Tina Hartas founded the TripFiction website because she knows, as we do, that reading books set in far-flung destinations is an excellent way to armchair travel and prepare to explore the real-world. She was kind enough to answer our questions about books set in Vienna, Bangkok, the art world, and more — plus bookshop tips for Northumberland, UK.
The TripFiction database is filled with crowd-sourced book reviews, and you can browse locations with a map. When you sign up for a free membership, you can add books to the database and contribute your own reviews of the titles.
You can also try your own hand at writing a piece with a strong sense of place, thanks to the TripFiction’ Sense of Place’ Writing Competition. The inspiration for the contest was to invite writers to share ideas that ‘transport people to a place where imaginations can escape from the claustrophobia of locked down lives and restricted travel.’ For rules and info on the cash prizes (!), visit TripFiction.
Now that is a very interesting question! For me, the setting of a book needs to transport me to the location in an evocative way. It can be contemporary, it can be historical (by providing a sense of the footsteps past), but at its core, I value experiencing a place through the eyes of an author, delving under the skin, discovering the quirks and the feel, as well as the sounds and smells that offer just a different insight into setting.
I was in India last year and read Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee, which helped inform about the rise of Gandhi (as well as being a good read). I was due to go to Berlin in the early summer and was delighted to read Sisters of Berlin by Juliet Conlin, which opens in Friedrichshain, the very place we stay when we go there. Physically I wasn’t there, but I was certainly there in my head and imagination!
Conveying a sense of locale is so much more than depicting the streets and buildings; it is about transposing the heart and feel of a place into words.
I think it has to be India. I grew up living next door to the author Kamala Markandaya (Nectar in a Sieve, The Nowhere Man), and I learned a good deal about the country through spending time in her house. Her daughter and I grew up together, and we are still great friends.
In my adult years, it has been a revelation to visit the country and understand more about her writing and her message. I am looking forward to reading The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi, set in Jaipur, when it is published in the UK. And part of my ‘journey’ to India was reading Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. And yes, when I was in Mumbai, I did visit Leopold Café!
A lot is happening in Northumberland, quietly but oh so profoundly. Along the Tyne Valley, we have several book shops, and my ‘local,’ as it were, is Forum Books in Corbridge, run by the most well-informed and charming team. Ann Cleeves recently wrote a short story called ‘Frozen,’, a mystery set in the very shop; it was sent out with early orders of her new crime mystery The Darkest Evening. Frozen is like a short homage to the world of the bookshop, and there was a body beneath the pulpit. (The bookshop is in an old chapel.)
In Newcastle, too, there is Waterstones (amongst other bookshops), housed in Emerson Chambers, one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. Well worth a visit. Further up the coast, there is Barter Books at Alnwick, which, well, if you haven’t been, you are missing out!
So as you can see, there is a very vibrant book scene and some wonderful, well-known authors who really bring Northumberland and the North East to life: Ann Cleeves, Mari Hannah, L.J. Ross, Trevor Wood. And I am looking forward to reading The Art Fiasco by Fiona Veitch Smith, a mystery set in 1920s Newcastle and very strong on location, so I am told.
It’s true that having booked a long weekend in Vienna, I went in search of top titles set in the city, and I was stumped. The only book I could find that came up at that point was The Fig Eater by Jody Shields, set at the turn of the 20th century. I had already read it. But I took it along and read it for a second time. I could almost hear the clatter of the horses’ hooves along the cobbles as I took in all the buildings — from the Baroque and, more relevantly, from the point of view of the novel, all the wonderful Jugendstil buildings.
Now, of course, we know that there are lots of books set in the city! One of my overall favorite novels – which happens to be set mostly in Vienna – is The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler.
That was a serendipitous trip. On my way out to Bangkok, at the local airport, I happened to pick up a copy of Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett. As I was sitting several floors up at the hotel in the city, by the pool (of course), listening to the birds wheeling around at dusk (very atmospheric), I suddenly realized that all the action in the book at that point was taking place in the street below our hotel. My enthusiasm was such that the whole family decamped down to street level to hear tell of the escapades of my characters, who ventured as far as Soi Cowboy. [The more you know: Soi Cowboy is a short street in Bangkok lined with go-go bars.]
If you want to get under the skin of the city, then you will do no better than buying a novel by Jake Needham (He’s like Michael Connolly with steamed rice). At the Brainwake Café — one of the hottest places in the city — there is an omelet named after him. The ‘Needham Omelet’ is made with Thai and Chinese sausages and minced pork, then served with rice and Sriracha sauce. That would be a good diversion for any tourist to specifically seek out the café and this illustrious dish.
I really enjoy being a judge for the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards in the category ‘Fiction, with a sense of place.’ The six books on the shortlist arrive just before Christmas, so getting them read in time for the judges’ meeting early February can be a slightly daunting task. Last year the judging panel traveled — virtually, via the shortlist — to Kiev, Paris, Tibet, Bangkok, and Japan. The winning title took us to Wisconsin: Little Faith by Nickolas Butler. I felt that anyone mourning the ending of Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, set in North Carolina, would do well to read Little Faith, which is equally poignant and thoughtful.
A novel that stuck with me, because I read it whilst I was studying for my MA in Fine Art Conservation, is The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga, focusing on the work of the Mud Angels who were rescuing art during the 1966 Arno River floods. I have recently enjoyed The Painter of Souls by Philip Kazan, set in Renaissance Florence.
The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood is a suspense novel that’s all about the Bauhaus — which then inspired me to visit 100 Years of Bauhaus in Berlin at the Willy Brandt Centre, which in turn got me spotting Bauhaus building around the city. There are some great Bauhaus villas near the Teufelsberg in Berlin. I think that extrapolating learning from a novel and applying it to a place is the essence of TripFiction.
To be honest, if I fancy a book set in the world of The Arts, I turn to the Art In Fiction website, which is run by author Carol Cram. When she was in the early stages of developing her website, we were honored that she turned to us for inspiration.
Currently on my TBR pile, I have a copy of The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey, set in Cape Cod of the 1950s and focussing on the artist Edward Hopper, which sounds fascinating. A novel with art and a strong setting certainly make the perfect combination for me.
Top image courtesy of Ferran Feixas/Unsplash.
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