Saturday, September 29, 2012


Title: Rumpelstiltskin vs Miller: The Child Custody Battle That Turned a Kingdom Upside Down
Author: Michael H Brandt
Publisher: Dorrance Publishing
Pages: 774

As a child, I loved stories that began with “Once upon a time,” (I still do) but I remember feeling a distinct sense of dissatisfaction when they ended with “and they lived happily ever after.” Even as a child, I resented the simplistic finality of that phrase. Surely that couldn’t be the end? Surely things had just started warming up?

That dissatisfaction was finally put to rest in Rumpelstiltskin versus Miller: The Child Custody Battle that Turned a Kingdom Upside Down by Michael H Brandt. Finally someone has the good sense to realise my predicament and the potential for a novel inherent in Rumpelstiltskin, a fairy tale that is certainly unlike any other.

For one, the heroine and the king do not marry for love. What are the odds of a marriage like that ending with a “happily ever after”?

For those whose childhood did not include a reading of the fairy tales, here’s a gist of the tale, as presented by the Brothers Grimm. A loudmouth miller has a beautiful daughter. In conversation with the king, the miller claims that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The greedy king has her arrested and imprisoned with all the straw he can put together at short notice, with an injunction that if she fails to deliver, she will be executed. Of course, she can’t and so she begins to cry. An old man shows up there out of nowhere, and offers to spin the straw into gold. In return she offers him her necklace the first day and her ring on the second. When she has nothing valuable left to give him on the third day, he makes her promise to give him her first born child after she is queen. When he comes to claim his prize years later, she begs and asks him to spare her child. He agrees provided she is able to guess his name. She sends her servants after him to tail him and learn his rather unusual name. When she makes an informed guess the following day, he stamps his foot upon the ground and falls in up to his waist. In some versions, he even rends his body in two.

In a departure from the original fairy tale, Rumpelstiltskin, instead of forfeiting his claims, snaps his own leg and goes off into a coma, out of sheer distress at the duplicity of Millicent in employing means other than guesswork in finding his name. Despite wanting to revive him, Millicent is prevailed upon to believe that the elf is dead. This fixes the idea of ingratitude in the mind of the elf and changes forever the course of fairy tale history.

The Queen’s refusal to give up her son to the elf, Rumplestiltskin, who played such a notable role in the spinning of straw into gold, and in making her Queen and saving her life leads to his anger and the Trial of the Millennium, as he takes her to court for breach of promise. 

Meanwhile, Rumpelstiltskin exhorts the Forest People, the ogres, trolls, goblins, elves, etc, who are even further down the food chain than the most destitute of the humans, to rise against the cruelties and the injustices of the king, the government and the upper class. The Forest People begin to assert themselves, forming a union of sorts and rebelling against the inept king and the corrupt government.

We also learn here that the elf wants the first-born son of the Queen so that he can teach the lad to be a better human being and a wiser king than his father was.

I admire the resourcefulness of Brandt in his choice of a fairy tale. Rumpelstiltskin is perhaps most apt for an exercise of this kind and Brandt has worked on it most admirably.

Purporting to be the first person account of Adlai Miller-Balbour, the first born son of Queen Millicent, the miller’s daughter, and King Yvan of Espranchk, the book is clever and ingenious. The story, set in the fictional country of Espranchk, mirrors the conditions of the pre-Reformation and pre-Renaissance era. When the clergy and the nobility dominated over the merchant class and all dominated over the common man. Brandt’s book helps us to fill in the gaps in the original fairy tale.

And so, the Journeyman’s Movement is what we know as the Socialist movement. The story dips into our world history to give us a neutral background on Espranchk. There are references to the Jews (known here as the Hebids), the Holy Land etc. There are bits of spirituality as when Millicent realises that “mere affiliation with a religious denomination was not in itself a certificate of good character.”

