Throwback: Three of My Favorite Travel Books

I always like reading books about places where I’ve been and places that I’d like to visit, even if they’re not technically “travel books.” When I reviewed books for a small local magazine, I had the opportunity to read quite a few books that I might not have found otherwise. Some of them were pretty awful, too, which is its own kind of fun.

I decided to dig a few of these old reviews out to share here just to switch things up a bit. This involved combing through old emails, and I still haven’t found all the reviews.

A Few Thoughts About Kiwis Might Fly

One of the missing reviews is also one of my favorites: An English woman went to New Zealand in a search for the “stereotypical Kiwi bloke.” Until reading this book, called Kiwis Might Fly, I’d never realized that this was a thing.

The author, Polly Evans, had a vision of slightly rough-around-the-edges, inventive, and yet slightly sensitive men. She wondered if they were long for this world.

Driving in New Zealand involves winding roads, low speed limits, rainy weather and beautifully distracting scenery.

Evans combined this setup with learning how to ride a motorcycle, so you also get an inside glimpse of the view of a new motorcyclist, which is definitely fun. It also adds a layer to her traipsing around New Zealand, which has some seriously slippy, winding roads that can be dangerous. But hey, at least Evans is used to driving and riding on their side of the road (unlike this guy right here!).

Her discoveries about the state of Kiwi masculinity might surprise you as she hands out with sheep shearers and various other manly working men.

It all adds up to a fun storyline, and I think Evans does a nice job of capturing what New Zealand is like. I haven’t been everywhere across New Zealand, but my two trips there tell me that she was paying attention, taking good notes and is genuinely curious about what happens around her.

This one functions best as a travel book among these books. It’s been awhile, so I need to go back and refresh my memory on what – if anything – Evans had to say about my beloved Rotorua.

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer: Creepiness on the Moors

There are so many things to like about Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands that its plot becomes secondary. It’s the richness of the details that make it such a great book.

About that plot: It’s like The Silence of the Lambs colliding with About a Boy: Steven, an outcast English boy, seeks to fix his fractured family by finding the resting place of his uncle Billy, who disappeared 18 years ago. Billy was 12 when he disappeared – the same age as Steven.

travel books

Steven spends his time digging around Exmoor, a national park in rural England. There, serial child killer Arnold Avery deposited the bodies of his young victims. While some of the children’s remains were recovered, Billy’s wasn’t among them. He takes a gamble by writing a letter to the imprisoned Avery.

Bauer puts readers in the stark setting of Steven’s world. She gives him an authentic voice that can make readers hope that Steven gets some small measure of change in his life. Bullied at school, scorned at home – he doesn’t have a lot going for him.

She also creates an excellent villain in Avery. He’s clever, yet not to the point of a supervillain. Just a real person who’s crafty and twisted. Avery is exactly the sort of fiend you wouldn’t expect to see in the English countryside, which makes him that much more shocking.

Between the setting and two very well-drawn characters, it’s easy to tear through Blacklands and wait for Bauer’s next book.

(Update: Bauer has been busy, and I’ve read at least one of her other books. I also have to add – if you’re a parent, her books will be hard to read without feeling uncomfortable. Also, I’d never thought about visiting the English moors. Now, I’m all in for a look.

Of course, whatever tourism board exists for Exmoor won’t consider this a travel book. That’s too bad — they could probably attract goths in droves!)

The Tricking of Freya: Nailing the Icelandic Vibe

It’s hard to categorize The Tricking of Freya. The novel exists to introduce readers to Freya, a woman of Icelandic descent, and coming to grips with a convoluted and shadowy family history. But it’s also a tidy exercise in introducing Iceland – its history, its mythology, its literature and its geology.

Author Christina Sunley starts the book off as a letter to a cousin she didn’t realize existed until she was in her 30s. It’s a bit hard to follow at first, but she soon settles into a decent groove that explains the oddly styled first-person point-of-view. Sunley is the voice of Freya, named after an Icelandic goddess. Despite the name, she spent her early years knowing little of Iceland. Her mother seemed content to live in Connecticut and forget that she was just a generation removed from a natural disaster that saw her family flee Iceland for North America.

pseudocraters iceland
Iceland’s crazy landscapes are part of a few sequences in “The Tricking of Freya.”

Freya has little curiosity about this before finally meeting her Aunt Ingibjorg, known family-wide as Birdy. Her aunt is determined to carry her family’s long line of poets into North America and continue being a major voice of Icelandic art. From Birdie, Freya learns all about Iceland, even mastering its tricky language.

Sunley’s writing is very lively and descriptive. She also peppers the text with clues that will help the reader unravel bits of her family’s mystery. I wasn’t surprised by the ending, but that really isn’t the sole point of her book. Freya’s search is a great vehicle for giving readers insights into a fascinating culture and place. To me, that’s far more interesting than any dysfunctional family story.

(NOTE: I read this book both before and after visiting Iceland. Again, this author gets the descriptions of Iceland just right. I suppose there will be two reactions: “Why would anyone want to go there” and “Can I buy a ticket right now?” Iceland continues to be one of my favorite places on the planet, so I hope you’ll read this and fall into the second group.)

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