BOOKS OF THE YEAR: TRAVEL: Around the world in a chair

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The Independent Culture
It must be tough being a travel writer. Not only are you expected to visit places in the world that the rest of us are going to be interested in, but then you have to write about them in a compelling, literate, original way. So it's not surprising that some writers are found wanting. There's a balance to be struck. If the narrative and the location are imposing enough, a slapdash style is forgivable. And a captivating literary style can make even a trip to Bognor readable.

Channel 4 news reporter Stephen Smith has both style and destination, and has written a book that is hard to put down. Cocaine Train (Little, Brown pounds 17.99) is the record of his trip to Colombia, to trace the secret life of his grandfather, Leslie Frost; and because Frost was a man of the railway, this book chronicles the Colombian train system too. But it's chiefly effective because Smith has a strong dramatic style and a gift for storytelling.

There is a palpable tension from the first pages, as the train he's on grinds through a seemingly unending dark tunnel, with fears of robbery and kidnapping ever-present until the train breaks out into the sunshine, to be stopped by men in camouflage fatigues armed with machine guns making their way on board. Because the story is contemporary, it works as an introduction to the political life of Colombia today, but the revealing of the life of Leslie Frost rewards the reader with a historical background to the narrative, as well as the fascinating personal history alongside. This is the sort of book that has you greeting each new page with excitement and anticipation.

The family history angle is one pursued by Alice Thomson in The Singing Line (Chatto pounds 16.99), and this is also a hugely satisfying read. Alice's great-great-grandfather was Charles Todd, who connected telegraph lines across Australia from Adelaide to Darwin, along the way naming a town in 1871 after his wife, Alice. The town was Alice Springs, and Todd's job was Government Astronomer and Superintendent of Telegraphs, aiming to link Australia by wire with Britain.

Fans of the excellent Dava Sobel book Longitude will find much to enjoy here, with the same element of historical (and even, initially, nautical) adventure combined with a fascinating account of travel across the centre of the vast subcontinent of Australia. It's told with an engaging simplicity, as Thomson and her husband find themselves taking a journey across the country parallel to that of Thomson's ancestors.

The lack of a personal or contemporary connection to her material is what lets Susan Whitfield down in her book Life Along the Silk Road (John Murray pounds 19.99). That, and the fact that her premise is dully executed. The great historical trade route of tracks through Central Asia, stretching through Europe, India and the Far East has been exhaustively researched, and Whitfield's aim is to reveal this richly diverse area over a period of 250 years towards the end of the first millennium.

She investigates each period through the stories of individuals, from the merchant's tale (Nanaivandak, 730-751) through to the artist's tale (Dong Baode, 965), with a soldier, a princess and a courtesan along the way. After a scholarly introduction, the individual stories are written with an objective detachment which makes it difficult to care very much about her characters.

Indeed Whitfield seems as bored with them as we are, and Nanaivandak the merchant has no more fun than the reader: "The girls stood still facing Nanaivandak's table and both pulled down their blouses to reveal their small, bare breasts. After this one of the girls sat on Nanaivandak's lap and persuaded him to order more wine, which he drank while fondling her breasts." Not exactly gripping stuff.

After four years incarcerated together in the Lebanon, when they could only travel in their imaginations, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan decided to take a journey from one end of Chile to the other. They recount the story in Between Extremes (Bantam Press pounds 16.99), in a shared narrative of alternating short episodes which has a skilfully simple way of identifying which author is which: McCarthy writes in the present tense, Keenan the past tense. As the book goes on, their styles are different enough to be guessable anyway, but in both cases the stories are made richer by our understanding of the men's shared history. And the two voices add up to more than the sum of their parts: if McCarthy reports Keenan's looking pensive, on the next page Keenan reveals his thoughts. These are two people whose lives were once stories in the public domain, and their relationship here is defined by that history.

In One Foot in Laos (John Murray pounds 18.99), Dervla Murphy (now 68) travelled to Laos to see it before the ever-increasing tourist trade meant it wouldn't be untouched and unspoilt much longer. Her plans to trek through the mountains were complicated by an injured foot and a less-than-reliable bike.

Murphy's skill, apart from an understated but deft flair for description, is her ability to mix everyday concerns, such as good food and not getting lost, with deeper analyses of the political situation she finds herself in, always enriched by her personal contact with the story. She makes you present in the adventure by letting you think you might have acted similarly.

Finally, Mark Eveleigh's journey in Fever Trees of Borneo (Travellers Eye pounds 7.99) is more extreme, so the same easy sense of identification doesn't quite apply. In his book he travels with photographer Paul Bailey across the blank spaces on the map of Borneo. Despite his companion's photographic skills, this is no coffee-table picture book, but keeps you reading for the plot: one minute avoiding malaria and starvation, the next faced with barbecued mouse-deer foetus, or endlessly offending local customs. Apart from a frequent use of the wilfully archaic "whilst", this is moderately well written, and highly readable. And like all the travel books touched on here, it takes you somewhere you have no intention of actually visiting, and for a not inconsiderable saving on the air fare.

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