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Midge Raymond – My Last Continent

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Some have check-lists. Others just a particular passion.

Publisher: Text Publishing
Pages: 306
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-925-35548-2
First Published: 21st June 2016
Date Reviewed: 4th July 2016
Rating: 4/5

Deb works as a naturalist. She’s rarely at home, instead spending most of her time studying penguins and teaching tourists, travelling to Antarctica and spending nights there. On one such trip she met Keller, an ex-lawyer who had signed up as a dishwasher in a bid to get to the coldest continent; he had persuaded her to let him tag along on explorations. Speaking now of the past, Deb interweaves these stories with the one in which a cruise ship has veered too close to the ice – a ship Keller happened to be on at the time.

My Last Continent is an oft-epic tale of Antarctic exploration, the damage of tourism to that environment and the effects of very real dangers, complimented by an at times very moving love story.

Dealing with the storytelling first, the story jumps this way and that way in time – the only constant is that you know you’ll be heading back to the story of the ship wreck and that that story will command the end section of the book. The structure means you know a disaster will happen – the ‘present day’ chapters, for want of a better term, are labelled in terms of days before the tragedy and the rest of the chapters move about on a very flexible time scale, any when from ‘six months until shipwreck’ to ‘twenty years before shipwreck’. This means that it’s difficult to get a sense of where exactly you are in time because the structure is so jumpy, but it’s not a loss overall. Yes, you may be confused by, for example, Deb mentioning Dennis in a particular chapter when you’d thought he’d not arrived in her life by that time, but as the main event is that shipwreck, it’s not much to worry about.

As you know how the book will end (you know what’s happened to Deb and Keller before Keller is introduced in person) this book’s romantic element is focused more on the journey than any result. This works in Raymond’s favour; whilst you as the reader may feel you can pull back somewhat from being enveloped, knowing how it will end and that you’re reading of Keller in the past also means that Raymond can throw caution to the wind. Would Deb and Keller’s story sound, yes, sad, but also too… mushy… in another book? Perhaps. But here it works. That’s not to say we’ve Titanic – Jack and Rose – levels of romance, because we haven’t. Raymond’s dedication to the research element of her story, and her non-tourist characters’ dedication to their work, has a very grounding affect on the romance.

Let’s look at Raymond’s dedication to the facts – in My Last Continent we have a book that sports a lot of info-dumping, but in this case the result can be considered a unicorn, that word now used as much to describe things that are miraculously unique as much as it describes a mythical animal. When you consider fiction normally, info-dumping is bad because it tells us things we could work out on our own – just tell us the basic details, we can add the dining room and picket fence all on our own. We know how people eat, sleep, bathe. But as Raymond is talking about Antarctica all bets are off – how many readers have been to Antarctica? It’s a case of knowing Raymond has info-dumped but truly being able to gloss over it because it’s interesting. We need the world building. (This said there are a couple of conversations that push it a bit too far, conversations that are obvious devices, that could have done with a rewrite.)

The information serves a second purpose. Beyond helping you form a not-so-stereotypical image in your head, Raymond is concerned about conservation and the impact human exploration has on the wildlife and climate of Antarctica. She doesn’t preach – what she does most is to show the effects. Her story, which effectively casts you, the reader, as a passenger on the journey along with the fictional tourists who will come to be aware of the problems. Sometimes you’ll know about the problems because Deb’s talked about them, other times your ever-expanding knowledge will clue you in itself. So this means that you are reading a work that sits on the fence between fact and fiction and is obviously heavily tuned towards teaching, but this lesson doesn’t over-burden. And that’s all down to Raymond’s crafting of the romance.

Raymond doesn’t draw too many lines. Whilst she points out that tourism is a problem, her tourist characters are mostly people who want to help, through their discovery of the problems en route. Many characters are there to show how dangerous the continent can be. As much as tourism is a problem, she says in subtext, these explorers are here and whilst they’re studying they aren’t immune from that label themselves.

