Ticket to read
The best travel narratives, crime capers and novels for the summer season
MELBOURNE’S Transit Lounge imprint has had a busy 12 months, with a rucksack’s worth of travel narratives on its list. ‘‘We have a particular interest in creative literary publishing that explores the relationships between East and West, entertains and promotes insights into diverse cultures and encompasses diverse genres,’’ is this publisher’s philosophy.
Best of the recent bunch from Transit Lounge is the lyrical The Comfort of Water: A River Pilgrimage by Maya Ward ($32.95), which covers a journey from the sea to the source of Victoria’s Yarra River. Also notable is Riding the Trains in Japan: Travels in the Sacred and Supermodern East by Patrick Holland ($29.95).
It’s been two decades since Holidays in Hell, the funniest travel book of its time, whose title gave instant rise to an enduring catchphrase. P. J. O’rourke is now better known as a political humorist and self-described ‘‘Republican party reptile’’; his rightwing ravings aside, he’s still a hilarious commentator on travel, but these days journeys with his family and chooses (slightly) less hellish climes. His new anthology, Holidays in Heck (Grove Press, $29.99), begins when he retires from being a war correspondent because he’s too old to keep being scared stiff and too stiff to keep sleeping on the ground.
Roger Housden has written and edited poetry anthologies and carries the works of the 13th-century Iranian poet, Rumi, on his journey to Iran, which takes in Tehran, Isfahan, Persepolis and Shiraz. Saved by Beauty: Adventures of an American Romantic in Iran ($22.54 with free shipping at fishpond.com.au) is a meditat- ive and thoughtful work, peppered with poetry and philosophy, but there are dodgy moments, too, especially when he is detained by humourless intelligence agents for 36 hours.
Tibet’s Kailash is ‘ ‘ the most sacred of the world’s mountains and holy to one-fifth of humanity’’; in To a Mountain in Tibet (Random House, $ 29.95), acclaimed British travel author and novelist Colin Thubron, a devotee of Asia’s least trammelled regions, treks beside the Karnali River, a tributary of the Ganges, on a treacherous pilgrimage to reach the fabled peak.
Last year marked the centenary of American explorer Hiram Bingham’s ‘‘rediscovery’’ of Peru’s Machu Picchu. In the timely Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time by Mark Adams (Dutton, $ 39.95), the author retraces Bingham’s path in search of the answer to the perennial quandary of why the Incas built this precarious and sophisticated citadel.
In January 1992, a cargo ship from Hong Kong, caught in a storm in the north Pacific, lost 12 containers of bath toys, many of them little ducks that bobbed off on their own journeys, washing up in various climes, with amusing and far-reaching results, as chronicled in the enjoyable Moby-duck by Donovan Hohn (Scribe, $35).
Lonely Planet churns out several anthologies a year, typically edited by Don George, who compiles collections of themed essays by the world’s best travel scribes. In A House Somewhere: Tales of Life Abroad ($24.99), scholarly writers such as Jan Morris, William Dalrymple and Pico Iyer, and the very funny Tim Parks, tell us about places with ‘‘mysterious attractions’’ so irresistible that they have upped sticks and moved there. Check lonelyplanet.com for other anthologies on themes from life-changing food encounters to hapless misadventures.
Another excellent anthology released last year is Ox Travels: Meetings with Remarkable Travel Writers (Profile, $24.99), with an introduction by Michael Palin and contributions from the stellar likes of Peter Godwin. And hot to trot this month is The New Granta Book of Travel, edited by Liz Jobey ( Granta, $ 29.99) in which Jonathan Raban introduces standout essays from the past 20 years, with bylines as familiar as Bruce Chatwin, Redmond O’hanlon and Paul Theroux. Whether cosy or hard-boiled, the best crime writing revels in a distinct sense of place and, for my holiday bucks, there’s nothing more appealing than reading, say, a Miss Marple whodunit when touring county England or, if pitched up in Botswana, being in company with Alexander Mccall Smith’s marvellous sleuth Precious Ramotswe of The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency fame.
Michael Stanley is the writing name of Johannesburg academics Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip; their likable gumshoe is Botswana’s Detective Kubu, a chap who insists on three square meals a day and a good supply of steelworks (tonic, bitters and ginger beer). You’ll find Kubu in fine and nosy form in The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu ( Harpercollins, $23.95) and, soon to be released, Death of the Mantis.
Singapore-based Shamini Flint has also created a portly detective with a taste for hearty tucker. The latest in her pacy Inspector Singh Investigates series is A Deadly Cambodian Crime Spree (Piaktus, $22.99), while Colin Cotterill, creator of Dr Siri, Laos’s elderly coroner and solver of dastardly crimes, is back this month in Slash and Burn (Quercus, $24.99).
I discovered Marco Vichi’s oldschool Italian policeman, Inspector Bordelli, who exists on a regime of grappa, espressos and cigarettes, in Death i n August last October and now have packed in my port the next in the series, Death and the Olive Grove (Hodder & Stoughton, $32.99). It’s April 1964 and little girls are being murdered as a ‘‘grey, damp sky’’ hangs over Florence. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $29.95) is a fantastical debut set in the former Yugoslavia; it won the Orange Prize for Fiction last year. Melbourne-based expatriate Sri Lankan writer Chandani Lokuge does a subcontinental shift to Australian suburbia for her poignant third novel, Softly, As I Leave You (Arcadia, $24.95).
The wonderfully pompous Professor Doctor Moritz-maria von Igelfeld is back in Mccall Smith’s Unusual Uses for Olive Oil (Little, Brown, $ 32.99), based in the Bavarian city of Regensburg (I warrant you’ll be hooked and will want to read Mccall Smith’s earlier Von Igelfeld titles: Portuguese Irregular Verbs, The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs and At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances). Anyone who’s ever thought of opening a resort, B&B or small hotel should read Building Paradise by David Macfarlane (Wakefield Press, $24.95), a refreshingly honest account of setting up an eco- lodge in the Queensland Whitsundays. For 14 years, he battled the entrenched tourism culture, bureaucracy and nasty naysayers to make his dream a reality.
There is imaginative storytelling and a brave, unclouded evocation of East Africa in Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller (Simon & Schuster, $29.99), the sequel to her 2002 Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight; these are the best books I’ve read on the dislocation of the expatriate experience and the fragile imperfections of family. Susan Kurosawa’s crime novel set in 1960s Bombay will be released by Penguin in 2012.
A hundred years after its ‘rediscovery’, there’s still an air of mystery about the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru
Jill Scott in the TV version of The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency