A long, long time before I was able to travel and discover the world with my hands, my taste, my senses; I discovered through books another way to explore the world and visit far off lands.
Now that the traveling life is on a temporary hiatus (well at least for me, anyhow) it’s an even better time to get lost in a good book and allow it to take you on a journey around the world without needing to leave your home.
Reading has sparked in me interests in countries I had never before considered. A good writer will have you engaging all your senses as you journey with them into a foreign destination – leaving you with memories so vivid it’s as if you were there.
Travel Reading: What Makes a Great Novel?
I’m a sucker for excellent narrative and addictive writing style. So instead of serving you up a list of trashy holiday destination reads, today’s list is one of travel reading that features incredible storytelling by great authors who really will transport you to exotic countries around the globe.
So, as I read my way around the world – let me share with you my absolute favourite novels to get lost in.
Table of Contents for today’s itinerary (in case you want to skip ahead)
- The Kiterunner (Kabul, Afghanistan)
- The Secret Life of Bees (Georgia, Deep South USA)
- 40 Rules of Love (Thirteenth century Turkey and Iraq)
- The Mistress of Spices (A street corner in California, and the magical spice markets of further East)
- Little Paris Bookshop (Paris and through France following the Sienne)
- Like Water for Chocolate (Mexico)
- The Magus (Mythical islands of Greece)
- The Beach (The lush jungles and tropical beaches of Thailand)
- The Alchemist (Andulucia, Spain)
- Next Year in Havana (Havana)
- Where the Crawdads Sing (The Wild Marshlands of Florida)
- Still Life (Small-town Quebec)
- The Lost City of Z (the Amazon rainforest)
- The Last Storytellers (Morocco)
- Cinnamon City (Marrakesh)
- The Matchmaker of Perigord (Southwest France)
- Afternoons in Ithaka (Ithaka, Greece & Melbourne, Australia)
- The Little Breton Bistro (Brittany, France)
- The Gardener of Baghdad (Baghdad)
- The Snow Leopard (Nepal)
- Sapphos Leap (Lesvos, Greece)
- The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (Suburban Tokyo)
- Memoirs of a Geisha
1. The Kiterunner Khaled Hosseini
Will transport you to: Kabul, Afghanistan
An epic tale by a spectacular author, this inter-generational story tells tales of family amidst some much darker themes. Hosseini’s writing style is so skilful that by the end you will feel you have run the dusty back streets of Kabul to feast on fistfuls of juicy pomegranates for yourself. A masterfully told story, that I read and reread and devour frequently, and continue to be heartbroken by.
“It was only a smile, nothing more. It didn’t make everything all right. It didn’t make ANYTHING all right. Only a smile. A tiny thing. A leaf in the woods, shaking in the wake of a startled bird’s flight. But I’ll take it. With open arms. Because when spring comes, it melts the snow one flake at a time, and maybe I just witnessed the first flake melting.”Khaled Hosseini – The Kite Runner
2. The Secret Life of Bees Sue Monk Kidd
Will transport you to: Georgia – The American Deep South
Uplifting, beautiful and transformational. Sue Monk Kidd’s writing will pick up right up and plonk you down in the heart of a George peach farm. This story tells the tale of sisterhood, and the bond between mother and daughter through the eyes of 14-year-old Lily Owen. Set in the 1960’s to a background of racial violence, Lily runs away from her abusive father with her beloved nanny Rosaleen in search of her mother, who she shot and killed when she was just a baby.
Everything from the language, the sights, the sounds and the smells will bring you to the deep South of America in this touching and often humorous (but always heartwarming) novel.
“Now and then sprays of rain flew over and misted our faces. Every time I refused to wipe away the wetness. It made the world seem so alive to me. I couldn’t help but envy the way a good storm got everyone’s attention.”Sue Monk Kidd – The Secret Life of Bees
3. The 40 Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi Elif Shafak
Will transport you to: Thirteenth century Turkey and Iraq
East meets West when Ella Rubenstein is first introduced to the Eastern mystic Rumi and his companion Shams of Tabriz. Through editing a novel she begins to grow and learn more about herself and love. Although it sounds rather chick-lit-esque, this novel provides a beautiful integration of Rumi poetry and the life of these two wandering Dervishes. I didn’t initially love Ella’s character – but the wonderful narration of Rumi’s story, and beautiful integration of life in thirteenth century Middle East turned me around on this story. Most of the other characters are vibrant and fascinating, and the undercurrent of spirituality and love is interesting but not sickly.