In reading My Last Continent you’re signing up for a romance in snow that’s anything but a winter wonderland. You’re signing up to a book that’s not quite fiction. You’re signing up for a book that’s not a relaxing read. You’re here to learn. But for all that you get an excellent introduction to Antarctica, a fast-paced story, a good romance, and knowledge you can take with you beyond the last pages.

I received this book for review from FMCM Associates.

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Michael Palin – Around The World In 80 Days

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Easy – until you rule out aeroplanes.

Publisher: Orion (Phoenix)
Pages: 241
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-075-38232-48
First Published: 1989 (this edition with extra content, 2010)
Date Reviewed: 28th October 2013
Rating: 4/5

Star of Monty Python, Michael Palin, was challenged by the BBC to undertake a journey around the world, imitating Phileas Fogg – to follow Fogg’s example, Palin forgoes aeroplanes for slow sea voyages and train rides and he tries to get from the Reform Club in London, to the same club once again (which he’s not allowed to enter), travelling through the Middle East, Asia, and North America.

Around The World In 80 Days is a rather brief (this detailed later) account of Palin’s journey, a book published to accompany the TV series the journey was primarily created for. It’s safe to say you can read the book without having seen the series, though of course your overall experience would be enhanced by making time for both.

The most obvious element that needs to be commented on, considering the bulk of the content was written and concerns the late 1980s, is that the book is understandably dated. Writing in the then-present, Palin carries in his Walkman, ship crews watch films on VHS, and a lot of the country-specific references are now irrelevant or historic-sounding. There isn’t a laptop in sight.

Yet as long as you keep this in mind, the book isn’t old enough to pose any issues. Perhaps the very young reader, who wasn’t born before the Internet, might have trouble catching every reference, but for the most part it isn’t hard. Indeed the book offers the chance to relax in an age where technology wasn’t yet persistent and journeys were more hazardous.

It’s worth noting that the new edition contains Palin’s mini follow-up trip twenty years after the 80 days. It’s written in the same style, details the landscape changes Palin notices, and recounts the reunion with the ship’s crew he was sad to leave those twenty years previous. It’s not a big addition, but it makes the new version of the book the better option nowadays. This said, the book does not end with a grand finale. Palin makes his trip and that’s it. Given the reason for the journey – to attempt Fogg’s mission in reality – there is little think about afterwards.

There is a lot of cultural information in the book, and a lot of it is ageless. So too the historical information. Through Palin’s words it is easy to see how his journey differs in emotion and thought to Fogg’s – Fogg simply travelled without wishing to see the countries he went through, Palin makes a point of using any spare time to talk to people and try local food and wares. He goes clothes shopping in Japan, rides a camel, becomes an extra in a film – for Palin the list goes on and on; one almost feels sorry for Fogg’s belief in western superiority, fictional character or not.

There is a great deal of humour in the book. A lot of it is very British but of the kind that is accessible to anyone. For example, a running theme is Sheffield United Football Club. Palin doesn’t say so outright, but it’s obvious that one of the things he wants to stay updated on is news about his favourite team. There are references to other Monty Python members, and jokes about the many ‘Michael’ incidences on his journey – the camel and its owner being called Michael (a sales pitch it would seem), Palin being called Michael Jackson (as the latter is/was more well-known), and so on. There are also lots of jokes about the different idiosyncrasies and ideas Palin comes across, which may at first seem wrong – but Palin soon starts joking about Britain, too.

Truly this is a book in which the highlights are the comedy and Palin’s focus on getting to know the countries themselves (rather than only the tourist attractions). The book has a lot of information about sea vessels and trains – understandably none on cars or planes – and will therefore appeal to transport enthusiasts too.

This is where we come to the mention of the book being ‘brief’ – there is detail, but only in parts. The book is often written as though bullet points wouldn’t be amiss, and the style is in no way literary. Palin jumps from one day to another, and whilst this could be a reason for suggesting the TV series is paramount to appreciation, it’s more the case that the style is the inevitable effect of the book being a product of Palin’s diary. Indeed if you didn’t know this prior to reading it, you would soon realise, as the amount of detail that is there is more than most people would be able to remember off the bat.

