Winter nights are the perfect time to tackle my huge ‘to read’ backlog. So after working my way through most of the pile, I’m back with the seventh edition of ‘Reads on the Road’, featuring some of my favourite recent travel-inspired books. This batch are a mix of true-life stories and fiction, with a couple that combine the two in one book. They’ll transport you from the far north of Scotland to the island of Tahiti, and from grand Russian palaces to a lifeboat in the South Atlantic. Hopefully you’ll find some travel reading ideas among them – and please let me know your recent favourites too so I can add them to my reading list.
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I loved my first taste of the Scottish islands last year, so was drawn to the Orkney setting of The Outrun by Amy Liptrott. It’s the true story of a local girl who left the islands behind for London. She started partying and her drinking spiralled out of control, losing her boyfriend and numerous flats and jobs along the way. After a stint in rehab she heads back to Orkney to recover, and to work through her past mistakes while trying to stay sober. A lot of the book is about the contrast between her old life and her new one, where she has to build a new lifestyle and new interests. There’s a stint working for the RSPCA monitoring a rare bird called the corncrake that sparks a love of nature, as well as sea swimming and astronomy. It’s also an insight into island life, especially in the remote islands like Papa Westray where she spent half a year.
Another real-life story, The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell tells of how a Marie Claire writer and her husband swapped their London life for a year in rural Jutland. While she’s there she decides to investigate what makes Denmark one of the world’s happiest countries and interviews a series of experts to get their insights. There are a few culture shocks and adjustments along the way, but she discovers a lot of benefits to Danish life – Danes have pretty much nailed work/life balance, community spirit, social welfare, and not to mention pastries. Nowhere’s perfect though, and the descriptions of long, dark, cold, winters, high taxes and some of the social problems that are creeping in stopped me planning my emigration. But there are definitely some lessons from living Danishly that I’ll try to adopt back home.
Elizabeth Gilbert is best known for Eat, Pray, Love, but she’s written a real range of books, including The Signature of All Things. It’s a real epic of a story which spans a generation, 600 pages, and multiple locations from Tahiti to Amsterdam. It starts with Henry Whittaker, a poor Englishman who becomes a botanist, makes a fortune in South America and moves to Philadelphia where he builds a grand house called White Acre. But the story really focuses on his daughter Alma, born in 1800 and brought up with a sharp mind and a love of science. Her money and eccentric upbringing mean she can build a life of her own choice, unlike most women in that era. She dedicates her life to studying mosses, but finds friendships and love a lot harder to master. It’s a long read but an intriguing story with a very different type of heroine.
The Secret Wife by Gill Paul cleverly takes the famous historical story of the Russian royal family, the Romanovs, and adds a fictional spin to what might have been. In 1915, Grand Duchess Tatiana falls in love with calvary officer when she’s working as a nurse, and he does everything he can to save her when revolutionaries turn on her family. Then in modern-day America, Kitty escapes her marital problems by renovating an old cabin in the Adirondacks that belonged to a great-grandfather she never knew about. She starts looking into his mysterious past and uncovers an amazing story. It’s very well-researched with a lot of detail about the Romanovs, what life was like in Russia 100 years ago and why the people turned on the royals when they were living in luxury but ordinary people were struggling in poverty.
How To Be Brave by Louise Beech manages to bring together two very different stories beautifully. Nine-year-old Rose is diagnosed with diabetes and she and her mother struggle to get used to the injections and the way it’s changed her life. So to distract her, her mother tells the story of her great-grandfather, Colin, which she’s uncovered from his old journals. He was a sailor who was left stranded in a lifeboat in the South Atlantic in 1943 when the boat he was working on was hit by a torpedo. It’s part fact, part fiction (Colin is the author’s real grandfather) and weaves the two stories together brilliantly as Rose learns about bravery and resilience. You really feel like you’ve been transported to that lifeboat with the men as they fight off boredom, hunger, thirst and sharks, all the time trying not to lose hope that they’ll be rescued.
My final book is set in snowy Prague around Christmas, and is a perfect winter read by the fire with a glass of mulled wine. A Year and a Day by Isabelle Broom tells the story of three women who head to Prague for a wintery holiday – one with her male best friend, one with the man she recently left her husband for, and one waiting for her boyfriend. They’re all staying at the same hotel and their stories get intertwined as they deal with their problems. On the surface it sounds like standard chick lit but it’s well-written with stories that draw you in and the descriptions of Prague bring it to life so vividly. I’ve only ever visited in the summer when it was hot and packed and wasn’t the biggest fan, but the descriptions of walking across the Charles Bridge in the snow sound magical – so who knows, maybe another visit’s on the cards!
So those are my favourite recent travel reads, but what are yours?
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