Have Books Will Travel

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A week or so ago we packed up the old tent trailer and headed up the valley for our annual early-July camping trip, “The Great Ottawa Valley Tour,” as we call it. We’ve been doing this for more than twenty years. It heralds the beginning of summer for us.

When I was first teaching, I did not make the transition from the whirlwind of exam prep and marking, marks calculation, report card writing, graduation ceremonies, planning meetings… end of school year, full-on, frenzy mode… to full-stop vacation mode very well. For weeks, I moped around the house, trying to muster energy to do stuff that I needed to do (like cleaning) or even stuff that I wanted to do (like planning barbecues with friends, or shopping summer sales.) I sighed a good deal; I whined about being tired, being bored, or feeling fat. I was a mess and a total pain in the neck. Then I would have a melt-down and a “good cry,” as my mum says, and I’d feel better. Sometimes this melt-down wouldn’t happen until we were embarking on our canoe trip at the end of July. An hour or two from home, I’d start to sob and by the time we reached the access point and had to unload the truck, I’d feel better.

Canoe is loaded and we're headed up Turner's Road to go fishing in Algonquin Park
Turner’s Road, near Bonnechere, Ontario

And this happened every year for several years, until we clued in. Well, Hubby clued in… I was too busy sighing. His plan was that we would get away from home as soon as we could after the July 1 holiday. We’d be away from the piles of household and garden chores that had been left undone in the June “rush” every teacher knows about. Thus we would have no guilt about not completing them. We’d think about nothing but what we were going to eat or drink, where to golf (for him), whether to go for a bike ride or a swim, and which book to read. This worked a treat. I still had my melt-down. But Hubby would creep away to play a round of golf, leaving me to sit on my butt, drinking tea and reading or writing in my journal all day. And feeling much more cheerful when he returned. And after five or six days, we’d pack up and go home; our summer had officially begun.

Bonnechere River in Algonquin Park
Bonnechere River

We still do this trip even though I’ve been retired from teaching for a couple of years. It’s a tradition, now. Since we have more time to prepare these days, our menu is a bit more special, but it’s pretty much the same trip as it always was. Hubby golfs one day, while I sleep late, and then go for a walk, or just sit and read, and write in my journal. One day we head into the village of Killaloe for an old-fashioned greasy breakfast at Dan’s Diner, then maybe drive up to Wilno for a browse through the antique and craft store, or the art gallery there. One day we paddle up the Bonnechere River for trout fishing. And the rest of the time we ride our bikes, swim, and read, read, read.

canoeing the Bonnechere River in Ontario
resting my paddle on Bonnechere River

This trip, one of the books I read was Peter May’s The Chessmen, the third in his crime fiction trilogy set on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. May’s books feature Edinburgh detective (now ex-detective) Fin MacLeod who was born and raised on the Isle of Lewis. Each book brings Fin back to Lewis, whether to solve a case, as in the first book, or, as in the other two books, to start life over on Lewis after many years away.

Peter May's The Chessmen
I’d never heard of Peter May, until he cropped up on my Audible.com account as “recommended” for me. I always have a book on my i-pod that I listen to while I’m exercising or doing housework. Seriously, the only thing that can make me dust or clean the bathroom is the anticipation of listening to a good book. I’ve found several new writers to read and to listen to through recommendations from Audible, Australian writers Geoffrey McGeachin and Arthur Upfield to name a couple.
Peter May            source
I did a little research on May as a writer and sampled the narrator’s voice, before I ordered The Black House. When I’m listening to a book, the narrator is almost as important to me as the writing. And Peter Forbes, who narrates the Lewis Trilogy, is excellent. For a sample of Forbes reading from Peter May’s book The Lewis Man check out this link. Forbes really is talented, reading all the wonderful descriptions so beautifully, and changing his tone and accent slightly for each character so it’s easy to keep them all straight. I listened to his rendering of the first two books in May’s trilogy, The Black House and The Lewis Man. And funnily enough, when I read the third book it was Forbes’ voice I heard.
As in the first two books, the backdrop for The Chessmen is the Isle of Lewis itself, its history and unique culture. Like the character Whistler who lives in an ancient blackhouse, similar to the ones in the Gearranan Blackhouse Village pictured below.

Or the story behind the huge replicas of the famous Lewis Chessmen which May’s character, Whistler, carves. Apparently in 1831, an islander found the original twelfth century Norse chess pieces buried in the sand on a beach near Uig, on Lewis. You can read all about them here. May’s story particularly focuses on the rook, second from the right in the picture below. The rooks are carved in the image of ancient Norse warriors called “berserkers,” reputed to be fearsome beings who bit their shields and fought in a trance-like frenzy. I love it when books teach you interesting tidbits about the places or times in which they are set.