Briefness aside, it’s admirable of Palin that he wrote about every day, come rain or shine, happiness, headache, or sickness.

To sum it up, Palin’s book is relatively short, but it’s sweet. It’s necessarily primarily concerned with transport but this shouldn’t put off those looking for culture. And it’s a whole lot of fun. There are plenty of photographs included – you don’t feel ‘outside’ – and that it is now dated may just be part of its charm. Those with wander lust will love it (note that it may lead to tickets purchased), those who love the slower pace of life will enjoy its use of the sea and the way of the crews as they take their time, and those looking for reports of the culinary kind will find what they seek. With a lot to recommend it to a lot of different people, Around The World In 80 Days is one set of days you’ll want to be escaping to.

I received this book for review from Titan Travel.

Update on 29th March 2016: I see the question, ‘which feature of michael palin’s “around the world in 80 days” best shows that it is a primary source?’ a lot in my stats so I’ll answer it. Palin’s book is in the form of a diary; the book is a published version of the diary he kept whilst on his travels. Diaries are considered primary sources therefore the diary format of the book shows best that it is a primary source. (If we wanted to look into it further we could suggest the book is also bordering on being a secondary source because it’s in part a commentary of Vernes’ original book both through its detailing of the differences and the very fact Palin is following in Phileas Fogg’s fictional footsteps.)

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Debbie Dee – Tiy And The Prince Of Egypt

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A fine story to introduce readers to ancient Egypt.

Publisher: (self-published)
Pages: 275
Type: Fiction
Age: Teen/YA
ISBN: 978-1-49230-609-2
First Published: 27th September 2013
Date Reviewed: 16th October 2013
Rating: 4/5

Twelve-year-old Tiy went to the bank of the Nile with her parents to watch the Royal barge as it sailed past, but when her curiosity wasn’t sated by the far off sight, she ran further downriver for a better glimpse. Hot on her tail was a sandstorm. As the prince and his friends leave the barge to play, Tiy has a choice to make – use her knowledge to save them and potentially harm herself, or leave them to their fate. She chooses to save them and her act of selflessness will be rewarded in ways she would never have imagined.

Tiy And The Prince Of Egypt is a story to fill in a gap history forgot. In writing her tale, Dee has relied on the history she was able to find (this is suggested in the author note) and constructed a story for young readers from what was left out. The target audience means that the book is by nature quite simple, lacking in detail, and often convenient.

And that is the way it should be. For the older reader, who must be referred to as this reviewer is one, the book may prove an incredibly easy read, but it would be impossible not to say that Dee has written something that is likely to open up the world of ancient history to her young audience. From the features of the story, one couldn’t recommend this to young children unless they were advanced for their age, but for the slightly older reader the book should prove appealing.

Just as she did in The Last Witch, Dee doesn’t coddle her reader. The violence of history, such as punishment for treason, is included as it surely would have been in the day – discussed as simply as if it were a question of who wanted coffee, and carried out without further thought.

It is this, along with the romance in the book, that sets it up as an older child’s read. There is no sex in the book, but there are scenes that might invite questions. The romance is drawn out and full of all the hearts and flowers. The theme of love envelopes the entire story; the characters are seventeen by the end of the tale.

There is not all that much action in the book, a lot of the time is spent on Tiy’s thoughts and day to day life with Amenhotep, but what action there is is thrilling. And whilst Tiy can be foolish and unthinking, she is generally a strong person.

What brings the book down a few notches are the errors and uses of modern day language. Perhaps many readers will not notice the language, but the keen historian will. The errors are of course a bigger draw back here than they might have been otherwise due to the target audience.

