07
Nov

Fighting defanged snakes

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Review of The House of a Hundred Stories; Mariam Karim-Ahlawat and illustrations by Ajantha Guhathakurta; Life Positive Books 2016; Rs 195; pp 135

– Shana Susan Ninan

With a very pleasing cover and blurb, a tight plot, and hoards of animals and birds, Mariam Karim-Ahlawat’s The House of A Hundred Stories is my four-year-old son’s current favourite book. Well, it was a review copy for me, but it ended up that my son, who loves animal stories, found it more endearing. Which is a good sign, I think, because kids of all ages will just love this book.

I was reminded of The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi-Hwang, which was narrated from the PoV of Sprout the hen. But this one by Ahlawat has several storytellers. The mongoose, the owl, the rabbit, and others are all narrators, lending different voices and tones as and when the situation calls for. Told mainly from the perspective of Noël Noyla the mongoose, this children’s fable is quite an allegorical one. Once the mongoose leaves the snake charmer’s hold, he comes across several situations in his journey. From fighting defanged snakes for the sake of pleasing humans to understanding his Self, there’s a lot to learn from. There are different languages for each species of animals, much like the segregated human society we live in, ourselves. Philosophical thoughts on identity, freedom, overprotected lives, community, independence, crimes, responsibility and the like are discussed through the animals’ lives here.

In a colonial bungalow close to the Taj Mahal… that’s where this house is. The people living in it barely get a mention, whereas the animals are well-rounded characters, almost always human-like in behaviour. The animals, their kids, and grand kids, all make for a lovely menagerie, much like what the author herself raised as a child.

Ahlawat has written many children’s books and novels, as well as plays and musicals. Currently based in New Delhi, she has been a university lecturer teaching French language and literature, and a columnist. My favourite character from this book is Idiot Frog. Don’t be fooled by his name, no. One of his lines go, “To act boldly in a situation that actually frightens you shows true courage.” He’s full of quips and tales, amassed experience from a life well-lived, meeting all kinds of beings.

In the end, friendship and love are just what we need.

 

 

 

 

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Rating: 9.0/10 (5 votes cast)
05
Nov

I AM.

I’m feminine, I’m masculine.

I’m fearless, I’m scared.

I love reds, I hate reds.

Adventures seize me, adrenaline drives me.

 

I nurse, I ignore.

I care, I neglect.

I am, I am not.

Snakes I like, millipedes I dislike.

 

I love with viguor, I hate with choice.

I am mother, I am father.

I throw away, I hoard.

Friends adore me, others turn sour.

 

I do, I do not.

I’m impulsive, I think hard and long.

I love all, I look back at none.

I cower in remorse, I stand up.

 

I am feminine. I am masculine.

I am woman.

 

 

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Rating: 9.8/10 (4 votes cast)
01
Sep

Challenges of Saving the World

Sky God

Review of Book of the Sky God (Vol.1 & Vol.2); Laura Markowitz; Story Bridge Books; pp 299

– Paavana Varma

Five teens and the end of the world! One wouldn’t really expect five teens to save the world, but the fate of humanity rests with them. This fantasy book written by Laura Markowitz revolves around the Indian-American Rajthani siblings Laila, Ram and Nina, former Miss Popular, Katie Chase and part time zombie, Henry Lipton. Centred on the Mayan prophecy, the book is targeted at young adults. Part one of the book is where the the story line slowly develops, the admirable writing delving into the ties of long friendships is enough to make this a one sit read. We find that Ram and Henry are best friends, Ram’s little sister Laila who voluntarily went mute six years ago has numinous senses and knows the song of humanity. Henry was trained his whole life, without him knowing, for the day of the judgement by an evil secret cult called the brotherhood of prophecy. They believed, they would ascend to godhood through their living heir, Henry.

The author has written the story in such a way that all the events are interrelated. The occasional shift to a whole new imaginative world of immortals and higher beings make it all the more gripping. Miss Markowitz definitely had her creative juices flowing into the pages while writing this book. One understands it from the other worlds, aliens and the multiverse she has talked about in the book. We have Aditi and Itzam-nah the sky gods who will be coming back to Earth another time to judge humanity. They have the power to erase timelines and all the memories associated with it. The author seems to have great interest in Indian mythology too since, Aditi and Itzam-nah are described as having six arms and a third eye.

