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Top 22 Travel Reads for World Book Day

Andrew Farr

Fewer clothes, more books…

My father gave me three very useful pieces of travel-related advice.

Number one: build in puncture delays when calculating the time of any car journey. By necessity, this advice also covered breakdown delays. Childhood holidays were arrived at by early seventies column shift Vauxhall Victor, hardly the paragon of reliability that we associate with cars today.

Number two: always remember the number of the last taxi you travelled in. That advice has saved cherished personal belongings once, and my passport twice.

Number three: when it comes to packing for a holiday, take fewer clothes and more books; dad would have enjoyed this blog. It’s all about holiday reading.

Here’s another tip:  with airlines more strict than they once were about weight restrictions, keep your heavy holiday reading for your cabin bags. Unless you’re the sort of person who can handle a kindle.

And yet, as it’s too difficult to get the screen definition right in the glare of the sun, most serious holiday readers like their pages stained with suncream and ouzo, their spines cracked by the salty air, and their fingers slightly inky.  What’s more position your book correctly, and it’s the perfect sunblock.  And as well as providing perfect shade the very best holiday reads tend to be those inspired by the places that you’re visiting.

Holiday reads. Beach reads. Summer reads. However you describe them, the books that you take with you on holiday are often your most anticipated reading of the year.  To make sure you get it right, it’s best to take a selection, but make sure that at least one of them relates to your new surroundings. And for help with that you’ve come to the right place. Read on.

Italy: The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper

This former Waterstones Fiction Book of the Month mixes historical Pompeii with the contemporary theme of female empowerment. Highly readable and engaging, the streets of ancient Pompeii come alive as the book tells, with conviction and wit, the gripping tale of a woman sold into slavery who plans her escape from a degrading world. For more history, try Pictures from Italy by Charles Dickens or SPQR by Mary Beard. For classic social comedy set in Florence, EM Forster’s A Room with a View, or for foul play on the Italian Riviera Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley.

Greece: One August Night by Victoria Hislop

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and The Island are perhaps two books that spring to mind at the mention of a holiday to Greece, but as you’re here, you’ve probably read them already. One August Night sees Victoria Hislop return to Crete, the August night in question being 25 August 1957, with her long-anticipated sequel to her multi-million-copy bestseller The Island. If you prefer your Greek classical try The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller and Ariadne by Jennifer Saint.

Croatia: The Hired Man by Aminatta Forma

A British family takes up residence in a dilapidated cottage in Croatia. With help from local handyman Đuro, slowly but surely, they learn the secrets of the town and the house’s former occupants. If you prefer fact over fiction, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, written in 1942, is still regarded as the seminal travelogue and memoir of the area. Another Fool in the Balkans by Tony White follows her footsteps 60 years later.

Portugal: Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier

A divorced grammar-school classics master, after saving a Portuguese woman from an apparent suicide attempt on a bridge in the Swiss city of Berne, abandons his job and heads to Lisbon, in search of the life he never lived. It’s a novel of ideas that reads like a thriller.  Alternatively, hop over to Madeira to find a disillusioned soldier looking for love, an exiled Emperor fearing assassination, Agatha Christie on holiday and George Bernard Shaw learning to tango, in Tango in Madeira by Jim Williams.

Caribbean: An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude by Ann Vanderhoof

With so many islands from which to choose, set sail on a 42 foot boat called Receta and visit 16 countries and 47 islands. When Canadians Ann Vanderhoof and her husband Steve left their jobs in the mid 1990’s to pursue their dream of a Caribbean sailing adventure, they probably weren’t imagining that their life would become one long and hugely enjoyable travelogue and regional food guide.

The Maldives: Folk Tales of the Madives by Xavier Romero-Frias

A collection of tales offering keen insights into the history, culture and beliefs of the people of the Maldives, examining the close relationship the Maldivians have with their environment, alongside tales of spirits, sorcerers and seabirds. For a more modern take on island life try Gatecrashing Paradise: Misadventures in the Real Maldives by Tom Chesshyre. This is island-hopping for the twenty-first century, sailing around 600 miles of the most beautiful islands and atolls on Earth, and gatecrashing the odd five star resort.

Spain: Homeland by Fernando Aramburu

This uplifting tale, is beautifully crafted and full of feeling. Set in a fictitious village near San Sebastián, it’s the story of two families, caught on both sides of a terrorist tragedy, and trapped in circumstances from which they can’t escape. For something lighter try A Long Walk in the High Hills by Selina Scott. At the peak of her career news presenter and interviewer Selina Scott brought a house in the Tramuntana hills of Mallorca. After several years of commuting between continents she decided to settle there and spend time renovating the house.  It was then that the fun began, as documented in this uplifting story of escape, change and friendship.

Sri Lanka: Serendipity by Ashok Ferrey

Of the newest books published about Sri Lanka, Serendipity is also one of the most colourful: a contemporary compendium of stories of modern Sri Lanka. For something more classical, from the author of The English Patient, there is Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje’s story tells of a man returning to his roots in Sri Lanka in the late 1970s.

Cyprus: Journey into Cyprus by Colin Thubron

Still the best travelogue is  Colin Thubron’s account of a three-month trek around the island during 1972, with excursions into history and encounters with locals, at a turbulent time in the history of Cyprus. Bitter Lemons of Cyprus by Lawrence Durrell recounts his spell as an English teacher, minor colonial official and bohemian resident of the island during the fifties.

