Monday, 29 December 2014

Christmas Drabbles

My view this morning
During the hectic pre-Yule days, Michael Brookes hosted a Christmas drabble writing competition over at his blog, The Cult of Me. I decided to give it a go. I've never written a drabble before – a drabble is a 100 word story, and it always seemed to me impossible to tell a story in so few words. I've seen people do it, though – quite brilliantly, too – and since I've never tried it, I thought it would be interesting (I can enjoy an occasional challenge, as long as there isn't too much pressure ;) ). As it happens, it was also a lot of fun (I am utterly bored with everything else I've been trying to write recently, and I viewed this as a legitimate getaway...). So, imagine my surprise when my drabble was actually chosen among the 12 drabbles of Christmas to be published on TCoM and to receive a prize!

The drabble was originally published here, but you can read it right here as well:

Midwinter by Ulla Susimetsä

Snow buries field and forest. Darkness shrouds the world. The day barely dawns before dying into dusk.

Tonight, the longest night, the darkest night, the dead walk among the living.

In these dark hunting grounds of merciless cold, ancestors are always close, remembered, revered. Tonight, once the feasting is over, food and ale is left on the table for the dead to enjoy. Fire glows in the sauna oven long after the living have bathed: the dead may come and warm their icy limbs.

I slip into the smoky darkness. Ahh, so much better than the grave in frozen ground!

For those not familiar with Finnish traditions: my drabble is based on ancient customs which have been, in fact, alive up until quite recent times. I worried that this might not be clear and that people might think it was all fantasy... at which point my dear husband gave me a long look and asked, “in other words, you actually believe that the ancestors sneak into the sauna on Midwinter night?” Well... ;)

Anyway, I entered another drabble, too, and might as well post it here:

Santa's Little Helper by Ulla Susimetsä

Stockings? Check.
The little red cap? Check.
A festive ribbon? Check.

I tiptoe through the silent night. At the nursery door I listen, smiling. So much for staying up, seeing the reindeer fly, spying Santa with the presents!

I sneak into the living-room. There, by the fireplace, waits the man. Stuffing the stockings, he whispers, ”The kids didn't wake?”
”They're fast asleep.”
He chuckles. ”You brought the rest of the presents?”
”And one for you to unwrap now.”
He turns. His gaze devours my attire: elf's cap, lace stockings, the ribbon that covers so little. ”Merry Christmas, darling.”

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Review: Galler L'Etui 18 Mini Bâtons "Limited Edition"

Look what my personal chocolate courier, my dear sister, brought me from Belgium! It's a set of 18 tiny chocolate bars, or chocolate sticks, with eight different flavours! That's a really lovely box, a true chocolate sampler's dream.

The package is pretty, with a picture of a present (very appropriate!) and a window that lets you have a peek inside. Each chocolate minibar has been individually wrapped in a stylish Galler wrapping with a dark lower part and a top of a different colour. Unwrapping reveals the text “Galler” in a simple, stylish font in each bar.

But let's take a brief look at each bar:

Praliné Lait, milk chocolate with praline filling
The scent is soft, and so is the taste. The milk chocolate is silky smooth and sweet, but not too much so. The filling is also soft, with tiny pieces of praline in it. They taste sweet and nutty with a lovely hint of burnt sugar.

Pistaches Fraîches, white chocolate with fresh pistachios
This has a very fine, barely-there scent. The pistachios are a nice addition, their crispiness provides a contrast to the creamy texture of the chocolate. Likewise, they create an almost salty sensation, which acts as a delicious counterbalance to the sweet white chocolate.

Piémontais, milk chocolate with crispy filling
Again the milk chocolate is smooth and sweet, but not too much so. The filling is soft with something crispy in it. I can't quite identify what those little crispy pieces are, they remind me of crunchy cereal.

Praliné Noir, dark chocolate with praline filling
This is a dark chocolate shell with praline filling. The tiny wrapping didn't mention the cocoa content of the dark chocolate, but the box itself states that the cocoa content of the dark chocolate pieces is at least 60 %. This is one of the best dark chocolates I've ever tasted. There is not a hint of bitterness, it's smooth and intense but not overpowering. And the filling! It has a lovely, melt in your mouth texture and it simply tastes delicious. The combination is perfect, this might well be my favourite in this selection!

Praliné Blanc, white chocolate with praline filling
This is a white chocolate shell with praline filling. The white chocolate is creamy and sweet but it doesn't have the sugary, overly sweet flavour that some white chocolates have. And the praline filling is very tasty!

Café Liégeois, dark chocolate with mild coffee filling
Again, the dark chocolate is lovely. The coffee filling is silky and creamy, with a mild coffee flavour. It's a nice combination of mellow coffee and intense chocolate, but if I had not known what the filling was supposed to taste like, I might not have guessed what was in it (granted, I had had quite a lot of chocolate before tasting this one, so my taste buds might not have been at their most active).

Croustillant, milk chocolate with crispy praline filling
Another piece of that lovely, smooth milk chocolate. The filling, titled crispy praline, is very similar to the fillings in many other pieces, praline and/or crispy. Don't get me wrong, it's delicious. But at this point, it becomes difficult to tell the different pieces apart (especially when you're not tasting them all at the same time).

Praliné Aux Noix, dark chocolate with walnut praliné filling
More tasty dark chocolate! In this one, the smooth filling contains pieces of walnut, or rather, walnut praline. The walnut flavour is easily detectable and deliciously natural, and the praline isn't too sweet.

I first assumed that the box contained bars of nine different flavours – there were 18 altogether and it seemed natural that there'd be two of each flavour. However, at least in this box, there were eight different bars, because four of them were Praliné Noir. As it happens, that was perhaps my favourite, so I'm quite happy with the arrangement.

When I was a child, I was told that a proper review never includes mere praise but also a suggestion for improvement. If I had to come up with something, I would wish for a little more variety in the flavours. All these bars are very good, but many are rather similar in taste – including a wider variety of tastes would make the experience of sampling these chocolates even more interesting.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Holiday reads, or, Reading quirks, Part 5

With Halloween behind us and the Big Unmentionable approaching much more quickly than I'd like to acknowledge, it's time to look at another one of my reading quirks. This is all about holiday reads!

