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”.