Friday, 23 December 2016

Joyous Yuletide!

... or whatever you decide to celebrate (or not); enjoy, relax, read books and eat chocolate!

Monday, 19 December 2016

Holiday preparations

It’s that time of the year again, with Winter Solstice only two days away, and preparations are under way... or should be; sometimes I feel a little overwhelmed (can you be “a little overwhelmed”?) by everything that needs to be done, but then I remind myself that we have our daughter’s gifts sorted out, we have bought lots of chocolate, and I know which books I’m going to read during the holidays. The rest is just... details. :)

I’ve mentioned before that I tend to be rather particular about my holiday reads, and this goes especially for Yule, because, well, spending lots of time reading books and eating chocolate is just what we do then (it may be the best part about the holidays, if you ask me or my DH).

This year, I chose “Children of Earth and Sky”, the latest by Guy Gavriel Kay, who, these days, is about the only fantasy author whose books I still read (and re-read). It is a nice, thick tome, but it will not be enough, of course, so I picked one of the Medieval adventures by Kaari Utrio as well – this one is set in the 14th century. Neither of these is a re-read, and I’m really looking forward to the day when I can start celebrating (= open the first book).

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Honorary award for "Musta Susi" - our werewolf story

Something soft and furry touched him. He screamed, smelled blood and sweat. Panting, clutching his dagger, he stumbled around in the small space. Where was the exit? Where?

An item stolen from the Royal Palace of Stockholm ends up in the hands of Caribbean pirates. [...] The adventure, set in the 17th century, has many plot twists and is rigorous in its historical detail.

Above is an excerpt and the judges’ description of the short story “Musta Susi” (“Black Wolf”) that my DH and I submitted to the competition organised by the Science Fiction Society of Tampere. The judges decided to give our pirate/werewolf adventure story an honorary award! Last night, we attended the awards ceremony in Tampere. The story, set in the 17th century, will later be published in “Portti”, a science fiction and fantasy magazine. You can read more about the competition and our story over in Marko's blog.

(Photo by Varpu Susimetsä)

Now that my husband and I have been writing together for some time (our story "Entombed" was published in "666" horror anthology), people often ask us how that works. Writing is a creative process, after all, so how do two people collaborate on it? I mentioned some of the benefits earlier, but how it works in practice is something like this:

Usually, one of us has an initial idea. We develop it together and draft some kind of an outline, sometimes more, sometimes less detailed. Then we decide which chapters/scenes/parts each of us would like to write, or at least to start with, and do that. (Eventually someone does have to write the scenes neither of us was too keen on, so then there’s nothing for it; we have to do it.) Anyway, once we’ve written the first draft of a scene/chapter, we give it to the other one who then reads it and rewrites it.

To be able to do that, you have to trust the other person completely. You have to trust that they’ll see what you’ve been trying/wanting to do with the scene, to improve the parts that need improving and to enhance the parts that already work. We keep cycling the scenes/chapters back and forth, each of us making changes and rewriting in their turn – and often getting new ideas from what the other one has done with the scene.

This approach has worked well for us, probably because we have very similar ideas about what sort of stories we want to write, what – for us – makes a good story. Another thing that helps is that we have fairly different strengths: my DH is the logical one, he can see the story as a whole and this makes him a better plotter. I tend to focus more on feelings, both in terms of what the characters are going through, how to show that, and in terms of the feel of the writing (tension; how to express atmosphere etc.). Since we write historical fiction, we have to do research – and it helps when there are two of you. While there are things we both need to know, our interests also diverge a bit, so that Marko is more interested in, e.g., how muskets work, while I’m more interested in, say, what people wore and what they ate.

So, we keep working on individual chapters until we think we have all the scenes, which is when we put it all together. Then we take turns rereading and rewriting the whole story.

In addition to a similar idea of what we want to write, there seems to be one topic we’re both drawn to again and again: werewolves. Or werewolves, wolfmen, shape-shifting into wolves... My DH’s previous werewolf story “Susiveri” (“Wolf Blood”) received an honorary award in the same competition in 2014, while my shape-shifter story “Surunkantaja” (“Sorrow Bearer”) set in Viking Age Finland received a second prize in Nova short story competition in 2013 (more here), and another one I wrote about a werewolf theme got shortlisted in the same competition earlier this year. One of the competition organisers remarked yesterday that we might consider putting together an anthology one day... Well, who knows!

