Wednesday, 23 December 2015

All set for the holidays?

The big unmentionable is almost upon us, but due to unfortunate circumstances, such as battling stubborn cold viruses, my preparations have been... not quite what I planned. But I've got the most important things covered and the rest is all about being in the right mood, which should be easy enough.

There is one thing, though, that I planned well in advance. Among my reading quirks, I've mentioned the habit of carefully choosing my holiday reads. This year, I'm going with Manda Scott's latest, “Into the Fire” and Kaari Utrio's "Haukka, minun rakkaani". The first will take me to the 15th century France and the latter to the 14th century Finland. I've been saving both and already look forward to diving into their world with a box of chocolates within my reach...

And so, without further ado - Joyous Yuletide! Read, eat chocolate and be merry!

Monday, 21 December 2015

December – the month of Yule

Last month I blogged about November’s Finnish name and thought, why not make it a monthly feature? Wrestling with words is what I do, and names are fascinating, so here goes...

The name of December in Finnish is joulukuu. It seems straightforward enough: joulu means 'Christmas' and the whole month has been named after that feast. The Finnish word joulu, in turn, comes from the Old Norse word jól – yes, the very same that gave Yule its name. So, in Finnish, this midwinter feast still retains its pagan roots even in its name (I could go on about various traditions, but that’s a topic for another time).

I said it seems straightforward enough, didn’t I? Which means it has to be more complicated than it seems. Well, December wasn’t always known as the month of Yule. Up until the 17th or 18th century, it was known as talvikuu, ’winter month’ (or ’winter moon’... I like the sound of that). That makes sense; December is usually when winter begins and it’s the time of Winter Solstice (talvipäivänseisaus in Finnish). However, as Yule gained more and more importance as a yearly holiday, the name of the month also changed. Considering that winter seems to arrive later each year - in fact, the weather we have now in Midwinter doesn't much differ from the weather of last Midsummer! - it seems that the name talvikuu would no longer even be very appropriate.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Yulish questions

I recently received another set of questions from my friend and fellow blogger at the stunningly beautiful Almond Valley! This time, the questions are Yule themed, as befits the season... So, here goes! All sorts of musings about the holidays. :)

1. Are you going to give any presents you made by yourself?
I’m thinking... chocolate! Yes, perhaps; if I can find the time. It's not looking very good at the moment...

2. What’s the best present you’ve ever received that was made by the person who gave it to you?
This one’s easy! Woollen socks knitted by my mother-in-law. My feet are always cold. Always. My mother-in-law knits awesome socks; they’re pretty and soft and warm. They’re a gift that I use every day (yes, even in summer) and particularly special since she makes them herself – I could never knit a sock!

3. Have you ever made your own advent calendar?
I used to make them as a child. Now I no longer actually make them, but we have one which is basically 24 boxes that have to be filled... with chocolate! :) And little notes for my daughter that tell her to go treasure hunting to find tiny surprise presents.

4. What puts me in the mood for Yule is...
Candles. Music (I particularly love Loreena McKennitt’s Midwinter music). Scents – gingerbread, cinnamon... The first mug of mulled wine (or glögi).

5. What’s your best Christmas recipe?
A date cake laced generously with rum. My DH actually bakes them, but since I developed the recipe, I think I can claim some credit. ;) This cake is extremely moist and sort of caramelly because of the dates... it’s almost as good as chocolate cake!

6. Have you ever spent the holidays abroad? Where and what was it like?
I’ve spent the holidays in Canada, first in 1995 with my mother, father and sister, and then in 2004 with my husband. The first one was lovely, some traditions, some new things, and the second one was actually our first holiday without our families, just the two of us. We had some decorations, lots of candles, and a friend even gave us a tiny tree! We had smoked salmon and rye bread that I’d baked... and I cooked a turkey breast with plenty of pesto! Not very traditional, but we thought it was delicious. We had eggnog and chocolate... I missed sauna, but we took a bubble bath in candle light, and it was lovely. I had an elf costume that my DH found very... shall we say, entertaining. ;) There was much reading and relaxing and no obligations to do anything. Definitely one of the best holidays ever!

7. The prettiest flower arrangement for Christmas is made how?
Are you asking me? I have no idea! As for typical flowers of the season, the amaryllis is gorgeous, but the one flower I always want to have is the hyacinth! Their scent is one of the scents I associate with the season, so I usually get some just because of that.

8. Your most beautiful DIY Christmas decoration?
Hmm... I’m going to say the gingerbread wolf wood! This is a bit of a private joke... our family name, Susimetsä, means wolf forest, so, last year we decided to make this - three wolves and a forest:

9. Do you have any new ideas for wrapping gifts?
I’m afraid not...

10. What’s your Christmas tree like?
It’s an old (almost 15 years!) plastic tree. The ornaments are mostly red and gold... we have some very nice ones we brought back from Canada and ornaments that my mother collected... but we haven’t even taken them out of their boxes for years, not since our daughter was born. Accidents happen, and it’s better to keep those precious ornaments wrapped up and waiting. We have enough ornaments to cover the entire tree even without them.

