Category Archives: BOOK REVIEWS

‘STEVE’S ADVENTURE WITH THE PEACE CORPS: STORIES FROM THE KINGDOM OF TONGA AND THE UNITED STATES PEACE CORPS’ BY STEVE HUNSICKER

‘Steve’s Adventure with the Peace Corps: Stories from the Kingdom of Tonga and the United States Peace Corps’ is a memoir written by Steve Hunsicker, a former Executive News Director who decided to give up his successful career in order to become a Peace Corps volunteer.

steves-adventure-with-the-peace-corps

Summary

For some people even the most interesting job may not be enough to feel content and fulfilled in life. Steve has always dreamed of helping others and now, after spending 23 years in TV industry, he comes to the conclusion that it’s high time he finally realized his ambition. So he applies to the Peace Corps and soon after that is sent to the Kingdom of Tonga.

Responsible for business development, Steve helps the local communities exploit their economic potential. He is a tutor and a mentor, always ready to offer advice, give words of encouragement, and share his professional knowledge. As a reward he gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience Tonga as very few visitors ever do.

Review

I-was-a-volunteer-in-an-underdeveloped-country is such a common and popular theme in non-fiction literature that it should constitute a separate genre. All these personal accounts basically tell you the same story, so there will never be any surprises here. But the author’s writing style is a whole different thing. It can be excellent, mediocre, or plain bad, and it usually determines if the book is considered any good.

Steve Hunsicker’s memoir is what I like to call a ‘simple piece of literature’. It certainly isn’t a masterpiece, but it charms you right from the very first page. You instantly get drawn into Steve’s world and quickly realize that one chapter compels you to read another.

Written in a journal-like manner, the memoir starts in the US when the author finds out about his Peace Corps nomination. From that moment we accompany him as he prepares to fly out of the country, then arrives in Tonga, and finally carries out his volunteering duties. In describing his experiences he is honest, meticulous, and awesomely funny. He is like a buddy of yours, with whom you’re having a friendly chat over a cup of coffee. Or a glass of beer. Or – even better – a bowl of kava. You choose. And you genuinely want to pay careful attention to what he is saying, because his stories are truly fascinating.

Especially worthy of note are Steve’s comments on Tonga. As an astute observer who was willing to familiarize himself with a foreign culture, he gives readers colourful details of life in the Polynesian country. You really get to know the local customs, traditions, and practices – not the ancient ones, but those observed on a daily basis. The little snippets he shares are not only very informative but most of all fun to read. If you have never been to Tonga, it’s a great way to start your journey. See the islands, meet the people, and soak up the friendly atmosphere of the South Pacific.

The author writes about the Kingdom and his Peace Corps service with a fierce passion you simply cannot fail to notice. It is obvious that volunteering in this particular place affected not only his life but also him as a person. The initial culture shock gradually gave way to understanding, acceptance, and even appreciation of the culture so different from his own.

‘Steve’s Adventure with the Peace Corps’ is a terrific book. I’ll venture to say it is more revealing than most guidebooks ever written on Tonga. If you decide to read it, it will not be wasted time.

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‘MOLIOLEAVA’ BY LYNN PULOU-ALAIMALO

‘Molioleava’ is the story of Lauli’i, a village in American Samoa, as told by the author, Lynn Pulou-Alaimalo.

MOLIOLEAVA

Summary

To most unitiated people the hill that stands guard over the inner wharf of American Samoa may just be a source of light that guides ships safely to the harbour. But to Lynn Pulou-Alaimalo, Molioleava is the life and heart of the country.

This beautiful part of the village of Lauli’i is the abode of her ancestors – their burial grounds. It’s a place where the present interlaces with the past; a place that requires remembrance and respect.

Review

Hardly ever do we think about that, but every book – whether it’s fiction or non-fiction – must possess certain elements. It needs, for example, a main character – an individual around whom a story revolves. It also requires a setting, that is a location where the aforementioned character experiences his or her adventures. But what if the main character and the setting are one and the same thing?

It happens; sometimes a place indeed is the protagonist and the absolute focal point of the book. But in ‘Molioleava’, the described location is even more than that. This is the reason why this short publication is quite an oddity; a rare bird that appears in the sky to amaze people. It may be just a few pages long, but it is a substantial volume that provides readers with a great deal of information regarding one of the most important and – as it turns out – fascinating sites in American Samoa.

