Sideways, by Patrick O’Neil – Review and Giveaway!

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There are times when life’s serendipitous moments just take my breath away.

The night that chatting to a random friend of a friend at a dinner party in London many years ago kick-started my career in a way that I could scarcely believe, for instance, or the passing comment on a Tube ride that lead to me moving to Australia a couple of years later.  The time that taking a split-second decision to veer through the rice fields lead to finding a side of Vietnam that had previously eluded me, or how accidentally becoming separated from a girlfriend in Italy lead to seeing Venice in a totally unexpected way.  And then there’s the day a few weeks ago that started with going for a wander to check out a local market and finishes with me writing this review.

To backtrack a little, about a year ago I happened to pick up one of the titles on display in a city bookshop.  I’d never heard of it before, but the title intrigued me and the blurb on the back sealed the deal.

“Three times during his twenties Patrick O’Neil threw in a desk job, ended relationships and flung himself at the world. With the words of his literary heroes ringing in his ears, he set off determined to pursue adventure and a grander, more romantic vision of life.”

If that wasn’t enough to get someone like me interested in a book, then I don’t know what was.  I happily handed over the credit card and walked home, placing my new copy of Sideways – Travels With Kafka, Hunter S. and Kerouac on the bookshelf where it sat for a few weeks before I found the time to start it.

When I finally did open the front cover, I was immediately hooked.  The author has a similarly dry sense of humour and slightly warped view of life as me, and his observations on being a young, angst-ridden Arts student had me in stiches within seconds.  Once the narrative moved from the streets of Melbourne to the sands of the Sahara, the jungles of Brazil and the mountains of Bolivia, however, I knew that this wasn’t merely a good travel yarn.  It was an exceptional piece of work, tying in highly poignant thoughts on one man’s search for the meaning of life with tales of utter madness, copious drug taking, incredible adventures and exceptional people around the world.  Despite all of the difficulties that the road throws at him, however, one of the biggest challenges of all was returning home to so-called normality at the end of each adventure – something that resonated strongly with me given the way that my own life has gone over the years.

One of the many things that I loved about it was that in between the crazy stories of peyote-fuelled escapades in the Mexican desert or antagonising an obsessive-compulsive flatmate in the depths of a New York winter, the reader gets to experience the highs and lows, the dreams, desires and ultimately the lessons learned by the author on his travels through life and around the planet.  The book doesn’t try to sugar-coat the realities of spending months on the road or the difficulties of following an unconventional path, nor does it try to oversell the benefits.  It doesn’t need to.  When you throw yourself out into the world without a lifeline anything and everything is possible, and it is that boundless possibility that leaps out at you from every page.  Life should always be an incredible journey, but we all need a reminder of that at times as we sit in our cubicle or stand in line at the supermarket.

Sideways is that reminder.

Given the subject matter, this book was always likely to appeal.  That I found myself one afternoon busily transcribing paragraphs and quotes from the last chapter, however, came as a hell of a surprise –  I hadn’t done that since I was too poor to afford the photocopying on some terrible reference book back in my own student days, and certainly not with anything like the same degree of zeal.  Sideways was obviously something very special indeed.

After finishing it I ended up giving the book away to a friend, and other than buying it again as a Christmas gift for someone else last year or mentioning it to the occasional other travel addict that I met, thought little more of it for months.  One sunny Saturday recently however, with coffee in hand and no particular plans, I decided to check out a small local market that had started up in my neighbourhood.  Much of the stuff on display held next to no interest for me, and I was just about to head for home when I noticed a guy selling some printed t-shirts and figured I’d take a quick look.  The shirts were pretty good – I ended up buying a couple – but more interesting by far was the fact that there were also a few copies of Sideways for sale as well.  These versions of the book (the second edition) had a photo of the author on the front, and after a few dumbstruck seconds of looking at the book … and the seller … and the book … and the seller, I uttered the immortal line: “Um – excuse me mate … is that you?

