Category Archives: Books

The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul by Deborah Rodriguez

The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul by Debroah RodriguezWhen my boyfriend saw me reading this, the first words out of his mouth were, ‘Another coffee book?’ While less informative on the actual coffee process, a much more enjoyable read than the previous coffee book.

Author Deborah Rodriguez, spent five years teaching at the Kabul Beauty School, the first modern beauty and training salon in Afghanistan, so brings a wealth of local knowledge to her writing. The characters and descriptions of the lifestyle of Kabul in this book are so rich and full of colour and gives us an inside into the life of the women behind the modern burqa. And also the lives of foreign women in the country and the contrast of freedom that the different women feel.

It’s a wonderful story that touches on the politics, but doesn’t dwell on it, rather allows it to become the backdrop for the individual lives that meet in Sunny’s coffee shop and how five very different personalities can form a strong and united bond.

The Devil’s Cup by Stewart Lee Allen

The Devil's Cup by Stewart Lee AllenOver the summer I’ve been doing a lot of reading and not very much writing (not in this blog anyway — my day job still keeps me busy), so I’m now taking the time to sit down and update on the pages my nose has been stuck in.

‘The Devil’s Cup’ is Stewart Lee Allen’s journey into the history of coffee, from it’s beginnings in Ethiopia, through the Middle East and eventually filtering through Europe and the rest of the western world. I was sold on this author’s integrity when he travelled two hours from Harrar to Jiga-Jiga for a cup of coffee, even after warnings from locals not to go for fear for his life. Sounded extreme… and like something I would do.

Admittedly, this wasn’t quite the page turner I was anticipating — I did struggle through many of the chapters which leant to boredom of Allen’s own personal journey on his travels to find out about coffee, however the history was interesting.

I think my favourite story was when he tells a story he heard about when the Ottoman’s ruled, ‘…a woman could get a divorce from her husband if he failed to provide her with enough coffee beans for her needs.’

This, of course, was the part I choose to read out to the man in my life — I don’t think he bought it though.

Oh Mexico! by Lucy Neville

Oh Mexico! by Lucy Neville

Book review:

After graduating from university, Lucy Neville decides to take off and live abroad. Oh Mexico!, a funny and adventurous tale of Neville’s two years in Mexico City, doesn’t fail to entertain readers while exposing them to the culture, poverty and corruption of Central America.

As Neville writes, ‘…when Mexicans go to live in other countries, it’s because of the necessity of finding a job. In my case it was the necessity of avoiding getting a job.’

The truth of this statement is possibly what makes her first novel such a page-turner. Many of us love the idea of downing sticks and throwing off responsibility to go live in some exotic location – Neville allows us to do this from the safety of our armchairs.

Finding work as an English teacher, Neville becomes surrounded by the local characters who attend her classes even though they all speak perfect English. One of the most entertaining weekly classes is a group of women whose favourite pastime is to complain about their ex-husbands and how they can make their lives difficult.

Through Neville’s words we learn what it would be like to work in a city that is largely corrupt. Her employer is consistently at least two months behind in paying her wages, there are ‘good police’ and ‘bad police’, and drug trafficking and pirated videos make up a large percentage of Mexico’s employment.

Oh Mexico! gives us an insight into the rich history, warm nature and cultural celebrations and beliefs of the Mexican people without becoming overwhelming. Neville has a knack for providing just the right amount of information so that readers have an understanding of the lives of the many characters surrounding her.

Neville’s sense of honesty is refreshing for her age, she doesn’t appear smitten with the idea of moving to another country in search of who she is, her goal is simply to avoid becoming the job-chained adult we’re expected to become once the degree is in our hands. And, as Neville points out, living in a foreign country looks good on your resume, even if you’re not doing anything to further your career.

Like many before her, Neville finds herself in the emotional cycle that comes to foreigners living in a country very different from their own, but she doesn’t dwell on this for pages. Instead, Neville brings humour to the book with anecdotes such as telling the taco men that she ‘…loved Mexican bottoms, and that I was a lesbian (I didn’t like ‘sausage and eggs’). But I would come back tomorrow and try out heterosexual sex.’

No travel memoir would be complete without a love interest, and in this case, Neville finds herself with two, torn between her flamboyant and attractive housemate, and a warm and loving work college. She needs to make a decision soon since her family are about to drop in for a visit and land in the middle of all the chaos.