Lynn Pulou-Alaimalo relates the story in a somewhat journalistic manner. Very quickly you get an impression of reading a newspaper article, in which the author reports bare facts, adorning them occasionally with a little more personal tales. The text skips nimbly from one subject to another, painting a very thorough picture in your head. Everything, from the geography of the place to its history and mythology to the significance for the island’s infrastructure, is comprehensively covered. You feel well versed when you finish the last sentence. And you certainly feel intrigued to get to know Molioleava even better, for this work really sparks interest. As befits a fine writer, Ms. Alaimalo pulls readers into a unique world and then leaves them wanting more.

Now, despite the abundance of information, the book is one of those that you may think end before they really start. It is a very slim volume, a ‘quick read’ in the purest form. It seems that Lynn Pulou-Alaimalo is a lady of few words, because the brevity of her story is quite surprising, especially when juxtaposed with the amount of knowledge it presents. Well, don’t let the length fool you – it may be a slim volume, but it is extremely pithy. The author hit the right note – the book is complete without being mundane. And boredom, let’s be honest here, would not be so difficult to achieve taking into account the very specific subject matter.

The substance definitely satisfies, but the style is equally good. Unnecessary descriptions have been left out, and yet the place is depicted so vividly you have no troubles conjuring it up in your imagination. The harbour light and the crown of antennas appear right before your eyes, and you can sense a subtle aura of mystery. Skillfully written in clear and concise language, this story is a real pleasure to read.

Books like this are not being published every day, which is reason enough to reach for this title. It’s arresting and enlightening. It’s simply unique.

‘THE HAPPY ISLES OF OCEANIA: PADDLING THE PACIFIC’ BY PAUL THEROUX

‘The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific’ is Paul Theroux’s memoir-cum-travelogue that documents his journey across the Blue Continent.

THE HAPPY ISLES OF OCEANIA

Summary

What does a man do when faced with a failing marriage and the possibility of having skin cancer? He starts his fight. He’s determined to win the battles. Or he gives up and does nothing. Or – just like Paul – he runs away; as far from his home as he can. Is there a better destination that the alluring islands of the Pacific? Absolutely not.

Beginning in Australia and New Zealand, he gets his first taste of Oceania. The mysterious Blue Continent and an overwhelming need to be alone in the wilderness makes him grab his collapsible kayak and venture into the great unknown. Trying to immerse himself in the indigenous cultures of the region, he travels from Papua New Guinea to the Solomon Archipelago, from Vanuatu to Fiji, from the islands of south Polynesia to heavenly Hawaii. Each of these places lets him escape his bitter reality, until – finally – he rediscovers the flavor of life anew.

Review

Have you ever had a love/hate relationship with a book? I have. And this is THE book.

Yes, I absolutely love it. This is one of the best titles in the travel genre, hands down. It’s funny, engaging, and it shows rather than tells. But it also annoys me beyond words. Literally, it makes me utterly mad. As it is quite rude to commence with the downsides, let’s start with the positives, shall we?

It cannot be denied that Paul Theroux possesses the literary genius. His prodigious talent with words captivates readers, compelling them to devour page after page until they swiftly reach the end of his more or less irritating yet extremely intriguing story. And even though he states at the end of the last chapter that he is not a travel writer, this personal account proves otherwise – it is the very epitome of the ‘been there, wrote the book’ genre; and a terrific one at that!

It is impossible to miss his flowing prose that is thoroughly appealing, impeccable language, or the authentically funny (at least more often than not) sense of humour. The author doesn’t bother readers with detailed and vivid descriptions of the places he travels to. Instead, he devotes his attention to people – mainly native inhabitants – and their ways of being. He absorbs everything that surrounds him – from the atmosphere of the so-called paradise to the idiosyncrasies of the cultures he encounters. He explores, he observes, he draws his own conclusions. He is not afraid to ask even the most personal questions, and the more honest the answer the more happy he seems to be. Because the islands clearly cheer him up. What started as a great escape, turned out to be a great and often amusing adventure. Which, by the way, should surprise absolutely no one – when in paradise, you can’t help but beam with sheer happiness. Even if that paradise sometimes uncovers its darker side.

