Monday, 12 February 2018

NOTES OF A NAIVE TRAVELER by Jennifer S Alderson @JSAauthor

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads


How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie Amber's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

Genre: Travel memoir, non-fiction.

From the blurb:
 
Part guidebook on culture and travel, part journey of self-discovery, this travelogue takes you on a backpacking adventure through Nepal and Thailand and provides a firsthand account of one volunteer’s experience teaching in a Nepali school and living with a devout Brahmin family. 


This is quite a short book, written in semi-diary format, partly in emails, about the author's travels in 1999.  The then 26-year-old Jennifer plunges in at the deep end, living first with a Nepali family, trekking around the country, then teaching Nepali children, after which she hits the tourist trail in Thailand.

This book would be most useful as a guidebook for those hoping to travel to Nepal, as it certainly paints a realistic picture; any traveller with whimsical dreams of entering a spiritual heaven as soon as they get off the plane should read the account of Thamel, of the families who assume Westerners are fair game, and of the bloody temple sacrifices ~ the lunch of goat's blood will stay with me, I think...

I grew to like Jennifer more and more as the book went on (important when reading a memoir!), especially when she described the father of one of her Nepali families as 'kind of a schmuck' and the son as a 'little shit' - I have a fondness for those who dare to tell it like it is!  Her youthful enthusiasm is charming - everything is 'amazing', 'gorgeous', 'incredible', etc, though now and again I felt I would have liked to read about the place as seen through more mature eyes.  The most interesting parts of the book, for me, were her observations about the day to day habits and culture of the Nepalis and just little incidents that happened.  Her 'characters' really jumped off the page.  

On to Thailand, and Jennifer experiences the westernised tourist route of the famous Khao San Road and rejects it for more of the 'real' Thailand, though she was disappointed that the hill tribes lived not in mud huts but in shacks with corrugated tin rooves, with motorbikes and trucks parked outside, and that the caves where the Buddhist monks worked were strewn with electric cables.  Generally, though, her time in Thailand sounded so wonderful it almost made me whimper with longing.

(Her description of the more westernised areas of Bangkok reminded me of something a friend told me: Amy had been travelling around South America and Indonesia for almost a year, when some friends came out to join them for a few weeks in Thailand.  She said they were like the gap year backpackers, who thought that getting off their faces on exotic beaches was 'doing' Thailand, and weren't interested in seeing the actual country; they might as well have gone to Ibiza.)

I'd say that anyone who is thinking of visiting these countries, Nepal in particular, should take time to read this warts-and-all account, especially if they're thinking of signing up for the volunteer work that entails being placed with a family.  Jen comes across as a very open-minded and non-egotistical sort of person; maybe why she felt like a fish out of water in the working world of Seattle, and wanted to experience different lifestyles.  I'd definitely read more about her travels; I liked the conversational tone of this book very much.

There are pictures, too ~ always a plus, with a travel guide!




Tuesday, 6 February 2018

LIFE BEGINS WHEN THE KIDS LEAVE HOME AND THE DOG DIES by Barb Taub @barbtaub

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads




How I discovered this book: I love Barb Taub's blog and thought her account of a few weeks in India, Do Not Wash Hands In Plates, was one of the funniest books ever, so this was a 'must buy'!

Genre: Domestic humour, non-fiction 

This is a collection of articles, all with a family theme, from Barb's own childhood, about her parents and siblings, and about her own children and family life.  Later, she touches upon death, and writing....they are all really, really funny.  There are so many newspaper columns and would-be hilarious blogs about domestic life in which the humour seems a little forced and self-consciously 'wacky'; not these.  I read a lot of PJ O'Rourke, and Barb Taub's style reminds me of his lighter, more domestically-orientated pieces.  The off-the-wall snark's all there.

In LBWKLH&DDs, you can do the Super Mother quiz.  And read about Barb's adventures with the possibly rabies-riddled dead bat.  If you dare.  BT deserves widespread reknown ~ I suggest you buy this, pronto, so you can see what I mean!

I'll leave you with some quotes:

When Barb is trying to feed her kids with wholefoods but her husband gives their small one her first ice cream cone: 'Through the chocolate, I could see her thinking, "This stuff was out there and I've been eating yams?"'