Oh Mexico! is filled with with, colour and warmth and is a hugely enjoyable read, written with a vibrant and refreshing style. Neville proves the point that avoiding getting a real job can lead to achieving what we might never have otherwise imagined.

Published on Media-Culture Reviews.

Marching Powder by Rusty Young

Marching Powder by Rusty YoungTravel books are my equivalent of Mills and Boon or ‘Chick Lit’. Light hearted, easy to read novels that excite the travel bug in me and allow me to become a traveller from the safety of my couch when I’m in between those fortunate times my backpack gets dusted off for a new adventure.

I read a lot of travel literature, and there are some good ones out there like Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures, Absurdistan and Geoff Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It.

There are also some not so good ones, like To A Mountain in Tibet (I recently reviewed – see previous entries) and the one that made me want to stab the author in the eye and lament the fact that tree had to die for the 238 pages of drivel he slapped together: Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?

But I don’t believe that any travel book has kept me so captivated as Marching Powder by Rusty Young. This one has been on my ‘to read’ list for many years, but sometimes when you’re reviewing books you get bogged down in literature you don’t always want to read. So when I finished off the last two books I had to review for the year (taking a break), I couldn’t wait to crack the cover of this one.

It’s the story of Thomas McFadden, a British cocaine trafficker who is caught and charged with trafficking 800g (was actually 5kg) of cocaine out of Bolivia. This story is of his time in the infamous San Pedro prison and shocking and also funny stories from within it’s walls.

I picked this book up on Friday and finished it Saturday. There are very few books that keep me entertained for two straight days where Internet and TV sometimes find a way to interrupt, but Marching Powder did it. I even spent all of Saturday at my boyfriend’s house on the couch turning page after page, sometimes sharing a particular story, while he cleaned his house. I was a nice enough girlfriend to go with him to the laundromat, but even then we sat side-by-side waiting in silence while we read our respective novels.

Marching Powder was one of those novels that I was sad to close the cover on and found myself at a loss with it no longer in my life. I have since started reading another book, but it fails to hold sense of charm that being in San Pedro prison did – although it is John Birmingham’s follow up to Felafel, so judging from his experience in share houses they don’t seem too dissimilar to prison conditions.

If was going to recommend any book to read this year, Marching Powder would be the one.

To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron

To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron

Book review:

The latest novel, by prolific travel writer and novelist Colin Thubron, To a Mountain in Tibet takes us on a very personal journey to Mount Kailas—one of the most sacred and rarely traveled to mountains in the world.

After the death of his mother, Thubron decides to trek through the central Himalayas with only a Nepalese guide and cook. A trek that turns out to be a relatively isolated reflection of his life, with focused memories of family members who are no longer with him.

As much as I wanted to enjoy this book it was a little like a lukewarm bath; I couldn’t wait to get out. This is a deeply personal and sad book, which is written well and exhibits a great reflective style, but also one filled with tremendous detail on the history of the Tibetan people and their customs.

While ordinarily I find this form of travelogue interesting, there was little in this book that engaged me as a reader. Much like Thubron’s arduous journey through the cold and desolate landscape, I found myself trapped inside his meandering thoughts for an arduous 218 pages, gasping at altitude. His memories and personal beliefs seemed detached from the story itself, which had the potential to provide some colour to the landscape, but instead the reader remained but a slightly distanced observer.

This novel requires a great deal of concentration and reflection and I wonder if memories are sometimes like diary entries—perhaps only interesting to those who experienced them.

I have read similarly themed novels on treks through forbidden cities of Tibet, but feel, unfortunately, that others have done it better.

Having said this, there appears to be unanimous admiration and appreciation of this book out in the world, gracing bookstore ‘staff recommended’ lists and with glowing reviews. Perhaps I lack the concentration required to fully appreciate the story at hand.

My appreciations lies more towards the author himself, tackling such a journey in his seventies—and appearing to be less affected by the journey than some of the locals who are traveling with him!

Thubron lacks no skill to turn a phrase and produces beautifully crafted sentences throughout the entire novel, with lines like, ‘Easy to imagine this an apocalyptic fracture in the order of things, a portent of sacred chaos, or at least a fanfare for the dawning holy month. I stand outside my tent, distracted by some dream I have forgotten,’ scattered across the novel like nuggets of written gold.

To a Mountain in Tibet does indeed read like some dream that is forgotten, but is being remembered again in the way that can only be remembered when we have the silence to do so.

Published on Media-Culture Reviews.

