Mind Travel – Books to Take you to Another Place: Part II
As the leaves turn and the nights close in here in the UK, I find that reading makes my dark evenings exciting and fun rather than cold and depressing. If I’ve got a thrilling book to look forward to, I don’t seem to bemoan the short summer or the chill on the air. Instead I relish the beautiful rust colours on my crisp morning runs and the hint of woodsmoke that seems to come with the early afternoon twilight. Knowing I’ve got a good book on the go makes me more optimistic about everything.
In this post, I’ve listed my favourites of my recent reads. While there’s a broad range of genres, the thing that each book has in common is that I found it thrilling and it transported me from whatever reading nook I was in, to another place entirely. When I closed my kindle cover on each of these books, I gratefully returned, refreshed from my travels and secretly relieved to be warm and safe at home.
I hope that everyone will find something in my list that will turn those cold, dark evenings into warmly exciting adventures.
Enjoy, my friends.
Thirteen Lessons that Saved Thirteen Lives: The Thai Cave Rescue by John Volanthen
Thirteen Lessons is a no-nonsense, straight-talking account by the author, British cave diver, John Volanthen who, along with his diving partner Richard Stanton, designed, planned and led the most extraordinary and successful rescue effort the world has ever seen.
In 2018, twelve members of a football team, aged between 11 to 16, and their young assistant coach became trapped by flood waters deep in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system in Chiang Rai when what was supposed to be an afternoon caving trip went horribly wrong.
Bringing all thirteen people to safety, none of whom had any diving experience, under the glare of the world’s media, through dark, underground, narrow flooded tunnels – some barely wide enough to fit one person – was nothing short of miraculous and makes for a very tense reading experience.
What makes this more than just an important and riveting piece of documentary history is that Volanthen has teased out thirteen pieces of life advice and techniques that he used in the planning and execution of the rescue effort, which he believes contributed to its success.
These pieces of life advice are wise, clearly explained, clearly work, and can be applied to any situation. They cover areas such as overcoming hesitation, listening to your gut instinct, the dangers of overfocus, the importance of rest and deciding when to do nothing. Many chapters resonated with me and I’ve incorporated his advice into my own life – particularly the chapter on listening to your gut instinct, which I have a tendency to discount.
Although Volanthen’s portrayal of what happened is unembellished, this does not mean that it is dry and unengaging. His straight-talking descriptions of the challenges of the rescue is enough to make even the least claustrophobic person gasp for air; utterly terrifying situations need no embellishment.
After finishing this book, I was left with a sense of deep gratitude that there are people like Volanthen in this world.
V2 by Robert Harris
Generally, I don’t like fictionalised books about World War II. Growing up, my grandparents’ stories of WWII Germany, their flight as refugees to Australia and their horrific stories of trauma, loss and struggle has meant that WWII stories have never been entertainment for me…until now.
Robert Harris’ V2 is centred on the Nazi’s V2 missile programme during the final days of the war. It follows two characters, a German scientist who leads the missile programme and a member of the British Women’s Auxiliary Airforce who is sent to one of the final frontiers of the war to help destroy V2 missile launch sites.
Despite the topic, it is an easy and undemanding read with enough technical detail about the inner workings of the V2 missile and the start of the missile programme to satisfy military historians. I enjoyed reading about the British war effort and the workings of the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce – certainly their extraordinary contributions have been underrated.
It was also interesting to read about how the German scientists, many who were merely sci-fi nerds at heart, ended up leading one of the most important Nazi war effort programmes and how ignoring everything around them was a survival mechanism as well as a crime against humanity.
I mostly love Robert Harris’ books* and this one, written respectfully, is a light-hearted and entertaining read.
Out by Natsuo Kirino
I read Out when it was first translated into English in the early 2000s. It stayed in my mind ever since and I’ve recently gone back to it. For me, it was just as gripping and disturbing the second time round. On its surface, Out is a darkly disturbing story of murder and alienation played out in the seedy areas of Tokyo, with the ominous yakuza (the Japanese mafia) ever present. Despite the violence, I really love this book because it takes you to places in Tokyo that most people, residents and tourists alike, would never get to see.
In Out, we get to know the intimate workings of a bento (beautifully boxed lunches) factory, a hostess bar and a loan shark business. We see the private lives of Tokyo’s working poor and those whose alienation from mainstream society has led them to fringe industries controlled by the yakuza. From a Western point of view, Tokyo and its residents are prosperous, well-educated and privileged – Tokyo’s poor and alienated never have a voice on the international stage, so this book gives us a glimpse into a world that has hitherto been closed to us - it is eye-opening.
At a deeper level, Out explores aspects of the unforgiving, unbending nature of Japanese society, which can crush people to such an extent that they never recover. Out poses, and I believe answers, the question – can anybody rejected from mainstream society in Japan live happily ever after in Japan?
The skill of Kirino as a writer is awe inspiring – the story is driven by the decisions of the main characters – each decision relentlessly propels the story forward and builds a sense of dread. This book is a beautifully observed story of understanding and compassion for the many, many people who do not fit in to Japanese society. Like so much of Japanese literary and artistic output - it is extremely and graphically violent. Violent death and its possibility hovers over every sentence.
This is a book to read when dark nights feel exciting and full of possibility and not when they feel bleak and depressing.
Box 88 and Judas 62 Charles Cumming
Box 88 and Judas 62 are two books in a new series of British spy novels by Charles Cumming, one of my favourite espionage authors. Box 88, the first novel, published in 2020, introduces British school boy, Lachlan Kite, as he is recruited into an off-book espionage agency called Box 88. Judas 62, published a few weeks ago, carries on where Box 88 leaves off.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a more contemporary series of spy novels – Box 88 is set very recently and Judas 62 is set, very specifically, in 2020.
It’s thrilling to read about mounting espionage operations in the covid era. So many spy novels are set in the cold war or in WWII and we essentially know the ultimate outcome of any espionage operation described. In these novels, it’s all to play for and it’s so refreshing.
I love Cummings description of Box 88 being one of the last things that Obama funded – taking up 7% of America’s $90 billion intelligence budget and being listed as the line item, “overseas contingency operations.” Box 88 is unknown to either MI6 or the CIA, though both suspect its existence.
These novels are something special – Cummings description of Kite’s school years in the UK in the 90s and the operations he participates in as a young university student, as well as the contemporary operations he mounts are truly evocative.
If you love spy novels like I do, then you will love reading these two gripping stories unfold in almost real, contemporaneous time. I love the pitch that main character, Lachlan Kite, gives to a young agent who is considering whether the personal cost of a life in espionage is worth it; Kite says:
“Our challenge…is to make it as difficult as possible for corrupt people and those that serve them to remain in power and to manipulate the truth. If we stop doing what we’re doing…you’ll make it easier for greed and the sickness of misinformation to undermine our society.”
These brilliantly fun spy novels leave you with the hope that there really are people like Lachlan Kite, and organisations like Box 88, in this world.
*The only exception is Second Sleep – which I know many people loved, but wasn’t for me.
If you enjoyed reading this list, you might enjoy reading Part I of this series, Mind Travel: Books to take you to another place.