Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Review: Lady Macbeth by Susan Fraser King

I’d had my eye on this book for quite some time, and now I finally purchased it. I was going to save it for later (seemed ideal for those lovely, dark, stormy autumn nights) but then I just could not resist.

Not that the Finnish summer so far much differs from those cold autumn nights, with the temperatures at "+7 degrees C, feels like +3" and hail storms several times a day. I wore my winter boots and winter coat when I ventured out of the house, yet somehow managed to pick up a cold somewhere. 😔(And now it's nice and warm outside. Of course.)

But now, back to the book! I couldn't wait to start it, because, well, it’s Macbeth… even better; it’s Lady Macbeth! It’s Scotland. It’s the 11th century. (There are Vikings, too.) I have previously read another novel about Lady Macbeth, titled “Lady Macbeth’s Tale”. You can read my review here.

I must point out that the castle on the cover of the novel looks a lot like Eilean Donan castle near Inverness, a castle I visited on a holiday with my husband over ten years ago now. I really want to go back to Scotland!

But that doesn't seem likely, so I'll take the next best thing: books.

Macbeth is famous thanks to the tragedy by Shakespeare, but what the bard did was he used the actual events for inspiration without bothering much with historical accuracy. It does make a great story, but in it, Lady Macbeth appears as an ambitious, ruthless woman who drives her husband to commit regicide in order to seize the crown.

Was she really like that? Unfortunately, we will never know, but Susan Fraser King has put together an account of Lady Macbeth’s life from what precious little is known about her and her (in)famous husband. Recent research has revealed some new information (again, I very much enjoyed the Author’s Note at the end of the book, always interesting), yet much remains unknown. But that is historical fiction: taking some few facts, using fiction to bridge the gaps and weave a plausible and – at its best – spellbinding story.

Lady Gruadh is of royal blood, which makes her a coveted prize among men vying for the throne of Scotland. Though she is kidnapped as a child, later married off against her wishes; though her husband is slain and his ambitious killer promptly marries her to strengthen his claim to the throne, she maintains her own will, at least as far as possible in her circumstances.

Thanks to the old Celtic tradition of women wielding weapons, Gruadh is allowed to train with a sword and even fight battles. She is not the ambitious schemer Shakespeare portrays but a much more complicated character with conflicting motives. Her strength is not only in her will and ability to protect those she loves, her people and her land and its ancient customs; it is in how she endures and survives the hardships and tragedy that life has in store for her.

The story spans decades and blends historical fact with a bit of Celtic myths and magic. The feel of the period is real, the details meticulous. The book took me to the mist-shrouded highlands and the halls of ancient kings, and I thoroughly enjoyed the journey. The language was beautiful, although it seemed to weaken a little after a stunning start.

My only complaint is that I did not really feel connected to the characters; they remained a little distant - Macbeth, who could have been a truly intriguing character, especially so.

All in all, this was a fascinating read which made me want to know more about Macbeth, Lady Gruadh and their time.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Review: Fazer Milk Chocolate and Honey Roasted Almonds

This is the latest addition to Fazer’s large (200 g) milk chocolate bars: a milk chocolate bar flavoured with honey-roasted almonds!

The wrapping is the typical, classic blue of the Fazer milk chocolates, with a picture of (rather deliciously looking) roasted almonds and pieces of chocolate.

The scent has the sweetness of milk chocolate with the equally sweet, warm undertones of honey.

The milk chocolate itself is of the Fazer quality – my favourite milk chocolate in fact, smooth, not too sweet or sugary (they use fresh milk rather than dried or condensed milk). The honey roasted almonds come in fairly large fragments, crispy and crunchy and not too hard. There is the sunny sweetness of honey and the lovely toasted aroma of roasted almonds. I also detect a hint of salt – salt is mentioned among the ingredients but not among of the flavourings on the front of the wrapping... but I’ve seen this chocolate marketed as “with a touch of salt”. Either way, I like that bit of saltiness and might even have wished it to be more pronounced.

So far, my favourite among flavoured milk chocolates from Fazer has been the sea salt and caramel, but, while I still adore the flavour, my teeth are not too happy with the hard caramel granules. This might be a good alternative; gentler for your teeth and absolutely delicious!

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Review: A Song of War: A Novel of Troy

I recently reviewed “A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii” and some time before that “A Year of Ravens: A Novel of Boudica’s Rebellion”. Both are similar to “A Song of War: A Novel of Troy” by Kate Quinn, Christian Cameron, Libbie Hawker, Vicky Alvear Shecter, Russell Whitfield, Stephanie Thornton and S.J.A. Turney in that all are novels written by several authors.

Each author writes their story from one or two point of views, which means that these change in the course of the book. But it works very well, here perhaps even more seamlessly than in the other two previous novels, or maybe it’s just that I’ve gotten used to this method.

We see the Trojan war and the events that led to it through the eyes of several characters, both Trojan and Achaean; kings, princesses, slaves, warriors… The situation lends itself to delicious drama and conflict. There are battles, there is betrayal, there is love; some seek honour, some vengeance, some victory... One of the central themes is honour and hubris, and the utter senselessness of war. The characters sacrifice so much, or even everything, but what do they win?

It would be hard to choose a favourite among these stories, so I’ll just say a few words about each.

Kate Quinn: The Apple. The story that begins the novel is told by Hellenus, half-brother of Hector and Paris, and Andromache, Hector’s young wife. Both suffer from feelings of not quite fitting in, which makes them endearing characters. Their tale of the wedding of Odysseus and Penelope introduces us to many of the key characters. The beginning may not be as dramatic as the later parts, but Quinn is an experienced author and that shows; the story gripped me right from the start. I loved the humour and I really cared about Andromache and Hellenus.

Stephanie Thornton: The Prophesy. This part is told by Priam’s daughter, Cassandra. As she is often known as a mad prophet, it was clear that this part must have been a challenge to write. On one hand, it is a truly fascinating perspective, dark and intense, but on the other hand, you don’t want the character to appear so insane as to alienate readers. Stephanie Thornton handles this with enviable skill: you don’t only understand Cassandra, but her descent to madness is so real and relatable it’s almost scary.

Russell Whitfield: The Sacrifice. This part is told from the perspective of Agamemnon, a king weary of the war and the world, tormented by his guilt and his grief. It is gritty and tragic, and if, by the end, I did not quite like or admire Agamemnon, I certainly pitied him.

Christian Cameron: The Duel. Once a queen, now a slave, Briseis finds herself becoming the lover of the legendary Achilles – and taking the place of his chariot driver. I couldn’t quite get into this story at first, but when I did… what a ride! The story gains momentum as it hurtles towards its poignant, tragic end.

Libbie Hawker: The Bow. This part has two narrators: Penthesilea, a fierce amazon, determined to seek honour and death, and Philoctetes, an old, crippled warrior, hopelessly in love with Achilles. I fell in love with both. Add to that the lovely language, the haunting and beautiful imagery… I wanted more! I have actually read one novel by Libbie Hawker before, but this story definitely convinced me to check out her other work.

Vicky Alvear Shecter: The Horse. This part has one of the most well-known narrators in the collection: Odysseus. There’s quite a lot of humour in this account of the wily trickster, but underneath it runs desperation. The war is dragging on. Someone should do something. Which is more valiant, fighting on (and on and on) or using any means to end the conflict?

S.J.A. Turney: The Fall. The end is seen through the eyes of Aeneas, which is fitting in many ways. Even when Troy falls, all the threads of the narrative are woven together. There is tragedy and so much sorrow, yet there is also hope of a new beginning.

All in all, I enjoyed “A Song of War” immensely. The story is literally legendary and very familiar – from other books, movies, TV shows… but even though I knew what would eventually happen, I never really wanted to put the book down.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

E-reader case

I haven’t posted in a while, mostly because I’ve been busy translating, revising our manuscript, reading source books and – very unusual for a hermit such as myself – meeting other people! In addition to family members, we even got together with some very dear friends who live far away. It had been a long time since we last saw each other, and the reason I'm telling you all this is that we were actually brought together by books. See, books are amazing! So are friends. 😊

But now I wanted to show you my new e-reader (Kindle paperwhite) cover. Isn’t it beautiful?

When I first saw it, I knew right away that this was the one! It comes from this company here, and the note included said that it has been hand crafted using traditional book binding techniques. 😍

Since I’ve been carrying my Kindle along with me simply in my bag or, on longer trips, in a small fabric pouch, I’m happy to have this case to protect my precious. Only, I like the cover so much that I think I should now protect it, too...


Friday, 21 April 2017

Review: Marabou Oreo Filled


Now, just in my previous post I wondered whether I should stop writing chocolate reviews, but here I am with yet another one… but my DH brought two bars of Marabou Oreo Filled chocolate from the grocery store just so that I could write a review! After such a thoughtful gesture, who am I to say no? ;)

Now, these bars have the traditional Marabou yellow-and-red look with a picture of Oreo filled chocolate. However, they are considerably heftier than your usual Marabou milk chocolate bar (320g vs 185g), which means they’re big and thick – and I do love a big and thick bar!

Um. Where was I? Right, the chocolate looks like this:

The scent is very sweet. There’s the fairly mild aroma of milk chocolate and maybe a bit of vanilla.

The milk chocolate is the typical Marabou milk chocolate. It’s very sweet and smooth – not my favourite because of the sweetness, but not bad at all. The chocolate encases a white filling, which is also very sweet and has a creamy, almost buttery flavour. It’s a little like the filling in Oreos, but I don’t think it’s exactly the same stuff although I could be wrong. Inside the filling nestles the Oreo part, which is a nice, solid layer of that dark chocolate cookie. It is crispy and crunchy and has the typical Oreo taste. Unlike I expected, it actually balances the flavours of the otherwise very sweet chocolate – and in terms of texture makes this chocolate more interesting.

This is a very sweet bar – not intended for sophisticated nibbling but rather something from which you want to break a piece after piece and just stuff your face with those deliciously thick fragments. I don’t really mind all that sweetness… and, oddly enough, lately I’ve suffered from sudden, inexplicable cravings for Oreos! 😨 So this chocolate definitely worked for me.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Blog Birthday!

It has been three years since I started this blog! It does not feel that long! (Add all the other usual exclamations about how time passes so quickly.)

In three years, I’ve written 191 posts. No, I’ve published 191 posts; there is a number of never published drivels that are better left forgotten.

The most popular posts have been… who would have guessed… chocolate reviews! Very funny, considering this was never meant to be a chocolate review blog, it was a joke from a friend that inspired the very first review! But, apparently, people do read such things – and who can blame them? Chocolate is good. (Chocolate is food of the gods!) The most popular chocolate post is this multi-bar review of Fazer’s Travel chocolates.

The most popular posts that are not about chocolate are a review of Manda Scott’s novel “Hen’s Teeth”, a post about the costumes for the movie “The Girl King” (17th century!), a review of Kelly Gardiner’s “Goddess” (17th century!), my favourite books in 2015, and our visit to the Heavy Metal exhibition hosted by the Häme Castle. It also seems that my travel tales (especially ones about chocolate and cafés) have been popular as well as the little stories about seasonal celebrations (Halloween, Valentine’s Day etc.). Readers are also interested in writing, especially the science fiction anthology “Synthesis” and our werewolf novella “Musta Susi”.

After three years, I can't quite decide what to do about this blog. My DH and I recently signed a publishing contract for our debut novel. What can I say? It’s something I’ve been daydreaming about since I was quite small. I learned to read when I was about four or five years old (I’ve been told; I can’t remember) and since then have loved reading passionately. I wasn’t even at school yet, but I still remember very vividly the first time I realised that people actually have to write all the books (I even remember exactly where I sat… with a book open before me, of course). So... someone gets to write books! I knew that was what I wanted to do, and although that dream was buried many times, for years and years, and very, very deep, and mountains of dirt was packed on top of it with a heavy shovel... I could never quite get over it.

So now that the revision process of our manuscript is in full swing, I wonder if there’ll be much time for blogging – and, considering that the novel will be published in Finnish, perhaps I should also blog in Finnish. Furthermore, should I blog about more important topics? Stop with the chocolate reviews and other frivolous matters already and become a more… um, all right, somehow I have a hard time imagining myself as a serious blogger! 😁

Monday, 3 April 2017

Review: The Silvered Heart by Katherine Clements

When I first heard about “The Silvered Heart”, I thought it sounded exactly like my kind of book: set in the 17th century with a highwaywoman as a protagonist – a historical adventure with a bit of romance is just my thing!

The novel is a fictional account of the life of Lady Katherine Ferrers, who lived in Hertfordshire in the 17th century and who is the most popular candidate for the role of the “Wicked Lady”, a mysterious highwaywoman said to have terrorised the area. Unfortunately, little is known about Katherine and even less about the Wicked Lady – did she ever even exist or is her legend mere folklore? Seeing that, Clemens does a wonderful job in combining fact and fiction and weaving together the lives of a high-born lady and a highwaywoman.

Forced into a marriage of convenience, Katherine finds herself neglected by her husband. The civil war has ravaged the country, and she must struggle to make ends meet and manage the impoverished estate. Hunger and misery – and the determination to gain back what she thinks is rightfully hers; the lifestyle of the privileged – drive her to desperate deeds: she turns to highway robbery. This brings her together with Ralph Chaplin, a notorious highwayman. Wielding a pistol and halting carriages in order to deprive their passengers of their valuables, Katherine risks her life… but finds love.

The life of a highwaywoman never features in the story quite as much as I expected. Katherine’s motivation for her actions is nicely fleshed out, yet I could have hoped for a bit more action and adventure. Historical details seem accurate and rich in terms of the everyday life (which is the kind of detail that primarily interests me), but as Katherine mostly stays in one place/area and learns about the affairs of the world - politics, war; the struggle between the King’s men and the parliament - through her husband and his friends, the bigger picture remains a little vague. On the other hand, this aspect is an accurate portrayal of a woman’s role at the time (something Katherine occasionally laments) which was to bear children and run the household.

This may not have been quite the swashbuckling adventure I expected, but there is plenty of drama, intrigue and passion. The characters are well developed, they have their strengths and their weaknesses, they have hidden depths. The language is beautiful and flows well; I especially enjoyed the vivid description of nature and the countryside. Of my “three novels set in the 17th century” this was the one I finished first.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Review: A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii

Some time ago, I reviewed “A Year of Ravens: A Novel of Boudica’s Rebellion”, an anthology by several historical fiction authors. “A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii” by Stephanie Dray, Ben Kane, E. Knight, Sophie Perinot, Kate Quinn and Vicky Alvear Shecter is similar to that: each of the six authors wrote a story, and together these stories form a single narrative.

The authors have each been given/picked characters from whose perspective they tell the story. This actually works very well: each story is long enough to draw you in and make you care about the characters. The setting is the same (obviously), which aids the immersion, and since all authors have previously written stories set in the same era, or close enough, the feel of the period is about as good as it can be. The only drawback is that I got attached to the POV characters in each story and wanted to follow them to the end. Only seeing them appear in – more or less – supporting roles in someone else’s story was, at times, a little disappointing. On the other hand, familiar characters (re)appearing now and again was part of the pleasure of reading this book. It was like seeing old friends!

The story of the final days of Pompeii is told from various perspectives: slaves, senators, soldiers… people from all walks of life. The narrative is centred around an epic disaster, which lends it plenty of tension, yet it is always the human drama and stories of individuals that take the centre stage. What do we do when our life is in danger? What is our duty or our obligation towards others? What matters the most to each of us: our earthly possessions, our own skin or the lives of those we love? How far will we go to save ourselves – or others?

Vicky Alvear Shecter’s “The Son” is a coming-of-age story where a young man learns that being a man has little to do with bedding tavern whores; it is about virtue and duty and integrity.

“The Heiress” by Sophie Perinot is another coming-of-age type story where a wealthy young woman rebels against an arranged marriage to an older, seemingly boring man.

Ben Kane’s “The Soldier” is a gritty story of an ex-legionary, loyalty – and it brings out the gladiators!