A necessary accompaniment for holiday reads.
Let's start with the closest one, the one we know as Joulu, Yule, Christmas... call it what you will, I'm going to claim that books are an important part of the holiday spirit. For me, they might even be the best part: to have several days when you don't have to do much, when you can just sit back and relax and read, read, read. Candles, the tree, a good book and, another essential, plenty of chocolate. Yes, that is indeed the best part!

And to thoroughly enjoy that, you need a good book. You need a great book. A really wonderful book. Which is why I always start the selection process well in advance. Or started, anyway... it has become much easier over the years, because I've decided to always go for certain favourites, something I can trust to be good.

My choice is usually something by Guy Gavriel Kay, who has let me down only once (with “Ysabel”). If he's published a new book that year, I save it (it's hard but hey, iron will... ;)) until I can open it on the 23rd of December. If there isn't anything new, I re-read one of the older ones. Kay is one of the first fantasy authors whose work I ever read and it looks like he'll be the last one as well. I've always been a very selective reader of fantasy, and lately I've only read works of a few authors... and since I keep dropping names off my list, there will soon be no one left! But I'm not giving up on Kay, his novels are everything I can wish for: they're entertaining but thought-provoking, there's history with just a bit of fantasy (the settings are fictional, but they are inspired by real places/locations/cultures), intriguing characters, epic events, a bit of romance, and stunningly beautiful writing. Yes, I am a big fan of his style, rather (melo)dramatic and poetic though it may be. These are books to get lost in, the sort where the story, the characters, the mood haunt me even when I'm not reading. They're the right books for Midwinter, when the world lies in darkness, when the wine is spiced and the candles glow.

Hefty tomes though most of Kay's books are, one isn't always enough to tide me over the holidays. Kaari Utrio's novels are also excellent choices, especially the ones set in Medieval times, or her great Viking/Crusader trilogy that takes you on a thrilling adventure from the pagan Finland through early Medieval Europe and the Byzantine court to the Middle East and even to Vinland. These are also books very rich in detail, in colour, and that just seems like a perfect fit for the holidays.
And what about the other holidays? For Midsummer, I like to choose something set in the pre-Christian times – it just seems to suit the magical feel of the Summer Solstice. And though Halloween hasn't yet established its place in my reading routine, it has done so regarding the bedtime stories I read to my daughter. Every year around Halloween we read “The Witch's Handbook” by Malcolm Bird. What is truly special about this hilarious book (try reading it and not wanting to be a witch!) is that I used to adore it as a child – and now my daughter is also a fan!

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Perfect presents

It was my name day today... actually, the name day for my middle name, but any excuse for celebrating and having some ice-cream or cake is a good one, right? ;) So it was my name day, and this is what my lovely family got me:

Volume Two of my very favourite graphic novel series, Pakanat ("Pagans"), which is set in Viking Age Finland! I must confess that I hardly ever read graphic novels, but I really enjoyed the first part in this series. And then there's a little lego figurine, a fierce warrioress! My husband had had to do some hunting to get his hands on this one... he claims it looks just like me when I'm angry. :D There is also a card with many colourful hearts, drawn by my daughter.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Review: Good Choc Bad Choc: Fascinating Origins, Sexy Tips, Amazing Facts & Delicious Recipes for all Chocolate Lovers by Marcus Juelle

Everyone reading this blog knows that I love chocolate and that I love books. So, imagine my enthusiasm when I came across this book about chocolate! And, amazingly, Amazon offered it for free! (Probably just for a limited time, but I was lucky.)

The book is written in a very casual tone, with smilies included. Typos crop up rather frequently. This makes it appear amateurish rather than a reliable source of serious chocolate facts – but, then again, the author never claims this to be a scientific publication but a collection of fun, weird and interesting facts, and this is definitely delivered.

The book introduces various types of chocolate and their use, discusses the history of chocolate, tells you what chocolate has to do with sex, love, romance and religion, how chocolate was believed to cure fever and alleviate pain, and how it works as an anti-depressant as well as an aphrodisiac. There's a list of “weird facts and true stories” and advice for including chocolate in your “diet program”. This is all amusing and entertaining. What I didn't care for so much was the section including celebrities who regularly eat chocolate – not only did that seem like useless information, I didn't even recognise most of the so-called celebrities.

And, of course, there are the health benefits and drawbacks of eating chocolate. If you need an excuse for indulging, you'll find it here: there are 20! The drawbacks, however, don't all sound very serious (which is good, if you love chocolate). For example, chocolate “only provides temporary happiness.” Well, better temporary happiness than no happiness at all, so I'll take that any day! ;)

As a delicious bonus, the book includes recipes. There are main courses, desserts and drinks, and they all feature chocolate! I didn't try any of the recipes yet, but there were a few I'd like to give a try later on.

If you want serious scientific facts about chocolate, this is not be the book for you. But if you want something small and cute with a little bit of everything – like a little box of chocolates with different flavours – then read “Good Choc, Bad Choc”.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The terrifying final page, or, Reading quirks (Part 4)

This came up in a fairly recent Facebook discussion, and I realised it's another one of my reading quirks. When you discover an author whose books you love and find out that the author has written several books, do you go and acquire and devour them all at once? When you come across a captivating first book in a series, do you keep reading them (assuming the entire series is out already, or at least more than the first volume) until you have none left?

I don't. I read just the one. Then I wait. (And read something else, of course!) Then, after some time has passed, I pick up the next book in the series, or another book by that great, “new” author. Again I take a break before moving on to the next one. In other words, I never read books in the same series one after the other (unless, perhaps, they've been published as a single volume). I'm calling this a reading quirk because I've been told it's a weird way of doing things and other readers have questioned my method. (I wish they had admired my patience and self-control and will power, but no...)

Which made me wonder, why do I do that? If the series really is that good, why don't I race through it? I would want to, sure. But even more than that I want to avoid that inevitable feeling of the end. As long as I don't read the next book, and, in particular, the very last book, the characters are still there, the world is still there... it's not over yet! Anything can happen! I can always go back. And I want that feeling to last.

Yes, I can always re-read the series, and so go back into that world, but somehow it's just not quite the same when you know how it's all going to turn out. The last book, the last page... there is a terrible finality there!

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Review: Marabou Premium 70 % Cocoa Coffee

This is another one from the Marabou Premium brand (I've reviewed the mint chocolate earlier), a coffee flavored dark chocolate. I find the wrapping rather attractive, what with the simple but stylish combination of gold and various shades of brown. The cocoa content is announced in clear, big numbers, which saves you the time of looking for the information somewhere among the small print on the package. The squares are thin but otherwise of a nice size.