Part one of the book talks more about the characters’ lives and gives us a sneak peek into their deep thoughts that make them, who they are. Ideas and sub-stories weren’t clashing with one another and as the title of each chapter suggests, the story is rooted to what the chapter name conveys. Because of this clever idea, even when the plot thickens and twists around a lot, in the bigger picture you have a clear understanding about the story. Going through the difficult period of adolescence, we find in all the five teens a search for self-identity. Part one is also not as dramatic and action packed as part two. This book ends in such a way that it keeps you tip toed to find out what the next book has in store for us.

Part two has road trips and is jam-packed with adventures and fights. Unlike the innocent immaturity we see in the characters in part one, part two sees a newfound maturity in the five teens. Maybe we can link it with the purposes they have found to their lives. We also see a gradual strengthening of family and friendship bonds. Nina and Ram who couldn’t stand each other’s presence are now completely comfortable with each other. Friendships and family bonds are tightened and rediscovered. The transformation of characters and the storyline line from part one to two is not sudden but rather slow and subtle and that makes the story more interesting.

The way the author has woven the concept of Karma into the story is quite intriguing. The language is free-flowing and at times you might even find it poetic. The values and meaning of friendship manifest in the novel through the bond the five share. There is more to the book than just the surface story. If you dig deeper you will find a lot of messages that are crucial to our adult lives.  The book is a great read not just for young adults but anyone who enjoys science fiction, fantasy and mythology. The Book of the Sky God is the kind of book you’d want to read in a good summer vacation. But once you take up the book to read, don’t ever think you can stop it midway. It is what you may call ‘unputdownable’.

The only glitch is that after all the hustle and bustle it all ends quite abruptly. The end really doesn’t seem like the end! Maybe it isn’t after all.

 

 

 

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Rating: 9.8/10 (4 votes cast)
24
Jul

Adventure beyond the Mountains

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Review of Tale of the Wulks; V.K. Green; Fremont Books 2013; pp 658

– Shana Susan Ninan

Wulks live in the mountains of California, away from the eyes of humans. Watching closely, they are the guardians of Mother Earth, fighting off people who are out to hurt her. Rilk, a young differently-abled boy, is the central character. His grandfather Manfield embarks on an adventurous journey with the Dragon Prince Englar. Long ago, the Wulks were thrown out of their ancestral lands along with the Native Americans. Instead of going onto reservations as the American Indians did, however, the Wulks concealed themselves at the base of Mission Peak in California, after which a Dragon appeared before them and helped them establish a country the human invaders could not destroy. It’s this ingenious intertwining of actual human history that makes Wulk Land more vivid. That said, a map to accompany the precise descriptions of Wulk geography would be welcome.

Talking about his writing process, the author V.K. Green says, “Unlike many writers who usually write whatever is on their mind and arrange the parts later, I brainstorm the entire story before beginning to write.” Indeed, that shows in the plot – it flows seamlessly, from one location to another, from one scene of action to the next.

Autism and adventure are two core themes that run through the story. Carefully crafted into the plot, Green, who himself is autistic, has played the cards well. The protagonist, Rilk is extremely intelligent in his own ways. But the way the world sees the autistic, or anyone differently-abled for that matter, is quite sidelining. The fact that Green has given prominence to Rilk and looked at his abilities than disabilities is a promising breath of air. People who care for or live with autistic persons will very well understand that.

The case of Chris is interesting. Myself a student of Kalaripayattu, an ancient martial arts form of South Asia, I was drawn to this extraordinary character. Chris is a prodigy, an intelligent mind with a sharp and fit body. The wise teenager, Chris helps the other boys in their search. And the author, too, confirms: “I consider the martial arts battles throughout my book to be dear to me.”

I did find some paragraphs needing the editor’s cuts. Some of the sequences are long-winded and, sometimes, leads us off the page. With a few nicks and polishes here and there, this is a brilliant work of fantasy fiction for young and the old.

V. K. Green is an autistic student who has performed at a high academic level with advanced diction, language, and social skills. Using fantasy-adventure, Green is determined to demonstrate to the world the truth behind autism, what it is, and how much autistic individuals add to the positive whole of society. Green currently lives in Fremont, California, with his family.

