Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review | Italy Explained: Italian Trains by Jessica Spiegel

Italian Trains Jessica SpiegelIf you’re planning a trip to Italy and thinking of getting around by train, then I’ve got a book you’ll want to read. But first, I’m going to let you in on an embarrassing little travel secret.

The first time I took a train in Italy it was very nearly a disaster. Back in 2001, on my first trip to Italy, I wanted to take a day trip from Venice. I stumbled across a travel office and somehow purchased train tickets. The trip in the morning went well, but it was the return that was tricky.

It started with sudden hail storm that set an ominous tone and left me dashing through the train station and arriving at the Bologna station 1 minute before the last train to Venice departed. Run! I collapsed on the train and felt relieved until the ticket conductor came along and explained the wet ticket I was clutching in my hand was only a one way. I was never so relieved to get off a train in my life as I was late that night in Venice.

Let me tell you another secret. That’s not how train travel in Italy has to be. Keep in mind that I was 21, spoke no Italian and had never traveled abroad. But even if you’re an experienced traveler, navigating the train system in Italy can be tricky.

That’s where Jessica Spiegel’s new ebook Italy Explained: Italian Trains comes in so very handy. Think of it as your well traveled best friend telling you the ins and outs so you’re already a pro before you even set foot in a train station in Italy. With detailed information, useful images and an easy to read style, Italian Trains is an excellent resource for travelers new to taking the train in Italy who want vacation memories and stories to be about something other than train mishaps.

Even if you’re a newbie to train travel in general, you’ll feel confident taking the train in Italy after reading Jessica’s tips on everything from the difference between classes, how to tell when you need a reservation and ticket (they’re not the same!), different types of trains, reading the train schedule, booking tickets, how to choose a rail pass and what to do if a train strike happens while you’re in Italy. For those not sure on pronunciation or concerned about not knowing a binario from a biglietto, the last section of Italian Trains features a glossary of Italian train words. If you’re taking the train in Italy, download this book before you go!

For more Italy travel tips, visit Jessica’s website Italy Explained and get your copy of Italy Explained: Italian Trains here.

Tagged , , |

Book Review | The Italians by John Hooper

The Italians John Hooper

As the time period for my Italian citizenship application to be processed comes to an end, I’ve found myself drawn more often to thoughts about what it means to be Italian. As a foreigner, sometimes it just seems like a jumbled up pile of puzzle pieces – where you’re pretty sure at least a handful of pieces are missing before you even start putting it together. Naturally, I was interested to read The Italians by Rome-based journalist John Hooper, which was released earlier this year.

The Italians really delves into the nitty gritty of Italian history and life, from what happened to Italy’s feminist movement to the veline, the way Italians think of religion, do things and do it. (Ahem … we are talking about Italians here folks.) Because life is full of all these things. Yet, how do all these different things define a people? Hooper shines the spotlight on a series of different aspects of being Italy, whether it’s eating gnocchi in Rome on Thursdays or the importance placed upon una bella figura, and goes behind the to uncover what drives Italians to do what they do.

Throughout The Italians, Hooper presents an impressive number of statistics, surveys and reports to help tell his story. While tremendously researched, I was left wondering whether all the numbers really had helped me feel like I knew the Italians better. Yes and no. Yes, because it presented a surprising amount of information to process through and wonder about that I wouldn’t normally consider. No, because I think for me numbers don’t tell the whole story. It’s always more important to step outside of stereotypes, statistics and reports to remember that Italy is complex and the Italians tantalizing and persistently mysterious people.

There’s nothing that compares to traveling and meeting Italians, living with them, talking and laughing with them and sharing little moments of daily life. The you begin to grasp what it means to be Italian on a more personal, tangible level. After eight years in Italy, just when I think I’m starting to understand what it might mean to be Italian, something happens that turns everything upside down again. And for me that’s the beauty–and challenge–of learning to live in a new country.

Everyone tells their love story for Italy differently, and I felt that the book was true to the description as “an eye-opening, heartfelt true-love story.” This is Hooper’s way of sharing a deep love and fascination with Italy and its people. I enjoyed reading his story, especially picking up the little tidbits of cultural history along the way. I was even able to explain to my Italian husband why soccer coaches in Italy are addressed as “Mister,” which is something he didn’t know all the details about, and when I hear the Italian national anthem I wonder more about its meaning and history thanks to Hooper’s fascinating discussion.