11. Holidays aren’t the holidays without...
My husband and daughter. As long as I’m with them, we could spend the holidays anywhere. If I have to mention something else... well, you guessed it: books and chocolate!

Monday, 14 December 2015

Review: The Girl King (Tyttökuningas)

Last spring, I blogged about the exhibition of movie costumes for ”The Girl King” (Tyttökuningas), a movie about Queen Kristina (1626 – 1689) by Mika Kaurismäki. Now that I’ve actually seen the film, I thought I’d write a few words about it. You can also read my husband's review over at Wolfwood's Corner.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve always been interested in the 17th century, mostly because, growing up, I was an avid fan of The Three Musketeers. Queen Kristina, in turn, is a fascinating historical figure: a queen of Sweden who was brought up as a prince (her hobbies included hunting and swordplay). She was fiercely intelligent, interested in arts and philosophy and led an unconventional life - sexually, politically, etc: her short reign ended when she abdicated her throne and converted into Catholicism (catholics were her father’s old enemies, so to speak). I entered the theater hoping to see a swashbucklerish historical adventure with a bit of romance (pretty much my favourite type of movie... even better if you can throw in literature/books there somewhere).

Did I get what I wanted? Let’s see.


Mostly yes. I’d say the attention to historical detail – setting, costumes, props – was fantastic, considering that this was a (mostly) Finnish film (”mostly”, because it’s actually a Finnish-Swedish-German-French-Canadian collaboration) and thus the budget must be about a fraction of Hollywood blockbusters. The swords received some criticism from my DH, but other than that, things looked great. I particularly admired the lush and luminous costumes, which, to me, seemed authentic enough, apart from a couple of exceptions. (For a more detailed analysis of the costumes, I recommend this article by Frock Flicks.) Other limitations of the budget showed in Turku doubling as Stockholm (I recognised many of the locations, including castle rooms, and kept forgetting we were not supposed to be in Turku) and in less than impressive crowd scenes (for example, the queen’s coronation feast). But these were minor details and did not bother me.

Since the film was about Kristina (Malin Buska), she was clearly the main character. It’s a nice introduction to someone who knows nothing or very little about her, but those wishing to learn more might be a little disappointed. I’d have loved to see more about Kristina as an actual ruler – making decisions concerning her kingdom, struggling with challenges that a young woman inheriting the throne inevitably must have faced (yes, they went on and on about her need to marry, and that must have been a big concern, but surely there were others?). In addition, the end, her decision to give up her throne, remained a little... under explored? However, Kristina was and remains an enigmatic figure; much of what we ”know” about her is pure speculation, guesswork, rumours... and thus a film can only be an interpretation and cannot possibly explain everything.


Disappointingly little. Kristina did wear her sword in several scenes, but there was (as I recall) but one where she actually used it. Very little fencing was demonstrated by other characters as well. Then again, it was a court setting; people could hardly be swashbuckling their way around the castle.


Very litte. Mostly just court intrigue. But there was a murder plot or two! However, if, like me, you’d find a 17th century autopsy to demonstrate the location of the pineal gland and theories about its function fascinating, then, well, you’re in for a treat.


Plenty. As I mentioned already, I’d have loved to see more about Kristina as a queen. But rather than her as a ruler, the movie focused on her love life – her persistence on solving the mystery of love (interesting, and nicely connected to not only her love life but her relationship with her parents), the demands made on her to marry and her love affair with her lady-in-waiting, Countess Ebba Sparre (Sarah Gadon). Well. I love a good love story, and I love the relationship stuff, and there definitely was plenty of it here. I particularly loved the fact that even though it was the good old ”even a queen (or particularly a queen) can’t have whomever she wants” theme, the romance was shown to be not only passionate but also very sweet.

And a bonus!

Books and literature!!! Kristina was a very well educated woman with a thirst for knowledge, and, it seems, a fervent book collector! There was some philosophising (always a nice thing in a movie), letter writing scenes with quills and ink bottles (oooooh, sexy!) and huge, huge piles of beautiful manuscripts! When you’re a queen, you can fill your castle with books... and have sex on top of the Codex Gigas (the Devil’s Bible). Sigh. Life is so unfair.

Overall? I had no idea what to truly expect from this movie. I sincerely hoped it would be good – one of my favourite periods; a controversial, sword wielding queen; my favourite genre... I’m happy to say that despite a few flaws, some scenes that seemed irrelevant to the plot and a couple of clumsy(/-ily delivered) lines of dialogue, I found the movie very entertaining (almost forgot to eat all my chocolate!).

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Review: GEPA Grand Chocolat Espresso Caramel

This was a gift from dear friends (thank you! :)) and what a thoughtful gift it was! For one, I don’t think you can get this chocolate in Finland, so it’s a rare treat – and it was clearly selected by someone who knows my preferences. (The lovely cloth under the chocolate was a gift from another dear friend – thank you! :))

The chocolate is organic fair trade chocolate, which is always a good thing. As far as my German serves me correctly, even the milk is organic and the sugar used is raw sugar.