This chocolate has a wonderful scent. It's dark, sweet, rich, mellow, warm, full-bodied... I'm running out of adjectives! I don't know what it is about it that I like so much – perhaps a whiff of coffee? I've always loved the scent of coffee, long before I learned to like the flavour.

And the taste? That's what we're here for, right? ;) The chocolate is smooth overall, there are no crisps or granules or anything like that in it. With the cocoa content of 70 % and the sharpness of coffee, I can almost detect a tiny hint of bitterness here. But it is not at all unpleasant, and might be just due to the fact that the chocolate isn't as sweet as I'd expect from its scent. Chocolate and coffee are a lovely combination, with the coffee's sharper roasted aromas softened by the mellow chocolate. The aftertaste is long and lingering.

Of those Premium brand chocolates that have no filling, this might be my new favourite. Marabou markets it as a perfect companion to a cup of coffee. Too bad I only drink coffee in the mornings and can't give it a try... unless I have some chocolate for breakfast! ;)

Sunday, 16 November 2014

A flourless / gluten-free chocolate cake

Okay, this is not a baking blog, but since this is about chocolate... ;) I found this recipe for a flourless chocolate cake some time ago and it sounded delicious... now I got a chance to bake it. My daughter kindly assisted me, which means we needed a fairly uncomplicated recipe, since a six-year-old's enthusiasm greatly overpowers her patience and baking skills. ;) This recipe is perfect in that regard: the cake is very easy to make, just a few simple ingredients, and there isn't much mixing or whipping involved.

And the cake turned out really good: dark and intensely chocolatey, with a somewhat gooey centre and firmer edges. I would have preferred it slightly less dense, so if I give it another go, I'll try and see what happens if I reduce the time it spends in the oven. I almost always end up tweaking any recipe at least a bit, but this time, I only used just a little less sugar.

The cake isn't very tall, but if you top it with whipped cream or something (we used a sort of very light whipped custard, Flora Vanilla), it works out beautifully. A chocolate frosting would also work, but on the other hand, the light vanilla fluff gave a nice contrast to the heavy, dense chocolate cake.

And just in case you'd like the recipe in English:

125 g chocolate (definitely recommend the darker varieties!)
125 g butter
175 ml sugar (I used about 150 ml)
3 large eggs
125 ml unsweetened cocoa powder

Butter the sides of a round (20 cm) cake pan and line the bottom of the pan with baking parchment. Melt the butter and chocolate. Add the sugar while mixing with an electric mixer. Add the eggs, mix well. Add the cocoa powder. Beat the mixture for about three minutes. Pour into the pan and bake at 200 C for 20-25 minutes (I took it out after 20 minutes). It'll look like it's not done yet, but as it cools, it will settle.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Blasphemy or creativity?

It was one of those days when my six-year-old daughter keeps whining: “I'm bored! I've nothing to do! Play with me!” Sometimes I can persuade her to listen to a story or we do some drawing or colouring, but unless I make a suggestion quickly, I'll end up playing house with her. And every time (every single time!) I get to be the mother and I get to cook. Come on, that's what I do anyway, every day!

So what do you do to keep things interesting for both of you? Witness the miraculous powers of chocolate... works every time, in any situation!

My suggestion, “Let's make some chocolates!” was met with boundless enthusiasm, manifested in happy shrieks, hand-clapping and a little dance. Well, we didn't actually make chocolate. We didn't have the ingredients. But I took out all the leftover chocolates – the sad, odd extra pieces, the bits and slivers that are born when chocolate refuses to break into neat pieces or when the squares can't be divided equally. I normally use them in baking (chocolate chip muffins etc.), but now I just melted the whole lot and blended it all together. This is probably the part that would be frowned upon by every chocolate connoisseur and would make them cry sacrilege... but I thought we were being rather creative! And thanks to this idea, no chocolate was wasted. Thus, a tragedy avoided.

I let my daughter pour the molten chocolate into tiny moulds, chopped up a few leftover pieces of white chocolate and “pink” chocolate (raspberry flavoured white chocolate) and let her decorate the pieces with those. I thought that there'd be chocolate splattered all over the kitchen when we finished, but she surprised me with her attention to detail and the precision and care with which she worked. And that was not only when she got to lick the mixing bowl and all the utensils... The chocolates turned out pretty and yummy and, most importantly, nobody was bored. :)

Friday, 7 November 2014

Reading, dreaming... or, Reading Quirks, Part 3

Image from the Facebook page of "Grammarly"

A good book is a book you don't want to put down, right? But a great book is a book that makes you want to close your eyes and dream... and dream... What I mean is that, for me, those really great books are the ones that give me materials for my dreams. And that includes both the dreams we have when we sleep (I love it when characters from a book invade my dreams!) and daydreams. Anything else interrupting a session with a great book is irritating, but these dreams and musings I actually love!

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Review: Marabou Premium 70 % Cocoa Mint

I am familiar with most, if not perhaps all, Marabou premium products. I've liked most of them, with my favourite being the Lemon & Ginger and, especially, the (Winter) Caramel. The latter was one of my favourite chocolates of all time (yes, there are many...), but, very regrettably, it seems to have disappeared from the selection! Anyway, on to the Mint version. This mint flavoured dark chocolate has been around for some time, at least in a tablet form. I've never seen these pretty boxes before, though, and that's a good enough reason to take a little taste.

The box looks very nice with the colour combination of black, green and gold. With the picture of mint leaves, it's clear what it contains. I only needed to open the box and out wafted a very strong aroma of mint. However, it wasn't the crisp, fresh aroma one usually associates with mint but a softer, more... sophisticated (?) scent. Perhaps the aromas of cocoa mellowed it? Each chocolate square comes in its own wrapping: the outer one with a picture (see the picture on the right) and the inner one of plain silver foil. The squares are of a satisfying size, thin but not too small, with the simple, stylish pattern that's familiar to all who have ever sampled Marabou Premium products.

