees her through the dark days, giving strength to those who tend to her, too.

Pollyanna’s story is set in a time when mirrors were called looking-glass, and cars, motor-cars. The soothing narrative has a serene countryside and typical characters in it. And as a classic, it definitely scores. It made my day, once more.



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Rating: 6.5/10 (6 votes cast)