Yes, let’s be frank here, no corner of this globe can be given the label of ‘a wonderland’. But if there is one place on our planet Earth that can be regarded as the slice of heaven, this is Oceania. With its kind, smiling, welcoming people it is the closest thing to paradise you’ll be able to find. And yet Paul Theroux failed to notice that. Throughout the book he proudly displays his sardonic attitude, throwing around disgustingly subjective comments about the locals that are genuinely hard to read at times. He writes, for example, that the prettiest women he saw in the Pacific were in Tonga; only to add in the very same sentence that they were also ‘the ugliest, hairy things with bad skin’. Additionally, you may learn that the people of Tanna were (I consciously retain the past form; after all, we don’t know if this viewpoint still holds true for Mr Theroux today) ‘small, scowling knob-headed blacks with short legs and big dusty feet’. Samoans – on the other hand – are lovingly described as ‘rather gloatingly rude’. It seems that only the inhabitants of the Cooks deserved some compliments. In Theroux’s eyes they weren’t ‘greedy or lazy’; actually, they were ‘hospitable, generous, and friendly’. I can understand having your own opinions. But I can’t understand being a xenophobe.

Is this book worthy of your time and attention? Absolutely. It is an outstanding piece of travel literature. It is entertaining and…well…very informative. It lets you discover that one may be a terrific writer, but a not so terrific person.

‘BLUE LATITUDES: BOLDLY GOING WHERE CAPTAIN COOK HAS GONE BEFORE’ BY TONY HORWITZ

‘Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before’ is Tony Horwitz’s travel memoir, which he penned inspired by his travels through the islands of the Pacific Ocean.

BLUE LATITUDES

Summary

Struck by the places Captain James Cook visited during his voyages and perfectly aware of the impact he had on the Blue Continent, Tony Horwitz gets an idea that it would be quite nice to follow in the great Englishman’s footsteps and see what has changed since the Age of Exploration.

Starting aboard a replica of Cook’s first ship, the Endeavour, he travels to the vast expanse of water dotted with tiny islands most people describe as ‘paradise’. He visits sensual French Polynesia, Tonga, savage Niue, and used-to-be-full-of-cannibals (at least that’s what people say) Hawaii. He flies to England, explores Australia, skips to New Zealand, and makes a trip to Alaska. In each of these places he learns what the natives think of the British captain, and how they perceive his accomplishments. With every island, beach, and lagoon Tony gets more and more interested not only in Cook’s travels but in the man himself.

Review

Isn’t it wonderful when you have a chance to grab a book that masterfully combines vastly different genres into a single, cohesive narrative? When you feel that one minute you’re reading a gripping travel piece and the next a fascinating biography of a man who changed the world a little bit? ‘Blue Latitudes’ is exactly this kind of book. Fusing elements of memoir, travelogue, biography, and history, Tony Horwitz invites readers on a delightful journey to even more delightful places anyone would like to see at least once in their life.

Yes, this title is first and foremost a well-presented coverage of the author’s voyages. As he relives Captain Cook’s expeditions, he visits the exotic Pacific islands, confronting the Englishman’s descriptions with present reality. He investigates how the Blue Continent has been transformed since Cook’s day. As he explores the effects of colonialism and globalization, he can’t help but notice the change in ancient customs and traditions, as well as a subtle yet visible shift toward certain Western values. Comparisons between 1700s Oceania and Oceania today are probably the most interesting to read. Tony Horwitz’s curiosity makes him delve into the nitty-gritty details. And that is truly fascinating. What’s Niue’s problem with red bananas? Is the island still inhabited by savages? Just how friendly are the Friendly Islanders? What really happened in Hawaii? He tries to rediscover the great Pacific anew. And you – as a reader – are more than welcomed to join him.

But of course this book is not only Mr Horwitz’s travel memoir; it’s also a gripping biography of one of the greatest explorers of all time. James Cook needs no introduction. Some people consider him a hero. For others he was just an invader; a villain of some sort. Whatever your opinion, one thing is indisputable: Captain Cook filled in many of the blank spots on the world map. He was a man of adventure; a bold navigator who didn’t know what the word ‘fear’ meant. The writer, whose fascination with Cook is obvious, paints a vivid portrait of the Yorkshireman’s life: from his early days in the Northern England to the epic voyages he undertook. I must say, it is unquestionably one of the most informative biographical accounts you’ll ever have a chance to read.

