Travel tales

Reads on the Road 3: My travel book recommendations

Reads on the Road 3 travel book recommendations

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 travel book recommendations

Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse

A section of the Death Strip along the Berlin Wall

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.

Temples at Bagan, Burma

The temples of Bagan in Burma – photo credit Rajesh India on Flickr

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.

Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

The sun sets over the historic district of Sultanahmet in Istanbul

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.

European rail trip tips

On the train across Europe

So those are my favourite recent travel reads, but what are yours?

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Reads on the Road 3: travel book recommendations – On the Luce travel blog

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25 Comments

  • Reply
    Meghann
    March 9, 2015 at 3:57 pm

    I’ve just finished reading The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. It’s set in the late 1800s amidst the gold rush on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Such a good read… I didn’t want it to end!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 10, 2015 at 11:17 am

      That sounds great, I’m about to go on a few long train journeys so will see if I can get a copy as it’s perfect reading time!

  • Reply
    Darlene
    March 9, 2015 at 7:55 pm

    A great list!! Thanks.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 10, 2015 at 11:18 am

      Thanks Darlene, hope you find a few there to try out!

  • Reply
    Suzanne Jones
    March 9, 2015 at 8:52 pm

    I’ve just read Tracks by Robyn Davidson which tells her story of travelling across Australia with three camels and a dog. As with the elephants in John Sweeney’s book I learned a lot about the nature, intelligence and character of camels!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 10, 2015 at 11:16 am

      That’s sounds really interesting, I will add it to the list!

  • Reply
    atravelingb
    March 10, 2015 at 12:46 am

    Great list, Lucy. The only one on this list I have read is The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet so I have many to add. They all sound interesting – I am a big fan of historical fiction set in places I want to travel!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 10, 2015 at 11:16 am

      Me too, it’s funny but I didn’t realise how many historically-based novels (and especially WWII-related) I had been reading recently until I put together this list!

  • Reply
    Jess
    March 10, 2015 at 4:46 am

    Thanks for sharing this list! I really enjoyed The Hotel on The Corner of Bitter and Sweet and just downloaded Last Train to Istanbul for my kindle based on your description of the novel. Books I would recommend are “The Namesake” by Jhumpa Lahiri which focuses on Indian/American culture/history and “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini that explores culture/history in Afghanistan. I’ve read everything these authors have written, which are all equally intriguing, but the two books I mentioned are the ones that first got me hooked on their works.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 10, 2015 at 11:15 am

      Hope you enjoy Last Train to Istanbul, and thanks for the recommendations – I think I have a copy of The Kite Runner somewhere and hadn’t heard of The Namesake so I’ll have to look that one up.

      • Reply
        Jess
        March 10, 2015 at 10:34 pm

        Intrigued by it so far. Happy reading!

  • Reply
    bevchen
    March 10, 2015 at 8:28 am

    Ooh, I like the sound of Elephant Moon! Also, I really liked One Day so Us has been on my list for a while.
    I don’t think I’ve read any books that involve travel recently. I do have a (non-fiction) book about Victorian London on my to-read pile though.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 10, 2015 at 11:14 am

      Elephant Moon was a fantastic story, and I definitely have a new respect for elephants now. I usually have a few non-fiction books on my list too but didn’t read any this time so will have to look out for a few for the next edition!

  • Reply
    Vlad
    March 10, 2015 at 9:03 am

    I loved Us, it was such a great novel! One Day is one of my favorite books so I was excited about this one the minute I heard about it, I’m glad it didn’t disappoint me. The Mango Orchard sounds good, I’ll add it to my long list of books I want to read, it’s probably as long as the list of destinations I want to visit 😉

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 10, 2015 at 11:12 am

      The Mango Orchard was great – made me want to go explore Central America. It’s one of those stories which you can hardly believe could be true. Know what you mean about the list of books, mine gets added to more quickly than I manage to actually read them!

  • Reply
    emilycharlotteray
    March 10, 2015 at 6:29 pm

    ‘Last Train to Istanbul’ and ‘Us’ both sound right up my street, and my boyfriend is always championing David Nicholls’ writing! I’m such a terrible reader though – as soon as I open a book (normally on the train to work) I get so tired I fall asleep instantly. Think I just need a really good book! Thanks for the suggestions 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 12, 2015 at 2:14 pm

      Haha, I’m the opposite – I’ve had to ban myself from reading in bed at night as once I start I can’t stop and end up finding myself still awake at 4am while I finish just one more chapter! Hope some of these manage to keep you awake though.

  • Reply
    Browsing the Atlas
    March 10, 2015 at 7:33 pm

    I just read ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed and loved it. I wanted to read it before I went to see the movie and ended up thinking that I’d like to go hiking. Maybe I could do a shorter piece of the PCT or Appalachian Trail. NOT! I always get carried away by books like this. It was a good memoir and travel tale.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 12, 2015 at 2:16 pm

      Wild was one of my first Reads on the Road choices (not seen the film yet but must do) – I felt just the same at the end too, I was practically strapping on my walking boots before I realised I’m a terrible hiker!

  • Reply
    Packing my Suitcase
    March 18, 2015 at 10:29 am

    Great recommendations Lucy! Thank you!
    I will add Last train to Istanbul to my list 😀
    I have recently been reading a lot of Fitzgerald books, and Tender is the Night is very nice, the story happens in the Cote D’Azur, Paris, a bit of Munich and Rome. I also read the classic The Book Thief, which was on my list for a long time…. and I loved it, way better than the movie 😀

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 18, 2015 at 5:17 pm

      I still haven’t read The Book Thief either, though I think I have a copy somewhere – must do that for next time!

      • Reply
        Packing my Suitcase
        March 19, 2015 at 8:19 am

        It is a great book. And I found it very cool that the story happens near Munich 😀 I hope you liked it!

  • Reply
    Uptourist
    March 24, 2015 at 12:57 am

    That shot of the temples makes it seem like you are lost in the middle of nowhere and you saw the shadows of those temples. Such an amazing shot. This is what I am talking about. It really takes courage to go out of your comfort zone but it will really be worth it.

  • Reply
    clallison
    April 1, 2015 at 11:29 am

    “A Prayer for Owen Meany” by John Irving is really good! It’s not really a book about travelling but I read this while I was in Patagonia on an expedition, and raises some interesting thoughts about religion and the like. Though it is a little bit heavy :$

  • Reply
    Anna
    October 11, 2015 at 9:23 pm

    I went on a road trip around Europe recently and read ‘Us’ while I was away, it was such a great read and wonderful as well to read about the places in the book that I was actually visiting at the time 🙂

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