'While I bought (my children) developmental, non-gender-specific playthings, my daughters held fashion shows for the stuffed toys and dolls, and their brother built the blocks and legos into weapons of mass-doll-destruction.'

'Barb's guide to films: if the characters kiss a lot, have sex, and then kill each other, it's American.  If they smoke a lot, have sex, and then kill themselves, it's foreign.'

'Sadly, the day came when we had to choose between the cat and our son, who turned out to be allergic to her.  This was a difficult choice because while our son had never coughed up a hairball, he was not a very good mouser.'




Monday, 5 February 2018

AFRICAN WAYS AGAIN by Valerie Poore @vallypee

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I've read all or nearly all Val Poore's travel memoir books, and was looking forward to this one coming out, having adored its prequel, African Ways.

Genre: Travel Memoir: South Africa

Val Poore, the woman who can write a whole chapter about the weather, and make it interesting....

I adored the first African Ways book, about the three years in the early 1980s when Val and her family lived on a farm up a mountain in South Africa; in this she describes the time as possibly the happiest in her life, and the book reflects its magic.  Now, the family have moved down the mountain to the small town of Byrne, where they can enjoy such luxuries as electricity.  And snakes.  Don't forget the snakes.  There was me thinking how much I wanted to live there, until I read about them.

When Val's children go to school, she is faced, for the first time, with apartheid; segregation is still in place.  Aside from this, there are daily reminders about how hard life can be for the natives of South Africa at this time.  She doesn't write about it by way of 'raising awareness', or anything so ghastly, though; it's all very matter of fact, just her observations.  This book does not pretend to be a political or sociological comment, but maybe because it doesn't, it kind of is, in the best possible way.  I definitely got the feeling, though, of, as Val says, the calm before the storm of the early-mid 1980s.

Aside from this, I loved the reminders of the pre-internet life that has disappeared; her amazement at the wonder of fax machines, and the discovery of cheap LPs in her favourite shop (under 25s: ask your mum).  When I read about the mountain dwellers being cleared from the land, I felt so sad.  I feel nostalgic for that time on Val's behalf, and I've hardly even seen pictures of it.  One of the reasons I love her books is that it is so clear that she cares more about people, experiences, living in the moment and simple joys than materialism and conforming to society's 'norms'; there aren't many of us about, at our age!

I'd definitely recommend this book if you're a dog person; I am massively not, but there is much animal stuff that will make the lovers of our four-legged friends smile.

Val deals with upheavals in her personal life in that far away country with two small children to care for, but by 1987, what with the 'gathering storm' of racial and political unrest, she decides it is time to go back to the UK.  Can she return to 'normal' English life?  You'll have to read this, and all her other books, to find out!

Monday, 29 January 2018

AMIE: AFRICAN ADVENTURE by Lucinda E Clarke

3 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie Amber's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

Genre: Contemporary drama, about ex-pats and government corruption in Africa

The book starts with a terrific prologue about a girl incarcerated in what I assumed to be an African jail. On to Chapter One, where, back in England, we meet Amie, a rather twee young woman whose husband is offered a job in the fictional country of Togodo.  Amie is concerned that this will interfere with her life-plan, which is, basically, to live as her parents.  Once in Togodo, she expresses much surprise that everything isn't just like it is back home, but new friends and fellow ex-pats are there to show her and Jonathon the ropes.  

The aspect of this book that I liked very much indeed was the insight into the culture of Africa, the political system, the law, or lack of it, and just the day to day domestic life, social problems and customs.  It's clear the author knows her stuff, and it's delivered so well.  As the novel progresses, I learned much about the farce of foreign aid, government corruption and the problems facing the aid workers who actually do care. 

