ARC REVIEW: Among Friends – by Heather Murray

Title: Among Friends (Travels In Cuba)
Author: Heather Murray

Genre: Non Fiction, Travel, Memoir
First published: October 6th 2016
Finished reading: April 20th 2017
Pages: 298

“Ephemeral things are tragic because they are never repeated, but they are wonderful because they may be kept in memories in our brain, and they may be recollected as many times as we wish.”

*** A copy of this book was kindly provided to me by the author in exchange for an honest review. Thank you! ***

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I’ve been lucky enough to travel quite a lot during my early twenties and exploring different cultures/countries is still something I’m really passionate about. When I was contacted about Among Friends: Travels In Cuba I immediately knew I wanted to read this memoir, especially since one of my best friends actually went to Cuba for a month in January and I wanted to compare experiences. I admit my knowledge of Cuban history and culture is pretty basic, since my University courses mainly focused on South America… So I was looking forward to learn more about this country. One of the first things that stands out in this travel memoir written by Heather Murray is the lack of political talk, something I’m rather grateful for to be honest. Instead, the author focuses on her own experiences while visiting Cuba various times during the span of eight years; the last time being in 2015. I agree it’s really hard (maybe even impossible) to get a proper feel of a country as an outsider/foreigner, but I enjoyed reading her experiences while visiting Havana and various other destinations in Cuba. Her friendship with Julian and other Cubans definitely help to shed some light on how life really was lived by the Cubans during those years… And I liked how detailed the descriptions of the various places she visited were. The prose was easy to read and all in all it was an enjoyable travel memoir. Low on social-cultural and political details, but highly entertaining for those who enjoy the genre!

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Spread over a period of eight years, Heather Murray travels to Cuba various times to visit her friend Julian. What started out as two collegues writing letters grew into a friendship when she traveled to Cuba for the first time for a conference… The country and its people made a big impact and various visits followed afterwards. Both Havana and other provinced to the west and east are explored with the help of Julian and other Cubans; and the country definitely shows some changes over the years. This memoir is packed with personal experiences and many detailed descriptions of the various destinations in Cuba.

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If you are looking for a well written, entertaining and ‘light’ travel memoir that focuses on the travel and daily life of the locals rather than the more serious topics, Among Friends is without doubt an excellent choice. The descriptions of the various destinations and excursions are very well done and I could almost imagine being there myself as well. As stated in this memoir, it shows that Cuba has been through some changes in the last ten years and it shows… At least that is what my friend told as well. Recommended!


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ARC REVIEW: The Yellow Envelope – by Kim Dinan

Title: The Yellow Envelope
Author: Kim Dinan

Genre: Non Fiction, Travel, Memoir
First published: April 1st 2017
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Finished reading: March 28th 2017
Pages: 320

“At the end of the day, the money itself is just paper. What gives the whole experience meaning are the thoughts, emotions, and feelings that come with giving the money away in ways that make you smile and make your heart sing.”

*** A copy of this book was kindly provided to me by Netgalley and Sourcebooks in exchange for an honest review. Thank you! ***

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I might have mentioned my love for travel once or twice before, and as soon as I saw this travel memoir I had to request a copy. I enjoy reading non fiction and I’ve had the chance to visit both Peru and Ecuador twice, so I was looking forward to read about the author’s experience in those countries as well as those in Asia. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to enjoy The Yellow Envelope as much as I thought I would and the story fell kind of flat for me. Rather than a true travel memoir, this story has mostly been a (rather self-centered) description of the author’s failing relationship with her husband, feelings and journey of self-discovery; definitely not what I expected at all and not as enjoyable to read either. Another thing that bothered me were the (negative) cliches about the countries they visited; I’ve traveled both alone and with my partner in both Ecuador and Peru during roughly the same time period (2012-2013) and I don’t think the descriptions of those countries are just or accurate. I also felt that both countries and people in general were talked down to; each country/culture/person is unique in its own way and the negativity really bothered me. I also don’t think it is right to claim there is a correct/superior way to travel either; each person should be able to decide which way is best for them and the ‘superior’ tone was actually quite annoying. And that’s coming from someone who has traveled for a long time without a real home as well, so I kind of know what I’m talking about. I’ll stop this rant and say that if you are looking for a memoir about the story of the road to self-discovery with just a hint of travel, The Yellow Envelope will probably interest you.

