Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category


Murder, Greek style


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)

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.


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)

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)

Shreya’s Birthday Countdown


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)

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)

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)

World of Witches


– Shana Susan Ninan

Review of The Witches by Roald Dahl, Illustrated by Quentin Blake; Puffin Books 2013; pp 208

This fantastical tale of real witches is as much for children as it is for adults. So, how does one identify a real witch if she doesn’t ride around on broomsticks, nor wear black cloaks and hats, and disguise themselves as ordinary ladies? Well, the grandmother in the story tells her grandson, ‘boy’, that witches have claws instead of finger nails (so they wear gloves all the time), bald heads (which means they wear wigs), large nose holes, square feet (so they often take off their shoes to relax their toes), and blue spit. And not just that, real witches hate kids.

Most of the story revolves around the witches’ annual general meeting at a hotel in Bournemouth, Norway. The boy finds himself in a room with more than 200 witches! Their plan to turn kids into mice using the Delayed Action Mouse-Maker in chocolate bars in candy shops across England sends shivers down his spine. Poor Bruno is turned into a mouse. And the boy, too!

The twist with the boy being left as a mouse is quite catchy, as it ends with the promise of more adventure! The boy-mouse and his grandmother return with the thought to rid the world of witches.

A delightful read, I’m sure I’ll enjoy reading this out loud to my now four-year-old son, a few years later. And the illustrations are just perfect!


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Rating: 9.0/10 (2 votes cast)

Caste calls


Review of Pyre; Perumal Murugan; translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan; Penguin Random House; Rs 250; pp 270

– Shana Susan Ninan

Perumal Murugan’s Pyre is a caustic reminder of India’s caste intolerance. Clearly pointing a finger at the harsh treatments meted out to inter-caste couples across India, the title of the book is a clever one. Following his now-controversial book, Madhorubagan, this is a story of hatred, intolerance and human suffering. And beneath it all, tucked away in little corners of the book, is the love between the couple.

I only wish I could read it in the original Tamizh. The Translator’s Note at the beginning tells us how his job wasn’t easy, partly because, although speaking Tamizh, the two protagonists – Kumaresan and Saroja – conversed in dialects. The variations in the two cannot be fully brought out in English. The explanations of the same also renders reading a tad bit marring.

The large use of metaphors and visual imagery in the story is just too good. Chronicling a place and a people that have nothing other than village rules to follow, I’m sure Murugan’s work wasn’t easy. Nondi’s mother, Mariya is a one-dimensional woman here: she seems to open her mouth only to abuse her new daughter-in-law, a city-bred, fair-skinned girl who wilts under her words.

Destruction is in our blood. From the cave to the skyscraper, humans haven’t let go of that trait. And when you couple the intolerance with centuries of adherence to community mores and norms, nothing could be more drastic than marrying a woman outside their caste and rendering the village unclean.

Murugan has taken one emotion – hate – and portrayed it in so many myriads of ways. From the villagers spewing hateful curses, and women gawking and saying the angry words to Nondi’s relatives and the final fire that destroys the outsider, it’s all about hate. And how!

The only glitch in my reading was that Nondi comes out as too soft. In spite of marrying a woman of his choice and trying to stay afloat in his village, when the whole community and his family turn against them, he doesn’t even raise his voice nor opposes with strong nerve.

Murugan has, to his credit, six novels, four collections of short stories and four anthologies of poetry. Three of his novels have been translated into English: his controversial, One Part Woman, Seasons of the Palm, shortlisted for the Kiriyama Prize in 2005, and Current Show. A professor of Tamil at the Government Arts College in Namakkal, he has received several recognitions from government and other agencies.




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Rating: 9.0/10 (1 vote cast)

The Sea and its People


Review of Dance of the Sea; Soosaiya Anthreas; Gatekeeper Press 2015; pp 462

– Paavana Varma

Franklin D. Roosevelt once remarked, “A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor.” This quote fits rather perfectly in Soosaiya Anthreas’s fine novel, The Dance of the Sea. Set in a coastal slum village of Kanyakumari, his book paints an intriguing picture of the difficult challenges life puts forth. The Dance of the Sea traces with remarkable subjectivity, the unfortunate lives of the fisherfolk situated in the southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent. It speaks about how ambition and poverty strives together in the rural lives of Indian fishermen.

The protagonist, Sebastian, struggles to escape his squalid town of slum dwellers and later on emerges as a successful engineer. Sebastian’s success makes him less self-effacing as he goes on to desert his lover, Gloria, who lives an independent and more successful life, with regards to money and fame. He also leaves his poverty-stricken sister to herself, not bothering to lend her a helping hand in deadly crisis. But the problems develop into a more serious one as the 2004 Tsunami strikes and takes the lives of hundreds of fisherfolk, and their properties are swallowed by the sea. More troubles follow as the fisherfolk divides themselves into two rival factions based on the method of fishing, and the community disintegrates.

