Seven Transporting Reads (Some Old, Some New) to Gift This Christmas

To give the gift of travel isn’t always literal. But it can be literary. We’ve rounded up seven terrifically sensory and transporting reads to steer imaginations far from cosy Christmas perches by the fire out into the big, beautiful world beyond.

To read is to travel, sensorially, to places near and far. While stunningly produced documentaries of what feels like every corner of the world fill our screens, nothing replaces a written recollection by the seasoned traveller skilled at capturing all that we cannot see with words: the smells, tastes and peculiarities of a place in time. But not all great travel writing is strictly a travelogue. Below, we dive into seven transporting reads by talented writers spanning small towns in Albania and nomadic Kazakh trails to the storied desert lands of southern California.

The best books to transport you around the world this Christmas

Minarets in the Mountains: A Journey into Muslim Europe

By Tharik Hussain

Hussain challenges long-held notions of European identity by tracing Islam's origins beyond the Iberian Peninsula into the Balkans. The author, his wife and their two children set off from London on a revelatory road trip through Albania, Serbia, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo, searching for what Hussain describes as "Muslim Europe". What he finds - mosques older than the Sistine Chapel, a vibrant Muslim heritage dating back centuries and almost (almost!) indescribable natural beauty - leaves you craving more of his evocative and highly informative writing on this little-explored subject.

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By Rachel Cusk

From the moment Outline opens, with the protagonist on a flight to Greece, you know you're in for a good time. Where exactly is she going? Athens, to teach a summer writing course. And so begins a series of snapshots into the lives of her students, colleagues and friends, which encapsulates vivid descriptions of life in the labyrinthine Greek capital. Cusk's prose is heavenly in a sharply observed, acerbic way. And while the bulk of the book is rooted in character, it's the surrounding scenes, the air, which develops "a kind of viscosity", and the plates of "cold, delicate mussels" that kept us reading between the lines.

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A Mad World, My Masters: Tales from a Traveller’s Life

By John Simpson

Having worked as foreign correspondent and world affairs editor at the BBC for 55 years, veteran journalist John Simpson is a man almost as famous as his characters. In his second autobiographical book, he writes of the villains, heroes, heads of state and citizens caught in the crossfire of the late 20th century, plus the places in which he finds them. This unputdownable memoir is as much a political and historical chronicle of major world events as it is a travelogue covering areas as near as 1980s Belfast and as far as Remolino, southern Colombia. Simpson's personal encounters with figures like Muammar Gaddafi and Fidel Castro anchor the dozens of vignettes that fill the many pages. Still, it's the compelling descriptions of place, culture and, of course, ordinary people doing extraordinary things that make this memoir one you will reread, in awe, often.

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By Stephanie Danler

Danler's memoir moonlights as a meditation on California and its fault lines, which, for Danler, are both topographical and emotional. The author, who grew up in Seal Beach, a stone's throw from western Los Angeles, revisits the surfer-and-skateboard California of her childhood and explores the unstable condition of the state in her adulthood through a series of exquisitely written, searing recollections. As your eye travels across pages and chapters, you journey to Owens Lake, rendered a dust bowl by a climate disaster. And to the slippery slopes of Laurel Canyon, where Danler lives in a house ready to slide down the hill (one reportedly occupied by Fleetwood Mac in the Seventies, which is, of course, the realtor's sell). And, while this book is rooted in Danler's lived experience, California is its own vividly beautiful character, with Danler, in the vein of Joan Didion, offering a window into the iconic state through her own well-honed lens.

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The Lost Pianos of Siberia

By Sophy Roberts

Journalist Sophy Roberts is renowned for going off-grid. And much of Siberia - a whopping eleventh of the world's landmass - is very much off-grid. But this story starts with the tinkling of a friend's piano in a Mongolian ger. Roberts, a regular visitor to the Mongolian steppe, becomes transfixed with the idea of tracking down a particular piano - from the many instruments hauled to Siberia on the back of sledges during the height of Russian piano mania - worthy of her friend's musical talent. Thus begins an odyssey of trains, planes and skimobiles across an inhospitable landscape - one that's sub-zero in the winter and swelteringly hot throughout the summer. The resilience of the people Roberts encounters will make you sob, as will the layered history of this mythical place she tries so hard to knit together. Magic.

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Travel Light, Move Fast

By Alexandra Fuller

Fuller, one of the most evocative memoirists of today, journeys back home to the southern African homelands of her youth in this moving account, which is an ode to her adored late father. From a sad start at the indomitable Tim Fuller's deathbed in Budapest to tales of his earlier life as a banana farmer in Zambia, this book sparkles with wit, insight and breath-taking descriptions of a hard life well lived. You can't help but feel the sweat of sweltering summer nights, the earthy smell of cool mornings on the farm before sunrise and the bustle of busy capital city Lusaka, as Fuller details the triumphs and tragedies of a complicated family living in a complicated place.

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Winter Pasture: One Woman’s Journey with China’s Kazakh Herders

By Li Juan

Snow-caked plains. Starry skies. A vanishing way of life. Li Juan's visceral account of nights spent in the company of Kazakh herders and their party of camels, horses, cattle and sheep, plus one dog and a cat, is as transporting as it is engaging. Despite the starkness of the desert landscape of Xinjiang, there is a quiet beauty in the desolate sand-dune towers that articulate the landscape. But, amid this stark beauty lies the struggle. Juan details the building of the burrow, a single room carved deep into the snow and reinforced with sheep dung and made homely with textiles and the hum of chatter. Never mind, the back-breaking work of sustaining the animals on which your livelihood depends. By the book's end, the future is unclear for the herders and their ancient way of life.

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