Yeah, good one Dave.  Standing in front of one of your favourite travel authors ever, and that’s the best you can come up with?!  Anyway, to his credit, Patrick (for of course it was him) forgave my impersonation of a star struck teenager and we talked about life for a while before swapping contact details and carrying on with our respective days.  That could easily have been the end of it, but one thing led to another and we ended up having a much longer, coffee fuelled catch-up a couple of weeks later, of the type you can only enjoy with those few wonderful people that you meet who approach their time on this planet in a very different way to the masses.  Those who approach it sideways, perhaps.

When the caffeine buzz had finally worn off after our chat, Patrick was gracious enough to answer a few other questions by emailEven better, he has also kindly offered to autograph a brand-spanking-new copy of Sideways: Travels with Kafka, Hunter S. and Kerouac for one fortunate reader and send it to them, anywhere in the world!  For your chance to win a personalised copy of this brilliant book, simply leave a comment below recounting your craziest travel experience ever.  The lucky winner will be drawn randomly a week from now (Monday 31 May), and the book will be in the mail shortly afterwards.  How fantastic is that?!

If you aren’t fortunate enough to have your name pulled out of the hat, or just can’t wait that long to read Sideways, please do buy a copy directly from the author at or from all good bookstores.  You’ll never regret doing so – although given the inspiration it provides, I can’t promise you won’t be heading straight for airport shortly after finishing it.  His site also has several other interviews and reviews of the book to check out, as well as some particularly interesting burlesque dancing footage.  Of course.  If you use Twitter, I’d highly recommend following him there as well.

Many thanks to Patrick O’Neil for his time, generosity and inspiration, and also just for being a great fellow traveller to sit and swap random life experiences with outside a Melbourne cafe.

Serendipity truly is a wonderful thing.


Don’t forget to leave your crazy travel story below for a chance to win, and also check out the Q and A session with Patrick here.

9 Responses to “Sideways, by Patrick O’Neil – Review and Giveaway!

  • Nigel Dean
    13 years ago

    Lost in a supermarket in Lanzhou – how could it be? I had been with Christine and Andrew and his friend, Rocky. I had offered to go back to the hotel to get a couple of things while they finished their shopping.. Now I don’t have the greatest of direction – all my family and friends will acknowledge that. However I thought back down the stairs, around a couple of aisles and out the door was easy enough and if that fails I had seen plenty of exit signs. A few moments later the first sign of trouble – I followed the way back I thought and came to a dead end – however good news to the left was an exit sign. Oddly enough it was closed tight and when I approached it the door I got a very strong message from the man standing there that I should not go out there. I tried asking him where the way out was – but in Lanzhou only a very small number of people speak English – he wasn’t one of them. I continued going round and round, up stairs, down stairs, maybe I could find the way out – or at best the rest of the family. I went to several more exit signs – either they were closed or I was waved away. More puzzling was the complete absence of any sign of the family. Finally I decided to wander through the cosmetic section that I had not yet tried and much to my surprise there was the out door. I rushed back to the hotel to get the things we needed and get back to the arranged meeting place. When I did get there there was rest of the crew waiting for me wondering where I was. By the way I now know that in Chinese buildings, and apparently many other countries, “exit” refers only to an emergency exit!