I love it that there are many beings in the story: humans, dwarves, elves, forest spirits, sages and dragons. And that the story ends peacefully.

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Rating: 8.3/10 (8 votes cast)
01
May

Kama – Dance of Desire

Review of The Banana and the Peepul Leaf; Asuri Vasudevan; CinnamonTeal Publishing 2015; Rs 400; pp 262

– Shana Susan Ninan

Asuri Vasudevan’s The Banana and the Peepul Leaf is full of turns – life poses several choices to us; sometimes flinging the most apt one at our faces. Relationships and the strings attached to them form the crux of Vasudevan’s sequel to Cloudburst.

Kama is an interesting concept. It is intriguing, deep and desirous. You can even call it the protagonist of the story, the central force upon which the story revolves. How do people of different races fall in love? How do they stay in love? For Radha, it is love at first sight when she sees Prakash and the fact that Prakash is a married man is dismissed as a minor detail. Prakash is attracted to Radha’s sensuality even though he is very much in love with his wife.

As youngsters trying to make a place for themselves in the world, Phillip and Gomi have to make a sense of their yearnings for each other. Prakash’s wife Kathy sensing her husband’s betrayal uses the same approach partly to pacify herself and partly to radically transform the life of someone she cares for. For Kathy’s friend and soul sister Maya, sex is the culmination of companionship.

Based in Mumbai, Vasudevan is an economist, with specialisations in central banking and international finance. He has worked in various countries on long stints, and have been advisor in several international organisations. The story is spread across Asia, Africa and America.

In the book, what I cherished the most is the ending – it isn’t usual, and there’s a punch to it. The book cover is simple and lucid, a pointer to the lives unravelled inside. It’s a great book for a weekend read, full of surprises and interesting quips and quotes.

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Rating: 8.2/10 (13 votes cast)
01
Mar

“It’s great to know you’ve brought someone so much enjoyment.”

Here’s what best-selling author and friend of mine, Steven McKay has to say about his experience so far… books, stories and expectations. Read on!

Shana: You’ve published four books now. How has the experience been?

Steven McKay: Five actually – I just put out Friar Tuck and the Christmas Devil on Friday November 13th! It’s been fantastic so far, really exciting and lovely to find so many readers enjoying my work. I’m still full of enthusiasm for writing so I guess it must have been a good couple of years since I first published Wolf’s Head.

There’s a nice balance between the youngblood Robin Hood and the settled, father Robin. Does that change the magnetics of the game?

Yes, definitely. Young Robin – in Wolf’s Head – was frightened and not really sure how to deal with the situation he found himself in, whereas the slightly older, more mature Robin of Rise of the Wolf is still frightened but he’s much more confident and able to deal with the harsh realities of live in medieval England. Let’s be honest, it doesn’t matter how old we get, we all still feel frightened at times don’t we? So, although Robin is a hero, he’s not a SUPERhero. Hopefully my books show that. Of course, being a father now means the next, and final, book in the series will need to explore that aspect of his life and character…

Which was the most difficult/ time-consuming character to develop in the Forest Lord series?

Probably Matilda. Being a man it’s hard to put myself into a woman’s place and you’re always worried it won’t work and female readers will hate what I’m doing! But so far everyone seems happy that Rise of the Wolf has two strong female characters playing a big part in events. Medieval Europe wasn’t a place filled with women who fought alongside the men – they were very much kept at home and seen as second-class citizens so trying to make Matilda interesting and realistic yet still powerful and identifiable to a modern audience was something I had to work at.

Do you plan to try writing in a different genre now?

Well, I kind of branched out into the horror genre with my novella Knight of the Cross, which was heavily inspired by HP Lovecraft although still in a historical setting. Similarly, my brand new novella, Friar Tuck and the Christmas Devil is more of a medieval mystery than all out action and adventure. I don’t have any plans to abandon the historical fiction genre any time soon – once I finish the Robin Hood books I think I’ll be starting a new series set around dark ages Britain.

How has the journey of self-publishing been?