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Review: Milka Toffee Whole Nuts

This isn't exactly new, but Toffee Whole Nuts from Milka is one of my favourites, so I wanted to introduce it here. Well, you might guess it's a favourite of mine: after all, it's milk chocolate with hazelnuts, ”caramel flavoured filling” and actual caramel! Sounds good, doesn't it?

It is also a rare treat; I haven't been able to find Milka Toffee Whole Nuts anywhere in the shops and supermarkets in this part of the world, only in tax-free shops, which I don't often have a chance to visit. That is really too bad... but every time I get to buy some, I do! Last time, I only bought three bars (300 g each) – it seemed like a lot at the time, but now I regret not listening to my DH who wisely asked, ”Are you sure that's enough?” It was not.

Now, this is one of Milka chocolates, so the wrapping is the typical bluish colour with the milky Milka logo (and the cow). The picture of the bar on the wrapping gives you a fairly good idea of what's inside. The bar itself is divided into smallish squares, like this:

You can't see the toffee in the picture, but trust me, it's there.

The scent of chocolate is fairly mild, as is typical of milk chocolates. There are, however, definite warm, sweet notes of caramel in there.

And the taste! The milk chocolate is pretty good, very milky, smooth and sweet. Every square contains a whole hazelnut. To be honest, I could do without them, but they do add a nice crunch and balance the flavours by reducing the overall sweetness of the bar. For, in addition to chocolate, there is a white, creamy layer of that caramel flavoured filling, which is sweet and milky and melts in your mouth. And to further add to the sweetness, there's golden caramel. It's sweet and buttery, not too runny and not too sticky. Delicious!

This is a very sweet chocolate, so if you're not into that sort of thing, this might not be for you. For me, however, this is close to perfection!

Monday, 28 November 2016

Review: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

They say that the beginning of a book is crucially important; the very first sentences should be perfect, because that’s where you hook them. ”The Paris Wife” begins like this:

Though I often looked for one, I finally had to admit that there could be no cure for Paris. Part of it was the war. The world had ended once already and could again at any moment.

I was hooked. I could say I was... in love.

The rest of the book is almost as good: clear but beautiful language. I was not surprised to learn that the author also writes poetry.

”The Paris Wife” is a story about Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, and the years they spent together. And those were some years! They met when they were young, Hemingway was an aspiring writer, scarred from the war but full of confidence. Despite opposition from friends and family, they married and moved to Paris, where they lived among the lost generation in the roaring twenties. Hadley stood by Ernest through the hardships and, eventually, the victories, of his early career. They socialised with anyone who was someone at the time: the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, etc. and consumed incredible amounts of whiskey and absinthe. They spent holidays in the Alps and the French Riviera, they watched bull fighting in Spain.

McLain portrays Hemingway as a sympathetic figure. It is easy to see how his enthusiasm and lust for life could be charming, but he could also be a selfish bastard, or, as it is said in the Epilogue: he was an enigma – fine and strong and weak and cruel. An incomparable friend and a Sonofabitch”. Naturally, I was intrigued by the writing life, and there it was: the drive, the uncertainties (Sometimes I think all I really need is one person telling me that I’m not knocking my fool head against the bricks. That I have a shot at it.), the disappointments and the difficulty of finding a balance between creative spirit and family life. There is a painful incident where Hadley loses Hemingway's manuscripts (no, there are no copies) on a train, and that nearly made me physically ill. The thought of losing several years' worth of work… but then, he rallied, and once he got writing again (it did take a while), he was better than ever.

But more than with Hemingway, I sympathised with Hadley: she feels a little lost among all the artistic geniuses, but she isn’t entirely comfortable being just the artist’s wife, either. She seems to always feel a little out of place, being too straightforward and family-valued and romantic for the fashionable life of the rich and famous. She sees through the superficial glitter of their lifestyle:  

Everything could be snarled all to hell under the surface as long as you didn’t let it crack through and didn’t speak its name, particularly not at cocktail hour, when everyone was very jolly and working hard to be that way and to show how perfectly good life could be if your were lucky, as we were. Just have your drink, then, and another, and don’t spoil it.

