I'm guessing that if you love travelling, there’s a good chance you also love reading. Why? Travellers are curious people, we want to learn, grow, understand and analyse – and books can help us do all these things. I’m always on the lookout for a new book to read, so I wanted to share some of my favourites with you.
Below is a list of the best books that I’ve read recently. There's a little bit of a theme it seems; I’m largely a non-fiction reader but I also dabble in historical fiction, and a tiny bit of just plain old fiction. I like books that teach me about, and let me reflect on, the world. I hate to admit it, but many of the books below are depressing…but they’re also extremely uplifting...in their own way. At the very least, most are books you’ll keep thinking about well after you’ve read them, and books whose stories you’ll share with friends, insisting that they go away and read them straight away. Or am I the only one who forces books on my friends?!
So in no particular order, here are my current book recommendations. I may or may not have overused phrases like 'couldn't put it down', and 'a real page turner', but hey, I'm a travel writer not a book reviewer! If you've got one for me, please let me know in the comments section below.
The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, by Hyeonseo Lee
This autographical book is a fascinating, and somewhat terrifying, look into what life is like in North Korea. The author Hyeonseo Lee, who escaped the dictatorial regime when she was just 17, is truly inspirational. A must read for anybody who is curious about how North Koreans live and what it's like to abscond from the hermit nation.
Find out more: The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story
Lilac Girls: A Novel, by Martha Hall Kelly
Based on a true story, this book follows the lives of three women, who experienced World War II in extremely different ways. One is an American socialite who is somewhat removed from the worst effects of the war but is trying to help from afar, another is an ambitious doctor who works for the Nazi party and the third is a prisoner in a concentration camp. Three completely different accounts of the same terrible event – I couldn’t put it down.
Find out more: Lilac Girls: A Novel
We Were the Lucky Ones, by Georgia Hunter
Once you’ve finished reading this book, you won’t believe it’s based on a true story. It follows the story of a Polish Jewish family who are quickly split up during the chaos of World War II. It's extremely upsetting and emotional, but each family member's plight will draw you in and turn you into a speed reader, racing to the end of the book, desperately hoping and silently praying that they all survive.
Find out more: We Were the Lucky Ones
The Woman on the Orient Express, by Lindsay Jayne Ashford
This is a historical fiction book that taught me a lot about the days of glamorous train travel and the life of well-known author Agatha Christie (and don’t worry you don’t have to have read any of her books to enjoy this – I hadn’t). After discovering her husband is having an affair, Christie sets off on the Orient Express to heal herself and incidentally gains the inspiration for her famous novel Murder of the Orient Express.
Find out more: The Woman on the Orient Express
I am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes
This books starts with a murder in New York, but solving the murder (and subsequently trying to stop the world from biochemical disaster) takes the protagonist to many countries, including Syria, Afghanistan and Turkey. For me, this was a complete page-turner, if you don’t mind a few fairly graphic gory details here and there.
Find out more: I am Pilgrim
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
Quirky, weird and touching, and in many parts extremely funny and sad. The book is about Eleanor Oliphant who has lived in Glasgow for the entirety of her well-structured, lonely and boring life, until everything begins to unravel – which is where the story starts. Light-hearted, fun and easy to read.
Find out more: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
The Island, by Victoria Hislop
This beautiful historical fiction novel taught me a lot about Greece in the early 20th Century, when the country established a leper colony on a tiny island off the east coast of Crete that remained there for almost 50 years. The story brings to life the realities of the time by exploring a fictional family’s journey of dealing and living with leprosy.
Find out more: The Island
Beneath a Scarlet Sky: A Novel, by Mark T. Sullivan
A true story about an 18-year-old Italian, Pino Lella, whose life is thrown into chaos by World War II. After helping to save Jews by guiding them through the Italian Alps to safety, Pino is forced to become a driver for Adolf Hitler’s right hand man in Italy, General Hans Leyers. This book has so many twists and turns, you won’t believe it’s true, but you will fall in love with Pino’s courage and story of survival.
Find out more: Beneath a Scarlet Sky: A Novel
The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
An oldie, but a goldie; as far I’m concerned this book is a masterpiece. It’s the story of a young man who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty. Dorian is an utterly selfish protagonist; you can see the car crash coming – but you just can't look away.
Find out more: The Picture of Dorian Gray
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari
This is a very long book – but I guess how could it not be when it’s covering all of human history? I found it very slow at the beginning, but if you persevere you’ll learn a lot and come away with a different perspective on the world and the societal constructions we all adhere to.
Find out more: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan
This book is another gut wrenching account of the Second World War – but from a different angle. It covers Australian prisoners of war in a Japanese camp in Burma during the 1940s. While it’s not a true story, it is inspired by true events, so I learnt a lot. It’s a slightly slow starter – but once you get into it you’ll understand why this book won the Man Booker prize in 2014.
Find out more: The Narrow Road to the Deep North
The Crimson Petal and The White, by Michel Faber
A story about a prostitute called Sugar in Victorian England, that will make you feel like you’re there. But London in 1870s was not a nice place to be – gritty, dirty, poverty stricken, except, of course, if you were part of high-society. I loved how much I learnt about London in this era, and found myself powering through this book despite its length. The only thing I will say is I found the end a bit unsatisfying…let me know if you agree.
Find out more: The Crimson Petal and The White
The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion
Finally a book that shows that I do occasionally read some upbeat novels. A funny, honest and endearing story about a socially inept scientist who wants to find love, but is looking in all the wrong places. A good lesson that what we think we want, is not always what we actually need.
Find out more: The Rosie Project
The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris
I almost didn’t read this book, because as you can see I’ve read too many books about the Holocaust recently. But the good reviews and cheap price (it was only £1 on Kindle!) got to me eventually. And I’m so glad they did – the true story of Lale Sokolov is heart breaking, sickening and uplifting all at the same time. Lale, was a Slovakian Jew, who was forced to be a tattoo artist at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland during the Second World War. His story of survival and love – yes he falls in love in the camp – is one that will stay with me for a long time.
Find out more: The Tattooist of Auschwitz
One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway, by Åsne Seierstad
I read this book on my first visit to Norway, which was strange. I was in a country that felt safe, comfortable, clean, rich – and yet a man who had grown up in this world, had massacred seventy-seven of his fellow citizens (the majority of who were children) just years earlier. Why? This book aims to give us some insight into this unthinkable tragedy and does so extremely well, albeit sometimes in too much graphic and gory detail.
Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics, by Tim Marshall
This book is fascinating; it lays out world politics in ways I’d never considered before. If you’re like me, you’ll learn something and probably many things – and enjoy the experience along the way.
Find out more: Prisoners of Geography
Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell
Despite its cult following, I have struggled to read 1984; I find it slow, and I am yet to be pulled in enough to finish it. I loved this book however, which is basically Orwell’s autobiography of his early years as a penniless writer in both Paris and London. Despite terrible living conditions, Orwell manages to be humorous and teach the reader many lessons about morals, society and poverty that are still valuable today's world.
Find out more: Down and Out in Paris and London
A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara
This book is long and quite depressing, and yet, I loved it. It follows the lives of four American friends over the years, but it is the main character Jude who the story really belongs to. The character development is what makes this book so special. A depressing must read if you ask me.
Find out more: A Little Life