The chocolate has a cocoa content of 70 %. I already mentioned the strong minty scent, but on second sniffing, the aroma of cocoa is also distinguishable. The chocolate snaps when you break it apart and melts in your mouth. It's also very smooth and has an intense cocoa flavour, to which the mint provides a nice counterpoint. Some mint chocolates include the mint in big, very hard pieces of brittle (and I always fear it will damage the enamel of my teeth), but here it's scattered in the chocolate in tiny pieces of crisp that provide a nice amount of crunch yet aren't too hard. The mint flavour, while strong, isn't “toothpasty”.

Mint chocolate seems to be ever popular, most brands offer some variety of it. As a child, I used to love mint chocolate, but perhaps got a little tired of it; it no longer counts among the “chocolates to get excited about” for me. But it is a classic. And there are times when I crave the soothing yet refreshing taste of good mint chocolate. Since this is dark chocolate, you also get the benefit of telling yourself it's good for you... and, another good argument (as if I needed any when it comes to eating chocolate): according to the box, at least 30 % of the cocoa comes from plantations with the Rainforest Alliance certificate.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Review: Mars Caramel (limited edition)

If I had to pick a favourite chocolate bar, I'd probably pick the Mars bar. Why? Because of the caramel! There's plenty of it, and there are no crunchy nuts or crispy cookies messing it up – not that I don't like those, but when I want the best, it's the smooth, simple combination of chocolate, caramel and nougat that I always go for. And did I mention the caramel?

So imagine my excitement upon learning that there was a special edition of Mars bar, called “Caramel”! I had to try that, but didn't manage to find it anywhere, until my dear husband finally hunted down a few specimens. (Apparently the bar isn't exactly new, but was launched a couple of years ago – but I don't remember ever seeing it in Finland until now.)

Nothing special about the wrapping, it has the familiar Mars logo/text on it and plenty of orange (because of the caramel? Possibly.). Now, the bar has been shaped differently: it's thinner than the regular Mars bar! This is disappointing; I like my bars thick and... well, I'm unable to think of an adjective that wouldn't make that phrase dirty so let's leave it at that.

The thinness is explained by the fact that the bar consist of just chocolate and caramel, meaning that there is no nougat layer. The chocolate coating is the same milk chocolate as in the regular Mars bar – perhaps not exactly exciting, but tasty and reliable (you know what you're going to get). I suspect the caramel is also of the same kind, or at least very similar. There is a thicker layer of it, or rather, the entire filling is made of it. I am a huge caramel fan, so I can't view this as a bad thing. It's sweet, sticky, yummy, and has a nice consistency (not too thin and runny). Since the bar is, in essence, chocolate coated caramel, it is very, very sweet, but that is something one expects from a Mars bar.

If you love caramel, you'll probably find this delicious. I definitely enjoyed this limited edition treat, and I always find these variations on a theme interesting. Still, it is the classic Mars bar that remains my favourite.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Sex, drugs and... words?

No, I did not come up with that title in hopes of attracting attention. No, those are not three of my favourite things... except if you think of chocolate as a drug and, well, books are made of words... so they actually are three of my favourite things!

I came across this article, which, referring to this study, suggests that learning new words activates not only the language areas in our brain but also the same reward areas as do “pleasurable activities”, such as, say, sex or eating chocolate. The conclusions seem to be rather preliminary yet, but it is an interesting idea. We might learn languages because we enjoy it! Emotions might play a significant role in language acquisition and in our motivation to learn languages, whether we're talking about people learning a foreign language or of children learning their first language.

Someone has been playing with words
The researches measured the brain activity while the participants completed two tasks: gambling and learning a new word by inferring its meaning from context. Earning money while gambling and learning a new word by inference produced the same brain activity. This makes me wonder – would learning a word from a dictionary or from a vocabulary list be equally pleasurable or is the process of inferring a word from context (the aha! moment; the epiphany) needed to produce the increase in brain activity? If it is indeed inference that causes the “pleasure” of learning a new word, it would certainly suggest that this method of vocabulary learning would be superior to most other methods (such as memorising vocabulary lists).

However, I'm afraid more proof is needed before I replace my nightly chocolate fix with language classes... ;)

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Review: Lindt Creation Chocolate Fondant

This is what I found in the grocery bag the other day... Chocolate fondant! Doesn't that sound luxurious? I was very eager to wrestle with this particular wrapping...

...which is a really nice wrapping with a picture of a delicious looking chocolate fondant. A combination of white, gold and purple makes it look rather decadent. It says “Chocolate Fondant with a Melting Heart” and if that doesn't peak your interest then I don't know what does!

The pieces are nice, big squares with logos and the text “Lindt” on them. They break apart somewhat haphazardly, sometimes separating the different layers. A milk chocolate “shell” contains a “molten” chocolate heart or a filling that is made of a darker, more runny chocolate.

The milk chocolate is the typical Lindt chocolate, or at least to me it tastes like some other products from the same company. This is not a problem, since the milk chocolate is very creamy and smooth. However, it is the filling that is of a real interest here – this is, after all, the melting heart of a chocolate fondant that has inspired the entire creation! (Of this particular chocolate, anyway.) And it is good. It is a sort of almost liquid chocolate centre that, darker than the milk chocolate that envelopes it, has a very intense chocolate flavour. The only not-so-good a thing is that the filling is kind of runny, which means that you either have to devour the piece rather quickly or, in order to properly savour it, you have to be very careful lest the filling drips out (and we would not want that to happen!). But for one with a bit of patience and dextrous fingers that is no obstacle.

Together the filling and the casing make the chocolate very sweet – and as it happens, I had a similar experience with the Crème Brûlée of the same line that I sampled earlier. Still, for a chocoholic like myself, it is definitely satisfying. This chocolate with a melting heart really did melt my heart. :) It is just the perfect thing to indulge in during these dark, dreary autumn days.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Are you feeling adventurous, or, Reading quirks, Part 2

I am not a particularly adventurous person. I do enjoy new experiences and have a certain kind of curiosity, but I am definitely not a risk taker. But one of the areas where I can be bold and adventurous is... reading!

Most of us have a favourite genre – the one that, when you come back to it after a detour to other genres, makes you feel like you're coming home. My favourite genre is historical fiction, but I enjoy exploring other genres. Sometimes I'm asked why; why would I read something contemporary, why am I reading something I don't normally read, aren't there enough books in my preferred genre if I'm forced to read something else. The reason is variety!