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Kim Dinan decided she wanted a change in her life and three years later both Kim and her husband decide to quit their jobs and travel around the world. They are given a yellow envelope by another couple: inside a check and instructions to give the money away during their travels. There are only three rules: don’t overthink it; share your experiences; don’t feel pressured to give it all away. Kim and Brian travel through Ecuado, Peru, India, Nepal and other countries, and will face many obstacles along the way.

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I normally enjoy reading non fiction and I love anything that has to do with travel, but this memoir didn’t manage to convince me. Not only was the actual talk about traveling and the different countries limited, but the main focus was actually on the author, her feelings and self-discovery. This could have been an interesting read anyway once I adjusted my expectations, but I was really bothered by the tone and the fact that the different countries/cultures/persons were talked down to and didn’t receive it’s proper respect. I understand that it’s hard to portray a foreign culture properly (I’ve had this experience lots of times myself), but this just wasn’t the way. I liked the idea of the yellow envelope and what it represents though; it was probably the strongest feature of this memoir.


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BOOK REVIEW: 13 Little Blue Envelopes – by Maureen Johnson

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Title: 13 Little Blue Envelopes
(Little Blue Envelopes #1)
Author: Maureen Johnson

Genre: YA, Contemporary, Romance
First published: August 23rd 2005
Publisher: HarperTeen
Finished reading: December 1st 2016
Pages: 322
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“Sometimes, life leaves you without directions, without guideposts or signs. When this happens, you just have to pick a direction and run like hell.”

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I decided to switch genres a bit and pick up a contemporary romance read. I know these kind of stories normally are not really my thing, but I remember I enjoyed Maureen Johnson‘s short Christmas story in Let It Snow and The Name Of The Star last year and the travel theme sounded great. I have to admit I had my doubts about 13 Little Blue Envelopes, but I can see why contemporary romance fans would love this book. As I already feared, this book fell a little flat for me. Sure, the travel bits are quite interesting and it is without doubt a cute and easy-to-read story, but the whole plot just isn’t believable. I mean, why did her parents let Ginny travel to Europe like that in the first place? The things happening to the main character are not exactly credible either. I’ve had my share of travel experience myself and random things can happen during a trip, but 13 Little Blue Envelopes for me crossed the line. If you are looking for a sappy, fast-paced, easy and entertaining contemporary romance read, this is without doubt a good choice. It’s probably also a perfect summer/beach read if you can forget about the credibility details. That said, I’m not sure I’m going to read the sequel myself.

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After her eccentric aunt died half across the world, Ginny receives a package that will change her life. Inside she finds thirteen little blue envelopes with messages and instructions her aunt wrote before she passed away. In the first one, Ginny finds $1,000 and instructions to buy a plane ticket to London. It also said she shouldn’t open the other ones until she completed each task, and that she couldn’t have contact with the people back home. Clearly her aunt wants to show Ginny the Europe as she knew it, and Ginny is about to do a whole lot of things she never dreamed to be doing that summer…

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I know, I know, I should have known 13 Little Blue Envelopes wouldn’t be for me. I thought the whole road trip/travel theme would distract from the cheesy romance, but in the end it was the low credibility of the plot that sort of ruined the story for me. Sure, a lot of random things can happen when you travel without a fixed destination, but this story just didn’t convince me. If you are looking for a quick and easy contemporary read and don’t mind the little details, this might still be a good choice though.

BOOK REVIEW: Wanderlost – by Jen Malone

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Title: Wanderlost
Author: Jen Malone
Genre: YA, Contemporary, Romance
First published: May 31st 2016
Publisher: HarperTeen
Finished reading: July 13th 2016
Pages: 352
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“Lizzie, pushing your comfort zone is what traveling is all about.”