Malaysia: The Garden of Evening Mists by Malaysian novelist Tan Twan Eng

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Man Asian Literary Prize and Walter Scott Prize Scott Prize for historical fiction. Teoh Yun Ling, the protaganist, seeks to create a garden in memory of her sister. She is apprenticed to a Japanese gardener in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. This sweeping historical novel spans the 1940’s to the 1980’s.

France: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Set in modern-day Paris, this novel has a sharp eye for humour while it dissects French snobbery, the foibles of rich and poor, the purpose of art and much more, all the while wearing its intellectualism lightly. Set in BordeauxBroke the Grape’s Joy by Patrick Hilyer is simultaneously dark and uplifting as it touches on viticulture and poetry, mental health and murder, and cabernets and merlots.

South Africa: The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

It seems the obvious choice but there is so much to like about the glorious characters that inhabit the world of the ‘traditionally built beauty’ who is Mme Ramotswe, Botswana’s first and finest lady detective. Few authors capture the spirit of South Africa with the skill of Alexander McCall Smith: joy and hope spring from every page. Classics in a very different vein include JM Coetzee’s Disgrace and In the Heart of the Country, Doris Lessing’s seminal The Grass is Singing,  and Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist.

Bermuda: The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Bermuda’s a tiny island so we’re going to have to cheat slightly. Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, who lived for a short time on the island of Bermuda was regarded by Raymond Chandler as the finest suspense writer of them all. The Blank Wall, available from Persephone, publishers of highly regarded and rediscovered fiction, is a classic of its kind and inspired two films The Reckless Moment (1949) and the Deep End (2001). Talking of deep, there’s always The Deep, by Jaws’ author Peter Benchley.

Malta: The Kappillan of Malta by Nicholas Monsarrat

Liverpool born writer Nicholas Monsarrat wrote this novel while living in the village of San Lawrenz, Gozo. Malta is very much the subject of the novel which tells the story of the dealings of Father Salvatore, a kappillan, or humble parish priest, devoted to serving the poor and homeless during the second world war. For classic travel writing try Paddy Cummins’ It’s a Long Way to Malta.

Sicily: Pomp and Sustenance, Twenty-five Centuries of Sicilian Food by Mary Taylor Simeti

Sicily is regarded by Sicilians as a nation apart from Sicily, and this is reflected in the cuisine. Simeti’s book isn’t just a collection of recipes but an impressive work of scholarship that outlines the gifts that centuries of mass migration have bestowed upon the island. Beautiful Antonio by Vitaliano Brancati pokes satirical fun at the island’s patriarchal customs. His observations about male insecurity and the toxic impact of Sicilian machismo are profound.

Gibraltar: Shadow of the Rock by Thomas Mogford

On a humid summer night in Gibraltar, lawyer Spike Sanguinetti finds Solomon Hassan, an old school friend, waiting on his doorstep. Accused of murdering a Spanish girl in Tangier, Solomon swears his innocence. As Spike uncovers the truth, he finds himself drawn deep into a world of secrets, corruption and lies. A Vision of Battlements by Anthony Burgess is highly regarded as a semi-autobiographical Lucky Jim that doesn’t spare squalor or bitterness.

Madeira: Past Caring by Robert Goddard

Known for plot twists and historical perspectives Robert Goddard’s characters uncover secrets and conspiracies. In his first novel, Past Caring, Martin Radford, a disaffected and unemployed history graduate, leaps at the chance to get to the island of Madeira and begin the hunt for a solution to the intriguing secret of Edwardian home secretary Edwin Strafford’s fall from grace.

Morocco: The Last Friend by Tahar Ben Jelloun

A gripping tale of friendship and betrayal set over 30 years in twentieth century Tangier. The central characters’ search for identity is set against the backdrop of the complexities of Moroccan society’s emergence from French rule. Or try a collection of short stories documenting every day encounters in Marrakech: The Voices of Marrakech by Elias Canetti.  And of course, there is the Paul Bowles’ masterpiece of tense and beautiful writing, The Sheltering Sky.

Egypt: The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany

Sex and the city loom large in the lives of the Yacoubian building’s inhabitants. The once grand, now decaying apartment block in central Cairo houses a rich cast of characters, whose stories Al Aswany weaves together to portray contemporary Egyptian life. This taboo-busting novel tells of Cairo’s residents going about their lives and reflects the frustration Egyptians feel in a society where money and influence are prized above all else.

Turkey: The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

Yashim is a singularly unique crime-solver: an Ottoman eunuch, cultured bohemian and gourmet. In The Janissary Tree he investigates a series of murders that shake Istanbul  in the 1830s. It’s a fascinating thriller.  And as me missed out Louis de Bernieres in the Greece section, try Birds Without Wings, his 2004  epic about end-of-empire Turkey.

Kenya: One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina

We can’t get away without mentioning Isak Dinesan’s Out of Africa, so beautifully played out on the big screen by Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Very much a book of its time, it is considered a classic, but perhaps hasn’t aged well. For a more modern view of Kenya from the inside try this childhood memoir by Binyavanga Wainaina.

Zanzibar and Tanzania: Death in Zanzibar by M M Kaye

Richly evocative, Death in Zanzibar charms long-time fans of M M Kaye and is a fine introduction to those new to the celebrated novelist. Dany Ashton is invited to vacation at her stepfather’s house in Zanzibar, but even before her airplane takes off there is a stolen passport, a midnight intruder–and murder. The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories by Ernest Hemingway contains ten of Hemingway’s most acclaimed and popular works of short fiction: simple, startling and beautifully written.