In Kate Quinn’s “The Senator” an elderly, embittered senator meets a fiercely independent, chariot-racing woman. She’s a survivor, he’s suicidal – and they’re thrown together into this end-of-days situation. What ensues is some genuine, warm humour, yet this piece isn’t just a comedy but also has a more serious tone, especially towards the end – which makes it all the more poignant, because I grew very fond of this odd pair. While reading each story, I rooted for the main characters of that story to survive, but was even more desperate to see Marcus and Diana make it. The characters seemed just so vivid, and it took me a while to realise that this was probably because they appear in Quinn’s previous novels, which I read quite some time ago! Now I want to go and reread those…

E. Knight’s “The Mother” is a story about family, love and a terrible choice faced by a young mother-to-be.

Stephanie Dray’s “The Whore” is a powerful, heart-breaking story narrated by two sisters, who are very different from one another and thus offer us two contrasting perspectives. I also have to mention “The Whore”, because it’s the last story in the book, and the ending was the one thing that had me worried. I mean, we know what happened in Pompeii. Would I ever really actually want to finish this book? The end can’t possibly be happy. Yes, you can write an unhappy ending. You can even write an unhappy ending that is still a good ending and even a satisfying ending. That takes some skill, though... and Stephanie Dray pulls it off beautifully. There is grief, but there is hope. There is loss, but there is love. It is the end, but it is a new beginning.

I'd recommend “A Day of Fire” to fans of historical fiction and those who are interested in the ancient world. It is also a great opportunity to sample the work of various authors!

Monday, 20 March 2017

Currently reading

I am currently reading three different novels. Their settings:

- France, 17th century
- England, 17th century
- Germany, 17th century

I don't know how that happened. So I'll just add a picture of a 17th century painting by Abraham Bosse ("Five senses: Touch"). This one always makes me smile (talk about awkward family photos!).

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Review: Chocolate Tree Whisky Nibs

I never win anything! I don’t consider myself particularly lucky, nor do I entirely trust all those Facebook giveaways… yet I guess I must be a positive person after all, for I always think it might be worth a try - and now it really was! I entered a giveaway organised by a Finnish company Laatusuklaa (Quality Chocolate) who import and sell some of the finest chocolates available in Finland.

And I won!!! 😊

I won a bar of Chocolate Tree’s dark chocolate with whisky nibs. Actually, the winner could choose between this and a milk chocolate bar, also from Chocolate Tree, but this sounded like an interesting combination… and I don’t even like whisky! I chose it just because it sounded different and I wanted to be adventurous!

The chocolate arrived about a week ago (right on International Women’s Day, as it happened!), and I must say that the people at Laatusuklaa had done a perfect job in packaging it. The bar was wrapped in several layers of protective materials, and the box was filled with foam peanuts to ensure that the bar would not break! Now that’s what I call fabulous service.

The pretty, colourful wrapping informs me that this chocolate has won an award. Interesting! Inside are two bars wrapped in silver foil. The bars are long and narrow, with one side patterned with leaf and floral motives. I really like the look of them! Here, almost too pretty to eat...

The chocolate is dark with a 69 % cocoa content, and the whisky comes in the form of cocoa nibs that have been soaked in Scottish single malt whisky. In case you’re wondering, the whisky content is 6 %.

The scent is lovely. I detect the darker, earthier notes of cocoa and something sweet, fruity or even floral – can that really be the whisky?

The texture is smooth - apart from the cocoa nibs, which are actually softer than in other chocolates I've nibbled before. And the taste? It’s fascinating - on the first taste, I found the same fruitiness that was present in the scent... but on the second, there was a definite smoky flavour! I must admit that I just can’t identify the whisky - apart from that smokiness, which is very pleasant - but then, I’ve only tasted whisky a couple of times. My DH, who has a little more experience, says it’s clearly there. Sometimes chocolates that include alcohol have a boozy aroma that is simply too strong for my taste, but this is not the case here.

At first, I did not quite know what I thought about this, but the more bites I had, the more I liked it! I imagine this could be a lovely, warming treat on cold winter days...

Monday, 27 February 2017

Fazer Visitor Centre – a visit to chocolate company!

As it was my birthday last week, we celebrated on weekend, and on Saturday my DH and daughter took me to Fazer visitor centre. Fazer is the most well-known chocolate manufacturer in Finland, but the company also makes other sweets, cookies, bread, muesli etc. and has bakeries and cafés in various cities and towns. They opened a new visitor centre just last autumn, and since then, I’ve been looking forward to a visit there!

We’d booked a guided tour, which lasted for about an hour. It started in a small tropical garden where we were shown cocoa trees with cocoa fruit and other tropical plants. On a cold winter day, the warm, humid garden was a particularly lovely spot.

The tour itself didn’t focus much on chocolate making or history of chocolate but rather on Fazer as a company; their history, products etc. The exhibition featured, among other things, a giant bunny made of egg shells:

Old confectionary equipment:

And a great number of old wrappings, boxes and other containers for sweets. These were very beautiful and truly charming!

There were interactive parts in the tour; you could, e.g., smell ingredients used in sweets (cocoa mass, cocoa powder, liquorice powder, spices...) and visit Fazer factories wearing VR headsets.

And of course, visitors were invited to sample some of the products: individually wrapped pieces of chocolate as well as chocolate and liquorice bars. A "chocolate tree":

Although it is every chocoholic’s dream to devour unlimited amounts of chocolate, I was careful and only sampled a bit – we were going to an Indian restaurant afterwards, and it would have been a shame to spoil my appetite! Still, I did get a bite of all my favourites as well as a chance to taste something new, such as these Dumle lime chocolates, which are chocolate covered lime flavoured soft, chewy caramels. I was a little suspicious about the lime thing, but these are actually delicious!