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Wanderlost is without doubt a great choice both if you want to escape the cold winter months (like me) and if you are looking for an entertaining summer read. This novel is by no means perfect, but definitely cute and fluffy enough if you can forget about details like the credibility of the plot. First of all, it shows that Jen Malone has traveled quite a lot herself and probably visited the places she mentioned in Wanderlost, because the descriptions are detailed and make you feel like you are traveling along with the main characters. I don’t think that all observations about local traditions are correct though (although I can only speak for the Dutch ones myself; seriously, salty pancakes are NOT breakfast food!), but I guess it’s really hard to understand the local ways in the first place without actually living in that country. I’ve learned that the hard way myself during my travels… Wanderlost is fast-paced though and both easy and entertaining to read. Sam is adorable and I liked the senior group, but I wasn’t too sure about Aubree in the beginning. I mean, I understand that leaving your home and country for the first time can be extremely intimidating, but the total lack of confidence did get a bit annoying after a while. It is however a realistic description, because I’ve had my share of ‘Aubree’s’ during my years working in a hostel. I liked how her character developed though, and overall Wanderlost kind of made me wish I could go on another Europe road trip myself…

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When her older sister, Elizabeth, gets into real trouble and cannot make it to Europe for her oh-so-important summer job, she asks Aubree to take over her place. Aubree is not exactly adventurous and has never been far away from home, but she feels guilty about what happened to her sister and reluctantly agrees. In two weeks, Aubree will now be leading a group of senior citizens on a bus tour through Europe, and even the carefully prepared binder full of helpful facts and training of her sister can calm her nerves. Things seem to go wrong from the start and she doesn’t even make it to her first hotel in Amsterdam before their perfect plan starts to unravel… Without phone and binder, Aubree is now on her own while she tries to do the job she was never hired for in the first place.

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Even though the plot was not really that credible, I still quite enjoyed reading Wanderlost. In itself it’s without doubt a fast-paced, entertaining and adorable summer read that will most likely appeal to those who enjoy reading contemporary romance novels. It’s cute, it’s fluffy, it has a lot of romance and also a healthy dose of road trip and travel descriptions… Warning: it will most likely trigger your wanderlust!

BOOK REVIEW: The Bookshop Book – by Jen Campbell

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Title: The Bookshop Book
Author: Jen Campbell
Genre: Non Fiction, Books About Books, Contemporary
First published: October 2nd 2014
Finished reading: March 27th 2016
Pages: 273
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“Because whether we’re in the middle of the desert or in the heart of a city, or the top of a mountain or on an underground train: having good stories to keep us company means the whole world.”

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I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first picked up my copy of The Bookshop Book, but since I have a weakness for books about books I decided to give it a go. This book written by Jen Campbell is a non fiction read about bookshops all over the world. It does read slow at points, but The Bookshop Book is by no means boring or dense. The author basically takes you on a worldwide bookshop tour, but the bookshop descriptions are mixed up with author interviews, random facts and other interesting bookshop stories that definitely make it worth reading. If you love wandering around in bookshops, spending time browsing for that perfect new or secondhand book, you will probably enjoy The Bookshop Book. I know I did: I loved reading about all those amazing-sounding bookshops all over the world, although it really made me wish I could open my own bookshop one day…And it also makes for a great excuse to travel more to visit all those bookshops mentioned.

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Bookshops aren’t just buildings where books are sold; every bookshop has its own story and an unique way of connecting with their customers and the books they sell. Some bookshop decide to sell their books in original locations, other specialize in a certain genre or simply sell what they enjoy reading themselves. What do they have in common? Their love for books they want to share with you. The Bookshop Book is full of stories about the people behind the bookshops, author interviews, random bookish facts and other bits anyone who enjoys bookshops will be able to relate to. From books being sold inside barns, disused factories, boats and buses to a book tank and a book vending machine… They all have a place in this story. It’s a journey across six continents visiting over three hundred wonderful bookshops.

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The Bookshop Book is meant for anyone who loves visiting bookshops wherever they go and like to read about the people behind the books. It’s not an actual story with a plot and more a mix of random facts and bookshop stories, but really interesting anyway. It might read a bit slow at points, but most of the stories and bookshops are really fascinating. I can honestly say this book made me wish I could travel the world visiting all those places Jen Campbell mentioned, and maybe open my own bookshop one day… Recommended if you like the genre.

