It’s getting colder, and darker (in Australia). The Christmas break is long forgotten; Easter-wait did that even happen this year? You need to escape and you need it now. Sometimes a mental escape can almost be as good as the real thing.
I remember catching the overnight train from Kunming to Chengdu in China. The journey passed jagged mountains, single house villages, a muddy river that grew into a gushing torrent yet I was miles away, on a remote island, by a lighthouse. The howling wind whipping up salty spray lifted off waves crashing onto an empty, seaweed strewn beach.
I was reading The Light Between Oceans and became so engrossed, I forgot where I was and became so confused when I’d look up to see rice paddies and thatched-roof houses, yet I could almost taste the salty spray on my lips. Such is the power of a good travel novel.
Here’s my favourite novels that transported my mind to another place:
(all buy now buttons link to the cheapest and discounted version, from the Book Depository, with free worldwide shipping):
M.L. Stedman: The Light Between Oceans: – Western Australia
A couple who live on a remote lighthouse off Western Australia are desperate to have a baby. One day they find a boat washed ashore with a dead man and a crying baby. Should they keep the baby and raise it as their own, or alert the authorities? I wrote review a of this for Weekend Notes which you can read here.
If you’re thinking about watching the movie, it’s okay but it was largely filmed in New Zealand which was obvious to me and ruined it a little. But the two lead actors, were put in a remote cabin for six weeks before filming began, fell in love and are now married in real life, so… I guess it has some real elements to it.
I read this when I was a teenager and it’s ideas of escapism have stuck with me always. It follows the true story of Chris McCandless who left his university degree and future corporate career to disappear deep into the Alaskan wilderness. It’s a story of finding oneself; independent from everything society makes us think we need, in order to live and no doubt his story has inspired countless other’s to follow the same path. It’s a cracking read, makes you question everything and don’t be surprised if you find yourself wandering aimlessly through the wilderness, leaving everything behind.
In a rare case, the movie adaption, Directed by Sean Penn, who worked closely with the McCandless family throughout, is a beautiful rendition complete with a perfect soundtrack written by Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam.
Historical writer Edward Rutherford creates fictional families and ties them to real world events over many generations. In New York, he follows the Master’s family from their origins in early Manhattan, when it was grassy fields and swamp lands, to the modern day metropolis. It starts off slow, then as the city grows, it builds pace, covering everything from the rise of Wall St, the Empire State Building, to the falling of the World Trade Centre. I read this before spending Christmas in New York and it made street names, buildings and areas come alive as I remembered why they were significant. He’s written other novels about London and Paris and I should point out this book is big and heavy so not an ideal travel read, but would be good before you fly to New York, unless you plan on reading the entire plane trip.
Based on phone calls to a radio station over many years, this book is a collection of true stories from Chinese women including heartbreak, loss, love, and what really went on behind China’s closed doors. For years their stories remained unspoken, but Xinran helped their voices be heard. It’s a fascinating read. I picked up a copy from pop-up book shop and it made the rounds of all my neighbours and friends when I was living in Kyoto. Easy to digest, and not too bulky, this is a good book to read on a plane.
Whenever anyone asks me what my favourite book is, this is it. A young pauper falls in love with a princess, but because she’s royalty, it’s illegal so he gets thrown in army prison. Ends up searching the world for his love, meets incredible characters like Pangloss the Philosopher and when he finally finds her, she’s now fat and ugly, but still he marries her. An important reminder that the one thing we’re forever chasing, may not be as spectacular as we imagine it to be.
Funny story, my friend Ilse recommended this book to me when I first met her whilst staying at the YHA in Niagara Falls, Canada. The first book shop I encountered in New York, I bought a copy, and read the whole thing virtually in one sitting on the train to Philadelphia. I loved this book so much I told everyone about it and bought many copies as gifts. Years later I was back in Belgium visiting her and late one night, over a smorgasbord of Turkish food I told her how that book she recommended had become a firm favourite and how many people had now read it because of me. She said, “You know what’s funny, I never actually read that book, I mean I studied it at school, but I never read it from cover to cover.”
It’s safe to say, I’m a huge fan of Jules Verne. I particularly loved The Mysterious Island because in case you’ve forgotten, I’m obsessed with islands. Throw in adventure, gold and dinosaurs and you’ve got an instant classic. If you’re going to buy one book, you may as well buy all his books in one collection because you’ll want to read them all.
Doyle may be best known for his detective series, but I loved his foray into travel adventure. Like an early explorer’s notebook, this story takes you deep into the jungles of South America, into a world cut off from society for millions of years; complete with lost civilisations, strange creatures and dangers hidden behind every turn. It may be fiction but a small part of you hopes this place secretly exists.
Susan Casey: The Wave – Hawaii, Tahiti, Portugal
Susan Casey has a knack for taking a single subject and captivating you for hours. The Wave is a fascinating study of rogue waves. She travels the globe, including Tahiti, Maui and Portugal investigating big waves and those that are obsessed by them; spending time with surfers, scientists, victims of the 2004 Tsunami and and Lloyds of London (insurance) who pay out on the cargo ships that go missing every week, caused by big waves. Scary, fascinating, and will have you gasping for air with excitement but equally beautiful. For anyone captivated by the ocean, you’ll love this book.
Susan Casey: The Devils Teeth – Farallones Islands, San Francisco
The Devil’s Teeth is the single greatest shark book I have ever read, and I’ve read them all. Susan was given rare access to the Farallones Islands, a dangerous collection of rocks, just off the coast of San Francisco, closed to all but scientists. Famous because of it’s year-round seal colony and it’s population of great white sharks. She spent time studying the regulars, getting to know their personalities and witnessing the return each spring of the dominant females, sometimes pregnant. I learnt much about great white behaviour from this novel, and I’ve been obsessed with sharks since I was a kid, so I’ve seen every documentary and read every book I’ve found. A fascinating insight into the most feared predator in the ocean.
Peter Benchley: The Girl of The Sea of Cortez – Baja California, Mexico
Whilst Benchley may be better known for his shark novel, The Girl of The Sea of Cortez tells a beautiful story about a girl and her relationship with a manta ray in Baja California. So magical you’ll want it to be a true story, and anyone who’s snorkelled or dived with manta’s will attest to; it quite possibly could be. It ran off print for many years pushing rare copies into the hundreds of dollars but it’s been re-printed again and if you long to be amongst warm tropical waters, surrounded by tropical fish, above a sea mount, this is the book for you.
Much like David Attenborough, Gerald Durrell shares incredible stories about weird and exotic creatures, from around the globe. Brought up on an island off the coast of Greece, where his family housed wild animals. As an adult, he set off on adventures traipsing from Africa to South America collecting incredible stories of wonderful animals. No matter the book (he’s written many), you can be assured you’ll be taken someplace exotic and entertained with wild tales of curious and hilarious animals.
There’s been many other travel books like Mutiny on the Bounty and those who have since been lost and I can no longer remember the title. Needless to say, I also have many books about islands in my collection, including four copies of The Island by Aldus Huxley because every time I come across it, it has a different cover and a different description and each time I think ‘ooh that sounds interesting’ and so I buy it. Still haven’t read it, but it’s on the ‘to read list’. If you want to truly escape, then you’ll probably need a copy of The Atlas of Remote Islands which you can find here.
What’s your favourite travel story? Comment below or send me a postcard!