As you may (or may not, if you aren’t familiar with the author’s other works) expect from Tony Horwitz, the book is excellently written. It’s a delightful mix of Cook’s original journals and Mr Horwitz’s own observations. The past and the present are detailed in equal measure, so you are definitely not in danger of being stuck in the 18th or 21st century. Besides, it doesn’t really matter, because you will have fun. The author maintains an anecdotal manner, which makes the volume thoroughly entertaining. Although revealing and explanatory, it’s still just a light-hearted read.

All in all, ‘Blue Latitudes’ is a fabulous book, especially for those who’d like to learn more about the man that played a significant part in shaping the cultures of the Pacific. Grab it, and I assure you you will not be disappointed.

‘INSIDE THE CROCODILE: THE PAPUA NEW GUINEA JOURNALS’ BY TRISH NICHOLSON

‘Inside the Crocodile’ is an engaging travel memoir penned by Trish Nicholson. It recounts the five years she spent in Papua New Guinea working on a development project.

INSIDE THE CROCODILE

Summary

Willing to fulfil her lifelong dream, Trish decides to apply for an overseas job. When she is offered a post in faraway Papua New Guinea, she doesn’t think twice about going. Without hesitation, she leaves cold Scottish highlands and ventures into the great unknown.

The Land of the Unexpected welcomes her with unusual heat and humidity, few passable roads, a multitude of different cultures, and more than 800 indigenous languages. However, despite all the exacting obstacles, Trish gets straight down to work. Armed with an open mind and eagerness to immerse herself in the local lifestyles, she starts the process of ‘developing’ the Melanesian country.

Review

Sometimes a book fulfils all your expectations. Sometimes it even surpasses them. That’s when you know you’re dealing with a really good piece of literature. But once in a blue moon, after reaching the last sentence of the chosen title, you may be rendered completely speechless, because you’ve just been struck by the magnificence of the author’s craft. And you may be wondering, what delights more: style or substance? In the case of Trish Nicholson’s memoir, one is equally good as the other.

‘Inside the Crocodile’ is such an engaging book that it would be quite difficult not to marvel at its content. Being an anthropologist, Ms Nicholson demonstrates exceptional ability to appreciate different cultures. While describing her sojourn in Papua New Guinea, she brings gentle awareness and insatiable curiosity to everything she sees and experiences. And even though she does not approve of certain behaviours or practices, she is far from being judgemental towards the island’s inhabitants. Her attitude to presenting the story seems to say: ‘I describe, you draw your own conclusions’. Of course, this doesn’t mean readers can’t sense the author’s stance on particular subjects – they definitely can. However, it is all very subtle. Trish Nicholson deliberately remains neutral and doesn’t disclose her opinions or possible biases. Which is, by the way, a truly admirable approach more people should adopt, as cultural competence – part of which is being able to accept cultural differences – is an essential skill for living in increasingly diverse societies.

Now, the narrative of this memoir is not limited to cross-cultural musings only. As the author worked on a World Bank-funded development project, she had the chance to familiarize herself with the world of ‘foreign’ consultants, experts, advisers employed to share their knowledge with the local communities. The word ‘development’ – especially when used in relation to small Pacific Island states – may bring somewhat ambivalent feelings. Ms Nicholson’s first-hand account provides a better understanding of this sensitive topic, explaining the difficulties that come with being an ‘outsider’ trying to impact peaceful lives of indigenous people by changing, improving, modernizing (choose your preferred verb) their beloved land. Is this wrong? Is this good? The book doesn’t give an unequivocal answer, but rather a bunch of relevant information to help you form your very own opinion.

Substance is the point of every publication. But whether a title can be considered a really fine piece of literature depends largely on the style in which it is conveyed. Trish Nicholson is a poet. Her descriptive words let you wander with her through the forests, cross winding rivers, experience blistering heat, and hear the cheerfully singing birds. You rejoice at her successes, you suffer when she fights nasty bouts of malaria, you get sad when she finally has to say goodbye to her friends. Simply put, you are taken on a free journey to Papua New Guinea. Isn’t this a reason enough to approach…a crocodile?

Quite honestly, this title needs no recommendation. It’s a quintessential travel memoir; a promise of adventure, tears of laughter, and laughter through tears. Add on top of this thought-provoking, valuable insights into both local cultures and international development, and you have a winning piece. You will get hooked somewhere between the first twelve pages. And…you will love it! I can assure you of that.