BOOK REVIEW: Into The Wild – by Jon Krakauer

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Title: Into The Wild
Author: Jon Krakauer
Genre: Non Fiction, Biography, Travel
First published: January 13th 1996
Finished reading: September 15th 2015
Pages: 207
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“Nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”

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Into The Wild has been on my wishlist for ages and after watching the movie last month I thought it was about time I read it. This travel biography written by Jon Krakauer without doubt leaves its mark, although I do think it is one of those exceptions where the movie is actually better than the book. I’m not saying it is a bad read, but I would have prefered to have the story focused on the adventures of the main character Christopher McCandless alone. Jon Krakauer included his own experiences with nature and those of other people as well, which distracted from the main story and didn’t really add anything important. Christopher McCandless’ journey is impressive enough as it is and the other chapters are not necessary or don’t exactly help understanding why Christopher did what he did. Or maybe I was just spoiled by the movie, who knows… I’m not sure I actually agree with his ideas or actions, but I do respect Christopher for thinking outside the box and starting an adventure that most people won’t dare to even fantasize about. Therefore I cannot deny Into The Wild is a very impressive read with a tragic ending that is perfect for those who enjoy reading non fiction and travel/survival stories.

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After Christopher McCandless graduated from college in 1991, he decided he was sick of his life chained by money and belongings and he wanted to start wandering around experiencing true nature. He left his family, gave away his money, abandoned his car and possessions and gave himself a new name: Alexander Supertramp. He now felt truly free from his past and society and started traveling around without having a penny in his pocket. He experiences the many sides of the country walking, hitchhiking and meeting a lot of interesting people on the way. McCandless travels both north and south and in April 1992 he decided to hitchhike to Alaska to finally walk alone into the wilderness. He isn’t truly prepared for what Alaska has in store for him, but he is determined to continue his journey anyway…

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Christopher McCandless’ journey is truly impressive and unfortunately has a very sad ending. A lot have judged him badly over the years and I’m not saying it was stupid of him to start his Alaska adventure that unprepared, but it cannot be denied that he actually WAS able to survive for a really long time in such a difficult situation. Jon Krakauer‘s writing was interesting in general, although, like I said before, I would have prefered to read just McCandless’ story. I would still recommend this read though if you are interested in the genre. The movie is even better if you haven’t watched it yet!

BOOK REVIEW: Five Weeks In The Amazon – by Sean Michael Hayes

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Title: Five Weeks In The Amazon
Author: Sean Michael Hayes
Genre: Non Fiction, Travel
First published: December 2nd 2014
Finished reading: September 2nd 2015
Pages: 270
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“Saying the jungle is amazing is like saying the Sistine Chapel is a masterpiece. In reality, they are both much more than words can describe, and the true essence of both can only be found through experiencing them.”

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Since the departure date of our backpacking adventure is coming closer (next Saturday!), I have been trying to read more travel themed books to really get in the travel mood. I found Five Weeks In The Amazon particularly interesting because I’ve been in Peru twice myself, although I’ve never actually visited the Amazon… It’s easy to say I really enjoyed the setting and it was nice to learn more about the Ayahuasca ritual and Sean Michael Hayes‘ experiences with the drug. It was a fast read as well, although I did have some problems with it. The most important one is the Spanish used in Five Weeks In The Amazon; it’s a real eyesore to a philologist like myself. I can understand crappy Spanish as long as he is trying to portray his own lack of knowledge of the language, but the locals speaking this way? I would actually have prefered reading the English translation of those dialogues. I couldn’t completely agree with his way of life either, but I guess that is something personal… That said, it is still quite an interesting and entertaining read if you want to learn more about the Ayahuasca ritual.

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Five Weeks In The Amazon tells the true story of the author’s adventures in the Amazon jungle. He travels to Peru to try and find the answers on some of his questions about life with the help of the Ayahuasca ritual. He spends various weeks going back and forth between Iquitos and the jungle to experience several Ayahuasca rituals. A local shaman is helping him with his journey and healing process, and we read more about how the drug is affecting both his body and those of the other people who participate.

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This non fiction story is without doubt an interesting read and is more about emotional than physical travel. If you want to learn more about the Ayahuasca ritual, Five Weeks In The Amazon is probably a good choice if you are not too focused on the spiritual journey. I did have some problems with the story and it wasn’t one of my favorite reads this year, but I’m still glad I’ve read it. I’m not sure I would want to have my own experience with Ayahuasca, but I definitely respect those who have been brave enough to try it.