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.