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.)