‘BEER IN THE BILGES: SAILING ADVENTURES IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC’ BY ALAN BOREHAM, PETER JINKS, BOB ROSSITER

‘Beer in the Bilges: Sailing Adventures in the South Pacific’ is a memoir that chronicles Alan Boreham’s, Peter Jinks’s, and Bob Rossiter’s various voyages through the Blue Continent.

BEER IN THE BILGES

Summary

For three experienced sailors Andrew Clubb’s proposal is a no-brainer. After all, who wouldn’t want to sail an elegant yacht from the South Pacific to Hawaii? The men, having already travelled across the Blue Continent, are certain they can accomplish the task. However, it soon turns out that bringing Ron of Argyll to the Aloha state is no mean feat. No amount of preparation and knowledge can truly prepare a person for such adventure. Because the Pacific Ocean is an unpredictable beast. Unpredictable but always fascinating and bewitching. Especially if there’s some beer in the bilges.

Review

This is not a book about Pasifika. This is a book about sailing in Pasifika. High seas, gale-force winds, water gushing into the deck… This is the kind of content ‘The Professionals’ offer their readers. Have you been dreaming of cruising the South Pacific? If yes, you’ve just bought a ticket.

One of the most interesting features of this memoir is its unusual construction. The book is wisely split up into four major parts. The first three highlight the authors’ individual voyages: Bob’s journey from California to New Zealand, Peter’s Sydney-to-Suva yacht race as well as his little odyssey around the Polynesian islands, and Alan’s sailing trip on a Vancouver-Hawaii route. The last part concentrates on the famous Ron of Argyll delivery – a formidable undertaking the three seamen were eager to carry out.

Bringing together four separate stories was indeed a terrific idea, as it gives readers the feeling of being immersed in four separate books! Each tale is like a breath of fresh air – something new, exciting, unexpected, unpredictable. There’s literally no time to get bored. And although the leisurely pace in which the tales are written may indicate differently, plenty of thrills await you on every single page. This is a real adventure. Unless you are (mentally) prepared, don’t even bother getting on board – better just leave the book on the shelf.

Now, the memoir is penned by three gentlemen. Co-authoring usually means that one book is written in slightly (or sometimes very!) different styles and manners. Where there are multiple authors, there are multiple voices. And even the most subtle change of tone may easily spoil your reading enjoyment. But do not be afraid, because the stories in ‘Beer in the Bilges’ could not be told in a more consistent voice! A third-person narrative – almost never used in personal memoirs – allowed the authors to share their individual experiences without disturbing the flow and ‘rhythm’ of the chapters. They are singing…writing…in perfect unison! Add on top of this their great sense of humour, a bit of drama, and vivid descriptions that engage all of your senses and you have the best sea tale you can get!

In the ‘sea adventure’ category this book is definitely in the top 10. However, let’s don’t forget that the gentlemen sailed the South Pacific – one of the most intriguing corners of our globe consisting of beautiful islands, smiling people and their vibrant cultures. Unfortunately, you won’t read much about that. Pasifika is virtually non-existent in Boreham, Jinks, and Rossiter’s memoir. The authors are focused exclusively on the sailing part. This is highly regrettable as it’s always fascinating to be able to ‘see’ delightful places through somebody else’s eyes.

All in all, ‘Beer in the Bilges’ is a great read. Excellently written, absorbing, thoroughly entertaining. This is your ultimate sailing book. For people interested in cruising adventures, it will be just perfect!

‘HEADHUNTERS ON MY DOORSTEP: A TRUE TREASURE ISLAND GHOST STORY’ BY J. MAARTEN TROOST

‘Headhunters on My Doorstep: A True Treasure Island Ghost Story’ is a memoir penned by a well-known travel writer, J. Maarten Troost. It is his third book on the South Pacific.

HEADHUNTERS ON MY DOORSTEP

Summary

In order to recuperate from a fierce battle with alcoholism, Maarten decides to return to his beloved Oceania – a happy place where life is simpler and problems a little easier to solve. Fascinated by Robert Louis Stevenson’s descriptions of the South Seas, he chooses to retrace the famous Scot’s route through the magnificent islands.

On board the Aranui III cargo ship, he arrives at his first destination. The Marquesas archipelago – the land of cannibals and extreme beauty – leaves Maarten in so much awe that he ends up getting a traditional (and a bit crooked) tattoo from a local (and not yet experienced in inking) teenager. With the imperfect turtle on his arm, he is ready to continue his journey.

