Book reviews: The best travel books of 2017

Havana, Cuba
Havana, Cuba
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From light-hearted tales about Greece to the border politics of Northern Ireland, Tom Adair finds something for every taste

Among this year’s travel books, two must-reads are Alistair Moffat’s The Hidden Ways (Canongate, £20) and Terry J Williams’s Walking with Cattle: In Search of the Last Drovers of Uist, (Birlinn, £7.99). Moffat, curious and perceptive, follows “a faded map of roads no longer travelled” connecting us with Scotland’s ancient past as he treks from the Borders to the Grampians, writing like a man who reads the past, as well as the land, through the soles of his boots.

Terry J Williams, more compact and focused in her ambition, pursues Uist’s drovers from the Atlantic’s edge to the marts of Oban and Dingwall, bringing us memories from practitioners of a former way of life. Her subject is the marriage of people and place, and in careful prose, and with black and white photographs, she makes a fascinating a way of life both grounded and heroic.

Extending the radius of travel, Islander: A Journey Around Our Archipelago, (Granta, £20), has Patrick Barkham ambitiously island-hopping a dozen of the 6,291 British isles, from Mainland Orkney to the Scillies; from Rathlin, lodged between Ulster and Scotland, to unpopulated Ray Island, east of Essex. From largest to smallest he captures the rhythms and uniqueness of each island’s essence, painting pictures of inhabitants and landscape in a succinctly enticing read.

Coincidentally, one of his islands, Ynys Enlli, off the Welsh coast, features in Nick Hunt’s Where the Wild Winds Are, (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, £16.99), a magic carpet ride lifting Hunt across the Pennines on the Helm and to slipstream the Bora from Trieste to the coast of Croatia, before catching the Foehn through Alpine Switzerland, concluding with a smack from the mighty Mistral, the “wind of madness” which tortured Vincent Van Gogh into genius. Here is a book which teaches that air, the giver of life, can also be deadly.

Coming as light relief, Escape to Ikaria by Nick Perry, (Polygon, £9.99), is a tale of folly, of risking all to pursue a dream, uprooting a family from their Welsh hill farm to head for Greece, low on drachmas and common sense. The story – the ending of which we anticipate – is told with disarming aplomb, packed with characters and incidents, and exhibiting much that is good in human nature, told in writing that constantly glides.

The prose stars too in Choo Waihong’s The Kingdom of Women, (Taurus, £17.99), which brilliantly penetrates a matrilineal-matriarchal society on the Chinese-Tibetan belt-lands – accidentally so, as the author, researching her roots, discovers a place which time has frozen. From there she excavates the stories of many women, revealing a world which stands alone and is almost unique.

More colourful still is Mark Kurlansky’s Havana, (Bloomsbury, £16.99), a gift of a subject, fully exploited as Kurlansky digs up the roughage of its history, unearthing its music, its writing, its charm and noirish brutalities in his signature-seamless style, deserving the cliché “unforgettable”. Likewise striking, The Land Beyond by Leon McCarron (Taurus, £17.99), feels like one half of a conversation in which your role is simply to listen. The author treks 1,000 miles across the risk-lands of Jordan and Sinai. He makes it impossible not to follow as he crosses, firing tough questions at those who bring him hospitality, while he penetrates not just the heart of that tricky terrain, but also its mind.

My star read of the year – an unlikely one perhaps – is Finding Eden by Robin Hanbury-Tenison (Taurus, £17.99). Borneo, somewhat hackneyed these days as travel terrain, is made fresh here not least because the author recounts an expedition-cum-exploration he made 40 years ago. We follow him into a lush and gothic darkness. The dangers are real, but paradoxically it’s the bond of trust and affection he forms with his guide that comes to express the special spirit of the forest, and the spell its casts upon writer and reader alike.

Matching Hanbury-Tenison’s clarity and engagement is Garrett Carr, whose The Rule of the Land, (Faber, £8.99), travels the border that joins (and separates) Northern Ireland from its southern neighbour. His is a journey into the potency of politics and history woven through place – a significant feature, and presently a flashpoint in the Brexit negotiations.

For readers seeking some more practical travel inspirations, Lonely Planet has this year excelled with several volumes that cast their nets across the globe. Both Culture Trails (£19.99) and Epic Drives of the World (£24.99) offer dazzling photographs and texts that will have you leaping to rent that Mustang to head, among many other options, for the Icefields Parkway in Canada, or to immerse yourself in the Aboriginal art of northern Australia.