  • Valerie Looi
    13 years ago

    So I’m not sure if there’s a word limit to this.
    So in 2007, I was going to a conference at Lake Tahoe, USA. In typical NZ style, the weather was */$# so I was delayed out of Auckland, and hence late into LAX (arrived around 7.30am, instead of 6.30am). This meant I had 24hrs, and travelling for over 30hrs by now. Exactly what was I supposed to do – a single female, stuck at Reno airport, at 9.30pm, 88km from my destination, with the airport nearly empty & closing up for the night. No car, no mobile (my non-tri-band mobile doesn’t work in the USA). Stressed would be an understatement…
    *poof* in magical instant – the guy I’d met at LAX, the wizard, appears…he has a car here at Reno airport, as he lives in Lake Tahoe and therefore had driven himself to the airport when he departed. So, he could drive me the 1hr to Lake Tahoe from Reno. Hmm…although against my better instinct (single female, alone in car with wizard guy I’d only met that day, travelling 1hr from Reno to Tahoe – which is not a motorway, but rather a dark, narrow road, at 9pm)…I accepted.
    Anyway, yes, I did make it to my accommodation, and interesting conversation would be an understatement! But it doesn’t end there – in the next 4 days at the conference, I get taken to the Witchcraft college, meet the head witch, am taken to the guy’s house and shown all his witchcraft material & watch a spell, and get asked if I want to sit the tests to see if I could be a witch too (i.e. to be accepted to the school). Ummm….no…I’m in Tahoe for a cochlear implant conference, not a witchcraft séance!
    So the morals of the story are…i) avoid American airlines; ii) avoid LAX; iii) if you get stuck at LAX – you can always find some interesting characters to pass your time; iv) travel delays can provide the most interesting travel moments – this had to be the most interesting conference trip I’ve ever been on; v) it’s OK to throw caution to the wind – particularly when you’re tired & stressed! Oh yes, and vi) witches/wizards do exist, and vii) if you ever think you had received a calling from the spirits – there’s a school in Lake Tahoe that will train you to be a fully-fledged witch/wizard, complete with graduation & certification & spell-casting initiations!  Wicked witch of the west or good witch of the east…that is the question! 
    Now if only he had created a spell to the travel gods, to create more travel for me, and also remove my LAX/USA travel curse. Oh, and I must ask for a spell to the Icelandic Volcano to calm its inner spirits!

  • My wife, sister in-law and myself were traveling to the arctic circle to visit Lapland. I am half Finnish so had read about the wild north of Finland. I sort of hazily realized it also ran across northern Sweden and Norway too.

    So we book the holiday and go, I only realize getting off the plane that never was it mentioned what actual country we would be entering. I had a half baked idea we were going to Finland, it’s Lapland right? Turns out after sheepishly asking a woman at a desk we were actually in Sweden and in a town called Arvidsjaur. How many people get off a plane and then ask what country and town they are in?

    Anyway wonderful place and highly recommend spending Christmas there with friends. Though they will wonder why you want to go skiing or snowboarding in the 20 feet of snow as ski season does not open for another couple of months!

  • When I first started traveling as a teenager, I spent a summer in Hamburg in northern Germany. I had plenty of time and eventually decided to take a bus out to an old work camp from WWII. I didn’t speak or read much German at the time, so I got bored of the tiny museum very quickly and started walking around the nearly abandoned grounds. This was the first of such camps I had ever been in, so when there was a sign to barracks I recognized that word and wandered in. Completely absorbed in my surroundings, I get torn from my wanderings by loud angry German. I look at him weird, and he repeats, again in loud angry German. Next thing I say was something in English. At which point, he anger became clear. Apparently I had wandered into some sort of still-in-use prison. I was only in the front court, but it really freaked me out. Took nearly a half an hour on the bus to breath normally again.

  • Jaclyn Payne
    13 years ago

    Casablanca, Morocco. My first solo trip to a country that didn’t have English as its primary language. Upon arrival at my hotel, I decided to venture out to get breakfast. I knew it wasn’t common for a female to eat at a cafe alone, but I thought I’d give it a try anyway. I walked into the first cafe I saw. And then I walked straight back out. It felt like a movie where the music stops, people stop talking and everyone turns to stare at the unwelcome intruder. Plan B was needed. I found a supermarket that only required one take-your-life-into-your-own-hands street crossing. I brought a variety of nibbles (few of which turned out to be what I thought they’d be – honestly why would you want drinking yoghurt?) including nutella. I figured if worst came to worst I could happily live off the nutella for the next three weeks. After I paid for my purchases I was back on the street trying to navigate a safe passage across the road of death when a man started to yell at me. As I moved quickly (and a little dangerously across the street) he was following still yelling in Arabic. I started to run and he ran after me. My athletic skills let me down and he caught up to me….and returned my nutella that I had left at the check-out.