After the tour, visitors were given goodie bags containing some new or limited edition products... and there is a shop in the premises where we bought a big bag full of treats. For the most part, the selection did not differ from what you find in supermarkets and grocery stores, but there were some novelties we haven’t yet spotted anywhere else, such as these chocolate eggs. They are like our favourite chocolate eggs, Mignons: solid almond nougat eggs in real egg shells (and one of Fazer’s oldest products still in the market). These, however, are slightly larger than the normal Mignons and come in brown egg shells. Aren’t they beautiful? These would make a perfect little Easter/spring time gift!

In addition, there is a café where you can sample some of Fazer’s cafeteria products. The cakes looked utterly delicious! Since we had other plans, we didn’t indulge in these treats – but immediately decided to make another visit one day...

Monday, 20 February 2017

A chocolate feast - Valentine's Day 2017

Every year, I prepare a Valentine’s Day dinner for my DH and, these days, also our daughter. I try to pick a different theme each year (although the favourites, such as ancient Rome, have to be repeated occasionally because of popular demand). I’ve previously blogged about our Game of Thrones dinner and our Musketeer party.

This year, the theme was chocolate. This wasn’t simply because I love chocolate but mainly because my daughter once said we should have a meal where we just ate “chocolate foods”… so I decided to plan a menu where all courses included chocolate.

First I wrote a short text about why chocolate is an appropriate choice for Valentine's Day:

The ancient Aztecs regarded cocoa as food of the gods. Both the Mayans and Aztecs believed the cacao bean had magical or divine properties; it was used in the most sacred rituals of birth, marriage and death. Cocoa was used to make a drink xocoatl, considered a health elixir, with spices such as cinnamon or hot chili peppers.

The Aztec ruler Montezuma reportedly consumed cocoa elixir before heading off to his harem. He also welcomed the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez with a drink of chocolate, having mistaken the conquering invader for a reincarnated deity. Cortez brought cacao beans to the Spanish court where the pepper was replaced with sugar.

By the 17th century, chocolate was a fashionable drink throughout Europe, believed to have nutritious, medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. Rumour has it that Casanova, the legendary lover, was especially fond of chocolate.

Today, the aphrodisiac qualities of chocolate are ascribed to tryptophan, a building block of serotonin, a brain chemical involved in sexual arousal, and phenylethylamine, a stimulant released in the brain when we fall in love. Whether even hard-core chocoholics can consume enough chocolate to cause a significant rise in those chemicals is debatable... but either way, chocolate is sweet and delicious and an ever-popular gift among lovers.

For appetisers, I served white chocolate and olive bruschettas. I chose these because the combination of flavours sounds rather unusual. In addition, I wanted to have at least one dish with white chocolate. You can see the recipe I used for inspiration here. Somewhat surprisingly, this was very good! The white chocolate and mozzarella melted into a delicious, creamy sauce, and while white chocolate is very sweet, olives are salty, and all the flavours just worked together wonderfully. I was told I have to start making these regularly!

The main course was chicken with chocolate mole sauce. I am aware that there are much more authentic recipes, but to save time, I referred to this and this. I have to say that this smelled divine as it cooked! It tasted delicious, too; the chocolate and nuts gave it a robust, earthy flavour. Very different from anything we’ve ever eaten, but we definitely enjoyed it. It was also a surprisingly sturdy, filling dish.

With the chicken, I served fresh bread and a salad with lettuce, oranges and dark chocolate shavings. Oranges and chocolate is a classic combination, after all (although not one I particularly enjoy…). I didn’t use any recipe for this, just tossed those ingredients together.

The dessert was the hardest choice for there were so many things I wanted to make! Finally I decided on cheesecake brownies, because I’ve always wanted to make them and also because it’s been years since I last made a batch of brownies. I used this recipe (in Finnish) and this (in English) and just sort of combined, tweaked, modified, adjusted… I was pretty sure I’d mess up the marble pattern… but it’s also something I’ve always wanted to try. And it wasn’t that difficult after all, or at least it worked out all right this time. Cake still in the pan:

This was pretty much what I expected: very chocolaty, with cake-like edges and a more molten core. My daughter told me it was “the best cake ever!” but then she went on to list just about every cake I’ve made in the past 18 months and they were all also “best cakes ever”, so…clearly, she likes cake.

This was a fun Valentine’s Day and it definitely included a lot of chocolate! Of course, that wasn’t quite enough for us, and once we’d put our daughter to bed, we finished the evening with these (and an episode of House, M.D. – how romantic! 😀).

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Library love story

I remember my first visit to a library. It is one of my earliest memories, if not even the earliest – I was perhaps three years old at the time. My mother took me to this beautiful old building (built in 1900), where the public library of our tiny town used to be (picture from this page).

I remember the hushed halls and the shelves after shelves of books. I was told I could take some books home with me, and when we had read them, we’d return them – and get yet new books to read! I was thrilled: I loved books, I loved listening to stories, and I soon learned to read (I’ve been told I was four or five at the time; I don’t really remember). I got my own library card that day, and since then used it frequently. My mother also sometimes took me to the library for story times for children.

Some years later, a more modern library building was constructed. This new building, which still works as a library today, was also a versatile cultural venue; they organised puppet shows and movie mornings for children (and they still do!). I remember going to those as well, although it was always the books that I loved best. Sometimes I borrowed so many books that as I pushed them forwards on the counter behind which the librarians sat, the librarians couldn’t see me as the tall pile of books hid me from their view. But I needed bags and bags of books when we went to the summer place and stayed there for several weeks (until my mother realised it might be a good idea to get a library card for the library of the closest town).