”For Aziz, on the other hand, time entered on this very moment, and anything other than now was an illusion. For the same reason, he believed that love had nothing to do with plans for tomorrow, or memories of yesterday. Love could only be here and now”Elif Shafak – The 40 Rules of Love
4. The Mistress of Spices Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Will transport you to: A street corner in California, and the magical spice markets of the East
Despite being set in LA, this novel is anything but. This magical story tells the tales of Tilo, a young woman from another time who has a gift for the art of spices. Through ingenious storytelling and a mouth-watering knack for choosing words, Chitra weaves a magic tale of love and spices from inside the walls of this incredible spice shop. Not only an excellent example of travel writing, but delectable food writing as well. An excellent read if you need transporting to somewhere rather magical and exotic.
“Each spice has a special day to it. For turmeric it is Sunday, when light drips fat and butter-colored into the bins to be soaked up glowing, when you pray to the nine planets for love and luck.”Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni – The Mistress of Spices
5. Little Paris Bookshop Nina George
Will transport you to: Paris and through France following the Sienne.
Skillful story telling, wonderful character development and delightful scene-setting make this delicious novel something special. Nina takes us to Paris, through the eyes of Monsieur Perdu. Monsieur Perdu lives aboard his beautifully restored barge on the Sienne – his literary apocathery. It is here that he prescribes books for all of life’s hardships. After suffering many years of heartbreak, he finally decides to haul up anchor and set sail down through small town France to discover what happened to his long lost love, all those years ago.
This is a heartwarming & charming read full of vibrant characters and a truly French feel. You’ll come away from it feeling like you’ve just spent a month on the waters of the Sienne.
“Books are more than doctors, of course. Some novels are loving, lifelong companions; some give you a clip around the ear; others are friends who wrap you in warm towels when you’ve got those autumn blues. And some…well, some are pink candy floss that tingles in your brain for three seconds and leaves a blissful voice. Like a short, torrid love affair”Nina George – Little Paris Bookshop
6. Like Water for Chocolate Laura Esquivel
Will transport you to: Vibrant and delicious (and often heartbreaking) Mexico
This gorgeous book has me pining for traditional Mexican dishes and time-traveling back to my numerous times spent in Mexico. A beautiful and at times devastating story of life, magic, feasts and recipes. This story is of Tito, the youngest daughter who has been condemned by traditions to look after her mother until she dies. But despite being forbidden to marry, she falls in love with Pedro. He, in turn, is utterly seduced by her cooking and in an act of desperation to stay near to her, marries her sister. It is only through a string of tragedies that the two lovers are finally reunited. A spellbinding story of life in turn-of-the-century Mexico.
“Tita knew through her own flesh how fire transforms the elements, how a lump of corn flour is changed into a tortilla, how a soul that hasn’t been warmed by the fire of love is lifeless, like a useless ball of corn flour.”Laura Esquivel – Like Water for Chocolate
7. The Magus John Fowles
Will transport you to: Mythical islands of Greece
This was the favourite book of both my parents. But it took me a few tries & my own visit to Greece to truly fall in love. It wasn’t until I re-read as an adult that I came to appreciate this book, and the immersive storytelling involved. A feast for the mind and senses, the Magus brings us to a remote Greek island where our protagonist, Nicholas Urfe, finds himself entangled in the psychological games of a master trickster. A true classic of exceptional writing, John Fowles uses exceptional imagery and mind-bending writing to transport readers to the mythical islands of Greece and the mysteries that lie within it.
“If Greece were a woman so sensually provocative that I must fall physically and desperately in love with her, and at the same time so calmly aristocratic that I should never be able to approach her.”John Fowles – The Magus
8. The Beach Alex Garland
Will transport you to: The lush jungles and tropical beaches of Thailand
Many people know of the Leonardo DiCaprio film..but in my opinion, I prefer the novel. In search of his own personal paradise, Richard follows a map he’s given to an unknown island, and the secluded beach contained within. With it comes a new way of life, and revelations more exciting, more extraordinary and more frightening than anything of his wildest dreams. A true tale of intrepid travel and adventure, this thrilling story is a lush insight into Asia and Thailands most paradise-worthy beaches.
“If I’d learnt one thing from travelling, it was that the way to get things done was to go ahead and do them. Don’t talk about going to Borneo. Book a ticket, get a visa, pack a bag, and it just happens.”Alex Garland – The Beach
9. The Alchemist Paulo Coelho
Will transport you to: Andulucia, Spain
An epic classic of monumental proportions. Although a short read, over 2 million readers consider this novel a must-read masterpiece. A well loved universal classic that tells the tale of an Andalusian shepherd boy on a journey to follow his dream, and the revelations, characters and events that happen along the way. One of these, of course, happens to be the alchemist. And so begins a beautiful mentor-student relationship and a story that lingers in your heart and mind for long after you’ve read it.
