Books to read when travelling in...


When travelling in a foreign country I make an effort to do two things: buy a local newspaper and pack a book about the country. This page is intended to share my thoughts on some of the travel reading I have enjoyed in the past. Note the links below are Amazon Affiliate links, which means I get a very small amount should you buy from them, this goes towards the costs of running the site, but in no other way affects the content.


Cover of book: close-up of bow of merchant ship close to harbour wall on a sunny day

Bitter Lemons of Cyprus by

Amazon ISBN: 978-0571201556

An auto-biographical work by a wandering Briton who falls into employment with the British Colonial Civil Service in 1950's Cyprus. Unfortunately for Durrell this coincides with the enosis independence movement which is campaigning for union with Greece. Durrell uncomfortably straddles the front line: faithfully working for the public affairs office of the increasingly embattled Colonial Administration; whilst at the same time maintaining strong links with the local community whom are at logger-heads with the system he represents. What results from this is a unique book that gives a snap-shot of a tense, divided island which despite the best efforts of the author is spiralling into violence. Durrell refuses to apportion blame, sympathising with both his British countrymen and adopted island compatriots; commenting instead with increasing sadness on the seeming inevitability of events. If I had to add a criticism it would be that this represents very much a particular moment and does not necessarily give a wider perspective on the island, but it would be a less moving account if it tried to do too much. A vivid portrait written by an expert witness of an unhappy island.

Hong Kong

Cover of book: Photo of Chris Patten, last UK Governor of Hong Kong

East and West by

Amazon ISBN: 978-0330373081

Chris Patten was the last British Governor of Hong Kong and this book is his frank account of the period running up to the territory's handover to China. As you might expect this covers the political intrigue of the negotiations in considerable depth, a rare insight into the bureaucracy of the Chinese state. Patten's deep commitment to the colony and its people are unmistakable, which makes the political wrangling more emotional than you might think (Patten after all famously had to wipe away a tear during the handover ceremony). Even so, if the entire book was devoted to the handover it would be a bit much; thankfully it is not. Patten puts forward his philosophy on what Hong Kong owes its fantastic success to; putting across strong arguments in favour of the rule of law, free markets and good governance. He also discusses, as the title would suggest, wider Asia outside Hong Kong and its relationship with the Occident; which is as erudite as the rest of the book. Overall then a fantastic book to have under your arm as you board the Star ferry.


Cover of book: curtain blowing breeze in front of Japanese paper screen wall

Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival by

Amazon ISBN: 978-0241957677

Excellent economic and cultural account of modern day Japan by the Financial Times' former Tokyo Bureau chief. Pilling intelligently explores some of the key themes about modern Japan - such as why the country seems better at technological evolution rather than revolution, the 'uniqueness' (or otherwise) of Japan and how the Japanese economy might not be failing its citizens as much as is made out in the financial press. It is pity that the book ends prior to much of the recent Abe era, but regardless it is a fine book.


Cover of book: warships alongside a harbour in Malta

The Kappillan of Malta by

Amazon ISBN: 978-0304358441

I had planned on avoiding Second World War accounts of Malta, but stumbling across a second-hand copy before my trip just seemed too serendipitous. The novel is a fictional account of a "simple, lumbering priest" and his efforts to minister to his congregation during the Second World War siege of Malta by Axis forces. However having been published in the 70s it is, for me, one of those books that has not aged well. Clearly Malta in the 1940s was a deferential place; but this hand seems overplayed, resultantly some characters can appear one-dimensional. It does though have several things to recommend it, particularly that it is evidently very well researched with almost every page referencing some historical aspect of Malta. It spans the history of the island from 1500 BCE to the period in question; this is mostly delivered in the form of almost stand alone 'hexamerons' - inspirational monologues from the priest to his congregation, which is a nice way of accomplishing it. Clearly Malta's role in the war itself is very well covered, so WW2 history buffs may get more mileage.


Cover of book: elephant being led through streets of futuristic city with slum in the foreground and a zeppelin in the sky

The Windup Girl by

Amazon ISBN: 978-0356500539

A near-future science fiction novel set in Bangkok. In this world though globalisation, and much technological improvement, has come to a shuddering halt before going into reverse. The reasons for these changes are within the realms of plausibility - an oil crash coupled with world-wide famine caused by errant genetic engineering. This results in a fast paced thriller that revolves around environmental concerns versus hard nosed capitalism (controlled by monopolistic food producers known as calorie companies). The book really does have a clearly recognisable Thailand as its background (perhaps thrown into greater relief by the unfolding chaos), however so sits firmly on this list. Of course if sci-fi isn't your thing you won't like this, but if you are a William Gibson fan this is for you.