Choosing a good book for a holiday takes weeks of research so in this post I’ll save you time and effort in recommending what I consider the 23 best books to read while travelling. For convenience, I’ve divided the lengthy list into Humour, Crime/Thrillers and Love/Life-affirming reads.
If you prefer true stories and commentary, then check out my Understand the World non-fiction recommendations.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka: “Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcée. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade”…And so begins the riotous tale set in the English midlands which packed the shelves of book shops in the mid-2000s albeit with one of the most misleading titles in fiction history. It follows the story of estranged sisters Nadezhda and Vera who team up to battle the gold-digging fluffy pink grenade Valentina from financially exploiting their father, retired engineer Nikolai. The title comes from Nikolai’s attempt to document the history of tractors. Author Lewycka is a German-born Ukrainian refugee who grew up in England.
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett: As a nod of gratitude to the role libraries have played in his life to the essential role books play in all of our lives the widely-acclaimed Bennett takes the UK Head of State and puts her in a fictional setting with satirical and amusing results. In a nutshell, Queen Elizabeth II’s dogs stray off track and discover the City of Westminster’s mobile library van parked at the edge of the royal estate. And so begins the monarch’s journey of subversive self-discovery when she begins borrowing books.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend: Townsend has also put UK royalty in fictional settings but it was her Adrian Mole series which catapulted her to fame. The book was first published in 1982 but remains as relevant nowadays given Townsend’s witty description of the universal angst that is teenage life combined with the clash of Adrian’s aspirations and pretentiousness with those of his working-class parents. Seven more Adrian Mole books were published but start with this one.
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion: Professor Don Tillman is the protagonist of Simsion’s novel and an unlikely character for a smash hit. Tillman’s search for the perfect wife results in The Wife Project, a detailed scientific questionnaire based on his work as a genetics academic. Enter Rosie, a psychology PhD student who has been advised to contact Don to assist her with her search for her biological father. And so begins The Father Project which reveals unexpected results both in and outside the science lab. Set in Australia, The Rosie Project is not only a hilarious read but an intuitive take on relationships as well.
Hector and the Secrets of Love by Francois Lelord: Another hilarious take on romance and relationships is the second in the Hector’s Journeys series by French psychiatrist Francois Lelord. Hector is a psychiatrist who is tasked to track down the wayward Professor Cormorant who has disappeared with a love potion. Along the way Hector gains insights and truths into love which he records as seedlings (e.g. Jealousy is a sign of attachment). This book should be essential reading for anyone undertaking their first adult relationship. Then again, a broken heart is an easy affliction to market products to!
Wilt by Tom Sharpe: I was first introduced to Tom Sharpe’s works through the brilliant film version of Wilt albeit with reservations that the book couldn’t possibly be as good as Griff Rhys Jones, Alison Steadman and Mel Smith’s portrayal of the main characters on screen. I need not have worried as the book version is equally, if not more, outrageously funny. Set in England, it tells the story of down-trodden husband and academic Henry Wilt whose daytime fantasies of murdering his domineering wife are realised when Eva goes missing. With Henry’s smart-arse reaction to police procedure, an inept detective and a rubber doll…what could possibly go right!
The Wimbledon Poisoner by Nigel Williams: Meet another Henry with fantasies of murdering his wife. In Williams’ black comedy where middle class England meets murderous intentions Henry Farr acts on his fantasies inspired by a previous instance of poisoning in the same district. We get a detailed description of Henry’s friends and neighbours on Maple Drive, and watch the demise of some as they become the unintended victims of Henry’s botched poisoning attempts. You’ll never eat marinade chicken in the same way again.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: Like the mode of transport in the title, Hawkins’ psychological thriller gathers momentum slowly by introducing us to its characters Rachel, Megan and Anna but when it reaches top speed it’s a riveting read. Rachel is the girl in the title, Anna is the woman Rachel’s ex-husband left her for and Megan is Anna’s babysitter. Megan goes missing, Rachel’s drunken stupors play havoc with her memory whilst Anna plays the beautiful stay-at-home mother. Want to know more? I’m not telling!
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson: The first of the Millennium series, Larsson’s books went on to become international smash-hits, made into films, both Swedish and English versions, and assured us that Scandinavia is a good place to start a search for a good thriller. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo concerns disgraced Swedish journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, who is hired by a wealthy businessman to investigate the disappearance of his niece. He is joined in his investigation by computer hacker and social misfit, Lisbeth Salander. Whilst all books in the Millennium series are excellent they must be read in order.
1222 by Anne Holt: Staying in Scandinavia, Holt’s homage to Agatha Christie begins at 1222 metres above sea-level during a Norwegian snowstorm which derails the train that former detective Hanne Wilhelmsen is travelling on. The passengers retreat to a hotel and soon enough the wheelchair-bound Hanne finds herself in familiar territory – investigating a murder. Holt is a former Norwegian Minister for Justice and has published a number of stand-alone Wilhelmsen novels – 1222 is number 8 but the first to be translated into English.
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie: The world’s greatest crime writer and one of the best-selling novelists of all time was not going to be omitted from my list! First published in 1934, the title is self-explanatory and the plot involves Christie’s regular detective, Belgian Hercule Poirot, flexing his little grey cells investigating the murder of a fellow passenger after the Orient Express train on which he is travelling is halted by a snowdrift near a town in Yugoslavia (now modern-day Croatia). Filmed and televised several times, the original version hasn’t lost any of its magic.