In fact, I liked the African life element so much that, to a large extent, it made up for the weaker side of the novel: the characterisation.  The expatriates in Africa all talk in perfectly formed sentences imparting the required amount of information; there are no individual nuances of speech.  During a trip home to England, Amie's family and friends speak as one in either their total disinterest in or their nasty, critical dismissal about her way of life in Africa; I realise that this was a vehicle to give cause for Amie's feeling of distance from her former life, but I felt it could have been approached more subtly.  I also found the dialogue between Amie and Jonathan stilted, wooden and oddly old-fashioned; the words Amie uses (such as exclamations of 'Goodness!' to indicate surprise) and her na├»ve questions and attitudes/observations did little to portray a 21st century twenty-something who works in the media.

Three quarters of the way through the book a military coup takes place and Amie's life is turned upside down; the danger and her escape certainly ups the pace and it is well-written, but, alas, by then, I found everything about her irritating.  I do understand that this is just a personal reaction, though; not everyone would find her so.

I've looked at the author's bio and see that she writes non-fiction books about her travels as well as fiction.  I think she has such a great voice when it comes to putting over the feel of a country, and she writes about it in such an accessible way; I am sure I would enjoy her non-fiction.  Had the main character in this novel been older, or a bit more worldly, I may have found her more realistic.  Despite my criticisms, though, I do think this book would be enjoyed by those with a particular interest in the African way of life.

Friday, 26 January 2018

A HANDFUL OF DUST by Evelyn Waugh

5 GOLD stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads


How I discovered this book: it's an old favourite of mine, without doubt in my all time top ten. I took it out for another re-read and just wanted to share its brilliance with you.

Genre: 1930s drama, about love, loss, social climbing... funny, tragic and poignant.

Both written and set in the early 1930s, this wonderful novel shows a world that scarcely exists anymore.  Tony Last and his wife Brenda live at the Last family seat, Hetton Hall.  Theirs is a world of guests coming up to the country for the weekend, of running a house on a full staff at a time when the age of huge country houses is coming to an end.  Tony wants only to live the life of a quiet gentleman, but Brenda yearns for the social life she once enjoyed in London. 

On one particular weekend Tony forgets that, over a drink at one of his clubs in London, he invited a young man called John Beaver to stay.  Although Beaver's visit is not welcomed by either of the Lasts, Brenda finds him oddly enchanting.

Beaver is an impoverished social climber who lives with his mother, a busy-body interior designer.  Anxious to improve his position in Society, he accepts any invitation going.  When Brenda falls in love with him he sees a way to push himself forward.  Under the pretence of doing a course in economics, Brenda takes a small flat in London, leaving Tony in the country, unhappy, alone, but completely in the dark about the affair.


Brenda and Beaver in the film that was made of the book; it's okay, but doesn't do it justice.


A family tragedy brings matters to a head, and both Brenda and Tony's worlds are forever changed, with Tony uncharacteristically heading off on a South American jungle expedition, simply because he does not know what else to do.

This book is such a delight.  Each social class is portrayed with great wit, from the impoverished aristocracy, to the socially ambitious, to the young women of the night to be found in the 'lousy joint' that Tony and his friend Jock visit on occasion.  It's a cracking story, with far more to it than just a broken marriage, but I also loved the more subtle elements, such as the passages that show Tony's love for his home, the only place he wants to be.  You will love Tony and want to cry with him for the way he is treated, though he does exact certain justified revenge.  It's a perfect book, and everyone who appreciates fine, gently satirical literature of this time should read it.


Tony with his and Brenda's son, John Andrew

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

FRED'S FUNERAL by Sandy Day @sandeetweets

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads



How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie Amber's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

Genre: Family drama, history

Fred's Funeral is a long novella, beginning with the death of Fred Sadler, in 1986.  As he dies, his ghost floats up and observes his relatives at his bedside, and follows them to the funeral and back to his family home as they share their memories of him.  The book then dips back and forth between present and past, to his childhood in Jackson Point, near Toronto, to his horrific experiences in the First World War, to the many years afterwards when he was trying to find his feet.

Fred led a difficult life, always the outsider.  His family history is complicated, with many undercurrents, resentments and complex issues.  Little went right for him after WW1, which was, of course, closely followed by the Depression.  He suffered from shell shock for many, many years, but this was not understood in those days; his family tried to get him a disabled war veteran pension, or into a hospital for those who suffered with this malady, but they were to discover that the doctors were in cahoots with the military: if a patient was diagnosed with a different sort of mental illness, the War Office would not have to pay.

