DEFINED by the OED as “a long adventurous journey – a series of wanderings”, the word Odyssey has become a convenient label, denoting travel books zigging or zagging through often anecdotal meanderings laced with humour and home-spun philosophy. A considered trawl through this year’s best travel books is an odyssey in itself.
Among the unmissables are Jonathan Tucker’s The Silk Road (IB Taurus, £14.99), a two-volume “travel companion” journeying across centuries and vast distances, from China through Central Asia to Iran. It’s a must-read accompaniment for readers seeking to touch any part of that daunting terrain.
Other “odyssey” titles include The Saffron Road, (Portobello, £14.99), by Christine Toomey, who traces the journeys of Buddhist nuns from Nepal into India and Burma, venturing onwards to North America and Europe, revealing the challenges posed by devotion to a monastic way of life in cultures as various as those of San Francisco, Japan and France. Malachy Tallack’s 60 Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home (Polygon £12.99), charts his westward peregrination, veering from Shetland to Northern Canada via Greenland (“a great arrowhead hurled southward from the Pole”), in consistently captivating prose, while Miles Moreland’s Cobra in the Bath (Bloomsbury, £16.99), mixes travelogue and memoir, displaying his gift for comic adventures, often high-risk, and set in some of the world’s most dangerous terrain.
In a different world, Paul Theroux takes us into the bolt holes, burrows and back roads of America’s Deep South (Hamish Hamilton, £20), conversing non-stop with the chorus of locals he encounters, recording them vividly to create a mosaic of place as good as anything he has written. Closer to home, Patrick Barkham charts the wild edges of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, bringing Coastlines (Granta, £9.99) into sharp focus, evoking nature and the romance of coastal places as he walks 700 miles of entrancing vistas.
Mingling landscape and language, in Landmarks (Hamish Hamilton, £20) Robert Macfarlane traverses the British Isles from the Cairngorms to the fenlands, gathering a huge archive of place-terms with astonishingly diverse linguistic roots.
Written with grace and suppleness, Landmarks is a classic in the making. Classic re-issues this year are headed by DH Lawrence’s Twilight in Italy (Taurus Park Paperbacks, £8.99), Lawrence’s homage to Lake Garda living, and by Venice (Faber, £8.99), in which Jan Morris’s immersion in the ethereal, historical and cultural diversions of the one-time city state remains as unmatched as it is unforgettable. By comparison, Nicholas Whittaker’s Platform Souls (Icon Books, £14.99) – a revised updated version of the 20 year old cult classic –raises trainspotting into anti-heroic prominence once again, from the age of steam to electric modernity.
Sparks become visible, almost tangible, in Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible (Faber, £14.99), a travel-trawl with the fizz of picaresque fiction, giving the world of crazed modern Russia bedazzling yet dark exposure. Pomerantsev pares the dirt from under the fingernails of a clawing, corrupt fat-cat stratum of society – riveting yet disturbing.
A Journey Into Russia (Armchair Traveller, £9.99), takes Jens Muhling into Russia’s riven terrain from Kiev and Moscow to St Petersburg and Siberia and on towards the people of the Steppes, unveiling individual tales of people surviving against the odds. Less often written about are the Dutch, famed for their tolerance, but in Why the Dutch are Different (Nicholas Brealey, £10.99), a torchbeam of scrutiny plays across the country’s past and its lesser known foibles. Author Ben Coates has produced an insightful gem.
One of the year’s most moving books is Losing Israel (Seren Books, £12.99), by Jasmine Donahaye. It too conflates present and past as Donahaye revisits her Israeli roots and asks piercing questions about identity, bringing Israel intensely alive. My Journey (Rider/Ebury, £20), by Samar Yazbek, even more powerfully lays bare the shocking reality of Syria today, while Ranulph Fiennes’ Heat (Simon & Schuster, £20) takes a lifetime’s trip across his adventures in some of the planet’s most sizzling regions. Heat is a ‘dip-into’ book, as is A Nile Anthology (IB Taurus, £11.99), bringing the fabulous length of this real yet mythical river swimming before us in the words of seasoned travellers.
Top of the coffee-table travel-book stack comes the Lonely Planet duo: Wild World (£29.99) and Beautiful World (£19.99), offering instant wow-packed pictures of some of the planet’s most stunning locations. Both perfect gifts, as is Bill Bryson’s latest tootle exploring England: The Road to Little Dribbling (Doubleday, £20), less of an odyssey than a hoot.