When it comes to historical fiction, I have my favourite periods, but sometimes I pick an era and events that I know very little or nothing about, for that very reason. After I've read the book, I know at least a little more. I admit that I'm always more interested in individual characters and what happens to them rather than the general events and the “great lines” of history, which is why I may not always glean any facts from these books but rather just a “feel” for the period. On the other hand, sometimes a novel gets me interested in the era or the events so much that I want to learn more about them.

Such a book was a Finnish novel titled “Veriruusut” (translation: “Blood Roses”) by Anneli Kanto. I first came upon Kanto's debute novel “Piru, kreivi, noita ja näyttelijä by accident; I was just browsing in the library when the old-style font on the spine of that book caught my eye (one of the things that attract me, as I've mentioned before). The novel is set in the 17th century, my dear husband's favourite era, so I borrowed the book for him. He never read it though, so I – a greedy, curious creature that I am – decided to read it instead. I didn't fall in love with it, but I liked it well enough to want to find out what else Kanto had written. And there was this book about the Finnish Civil War in 1918 (yes, way too modern a period for me!). More particularly, it is about the women who joined the “Red Guards” and fought in the war. Immediate interest. It is also a subject of which I knew very little.

The story isn't beautiful. It's brutal. The women who had dared to take up arms... let's just say the endings they got were far from the "happily ever after". Kanto describes how the women ended up joining the “Red Guards”: how some hoped that the labour movement, with its goal of improving the workers' conditions and rights, would also make women equal to men. How, for some, it was a necessity (as the factories were closed down, women lost their jobs, and they had children to feed – the Guard members were paid and they received food and clothes). Some had no idea what they were getting themselves into. Many of these women were very young: some of the girls were only 14.

It seems impossible to describe the horrors of war, yet Kanto does it and by doing so, she breaks your heart. The cruelty a human being is capable of – and what that cruelty does to those who wield it – makes you despair. That could easily make the reading experience intolerable, but Kanto gives us humour, she gives us brave, resilient, yet very human heroines, but above all, a glimmer of hope – and often where you'd least expect it. Someone greedy and violent is stunned by the atrocities of war and, even against their will, ends up extending a helping hand. A truly spineless person is pushed to that one act of courage which may seem small but will have a tremendous influence on the lives of others.

I had just complained to a friend how books no longer touch me, but suddenly I had in my hands a book that brought tears into my eyes more than once and that I didn't want to put down. The story still lingers in my mind. I will want to read more about these women, and I hope there will be another novel, preferably historical fiction, from Kanto.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Review: Cloetta Sprinkle Salted Icecream Waffel and Mint & Crispy Rain

Since I haven't been up to wrestling with words lately, I decided to attack some wrappings. These two are fairly new, so here goes:

The wrappings are colourful with cute/funny images and texts. They let you expect something playful rather than quality chocolate. The chocolate comes in nice thick pieces, which somehow suits the milk chocolate.

The waffle: I wrestled with this wrapping in high hopes, being 1) a big fan of caramel and 2) having developed a liking to the sweet-and-salty combination that some chocolates with a bit of salt offer. The chocolate is very sweet and has no particular character. There are slivers of waffle everywhere in it. If you like waffle, you'll probably enjoy this, too. The association works: eating this chocolate made me think of ice-cream! However, I generally like my chocolate as chocolate – some additions are fine but I prefer them not to take the centre stage as the waffle bits do here. On the other hand, the crunchy caramel bits are lovely – I just wish there were more of them! And the salt? It can surprise you, for it isn't present in every bite, but where it is, it is nicely intense and an interesting contrast to the otherwise very sweet chocolate.

The mint: The mint chocolate has tiny dark spots in it and on the other side you can see some white little pearl-like thingies (rice puffs, presumably). The chocolate is very sweet (probably exactly the same as the other one). The mint flavour isn't too strong, yet it is clearly there, present in tiny pieces of hard, sticky mint brittle. The rice puffs are, as expected, crispy. The chocolate / additive ratio seemed a little more balanced with this one; still, I had a feeling that the rice puffs almost overwhelmed the chocolate. The texture is crispy but the flavour is smooth, which makes an interesting combination.

The additives make both chocolates crispy and crunchy. They're perfect for those moments when you want to chew and munch on chocolate rather than let it melt in your mouth.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Review: Galler Chocolatier Noir 70 % Menthe – Citron Vert

It's been a while since I wrestled with wrappers – let's fix that now. I have something special to review this time, namely some chocolate brought to me by my dear sister all the way from Brussels! And as we all know, Belgian chocolate is legendary, so... talk about great expectations!

Let's rustle some wrappings. And, as it happens, rather stylish ones! The outer case is dark with a gold lettering and green images (appropriate, considering the flavours of the chocolate). The inner wrapper is a luxurious gold. The chocolate itself is very thin, which enhances the impression of decadence. The tablet is divided into rectangular pieces of a very pleasing size (= not too small).

The 70 % cocoa content takes this to the dark side of chocolates, but it must be mentioned that it is in no way bitter. As far as I can trust my (almost non-existent) French, I gather it is flavoured with mint and lime. The scent is a nice mix of the almost earthy richness of dark chocolate and the refreshing aromas of mint and lime.

The taste, however, is where it gets really interesting. Since I tasted this chocolate at various occasions, I can say that this is the chocolate that has made me most clearly aware of the fact that with chocolates – just like with wine and, say, quality rums – what you've eaten prior to tasting can have a huge influence on how you perceive the flavours. On one occasion, I tasted the chocolate when I hadn't had anything else to eat in a while. In that context, the mint and lime flavours were rather strong, almost overwhelming the chocolate. It could almost be characterised as “spicy”. But on another occasion, I sampled the chocolate after a rather heavy meal where various strong flavours were present. And at that time, it was wonderfully refreshing, with a perfect balance of smooth chocolate and those fresh, crispy flavours of mint and lime. It was like an iced drink on a hot day!

Therefore, this chocolate was not only delicious but is also surprised me with the different tasting experiences.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Reading quirks, part 1

One book, two books, three books... can several books compete for your attention? Some of us juggle a number of books, reading a bit of this and a bit of that and then some of something else, going back to the first one and then maybe starting yet another... Some of us like to focus on one book at a time and refuse to open (or even think of opening) a new one until they're finished with the one.

One way isn't better than the other, and these habits can change. I used to read only one book at a time, but over the recent years, I've developed a completely different style. I usually have 2-4 books on my currently-reading pile. Sometimes more.