The writing is from the perspective of someone who lived centuries ago. Adlai comes across as a reliable narrator, who presents us the situation of Espranchk in its historical and chronological context, and helps us understand the motives behind the selfishness of the queen, her desire to be a queen and her desperation to remain one, the greed and the cruelty of the king and the crazy demands of the elf.

The beauty of Millicent as a heroine is that unlike others of her ilk, she does not rely on her beauty to get ahead. She has a great memory, a tremendous capacity of learning, and a talent for oratory and public life, giving rise to legends about her being superhuman. She is not afraid to learn, ask questions or seek help. And she gains confidence and the love of the common people, she also learns to get her own way under cover of a multitude of “Yvan, dears.”

The queen learns about the laws of Espranchk and takes her place as a judge of people’s issues in the government. Her attempts to do good help create a legend around her persona and she begins to be seen as a fairy with magical powers.

Queen Millicent is intensely feminine in a masculine world and yet her drive, can-do spirit and aggressiveness cause her to be seen as masculine. Her desire to win at tennis is an expression of her desire to have an achievement of her own. 

But power, no matter how little, causes the queen to change in subtle ways, while retaining her core personality and nature. The book succeeds in bringing out effectively the change that power can bring into a person.

In the original fairy tale, Rumpelstiltskin is a cantankerous old man. Here he is an elf, one of the Forest Peoples, who knows the art of alchemy. He is also more wronged against than wrong.

There were some amusing touches. Apparently it was the ogres that invented the game that we know today as American Football. Also, I’ve always wondered how the writers of fantasy fiction came up with names. Here Professor Snighig teaches Millicent to speak well. Snighig is an anagram of Higgins.

I was a little disappointed in the queen’s speeches for although we are told that she was an orator who inspired applause, that fails to come across to the reader. This is a letdown considering that her emergence in public life is described as a “magical experience.”

Some trifling thoughts: A little more fine–tooth-combing would have yielded avoidable proofing errors.

The book is honest enough not to gloss over Millicent’s faults, which speaks highly of Adlai’s own neutral voice in the telling of this tale. Her hunger for staying in power, enjoy her position as Queen, and dealing with Rumpelstiltskin effectively is telling.

Nothing seems forced, an achievement considering the size of the book at 774 pages. The pace of the book never flags nor weighs on the reader heavily.

Thank you, Mr Brandt, for re-creating the magic of a fairy tale for grownups, and for doing it in such an instructive, educative and yet thoroughly entertaining manner.

I highly recommend this one.

I received a complimentary copy of Rumpelstiltskin Versus Miller: The Child Custody Battle That Turned a Kingdom Upside Down as a member of the Dorrance Publishing Book Review Team. Visit to learn how you can become a member of the Book Review Team.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

My first cupcakes

I almost didn’t upload these cupcakes. Uploading these cupcakes on the blog is an act of bravery.
Even as I type these words, there is an Auto-Correct mechanism in my head that is screeching into my ears, asking me to replace the word ‘bravery’ with ‘stupidity’.

You see, I spend a lot of time scouring food blogs, searching for recipes that seem doable. Recipes whose ingredients are easily available, where the ingredients are a kirana shop or a hypermarket away. I spend a lot of my Internet time, especially after the kids have been put to bed, admiring food photos and wishing I had that kind of magic at my fingertips.

At some level, I cringe to upload these pictures. My younger brother, Merwyn, of Merwyn’s rucksack fame, has done a good job of capturing the images. But there was only so much he could do, considering the general appearance of my treats.
The Delicious Dozen
In a world in which food photography is an emerging new discipline, where food is a thing to be fantasised about and gawked at, my creations are completely homely.

In a world in which the two words food and porn have begun to hang around together, my creations look like the edible equivalent of the boy/girl next door. Well brought up, courteous and nice, but definitely not someone whose posters would adorn your walls.

Certainly not worth uploading on a blog. Especially when all blogs worth their salt have such drool-worthy pictures. Pictures that make you hungry. Pictures that make you want to put your hand in through the screen and pull the dish out.