Fred is diagnosed with schizophrenia, and goes through much in the various hospitals he is sent to.

As Ghost Fred watches his family, he feels in turn angry, misunderstood, unloved and, occasionally, pleased by what he hears.  He was thought of as 'mad old Fred', and there is much in this book that is so sad; it made me want to find the younger man and make everything alright for him.  As the book dots about between times, I kept being lifted out of one era and put down in another but they fit together nicely, I became quickly engrossed in every snapshot of his life, and gradually the jigsaw fitted together.

The book is so readable and well written, and I enjoyed how the story built up, not only in Fred's life but from a sociological history point of view.  It's interesting (if frustrating) from the point of view of family wrangles, and builds such a tragic picture of the poor men caught up in the pointless carnage of WW1.  I really liked it.



Friday, 12 January 2018

BURKE IN THE LAND OF SILVER by Tom Williams @TomCW99

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book:  I was sent a review request and an ARC by the author.  I accepted because I have read other books by him, Back Home, one of my favourite books of 2016, and its prequel, Cawnpore.

Genre: early 19th century historical miliary/espionage adventure.  Although a work of fiction, some characters and events are taken from real life; there is explanation of this at both the beginning and the end of the book.

The 'land of silver' in the title refers to Argentina.  James Burke is sent by the War Office to Argentina, where he must assume various identities to forward British interests; like the Argentinians, Britain is against its rule by Spain.  Ultimately, he must assess the feasibility of British invasion.  Taking his trusty servant, William Brown, he sails with Irish merchant O'Gorman.  I enjoyed Burke's first impressions of South America, how he was astounded by its sheer size. 

Once established, Burke mingles with Society and starts an affair with O'Gorman's beautiful wife, Ana, whilst William assumes the persona of a hard-drinking rogue and rebel in order to infiltrate the lower echelons and discover plans for rebellion again the Spanish.  Burke himself takes on many guises in his quest for intelligence, and tussles with his rival, the Frenchman de Liniers.

It is clear that Tom Williams has a great love for his setting, and knows much about its history.  I loved the descriptions of rural Argentina and Chile, and the pictures were painted with so much detail that I found fascinating, even down to how the cattlemen would catch and prepare a beast for eating, or how the men survived the long trek to, and up and down, Chile.  My knowledge of this place and era of history is sparse, and this book taught me a lot.   The story is well structured, the plot successfully intricate, and if Burke and William's escapades ran a little too smoothly at times, they worked well within the context of the story.

This first Burke adventure is certainly plot rather than character driven; although some of the smaller players, like O'Gorman and rancher Paco Iglesias, came alive immediately, I only experienced the occasional glimpse of who James Burke actually was.  Maybe because the narrative was in the form of an omniscient narrator who had a similar 'voice' to Burke, I didn't see inside the characters' heads.  I never had a feeling of who William was, either, aside from a loyal servant, and his dialogue sometimes seemed to come from someone higher up the social scale.

As for Ana, we are told she is enigmatic and beautiful, and that she and Burke are having a passionate affair, but I felt little passion between them.  The most telling point of their relationship was when she said, 'You're a soldier.  You're back because your duty has brought you back.  And when your duty calls you away, you will depart.  And I will be left here alone.'  Burke's reasons for this were always warranted, but the little I did know of him I didn't particularly warm to, not least of all his disappointment that Chile was not European enough.

Having said all that, books of this genre tend to concentrate on the action and history, and avid readers of them probably have different requirements from me.  I need to 'know' a character to care what happens to him (I wanted Paco the rancher to outwit the Spaniards, yet cared little about the fortunes of Burke), but that's just a personal preference; there is no doubt that the plot and military skirmishes are well-developed and artfully told, and both the historical element and the descriptive settings deserve applause; there was much I enjoyed.

To sum up, and to review objectively, I'd give this book a range of different star ratings for various aspects, so I think 4* is fair overall.  It's quite an achievement, and would appeal a great deal to anyone with interest in or experience of these countries, and to those who love historical and miliary action/adventure.