Book Review – A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler

While I tend toward fiction in my book choices, I can’t resist an interesting biography. Some time ago, I picked up A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler by Jason Roberts.

‘Hmmm,’ you think. ‘Why have I never heard of this person who is supposed to be History’s Greatest Traveler?’

What I discovered in the biography by Roberts is that James Holman is one of those seemingly rare, yet interesting, people who became famous in their own time, then die and disappear into obscurity. Holman lived from 1786-1857 – a time when his blindness and near-crippling arthritis should have kept him confined. He rebelled against this, and set out multiple times to travel the world, covering a quarter million miles as he traveled the world. And not only did he travel all over the world, he mostly did it alone. He crossed Siberia, hunted elephants, and helped chart the Australian Outback. The Holman River in Africa is named in his honor. Charles Darwin cited him as an authority on the fauna of the Indian Ocean. Yet I’d never heard of him until this biography.

Roberts does a good job of allowing Holman’s person and adventures to tell the story, which doesn’t disappoint. Robert Madden, a physician who happened to travel with Holman at one point, had this to say about Holman’s visit to an active volcano.

“The great eruption of June, 1821 was witnessed by me. I accompanied to the mount the celebrated blind traveler, Lieutenant Holman, the evening of which the violence was at its greatest height… He insisted on walking over places where we could hear the crackling effects of the fire on the lava beneath our feet, and on a level with the brim of the new crater, which was then pouring forth showers of fire and smoke, and lava, and occasionally masses of rock of amazing dimensions, to an enormous height in the air…”

And this is only one of Holman’s many adventures circumnavigating the globe. For anyone who loves interesting biographies and fascinating people, I highly recommend this book.


Recommended Author: Ekaterina Sedia

“He was still wide awake when the morning came – the light changed imperceptibly underground, with the glowtrees flaring up brightly, and the shimmer of golden dust that remained suspended in the misty air, as if millions of butterflies had shed the skins of their wings in midair.”

~ from The Secret History of Moscow

Every once in a while I’ll run across an author who puts language together in amazing ways. Ekaterina Sedia is one of them. I can’t remember how I originally heard about The Secret History of Moscow, but once I owned it (a gift from a friend), I couldn’t put it down.

The story is set both in Moscow in the 1990s and in this underground world beneath Moscow, which holds strange and remarkable figures from Russian folklore. When Galina’s sister turns into a jackdaw and flies away, Galina follows her… all the way to this strange underground place. As she proceeds on her journey, the reader learns, not just about her, but about the stories of some of the characters she meets along the way. What drew me in was not just the story itself, but the way it is told. Sedia has an incredible way of creating images with her words, as the quote above shows. I also loved that ending of the story was unexpected, yet completely fitting for the protagonist and the plot.

Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone is in what might be called the “steampunk” genre – Victorian setting with a highly mechanized culture. Mattie is a clockwork automaton created by Loharri, a Mechanist. Throughout the book, Mattie wants to become an Alchemist, who are at odds with the Mechanists. Loharri is unwilling to allow her this freedom, and holds her captive with the key that winds her heart and keeps her functioning. Wrapped up in the story is the revolution of the under-classes, called the Spiders, and the gargoyles who ask for Mattie’s help to keep from turning to stone. Mattie struggles both for freedom and to understand who she can trust.

“We suddenly feel fearful and apprehensive, naked in our perishable flesh, and for just a moment we wish we could go back to being stone—crumbling in death rather than rotting, trapped inside an immobile prison of stone rather than reduced to immaterial souls like those that now rattled within our skulls. The moment passes. There is no point in regretting irreversible decisions—one has to live with them, and we try.”

~ from The Alchemy of Stone

Three Young Adult books that don’t feel like Young Adult books…

There’s a lot of fantastic YA books out there – The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, the Pellinor series by Allison Croggon, anything by Rick Riordan, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling… these books and others are pretty well-known, and have even been turned into movies. But I’d like to highlight 3 books I’ve read in the last couple years, which maybe didn’t get the press that some others did. These are books that not only reached beyond the stereotypical themes of YA literature like the authors listed above, but also tackled some very serious issues along the way, such as World War II, death and bio-medical ethics.

So without further ado… here’s my top 3 “don’t miss these” YA books.

1. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

Death is the narrator of the story, which gives the book a twisted and fascinating feel. The protagonist is 9-year-old Liesel, who is in a foster home outside Munich during World War II. As she tries to deal with this, she begins to steal books, learning to read from her foster-father and sharing the stories with her neighbors hiding in the bomb shelter with her…as well as with the Jewish man hiding in her basement. It is the story of finding something beautiful in the midst of horror.

2. Going Bovine by Libba Bray

16-year-old Cameron’s parents think his erratic behavior and strange hallucinations are caused by drug use… until he’s diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s (also called “mad cow” disease), which is terminal. Guided by a punk-rock angel, he sets off on one last journey with a talking yard gnome. What is reality and what is hallucination? It all twists together into a humorous and philosophical story of a young man dying before he really got a chance to live.

3. The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

A teenage girl wakes up from a coma and can’t remember anything – her name, her family, or her home. The year before, she had been in a terrible accident, and is only now waking up. As she tries to discover who she is and what the truth is of her survival, she gradually stumbles on a horrifying secret. The author does a fantastic job of tackling bio-medical ethics and what makes us human.

Alas, Babylon

The year 1959 was 13 years into the Cold War, which would last until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It was the year that Pat Frank (pen name for Harry Hart Frank) wrote the apocalyptic novel Alas, Babylon.The fear of nuclear holocaust permeated the world. Hiroshima and Nagasaki had already been targets in World War II. What would happen if the two superpowers – the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. – threw all of their nuclear firepower at each other and each other’s allies? Frank explores this option in depth, focusing on a small town in Florida called Fort Repose, which just happened to be far enough from the main targets in Florida to escape the nuclear blasts.Frank starts slow, introducing his characters before the immediate threat is known, then ramps up the tension as Randolph Bragg receives a message from his brother warning him that nuclear attack was imminent with the code words “Alas, Babylon.”How the town deals with the results is the main focus of the novel, which centers around Bragg and his gradual assumption of leadership in the community. Frank makes no bones about the fact that life after an all-out nuclear attack would change drastically, but he also shows that people’s determination and resourcefulness within the community means that people not only survive, but live.These days, the idea of nuclear annihilation seems remote. Most countries have deactivated their nuclear armament, and the U.S.S.R. doesn’t exist anymore as it was. Alas, Babylon is a compelling story, nonetheless. Stories of struggle, reinvention and triumph are classic when told well, and Frank does tell it well. He also shows what U.S. culture and society was like in the late 50s – the ideas, idealism, politics, and thought process in a small town. It’s easy to immerse yourself in the story, and wonder what you would have done in this situation. Would you have taken up leadership? Become a highwayman? Killed yourself?

I finished reading this book a couple months ago, and it’s still in my head. I’m still thinking about the story, the characters, the ending… that to me is the sign of a classic and enduring novel. The threat may no longer be relevant to our society and culture, but the message and the questions of the novel always will be.


The thing about reading is that it is entirely subjective. Some people like certain books, some people like others. Sometimes a bunch of people like the same books, and sometimes only a few like them.

I guess my point is that we all have different tastes. If you’re lucky, you find friends who like the same books you like and can make recommendations about new ones. Or you just poke around Goodreads or Amazon (or your local library) and see what you can find.

I’ve taken to writing reviews of the books I read, posting them on Goodreads and on At Amazon, I sometimes get responses from people – readers of my reviews can click a button saying whether my review was helpful or not, and can also comment on my review.

So I left a fairly negative review of one book (Three Cups of Tea), and got an interesting comment in return saying, “What were you reading??? You missed the whole point of this book.”

Did I? Did I really?

I suppose my point is that books rarely (if ever) appeal to every single person that reads them. Books can be worldwide bestsellers, and people still pick them up and go, “eh” or “ugh”. What some people don’t realize is that these are valid responses to books. There’s a reason why there’s a wide variety of books out in the world… it’s because there’s a wide variety of people.

I was more amused than offended at the shock and horror of the person who commented on my review. They are certainly entitled to their opinion regarding the book… but I’m also entitled to mine. While I posted a pretty calm response, my general attitude was: hey, calm down… it’s not a competition, and I’m not denigrating your choice of books just because I didn’t like it.

To revise a famous quote: Read and let read.