Why? I start a book (or two... or three) and realise it isn't as good as I expected but there's something there and I can't just give up on it. Instead, I keep giving it another chance (or maybe I just persist because I'm stubborn... or hey, I've read nearly half of it, I can't quit now!). But I'm not excited about it – and that's not very satisfying. I need something more engaging. Something to indulge in. Something to pamper myself with. Sometimes I save these treats for the weekends or evenings when my daughter is asleep and I can actually read more than half a line at a time. These are my luxury reads.
A reader pampering herself

I read mostly in English, which is a second language to me, but I don't want to neglect my Finnish, either. That's why I often also have a Finnish novel on the side.

And then there are the non-fiction books. With those I usually, but not always, manage to keep my focus on one at a time.

Sometimes people ask me how I can do this. Don't I get confused? Well, no. Usually the books happen to be different genres or otherwise just different, and it's easy enough to keep them straight. Of course, now and then a book comes along that's so good it forces me to drop everything else. That's a great feeling. With my favourite authors, I always do that: set everything else aside to properly savour the book. I even have designated times, such as holidays, when I consistently do just that... but that's another reading quirk. ;)

Friday, 12 September 2014

Review: Waking the Merrow by Heather Rigney

What's the first image that comes to mind when you think of mermaids? The little mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen? Or the Disney version? Or this painting by John William Waterhouse?

The latter is what I think of when I hear the word “mermaid”. Or used to. Since reading “Waking the Merrow”, I'll be thinking of blood-thirsty, cold-hearted, dismembering creatures with a hankering for human flesh.

I was lured into this book by the promise of historical fiction, my favourite genre. There are, however, various storylines, and while most of them are set in different centuries in the past, the main storyline is set in the present. This did not bother me, though, and even more surprisingly, it was the contemporary storyline that I found the most engaging.

The protagonist in that story is Evie (rhymes with heavy) McFadan, a funeral director who has no illusions about life: “When you're young, you think you'll grow up and know everything. At thirty-eight, I didn't know shit.” When she relates her trips to the playground with her little daughter – how she rather sits alone, observing the other mothers, than engages in chit-chat and gossiping... I've found my soulmate. Fine, she has a drinking problem, but we can't all be chocoholics, now can we? As a (first person) narrator, Evie has a great voice; wry and witty (sarcasm and snarkiness are tricky as they easily come across as trying too hard, but such instances were rare). Her relationship with her husband is refreshingly realistic – no sugary romance here.

All the trouble for Evie begins on that playground. As if being a funeral director, a mother and a wife – not to mention dealing with icy in-laws – isn't enough, murderous merbitches are on a mission to wreck her life. True, she's doing a good job of that all on her own... but when her family is threatened, is she going to just sit back and do nothing? Hell, no. Evie is an everywoman, she's one of us. We need her to come out on top: if she can do it, so can we!

The author has created an interesting twist on mermaid myths, and I wish she had explored that legend a little more deeply. Some of the history bits seem pale in comparison to the contemporary storyline, but I'll blame my high expectations for historical fiction. The writing is smooth overall, there only a tiny bit towards the end that seemed a bit awkward.

“Waking the Merrow” is a dark historical fantasy – with horror and humour. It's been a while since cliffhangers actually worked for me, but there were a couple here that made me want to race through the pages to find out what happens. I managed to snatch this book when Amazon offered it for free. Carefully edited, well written and nicely paced, it's one of the best free offers I've read.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Review: Fazer Pure Dark chocolates

Ever since I heard about these new chocolates from Fazer, I've eagerly awaited for their release date and a chance to taste them. All right, I may have forgotten them for a while... which is why, when I'd had a particularly bad day, the fact that my husband brought us all these three varieties for sampling was a sweet surprise. (I know! The husband is very sweet, too. Or at least he learns fast. Wife having a bad day → do not go home without some chocolate.)

The cocoa percentage of 70 is certainly promising. And there are three different flavours! There's also an unflavoured dark chocolate in the same series (titled ”cocoa”), but it was not included in this tasting.

The wrappings are nice but not particularly exciting (see the pic above). The inner foil is greyish, with the pattern we've already seen on the outer wrapping. The chocolate itself is patterned and divided in pieces in what seems a very haphazard manner (see the pic on the left, yes the one with the monstrous shadow :P). Our six-year-old associated some of the patterning (the same as on the wrappings) with fish scales! Probably not the image you'd want to go for, but I don't mind. Only, the pieces are hard to divide equally. That's all right if you're tasting them by yourself, or with a partner, or in adult company. With children that's going to be a problem! Everyone must have an equal piece! However, after staring at the chocolate for a moment, I was able to come up with various solutions to the problem (my mind is not the most logical of them all). So, not a problem, after all. The pieces are rather thin, which enhances the feel of luxury chocolate.

First, the mint chocolate. When I opened the wrapper, a strong aroma of mint wafted into my nose. While not unpleasant, it made me somewhat suspicious. I like mint chocolate, but if the mint flavour is too strong, the experience is akin to eating tooth paste. So I took a cautious bite... and was instantly reassured. While strong, the mint flavour is not overwhelming. The chocolate has that smooth, silky, melt-in-your-mouth quality that I associate with the best chocolates. This is the perfect after dinner (or any other time) mint: soothing yet refreshing.

Next, the roasted corn. The scent is that of roasted corn... yes, exactly – popcorn! And that's what it tastes like, too, with tiny, crunchy pieces of roasted corn scattered in the chocolate. It's slightly salty. There was a time when I couldn't understand the sweet and salty combination, but lately, I've become a fan (but a rather selective one). With this, however, I can't quite make up my mind. I've never been a fan of popcorn – those family members who do like popcorn also enjoyed the chocolate (all right, all right; I enjoyed it too, it just isn't one of my favourites!). I have a feeling that it needs time: a few more bites and I could get used to it.

Finally, the coffee and cardamom. Had I not known what's in this chocolate, I might not have been able to guess it from the scent and taste, at least not right away, even though the cardamom scent is fairly strong. The taste is interesting. The cardamom comes first – I can't help but be reminded of cardamom flavoured sweet buns. That's quickly followed by the coffee which gives the chocolate a nice toasted (roasted?) flavour and lingers as a bitter-sweet aftertaste, definitely not unpleasant, especially if you like coffee. I don't know which one it is (perhaps both?) that give the chocolate a little brittle, crunchy texture. Still, the chocolate is smooth and the flavours complement each other. This would be my go-to chocolate on dark and stormy nights, but, with the coffee content of 2,5 %, it might not be the smartest choice for someone suffering from chronic insomnia. Oh well, it's just as perfect for afternoons!