The Honey Spinner by Grace Pundyk

The Honey Spinner by Grace PundykI came across this author a few years ago when I saw her at a travel writing seminar at the Brisbane Writers Festival. She just described her travels in search of honey, how it was made around the world and the political and environmental effects the honey industry had on it’s countries with such passion that it made me want to read her book.

At the time I was about to take off to South America so I compiled my list of books I wanted to buy from the festival and decided to wait until I got back before breaking the bank on yet more books. Not sure why it took me three years to finally purchase the book, but here I am, finally done with it.

I’ve never been a fan of honey, it’s too sickly sweet for my taste buds, but as I sit here typing this I’m sucking on a teaspoon of liquid gold with flecks of honeycomb, so I’m wondering if Grace has converted me.

Throughout the entire book I kept wanting to re-taste honey to see

if I had mistaken the taste that this woman wrote so passionately about. Grace writes about thick, dark yellow honey from the middle-east and her favourite honey, from Italy, that it made me reluctant to just go to the supermarket and buy some plain Australian generically manufactured honey like Capilano in a squeezy bottle.

However, this morning I had to trundle over to the Bi-lo since Rich was out of milk and I was in desperate need of coffee, I spotted a jar of Beechworth with a full honeycomb inside. I’d never seen honey like this on supermarket shelves (possibly because I’m never in the market for honey) so decided to buy a bottle. My first spoonful was exactly as all my previous experiences with honey went – cringe and then say, ‘Meh, it’s honey’. My second spoonful, however, I started to reconsider – I could see how this could be appealing.

I doubt I’m suddenly going to be converted into a honey lover, I’m thankful honey has no expiry date so I can keep it in the cupboard for however long it takes me to use – probably in some baked good or something. But this was an interesting book, if not exactly what I was expecting.

The book traces Grace’s travels through a few select countries in her search for beekeepers, discusses their methods of beekeeping, the issues they have with a declining honey market, blended honey, bee diseases and logging. Like all non-fiction books, this one had it’s moments of struggles when my brain wanted to run free amongst some fiction rather than focus itself on the subject at hand, but I’m glad I read it. I’m fascinated by how bees work, how the hives work, what the beekeepers job is and this book answered all those questions.

With my burning need to read The Honey Spinner out of my system I need to move onto my ever growing pile of books to review.

Pilgrims by Will Elliott

Pilgrims by Will ElliottFriends of mine introduced me to this Brisbane author and insisted I read his first book, The Pilo Family Circus. A sucker for horror fiction I started it straight away. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting and took me some time to get into, however by halfway I was hooked. Pilgrims is no different, although I’m not a fantasy fiction reader, the story was not so fantastical as to keep someone like me from continuing on to the end. Probably a good thing since it’s the start of a trilogy.

A mysterious door appears below a train bridge where our lead character, Eric, passes it every day on his way to and from work. One day the door opens and they discover there’s another world beyond the door along with some other world characters who have popped in and quickly disappear.

You can probably guess where this is going, right? Yes, the protagonist, Eric and his friend, the bum who lives under the train bridge open the door and go through to the other side. Where they discover they’re suddenly on a journey with some interesting and varied characters from the other world.

I liked this book because it takes you on a journey with it’s characters, always picking up and discarding people along the way and in the background a war is brewing. Hugely funny in places, much to Will Elliott’s style, and terrifying in others I really can’t wait to break the spine of book two: Shadow.

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

Book review:

In Stephen King’s afterword he writes, ‘The stories in this book are harsh. You may have found them hard to read in places.’ In reading Full Dark, No Stars I found myself putting the book down many times due to the gritty nature of it’s descriptive actions. The queasy feeling would stay with me sometimes long after I’d gone to bed as I imagined all the ways I didn’t want to die.

A collection of short stories, and possibly some of King’s most disturbing writing, Full Dark, No Stars binds together four separate stories which manage to frighten us most because each one could be possible.

Unlike King’s history of threading together the real and unreal until you’re not sure when you’ve crossed over, this collection is frightening purely because such incidents and people exist in our world every day. It’s not impossible to believe these characters and crimes are real and most likely based on real events.

‘1992’ is a story of Wilfred Leland James who is writing his confession to committing a murder. A man who appears callous in the beginning, leaving this reviewer with little sympathy towards his situation, increasingly descends into his own living hell through a series of chain reactions triggered by his crime. Normally irritated by stories set on a farm, due to the need of the writer to describe how manual labour takes place at every turn, I found ‘1922’ moved along at a steady pace with each sentence earning its place upon the page.