And yet, after all that nay-saying, here I am, and here is the blog, and here I am on the blog, uploading pictures that no self-respecting baker would dream of putting up. Simply because the longer I thought of it, the more advisable it seemed. After all, I’m no well-known baker. I have no reputation of excellence in sugary goodness to protect. Then why hide these pictures? Especially considering the fact that hiding these pictures would mean hiding the joy that these goodies brought to me.

Because just like food is never only about the food, dessert is never about the dessert alone. There are so many stories that piggyback on them, stories of calories not counted, of the laughter and delight of children, of the pleasure of doing something special for someone dear. Not to forget, the thrill of watching the cakes rise, the anticipation, the aroma that pervades the house and the sheer pleasure of baking.

I had woken up at 5 am, while the house was still asleep, to bake this batch. Once the kids woke up, I’d be too busy washing, bathing and feeding them. The baking activity went off well, despite the minor hitch encountered during the mixing process. The recipe, provided by Maria’s Menu, promised to make a very large quantity of the cake. Since time was of the essence, I decided to halve the quantities of all the ingredients and finish the task faster.

Now where any other inexperienced baker would have taken a little pencil and jotted down the exact quantities, as necessitated by the halving exercise, I decided to do the calculations in my head seconds before adding the ingredient in – all in the interest of saving the afore-mentioned Time. Big mistake!

For a while, all went well. Then just before closing time, I forgot about the cutting down and added as much water as the original recipe called for. Suddenly the pan began to resemble a flood-ravaged city. Water, water everywhere.

There are many moments in life when I long for an Undo key or at least a Last-Saved version. And this was definitely one of those moments.

The tension was released only after I succeeded in carefully scooping out the water. A mini-crisis averted, the rest of the baking went off without a hitch. The batter had been enough to bake twelve cupcakes and one round chocolate cake.

Next I prepared the icing and packed it into a little container. The cakes and cupcakes were meant for my brother’s birthday. Since I had to be on the road for an hour and more to get there, I thought it made sense to do the icing at his house.

Unfortunately, disaster struck, despite all those precautions. By the time we had traversed the 15-km pothole-ridden distance, the cake had folded up. Not folded up as in failed, although at first glance it seemed like that to me. Half the cake lay on its back, while two-thirds of a quarter of the cake had sat up, presumably to get a good view of what the rest of it was doing. The other quarter, meanwhile, had fallen face down on the sleeping half.

If, while sitting on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you, you attempted to touch your toes, you would succeed in attaining the position that my cake had attained at this moment of time.

Meanwhile, there were bits of the cake that remained unmoved by this attempt at performing Yoga and they distanced themselves from the mainland. The sight was enough to drive me to distraction and I groaned. Not to be outdone, the cupcakes had attempted their own brand of acrobatics. Fortunately, they were a more hardy species, and they survived the activity.

Plated, not quite to perfection
My sister-in-law, mother of two sons, succeeded in untangling the mess that the cake was in. By the time she was done, the cake looked almost as good as new. We slathered some icing on the cake, and then garnished it with a generous sprinkling of tutti-frutti.

Next, I attempted to decorate the cupcakes. Having managed to quell the rioting on the part of the cakes and the cupcakes, now it looked as if the icing was in the mood to create trouble. My original plan had been to decorate the cupcakes according to the high standards set by Maria. I strove to attain the perfection of those swirls as they pirouetted upon the top of the cupcake, starting from the outer edge and nearing the centre.

But it was not to be. The icing stubbornly resisted my attempts to coax it out. A thin streak came out of the nozzle, but the bulk of the frosting congregated at the tip of the frosting bag, and refused to budge. Maybe it was too thick. Or shy.

Tutti-frutti saves the day
So then we did the one thing that I had managed to get a grip on: we loaded the cupcakes with tutti-frutti.

But no matter what it looked like, and I never judge a book by its cover, three of the little people in my life, and the grownups too, gave my goodies the thumbs-up. My daughter and my two nephews, loved the cakes and the cupcakes. My daughter even liked my creations better than the infinitely-better looking store-bought cake.