With various temperamental artists thrown together, there is plenty of drama and, unfortunately, betrayal and inevitable disillusionment... but also hope and love. My only complaint is that some of the minor characters remained rather one-dimensional; I could not tell some of them apart. Then again, they were minor characters, so that did not matter much.

Also, I was really looking forward to the “Author’s Notes” at the end of the book – they’re always a real treat – but was somewhat disappointed to find this part rather short. I would have loved to learn more about how much was fiction and how much was based on research. However, the author mentions various sources, so if I really want to know, I can always find out more.

All in all, this was a book I didn’t want to put down. It is a fascinating, vivid account of a writer's life and the art world in the 1920s. And it is very well written. I’ll definitely check out other novels by McLain – and I suddenly find myself wanting to read something by Hemingway!

Monday, 21 November 2016

Review: Dangerous Women

As soon as I heard about the anthology titled “Dangerous Women”, I knew I wanted to read it. The theme is fascinating, and the collection features stories by some authors whose work I’ve enjoyed – plus it’s a massive anthology with 21 stories!

As I’ve said before, anthologies are great in that they give you lots of different stories in different voices – there’s always bound to be something you like. However, that is also their weakness: they probably feature stories that you’re not too interested in. Still, it is a good way to sample works by new authors. In ”Dangerous Women”, I was already familiar with the works of George R. R. Martin, Diana Gabaldon, Sharon Kay Penman, Joe Abercrombie and Jim Butcher. So, many new authors for me to sample!

“Dangerous Women” certainly gives you a wide variety of stories. There’s historical fiction, fantasy (urban and more traditional), SF, crime, mystery... This is something I enjoyed very much; each story was definitely different and the genre-hopping made the experience versatile and exciting (love those ”Ooo, I wonder what I'm going to get next!” moments). Just as I expected, there were some great stories but also some I did not enjoy so much.

Some of the tales did justice to the theme, but there were some where you had to be rather... creative and generous to accept that women featured in the stories could be called dangerous. I don’t know what this means exactly. I hope it isn’t that the authors really did have such a hard time coming up with situations/worlds/characters that would fit the theme. That was a little disappointing, but I decided not to mind; I still got interesting stories to read.

I won’t go into each individual story, but there are a few I want to name:

Joe Abercrombie’s “Some Desperado”, an action-packed bit with something of a wild west feel, shows an intriguing character in a very sticky situation. Loved the voice. Apparently, the character features in one of his novels, “Red Country”. (I’ve read ”The Blade Itself” but wasn't intrigued enough to continue with the trilogy – maybe I should look into this one.)

Diana Gabaldon’s “Virgins” is a sort of prequel to her time travel series (“Outlander”), depicting adventures of familiar characters (Jamie and Ian when they were young mercenaries in France). A novella rather than a short story.

I expected much from George R. R. Martin’s – who’s also one of the editors – “The Princess and the Queen”. And it is indeed very well written (I wouldn’t expect anything else), but it reads like a history book... which was probably the author’s intention. I don’t have anything against history books, quite the opposite, but I happen to prefer my fiction in the form where I get to experience events through the characters. Still, a must-read background story for serious “Game of Thrones” fans.

”Wrestling Jesus” by Joe R. Lansdale is gritty but humorous and even kind of sweet coming-of-age story where a young boy meets a mentor figure, an old boxer, and his obsession/one true love, the story's femme fatale.

A little surprisingly, my favourite was “Second Arabesque, Very Slowly” by Nancy Kress, an author previously unknown to me. I didn’t expect much from this post-apocalyptic story – that is really not my genre – but it was intriguing and thought-provoking. It’s set in a brutal world where most women have become infertile, and those who haven’t are little more than precious commodities. It is told by an older woman, no longer capable of bearing children and therefore a burden to her ”tribe”. I loved the theme of contrasting the need and will of survival with the love of beauty and art. Is it enough to simply survive from one day to the next, or is it part of human nature to crave more – and risk everything for that? I liked this story so much that I later read Kress' science fiction novel ”Probability Moon”.