Besides the errors, the book is a fine story that will delight any reader looking for boys, adventure, royal status and to be a little awed. It is as much a fantasy as a regular story as much of what happens would never happen in real life, but reality wouldn’t be as appealing.

Tiy And The Prince Of Egypt blends a good dose of history with fun fiction and the sort of fantasy you look for.

I received this book for review from Sage’s Blog Tours.

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Lucienne Boyce – To The Fair Land

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Mysterious writers and women at sea.

Publisher: SilverWood Books
Pages: 321
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-78132-017-4
First Published: 2012
Date Reviewed: 3rd October 2013
Rating: 3.5/5

Ben, a struggling writer in the late 1700s, joins other struggling writers for dinners at the house of a London publisher – a publisher he and his fellow diners hope to find favour with. When a book about a voyage to a new land is published anonymously, Ben jumps at the chance to discover the author’s identity and find that illusive favour. He believes he has a head’s start, having met a woman at the theatre who dismissed the tale of Cook’s voyage, but it’s not going to be that easy.

To The Fair Land is a sometimes rushed but informative story that includes the details of the fictional naval voyage along with its narrative of Ben’s search. Told from various viewpoints and including the female travellers that history would prefer we forgot, it offers a look at society in general too.

This look at society is in a way puzzling at times. The puzzle comes in the form of the main character, Ben, who does very little to recommend himself to the reader. Mainly he is simply an impulsive, thoughtless man, who is, although not particularly inviting, fair enough as a character – but there is a side to him that is incredibly historical, and however apt this may be it does make reading the book difficult. It will largely depend on the reader’s individual take on Boyce’s reasoning for Ben’s nature as to whether or not they are happy to read about him. Ben is prejudiced against women. He brushes off their opinions even when it is obvious these opinions are of importance, and goes as far as calling a calm, good, woman a hyena. This prejudice is not explained by Boyce and therein lies the issue – is this a commentary? Is this a device to show the reader the treatment of women in the era? Or is it just the way the character was written? The issue with Ben is of course that this is a book written in the 21st century for 21st century readers, and readers in our current time expect more detail and reasoning behind such views, whether commentary or otherwise.

For the most part the book reads as rushed, often to the point of confusion. In addition to Ben’s nature, there is rarely ample reasoning for certain turns in the plot. The lack of these things creates a situation where people seem fickle when they are surely not, and it can difficult to really feel for the characters.

In general the book could have done with more information on the characters (there is some info-dumping about minor characters) – Boyce has spent a great deal of time on the history so the potential was there for the characters. The history is fascinating, however. The information about the navy, the thinking behind the voyages, and the inclusion of other ships that set sale with women on board (there is a nod to Jeanne Baret, for example), is well presented. And, albeit somewhat fictional, the story-within-the-story of the exploration of the ‘fair land’ is engrossing.

The book employs changes in viewpoints during chapters which have the potential to throw the reader off course, though as they read, in many ways, as a compilation of reports and opinions, they would likely work if provided their own sections. On the subject of paragraphs, there are some editing errors in the book that require a mention because they are of the mixing up names and places sort.

Yet there is one character who has been written superbly. Sarah, in her ‘present’ form but most especially during the section which tells of her past, is a wonderful – if discomforting – character and very memorable. Indeed the addition of Sarah brings the question of Ben’s place as a device for commentary into the fore. If Sarah is so wonderfully written, then it does suggest that Boyce had a plan with Ben.

The writing itself is readable. Rushed narrative or not, the words flow quickly. And the account of the voyage is given slowly with much attention to detail. It is difficult not to get lost in the paradise Boyce imagines. The best part of this section is that it goes on for a very long while, and, due to the era in which it is set, there is a lot of harmony between the cultures that come together, making it a nice reprieve from the cruel white supremacy that soon followed.

Lastly, it should be noted that there is a certain sort of relationship in the book that may cause some discomfort, however Boyce has her cast of characters deal with it in a way you would expect of the era and situation.