My younger nephew came up to me and said, “Aunta, your cupcakes weren’t nice,” and then as my face fell, squealed in delight, “they were SUP-ERB.”

My older nephew's feedback particularly warmed my heart. He said, "Aunta, the cake was very yummy. And the cupcakes were supradelicious (his own contribution to the English language. Mirriam-Webster, please include it in the next edition of your dictionary.). The tutti-frutti gave a nice flavour to the cake. The chocolate icing was also very nice."

But no matter what they look like (Hope springs eternal: a well-decorated cupcake is just one batch away), what is important is that these sure did taste really good. Maria,  take a bow!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Title: The Krishna Key
Author: Ashwin Sanghi
Publisher: Westland
Pages: 464
My GoodReads Rating: 

Mythology as a motif in modern fiction is in. In The Krishna Key, his third novel, author Ashwin Sanghi marries exhaustive and comprehensive research into India's longest epic and the architecture and history of a bygone era with conclusions that seem outrageously wild and fantastic.

Symbolist Anil Varshney sends four seals discovered at various archaeological sites to four researcher/scientist friends for safekeeping. When placed together, these seals, collectively known as the Krishna key, have the potential to reveal a secret that has been hidden since ancient times. But there are people with wicked intentions who want the secret for themselves.

Ravi Mohan Saini is a professor at St Stephen's College, whose life is propelled by the goal to prove that Krishna was a historical personality, rather than a merely mythological one. When Varshney is found murdered, Saini, the last to see him alive, finds himself a murder suspect.

When the bodies start piling up, Saini must do everythiing he can to outwit the police and discover the truth for himself. The search for that truth leads him on through the most beautiful expanses in the country including the submerged remains of Dwarka and the mysterious lingam of Somnath to Mount Kailash and the Vrindavan temple.

The immensity of the research is amazing and Sanghi even gives us an impressive reference list, including 50 books, 43 papers and articles, 32 blogs and websites and 10 video films and audio tracks, to back the authenticity of his premise and lend it greater credence.

The illustrations, a novelty, turned out to be very helpful, given the numerous enigmatic allusions that the book is peppered with.

I noticed a number of similarities between this and The Taj Conspiracy, especially in the references to the commonality between a Shiv lingam and a nuclear reactor, as also to some of the most controversial claims. I guess that comes from the fact that both books have drawn from history and the urban legends that have arisen from it.

For the most part, the retelling of the Mahabharata holds reader interest, but the tendency of one of the characters, Priya, a doctoral student, to ask basic questions that I could answer just to take the story forward is annoying.

I also found myself getting irritated with the use of the flashback mode. There was no seamless flow from the present to the past and back to the present. Characters randomly and abruptly launch into their back stories just to advance the story forward. The portion in which Saini recalls instances when he should have suspected Priya of duplicity are tedious.

Not much is told to us about the motivation that leads Priya, the forty-year-old beautiful daughter of a hotshot lawyer father, to turn into a Mataji. Nor does it seem credible that Sampat Singh, son of a wealthy father, should so easily accept Priya’s declaration that he is the tenth avatar of Krishna and turn into a killing machine for her benefit.

In a story in which at least five of the characters are scientists and/or researchers, it is not surprising, though extremely trying, when they continually spout learning and philosophy and treat their listeners (and of course, us readers) as if they (and we) were a bunch of students that had no choice but to sit up and tolerate the information overload. But when a common pickpocket turned mafia don begins to spout esoteric information about Mount Kailash and sounds like a veritable encylopaedia complete with geography and history lessons, then something is definitely OTT.

The Krishna story, told in first person, serves as a recurring prelude to the unfolding of the chapters in the book. While this serves to make the Mahabharata tale more familiar to English readers, there seems no real connection with the story set in the present. We are led on to believe that there will be some tying up of loose ends when this tome comes to a conclusion.

