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.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Best Books in 2016

It’s early 2017 and time to look back on last year’s best reads, which is something I’ve done before (for 2015 and 2014).

Goodreads says I read 63 books in 2016. Seeing that I didn’t enter all books in there, the total number would be a little higher, perhaps by 10 or so. Anyway, it is more than in 2015, when I listed 43 books in Goodreads. Why? I have no idea! I don’t think I’ve spent that much more time reading, but perhaps I have. Oh, and in early 2016, I seem to have made a New Year’s resolution to read more books! I had actually forgotten all about that... but it means I actually managed to find a resolution I could stick to. ;)

In terms of ratings, only a handful of books received 5 stars. However, there was quite a big bunch of four star books, many three star books, and only a few two star books. So, overall, I read pretty good books last year. My average rating was 3.4 (but it must be said that there were many books I didn’t rate at all). Let’s take a look at some of the highlights.

One of the few five-star ratings went, as expected, to “Children of Earth and Sky” by Guy Gavriel Kay. I’ll try to write a review at some point; right now I feel too close to the book still (it was one of my holiday reads this year, after all) to be able to say much except that I loved it.

Another one of the top books was “Haukka, minun rakkaani” by Kaari Utrio. The novel is set in Medieval Finland; while not Utrio’s best, there’s still plenty of historical detail, humour and adventure. A newly built Raseborg Castle is threatened by enemies. In the midst of battles and power struggles, Lady Blanka is pursued by a gorgeous knight... and a battle-axe-wielding, huge and hairy pagan. Do I need to say more? 😋 Yes, this sort of thing does work for me, but it must be done right. Utrio knows how.

Another five-star rating went to “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain about Ernest Hemingway and his first wife – you can read my review here.

This was actually one of my trends in 2016: I seem to have been into books about authors and/or writing. In addition to ”The Paris Wife”, there was “Possession” by A. S. Byatt about fictional 19th century poets and literary analysis (my thoughts here), “Mistress Shakespeare” by Karen Harper about Shakespeare and the love of his life (which I enjoyed a great deal but never managed to review) and “Mrs. Poe” by Lynn Cullen about Edgar Allan Poe and Frances Osgood, who was also a writer, and their affair. “The Shakespeare Secret” would also go into this category... and perhaps ”The Hours” by Michael Cunningham which I was also going to review but didn’t. ”The Hours”, however, made me want to read something by Virginia Woolf – and I picked ”Orlando”, which, of course, also deals with writing! Then there was “Reader, I Married him”, a collection of short stories inspired by “Jane Eyre” (I might write a review later).

Just to mention a few others... Cyrano de Bergerac – I’ve seen film adaptations, but finally got around to reading the ”real thing” - funny, sweet but so tragic!

Phil Rickman’s “The Man in the Moss” and “The Chalice” were both very enjoyable. Again, a good combination of history, myth and mystery – and great writing; I wish I could set the mood the way Rickman does.

I must also mention the anthology “Dangerous Women” (I even wrote a review).

I feel like I should say something smart in conclusion, but I can’t think of anything (this seems to happen to me with every post). I had not even set myself a reading challenge (nor will I) – but, looking at my year in books in Goodreads, it is obvious that I read a variety of very different kinds of books from different genres, eras, themes and topics. Therefore, I guess I can say that 2016 was another adventurous year – at least in terms of books!