To The Fair Land has its bad points and its good points. It may not work for everyone, and some readers may feel the scales tip in favour of the negative, but overall this is an aptly fair début.

I received this book for review from the author following correspondence with the publisher.

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Samantha Sotto – Before Ever After

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When “forever” doesn’t mean “forever” for reasons that no one’s considered.

Publisher: Broadway (Random House)
Pages: 294
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-71988-1
First Published: 2011
Date Reviewed: 18th June 2012
Rating: 4.5/5

Shelley’s husband died from a bomb in a backpack on the subway in Madrid, a few years after they had met. Two years afterwards Shelley is still grieving, and when she answers the door to a man who looks like her husband and says he is Max’s grandson, she wonders if the bruise to her head she gained when she fainted on the doorstep is the reason why she is seeing the impossible. But Paulo isn’t Max. Indeed Paulo has issues of his own, he wants to know who his grandfather is because he knows the man is still alive. And for Paulo to find out who Max is, he must ask Shelley, even if this will be the first she has heard of it too.

Before Ever After is the debut novel of an author who shows much promise. It successfully combines a range of ideas and genres to create something not merely magical but also extremely romantic, up-to-date, and informing. At once a travel log, a historical fantasy, a comedy, and a tragedy, the book presents itself as something incredible.

The story is told through a compilation of flashbacks and present-time reflections. As the basic idea is for the characters to discover who Max is, the flashbacks are used in order to show how Max had hinted at things all along, and the present-time is used for Paulo and Shelley to work out what was going in. Indeed the flashbacks are stories within a story within a story, the book is three layers thick, but the structure and format means that you will never be at a loss for what time period you are currently reading about. The setting of the present day is mostly a plane, which gives the characters plenty of time to chew things over, and while you may find yourself wanting it to be over already so that you can meet Max, the fast pace of the novel means that the satisfaction of reading it and taking in all of the information is much more exciting. Indeed you never know if you actually will get to meet Max in the present time, and that in itself spurs you on because he’s such a great character that you really hope you will. All of the suggestions and especially the very first page of the book, tell you that he is very likely paranormal in some way, but Sotto does a good job of letting you wait to find out if it is true or not. And you will be wondering until the end.

“Now listen campers,” Max said. “Take note of this place in case you get lost during our field trip and need to find your way back home. If you don’t think you can remember where we started from, you can purchase a baguette and leave a trail of bread crumbs. Oh, and before we head off, there are three things you must remember. First, don’t talk to strangers. Second, you need to be aware that your travel insurance does not cover acts of stupidity or alien abduction. Please do your best to avoid them. And third, hold on to your mates.”

[…]

Shelley raised a brow. “Mating?”
“Mating,” Max said, “from the word mate, a word derived from the Old Dutch word maet or companion, which shares the same root as mete, which means ‘to measure’.”
“I see,” Shelley said. “So what you are in fact offering me is a measure of companionship, correct?”
“Indeed.” Max stuck out the crook of his arm. “The length of my arm to be exact. All in accordance with the guidelines of the Poultry Club, I assure you. You won’t get lost, I have a place to rest my arm, and the chickens are secure in my fidelity.”

Max is one of those characters who comes along very rarely. This reviewer would liken him to Mr Rochester of Jane Eyre and Max de Winter of Rebecca for his difference – whilst he is not like them he shares with them this certain uniqueness in quality. Max is surely a great romantic hero, yet on the face of it, for his dialogue, he is anything but. Shelley may be a strong heroine in herself, but Max is the winner here.

The inclusion of Shelley allows Sotto to show her reader a widely known issue, that of being afraid of relationships because of prior hurt. Shelley is almost paranoid about being a relationship, keeping a list on her at all times that tells her when to jump ship from dating a man – to ensure she doesn’t end up like her widowed mother, who in turn showed her how much depression could come with loss. Max too is worried about losing people, and this is apparent throughout the book; it is the way the couple figure out their relationship in a way that works for them that is so compelling.

