There’s not going to be too much holiday travel outside of our own borders this summer. One of my favourite ways to travel, aside from physically going somewhere, is travel by book. Sometimes, reading a story that is of its place means that you get to know a place far better than if you just visited a few tourist spots. Another reason why mind travel is so fantastic is that you can go to places that don’t exist in real life.
If the thought of not travelling outside of your own borders this summer is getting you down, then you might want to have a look at my book list below. Each book has transported me far from my own world and introduced me to a new place, new people and new stories. Of course, there are so many books that do this, but I’ve chosen ones that are a very easy read – requiring almost no mental energy – and so are a soothing balm for a frazzled mind.
Some of these books have become favourite destinations over a lifetime and some have been thrilling for me to visit recently for the first time.
Enjoy, my friends!
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes – Suzanne Collins
Published in 2020, the Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is the prequel to the wildly successful Hunger Games trilogy. Normally, I don’t like prequels – it feels like the author has taken the safe and slightly uninspired option to quickly cash in on success. This is most definitely not the case with The Ballard of Songbirds and Snakes. The Ballard takes us back in time to President Coriolanus Snow’s youth; to his last year in school. The Hunger Games is still in its infancy. We see both the Hunger Games and Coriolanus Snow gradually transform into the entities that we are familiar with from the trilogy.
Like all the best books, you can read this book on many levels; as a light-hearted thriller or as a compassionate exploration of what war does to youth, idealism and innocence. The Ballad is a good read as a stand-alone thriller. But, I think the most satisfying read must be for those who love Panem. Like a much-loved holiday destination, The Ballad allows you go back and linger over familiar places and unearth new favourites.
Conclave – Robert Harris
Conclave might be a bit of an unusual choice given that at its heart is a form of lockdown, but for me, reading it is truly a mind-travel experience. Conclave is the fictional story of the election of a new pope – the characters are fictional; the places and procedures real, and extraordinarily vividly brought to life on the page.
For Catholics, I imagine it must be a most beautiful and sacred read. As I am not Catholic, I experienced it as a meditative procedural thriller – which almost seems like an oxymoron. Harris has done an extraordinary job of transporting the reader to the Vatican city, inside its sequestered places to take part in the most secret and sacred of elections. In the story, we follow, Cardinal Lomelli who presides over the conclave, trying to ensure that the person whom God wills, is elected pope. Despite the many gripping events, the story takes on an exceptionally meditative quality. You become familiar – in a way only an insider would - with the Sistine Chapel, the Casa Santa Marta and the bedrooms and dining room of the hotel-like Domus Marthae Sanctae, where the Cardinals stay during the Conclave.
If you need a quiet break with thoughtful meditation in a beautiful place and you can’t quite get there by yourself, then allow this book to direct you.
The Mirror Visitor Series by Christelle Dabos, Hildegarde Serle (Translator)
The Mirror Visitor Series is made up of four books; the fourth due to be published in English in September. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic dis/utopia – we’re not sure which. Long ago, the earth suffered some sort of catastrophe, breaking up into chunks, called arks, that float in a loose orbit around what was once the earth’s core. The population of each ark is distantly related. Each ark is governed by an immortal being, called the family spirit, who has lived on the ark since the very beginning.
The writing is strange and meandering - free from the hand of English editors – who tend to edit so tightly that every single sentence moves a story forward in some way. Without this obsessional editing (of which I usually approve), the story ambles at its own pace through its different worlds, taking many wrong turns, back-tracking and showing glimpses of strange happenings through half open windows and doors. I think that it is this rambling quality that makes the experience of visiting the different worlds feel so real; just like visiting a new place – the excitement of going “off-piste” sometimes rewards with a rich experience, sometimes results in disappointment.
Reading this series is quite a psychedelic experience but what grounds it is the conscientious and careful portrayal of the relationships between people of all types, including a very well fleshed out and empathetic portrait of a neuro-atypical person – that aspect feels very real.
If, over the past year and a half, you have been forced to manage your time so obsessively that you have been a slave to your never-endling to-do list, then I think, this book will help you take your foot off the accelerator and slow down.
Take some deep breaths, dive into a strange new world and allow the experience to wash over you – if you find a story, then so much the better – if not, then it doesn’t really matter.
The Corfu Trilogy – Gerald Durrell
The Corfu Triology is made of up three books, written by naturalist Gerald Durrell describing his utterly idyllic childhood on the Greek island of Corfu, just before the second world war. Everybody who reads these books has been transported to the cloudless blue skies and pristine azure waters of Corfu – pre-mass tourism. These books are classics, yet sometimes, I find that people who came to them in childhood, have forgotten them and are thrilled to go back to those favourite sunny places.
I have read the full Corfu Trilogy every 5 years or so since the first time, when I was 12. I love going with Gerry on trips with his donkey and his dogs, Roger, Widdle and Puke. I adore being in the room with the family as Larry delegates tasks to each member to extinguish the house fire – from the comfort of his bed – while his bedroom smoulders. I love reading about the parties, the adventures, the swimming and the friends – both human and non-human – when not a care in the world exists and the worst thing that can happen is a maths lesson.
None of the screen adaptations of this series come anywhere close to communicating the light hearted rambles through the sparkling Cofu countryside or the lazy afternoon heat drenched swimming in crystal clear waters…so go to the books first.
If you are weary at heart, then travelling to Gerry’s Corfu will help lift your weariness and allow you to see the possibility of a bright, cloudless new day.
The Mermaid of Black Conch - Monique Roffey
The Mermaid of the Black Conch, published in 2020, takes us to a tiny Caribbean island, the fictional, St Constance. While this book is the retelling of a classic tale (a Mermaid coming to live on land, for love), it is most definitely not a classic retelling. Roffey has brought St Constance and its population to life with her detailed knowledge and research of ways of life in the Caribbean. This is not tourist Caribbean – this is the Caribbean of the locals in all its flawed glory. The idea of magical realism as a genre puts off many people, but I think this book is more than that. The story takes Caribbean legends, beliefs, languages and ways of life and weaves them into a fictional story that is told so authentically that it feels as though it could possibly happen today.
Everything is authentic; the island, the weather, the people, their languages, their music, their dreams and most of all the mermaid herself. Although I read this book just under a year ago, the visceral and detailed process of the Mermaid shedding her tail has stayed with me – it’s like nothing I’ve ever read.
Like other books on this list, The Mermaid of the Black Conch can be read on many levels depending on how exhausted you are – you can read it as a beautifully wrought fairy tale, as an anthropological treatise on Caribbean lore and language, as an exploration of the innate connection between humans and the natural world or as an indigenous history.
If you’d like to take a holiday on a Caribbean island and you want to avoid the well-trodden tourist paths, then you’ll enjoy going fishing with David on St Constance in The Mermaid of Black Conch.
My Sister, the Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite
Published in 2018 as Braithwaite’s debut novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer is set in Lagos, Nigeria. The story follows two sisters, Korede and Ayoola. Korede, the quiet, conservative one who covers up her beautiful, flamboyant sister’s murders. In this story, Lagos comes alive and we are invited into places that, as tourists without any personal connections, we’d never, ever get to see. The heat, the colour, the fashion, the food and the music provide a vivid backdrop for the story. As with the best novels, this book has many layers and you can dip into whichever layer suits your mood. It can be read as a light-hearted, blackly comic romp or, if the mood takes you, as a thoughtful and deeply sad exploration of the different effects of patriarchal domination and violence.
Whatever way you want to read this book, you will take a trip, with a difference, into modern day Lagos, full of heat, music, colour and life.