He heads further south to Fakarava and then to very French Tahiti, before finally reaching the shores of his adopted home – Kiribati. After discovering that some things have changed and others have not, he leaves the Micronesian country and travels to Tusitala’s land – Samoa.

Review

Another book, another story – the author’s third on the Pacific Islands. But is this Troost at his best? I am not quite sure.

Unlike the author’s previous titles – ‘The Sex Lives of Cannibals’ and ‘Getting Stoned with Savages’ – this one is not about the Blue Continent. Well, not exactly, anyway. This is a memoir of a recovering alcoholic who tries (thankfully) to beat his addiction. This is his tale of dealing with and finally embracing those inner demons that sometimes make a person’s life unbearable. But if you expect it to be yet another let-me-tell-you-what-I’ve-been-through kind of a narrative, you will probably be surprised. Or not. This is J. Maarten Troost, after all – sharp, wickedly wry sense of humour is his trademark. So yes, he writes about battling that bad habit of drinking too much wine (beer, rum, vodka perhaps?), but he does it in the most light-hearted way possible. Quite honestly, his thoughts and reflections might give you an (illusory and obviously wrong) idea that alcoholism is a disease only slightly worse than a common cold.

Regaining sobriety theme makes up a sizable portion of the storyline. But where are the headhunters? Where are the ghosts? Did Troost manage to find a place for his much-loved Pacific Islands in this very personal memoir? He did. The countries may not be the main focus of his attention, but they do appear in the book. Following in Robert Louis Stevenson’s footsteps, the author concentrates on giving readers insights into the fascinating cultures he had a chance to encounter during his journey. As a tourist-writer – because this time J. Maarten Troost was just a visitor hopping from the isles of French Polynesia to Kiribati and Samoa – he contrasts the lifestyles of Pacific peoples with his own way of being. And taking into account that most of the places on his route were quite new to him, it’s easy to imagine the in-depth analyses he performs. Honestly, it can’t be described, it must be read.

Praising Troost’s writing style is pointless, really. We all know it’s phenomenal. The man is a master of irony, wit, and self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek humour. A genuinely funny guy you want to ‘hang out’ with. Rarely is he serious, often very flippant. He comments freely on what he observes. And sometimes you get an impression that his mouth – or hand in this case – works faster than his mind. But you don’t care; because when you read Troost, you laugh. You just laugh.

Now, although the author’s style has remained much the same, you can’t help but notice that it’s been slowly evolving. At first glance, ‘Headhunters on My Doorstep’ is a whimsical read. But somewhere beneath the surface there is a meaningful message that resonates emotionally with an audience. Yes, Troost has visibly matured. If you liked the old lad, you may be slightly disappointed with this particular title.

I have to admit, I’m a big Troost fan. I adore everything and anything he creates. And when he writes about Oceania – I am simply in love. Do you yearn to escape to the tropics? If yes, this is your book. Just remember… It has an addition of mind-altering substances.

‘BROKENVILLE’ BY LEONARD FONG ROKA

‘Brokenville’ is Leonard Fong Roka’s account of the ten-year-long civil war that broke out on the island of Bougainville in 1988. The memoir won 2014 Crocodile Prize for Book of the Year.

BROKENVILLE

Summary

Leonard leads a happy and peaceful life on Bougainville until it is suddenly interrupted by the rumours of fighting in the nearby mountains. Although he doesn’t know whether the stories are actually true, strange behaviour among adults and the first trucks loaded with police personnel that appear on the streets prove that something is not right.

As time goes by, the growing violence leaves Leonard with no illusions. It is war. It is them against us. But who exactly is ‘them’, and who exactly is ‘us’? For a boy with a ‘redskin’ father and a Bougainvillean mother, this is not the easiest question to answer. Especially when he is forced to spend his days hiding or moving from one village to another in order to survive.

Review

This is such a good book! Raw, honest, authentic, a little edgy, wonderfully enlightening. Leonard Fong Roka offers an invaluable, unique insight into one of the most violent conflicts that took place in Oceania after World War II. For those who proudly call themselves Pacific Islanders, this is a must-read. For curious Pasifika aficionados… Well, let’s be honest here, this title should be compulsory reading for everyone.

And why exactly is this book so worthy of your attention? Because it’s a real gem; for several different reasons.

First and foremost, ‘Brokenville’ is the finest example of a personal narrative. Although penned by an adult, it brings a child’s eye view to the tragic events. Leonard Fong Roka was merely nine years old when the war erupted. His homeland – Bougainville Island – was the epicentre of bloodshed. Everything he saw and endured, every vivid recollection from that time is a testimony to the past. Testimony which not only chronicles the history but also – or should I say more importantly – the early life of an extraordinary man. Despite the author’s effort to avoid writing about himself, he is one of the actors. You feel for him when his father is killed by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, you admire his strength and determination, you respect him. Leonard Fong Roka relates his own experiences, but you can easily sense that he represents hundreds of thousands of people affected by the conflict. You cannot help but be deeply moved by his words. Even though he rarely displays any emotions.

This emotional moderation may be the result of the author’s strong focus on facts and historical accuracy. If you want to know more about the Bougainville Civil War, this memoir is a mine of information. Rich in meticulous detail, it documents every stage of the crisis, presenting the invaluable point of view of the person who witnessed the battle, survived, and lived to tell the story. I don’t think one can imagine what life in a war-ravaged country really looks like, but this volume might just give you a slight idea. With its comprehensive descriptions of brutality, terror, fear, it is a history lesson like no other.

The substance of the book definitely delights, but the author’s writing style – equally good – may be something you will be genuinely surprised by. Leonard Fong Roka creates with passion. His prose is almost completely bereft of emotions, and yet it evokes strong feelings. It’s quite journalistic, rather simple, and very candid. He seems to know exactly which word should be used when. Whether he does it unwittingly or with full awareness, I am not sure. One thing is certain – there’s obviously method in his madness.

‘Brokenville’ is without a doubt worthy of all its hype. It is a fantastic book that explains a great deal about the Bougainville Conflict. But most of all, it’s a touching memoir of a truly incredible, talented man – a fighter who dares to dream and reach for the stars.

‘MĀTINI: THE STORY OF CYCLONE MARTIN’ BY RACHEL REEVES

‘Mātini: The story of Cyclone Martin’ is a chronicle of the tragic events that took place in the Cook Islands in 1997. It was written by Rachel Reeves, a young journalist from California whose paternal heritage derives from the island of Atiu.

MATINI

Summary

For the inhabitants of two small villages of Manihiki Atoll, November 1st has begun just like any other Saturday. It is the end of pearl harvesting season, so the farmers are quite busy with their usual chores. The sea is high, but people aren’t overly concerned. It is, after all, the time of year when storms are the norm. And Cyclone Martin is said to be nowhere nearby.

But then something changes. Coconut trees start to fall down. Fish are found lying on the ground – in places, where they aren’t supposed to be. There’s rubbish everywhere. Within hours, Manihiki is hit by the series of waves. The Islanders know that Mātini has officially arrived.

Review

Rachel Reeves was commissioned to write this book by Cook Islands News and the Cyclone Martin Charitable Trust. She was given seven months. Only seven months to research and deliver a finished story. She managed to do just that. The result? A masterpiece, pure and simple.

‘Mātini’ is not a pleasant read – a chronicle of such tragic occurrences can never be considered enjoyable – and yet it’s impossible to put it down. Although written in a journalistic manner, there’s magic at work here. I must admit, in all honesty, that Rachel Reeves has a gorgeous way with words. Her cinematic approach makes every single scene unveil before your eyes. You don’t just imagine Manihiki during those dark days in November, you feel as if you were actually there. Everything is incredibly vivid, and you can’t help but be moved by this emotionally-charged narrative.

Especially that the story is told through the eyes of Cyclone Martin survivors. The author shares the accounts of people who experienced ‘waves tall as the coconut trees’; who experienced fear, helplessness, and unimaginable despair. The disaster changed the lives of all Manihikans. But for some of them, particularly those who lost their relatives, it was the most agonizing night ever. The Islanders’ exceptional courage, willingness to fight, refusal to give up must be admired. Not once do they express their resentment towards God or Mother Nature. Most of the atoll’s residents don’t blame the Cook Islands government either. They accept that natural calamities happen. They say it is the price of living in paradise. However, in the case of Cyclone Martin not everything can be explained so easily.

