Don't be put off by the dull opening to this book. Fletcher is just giving us a taste of a culture surprisingly alien to our own, and at the same time is setting the scene for his Kerouac-ian trip across the States in a battered old Dodge Colt. Even if you don't yearn to do it yourself, it's a journey that stimulates. The fact that the subject matter is far from original is eclipsed before you've clocked up more than 100 miles.
Fletcher makes a point of avoiding all the major cities and national parks, preferring to visit places far off the beaten track, with names like Temperanceville, Disputanta and Angola; where the people he encounters include death-row inmates, polygamists, white supremacists, diamond prospectors, prostitutes and rednecks (remember the film Deliverance?)
Almost Heaven does confirm some of our prejudices about the excesses of American culture. Take the Salisbury Baptist Temples drive-in nativity for example. "The stage is a long, low hill. The audience sit in their cars and listen by tuning the radio to 97.5 FM" ... and show their appreciation by honking their horns. And then there are the schools in West Virginia which close at the start of every hunting season so everyone can go out and shoot a deer. But despite these alarming examples, the country remains a strangely appealing place, whose society is far more complex than many are keen to credit.
Having formerly been The Times's US Editor, Fletcher is not only capable of excellent penmanship, but is also able to view the country and its people as both outsider and insider, and does so without being judgmental. I found his warm and subtly humourous style very appealing, and I highly recommend this book.
Hidden Kerala: The Travel Guide (MHi Publications, pounds 9.95) by Phil Frampton.
Phil Frampton's book on the south Indian state of Kerala, contains all the usual guide book detail such as when to go and what to see, along with health and history, fact boxes, maps etc, which seem to have some solid research behind them.
The blurb on the cover claims the book will offer an insight into places "off the tourist track" (how original), though I couldn't find anywhere really appealing not already mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide book (by far the most popular with visitors to the region).
A more comprehensive contents page, less flowery language, a recommended reading list and better photographs (they look like they were taken in 1970) would also enhance the book's appeal.
The Essential Asian Bar Guide (Pacific Rim Publications pounds 12) by David Kelly and Mike Rutland
I am dubious that this guide will ever get beyond the shelves of Kowloon book stores but if the idea of a giant east Asian pub crawl does appeal to you then track it down. Compiled by a couple of Hong Kong-based accountants (whom one imagines to be extremely frustrated in their jobs) it gives the run-down on getting plastered in cities from Shanghai to Manila.