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Sunday, 29 December 2013

ICELAND - 'a foreign world'

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent set in ICELAND

This review can now be found on the new TripFiction website here

Thursday, 26 December 2013

SAUDI ARABIA: a luminous portrait of life in the desert

1960s Saudi Arabia. Author Kim Barnes has phenomenally captured the feel of the Kingdom of that period, all set in the wider context of the political world stage. Women still haven't found a voice, even more so in the artificial life that is the compound of ex-pat life. This is a woman's life of drinks parties, filling time, secret drinnking and interminable boredom. But it's not enough for Mrs Gin McPhee.

Gin comes from a very poor background in Oklahoma and through her marriage to Mason her horizons broaden. They move to the Aramco processing facility in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia (the plant and location are for real) and it is here she eventually finds her calling as a photographer. Although she clearly has talent, she is thwarted by censorship, which photos can and can't be published, and indeed some photos could ultimately lead to deportation. It is a risky business. Life is regulated for foreigners and particularly foreign women. Her husband spends many days away at the facility and so she socialises with other American women, and builds a friendship with one woman in particular, Ruthie, who shows her the ropes. She also builds relationships with her houseboy Yash, her husband's driver and an Italian photographer in an attempt to manage her bored frustration. These relationships are intriguing, although they seem to develop too easily and too quickly in this artificial world in the desert.

The novel starts like an airplane landing - it really hits the tarmac running - and then gradually taxis its way along the runway to its end, an ultimately rather unfulfilling conclusion. 

It is nevertheless rich in detail about life in the country and about ex-pat life in particular, some of which still holds true today. Nothing can sum up how  the locale is portrayed like the words of the author herself on her blog: Set against the gorgeously etched landscape of a country on the cusp of enormous change, In the Kingdom of Men abounds with sandstorms and locust swarms, shrimp pedlars, pearl divers, and Bedouin caravans - a luminous portrait of life in the desert.

And wherever in the world you pick up your copy of the book, the cover is a delightful reflection of the era of the late 1960s. A refreshing change from the more typical books set in Saudi Arabia, which loudly announce the setting through the prolific use of the niqab, a trifle formulaic, I feel. If Windmill Books (publishers of In the Kingdom of Men) can produce a simple, clear and lovely cover, so can other publishing houses.  We have brought together just a little collage to underpin this observation...

Tina and the TripFiction Team

Do come and join us on Twitter and Facebook, and share your reviews of any books you have read that evoke locale on the TripFiction website.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

TripFiction's noteworthy books of 2013

Our top three reads of 2013


"I haven’t read a more enthralling work this year." Read more here


A good story that will bring this country to the reader, its red heat, its people, the cultural clashes and its fossils. Read more here including an interview with the author


Crossing generations and continents, moving from Kabul, to Paris, to San Francisco, to the Greek island of Tinos, with profound wisdom, depth, insight and compassion, Khaled Hosseini writes about the bonds that define us and shape our lives. Read more here

Our top book cover 2013


We just loved the composition and colour of this book, so much so that we asked for a comment from the publisher's about how the cover came into being.

You can find our review and the story behind the cover here

Our most quirky reads of 2013


Not the country as you or I know it! This is an intriguing peak into the Indian bedroom, both past and present, across the continent, and offers a marvellous insight into sexual mores and so much more. Our review here


Your marriage comes to an end. You find the courage to go and live in a new city in search of a new life. Not many people can claim to have done this. But this is the story of Marilyn who did just that. You can read our review here

The book cover that didn't match content 2013


A modern day take on what it means to live in New York from an outsider's perspective. Our review here

The book that really needed a proofreader 2013


This is a well travelled novel that is in its own way a good storyline. But what let's it down is the proof reading and the cover - read more here

The book that lingered 2013


"The right cocktail of people, the perfect blend for calamity" Read more here 

The author interview that triumphed 2013


"A story of drama and culture, that transported me to Zambia" Read more here

And that was our year 2013 in books. Needless to say many books and novels have passed through our doors, many of which we would have loved to feature here. Next year for us will be exciting times, lots more books hitting the website and lots of new things coming on line (including a new-look website). Come and follow us on the journey via Twitter and Facebook. Have a great festive period and a good 2014! From Tony, Tina, Tom, Charlotte, Ann and Sandra.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

KRAKÓW - 'a magical city of folklore and fables'

Our review of Winter Under Water, set in Kraków can now be found on the new TripFiction website here

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Perfect Gems of City Writing - just blame it on the Acropolis

The city-lit and city-pick books are the amuse bouches of city literary writing. A wonderful way to travel to a place through the eyes of the many selected authors, chosen for their fabulous literary representation of the locale, all collated in one single book. We have focussed on three of the books that Oxygen books have published, and each is reviewed by a TripFiction team member who knows that city well.  Each book focusses entirely on a single city, and the publishers have brought together extracts from published works, written by well known authors that really bring the featured city to the reader. If you are a traveller, this series will enhance your trip, without a doubt!

Tina travels to London

I am a Londoner by birth and so I was keen to read city-lit London, and was charmed by the chosen passages from top authors. For me it was like having a box of chocolates, each featured author just captured the feel of parts of the city. Observations about queuing or food habits, or the great North/South Divide (referring of course to the Thames that divides the city). Pageantry in the capable hands of Jan Morris (A Writer's World); Colin MacInnes extolls the virtues of the Thames embankment; fictional character Henry Perowne gazes across the city in Iain McEwan's novel Saturday; the run down streets of Hackney contrast with the wealth of the city, and Brick Lane comes to technicolor life in Monica Ali's capable hands.

I revisited my home city through the fresh eyes of authors both contemporary and historical and this is a wonderful way to connect with and understand the bustling metropolis.

Gisela travels to Berlin

This is ideal for a quick dip. The work that must have gone into collating these little gems, including a great variety of authors describing a great variety of Berlin foibles, characteristics, situations  and history (both good and bad); oh, and that Berlin wit is sharp, it is to the point but rarely crude. It is a delight to read the odd passage, and enjoy a brief encounter with the city. Some things described are delightful, other heart reading, and the character of the typical Berliner comes across with real clarity. The cabaret, not to be missed and other things to do as a visitor, some obvious, some less so. Take it with you when you go and you will glean a lot from this lovely book of edited highlights!

Ann travels to Venice

I adore Venice so finding this book has been a delight. It provides bite size excerpts from fiction set in Venice. It has transported me back there from my sofa, but if you did not know Venice it will give you a sense of the magic this wonderful place holds. The stories are from living and dead authors. It has introduced me to books about Venice I would not necessarily have come across. The short piece from 'The Innocents Abroad' by Mark Twain (1869) left me laughing out loud and I hope I can get the book to read from start to finish. At the other end of emotional experience there is a piece from Salley Vickers' Miss Garnet's Angel. I visited the church which features in this novel and so it brought back wonderful, warm feelings.

The book is full of humour, cultural and travel experiences. I particularly enjoyed the short piece by Henry James from Italian Hours describing arriving by train; that's how I did on my last visit and even though James wrote it in 1909 it could have just been yesterday. This is a book to dip in and out as you might a travel guide.

Publisher Malcolm Burgess takes us on the journey that led to the creation of these popular urban writing anthologies.

Oxygen Books' city-pick series: the left-field city guide series that began on the slopes of the Acropolis

It started on the slopes of the Acropolis ....

No, nothing to do with Zeus, but rather the birth of Oxygen Books and our leftfield city guide series.

It was a hot afternoon in Athens and we were in a long, winding queue up to the Parthenon. I said to my wife 'I would love to read some selections of modern writing about Athens.' We had the guide books of course but nothing to inspire you and give you a taste for a city the way good fiction or non-fiction can.

Later we searched the city's bookshops to see if such an expertly curated sampler book existed but found nothing. A similar search back home in London found selections of old writing - copyright free we later discovered - but nothing either.

'Hey, then, why don't we do it ourselves,' we madly said. We had some savings, I used to work for HarperCollins and my wife was a freelance editor.

It was a hunch of course, a series featuring some of the best ever writing on favourite world cities that would appeal to, er, people like us.

At least we knew there would be two readers.

It all actually happened rather quickly as we put our money where our mouth was and got to work on our first book on Paris, a city we knew well.

It was a revelation. There was just so much fantastic writing on the city: classic novels, modern novels, novels that hadn't been translated, non-fiction, blogs, journalism. In fact, as was later confirmed, here is just too much fantastic writing on most cities. Already we knew we could have published several books on Paris and still had material over.

We garnered some nice reviews and sales were steady if not spectacular. But the floodgate had been opened and we were approached left, right and centre with suggestions from across the world.

Hardly a day went by when we weren't being asked to publish an urban anthology on writing about Buenos Aires or Sydney or dozens of other world cities, although we did think Guernsey was a little odd.

We needed to focus and to please our unflappable bank manager and so decided to concentrate on popular cities where people took city-breaks. Although, as we found out, many people read us who never visit the city concerned but just enjoy 'armchair reading'.

LondonBerlin, Dublin, Venice, Amsterdam, New York, St Petersburg and Istanbul have followed. Not only have we had the time of our lives visiting these cities, from Berlin in the snow and Venice in its Aqua Alto to Dublin in the midst of its banking crisis, but we've also loved meeting all the people there passionate about their city's writing.

Publishers, booksellers, librarians and translators in all these cities have overwhelmed us with their ideas and enthusiasm. Fortunately we were able to work with co-editors in many of these cities, as well as cultural institutes, whose ears to the ground made sure we got the very best writing.

Our plans for the future? Several more cities are being considered for 2015 but next year we're continuing our mission of producing books about different kinds of journeys with an An Everywhere: a little book about reading by Heather Reyes, which Helen Dunmore has already called 'a brilliant travel guide to the world of books.'

Just blame it on the Acropolis. We do. 

You can follow Oxygen books on Twitter and find out more about the gems of city writing on their website

You can also follow TripFiction on Twitter and Facebook

Thursday, 12 December 2013

"INDIA: Technicolor in Life, Technicolor in Love"

The Kama Sutra Diaries by Sally Howard set in India

This post now appears on the new TripFiction site here

Click on the cover to purchase

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

TUSCANY: beaches + romance + locale (what more do you need?)

Save the Date! by Allie Spencer set in Tuscany

This post now appears on the new TripFiction website here

Friday, 6 December 2013

BROOKLYN - "A bold piece"

Someone by Alice McDermott set in Brooklyn

This post can now be found on the new TripFiction site here

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

ZAMBIA - Where there's a will there's a way

The Garden of Burning Sand by Corban Addison set in Lusaka, Zambia

Our review plus author Q & A can now be found on the new TripFiction site here

Saturday, 30 November 2013

ABERDEEN and the art world

The Studio Game by Peter Burnett set in Aberdeen

Click on the title to find our more and to purchase
Our review can now be found here

Tina and the TripFiction Team
Plenty of locations (over a 1000!) on the TripFiction website: 'see a location through an author's eyes' and come and say hello on Facebook and Twitter

Thursday, 28 November 2013

VERMONT - when the snows recede....

Cloudland by Joseph Olshan set in Vermont

Our review can now be found on the new TripFiction website here

Monday, 25 November 2013

SWITZERLAND by train, in the company of a certain Mr Thomas Cook (oh, and Mr Diccon Bewes)

Slow Train to Switzerland by Diccon Bewes, set in Switzerland

Switzerland captured on an SBB train, book in hand
1863 and members of The Junior United Alpine Club set off in a party of 130 to Paris, headed ultimately for Switzerland, in the company of Mr Thomas Cook, entrepreneur and travel aficionado. Miss Jemima Morrell was the unofficial chronicler of the tour, this, the first package holiday abroad organised by Mr Cook (following several failed attempts at home); his travel shops still appear on many high streets across Britain today, and he is still considered to be the genius behind the package holiday! Just look where his early endeavours have now landed - mass tourism today is 5% of global GDP, so Cook was a man with huge vision.

2013, and 150 year later, Diccon Bewes, who is the accidental ex-pat expert on Switzerland, retraces the footsteps of these intrepid (and intrepid they certainly were!) explorers. Armed with his Murray guidebook from the nineteenth century, nattily entitled A Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland, and the Alps of Savoy and Piedmont (all is revealed in the book as to why Savoy and Piedmont also featured), he sets off from Newhaven crossing the Channel to Dieppe. With further guidebooks at his disposal A Handbook of Travel-Talk from 1858, he delves into gems of useful translation, which perhaps aren't altogether useful in modern day parlance, but give a wonderful insight into the mores of Victorian travel: "May I not be allowed to carry ashore my carpet-bag?" or "Sit still, the train is moving" ... and extracts from Thomas Cook's The Excursionist beautifully evoke the flavour of the bygone era, which featured ships, trains, coaches and, of course, camels...