The second story in the collection, ‘Big Driver’, is about a mystery writer (and let’s be honest, it just wouldn’t be a Stephen King novel if there wasn’t at least one writer character) who survives a horrifying encounter when she gets a flat tyre alongside an empty highway. We’re all familiar with how a scene like this plays out, however the reaction of this somewhat mousy woman is far from cliché. ‘Big Driver’ delivers an unexpected twist, a twist that left me arguing with its protagonist to deal with her situation in a different way.

While the least gruesome in detail and horror of all the stories, ‘Fair Extension’ was by far the one I liked least. The story is of a middle-aged man who has been diagnosed with cancer and makes a deal with a jinn-like man to extend his life. Like all such deals, this bargain comes at a cost. Unfortunately, this character seems only to flourish as the story continues with little regard for the cost that balances out his new good fortune. ‘Fair Extension’ ends without character growth or remorse and because of this it left me cold. I can fairly say I hated the story.

Finally, ‘A Good Marriage’ is the last story in the book, possibly the most predictable of all four, yet one I enjoyed the most. Where King failed to bring us justice in the first three, I felt the final story brought me the closure I was looking for. A wife discovers a terrible secret about her husband and realises he has kept this secret the entire length of their marriage. This story opens all the questions of how well do we really know anyone, even those closest to us? It sheds light on how easily terrible things can go on without our even knowing.

It’s true, King is the master of bringing our fears to the surface, and he normally succeeds in this by bringing in his much-patented supernatural creature and setting it free amongst our every day environment, tricking our minds into believing it could be true. He plays on the symbolism we see in those non-human beings. But in this book, King only writes those things we read about every day on the news and doesn’t have to stretch our imaginations too far to scare us, because these types of events are happening all the time.

Normally we have the convenience of ignoring that which we don’t want to see by turning off the TV, but King brings those brushed aside situations and places it directly in front of us in the form of Full Dark, No Stars, forcing us to think about what elements and reactions really sit within the human form.

I have painted a dark review, but King has done it again and brought the world a powerfully faultless and cleverly spun read. If you are not a Stephen King or dark story fan, I’d say skip this book. But if you, like me, secretly enjoy being a little bit frightened and occasionally like looking into the darkness of the human soul you will find this to be one of his best collections.

Review published by Media/Culture Words.

Breaking Open the Head by Daniel Pinchbeck

Breaking Open the Head by Daniel Pinchbeck

An interesting follow up to the unrelated book Fire in the Head that I read in 2003, while I sat on a couch in some London ‘summer’ waiting for work to come my way, about the Shamanic journey around the world. Unlike Fire in the Head, which is a study of the shamanic journey in many different cultures, Breaking Open the Head studies the psychedelic journey of shamanism.

When my boyfriend was reading this book I was really interested in borrowing it after him. All the way through he kept looking up to read me interesting passages about the effects and experiences certain drugs had on the characters in the book. Unfortunately, once I started reading it I realised I had been given the trailer of somewhat more involved book. It’s focus was more on the shamanic journey whilst taking certain drugs and how they are connected to indigenous people around the world and their role within those societies.

Still an interesting book, but sometimes hard work. I will confess I didn’t fully enjoy the book until I reached part 7 (the book has a total of 8 parts), but it does open up the possibilities one might not always be aware of or have heard of about drugs and their association with supernatural beings, worlds and dimensions. It also goes into the scientific studies of drugs like LSD by governments and how it was used in psychiatry during the 1960s and 70s, but is all but lost in such professions these days.

This book is neither pro-drugs nor anti-drugs, but simply provides a view of the history of their use and other people’s experiences. If you’re interested purely in the history of drugs and their effects, like I was, I’d say skip this book. But if you’re interested in how drugs have been used in the shamanic journey this would be a very interesting book for you to read.

Snapshot of Daniel Pinchbeck’s experience while taking mushrooms:

“Personally, I was not aware of what I was losing until I took mushrooms. During those early trips I realised I was trapped in a state of deferred expectation and compulsive self-distancing. I had a neurotic intellectual’s habit of constantly trying to observe myself from some imaginary point of objectivity outside of myself, and this impossible effort sapped my energy and kept me from connecting to the present. Mushrooms did not cure me of this—for a long time only alcohol could obliterate the division, and it took me some years to resolve the problem—but the bits of dried fungi made me aware, for the first time, of exactly what I was doing wrong.”