If there’s one thing I know, however, it’s that in the end the Italians don’t fit in a book. The vibrancy, dichotomies, energy, charm and challenges that create a people become infinity diverse at a personal level. But that’s just my approach to understanding the world, which I feel leaves a lot more room for wonder, surprise and discovery. Yet, I learned a great deal reading The Italians by John Hooper, and I would recommend it to anyone interesting in delving a little deeper. It’s another piece of the puzzle that many expats in Italy spend a lifetime putting together.


The Italians
by John Hooper
336 pages
Viking (January 29, 2015)

Tagged , , |

Book Review | Dream of Venice

Dream of Venice

Very few readers of Ciao Amalfi will know that the first spot I visited in Italy was Venice. After dreaming of traveling to Italy for years, my first big trip to Europe and to Italy took me to Venice – and only Venice. With just a side visit to the Ferrari Museum in Maranello. (What did you expect … a day trip to Verona?) I’ve always been one to want to really focus on one place rather than hop, skip and jumping around. It was a marvelous week spent wandering, getting obliviously lost, discovering the quietest piazzas I’ve ever seen and experiencing the first taste of what I would come much later to know – Italy was deep within me.

Dream of Venice 4

Because of that first visit and all that it meant, I’ve always had a soft spot for Venice. So when I first saw the cover of Dream of Venice my heart gave a little flutter. A mini coffee table style book, Dream of Venice is a compilation of writings dedicated to Venice that have been compiled and edited by JoAnn Locktov and beautifully accompanied by photographs by Charles Christopher. Each writing selection is paired with a photograph of the city, and both words and imagery form a story that twists and weaves through the winding canals, nighttime mystery and enchantment that is Venice.

Dream of Venice 2

Dream of Venice opens with a foreword by Frances Mayes, which sets the scene. She writes, “Venice is a state of mind. That is, the scintillating, kaleidoscopic, shifting colors of that watery realm remain alive inside me long after I depart the actual city.” That took me right back to 2001 when I stood on the Ponte dell’Accademia clinging to the wooden railing taking everything in while not quite believing I was actually there. By the time I left it was alive inside me just as Mayes described, and reading the passages in Dream of Venice and getting lost in Charles Christopher’s photos was an immense delight. Anyone who has been to Venice will treasure this book and anyone dreaming of traveling there will adore it!

Dream of Venice 1

One of the parts I enjoyed the most about Dream of Venice was the blend of different voices and and writing styles united by a love of Venice. Rachel Dacus enchants with a poem entitled “Wearing Venice” and the mystery of Venice’s darker sides come alive in the writings of Julie Christie, Linus Roache and Marcella Hazan. The captivating descriptions of winter in Venice have made me want to return to experience that side of La Serenissima.

Dream of Venice 3

When you need a little jolt of Venice, this book is just right. The length of the entries paired with each photo is just right for picking up and enjoying a few with a cup of tea. Well, that’s my style, but there are also some good espresso or cappuccino sized entries, too. You’ll be dreaming of Venice in no time at all!


Find out more about Dream of Venice or buy Dream of Venice on Amazon.


(All Images by Charles Christopher and used courtesy Bella Figura Communications)

Tagged , , |

Book Review | Dreaming of Laughing Hawk by Linda Katmarian

While my reading time has been quite limited since the summer, I’ve had the pleasure of dipping into a wonderful story every moment I could with Linda Katmarian’s debut novel Dreaming of Laughing Hawk. With deep and fascinating characters and a storyline that drew me into the novel more and more with each page, this was a thoroughly enjoyable read.

On a cold spring day in 1964, with the hope of escaping home and studying art at university filling her heart and head, Elizabeth Leigh skips out of high school early. In a matter of moments everything in her unsettled life changes. Her mother’s packed suitcase, broken promises, more lies, dreams shattered – and no one to tell her why.

With nothing keeping her in the place that wasn’t really ever home, Elizabeth accepts a fortuitous invitation from her cousin to spend the summer in sunny California. Life couldn’t possibly be more different at her aunt Caroline’s house, where Lizzy, as her family insists on calling her, settles into a beautiful home and comfortable lifestyle where she meets new people, led along by her gorgeous and bubbly cousin Melina.

While Melina is more concerned about summer fun, Elizabeth works to save money for university. Through family connections she starts a job as secretary for Collin Greenslade, a handsome and ambitious young man eager to get out from the overbearing grasp of his father’s business. The most unlikely of matches, Elizabeth and Collin both have a hole deep inside–a need to be loved–that draws them together. Collin offers Elizabeth everything she could dream of, love, comfort, beautiful things, and she falls for what is too tempting to resist – security.