Another factor in the book is the number of everyday issues and taboos Sotto fills her story with, and the way that she includes them like any other element. This is done through the secondary characters. Max and Shelley met when Shelley decided to sign up to join the tour group Max was taking to the continent, and it is the people on the tour with them that make the novel so valuable. The tour group consists of a young American called Dex – Shelley’s cultural male counterpart, Rose and Jonathan – an elderly couple in the prime of their sexual lives, and camera-wielding Brad and his partner Simon. Rose is very open about her sex life, and Brad and Simon are just a gay couple – there is no reasoning behind anything, Sotto has included subjects to be as normal as anything else, and this lack of pointed political correctness in a book that otherwise oozes it is particularly refreshing. With the historical content and present-day happens race is also included, and Max’s nature as a possibly paranormal person is drenched in issues of morality.

She sank her teeth into melted cheese and summer, unleashing a silk stream of eggs and cream in her mouth. A buttery earthiness lingered on her tongue. She gulped orange juice to keep from moaning from the world’s first egg orgasm.
Rose gave Shelley a knowing look. “I came as well, dear. Twice.”
Jonathan sputtered, turning a shade brighter than the raspberry preserves on his baguette. “Ah… um… yes, yes, wonderful eggs, Max. Très magnifique.”
Shelley did not recover quite as elegantly, and was still choking on the juice that had spurted out of her nose and onto Max’s shirt. Max came to her rescue with a couple of solid pats to her back, a napkin, and a grin.

Considering Rose’s frankness about her sex life, it should not surprise you that at times the book is hilarious. Whilst it is not graphic, Sotto lets the jokes run wild and there are numerous references to loud noises and length as much as there is travelling around the continent.

And travel makes up a huge section of this book, providing the basis for the character’s meeting, the reason for the history, and what Sotto wanted to talk about as a keen traveller herself. There is a great deal of information on the places visited, which are diverse in location and culture. What is interesting is that Sotto is relentless in her goal of introducing her characters, and thus her readers, to lesser-known gems in Europe. Through these lesser-known places, Sotto is able to create the world she wishes for Max to explain to his tourists, and it gives her free reign in the historical fiction department. Quick research will show you what is factual and what is not, and this is another part of what makes the book so appealing, that you are reading a blend of travel log and history and learning so much all at once. The historical rewrites are something in themselves, with Sotto often referencing well-known figures in order to provide background context, and twisting both facts and possibilities, such as the idea that Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon was a place of debauchery, in order to produce the result she wants. Stretching from the 1970s all the way back to Ancient Rome, across different religions and cultures, with a variety of fantasy characters and just plain interesting ones, there is bound to be something to interest you in the history chapters.

“I told you it was nothing,” Adrien said. “Although the duchess did appear to be the tiniest bit cross with me. But then again, I could be mistaken.”
“Mistaken? How so?”
“Well, I was rather busy dodging the various heavy brass objects she was throwing my way to really pay attention to what she was saying.”

There are a couple of less positive factors to the book and these concern the way Sotto uses description. There is an excess use of similes where what is really happening is sacrificed for descriptive and poetic metaphors. The issue with the similes is that they create melodrama in places where melodrama is not needed and can sometimes cause confusion as to what is happening. And there are short bursts of info-dumping and a few clunky dialogues. However these negative parts are rather like the excessive use of humour in a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel – it is easy to accept because the good vastly outweighs it and it is understandable that Sotto is still coming into her own as a writer, still working out her style and voice. The plot and characters are what’s important, and they are enough to keep you reading when the written word falls down a bit.

Before Ever After is a very apt name, giving you everything you need to know about the book without really giving you anything at all. If this is what happened before, then what happens after? Is there an after? Was there ever really a “before”?

The scent of strawberries, or rather what strawberries might smell like if they were made from melted plastic and disinfectant, filled the white-tiled room.

It is impossible to do justice to this story. Let that statement be the conclusion.

I received this book for review from Crown Publishing Group, Random House.

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