I love the wrapping: luscious, earthy colours combined with a bit of luxury in the form of gold lettering. The fairly thin tablet is divided into sizeable squares. The scent is mild at first, mainly that of milk chocolate, but then I distinguished some deeper aromas, hints of something warm and even something smoky. Interesting!

The milk chocolate is smooth and sweet (but not overly so), and what makes it really interesting are the additions. We have crunchy, crisp, dry espresso bits that are almost (but not quite) bitter and reveal a wonderful earthy taste. And we have caramel granules that are sticky and chewy and have a delicious full-bodied burnt sugar flavour. They stick to your teeth (hence the lovely aftertaste of caramel) and cause an instant craving for some more.

This combination of textures and tastes is fascinating, especially in that it’s somehow both complex and unassuming at the same time! There’s something very organic, robust and natural in it. I'd say it makes a perfect, comforting companion for these dark, dreary not-yet-quite-winter evenings.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Review: A Year of Ravens: A Novel of Boudica's Rebellion

You've heard her name. Of course you have. Everyone has. And when you've heard it spoken, you've heard the hushed awe of her admirers or the grudging respect of her enemies. You've heard her legend.
Because she did not fight merely for lands or even for freedom. She fought for the humanity and the dignity of her daughters. Because of that, her name will always serve as a rallying cry for those who seek justice. 
- Stephanie Dray, A Year of Ravens: A Novel of Boudica's Rebellion

Those who know me know that I'm one of the admirers of Boudica, the Iceni queen and warrior who raised a rebellion against the Romans. The first novels I ever read about my beloved heroine were the four “Dreaming...” novels by Manda Scott. I fell in love with these books. They became so much more than books to me. Since then, Scott's Boudica has been my Boudica, her story the story of Boudica to me. This, however, hasn't stopped me from enjoying other takes on the same subject.

So, when a dear friend (yes, another Boudica fan!) let me know about “A Year of Ravens: A Novel of Boudica's Rebellion”, I immediately added it to my TBR list and, a while later, bought the book... and couldn’t wait but started reading right away.

The novel is actually a sort of anthology consisting of seven stories by seven authors who all – as far as I know – have experience of writing fiction set in the period in question: Ruth Downie, Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, Vicky Alvear Shecter, S.J.A. Turney, Russell Whitfield and E. Knight.

What's different from a typical anthology where stories may focus on the same theme or take place in the same world or be otherwise more or less loosely connected is that the seven stories actually tell one tale, i.e. although the main characters and narrators vary, the stories form a (mostly) chronological, consecutive whole. It may be possible to read only some of them, but I'd say you need to read them all to get a proper picture of what happens.

What I like about anthologies is that you get different stories and different voices in one book. As I may have mentioned, I like variety. Another reason I like anthologies are the bite-sized stories; sometimes you just are in the mood for something quick. That's also their drawback, however; if you really enjoy a particular story, it will end much too soon. That, in turn, leads me to what I think is the very best feature of anthologies: they can serve as an introduction to new authors. You get a good sample of the work of different contributors and maybe find something you like and want more of.

This anthology's writers include some authors whose work I've been meaning to sample, some I'd not heard of before and only two (Russell Whitfield and Kate Quinn) whose books I've actually read. Therefore, I was very interested in this collection and potential new favourite authors I might discover.

Now, one thing I have to point out: this anthology is called “A Year of Ravens: A Novel of Boudica's Rebellion”. Note that it is a novel of Boudica's rebellion. It is not a novel about Boudica. The stories are narrated from the point of view of other characters while Boudica herself remains a rather distant figure. This was something of a disappointment to me, but then, I should have realised this before buying the book… not that it matters; I'd have bought it anyway. It's close enough. ;)

As a whole, the novel is fast-paced, well written and the feel of the period authentic. There were some scenes that failed to maintain my attention and I found my thoughts drifting away from the book, but these scenes were fairly few. The many main characters and thus the different points of view – queens and slaves; warriors and druids; Britons and Romans – guarantee variety. This, however, also meant that the main characters disappeared for long periods of time, and even if some of them reappeared, they were (often) supporting characters in someone else's story. I suspect that this is why I did not find the book as emotionally engaging as I had hoped.

I'm not going to go into individual stories here, but I will mention that I particularly enjoyed Stephanie Dray's “The Queen”, which not only made an interesting, sympathetic character of Queen Cartimandua but was also written in a beautiful language; Russell Whitfield's “The Tribune”, which mixed brutality of battles, humour and even some light philosophy into a very enjoyable read, and Kate Quinn’s “The Warrior” with its lively dialogue and the poignancy with which it handled both bloodshed and relationships, especially the often painful ones between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters.

I'm definitely going to take a look at other works of some of the authors here, and was pleased to discover that they have collaborated on a similar novel before, titled “A Day of Fire: Novel of Pompeii” (now on my TBR list).