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What we're reading: May 2018

Introducing the four books that have piqued our interest this month

By Sarah Barrell
Published 20 May 2018, 09:00 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 13:08 BST
Reading May

This month we urge you to treat yourself to a beautiful book by a truly rare bird. One of the 19th century's most remarkable female travellers, Isabella Bird's expeditions culminated, aged 65, in a seven-month solo exploration along the Yangtze river in China. This reissue of her travelogue, including several never-published photographs, is made all the more wonderful as it's presented like an dynastic treasure in elegantly printed, blocked cloth-binding. It also includes an extensive introduction by Irish cyclist and writer Dervla Murphy.

Do you need this book? Probably not. But if you've got any sense of old-fashioned adventure or a penchant for oriental aesthetics, you'll most definitely want it. Bird, who suffered from chronic pain, was an unlikely traveller but nonetheless became the first woman to be awarded the Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society, thanks to her fearless world wanderings that went far beyond the fashionable resorts of the day to which ladies of a similarly 'fragile' disposition would retreat. Among the previously unpublished photos: a wonderfully stern portrait of a mandarin's wife and two daughters whose somewhat grim expressions may be explained by the accompanying descriptions of their bound feet. Bird had long travelled in local clothing preferring the "extreme comfort of a Chinese woman's dress in all classes" (plus she could comfortably conceal her revolver in the belt of such a "capacious garment"), but is outspoken against what was the enduring medieval practice of foot binding.
Elsewhere, we set off on foot to champion some truly pretty picture books: from the new Urban Rambles guidebook detailing walks through English cities, to routes that take you to the capital's prettiest corners, and a photographic journey to the world's most enviable mountain retreats.

A beautiful bird book
Isabella Bird's seven-month exploration of China's Yangtze river was a remarkable solo adventure. Now, her inspiring travelogue has been reworked in a new clothbound tome

The 19th-century explorer Isabella Bird's journey through China has been made all the more wondrous with this re-issue of her 1896 travelogue. Beautifully presented in printed, blocked cloth-binding, Dervla Murphy's excellent introduction casts yet more light on Bird's pioneering journey and reveals she lived with chronic pain. Despite this, Bird was the first woman to be awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society, and this book is a hymn to her final expedition, from forging raging Chinese rivers to crossing snow-bound Tibetan passes. Within its collection of sepia-tint photographs you'll find images heretofore unpublished and tucked in a pocket in the rear of the book is a reproduction of the original fold-out map charting Bird's route. The Yangtze Valley and Beyond by Isabella Bird. RRP: £75 (Folio Society)

Pretty picture books

Mountain View

Unabashed holiday home voyeurism, with a vertiginous focus. This new photography book showcases stunning elevated properties, such as a South African abode surrounded by the jungle and a cabin in the heart of Norwegian nature, all of which are available for rent. RRP: £45 (Lannoo Publishers)

Urban Rambles
A selection of 20 'glorious walks through English cities' accompanied by beautifully illustrated maps, curated by the ever-itinerant Nicholas Rudd-Jones, founder of (which lists more than 700 worldwide walks). This guide covers city walks that may be urban but are also decidedly wild and wonderful. RRP: £16.99 (Frances Lincoln) 

Pretty City London 
Siobhan Ferguson's Instagram account focuses on the capital's prettier parts and her best shots are now available in book form. When she moved from Ireland, she was determined to seek out London's beautiful best bits. Looks like she succeeded. RRP: £25 (The History Press)

Published in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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