All in all, ”Dangerous Women” is a collection of widely different stories. If you’re a fan of just one or two genres, this might not be for you, but if you like switching between genres or want to experiment without committing to entire novels, you might want to take a look at this one.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Food and cakes in Tallinn

Have you had enough of my travel tales from Tallinn yet? No? Good, because here’s another one (a little late, I’ll admit, but health and other issues have kept me from blogging about it). Previously, I blogged about Olde Hansa, and this time I’d like to introduce a restaurant called Le Château. It is a 17th century themed restaurant that we once came across while exploring the old town of Tallinn. 17th century! Musketeers! We had to go in! We dined there on our 10th wedding anniversary in 2013 (a lovely setting!) and now we wanted to go back.

Le Château is located in a cellar of an old house. It has vaulted ceilings, there are candles, music suitable for the setting etc. A great atmosphere. And the food, inspired by the French cuisine in the era of the musketeers, is delicious! They also have lovely, lovely desserts...

Viking raids and going Medieval tend to give one a ravenous appetite, as we discovered during autumn holiday... luckily, Tallinn has numerous wonderful cafés. The only problem is that it's hard to pick just one. Our old favourite is Maiasmokk, a café that has stood in the same place in the old town since 1864 and is actually the oldest still operational café in Tallinn. It does have that 19th century charm! And delicious cakes!

There is also a marzipan museum in the same premises, which we did not visit, but we did stop by in their chocolate and marzipan shop, where there happened to be a marzipan artist at work, painting the products! 

A café I’ve wanted to visit for quite some time now was Kehrwieder cellar café in the old town, and this time we made it there. With its vaulted ceilings, mismatched sofas and colourful cushions it has a certain bohemian air which I love. It is also a perfect place to find shelter from cold weather if you’re visiting Tallinn in winter. The cakes are not the cheapest, but very good. (I just learned that they have delicious hot spiced wine and chocolates – next time, we’ll have to try them!)

During this visit, we discovered a gelateria called Cortile. Actually, my daughter pointed it out and asked if we could go and have some ice cream... well, it’s impossible to say no to ice cream, and I’m glad we didn’t! The portions of freshly made Italian ice cream are generous and they taste absolutely divine!

Monday, 7 November 2016

Halloween 2016

Last year, I blogged about our small Halloween party, and I thought I’d share some pictures this year as well. As usual, our party was very small, only the three of us and my sister-in-law. We all dressed up a bit; nothing too complicated, just something we could easily put together. My husband was a pirate, my sister-in-law came as Harley Quinn (she looked awesome!), I was a witch and my daughter was my black cat.

While I prepared the food, my daughter and my sister-in-law took care of the decorations, and they did an excellent job of it, too!

Carving the pumpkin has become my DH’s duty, and he carved a very cute, very cheerful looking Jack-o’-lantern. (You can see it in the picture at the top of this post.)

Just like last year, my daughter was very enthusiastic about Halloween. We browsed the net for ideas and I let her pick the icky/weird/funny foods we’d prepare. This year, we had mummy pizzas with blue cheese:

And a “slimy snake” made of rolled-up Finnish flatbread, filled with chicken, tomatoes and guacamole (not particularly photogenic, I’m afraid):

Witch’s fingers, mandarin pumpkins and banana ghosts have become something of a staple on our table...

This year, we baked a pumpkin pie for dessert, and this we made totally from scratch: the Finnish grocery stores around here don’t sell canned pumpkin puré, so we had to buy a pumpkin, chop it into pieces, bake the pieces in the oven, cut out the flesh, drain it, then puré it. Then I had pumpkin for the filling... actually, I had lots of it... but still had to make the crust and the filling and bake the pie. But it was definitely worth it, it was lovely to have a real pumpkin pie for Halloween. My daughter made the pastry cut-out bat to decorate it with. It turned out almost too cute to eat. :)

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

666 Anthology

This is the book I mentioned yesterday! There it is now, out in the world, ready to frighten readers... It includes 32 short (666 words exactly) horror stories. Some are written by established authors, some are stories that were submitted to a writing competition organised by Fantastic Books Publishing. The ebook is available at the publisher’s online store and the paperback (and the Kindle edition) on Amazon.