“We are travelers on a cosmic journey, stardust, swirling and dancing in the eddies and whirlpools of infinity. Life is eternal. We have stopped for a moment to encounter each other, to meet, to love, to share.This is a precious moment. It is a little parenthesis in eternity.”Paulo Coelho – The Alchemist
10. Next Year in Havana Chanel Cleeton
Will transport you to: Havana
After the death of her beloved grandmother, a Marisol Ferrera travels to Havana, where her Grandmother grew up. This story captivated me completely. I read it in just a few days, rapturously.
It tells the tale of two stories at once – modern day Marisol and that of her grandmother living as a wealthy sugar heir during the Cuban revolution.
It’s a must read to better understand more of the culture and history of such an incredible, resilient, and fascinating place.
“For many being Cuban is something they carry with them in their hearts, something they fight to preserve even when all they have are their memories. When they left, they couldn’t take anything with them. No photographs, no official documents, no family heirlooms or mementos. That kind of exile makes you angry.”Chanel Cleeton – Next Year in Havana
11. Where the Crawdads Sing Delia Owens
Will transport you to: The wild marshes of North Carolina
As a wildlife lover, this story written by a wildlife scientist spoke to my adoration of the natural world. Delia Owens tells a marvellous tale of murder, mystery, womanhood, growing up, and love – amidst many other themes. But what really speaks to me, what made this book unforgettable and kept it glued to my fingertips until the very last page was the incredible descriptive writing of the North Carolina Marsh and all that inhabit it.
“Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn’t know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land who caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.”Delia Owens – Where the Crawdads Sing
12. Still Life Louise Penny
Will transport you to: Smalltown Quebec
After being introduced to the Inspector Gamache series I immediately became drawn to the pull of exploring Quebec.
Louise Penny has a knack for developing those kinds of places and characters you’d love to jump on in with and spend some time, and each of these I read brings me closer and closer to planning my own visit to the smaller towns of the French Canadian region.
“Everyday for Lucy’s entire dog life Jane had sliced a banana for breakfast and had miraculously dropped one of the perfect disks on to the floor where it sat for an instant before being gobbled up. Every morning Lucy’s prayers were answered, confirming her belief that God was old and clumsy and smelt like roses and lived in the kitchen.Louise Penny, – Still Life
But no more.
Lucy knew her God was dead. And she now knew the miracle wasn’t the banana, it was the hand that offered the banana.”
13. The Lost City of Z David Grann
Will transport you to: The Amazon Rainforest
I read this book somewhere incredibly far removed from the wet, hot, dense Amazon jungle. Instead I was in a toast warm yurt out on the Mongolian Steppe with snow falling outside. I picked up this book, and I spent the entire day reading it – until I’d finished. I quite literally didn’t put it down (other than a dinner break!)
I’m obsessed with the Amazon. The river, the rainforest, the region – in fact, I’m obsessed with jungles, trees, plants, wildlife and all things wild, really.
Excerpt: For decades scientists & adventurers have searched for evidence of Fawcett’s party & the lost City of Z. Countless have perished, been captured by tribes or gone mad. As Grann delved ever deeper into the mystery surrounding Fawcett’s quest, & the greater mystery of what lies within the Amazon, he found himself, like the generations who preceded him, being irresistibly drawn into the jungle’s green hell. His quest for the truth & discoveries about Fawcett’s fate & Z form the heart of this complexly enthralling narrative
“It begins as barely a rivulet, this, the mightiest river in the world, mightier than the Nile and the Ganges, mightier than the Mississippi and all the rivers in China.”David Grann – The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
14. The Last Storytellers Richard Hamilton
Will transport you to: Morocco
When I visited Morocco for the very first time, I was lured into the magic of North Africa by learning about the storytellers.
This book is a collection of such stories, written down finally to keep them alive and save them from being lost along with the traditional storytellers. It’s absolutely mesmerising.
“And so lie after lie, little by little, the Sahara gradually came into existence, as God threw grains of sand onto the earth from the heavens above. But here and there the odd oasis can still be seen. These are the traces of the original garden, because not all men lie.”Richard Hamilton – The Last Storytellers
15. Cinnamon City Miranda Innes
Will transport you to: Marrakech
Miranda Innes bought a dilapidated riad to renovate, and so begins an insiders tale of life, riads, and renovations in Morocco. This story is focused primarily on the experience of buying and renovating a house in Marrakesh, but also dips and delves into everyday life in the Cinnamon City of Marrakesh.
Full of flavours, fragrances, and complications of moving to a foreign country, this is an easy read for a swift dip into Moroccan life.
