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At Home on the Kazakh Steppe by Janet Givens

What a terrific read this is! I was lucky enough to win it in a draw on the Facebook Group We Love memoirs and I’m sorry to say it sat on my Kindle for several months before I got round to reading it. Still, that’s what holidays are for, aren’t they? I caught up with a huge amount of reading while we were away this summer, and At Home on the Kazakh Steppe was one of the first books I read.

I was immediately immersed in Janet Givens’ account of how she came to be a Peace Corps volunteer, how she gave up everything (almost) she held dear to do so and how she then had to adjust to life in a Kazakh town where she was not infrequently accompanied to work by cows on the pavements.

What made this book so interesting was its exploration of cultural differences; how they can affect us, how we should start dealing with them and how to accept and embrace them. From early beginnings of anxiety, resistance and unhappiness, Janet and her husband grow into the country and its people as well as find themselves again. It is a fascinating, rich and absorbing book and highly recommended reading. I learnt so much about what the Peace Corps is about and I also learnt much about the people of Kazakhstan. Cultural differences aside, this is a story of people making connections, building bridges and understanding each other. Lovely!

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Guest post for Shirley Ledlie

 

My guest post on #memoir writing and why I do it on Shirley Ledlie’s lovely blog: https://www.saledlie.com/blog/guest-author-blog-val-poore

Two in one: my reviews of Syd Blackwell’s Innside Stories and Keith van Sickle’s One Sip at a Time

Innside stories by Syd Blackwell

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This is a very enjoyable collection of tales from the keeper of an inn in the Canadian Rockies. I liked the author’s relaxed, but highly professional approach to looking after his customers and there were some great stories here. I particularly liked the bear episodes and the array of characters that passed through the inn. I can well imagine that keeping a hostelry in such an environment invites a wide variety of very interesting people, so I was intrigued by the fact that the author allowed people to view the rooms first and pick the one that they wanted (where possible). It was clear that the rooms matched the personalities in many respects.

This book was very pleasant easy reading and it gave some great insights on both the hospitality industry and about life in the Canadian Rockies. I would have enjoyed staying at Wintergreen myself, I’m sure. Syd sounds like a very nice man!

The link to the book on Amazon is here

 

One Sip at a Time by Keith van Sickle

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This is again a thoroughly enjoyable book of anecdotes and stories from the author and his wife’s early experiences of living part time in France. I particularly appreciated their efforts to learn the language and speak French with local people. For me, there are so many beautiful places in the world, but it’s the people who make the difference. Keith van Sickle and his wife, Valerie, made certain that the people made the difference for them and the book is peopled with lovely characters from the villages in which they made their home during their extended stays in France.

I really enjoyed the author’s sense of humour too and altogether, it was a charming and refreshing read. If you love France and the French people, One Sip at a Time is a collection of stories to warm you still further to this wonderful country.

The link to the book is here

Memoir Review: Longing for Africa by Annie Schrank

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An enjoyable account of Annie Schrank’s first experiences in Africa when she arrived in Ethiopia as an idealistic young woman with her dog, Daisy, and a few belongings. This memoir reads like a novel and includes much of the excitement, romance and adventure one might find in a fictional story. It even describes in quite some detail the author’s first experiences of a real relationship and physical love. In fact, her romance with the Italian neighbour who sweeps her off her feet and into his family forms much of the content of the book.

Ethiopia seemed to both shock and intrigue the author, and I felt her raw emotions about the poverty, the famine and the fear of the political situation very clearly. I particularly enjoyed her descriptions of the country and the people and would perhaps have liked even more of this and maybe a little less about her relationship with Matteo. It was clearly quite a harrowing experience to witness the dreadful effects of famine and drought, but the people seemed to be wonderfully dignified in their plight. I would have loved to read more about them. She also has some terrifying and dangerous encounters along the way with Ethiopian bandits. There was some explanation about their role in the country’s problems, but I could personally have done with a little more background.

However, although Ethiopia left an indelible impression on young Annie, it was Kenya that really stole her heart and I loved the sections about her impressions of the bush when camping out on safari. I have a feeling I will enjoy the second book in the series even more as she arrived there quite late in her African adventure and the indications are that she returned.

Altogether, this was an easy to read and exciting story and I would recommend it to anyone who is as fascinated by Africa as I am.

Here is the link to the Kindle book

Who was The Skipper’s Child?

This post was originally published in December 2015. I’ve updated it because it has new relevance now.

Most people who read my blog and know something of what I write associate me with memoirs about my watery life or about my years in South Africa. Some of you may also know I have written two novels as well, although in some sense both of these are biographical too. My novel with the ridiculously long name (sorry!) about breeding sheep, geese and English eccentrics is strongly rooted in my own pre-South Africa life on a smallholding in Dorset. The storyline is fiction, but the characters and the animals are very much based on my somewhat alternative family although I admit I prefer my book characters to one or two of the real life versions.

The same is true of The Skipper’s Child, a sort of cat and mouse adventure set on Europe’s waterways in December 1962 at the height of the Cold War. 1962/63 was also the longest and coldest winter on record in Europe in the 20th century, even exceeding 1947, I believe. The story is woven around the Kornet family: Hendrik, a commercial barge skipper, his wife Marijke and their three children, Anneke, Arie and Jannie. Essentially, this family is based on my partner Koos’s parents and two sisters.

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When I first met Koos, he told me many stories of what life was like for a skipper’s kind. It was neither glamorous nor exciting and despite travelling all over the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, he felt very restricted as they were always on the move and he could rarely leave the barge. All the same, I was fascinated by the stories of family life on board and the tough conditions they considered quite normal for their way of life.

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I knew then I wanted to write about this old and very special way of life. Skippers these days have quite a luxurious lifestyle with all possible mod-cons and even their cars travel with them. In Koos’s time, they had no electricity, no central heating and no interior insulation either, so it was not unusual in the winter for them to wake to ice on the inside of the cabin; and on occasions, they even got frozen in and had to walk across the ice to get to land.

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Thinking about all of this sowed the seeds of a fictional story in which I could incorporate both Koos’s memories and also a few of the anecdotes his father told him about earlier times, especially during and after the war. And so Arie, The Skipper’s Child, was born. The outcome is an adventure involving Russian spies, secret service agents and a young stowaway who has failed in a mission that he was not aware he was undertaking until he overhears a conversation where he learns what his fate was to be.

The main target audience for the story was my younger self. It was the sort of book I’d have been reading in my early teens, so I set that as the ‘age’ for the reader. But in truth, most of its readers have been adults: firstly on a blog where I played out the story for a number of followers, and later when people started buying the book. The only real YA (young adult) feedback I’ve had has been from The Wishing Shelf Awards whose panel of judges for all the YA entries were teenage school children. Luckily for me, they liked it and The Skipper’s Child won a Silver Award.

But why am I telling this story now? It’s recently been re-edited and published in its second edition, so I’m really hoping a few more people will give it a try. I am trying to market it towards a more general audience rather than just older children as I feel it can appeal to a wide range of readers. While I am very, very pleased that readers enjoy my memoirs, of course my creative side is much more attached to my fictional stories, and The Skipper’s Child in particular. Funny how the harder you have to work for something, the more it means to you, but that’s how it goes.

So, if you feel like something completely different from the usual action packed adventure, you might like Arie’s story. The link to the book and all the reviews is here (update: and also at Amazon UK). The link to a very nice review can be found below too.

Memoir review: Travels With Tinkerbelle

Travels with Tinkerbelle is a truly wonderful travelogue. I loved reading it from start to finish.

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Susie Kelly and her husband decide to ‘circumnavigate’ France and buy a somewhat cranky old camper van to serve their purpose. The vehicle is not quite what they had in mind, but as we say ‘needs must when the devil drives’ and Tinkerbelle, as the van is affectionately dubbed, is the result. They also somehow acquire a delightful companion for their dog, Tally. The companion’s name is Dobby, a dog that was meant to be small, but somehow just kept on growing. I can personally sympathise with their dismay about this as I had the same experience with my own dog.

The book is in a diary format and describes their journey in their far from trouble free vehicle with their far from trouble free dogs. However, it is full of fascinating local history and information; it has beautiful descriptive passages; and the two dogs, Dobby and Tally make challenging, but very lovable travelling companions. What more could I ask? Oh yes, it is about France too, which gives it double points. I fell completely in love with Dobby and laughed till I cried at several passages following his systematic distruction of various items in Tinkerbelle; he reminded me so much of my own beloved pooch. I also loved Susie Kelly’s wry sense of humour and like other reviewers on Amazon, think Terry, her husband, was a real trooper; particularly on the severely nail biting roads of the Pyrenees and the Alps.

As for Tinkerbelle, what a special van. I was holding my breath as they negotiated the mountain passes with barely any brakes, a broken clutch and a holey exhaust. Fabulous! This is a lovely book on many levels. It is extremely interesting in the detail of history and location, but it also gives the reader a marvellous overview of the range and variety of French countryside and scenery. I am so glad too that Susie wrote kindly about the north east. I have a special affection for that particular part of the country and was holding my breath to see if she would like it or hate it (as many do). Her obvious appreciation of its calm and beautiful scenery was the cherry on the top for me.

Thank you, Susie Kelly, for sharing this wonderful, breathtaking and memorable experience with us and for imbuing it with so much good humour.

As a footnote, foodies will enjoy the variety of local delicacies and produce that they buy and sample. I am not a foodie at all, but even so, I could appreciate the excitement at finding specific regional cheeses and fruits.

The link to the book is here

Memoir review: Life Before Frank by Frank Kusy

I won this memoir in a draw on the We Love Memoirs page on Facebook and finished reading it last night. What a marvellous snapshot of life as a youngster in the seventies it is, particularly when it came to boys although I could relate to it very well myself, being very close to Frank Kusy in age.

I haven’t read all the author’s memoirs yet; in fact, this is the second. The first one I read is also the last in the series, so it was good to go back to the start and read about what paved the way for what I know his life became later on. He was incredibly enterprising as a small child, especially after his Polish father tragically died and before his mother remarried. Sadly, though, life changed then for Frank. As a child with a stepfather who didn’t really like him, he was constantly aware of being out of step and out of place, especially when he was sent to a Jesuit school for boys by his deeply religious mother. Poor Frank was always in the wrong somehow and the misery of these years (although he dealt with it pretty creatively) laid the foundations for a rather rootless youth.  He was obviously very bright, but not terribly motivated, so as time went on, this lack of enthusiasm took its toll. I won’t say more, as I wouldn’t want to spoil the book for anyone, but I found myself recognising much about life in the seventies. I could also sympathise with Frank over the Catholic education and the distractions wrought by student life when education was free and we all got grants, so we didn’t have to ‘owe’ anyone for our three to four years of  university life.

The book rolls along and is well written and easy to read. I enjoyed the trips down memory lane and the photos of Frank as a teenager and twenty somethinger. He hasn’t changed much, that’s for sure. I was also fascinated by the titbits of information about the attitude to Polish people following the war. Unfortunately, it struck a chord with what seems to be happening in Europe today.

Altogether, a very enjoyable read that set the foundations for much of what Frank did in his later life. Highly recommended!