But, there’s just one problem. Mark Laughing Hawk. A Native American from South Dakota and studying medicine at UCLA, Hawk is the roommate of Melina’s boyfriend Jake. When Jake gets in trouble with his civil rights activism in Mississippi, he calls in the help of Hawk to come and rescue him and tow his ruined car back home. Never one to miss out on a little fun, Melina concocts a story that allows her and Elizabeth to go with Hawk to Mississippi. This is no average road trip. It’s an adventure that sets in motion unstoppable events in the life of Elizabeth and Hawk.

There are choices to be made by the characters in the story, and they are certainly ones that resonated with me. Do you risk everything to follow where your heart leads you or do you hold on with all your might to the one thing you always thought you wanted? There’s a point in the novel where Mark Laughing Hawk says, “Your destiny is determined by the choices you make and the angels–or demons–you invite to accompany you.” As Collin, Elizabeth and Hawk make their decisions–some followed by angels and others the darkest demons–the story unfolds into one of deep, beautiful and fierce love.


Find out more about Linda Katmarian and Dreaming of Laughing Hawk by clicking here.

Tagged |

Summer Reads for Amalfi Coast Lovers

Last Voyage of the Valentina by Santa Montefiore

The summer has arrived and with it comes some much needed beach time with a great book. I hope your summer brings you travels to a warm and sunny destination … perhaps even the Amalfi Coast! If you can’t make it to the Amalfi Coast this summer, I’ve put together a list of books set on or about the Amalfi Coast to inspire your summer travel dreams. These aren’t your guide books to tell you where to eat or park your sun umbrella. These are the books that make you dream of sailing off to explore the Amalfi Coast when you close your eyes. I’ve included some of my favorite novels, travel books and memoirs set here, along with some excellent works of non-fiction and some cookbooks if you’re feeling hungry for something Amalfi Coast inspired after all that reading!

Novels Set on the Amalfi Coast

My perfect beach read is a novel, one that captures the beauty of a place and weaves a story that you don’t want to leave behind when you finish. One of my favorite authors, Santa Montefiore, has set two of her books on a fictional town of Incantelleria – an enchanting place you won’t ever want to leave!

The House in Amalfi by Elizabeth Adler

Sailing to Capri by Elizabeth Adler

The Night Villa by Carol Goodman (Capri)

Stones of the Madonna by Jan Mazzoni (Positano)

Last Voyage of the Valentina by Santa Montefiore

The Italian Matchmaker by Santa Montefiore (sequel to Last Voyage of the Valentina)

The Deep Blue Sea for Beginners by Luanne Rice (Capri)

Brava, Valentine by Adriana Trigiani (Tuscany, New York City, Buenos Aires and the island Capri)

Travel Writing About the Amalfi Coast

If you’ve got the Amalfi Coast travel bug, you’ll enjoy following Chantal Kelly on her travels along the Amalfi Coast in Gelato Sisterhood on the Amalfi Shore. Here are a few other choices to enjoy, too!

Amalfi Blue: Lost & Found in the South of Italy by Lisa Fantino

Gelato Sisterhood on the Amalfi Shore by Chantal Kelly

Capri and No Longer Capri by Raffaele La Capria

My Amalfi Coast by Amanda Tabberer

Non-Fiction About the Amalfi Coast

Not a fiction fan or just curious to find out more about the history of the Amalfi Coast?

The Mystery of the Duchess of Malfi by Barbara Banks Amendola

Art and Patronage in the Medieval Mediterranean: Merchant Culture in the Region of Amalfi by Jill Caskey

Positano: La città verticale by Romolo Ercolino (I have the Italian, but it’s available in English as Positano: The Vertical City)

Amalfi Coast Cookbooks

How about a slice of Mamma Agata’s famous lemon cake while you’re reading? Here are some cookbooks that highlight the local cuisine in easy to follow recipes so you can enjoy the flavors of the Amalfi Coast at home.

The Lemon of the Amalfi Coast: Recipes History Art by Ezio Falcone and Maurizio Apicella

The Amalfi Coast: A Collection of Italian Recipes by Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi

Mamma Agata: Simple and Genuine by Chiara Lima

Amalfi Coast Recipes by Amanda Tabberer


You may have noticed that I’ve included books set on Capri in this list, but not Naples, Ischia and other spots in Campania. I wanted to keep this list focused just on the Amalfi Coast, but I love Capri so much that I had to squeeze it in. If you’re interested in more books set in this beautiful part of Italy, check out this fuller list of Books Set in Campania that I put together for My Bella Vita. My summer read just arrived in the mail, and I look forward to diving in. When I spotted That Summer in Ischia by Penny Feeny online, I knew it was a must read. I’ll be sure to report back with a review when I’ve finished. Enjoy your summer reading!

Tagged , , , , , |