Apart from being a heart-rending record of one of the worst catastrophes in the Cook Islands’ history, the title is also an extremely valuable educational resource. It is a manual on what not to do that should probably be read by every aid agency worker and every government official that deals with disaster management. Although the author makes no accusations, she closely examines the performance of those responsible for dealing with emergencies. She documents mistakes that were made. And she raises questions: Could the cataclysm have been averted? What could have been done differently? Who should have been held accountable? What steps must be taken in order to prevent tragedies like this from happening in the future? The book doesn’t provide clear-cut answers, but it sparks ideas that will hopefully incite discussion.

‘Mātini’ can’t be praised enough. It is an exquisitely written, embellished with incredible photographs and beautiful illustrations piece of non-fiction literature. It gives hope. It enlightens. It makes you think. It reminds you to appreciate your blessings. It memorialises those who survived Cyclone Martin, and those who didn’t. It is a book of remembrance that should be treasured. Superb, absolutely superb!

Ms Reeves, chapeau bas!

‘DODGING MACHETES: HOW I SURVIVED FORBIDDEN LOVE, BAD BEHAVIOR, AND THE PEACE CORPS IN FIJI’ BY WILL LUTWICK

‘Dodging Machetes: How I Survived Forbidden Love, Bad Behavior, and the Peace Corps in Fiji’ is Will Lutwick’s memoir that recounts his life-changing adventure in Melanesia.

DODGING MACHETES

Summary

At the tender age of 22, Will decides to join the Peace Corps and soon after that is sent to the quintessential tropical paradise called Fiji.

Will’s volunteer life in bustling Suva is nothing but ordinary until he meets his beautiful co-worker, Rani. The Indian woman turns out to be quite a rebellious young lady who isn’t afraid to take risks. Mesmerized by her allure, Will finds himself incapable of leaving her alone. After a few ‘friend dates’, they both agree to take their relationship to the next level. The only problem is that dating is taboo in Fiji’s Hindu community, much less dating someone of a different race.

Review

It is absolutely impossible to read this book and not cry tears of laughter. Will Lutwick’s story – however cheesy it initially appears – is the most incredible, the most bizarre, and the most hilarious tale you’ll probably ever hold in your hands. And, just to assure you, it describes real people and events, not imaginary ones.

At first glance, the memoir seems to be your conventional romance set in the lush landscapes of the Fiji islands: a boy arrives in a foreign country, meets the girl of his dreams, they fall head over heels in love with each other and then – against all odds – live happily ever after till death do them part (or an alternative version: they decide they can’t be together because of the vast distance that separates their homelands). Well, that would be too simple. In Will Lutwick’s book, the story goes more like this: a boy arrives in a foreign country, is struck by the exotic beauty of his lovely colleague, gets warned not to even attempt to hit on her, ignores the warnings, begins a relationship with the aforementioned colleague, learns what ‘cultural differences’ really mean, tries not to get killed by the girl’s highly traditional Hindu family and the whole Indo-Fijian community, comes up with a clever plan to save their love (and lives, for that matter), proudly succeeds. Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? Although the author’s experiences are indeed very intriguing, it’s what he learnt from them that makes the book so amazingly engaging.

There aren’t many non-academic publications that cover multiculturalism in Fiji. This title is a rare breed. Will Lutwick had an unparalleled opportunity to get to know the folkways of both native Fijians and emigrant Indians, which he subtly contrasts with each other, pointing out the similarities and differences between the two cultures. Of course, his main focus leans heavily towards the Hindu community – their conservative mindsets and ways of being. With disarming honesty, he writes about his (forbidden) love affair with Rani and the serious consequences it brought. He sheds light on deep-seated taboos, the concept of arranged marriages, caste system, and women’s rights (or rather, the lack thereof). He outlines dos and don’ts; he explains the strict ‘rules of engagement’. And he does it in the most compelling way possible. As a reader, you are not bored even for a split second.

Yes, the book is a real page-turner, which is largely the result of the author’s pleasant writing style – clear, concise, very straightforward, surprisingly dialogue-centred. Despite being considered a travel memoir, the title is not filled with a plethora of vivid, picture-like descriptions. You may not be able to imagine every corner of the Fijian archipelago, but you will most certainly learn quite a bit about its inhabitants and their fascinating cultures.

I could not recommend ‘Dodging Machetes’ more. This masterful blend of real-life account and novel-like storytelling is light-hearted, amusing, and wonderfully unravelling. Travel literature… It just doesn’t get any better than this.