  • My Dad & I were backpacking at the base of Mt Robson in BC, Canada about 10 years ago. We left our camp on a day trek to the beautiful Snowbird’s Pass. The trek was amazing, and the views, stunning. On the way down, we veered off the path and ended up on Robson Glacier. Walking on a glacier seems like a cool idea at first, but making your way back to ‘land’ climbing up the steep rocky moraine is essentially impossible as it is just a thin layer of rock over ice. Step up, slide down.

    Heading further down the glacier, I noticed a moulin. This was a Dustin-sized hole in the glacier, crystal blue ice on all sides, and bitterly cold water flowing in from all sides. I threw a rock in and didn’t hear it hit bottom. Who knows how deep it was (100m+). It was late in the day, I was exhausted and only one slip away from being inside. Fortunately a careful hour later, we managed to find a place to get back to land before becoming a permanent part of the glacier. Long day, amazing trek, fortunate ending.

  • Annie Bettis
    13 years ago

    Gosford, (NSW) Australia. During my study abroad in Sydney I was lucky enough to meet a great group of twenty-somethings from all over the world. After a particularly rainy and boring week in the middle of the Australian “autumn” we decided it was time to get out and see something. With no idea what we wanted to see and even less money I opened my guide book and picked the least threatening destination. The central coast of NSW. First, we had the idea of wine tasting in the Hunter Valley but realized with the three-hour train ride we wouldn’t make it before the wineries closed. Instead we decided to spend a night camping in the highly acclaimed Putty Beach in Gosford and head to the valley the following day.

    So at 4 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon we found ourselves in K-Mart buying sleeping bags and a two-man tent (we were five people). Then a stop to the liquor store for our first ever box of the infamous Goon and on the train we went. Three hours, a crazy taxi ride, a box of Goon and no food later we arrived at Putty Beach with no clue what the hell to do. It was dark too. We pitched our tent and ran for the beach. We spent the night frolicking in our drunken state on a beautiful beach. We made friends with the Australian family camped next to us, who generously offered us dinner. They explained to us that they had made reservations to camp there back in January (it was April) just to ensure they had a spot. We looked at each other sheepishly as we had just stumbled on this place with no clue where we were and set up shop.

    In the end, it ended up being a night of lots of bonding, no sleep, navigating the beautiful beach by only the sounds of the ocean, making friends and cementing relationships. This by far meets or exceeds all of my much more thoroughly planned excursion throughout Australia in my five months there. Oh, and we definitely didn’t make it to Hunter Valley the next morning.

  • Sixteen months living in Sierra Leone. What can I say. Every day was a little crazy. Life consisted of:
    * becoming completely paraniod of mosquitos, waking at any hour of the night to wonder if a mozzie had possibly managed to make it past the fortress of mosquito spray, net and rather unpleasant mosqutio lotion to cause a malarial infection, wondering if having a mild temperature was possibly malaria related, considering an overdose of Doxy if there was a mosquito bite or any other unusual spot located… then giving up on it all after 12 months and deciding that a $3 packet of Artisenal would do the trick, unless it was cerebral in which case the chances werent so good…
    * wondering whether the ‘great cooking gas, chicken and potato shortage of 2008’ was going to last forever… or whether the black market would come good with some of these ‘luxury items’
    * hoping the car wouldnt break down somewhere dangerous… or actually anywhere.
    * joining the Hash House Harriers and running through villages one night a week…
    * taking a chopper to the airport, because that was quicker (and apparently safer) than the public ferry ladened with rusty cars, goats and chickens. Unfortunately the Togo soccer team lost their management team whilst travelling by chopper to the airport… RIP.
    * being constantly amazed at the poverty of Freetown, even though everybody had a mobile phone and Internet access was surprisingly reliable.
    Crazy but fun – as with all great travel experiences..

  • Firstly, thank you one and all for your great crazy travel stories – they’ve been brilliant!

    Well using the power of a winner has been pulled out of the virtual hat, and it is …….. Jaclyn Payne! Congratulations Jaclyn, a copy of Sideways will be in the mail to you very soon – I hope you enjoy it!

    For the rest of the entrants – and anyone else reading this – now would be a GREAT time to go and buy a copy from – I’m sure Patrick would greatly appreciate it!

    Thanks again!

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