Overall, I enjoyed all three varieties, but if I had to pick a favourite, I'd choose the coffee & cardamom. I will definitely buy that and the mint chocolate again. From what I've seen online, some of Fazer's dark chocolates have been criticised because of their comparatively low cocoa percentage. With their 70 % cocoa content, I'd expect these to please those who favour darker chocolates.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Review: Fazer Winter Edition chocolate, Apple, Caramel and Hazelnuts in Dark Chocolate

It was the first day of September as I walked into a supermarket and found this... Winter Edition chocolate! Yes, the winters in Finland tend to be unbearably long, but come on... September?!?

Well, winter, September – who cares? It's chocolate. Let's focus on that.

I find the wrapping very appealing – maybe it's the colours, the combination of brown and white with a  bit of green and gold that makes it look stylish to me. The inner wrapping is a silvery one with a fine shimmer – spot-on for something marketed as “winter edition.”

The chocolate is shaped in the traditional Fazer manner, no surprises there. That's a good thing; it would be a disappointment were this classic to change. The chocolate is dark with a 47 cocoa percentage. That's a little on the low side for dark chocolate, but it isn't bitter and might be a good place to start if you're not used to darker chocolates.

The chocolate itself is familiar to anyone who has tasted Fazer's darker chocolates. Not immediately impressive, but makes a good, solid base that doesn't overwhelm the taste of various additives. And what are the additives here? The wrapping lists “apple, caramel and hazelnut”. I was afraid this might be a little too much, and, indeed, when you first bite into the chocolate, it's impossible to say what's in it. Which means you just have to sample some more. (This is serious, people, we're doing important research! I may not be an expert in tasting chocolate, but no one can accuse me of not being thorough!) The hazelnut pieces are small and, unsurprisingly, have a nutty flavor. The caramel morsels are very small, crispy and tasty. I only wish there'd been more! I'd say the apple is the most interesting one of these ingredients, though. I was expecting the sort of overly sweet unidentifiable flavour and sticky, won't-ever-let-go-of-your-teeth consistency of candied fruit that I've usually encountered in chocolate, but was pleasantly surprised. The apple pieces are rather moist and provide a lovely sweet-yet-tart flavour.

So far, the pear and almond chocolate has been my favourite of Fazer's darker versions, but this has now become its rival. The flavours didn't exactly make me think of winter, they're something I'd associate with autumn. Perhaps that's a good thing, seeing that it isn't winter yet... (To be honest, I was so shocked to find “winter” chocolate in early September that last night I dreamed it snowed on September 2nd... yes, that's how exciting my dreams are these days.)

Monday, 25 August 2014

Comfort read

If I had a comfort read, this would be it: Kaari Utrio's romantic comedies that are set in the 19th century Grand Duchy of Finland. For excitement, I go for her earlier novels, set in the much less genteel Medieval times. That world is brutal!

Then again, so is the 19th century. The ballrooms may not be battle fields, but the pecking order is rigid and the rules ruthless. This is the time when one's social standing determines everything from the way one dresses to the people one can associate with – and marry. Marriages have little or nothing to do with love: they are advantageous arrangements. Women have precious little independence and extremely narrow roles.

These novels are described as comedies of manners and are often compared with Jane Austen's novels. They do indeed have much in common: ladies and gentlemen looking for an advantageous match; meddling parents and family members; a bit of romance and quite a lot of humour. Some of the characters start off as haughty or stand-offish, but – yes, you guessed it: love changes everything.

The focus is on match-making, but, like Austen, Utrio highlights the dependence of women on marriage to secure social status. There is usually something about her heroines that sets them apart, and they tend to have experiences atypical of (and sometimes abhorred by) the women of their times: they may have received an education available to very few women (e.g. in The Smolny Institute for Noble Girls in St Petersburg) or they may have accompanied their fathers on expeditions where folklore material (such as poems) was collected.

When you pick up one of these novels, you know what you're going to get (therein lies the comfort). There will be bonnets and balls, pride and prejudice, attractions deemed unacceptable... and characters whose love will conquer the obstacles of societal expectations. The historical details are rich and well-researched. The writing is solid – perhaps not the lyrical prose I'm guilty of favouring, but it's vivid and a perfect fit for the characters. The sharp observations are delivered in humorous tones: I always find myself chuckling and smiling when reading these books.

Granted, when you start, you have a fairly good idea of what's going to happen, but how... that is a mystery. Plot twists abound, often involving mistaken identities or exaggerations or ill-intentioned rumours, or misunderstanding arising from the fact that it simply was not appropriate to discuss certain matters (let alone express one's feelings). The final page always leaves me admiring how neatly Utrio ties up every loose end.

This is what a comfort read is all about: as soon as you open the first page, you know you're in good hands.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

About books about books

I sound like a broken record? No, no (well, sometimes... “chocolate, chocolate, chocolate...”) - I mean books that are about books, books where an important role is played by books. These stories may be about a specific book or books in general; reading books, writing books, selling books, buying books, loving books... but most of such stories aren't just about books, they are also about stories, knowledge, imagination – and where those can take you or how they can change the world.

Here are some examples of books about books - I've only included books that I've read. Some I've loved, others... not so much.

“The Shadow of the Wind” and “The Angel's Game” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Book dealers and mysterious books, writers (rather mysterious, too) and the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

“Under Heaven” by Guy Gavriel Kay. Okay, technically not about books, but poetry does play an important role in this one (and it is beautiful).

“The Eyre Affair” by Jasper Fforde. Special Operatives in literary fiction. Literary homicides. People who get (literally!) lost in books or poems.

“Tathea” by Anne Perry. A Book of Truth. Not this book but in this book.

“Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen. A parody of Gothic romances and a heroine who loves them... over-romaticizing and confusing art with life – sound familiar? ;)

“Where the Shadows Lie” by Michael Ridpath. Long lost Sagas and Tolkien references.

“The Princess Bride” by William Goldman. A story about a story about a story... no, wait...