One of the stories in the collection, “Entombed”, is something of a weird tale that I wrote together with my husband, Marko Susimetsä. I had the initial idea some time ago already – but it was just that, an idea, and it left me asking, “then what”. I told my husband about it, and he immediately said, “What if this happened?” And it was just the right thing! That was how it had to go. We’ve been collaborating quite a lot recently, and this is one of the best things about it: two brains are better than one (ghouls would agree with me :P), and we often bounce ideas back and forth and inspire each other. It also helps to know that if you get stuck, you’re not alone; you can talk about the problem and try to... make it go away. And it’s also a lot of fun!

So we had an idea for something we knew would be a short story. I wrote some notes and saved them in my “thoughts” file (I lack the confidence to call them ideas). Then the competition came up, and we decided to try and see if the idea might evolve into a suitable story. Making it exactly 666 words long (or short) was a bit of a challenge, since we both tend to think in terms of longer stories. But we kept the word limit in mind while writing the first draft and thus did not end up with a huge amount of words to cut. It took some wrestling with words, but eventually we had the required 666. And we even managed to sneak in a Conan the Barbarian reference. ;)

We're still waiting for our copy (must have the paperback edition), so I haven't read the other stories in the anthology - but I have read other stories by some of the authors, and I have a feeling this is a collection of truly chilling tales.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Happy Halloween!

What do you think, did I manage to pick an appropriate book for the season? Also, this is one of my favourite songs at the moment:

I also thought I'd let you know that today (appropriately) is the launch day of "666", an anthology of bite-sized horror stories by Fantastic Books Publishing. Each story is 666 words long (or short, depending on how you look at it). This collection features a grave story (yes, pun intended) which I wrote together with my DH. And I'd like to welcome you to the launch party tonight! It takes place at 6:66... or 19:06 UTC in Facebook. You can find the event here:

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Medieval Tallinn and Olde Hansa Restaurant

As you may have deduced from my posts from the Turku Medieval Fair and the Häme Medieval Fair, we are something of Medieval enthusiasts. This is one of the reasons we like Tallinn: the old, Medieval part of the city is so beautiful. We always spend most of our time in Tallinn walking around the narrow alleys, admiring the lovely houses and just enjoying the atmosphere.

The old Town Hall Square and the Town Hall (during the day and at night).

You always discover something new. This time we ended up in an apothecary museum. It was a lovely old room with lots of information about medicine in the past. The glass jars on display featured such items as a mummy’s hand, a hedgehod, a frog... These fascinated my daughter endlessly. It was a small place, but very interesting!

One of the places we always go to is the Medieval restaurant Olde Hansa. It is a stunningly beautiful place, the staff is dressed in Medieval garments, and there is often live music in the evenings (the ”house band”, Olde Hansa Musicus). Downstairs you can find a Medieval Shoppe with pottery, glass ware, jewellery, soap, leather belts and purses, clothes...

As we often do, we spent one night in Olde Hansa. I said one night, because this is a restaurant where you want to order three courses or linger over drinks just to enjoy the atmosphere, it truly is something special. It also gets rather crowded when the night progresses, so it's good to plan ahead and not be in a hurry. The food is very authentic; you will find no potatoes or tomatoes or chocolate here (alas, no mead, either!) but barley, various meats and fish, pastries etc. Olde Hansa is the house of a rich merchant, so you dine like well-to-do people might have done (not everyone had access to expensive spices, like ginger and peppers, for instance). The service is friendly, and you get to hear little stories about the dishes and old dining customs etc.


We started with delicious toasted cheese flavoured with juniper and herbs which was served with nut bread. This was very good. The main course was chicken in almond sauce. This was also very tasty, although the portion was much too large for me (especially after splitting the cheese thing with my daughter).

For dessert, we ordered rose pudding. This dish looked absolutely charming, very romantic – and it did taste like roses! It was a creamy, silky, rich pudding but not too filling. Just the right thing to finish off a wonderful meal.

We like this place so much that, three years ago, we chose it as the place (well, one of them) where we celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary.