Sunday, November 29, 2009

Africa Trip Part 4: The Guide Book Comparison

During my trip I used 5 different guidebooks.

For general safari planning, you can't go wrong with Fodor's THE COMPLETE AFRICAN SAFARI PLANNER which covers Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Victoria Falls. For each country, the guide covers the gateway city, the must-see parks, the if-you-have-time parks and beach escapes. It also gives you great tips on the ins and outs of safaris including what to expect, what to wear, what to bring and more. It was thanks to this guide that we decided we must go to Ngorogoro Crater and Lamu. Though I didn't end up using any of the eating or sleeping listings, I enjoyed the wealth of cultural information presented throughout. Definitely a keeper. It may even inspire me to go on more safaris!

As for day-to-day guides, we used the Lonely Planet's EAST AFRICA as well as country guides from Footprint covering Kenya and Tanzania. All three offered a good mix of both affordable listings and more upscale locales. I found the Lonely Planet to be more reliable in general, although current phone numbers can be a problem in both publisher's books. Your best bet is to check the listing's website for the most current contact details. We had a devil of a time finding the number for Robert's Camp in Baringo, though it didn't turn out to be a problem since we ended up being the only guests.

Footprint's KENYA HANDBOOK is current as of March 2009 but some of the information didn't get double-checked when they printed the new edition. For example, the guide claims Diamond Village (where we stayed) has pit latrines, but they've had en-suite flush toliets since 2005. Oops! What I do really like about the Footprint guides are the hard covers and the excellent maps.

The book I used the most during my trip was Lonely Planet's WATCHING WILDLIFE EAST AFRICA. Not only is it full of excellent color pictures and detailed information about species you are likely to encounter, it also has a whole section covering each national park in East Africa and what wildlife you may find there (and in what areas specifically). Whenever our guide would point out a new bird (for example), I would pull out the book and read all about it. The only think I was really missing was a checklist so I could keep track of what I'd seen and what I still needed to track down.

What guidebooks do you like to use when you travel?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Book Review: Notes from My Travels by Angelina Jolie

When I heard that actress Angelina Jolie had published her diaries of some of her trips as a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), I was mildly interested. Especially when I read that she went to Ecuador and Cambodia, two countries I've visited myself. So when I saw a copy in the Diamond Villiage library in Lamu, I picked it up and started reading.

As she admits herself, Angelina is not a good writer. She tends to repeat herself and is vague on many of the pertinent details of her trips. What impressed me, however, is her willingness to fade into the background and give the spotlight to UN employees and the refugees themselves. She goes into hellholes that very few of us would be willing to endure and never makes a single complaint - all the name of greater awareness for the plight of refugees.

I don't have the book with me anymore, but a particular passage that has stuck with me is Jolie's mechanism for coping with extremely high temperatures - she simply thinks of opening her refrigerator back home and getting a blast of cold air. I'll have to try that next time I am in the sweltering heat.

An interesting aside - Angelina was recently in Kenya visiting the Dadaab refugee camp for displaced Somalis. The friends I was visiting in Kenya told me that their neighbor, Damien from New Zealand, works with UNHCR Kenya and met Angelina. During a neighborly Sunday cookout he told us about his experience with her and he confirmed that she is genuinely interested in improving refugees' lot, is exceedingly humble, and took time to get pictures with everyone who wanted one. Apparently Damien's picture with her hangs in a special place :)

NOTES FROM MY TRAVELS is available in paperback.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Africa Trip Part 3: The Baby Animal Extravaganza

During our stay in Kenya and Tanzania, we went to quite a few national parks and reserves and were lucky enough to see all of the big five (elephant, buffalo, lion, rhino and leopard) and get a decent picture of 4 (all except the leopard who was too quick for us). We saw zebras, giraffes, tons of different antelopes and birds, hippos, crocs, jackels, warthogs, 1 hyena, and the highlight - a mother cheetah with 3 cubs, out on a walk for the very first time.

Cheetah and cubs:

Black rhino and baby:

A hippo who might just eat its baby:

Baby topi:

Here are my two favorite lion pictures (sans cubs).


Up (too) close (in Ngorogoro, animals are more used to cars and are less skittish):

And just for fun, a very cheeky Starling (who flew off with our bread roll):

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Book Review: The Mark by Jen Nadol

I was so captivated by this premise: Cassie can see a faint glow around the heads of people who are about to die. Why does she have such a strange power and does she have the moral responsibility to tell what she knows?

Cassie is rather more robust than your typical teen. Once her nana dies, she’s entirely on her own – except for an aunt who could care less about her – but she takes it in stride. Her power isolates her too - she doesn’t really engage with others much, with the exception of college student Lucas who pushes her to “use” her “talent”. The ups and downs of their rocky relationship feel authentic and add to the dramatic tension (though some readers might be put off by what amounts to statutory rape, albeit unwitting).

What I most enjoyed was the exploration of philosophical questions which gave the novel depth beyond that of a typical YA read. It was, however, a tad convenient to have Cassie actually audit a philosophy class in which Lucas was the TA. In fact, quite a few aspects of the plot came off as too convenient which makes the narrative feel overly “outlined” and not as fresh as it could be considering the very original revelation we get at the end of the novel. I could totally imagine (and hope for) a kick-a** sequel, Ms. Nadol.

THE MARK comes out in hardcover on January 19, 2010. Find out more about it (and read an excerpt) on the author’s website.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Africa Trip Part 2: Huts and Tents

I'm still going through all my trip pictures (I took well over 500 - unusual for me), but I'll go ahead and show you a few places we spent the night.

The scariest place we stayed in was a banda at Robert's Camp at Lake Baringo, Kenya where we were the ONLY guests. Bandas are simple huts with a bed inside but no bathroom. To use the bathroom, you have to brave a whole herd of grumpy hippos in the pitch black night. So you don't use the bathroom once the sun sets.

Here's the hut:
Here are the hungry hippos:

We also stayed in one of Diamond Villiage's huts on the beach in the World Heritage listed town of Lamu on the northern Kenyan coast (yep, pretty close to Somalia). Kenya's national motto is Hakuna Matata (which means "No problem" - something you know if you've watched Disney's The Lion King) and it's especially true in Lamu. They also like to say Pole Pole ("slowly, slowly") and people here are very relaxed and mellow - a welcome change from the bustle of Nairobi. This would have been paradise if it weren't for the swarms of mosquitos and sand flies who were not the least bit put off by repellent and abundant smoking coils.

Our hut (which seemed to me like something out of The Mosquito Coast - before it burned down of course):

Probably our favorite accomodation was our tent at the luxury tented camp Mara Siria in the Masai Mara National reserve. Very comfortable bed, a hot "bush" shower, a gorgeous view and nary a mosquito in sight.

And finally, here's our friends' place in Nairobi. It is on a compound with electric fences and around the clock guards. You'll notice too that there are bars on all the windows and doors. They don't call the place "Nairobbery" for nothing.

That's all for now. Lots of baby animals soon!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Library Thing Tuesday (81) + Picture of Emmy

This week's question from Wendi: Have you ever participated in SantaThing (it is in its third year)? If so, what did you like? Dislike? Are you planning to participate this year?

I never have, though I do think it sounds fun in theory. Since I've already signed up for a bookish Secret Santa this year though (The Book Blogger Holiday Swap), I better resist the temptation! Maybe next year....


While we were in Africa, dear friends of ours hosted our kittehs at their house and documented their naughtiness on Facebook. Here's my favorite picture they posted:

That Finn sure looks comfy. All he needs is the remote a little closer to his paw.

Monday, November 23, 2009

I'm Back! (Africa Trip Part 1)

Just got back this morning from my 18 day trip to Kenya and Tanzania (in case you've wondered why I haven't commented on your blog in ages...). I only spent about 3 hrs of that time on the Internet, and it really was a welcome break.

I read 5 books (besides travel guides) on my vacation, including two for the Chunkster Challenge (reviews coming up):

THE MARK by Jen Nadol
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett

We were visiting good friends in Nairobi, so we spent quite a few days there just hanging out in their house, going to restaurants, attending the Guy Fawkes Day fireworks (sponsored by the British Embassy) and looking at real estate (they intend to move house). Not the typical tourist stuff - though we did do that too, including a trip to the Langata Giraffe Centre and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Baby Elephant Orphanage.

Daniel and a new pal:
Baby elephant:

More soon, including our trips to:

Hell's Gate National Park
Lakes Bogoria and Baringo
Lamu (World Hertiage Site)
Masai Mara National Reserve
Ngorogoro Crater (World Heritage Site)
Arusha National Park

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Library Thing Tuesday (80) + Picture of Emmy

Still in Kenya, but I couldn't let you go a week without Emmy and Finn.

This one I like to call - "well, I didn't want to work today anyway."


Friday, November 13, 2009

Book Review: How to Buy a Love of Reading by Tanya Egan Gibson

Carly has "never met a book she liked" so her well-to-do parents decide to hire an author to write a novel just for her - one she'll have to love. Hilarity ensues.

This is an ambitious, smart novel which I highly enjoyed. Not only does it have a very original structure - sections are divided by literary device - but it also presents main characters that are worth spending time with. I loved the relationship between Carly and her crush/best friend - golden boy alcoholic and avid reader Hunter. But the relationships between supporting characters, such as Carly's author, Bree, and her college chum and literary idol Justin (who happens to live in Carly's community) are just as compelling.