Since that first visit, I’ve come to know many different libraries: the libraries of every town I’ve lived in, university library (considering the title of this post, I will have to mention that a different kind of love story took place there; the university library was where we often met with my husband, in the early days of our courtship), a couple of public libraries in Vancouver... But then, I’m almost ashamed to admit, there were a few years when I didn’t go to a library at all! I only read books in English – what would I find in a Finnish library? It was the decision to try and write a short story in Finnish that finally lured me back to the library: having read no Finnish fiction in several years, I thought it best to re-familiarise myself with it. 

As it happened, this was the library of my old home town, and since then, I’ve kept going back for more Finnish fiction, non-fiction of various kinds - and I’ve also discovered that they do have a section of English novels! There’s also a children’s play area, where I can leave my daughter for a while and just browse the books and enjoy the quiet (I do love quiet)... and the expectation of finding something good to read.

The beauty of library books is that there is no commitment. I am a little hesitant to buy a book if I’ve never read anything by the author, but if a library book isn’t interesting, I don’t have to read it... and when I return it, it won’t take any space in our already crammed shelves. You can be as adventurous as you like and borrow anything you want. Anything!!! I’m still as immensely excited about that as I was the first time I stepped into a library.

And to ruin an ending I was, for once, happy with… I am aware of the alarming, global trend of closing down libraries. I could have written a different kind of post about how libraries are vital for a community, for they provide people with an equal access to information and knowledge; how they can improve education and preserve art and enrich our lives. But people are not that stupid (yet; however, if we do keep closing down those libraries...) – everyone knows all that. So I did what I so often do and made it personal. This is my library love story. Tell me yours?

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Reading gloves

These are my new reading gloves.

Reading gloves? What's that? Well, now that it's cold and I should keep my hands warm, I intend to wear these while reading. And they're touchscreen gloves - those little patches on the two fingers mean that I can use my Kindle while wearing these!

(The book? It's a graphic novel I found in the library and borrowed just because it said 17th century... I haven't read it yet.)

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

On their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy Dunne disappears, and her husband, Nick, is suspected of having murdered her... especially when it turns out that he has a young mistress, has accumulated considerable credit card debts, and that their marriage wasn’t a particularly happy one. But it’s impossible to say more about the plot of “Gone Girl” without spoilers, I’ll simply say that things are not what they seem and leave it at that.

“Gone Girl” is not my kind of book at all; it is not historical fiction (not that I’m faithful to only one genre; I like to mix it up), the writing isn’t particularly beautiful, and the characters aren’t the type I could actually, seriously root for. I have even seen the movie, so I knew what was going to happen, yet I kept turning the pages, thinking “one more chapter!”

The sticker on the cover calls the books “smart”, and naturally I’d like to claim that was what hooked me. 😉 The characters are devious, and keeping track of their stories, their lies and deceptions... well, that’s actually not tricky at all. But the structure is a clever one – simple, but clever without being gimmicky. 

Nick and Amy both get a chance to tell their side of the story. Or their version of the story (unreliable narrators, for sure). I found myself feeling something close to sympathy for both in turn, but, even more so, despising and even loathing them both. I suppose this is exactly what the author intended.

I once read a piece of writing advice (unfortunately, I can’t remember where it was or who wrote it) that defined a good character as someone who has skeletons in their closet. This should make readers curious. They should crave a peek at the characters’ most private lives, and an author should oblige and grant them their chance to pry. These two, Nick and Amy, certainly have piles of bones and skulls in their closets. And little by little, all the ugly truths and meanest thoughts are revealed.

While I would call this novel light reading, it is also rather dark and paints a creepy picture of relationships. I’m not sure I could say that I enjoyed it, yet it was oddly addictive.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

It’s the 1930s, and Jacob Jankowski doesn’t quite run away to join a circus – he jumps a freight train and finds himself travelling with one. Flying Squadron of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth is struggling with financial problems, but since the nearly-vet Jacob has lost everything, he accepts a position as the troupe’s veterinarian. He falls in love with Marlena, a beautiful equestrian performer, whose charming but jealous husband August, superintendent of animals, becomes Jacob’s boss. When the circus acquires an elephant August doesn’t get along with, his cruel, sadistic side emerges and puts everyone in jeopardy.

Yes, I did love circus as a child. I don’t remember actually going but once (or twice?) but I enjoyed watching it on TV. I especially loved the trapeze artists, and among the animals, elephants were my very favourite.

Does that explain why I found “Water for Elephants” so captivating? Maybe; or maybe it was partly that I read it during the holidays when feeling particularly lazy. Reading was all I really wanted to do.

I found the setting fascinating – the 1930’s, a circus, the vagabond life. Creating the dazzling beauty and magic of a short circus act is a lot of sweat and pain and hard work, and the everyday life of performers and workers could be quite harsh.

As for characters, I especially liked the fact that there is a marked contrast and yet certain similarities between the tender-hearted but naïve young Jacob who joins the circus and the old, grumpy Jacob who looks back on his life while in a nursing home. It is Jacob the elder who provides a certain gravity, wisdom and even some heart-break to the story – and some of its funniest moments. Rosie, the elephant, is a lovable character (some of her antics are based on true stories), and I also really liked Walter. Unfortunately, some characters remain a little flat, and I could have hoped for a bit more chemistry between Jacob and Marlena.