We undertook our own mini junior tour, on the back of this book and gladly hopped on an SBB train to follow in Miss Jemima's footsteps; this is essentially what TripFiction is all about, it is seeing a place through an author's eyes (in this case both Diccon's and Miss Jemima's eyes) and gaining a new and individual perspective on locale. 

Contemporary and historical observations accompany the modern day traveller, as the hikers moved down through Paris, to Geneva and on to Chamonix, which was originally discovered by two British men in 1741. The book highlights how the British were ahead of the game in exploring the Alps: mountain peaks to be conquered, Union Jacks to be planted! The Swiss were just there, generally getting on with their lives, and living on the poverty line. This was truly the Golden Age of Alpinism. Nowadays Chamonix, for example, can boast 4.5 million overnight stays per annum, and is in so many ways removed from what Miss Jemima and her fellow travellers saw 150 years ago.

Mr Cook had been escorting the Package Pioneers, and soon came to leave the 60 remaining trekkers to their own devices. By Martigny there were only 8 hardy souls left (Martigny incidentally is the half way point between London and Rome).

Onwards from Martigny to Sion and Leuk (which is where the TriFiction team took up with the party) and up to Leukerbad, where the Victorians observed the 'unnatural' behaviour of the bathers soaking in the pools of thermal waters. Diccon however is much more of a convert to the soothing and relaxing qualities of the bubbling waters and even rates the Walliser Alpentherme amongst his top 10 Public Spa (or should it be Wellness?) destinations "Lying neck deep in hot water on a bed of bubbles and looking up at the mighty cliffs, I realise why people travelled across Europe for centuries to do exactly this. It's not necessarily the water, which can be found in many natural spas, but the location 1411m above sea level and surrounded by natural splendour."

From Leukerbad it was then off to the top of the Gemmi mountain - a 2 hour trail that was actually built by Tirolean labourers from Austria. Imagine climbing a vertical cliff, in the warmth of a June Summer in Victorian garb, crinolines and formal gear; their alacrity over the boulders and their stoicism is something we cannot perhaps appreciate in our modern day. Then a further long trek over to Kandersteg. 

On to Frutigen, where today they have tapped into the natural hot waters, sufficiently that they can grow exotic fruits (coincidence probably that the place name sounds like fruit?) - guavas, papayas, starfruit are all grown in this small backwater. The opening of the Lötschberg Tunnel in 1913, this time built by Italian labourers, changed everything for the region. From here via Spiez and on to Interlaken, the Paris of the Alps and base station for the Jungfrau, now a wonder of faded grandeur (and attracting quite a different kind of clientele from the days of Miss Jemima; but Cafe Schuh still provides a warm welcome to visitors). Finally off to Lucerne, and eventually Neuchâtel to round off the tour. The original tour group then headed back to Paris.

There is so much to cherish in this informative and charming travelogue, which for me proved to be quite an eye-opener: the determination of the Victorians to search out new places, hampered as they were by dress and manners, and limited by an array of transport possibilities, mostly of variable quality; the place the British played in bringing tourism to Switzlerand (including mention of George Stephenson who consulted on a railway project or two); and the grinding poverty of the locals at the time of the Thomas Cook trip - such a stark contrast to the booming economy of Switzerland of the present day. If you want to learn more about Switzerland then and now, in an interesting, informative and often entertaining way, then we recommend this travelogue to you. You can also pick up Diccon Bewes' first book on Switzlerland Swiss Watching on our site.

And if you fancy following in the footsteps of Miss Jemima Morrell you can do so with Inntravel who have created a self-guided walk from Leukerbad to Lucerne. And general travel in Switzerland can be arranged via the Switzerland Travel Centre

Tina and the TripFiction Team

Do come and join us on Twitter and FacebookHelp us to continue to build the TripFiction website by adding your reviews of books that are set in, and evocative of location, and help build this resource for both actual and armchair travellers.  It's an interesting way of getting to know a place (and also you get to read some pretty good books!)