Every summer in early July, or in late June, Hubby and I head out on what we call “The Great Ottawa Valley Tour”. 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, whined about being tired, being bored, or feeling fat.
In short, 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.
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.
We still do this trip even though I’ve been retired from teaching for a few 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. That’s why we pack a big bag of travel books. Not books about travel, necessarily, but books to take travelling.
A couple of years ago one of the book I couldn’t put down on our camping trip was Peter May’s The Chess Men. It’s the third book in his Lewis trilogy set on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland and featuring detective inspector Fin Macleod, lately of Edinburgh but Lewis born and bred.
I’d never heard of Peter May, until he cropped up on my Audible 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. I listened to the first book in May’s trilogy The Black House read by the amazing Peter Forbes. His voice was so striking for me and such a part of the first book that when I read the other two, I heard his voice throughout.
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.
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 black house, similar to the ones in the Gearranan Blackhouse Village pictured above.
Or the story behind the huge replicas of the famous Lewis Chessmen, pictured below, 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. 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.
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.
Every year, it seems, we have at least one full day of nothing but rain on our camping trip. Rain. And wind. And more rain. When it’s too cold to swim, too windy and wet to bike… and there’s nothing to do, we hunker down in the tent trailer and read all day. That’s what “travel books” are for. 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 travel books to read. On every 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.
This year I’m bringing a travel book in both senses of the term. A book about travel which I bought in England in 2017 and have never read. A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor is the story of Fermor’s walk from Rotterdam to Istanbul in the 1930s when he was eighteen. I’d forgotten I owned this book until Annie Green mentioned it in a comment on my last book post. Thanks, Annie. I bought it because I’d read he was a great favourite (and friend) of the Mitfords, especially of Debo Duchess of Devonshire. That might be taking my Mitford obsession a step too far. I’ll let you know if I love the book as much as I love the idea of loving it.
We’re also bringing Kate Atkinson’s newest Jackson Brodie novel Big Sky. As I mentioned last week, I’m very excited to read it. I love her literary fiction and think the World War II novel A God in Ruins is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I very much enjoyed her recent, clever foray into cold war spy fiction in Transcription. (I’ve written reviews of those two books here and here.) But I have really, really missed Jackson Brodie. I’m so glad he’s back… and coming on holiday with us. This might sound like vacation heresy, but I’m half hoping we get at least some rain. Not enough to spoil the trip. But just enough to give me some uninterrupted reading time.
What do you read on holiday?
You can find all the books I’ve reviewed on Amazon. I have an affiliate relationship with Amazon. If you click through on a link and buy the book I will receive a commission at no extra cost to you.
Here’s a list of all the links:
I’ve raved ad nauseam about how much I love listening to books. There are numerous ways to find audio books, but one way I use is Audible. I’ve subscribed to Audible for years. I love the speed at which I can listen to new novels. Especially the British or Australian mystery writers I love and which are not always available in our local library. If you’re interested in signing up for an Audible account for yourself, they have a promotion on now. You get a 30 day free trail, and two free audible books. You can cancel within the 30 days and keep the free books. Or continue with the program at $14.95 a month. That gives you a credit for one book each month no matter the cost. Plus a 30% member discount for all other books. You can check out that offer here if you’re interested.