The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth: A thriller which takes the reader all over Europe, The Day of the Jackal was inspired by the failed assassination attempt on French President Charles de Gaulle in 1962 by the paramilitary group, the OAS. Forsyth’s fiction continues the story of the OAS and their recruitment of a professional hitman, an Englishman who calls himself The Jackal. A wonderfully crafted book, Forsyth’s first foray into fiction has become a classic.
Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less by Jeffrey Archer: Politics, adultery, perjury, imprisonment – It sounds like an outlandish plot but, is in fact, a brief summary of the eventful life of best-selling novelist Jeffrey Archer. He began his writing career in 1974 and has since become a master storyteller. Published in 1976 Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less concerns the story of four men who plot to recoup the money swindled from them by a conman by re-swindling him.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré: Working with MI5 and MI6 was the ideal preparation for an espionage novelist and it was this novel which brought Le Carré international success. Considered a classic, it concerns British agent Alec Leamas infiltrating the East German Intelligence Services during the Cold War. It’s a tale of morals and unethical decisions which portrays the murky world of espionage as one which is deeply flawed on both sides. Have I given away too much of the story?
LOVE AND LIFE-AFFIRMING
The Moment by Douglas Kennedy: Any of Kennedy’s works are good enough to appear on this list but I choose The Moment as I’ve listed it on my Berlin post as a recommended resource given Kennedy’s superb account of that divided city during the Cold War. It tells the story of a US writer who has retreated from public life in the wake of his divorce. A package arrives from Berlin which conjures up past memories of his brief stint there including the relationship with the only woman he truly loved. Read this and find yourself on the next plane to Berlin!
The Help by Kathryn Stockett: Staying with a US author but moving to 1960s Mississippi, Stockett’s novel was an international smash-hit and subsequently made into a film. It tells the story of white college graduate Skeeter who documents the stories of black maids for a book. Despite portraying the hypocrisy of the racial divide it uses humour and the basic human instinct for connecting to bridge the gap.
As It Is in Heaven by Niall Williams: Recommended by the local book club, Williams’ novel is one of the most beautiful and descriptive accounts of the complexities of life and how loss, loneliness and love both add to and subtract from that experience. And if you’ve never been to Ireland Williams’ depiction of the landscape and weather is sublime, immediately transporting you into the story as an observer. Williams’ writing is so exquisite you’ll find yourself taking breaks and drawing your breath. If ever a book encapsulates literary mindfulness this is it.
One Summer by Roisin Meaney: Set on the fictional Irish island of Roone (real-life Valentia) this is the perfect uplifting escapism one needs when stuck in airport delay hell. It centres on Nell who rents out her cottage on her home island to save money for her upcoming wedding. We meet the island’s characters, the guests who rent the cottage and the truths all unearth. I met Roisin while she wrote this book so knew when reading that the landscape description was that of Valentia. An utterly charming read.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman: And you, the reader, will be completely fine after reading this stunning debut by Scottish writer Gail Honeyman. Sad, heart-warming, and utterly life-affirming the story evolves around Eleanor of the title, her simple life in Glasgow and the socially inept character she appears to everyone else. A medical emergency which precipitates in a random act of kindness draws Eleanor into the world of others and in doing so draws Eleanor out of her past. Given Eleanor’s deadpan wit this choice could be included in the comedy list but that would miss the point of the book – that, to quote poet John Donne, no man is an island.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce: When retired Harold Fry receives a letter from terminally-ill Queenie Hennessy, a former colleague, his walk to the post-box with his reply turns into a cross-country pilgrimage of reflection from Devon to Northumbria. Joyce’s description of social and geographical contemporary England is astoundingly accurate, relatable and entertaining. The characters are every day heroes who dispense nuggets of advice and philosophy. Essential reading before you visit England.
Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda: Translated from French and set in Paris, Hunting and Gathering follows the unlikely friendship between the unobtrusive anorexic Camille, Philibert, his brusque lodger Franck, and Franck’s grandmother Paulette. The story meanders slowly but this novel is character-driven. For me, the book’s title is misleading as the title in French is Ensemble, C’est tout which translates as the much more relevant Together, that’s all.
The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman: Emotionally scarred after duty in World War I, Tom Sherbourne returns home to Australia and takes up the role of Lighthouse Keeper at Janus Rock. Whilst on the mainland he meets Isabel who soon joins him on Janus as his wife where a moral dilemma presents itself. Beautifully crafted, Stedman’s debut novel is a tearjerker and was made into a film with Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander in fine form as Tom and Isabel.
Me Before You by JoJo Moyes: And to my final choice and another international smash-hit, Me Before You follows the story of unemployed Louisa and her new job caring for the dejected Will who requires round-the-clock attention as a result of a road traffic accident. Moyes crafts the characters slowly but surely as they learn from each other how to live life to the full given their circumstances. Another book with a moral dilemma you’ll shed buckets of tears during this one.
And there you have it. Are these the best books to read while travelling? Who and what else could I include?
My list is predominantly composed of British authors and the inclusion of only two Irish authors (Three if you count Douglas Kennedy’s Irish citizenship) will irk folks in my home country. Almost half of my non-fiction list is composed of Irish authors.
And where are the likes of Nineteen-Eighty Four, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas you may ask? Well they belong in a very special list. So stay tuned for that.