Monday, 25 January 2016

Review: Into the Fire by Manda Scott

As I mentioned in my review of 2015, reading-wise, I did finally manage to find a five-star book!

The book was ”Into the Fire” by Manda Scott. I’ll admit right away (actually, I’ve mentioned it before) that I’m a huge fan of Scott’s Boudica series and have immensely enjoyed her Rome series as well. ”Into the Fire” came out earlier last year, but although I bought it soon after the release date, I saved it, hoping it would prove to be a good holiday read. It definitely did.

The novel is a dual timeline novel, with one part taking place in the modern day Orléans and the other in the 15th century France. I was a little worried about this at first; while one part is historical fiction – my favourite genre – the other seemed more like a thriller/crime sort of thing, which doesn’t usually interest me. However, reading is one area of life where I’m actually eager to venture outside my comfort zone, and the one thriller I have read from Scott was very good indeed (note to self: must read the other ones as well).

I’ll also admit that I've been a little disappointed with some dual timeline novels, but I needn’t have worried. Scott handles the two timelines admirably: just when things get edge-of-your-set-biting-your-nails exciting in one, she switches to the other! Of course, as a reader, you want to scream in frustration... but you’re immediately pulled into the other story and find yourself dying to find out what happens there. This makes reading “Into the Fire” an intense experience, the kind that can make you shake and shiver because it’s just... so... tense. I enjoyed that immensely.

Now, in the present day, we have Inès Picaut, a police inspector and her team of eccentric but lovable specialists who work to solve the case of fires ravaging the city of Orléans. They find a badly burnt memory chip that might contain a clue... but the arsonists’ attacks start claiming victims and the clock is ticking.

In the history part, we have Tomas Rustbeard, a man of many faces – a double agent, a man of war, a priest; French, English... whose task it is to destroy (note that there’s a difference between simply killing and utterly destroying) Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orléans, before she, already a living legend, can bring France victory against the English. The task, though dangerous, seems simple enough, right? Wrong. So, so wrong!

The central theme, or the heart of the story, is the enigmatic figure of Joan of Arc. Who was she really? Scott suggests that she cannot have been a peasant girl who saw religious visions – how could she have been able to ride a warhorse and fight like a knight? Scott presents us with a theory that I cannot reveal (because that would be a major spoiler!) but that is not only fascinating but also makes a lot of sense.

Another theme is history and how it is written and can be rewritten and twisted to serve all sorts of purposes; how facts can be ignored and downright concealed. This is a fascinating topic, and what I found particularly interesting was that Scott’s work seems to reflect this very theme: the author’s thanks at the end of the book mention that there were scholars who contributed to her research but did not want their names mentioned in a connection of a novel that defies the “accepted truth”. Fair enough, yet I was under the naïve illusion that academic discourse (not to mention the world of fiction which the novel represents) ought to question things, be open to new ideas, entertain seemingly impossible possibilities... how else are we to ever gain any new knowledge?

As always, Scott has written fantastic strong female characters. All the characters, in fact, come with their quirks or their baggage or their personal traumas which gives them depth and dimension. If I had to add some criticism, however, I’d say that I did not feel as close to the Maid as I wished (alas, I didn’t fall in love with any of the characters... but my other holiday read delivered on that point, so it’s all good). But then, she was – and still is – an enigma, and although the mystery of who she is/was slowly unravels in the course of the story, and although she is definitely a flesh-and-blood heroine, she is always seen through the eyes of another.

Both stories are fast-paced and gripping, the battle scenes are gritty and brutal, there is mystery (so much mystery!) that will keep you turning the pages. Even the political power play doesn’t get boring. Add to this Scott’s fearless, vivid language (I am a big fan of her style) and I did not want to put the book down.

Monday, 18 January 2016

January - the heart month

Following my recently established tradition ;) of looking at the Finnish names of the months, we move on to January.

Tammikuu. I suspect that when most modern day Finns hear the word tammi they think about a tree. Tammi is an oak. But why would January be called "oak month"?

According to one interpretation, January is the hardest time of the year (cold, dark etc.) and since oak is known to be hard, durable wood, people started to call January the oak month.

However, the word tammi does not only refer to an oak tree. It can also mean a center or a heart or a middle. January falls in the middle of winter, it is in the heart of the cold time, and thus, it is said, it became known as tammikuu. In fact, January has sometimes been referred to as sydänkuu, "heart month".

(The trees in the picture aren't oaks and it's not even a picture taken this winter but some years ago... but it is a fitting image for January, I think.)

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Little Red Riding Hood - alternate ending

The other day, my daughter wanted me to tell (not read, but tell) her a bedtime story. She picked Little Red Riding Hood. When she was younger, I used to tell her a censored version where no one got eaten by the wolf. I thought that now that she's seven, she might be able to handle the "usual" version.

Wrong. I only let the wolf eat the grandmother, and that was too much (even though she was rescued unscathed). My daughter insisted I tell the story in a different way, and I decided that the best way to go about it would be to let her help me. She did, and together we made certain changes. I decided that the huntsman wasn't necessary to the story - these are no damsels in distress - and my daughter wanted to give the tale a certain Viking twist.

When we were done, she said, "Can we now write the story in the blog?"
I wasn't aware she knew there were such things as blogs. "Um, you know what a blog is?"
"Yes, it's a story place - a place where you can put stories. Isn't it?"
I told her that yes, anyone can have a blog and they can write what they want there, including stories. Anything! She was very excited by this idea, and I promised her we'd write her Little Red Riding Hood here.

So this one is for my daughter (or from her, as the following is in her own words):

Once upon a time there was a little girl called Little Red Riding Hood. Her mother asked her to take a basket of goodies to her grandmother. The basket contained sweet rolls and bagels, cupcakes, and some goat meat which Vikings were particularly fond of. Little Red Riding Hood said, "Yes, mother," and walked into a forest.

She saw bunnies, foxes, beautiful blue anemones, hedgehogs and deer and raindeer. Then she saw the big, bad wolf.

The wolf said, "Hello, little girl. Who are you?"
"I'm called Little Red Riding Hood."
"I see", said the wolf. "Hurry on."

But the wolf hurried, too, and was the first to arrive at the grandmother's cabin. The grandmother quickly hid herself in a closet. The wolf put on grandmother's cap and went to bed.

Little Red Ridinghood arrived and asked, "But grandmother, why do you have such big eyes?"
"The better to see you."
"But grandmother, why do you have such enormous ears?"
"The better to hear you."
"But grandmother, why do you have such a big mouth?"
"The better to EAT YOU!"
"EEEEK!" Cried Little Red Riding Hood.

That's when the grandmother jumped out of the closet with her Viking mace! The big, spiky one! She chased the wolf away from the cabin, yelling, "Get away, get away!"

The wolf hid in his cave and whined because his head had a big bump and it hurt.

The grandmother took her spare Viking mace and gave it to Little Red Riding Hood to protect herself with.

(The illustration above is by my daughter and shows the wolf and the very happy grandmother with her enormous mace.)

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Best reads of 2015

Last year, I looked back on 2014 and the books I read then. Another year has passed – has anything changed?

Last year, I’d marked 59 books as read in Goodreads; this year the number was 43. 43??? Not that I had any reading targets or set any goals (aimless, directionless drifting seems like a better strategy to me :P) but still, that didn't seem right to me. I had a feeling I might have read more books in 2015 than in 2014, but then, perhaps I didn't. I may have spent more time writing than reading. Besides, I re-read more books in 2015 than I did in 2014; they're not included in that number (because, ahem, I only just now learned that you can actually mark rereads in Goodreads!). In addition, it does not include non-fiction or books I simply did not want to include in Goodreads. Thus, the actual number of books I read is somewhat higher.

Last year, I gave no book a five star rating. There was a handful of those that got four stars.

As it happens, a five star book seems to be hard to find these days. However, rereads count, so I can mention Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Sarantine Mosaic, which includes two novels: “Sailing to Sarantium” and “Lord of Emperors”. I’ve explained before what it is about Kay’s novels that make me a fan of his.


And, I'm very pleased to say, I did find my five-star book this year! It was close, since it was the last book I finished. I'm thinking of writing a review so, for now, I'm not going to say anything... except that the book was Manda Scott's latest, "Into the Fire". It's been a while since I read a book that I did not want to put down... all right, fine, I never really want to put my book down, but this time, it was a very intense feeling. More about the book later.

Now, let's take a look at some of the other highlights of this year, reading-wise.

A Year of Ravens by various authors. Historical fiction set in Roman Britain and Boudica’s rebellion. I even wrote a review!

Chocolat by Joanne Harris. Well, it’s about chocolate... ;) Another one I actually reviewed.

Last year, I talked about how great it is to discover new authors whose work leaves you wanting more. As it happens, I’ve discovered another! Well, I discovered Phil Rickman a while back when I read his first John Dee Papers novel, “The Bones of Avalon” (here's my review). I wasn’t quite so enthusiastic about the second book in the series or the first one in his Merrily Watkins series, but I persisted and read the second Merrily book. And I loved it! Merrily Watkins is a female priest in a time when that is something of a novelty... and she ends up as a Deliverance Consultant or Advisor on the Paranormal. Or an exorcist, but, you know, job titles these days... I don’t know where exactly these novels fall – are they mystery? Crime? Horror? I don’t care. While contemporary mysteries/thrillers normally aren't my cup of chocolate, these have a twist that makes them irresistible to me: those contemporary mysteries intertwine with historical events or figures and ancient myths. And Rickman knows how to use evocative language to create an atmosphere that is oddly, almost hauntingly beautiful.

I'm not going to make any New Year's resolutions (apart from my "Read more books" resolution) but one thing I'd like to do is find more excellent books. Can't be that hard, can it? So, books, listen up and listen carefully, because here's my message to you:

Friday, 1 January 2016

Happy New Year!

Finally, a New Year's resolution I can actually make...

2015 wasn't the best of years, let's hope that 2016 will turn out to be a better one. Happy New Year!