But there is no purpose behind this re-telling of an ancient tale. Under the circumstances, the hope that Sanghi will come up with a magnificent coup to tie up all the loose ends starves to death. One of the characters, Taarak Vakil, who believes that he is the tenth avatar of Krishna, turns out to be just a minor accomplice in the larger scheme of things.

Other than the research, the beautiful book cover and the plot that might have been a heavyweight had it stayed close to the original namesake, there wasn’t much that impressed me about this one.

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!

Sunday, September 02, 2012


Title: When the Snow Melts
Author: Vinod Joseph
Publisher: Amaryllis
Publication: 2012
My GoodReads Rating: 

The world that Vinod Joseph recreates in his thriller, When the Snow Melts, is a world that all of us who sleep peacefully in our warm beds at night mercifully know nothing of. It is the world of spies and double agents, men and women who live dangerous lives, infiltrating the enemy camp, working through fair means and foul for information that could spell the critical difference between life and death in a scenario in which countries appear to be at peace with each other, but where tensions continue to simmer below the surface.

Ritwik Kumar is an Indian spy who has been sent by the Indian government to work as part of the Intelligence Assessment Group (IAG), a London-based organisation that consists of intelligence agents from around the world who work together in a concerted effort in the global fight against terrorism. Two of IAG’s main goals involve nabbing Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar and ridding the ISI, Pakistan’s secret service agency, of rogues and fundamentalists.

An old hand at the game, Ritwik defects to the Al Qaeda, to escape the consequences of borrowed funds that he cannot pay back and funds that he has embezzled from the office. Disappearing from sight seems like the only solution for him, in the face of imprisonment and conviction by the Indian government and the IAG.

And that is how Ritwik comes to find himself in the clutches of the dreaded Al Qaeda. From now on, he must play a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse to outwit the Al Qaeda’s operatives and convince them that his intentions are above suspicion, even as the net tightens around him.

What I liked about the book, written in first person from Ritwik’s point of view, was that its hero was more of an anti-hero. Far from being a Boy Scout with a squeaky clean reputation, Ritwik is a man who is continuously on the run, desperate to escape the censure and penalty of having borrowed heavily from loan sharks and stealing from the office in an attempt to make good. But make good he cannot. This inability, combined with his addiction to alcohol and to gambling, makes it difficult for him to continue on the payroll of the Indian government.

The pace of the book is quite racy, leading us on to follow Ritwik as he defects to the enemy’s side. There is a hint of mystery surrounding the man. Author Joseph cleverly chooses to keep us ignorant of Ritwik’s motives. We are therefore led to keep wondering whether the man is actually a defector, actuated by mercenary motives, or a double agent as the Al Qaeda suspects him to be.

It is difficult to empathise with an anti-hero, yet Joseph pulls off this difficult task by imbuing his character with a subtle sense of humour and an almost imperceptible sense of loyalty, as evinced by his penchant for Old Monk, as against other brands.

Joseph has a great style of writing, one that keeps the reader hooked until the end. I was also quite impressed with the manner in which he leads us into the world of the Al Qaeda, keeping us on edge.  The section in which Ritwik, suspected of being a double agent by the Al Qaeda, is tortured by them in an attempt to extract a confession out of him is brilliantly written.

If there is anything that marred the book for me, it was the less than perfect editing. In one or two places, I found the grammar questionable. There were also one or two spelling errors. In one place, Ritwik, having defected to the Al Qaeda, is relieved to note that he is now accepted as one of them and talks of the shock and surprise having ‘subsidised’ when he actually means ‘subsided’.

I thought the novel began to pick up pace only in Chapter 1, when Ritwik is introduced to us by name, and it slowly dawns on us that this man is actually going to defect. The lengthy Prologue, with its attempt to establish the background to the story, is dreary, despite being well written. It is only when Ritwik plunges into the story from his own perspective that things begin to heat up, and stay that way.

When the Snow Melts is a thriller that stays with you, long after the snow melts.

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!


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