It’s been great! I like the fact I get 70% royalties from each ebook sale and Amazon have been great helping me out in promotions and stuff. Sometimes it can get stressful – for example someone noticed a minor error in one of my audiobooks so I had to try and get that sorted which isn’t as simple as you’d think! And at the same time I’m juggling a full-time job, young family and trying to write another book so it can be hard. But at the end of the day I get a great sense of achievement when I see the nice reviews people have left on Goodreads or Amazon or wherever. It’s great to know you’ve brought someone so much enjoyment.

What can we expect from your writing kitty in the near future?

The final Robin Hood book will be out next year, all being well and after that I may do another novella with those characters. I’m not sure. Novellas don’t seem to sell as well as full length novels so, although I love writing them, it might not be worth the effort…I’ll see how it goes. After that,as I say, I plan on a brand new trilogy with all new characters. The planned title for the first one is – and this is an exclusive! – The Druid. I’m really looking forward to it – it’ll be nice to create my own characters after two or three years writing about old, legendary people like Little John, Friar Tuck and Robin himself. I hope you’ll all join me for my future adventures!

Thanks for having me in this Q&A Shana!

 

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Rating: 8.4/10 (7 votes cast)
27
Jan

Strike One!

200px-CuckoosCallingCover

Review of The Cuckoo’s Calling; Robert Galbraith; Mulholand Books; pp 464

– Shana Susan Ninan

Robert Galbraith. Now, who would have guessed this to be the famous fantasy writer J. K. Rowling’s pseudonym? Well, the book is a roaring success. It’s gripping and a fun read, all the way until the last sentence! As this book was one among a gift pack of three, I was in no hurry to read it. And let’s say, I hadn’t seen the part about Rowling on the blurb yet. But, boy, when I got to it, I couldn’t leave the book. Divided into four large chapters, it drew me back each time I put it down.

The woman has her ways. Rowling hasn’t used an ounce of magic in this plot – she mesmerizes her reader through absolutely loveable detective language and tonnes of charisma only a crime fiction can allow. Published in 2013, The Cuckoo’s Calling revolves around the life and office of Cormoran Strike, a one-legged, decorated war hero. His latest (and only, at the moment) case comes from the brother of a late friend of his. Battling his own demons and a now-ex-fiancée of a 15-year on-off relationship, he dives into the centre of the action. Trying to reinvestigate Bristow’s mixed-race, adopted, supermodel sister Lula Landry’s suicide, he unearths much more than he can hold, often having to rely on his temp’s support – in work and in life. Robin, his temporary secretary, is intuitive and much more brilliant than an average typist-telephone operator. She herself goes on minor investigative sojourns and returns triumphant.

The private investigator and his temp are now pulled into the world of high fashion, papparazzis, aristocratic multibillionaires and coke-snorting rockstars. Working on something the Met has already ruled a suicide, he has a lot on his hands, and those that knew Lula aren’t that forthcoming. Lula’s boyfriend, musician and part film actor Evan Duffield as well her closest supermodel friend Ciara Porter are very much caught in the headlights.

Strike’s and Robin’s characters are most well-rounded. So is Bristow’s. The others actors in the plot have been moulded neatly to fit into the narrative. Strike’s past and his family’s weird history come into the story in bits, in grape-sized bits that’s juicy and intriguing, at the same time, unravelling his life in front of the reader. The title is apt and keeps you guessing quite into the middle of the story.

I wonder how this book would’ve been received, without the Rowling tag, when it was first published. Would the readers lap it up unbeknownst that it was written by one of the best storyteller’s in the world right now? I surely did. This one’s standing on its own legs, and not on the fame of the Potter series writer.

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Rating: 9.0/10 (11 votes cast)
07
Jan

Revealing the Buddha

Buddha

Review of Buddha – Volume I:  Kapilavastu; Osamu Tezuka; Harper Collins; pp 400

– Shana Susan Ninan

Japanese Graphic Artist Osamu Tezuka’s brilliant black strokes on paper move like a movie. Buddha, in eight volumes, traces the life of Siddhartha Gautama, and his journey into Enlightenment and Mentorship. The prince is born halfway into the first book, and the events preceding it are likes omens that lead us to his birth. Caste is a theme that takes prominence in the narrative. Woven into the emotions and movements, you can find it creeping into the fabric of the story.