 I loved The Chessmen, as I did all three of Peter May’s Lewis novels. I highly recommend them; and do try to read them in order, if you can. They’re beautifully written; the prose is lean and yet wonderfully evocative. May weaves his tales skillfully, using several narrative threads, moving between the past and the present, making sure the reader understands that Fin is, as indeed we all are, unable to fully escape the past. In each book, of course, a murder is solved, sometimes more than one. But more importantly, in each book, Fin struggles to come to terms with his own personal history, with the history of his friends, his community and even his culture. And he also realizes that moving forward, having a future, always involves recognizing, understanding and even atoning for the past.
Scottish highlands near Durness
Scottish Highlands near Durness

The beautiful, harsh, and melancholy landscape of the Outer Hebrides features largely in May’s books. I love that sort of bleakness. We spent a wonderful few weeks in Scotland in 2005, and the stark, rocky hills of the highlands, and the ancient flat fields, crumbling brochs, and Viking ruins of the Orkney Islands are not entirely dissimilar to Lewis, I think.

view of small islands from ferry to Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland
View from the ferry enroute to the Orkney Islands
narrow streets of Stromness, Orkney Islands Scotland
narrow streets of Stromness, Orkney Islands

We had one full day of nothing but rain on our camping trip this year. Rain. And wind. And more rain. It was too cold to swim, too windy and wet to bike… and there was nothing to do but hunker down in the tent trailer and read all day. And The Chessmen was the perfect book for this. I was lost for hours on the small island of Lewis, surrounded by the sea, the rain and wind, and the tangy smell of peat smoke.

I can’t imagine embarking on “The Great Ottawa Valley Tour” without a bag of books. In fact, I can’t imagine travelling anywhere without packing books to read. France, this May, was the exception for me. On every other trip we’ve ever taken, I can recall at least one rainy day spent reading, often with a cup of hot tea, sometimes a fire (even a peat fire in Ireland), and a good book. We always travel with books.

And, you know, that title “Have Books Will Travel” works the other way as well. I’ve spent many rainy, or snowy, afternoons at home reading, and been transported somewhere completely different by the book I’m reading. Somewhere like the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland.

What do you read on holiday?

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13 thoughts on “Have Books Will Travel”

  1. We have seven weeks away from home this September-October. Fortunately, the house we'll be in for 5 weeks has a brilliant, eclectic, even slightly eccentric library and I'll have fun picking and choosing. I'll also load up my Kobo and I'm making some lists soon — These three Peter May books are racing to the top of the list, thanks to your really enticing review. They sound perfect for travel, armchair or otherwise.Thank you!

    1. It's right in the city of Bordeaux, owned by a friend we met through blogging (the owner is a friend of a blogger — who doesn't much anymore — who invited me, years ago, to visit if I ever got down to Bordeaux . . . and she generously shared her city with us!)

  2. Hi Susan. We are in a bit of a different situation, since we still travel with kids. Mostly, we listen to novels in route, and then everyone reads their own before bed. Our family story has been The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper, a nail biter for all ages. I'm finishing 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and looking for a light read for our next camping trip. Drinking tea and writing in you journal all day sounds heavenly. Something to look forward to for me!

  3. I enjoyed your recap of the trip (and the reasons for it) and your review of The Chessmen. Vacation is one of the few times I have the time and quiet enough to really dig into a book or two. During out Europe trip I read "Five Quarters of the Orange," which was engaging and entertaining, if not particularly revelatory.

    1. With a full-time job, a blog, and a special needs teenager at home, I'm not surprised you don't have time to read. I've not read Five Quarters of the Orange…but engaging and entertaining seems pretty suitable for vacation mode.

  4. Lovely pics of your trip , so tranquil ( between the activity ?) & yes Scotland is magical . My father was Scottish & we spend eight to ten weeks a year there in total . I must try that author . I really need books on holiday , just in case the weather turns nasty & just 'because ' really .I've learnt that it isn't wise to take gripping books as I become engrossed & switch off from my surroundings , then I'm very poor company . OK at home but not on holiday . So usually gentler books where I won't rush to the end or sometimes short stories by authors I like .When I say book , it's my kindle now on holiday & I can't do audio books – I seem to need the written word to concentrate . I can see it's a great idea especially for the ironing but I don't seem to do much of that now 🙂
    Wendy in York

    1. I know what you mean about reading gripping books on vacation. One summer Hubby and I were both reading Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. It's non-fiction, about a catastrophic Everest climb in the 90's when several people died. Neither of us could put in down. When we were staying in a cottage on Prince Edward Island (on our east coast) Stu barely came out of the bedroom for two days. And later when we were staying in old Quebec City, strolling the streets after dinner, I could hardly wait to get back to our hotel. "I've left those poor guys at the summit!" I said to Stu to account for my inattention.

  5. I love you description of the vacation blues! I only taught for a few years, but it took me a while after I stopped to actually "discover" the month of June. What a lovely month! I had never appreciated it (or really noticed it) while I was teaching. And Sunday afternoons! I now love them. I unwind and relax rather than be sad and anxious about Monday morning.

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