This is one of those that you could definitely read a second time and pick up on a lot that you might have missed the first time around. I thought some of the novels within the novel sounded brilliant and I wouldn't mind reading them too!

One of my favorite quotes:

"Not until she'd met Hunter had she even given any thought to what kind of person she wanted to be. Before Hunter it had never even occurred to her that you could choose." (p 199)

HOW TO BUY A LOVE OF READING is available in hardcover now. Find out more about it at the author's website.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Library Thing Tuesday (79) + Picture of Emmy

I'm in Kenya right now, so most likely no LT Tuesday today for me. But you still get Emmy and Finn (aren't I generous?).

Our printer broke recently, but at least it is still good for something:

Friday, November 6, 2009

Author Interview and Giveaway: Lauren Bjorkman discusses My Invented Life

Today I have a very fun interview with Lauren Bjorkman,
the debut author of MY INVENTED LIFE which I reviewed recently. Don't miss the last question - it had both Daniel and me ROTFL.

If a drama teacher were to pick another play to put on that showcased sisters Roz and Eva’s talent in equal measure, what do you think she’d pick?
WICKED. Roz would do anything to play Elphaba, the girl who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West. And Eva would enjoy playing Glinda.

Who are those cute fun girls on the cover?
I think of them as the sisters in my story. A few people have told me they thought the cover was racy, so I'm guessing they think the girls are lesbians. One guy asked me if the girls on the cover would be at my launch party! That made me laugh.

In other interviews you’ve mentioned that Eyeliner Andie is your favorite character in My Invented Life and that you’d like to write a novel with her as a main character. Pitch me an Eyeliner Andie dystopian novel.
Cautions and warnings:

Before I start, let it be known that I suck at pitches. More than suck. My nine year-old son can pitch better than me, and I’m not talking about baseball. Also, as someone who wrote a so-called gaytopian novel, dystopian might be a bit outside of my range.

Okay, you’ve been warned.

Eyeliner Andie’s parents die in mall shooting, so she’s sent away to live with her grandparents in Laramie Wyoming. Andie goes androgynous and tries to put on a production of the Laramie Project, a play about a true life event where two homophobic teens tied a gay college student to a fence, beat him, and left him to die. Unbeknownst to Andie, the son of one of the original perpetrators goes to her school.

(Told you so.)

Hmmm...well that might be more in the thriller category, but we'll take it! So, you’re very well travelled, so well that you’ve even been to my dream destination of Bhutan. Can you tell us a travel anecdote from your trip and try not to make me too envious?
So cool that you want to go to Bhutan. Some people think it’s a new scent for men by Christian Dior instead of a small Himalayan kingdom.

When we arrived in the capital of Bhutan, we tried to hitch hike to the village where our friends worked. After sitting by the side of the road for an hour, we discovered there were no private cars in Bhutan. So we rented one. It turned out that it was cheaper to rent a car with a driver than without one. That’s how we met the charismatic Karma Dorje, twenty-four, fluent in eight languages, charming, an excellent guide, and gifted alcoholic. Every night he insisted that we go to a bar together and drink heinous home-brewed alcoholic beverages in unnatural colors. We were his “table friends,” he said. And every night I went to bed with a hideous headache.

Oh, and there was the time when we were at someone’s house that Karma knew, and I had to drink fermented yak butter tea with a dead fly floating on top to be polite.

Still jealous? You should be. I loved every minute of my trip there minus the fly incident and the headaches.

Your cats invite my cats to dinner. What do they serve?
Zorro and Rabbit would usually prepare wounded mole as an appetizer, followed by un-stuffed wild bird in feather sauce for the main course. But after I showed them a picture of Emmy, they changed the menu to meet her obviously refined sensibilities—salmon sashimi with a sesame wasabi glaze, followed by warm goat’s milk sweetened with attar of roses.

LOL! You have Emmy totally pegged :) Thanks Lauren!

Find out more about Lauren and MY INVENTED LIFE at her website.

Lauren is also offering one lucky reader a signed copy of MY INVENTED LIFE. To enter, just leave a comment about the interview or tell me what your cats would serve my cats for dinner (if you have cats). As always, 1 extra entry will be given for posting the link to the contest on your blog (sidebar is fine) or social media site. Just leave your link in an extra comment for it to count.

This contest is open INTERNATIONALLY and will run until November 27th at 11:59 PM CST.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Book Club Report: Author Chat with Kathleen Kent

On Tuesday, my book club had the privilege of chatting with Author Kathleen Kent about her debut novel THE HERETIC’S DAUGHTER. Thanks to Val at Hachette Books for setting it up!

Being that Kathleen is in Texas and my book club is in Germany, we did the chat over speakerphone. Kathleen is an extremely engaging and enthusiastic speaker and she told us some interesting stories. Here are a few of the highlights:

- Kathleen grew up knowing that Martha Carrier (the “heretic” of the book’s title) was her grandmother to the 9th generation and heard stories all her life about the Carrier family and the Salem witch trials.

- Salem in the late 1600s was a village in crisis. Contrary to the pious, Victorian image we have of it, Salem was actually more Elizabethan in character and a “hotbed of misdeeds”.

- Those tried as witches were often “ferocious women” who fell outside the margins of what a woman “should be”, such as the insane, midwives who had lost too many children, and outspoken, strong-willed women like Martha.

- Town folk claimed that the Carriers must be witches because their cow gave golden milk. But if you feed a cow pumpkin, like the Carriers did, it will produce a sweeter milk that is golden in color. Try it out for yourself!

- The “red book” that Martha buried for her daughter Sarah in the novel is a literary device. Kathleen got the idea from a court transcript of Sarah’s trial in which Sarah claimed she became a witch because “My mother put my hands on the red book.” The red book is a symbol of the family’s history and its content will finally be revealed in Fall 2010 when the prequel is released.

- The prequel concerns the life of Martha’s husband Thomas Carrier before he came to America. He is rumored to have been one of the executioners of King Charles I of England, and according to Benjamin Franklin’s paper “Poor Richard” of 1735, he was 7 ft tall and lived to the ripe old age of 109.

If your book club might be interested in a chat with Kathleen, you can send your request to

Find out more about THE HERETICS DAUGHTER at Kathleen’s website.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Where my last 20 reviewed books came from (3)

Yep - that time again (and now especially relevant considering the recent FTC guidelines). Another 20 books have been reviewed, and this is where I got them:

No Time For Goodbye by Linwood Barclay - bought at a discount at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2008
Sometimes We're Always Real Same Same by Mattox Roesch - provided by the publisher after I accepted publicist query
Lips Touch by Laini Taylor - I actually have two copies of this (both signed!). The ARC I got at BEA 2009 and the hardcover I got at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2009.
Amberville by Tim Davys - provided by the publisher after I accepted publicist query
My Invented Life by Lauren Bjorkman - provided by the publisher after I accepted author query
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger - bought
Half Minute Horrors by various - bought
Andromeda Klein by Frank Portman - provided by publisher per my request
Secret Son by Laila Lalami - provided by publisher per my request
The Everafter by Amy Huntley - provided by publisher per my request
The Waking: Dreams of the Dead by Thomas Randall - provided by publisher for book tour
Liar by Justine Larbalestier - picked up at BEA 2009 (signed!)
The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson - provided by publisher per my request
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury - bought
Crashed by Robin Wasserman - provided by publisher per my request
Skinned by Robin Wasserman - picked up at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2008
Swimming by Nicola Keegan - requested as part of the Amazon Vine program
Labor Day by Joyce Maynard - requested as part of the Amazon Vine program
Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver -provided by publisher per my request
Fire by Kristin Cashore - provided by publisher for book tour

4 bought books for this time period, but none borrowed. Still heavy on the review copies, but that's not surprising as I try to read my serious backlog of requested and accepted books.

Where are most of your books coming from these days? Any changes to your procurement habits as of late?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Library Thing Tuesday (78) + Picture of Emmy

Today's question from Wendi concerns the LibraryThing Buzz page: Were you aware that Library Thing had a Buzz page? Were you surprised by anything you saw or read on the Buzz page?

Nope! Yet another thing about LibraryThing I wasn't aware of. There are so many fun features to play around with over there, that I have to limit my exposure or be so sucked in that I never do anything else. I skimmed through and saw a few names I recognized, but I didn't read it all. Perhaps I should plot a way to be included as well... Composing a laudatory tweet might be the fastest way to LT Buzz glory....


The cold front arrived later this year, but it seems to have settled in for good now. And that means it's heater time for the kittehs:

Monday, November 2, 2009

Book Review: No Time For Goodbye by Linwood Barclay

14 year old Cynthia wakes up one morning to find her family has vanished. No one ever finds a single clue to explain what happened to them. Did they leave? Were they murdered? 25 years later, Cynthia is married and has her own child, and the past is about to catch up with her…

Sometimes you just need to read a fast-paced, throwaway thriller, and this one fit the bill. Sure the plot is cheesy, convoluted and improbable, but it’s also edge-of-your-seat fun. I even had a little tear-up at the end. Call me a satisfied reader.

NO TIME FOR GOODBYE is out in paperback now.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Book Blogger Holiday Swap

Calling all book bloggers - come join the secret santa fun! Sign up is at the official book blogger holiday swap website and is open until November 12th.

Thanks to Daniel for designing the button!