The writing is solid, if not extraordinary, and the story... there is love, there is excitement, there is murder and mayhem. I wanted to know what happens next! Not every plot twist and turn seemed entirely realistic (but hey, this is fiction!), and the ending especially could be called a little far-fetched. Yet I would say it was the right ending for this story.

Maybe sometimes we don’t need to know exactly what it is that draws us into a book. I just know I didn’t want to put this one down... and that is always a wonderful feeling.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Review: Hen's Teeth by Manda Scott

Recently I found myself in the rare “I have nothing to read!” situation. It was suddenly impossible to find something I could trust to be good. Crime/thrillers/mysteries are usually not my box of chocolate, so I hesitated a moment before buying “Hen’s Teeth”, Manda Scott’s debut novel. But I’ve loved her historical fiction and enjoyed the one crime novel I’ve read from her, so I thought it was a safe bet.

It was shortly after midnight when the phone rang.
I was lying in bed at the time, counting Artex ridges on the ceiling as a creative alternative to sheep and trying not to think too hard about life, the universe or anything.

That’s how it starts. Not only did I grin at the reference, but who among us has not experience such nights? I instantly related with the protagonist.

That sleepless night, Kellen Stewart learns that her ex-lover has died. The police are ready to close the case, believing the cause of death to be a heart attack. Kellen, however, suspects foul play, and together with her reckless pathologist friend, Lee, begins her own private investigation. Dangerous, she’s well aware of that – especially as more dead bodies turn up – but she’s not the kind of person who would let that stop her.

Scott has worked as a veterinarian, and that shows in the detailed description of the farm, where much of the story takes place, and particularly the animals who are nothing less than characters in this novel. Medical science and genetics form another important aspect, well-researched and fascinating (those with a weaker stomach might disagree). The Scottish scenery, both urban and rural, plays an important role. The ancient burial mounds and stormy nights lend the story their own magic.

I’ve always loved Scott’s vivid, evocative prose. This being her first novel, it is not yet quite the voice I’ve come to know. This is no criticism but an observation; it is interesting to see how a writer has developed. The characteristic wry wit is there, and I found myself, if not quite laughing, at least smiling several times.

Kellen Stewart is Scott’s typical strong female character, and that also goes for her friend Lee Adams. I really liked them both; down-to-earth, tough, loyal and... I want to say real, but I am not entirely certain if anyone could be quite that heroic in real life. Works very well in a novel, though! 😉 It is women who form the heart of the story, and their lives are all intertwined somehow: they are friends, lovers, ex-lovers, potential love interests. When things get tough, the personal relationships mean that the stakes are very high indeed – which, of course, does wonderful things to suspense and tension.

I felt like there was a lot of backstory here, but we only get a glimpse of it now and then. I know that that is how it should be done, but occasionally I wondered if I might have understood things (character motivation, relationships etc.) better, had I been more familiar with all that history. I actually had to check that this really was the first novel in the series and that I wasn’t missing something just because I hadn’t read the previous one(s).

Whether more of that history will be revealed in the sequels remains to be seen – I hope it will, but if not, I’ll enjoy the company of Kellen and others anyway.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Review: Leader Raw Choco Winter Favourites (Blueberry & Lingonberry, Apple & Caramelized Almond, Orange & Season's Spices)

These three bars are “Winter Favourites” or “Season Editions” from Leader. I’ve previously reviewed some of their other raw chocolate bars and was keen to sample these new season flavours.

The wrappers are pretty and seasonal, and the bars themselves have a lovely pattern on one side and additions/flavourings on the other. I particularly like the look of blueberry and lingonberry bar! Here from left to right: Blueberry & Lingonberry, Apple & Caramelized Almond and Orange & Season's Spices.

These are raw chocolate with cocoa content of at least 70 %. The chocolate is made of organic, unroasted cocoa beans and cane sugar. Though dark, it is not at all bitter but it does have an intense flavour, which I gather is typical of raw chocolate.

In Blueberry & Lingonberry, there are bits of blueberry and lingonberry in the chocolate. Some are bigger, some tiny – more like powdered, dried berries. The taste of berries isn’t very strong, but it does give the chocolate a nice, fresh tang which forms a lovely counterpoint to the rich chocolate.

Apple & Caramelized Almond comes with dried apple pieces and bits of caramelized almonds. The almonds are more noticeable of the two. I couldn’t quite detect the caramelisation, but the almonds give the chocolate a nice crunch. The apple pieces are juicy and tart – I only wished there were more of them!

Orange & Season's Spices does not contain actual orange but orange oil. The “season's spices” are cinnamon, clove and ginger, which form a gentle, barely-there note. The orange oil can be detected in the scent already and its taste is stronger than that of the spices. To be honest, chocolate and orange was never my favourite combination, but together with the spices, orange gives this chocolate an enticing, exotic air.

After the first taste, I would perhaps name the Blueberry & Lingonberry my favourite. Or maybe the Apple & Almonds... no, I can’t decide! They’re all good... and an ideal choice if you’re looking for a slightly healthier option to satisfy your chocolate craving.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Review: Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

It wasn't as if Seressa was sunny and warm in late autumn. Indeed, if he was being honest he'd have to say his city on its lagoon could be colder than Obravic. Fog and damp that could find your chest and bones, even in a palace on the Great Canal. There weren't enough fireplaces in the world, Orso Faleri was thinking, to entirely ease a wet autumn or winter night back home.
Even so, even so. You felt the cold more when you were away. Men were like that, the world was. An unfamiliar house among strangers, darkness having descended to the sound of rain. Poets wrote about such things.

