What makes a truly brilliant travel read? Funnily enough, I don’t think it needs to be a book that is literally about travelling (although this is always welcome). Instead – and crucially – it should mirror the ability that adventure holds for escapism.
The very best holiday books transform us. They lift us up, and take us somewhere entirely different. They hold us spellbound through 10-hour bus rides and overnight airport delays. Often, the narrative is so strong that we form a blueprint of where we went and what we did; we can remember it just on the basis of whatever we happened to be reading at the time.
Different books work for different occasions, too. What keeps us entertained on the plane won’t necessarily be the same as a cracking beach read, or the novel that sustains us through an epic road trip. It’s worth bearing this in mind when you’re curating your reading list for a major bout of travelling.
Below, I’ve listed five different types of books that everyone should arm themselves with, when heading abroad for adventure. I’ve also included suggestions for each type of literary fix. From moreish thrillers to gripping memoirs and beyond, get set to fuel up your Kindle:
The plane page-turner
The ideal plane read is a deliciously addictive story that you can chomp through in four or five hours. It will keep you going through queues, bad coffee and a seat so narrow, your knees are practically folded into your shoulders. It doesn’t really matter what type of book this is; it could be anything from comedy to domestic noir. It just needs to be a compulsive page-turner, and something that isn’t too huge or heavy, theme-wise (leave War and Peace at home).
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Davic Nicholls’ best-selling story is light, irreverent and wonderfully observed. Part love story, part drama – with plenty of hilarity sprinkled in – it will ring true for anyone who’s grown up in the 80s.
This debut novel is a complete stunner of a story, with a mysterious protagonist at its heart. The lead character doesn’t seem that sympathetic at first glance, but you’re quickly cheering her on in a tale that is both laugh-out-loud and heartbreaking.
Alex Garland’s seminal travelling novel always delivers, no matter how many times you’ve read it (or watched the film). It sets the tone for an adventure away, and is compulsive enough to romp through in the space of half a day.
Set in Hong Kong during and just after the Second World War, The Piano Teacher deals with the consequences of corruption and betrayal. The author’s sense of place is brilliantly evocative, and she packs in themes of love and loss in a tense, tightly-paced read.
If you’re a fan of Gone Girl and Girl on a Train, try this less-hyped take on a domestic thriller. Louise Candlish ramps up the suspense at every turn of this story, based around a seemingly normal street in London suburbia.
The airport delay novel
An airport delay that reaches anything beyond two hours demands an epic and engrossing novel. It’s the kind of emergency situation that calls for the giants of fiction: storytellers so talented and subtle, you won’t even notice you’ve been sat on a slightly sticky patch of floor outside a sunglasses outlet for the past six hours or so. Behold, the reads that will haul you right out of reality.
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Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller puts an unflinching spotlight on what happens when the lives of African-American maids and their white bosses collide, in 1960s Mississippi. It’s sad, funny and pitches human kindness against the threat of lingering violence: we defy you not to be gripped.
This novel follows two very different women living in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. With an expert eye for character, Khaled Hosseini draws us into a world of brutality, injustice and the unfailing courage of sisterhood.
Gender identity is a big talking point right now, and one which is dissected by Jeffry Eugenides’ intoxicating saga. Dive head-first into big themes of intersex, family secrets and multiculturalism in this warmly written story.
Twin sisters Olanna and Kainene are very different, but their privileged lives are both torn apart by the Biafran conflict of 1960s Nigeria. We see the very best and worst of human nature in story of friendship, love and the savagery of war.
Any book narrated by Death is bound to capture our interest, especially when he’s such a human and surprisingly endearing character. Markus Zusak’s story follows a girl in hiding in Nazi Germany and will have you hooked from the go.
The beach read
Beach reads are traditionally the space for shameless splurges, whether that’s dime-a-dozen crime or cheesy romantic fiction. The problem is, these kind of books leave you feeling a bit empty at the end of them – they never fully deliver. It’s better to go for something that has a fair dose of charm and lightness to it (to compliment the sun and sand vibe), but that is also well-written, with a brilliant story at its heart.
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Hunter S. Thompson’s iconic roman à clef sweeps you up on a drug-addled orgy through the City of Sin. The most debaucherous road trip you are ever likely to be privy to, you’ll be pitched headlong into the electrifying narrative.
If you’ve never delved into this warming series before, you’re in for a treat. Bearing in mind he’s a Scotsman, Alexander McCall Smith does a remarkable job of conjuring up his protagonist – Botswanan detective Mma Precious Ramotswe – in this first of the beloved franchise, famed for its uplifting prose and gentle humour.
Liza Klaussmann is a relative of Moby Dick author Herman Melville, and the talent for storytelling clearly runs in the family. Tigers in Red Weather is set in the glamorous world of East Coast America, in the 1940s and 50s. A dark secret spools beneath the cocktail parties and boat trips, making for a heady mix of va-va voom and suspense.
Any Maggie O’Farrell book is a pleasure to read, but The Distance Between Us is especially great for wanderlusters. A story that fluctuates between Hong Kong and Scotland, it looks at the fallout from two catastrophic events.
Conjuring up the tastes and smells of Louisiana in the 1930s-1960s, Rebecca Wells’ story is a vibrant nod to the power of female friendship. Family betrayal, loss and the bonds that tie us together are beautifully explored.
One for the road trips
For a road trip, you want a book that you can dip and out of easily. Rampant concentration just isn’t possible when you’re on a bum-numbing bus journey through Tamil Nadu, or jostling for elbow space on a Moroccan train. Ideally, you’ll also want something that pays homage to hitting the road, and captures the transformative power of adventure.
A hilarious tale of “finding yourself” in India, this story will ring true for anyone who’s ever been backpacking. It’s a brilliant caricature of a teen man’s first trip out into the big wide world, and the sex, arguments, food poisoning and cringe-y attempts at self-discovery that go with it.
Jon Kraukauer documents the real-life story of one of the greatest tragedies to unfold on the peaks of Everest, when a rogue storm claimed the lives of eight climbers in the mid-90s. A riveting tale of what happens when mankind confronts the mighty power of nature.
Esther Freud explores her mum’s odyssey to Morocco in the mid-70s, with her and her sister in tow. Cue: kaftan coats, spiritual enlightenment and strangers in souks – all seen from the hilarious and incisive perspective of a young child.
The mother of all road trips unfolds in Jack Kerouac’s classic coming-of-age tale. Two friends gallivant through the US and Mexico in the 1950s, to a backdrop of drugs, alcohol and sex. Get right to the heart of the Beat generation in this poetic, jazz-like riff of a story.
Author Douglas Rogers follows his parents’ attempts to run a backpacker resort in their native Zimbabwe, against a growing backdrop of political and economic chaos. Soldiers, spies, teen diamond dealers, prostitutes and marijuana production: all star in this funny and moving story of enterprise in the face of adversity.
The solo dining story
Dining alone is a rare pleasure indeed in these frenetic times we live in. Make the most of it by choosing a book based around the rite of self-expression and reflection. Then sit back with your glass of Chablis, and soak in the wealth of wisdom.
Ikigai is the Japanese practice of finding one’s drive or purpose in life. It’s set to become this season’s answer to the Danish concept of Hygge, with a stream of new books lined up on how you can you can find very your own sense of Ikigai. This is one the best.
Alexandra Heminsley’s account of learning to wild swim for the first time is both very honest, and wonderfully enriching. Seen through her eyes, you understand exactly how breaking out of your comfort zone and facing your fears leads to a boom in self-esteem.
With breath-taking clarity, journalist Charles Duhigg dissects exactly why it is that we develop the habits that we do. He presents a wealth of social research in an easy way to show how easily you can make and break your own habits, using incremental steps to transform your life.
Writer Helen Russell charts her move from London to Denmark, an egalitarian country where the 9-5 grind is replaced by an emphasis on happiness, freedom and personal wellbeing. Great for anyone who feels stuck in the corporate rut.
This lucid and touching book from Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman unpicks fallacies and biases around the way that we think. He contrasts the two systems of thinking that we all possess (fast and emotional versus slow and logical) and by doing so, shows how a lot of what we think is actually illusion. It’s a remarkable – if slightly alarming – read, with boundless potential for self-growth.
Whereabouts will you read next?
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