Reading this book will be an emotional experience as the common man will get to live the lives of a set of people hitherto hidden to the fast-paced urbanised population of the world. The unthinkable lives of the characters, ravaged by pain has been addressed directly and in a poignant manner. It shows the research that the author has done over the years. There is anger, humour and grief. Somehow, I felt that Sebastian’s longing to escape his hometown was his own way of seeking salvation. Sebastian wanted to disappear and his search for respite from the brutality of the world is rather breathtaking.

The author hasn’t hesitated to expose the vulnerability of his characters and this makes the book all the more dramatic. The tenacity of the characters especially that of Gloria is admirable. The deadening weight of the circumstances draws a thoughtful picture, nevertheless. A picture of how people find themselves in each other and how strokes of empathy lessens the naive narcissism of the better off and how there is a light of hope however faint, shining through the wreckage.

The writing style is fine except in some places it lags and tends to get jerky. The author has used rich language to depict the lives of the poor fisherfolk. In spite of the challenges and traumas, there exists a kind of harmonic suppleness. The novel is extremely atmospheric and very emotionally involving. There also prevails the inevitable melancholy the story brings with it. The Dance of the Sea is a very interesting novel. It is the kind of book that you might want to read in sessions, to take time and read it in your own pace. The book doesn’t fail to communicate effectively with the reader and even when the book has ended, the sea looms over your imagination distinguishing itself as an entity.

Soosaiya Anthreas was born in the year 1959 in Azhikkal, Kanyakumari District, Tamil Nadu to fisherfolk parents. He graduated in Engineering from CIT, and is interested in Philosophy, Literature and Spirituality.

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Rating: 7.3/10 (9 votes cast)

Stalker on the loose


Review of Stalker; Lars Kepler; Harper Collins; pp 603

– Karthika Nair

Stalker is the fifth book from Jonna Linna series written by Swedish pair Alexander Ahndoril and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril, under the pseudonym “Lars Kepler”. Before reading Stalker, I was not aware of their works and talking about Swedish bestsellers, The Millennium trilogy takes up the top spot. The name and the book blurb drew my curiosity; it is about a person who stalks women with a video camera, capturing their “last” moments. And then goes on to kill them in a brutal manner and leaves them in a particular posture, disfigured. This video is received by the national crime investigation team and they are unable to trace the video source and while they are watching it, the victim is facing the last few minutes of her life. Detectives Margot Silverman and Adam Youssef are on a manhunt and eventually Joona Linna, who had been absconding, joins the investigation.

Since this is the fifth book of a series, I did find some plot points confusing and felt like several characters were introduced at the beginning of the story. The course of the plot is so intriguing that I ended up taking the book everywhere with me, even ended up dreaming about the characters and their circumstances. The character development and the build up of the suspense are all up to the point. The pinnacle is the twist of the story: you won’t see it coming and it challenges the general perception by an average audience about a typical “stalker” and the book cover will look completely different to us. Until the big reveal, you are in a dark room where your mind is working on several possibilities as you are reading it.

There are many instances depicting gruesome violence in gory detail; the murder scenes are disturbing and one may feel like throwing up. A major limitation I felt was Joona Linna’s limited role in this book as he is someone who is hailed as a hero. But, his involvement during the final situations is quite heroic. I also liked the characters detective Margot Silverman and Nelly Brandt. Margot Silverman is the detective assigned to the murdered women’s case and the fact that she is seven months pregnant makes it more interesting. She is determined to find the killer and vows that she will give birth only after the case’s resolution.

The way she stood up for Linna and challenged the circumstances of the case when necessary is vehement and impressive. Silverman in a way broke stereotypes regarding pregnant women’s ability to work. It reminded me of Marge Gunderson from Fargo. Nelly Brandt is a very layered character and we will admire her. Female characters like Nelly are rare. Erik, the hypnotist, is also a very noble character and we will feel sorry for him in the course of the story.

As always, suspense thrillers will leave a massive plot point behind. The same is noticed here in terms of the circumstance surrounding Adam Youssef, Margot’s partner from work. After reading the book, I couldn’t help but think “whatever happened to him”. The connection between Erik and blind piano teacher named Jackie is shown in a nice way. When it springs up amidst the investigation, one might find it irritating and unnecessary, not knowing that it is an integral part. As a reader, I was all agog with anticipation while waiting for the resolution which felt like a deep breath one takes after being in the water for several minutes.

Stalker is a very exciting thriller for all those enjoy that genre. As a fan of thrillers myself, the book reading experience was massively satisfying. I look forward to read the first four books from Kepler’s Jonna Linna series.

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Rating: 10.0/10 (5 votes cast)