So does Guy Gavriel Kay, who is also a poet (he has published a poetry book in addition to several novels).

I was first introduced to Kay's novels around 2000, when my boyfriend at the time gave me ”The Lions of Al-Rassan” to read. It was one of the first fantasy novels I ever read, but he knew what he was doing: I fell in love with the book, and Kay quickly became one of my favourite authors.

And the boyfriend? Reader, I married him. 😊

Kay’s books are classified as fantasy mostly because they are set in fictional worlds inspired by bygone cultures/eras/historical events. In ”Children”, the setting resembles the Renaissance Europe. Most of his books have an additional fantasy element, but that is usually something – a ghost, say, or an ability to communicate with a dead ancestor – that the mystic in me could easily believe to be possible (the sceptic in me might disagree), for We must not imagine we understand all there is to know about the world”.

But I've explained before what makes Kay's books perfect for me and why he is the only fantasy author whose work I still consistently follow, so I won't repeat that but will go on to the book, ”Children of Earth and Sky”, one of my holiday reads and one of the best books I read in 2016.

Since her baby brother was kidnapped, her father and older brother slain by Osmanli troops, Danica Gradek has lived for revenge. Although women rarely fight, the skilled archer joins a raiding party of legendary Senjan warriors.

Leonora Valeri, a disgraced daughter of a wealthy aristocrat, is given a chance to escape confinement in a religious house and take control of her life – if she agrees to a pretend marriage with a man she does not know... and becomes a spy.

Pero Villani, a young artist from the fabled city state Seressa is sent to paint a portrait of the Grand Khalif of the Osmanli Empire. There is an underlying mission, but succeeding in it would end not only the Khalif's life.

Marin Djivo, a merchant from Dubrava, is transporting cargo and passengers when pirates board his ship. Swords are drawn, arrows fired… and destinies irrevocably entangled.

As in all of Kay's books, empires rise and fall and armies march to war. Plots are hatched, power games are played, and few care about the costs.
Yet the outcome of everything could depend on whether it rains or not. (We are children of earth and sky, after all.)

I don’t want to say more about the plot for fear of spoilers, but as is typical of Kay's novels, events take place against upheavals that shape the world, yet the focus is always on individuals and their lives – and the changes they undergo. These passages illustrate the idea perfectly:

The world is a gameboard, an Esperañan poet had declared, in still celebrated lines, centuries ago. The pieces are moved, they do not control themselves. They are placed opposite each other, or beside. They are allies or enemies, of higher or lower rank. They die or they survive. One player wins and then there is another game on the board.
Even so, the rise and fall of fortune for empires, kingdoms, republics, warring faiths, men and women – their heartaches, losses, loves, undying rage, delight and wonder, pain and birth and death – all these are intensely real to them, not simply images in a poem, however brilliant the poet might have been.
The dead (with exceptions impossibly rare) are gone from us. They are buried with honour, burned, thrown into the sea, left on gibbets or in fields for animals and carrion birds. One needs to stand far away or look with a very cold eye, to see all this roiling movement, this suffering, agitation, as pieces only, moved in some game.

We are tossed around in the often violent current of history, but sometimes a single individual, and even a seemingly small deed (or a decision or a dream or a hunch), can change the course of history and impact the lives of many. I can’t put it into words, but there is something about this element that makes Kay’s books both larger than life yet so very human. Perhaps what I like so much is the comfort in the thought that we are all a part of something... yet very, very small parts. (And it’s all very random anyway.)

There are other familiar elements: beautiful friendships, love and loyalty, courage and honour, kindness and tenderness that sometimes emerge even in the most unexpected places. And, in the midst of all that turmoil, when empires come tumbling down and the world around us changes, these are what truly matter. ”Children” also includes references to Kay's earlier works, particularly ”The Sarantine Mosaic”. You don't need to read his other books in order to enjoy this one, but the references will likely delight the fans (they did me).

Then there is the language, beautiful as always. I've mentioned before that I am a fan of Kay's lyrical, dramatic style. I often find myself rereading a sentence or a paragraph just for the pleasure of it, to savour it.

While I would not rate this among Kay's best, it is still an excellent novel. I had some trouble immersing myself in the book the way I want to, even though it was the holidays and I had more time to read than usual. It may be that my concentration lagged a bit, because my daughter was ill and I had my own health concerns. It also seemed to me that it took some time for the story to get going – I had a feeling I had only just started the book when, in fact, I had already devoured more than half and would have expected there to be more rising tension by that point. There was action and adventure, certainly, but the pacing was perhaps somewhat unconventional. Even when I was half-way through the book, I would not have been able to describe the plot because I did not know how the story lines connected. On the other hand, this also meant that I (mostly) could not predict what would happen, and that I enjoyed very much.

I may have mentioned that I am an emotional reader – feelings are what I want, perhaps more than anything else, from a book. Lately, few books have managed to evoke strong feelings. (I have theories as to why, but I am not fond of them as they would indicate that I've become older and… I want to say wiser, naturally, but the more correct word here is perhaps more cynical, but I have sworn never to become that… so, less emotional? No, that isn’t any better! Let's say more balanced and experienced. Or maybe wiser is the right one, after all? Oh, words, those slippery bastards!)

Anyway. ”Children” did bring tears to my eyes. This happened a couple of times towards the end, which was expected, but also once long before that, quite unexpectedly (and therefore even more wonderfully). I sat there, all misty-eyed, and had to stop reading for a moment. And I thought – this is what I want from a book! This is why I love reading.