The good thing about the long, dark winter nights over the last few months is that they were perfect for curling up by the fire and working my way through the huge pile of books I’d been building up. So I’m back with my third selection of ‘Reads on the Road’ – the most inspiring and interesting travel-related books I’ve discovered over the last six months. This time I seem to have been drawn to books based on real historic events around the world – from the Second World War to the Mexican Revolution. I’m obviously feeling the call of somewhere hot and exotic too as this edition includes tales from Burma, South America and Turkey. Do please share some of your favourites too so I can add them to my reading list for next time.
Read more: 30 wanderlust-inspiring books for travellers
I came across West of the Wall by Marcia Preston while I was planning my trip to Berlin. It tells the story of a family in the 1960s divided by the Berlin Wall. East German Trudy’s husband helps people escape to the West, but when he’s identified by the Stasi, he has to escape himself. She is left behind with her baby son, but has to cross the wall too as she risks being sent to prison as the wife of a defector. The story then follows her heartbreaking attempts to try and get back her son, who she had to leave behind in the East with her mother-in-law. The book gets a bit far-fetched in the middle when Trudy heads off to America to get help, but the details of life in the divided city and how former friends and neighbours became enemies on different sides are fascinating, especially if you’ve been to Berlin and seen the locations in real life.
Another historical novel that had me gripped was Elephant Moon by John Sweeney, this time set in Burma during the Second World War. It’s based on a true story about an English schoolteacher who escapes Rangoon with 63 orphaned Anglo-Burmese children when everyone else has abandoned them. They undertake an incredible journey that takes them across jungles, mountains and rivers to reach safety across the border in India before the Japanese soldiers catch up with them. Along the way they come across a herd of elephants and their handlers who help them escape. The story really brings to life the character of the different elephants and shows what intelligent animals they are. The book’s written by a BBC investigative journalist and mixes up a compelling story with lots of interesting historical details.
Set in 1980s Seattle, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford starts with the belongings of old Japanese families being discovered in the basement of a hotel being renovated, then takes you back 40 years to when they were left there. It’s the story of a Chinese-American boy who becomes friends with and then falls in love with a Japanese-American girl. I didn’t realise that after the Pearl Harbour bombing, thousands of Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to huge internment camps to make sure they didn’t spy for the ‘enemy’. It’s shocking to think that it happened in the US, and the book gives an insight to the racism and suspicion they faced – not just the Japanese but Chinese and anyone else who could have been mistaken for Japanese too – as the background to a story of love across different cultures.
The Mango Orchard by Robin Bayley is another epic family story, though this time it’s a true one. The author grew up on stories of his adventurous great-grandfather, who moved to Mexico to run a cotton mill until the Mexican Revolution sent him back home. So he decides to follow in his footsteps to find the real man behind the family legends. His journey takes him from New York via Guatemala, Colombia and Venezuela to Mexico, where he tries to track down what’s only described as a small town with a mango orchard near Lake Guadalajara. The book starts “I remember the first time I had the feeling that somewhere, something was waiting for me, in a land I didn’t yet know”. And it turns out he was right, as he follows the twists and turns of his great-grandfather’s story he discovers a new Mexican family he never knew existed.
Last Train to Istanbul by Ayşe Kulin has been on my ‘to read’ list for ages, and didn’t disappoint when I finally got there. It’s based on true-life events during the Second World War, with an unusual angle on the war by looking at it from a Turkish perspective. The book follows the story of a fictional Muslim family in Turkey, whose daughter marries a Jewish boy and moves to Paris after her family disapproves. When the Nazis invade France, they are trapped there and fear for their lives. But a group of Turkish diplomats come up with a dangerous plan to help Turkish and other Jews escape by sending a train to take them out of France to Istanbul. It’s an incredible story and you can really feel the tension as you follow the mix of characters on their journey as the odds are stacked against them but they never give up hope.
My final book is another rail-trip-related story, Us by David Nicholls, the author who wrote the book (later made into a film) One Day. It’s the story of sensible biochemist Douglas who takes his family on a ‘Grand Tour’ across Europe by train as a last-ditch attempt to reconnect with his artist wife Connie and moody teenage son Albie, who he feels slipping away from him. It’s a sad story at times as it takes you through the story of Douglas and Connie’s relationship and what went wrong. But there are some funny bits too as they travel across Europe and Douglas’ carefully planned trip itinerary of art galleries and cultural experiences turns into jellyfish attacks, angry Dutch bikers and a night in the cells. If you’ve not done a European rail trip yet though it’s one that will have you digging out the train route maps and planning your own.
So those are my favourite recent travel reads, but what are yours?
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