Tezuka’s work is humourous, lucid and definitely relatable. You’ll find colloquial usages, slangs and even slur, in the book. And two of my favourite pages are the ones that have locusts swarming in them. Yep, just two pages full of locusts. The perspective used is awesomely focussed and absolutely on-the-dot. The visual expression surpasses usual storytelling skills, and the readers are taken right into the heart of the plot.

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Rating: 8.0/10 (8 votes cast)
06
Jan

Married to Mumbai

2

Review of Tikli and Laxmi Bomb – to Hell with Patriarchy; Aditya Kriplani; Rs 195; pp 165

– Shana Susan Ninan

Old Monk is a character as much as the two women, Putul and Laxmi. This book, which follows the two women’s lives and their trial at a sex workers’ system by/for/of the women, is a one-sitting read. Aditya has hit the mark, and his film script like writing keeps you turning the pages. Each time either of them hit the bottle before they go to bed or when they feel down in the dumps, the reader would definitely feel the liquid burning his or her throat. Aditya writes with such ferocity that you won’t even have a minute to wander off from the story.

This is his third book, and all three of them have strong women protagonists. In fact, he wishes for a world ruled by women. Yay to that! This particular story is set in Mumbai again, and follows Putul and Laxmi as they fight patriarchy within the sex workers’ community. The belong to a network run by men, pleasuring men and boys, living out their bodies and minds for them, and all the way, succumbing to atrocities meted out by the authorities themselves. Sex workers have no say in what happens to them; they’re mere puppets in the hands of the various men that control them at every stage.

Putul, a.k.a. Tikli, is a smart-alecky, wise-ass young girl, with fire in her heart and tongue. Though she’s thin and short, and all things cute, you don’t wanna mess with her. She hates the system she’s working from, and longs for one where women benefit. Laxmi is a 40-year-old veteran in this industry and practically lives by herself, is feared by even the local pimp Mhatre, and the cops, and is generally aloof.

They don’t back out even when faced with brutal physical violence from all sides. In fact, that spurs their movement – more young girls from all over the city join their group. With hard work and caution, they inch forward. And, much to the chagrin of Mhatre and his cronies, the women turn out to be a power to reckon with. Even a car full of goondas with sticks in hand couldn’t stop them.

Two poignant, and often deeply sad, motifs that run through the narrative are Laxmi’s escapades into the city in an auto, with her face in the wind, taking in the freedom and the fun, and the melancholic songs that she pens, and sometimes sings, in honour of the Mumba Devi. The city itself is a metaphor of an oft-abused woman, but one that stands up high in the midst of all the storms she’s gotta face.

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Rating: 8.6/10 (7 votes cast)
13
Dec

Surviving, and How!

when I fell in love with life

Review of When I Fell in Love with Life; Geetha Paniker; Partridge 2015; pp 214

– Shana Susan Ninan

The blurb said, an anthology of writings from a cancer survivor whose therapeutic writing will guide, inspire, and heal your soul. And, the author is absolutely right. The prose and poems are a delight – you’ll probably read it in one go. I did. And the journey has been great.

Only a truly positive person will be able to find the CAN in cancer, and Geetha Paniker’s, When I Fell In Love with Life is a testament of that. The light purple-grey colour scheme of the cover and the sea/crab-related photo is a reminder as well. Her doubts, her beliefs, her philosophies… all are covered in the book. And it’s poignantly titled, each part, each journey, and leads us right into the core of her works.

Trips to Yercaud and Mysore, and other places, visits to natural spots, and of course, radiation therapies and hospital stays. Some of the pieces are very clinically written while others are emotional and tugs at your heart strings. I’m sure most of us have at least one friend or family member who’s had cancer, and Geetha’s writings are applicable to all our lives. She’s someone who’s strong enough to call pain, ‘beautiful’. This book isn’t just for survivors of terminal illnesses, but for each one of us.

The only glitch that mars the reading is the initial piece of prose that accompanies poems. I feel poems printed on their own would have been more powerful. The text before it takes away some of the punch of poetry. The shortness of life is well-captured in the terse lines.

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Rating: 7.3/10 (4 votes cast)