“A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness. An enchanted alchemical manuscript (plus public and private libraries).

“The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco. An abbey library and manuscript scribbling monks.

“The Time Traveler's Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger. There's a library and there's time travel. I repeat: time travel!

“Ilkeät sisarpuolet” by Kaari Utrio. An owner of a printing press in the Finland of 1827 – and famous figures from the history of Finnish literature.

And then there are, of course, numerous adaptations of well-known novels, such as “My Mr. Rochester” and “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” etc. which are also about books, or characters from those books. Not to forget companion books to novels or series of novels, definitely also books about books.

So, yes, I love books, I love reading... naturally, I love reading about books, and I'd assume just about every book lover feels the same way. And authors, too – why else would they write books about books? This was just a brief look at such books, so if you'd like to recommend one (or more!), you're welcome to leave a comment.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Review: The Bones of Avalon by Phil Rickman

A scientist and an astrologer, a mathematician and a sorcerer, and the queen's adviser in the hidden matters. John Dee is all this, yet his greatest desire is to build his own library and devote his life to studying. Much to his dismay, Queen Elizabeth I sends him on a mission to recover the lost bones of King Arthur from the one-time Avalon, now the gloomy town of Glastonbury that harbors dark and dangerous secrets. Dee is plunged from his world of quiet contemplation into the whirlwind of murder plots, witch hunts, grave robbers and the literally deeply buried secrets of the ancient and more recent kings.

Dr. Dee is not your typical dashing hero. He knows his books, but they have imparted to him precious little knowledge about the real world. The shy and socially clumsy bookworm (what, identifying with the main character? Me?) is forced to survive situations entirely novel to him. Including encountering an interesting woman.

While I love historical fiction, I don't often read historical mysteries. I enjoyed ”The Bones of Avalon”, however. It wasn't always easy to follow who did what and why, and I found the ending somewhat underwhelming, but I loved the rich period detail. Many of the characters are real historical figures and are, for the most part, skilfully drawn and have their strengths and weaknesses. The writing is beautiful, and while the pace is slow, I found that it fit the feel of the story. And the feel and the atmosphere were perhaps the best parts of the novel. There is eeriness, mystery and magic and the sense of the land and locations that is just... I was going to say incredible, but the right word here is credible.

I particularly enjoyed the conflicts between science and sorcery, and between Christianity and the 'old ways'. The lines between them blur, and it was amusing to read about Dee's astonishment when he is considered a 'conjurer' while he sees himself as a scientist, a man of enlightenment. This is one of the elements that make the book entertaining as well as thought-provoking, something I enjoy in a novel.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Review: Two organic chocolates

Today we take a look - I mean, a taste - of two organic chocolates. Pirkka is a Finnish brand, but a careful study of the wrappings reveals that the chocolate is Swiss. Sounds promising.

The first victim is white chocolate with raspberry. The pieces are rather modest in their appearance, but the colour is a pretty pink. Raspberry flavour is stronger than I expected and it tastes authentic (not one of those artificial raspberry flavours). There are small pieces of raspberry scattered here and there and they do indeed appear to be real (seeds and all!). I have nothing to say about the white chocolate itself - it is sweet, as white chocolate tends to be, and has no particular character. That's fine, though - raspberry takes centre stage and I like that.

The other sample comes from dark chocolate. As far as dark chocolates go, it is not particularly impressive (not even very dark, I might add), with a somewhat dry rather than that melt-in-your-mouth texture. The tiny pieces of cocoa brittle, however, make up for this. They have a strong taste that could almost be described as roasted - they make me think of cocoa beans! They're very crispy, though, almost too hard to crack with your teeth. Still, they are what definitely 'makes' this chocolate.

I might buy either one of these again – in fact, I already have! Or my husband did, apparently reading my mind: I forgot to taste the two chocolates together, and I think they might make a great combination! Definitely needs a new tasting session. The fact that they're organic and fairtrade chocolates is certainly a bonus.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Alone with your feelings?

Does this ever happen to you? If it does, how do you cope?

That image on The Bluestocking Review's Page in Facebook reminded me of how, when you've read a truly great book, you want to talk about it so badly. Yes, even a total introvert like me gets that urge! You're bursting with thoughts and feelings and impressions, and yearning to hear how others experienced the book...

These days it's rarely a problem. There's Goodreads and book forums and Facebook sites and everything. You can read reviews and follow discussions (there may not be an exact fandom, but there probably are people who have read the book). A good discussion about a thought-provoking book is a wonderful thing, but, amazingly, it can also lead to other things.

I read Diana Gabaldon's 'Outlander' many years ago, and then, over a decade ago now (I had likely read the next book or two in the series by then), I started looking for others who had read it. I found my way to a fan site titled 'Ladies of Lallybroch' where I posted an introduction. I soon received an email from another reader, who said that something about my post just made her want to write to me. We started writing emails, and realised we had almost eerily much in common. She doesn't live in Finland, but we've met a couple of times, and our DHs also got on very well.

Some time later, I fell in love with M. C. Scott's Boudica series. After finishing the fourth and final book, I had to find someone to talk about it with. I discovered the author's discussion forum. It might not have been the biggest online community, but it was lovely, with people brought together by their love for the books and the characters and with an ability to engage in both serious discussions and completely crazy chitchat. I met two of my friends there, again people who live in different parts of the world from me, but people I feel very comfortable 'with' (I've met only one of them in person, but distance doesn't matter).

So, what began as a need to talk about a book led to wonderful friendships. We still sometimes talk about THE books, but mostly, now, about other things. I have shared much with these friends, and I'm very grateful that they're in my life. These books will always be special for me for that reason.

I'm also very lucky in that my husband loves reading. When I get that urge to talk about a book, there's someone who listens and understands (and doesn't think you're crazy when you rave about fictional characters and their lives). And I get to hear about the books he finds interesting. The best is when we read the same book and can talk about it (we both just finished 'The Hunter from the Woods' by Robert McCammon, and we love it – lycanthrope lore! An action-packed book with warmth and depth! And... actually, just read my husband's review). The first such book was Guy Gavriel Kay's 'Lions of Al-Rassan', something my husband, then my boyfriend, used to entice me to read fantasy. And he knew me well then already (must've been over 14 years ago): I loved the book and still count it among my favourites. Once I had read it, we sat at the dinner table for about three hours and talked and talked...