The statistics quoted for the travels on which Oliver Balch’s book is based are, well, awesome – 67 long-distance bus journeys, 9,578 photographs, 105 hotel beds. One has to ask, was it worth it? As a stimulating dive into the society and politics of this large and gamey continent the answer is ‘yes’; as a 400-page book I am not so sure. Written in an often restless and breathless present tense, Viva South America! provides an unusual wealth of well-researched material on South America’s unattractive side – domestic violence and ‘femicide’ in Chile, state violence and rape (anal, with a broken milk bottle) in Paraguay, and child miners in Bolivia, for example. At the same time, as Balch moves north his eye is more caught by the political and economic aspect of things: a monstrous new gold mine in Ecuadorean Amazonia, the profound political violence of Columbia, or the populist pantomime of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. By and large the middle class does not get much of a look-in.