16. The Matchmaker of Périgord Julia Stuart
Will transport you to: A small village in Southwest France
This novel is almost as charming as the Périgord region itself. When Guillaume Ladoucette’s barbershop faces certain redundancy, he must find a new way to earn a keep in his small village in the Southwest of France.
This is how Guillaume finds himself starting up in the business of love, and becoming a matchmaker. But his attempts are somewhat disastrous, often hilarious and utterly delightful.
A light and easy read – I found it an excellent pick-me-up read that transported me right back to smalltown France.
“Love is like a good cassoulet, it needs time and determination. Some bits are delicious, while others might be a bit rancid and make you wince. You may even come across the odd surprise like a little green button, but you have to consider the whole dish.”― Julia Stuart, The Matchmaker of Périgord
17. Afternoons in Ithaka Spiri Tsintziras
Will transport you to: The island of Ithaka, Greece
Part memoir of Greek ancestry, and part recipe book. Spiri brings Greek food and culture to life in a way that had me drooling onto the page and recounting just how enchanted I was by Greece during my own time there.
Afternoons in Ithaka reflects on life, family, love and creativity. It traverses between her many trips between Australia and Greece, and brings together what it means to be Greek growing up in Australia.
‘I remember crusty just-baked bread, rubbed with juicy tomato flesh, swimming in a puddle of thick green olive oil. I am seven years old. I sit on a stool in my grandmother’s house. It is the height of summer in a seaside village in the south of Greece. We little Aussies devour ‘tomato sandwiches’ as the family chats and laughs and swats flies …Afternoons in Ithaka Spiri Tsintziras
18. The Little Breton Bistro Nina George
Will transport you to: Brittany, Western France
Nina George has made her way into two spots on this list with her wonderful ways of transporting us right into the heart of France. First with The Little Paris Bookshop, and now with the Little Breton Bistro, her writing continues to be full of heart, beautiful writing, and narrative I want to follow through until the very last page.
The Little Breton Bistro is a tale of second chances and falling in love with a host of unforgettable locals.
After having spent a handful of summers living in Bretagne for myself, I loved how much Breton folklore and stories were brought into this book. It’s a wonderful way to explore a part of France many people don’t get to.
“Court bouillon, made with carrot, shallot, leek, garlic, celeriac, herbs, water and Muscadet, was the heart and soul of Breton cuisine. Langoustines blossomed in it, and crabs drowned in bliss; skinned duck or vegetables simmered in it to perfection. The stock grew stronger with each use and would keep for three days. It formed the base for sauces, and a shot glass of sieved court bouillon could turn a mediocre fish stew into a regular feast.”Nina George – The Little French Bistro
19. The Gardener of Baghdad Ahmad Ardalan
Will transport you to: Baghdad, Iraq
“Two people, one city, different times; connected by a memoir. Can love exist in a city destined for decades of misery?”
A heartfelt tale of the conflict and tragedy facing Iraq; a forbidden love story between two people from very different worlds and times in Iraqs history, and the romance of living and surviving in these two very different worlds today.
The Gardener of Baghdad is a must read for anyone who’s not known more of Iraq than a war torn country. For those who want to know the beauty, culture and history of Iraq.
20. The Snow Leopard Peter Matthiessen
Will transport you to: The Himalayas of Nepal
When I was traveling in Nepal this book was on every book shelf, every store, in the hands of most hikers wandering down the streets of Kathmandu.
It’s a classic for a reason, it is a radiant and deeply moving account of a “true pilgrimage, a journey of the heart.” as Peter Matthiessen spent five weeks hiking through the Nepalese Himalayas to study the Himalayan blue sheep and, possibly, to glimpse the rare snow leopard.
“The secret of the mountain is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains exist simply, which I do not. The mountains have no “meaning,” they are meaning; the mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share. I understand all this, not in my mind but in my heart, knowing how meaningless it is to try to capture what cannot be expressed, knowing that mere words will remain when I read it all again, another day.”— Peter Matthiessen (The Snow Leopard)
21. Sapphos Leap Erica Jong
Will transport you to: The Island of Lesbos, Greece
I found myself immersed in Erica Jong’s recreation of the poet Sapphos after myself spending time on the Island of Lesbos, home of Sapphos – the greatest love poet the world has even known.
This book is, in true Jong style, rather amorous.. so if you’re not into that kind of story, perhaps give this one a miss. Otherwise swan dive into this magnificent story, taking us from Lesbos to Delphi to Egypt, and even to the Land of the Amazons and the realm of Hades.
“Without the gods, how would I sing?’ I asked.— Erica Jong (Sappho’s Leap)
With your own voice,’ he said.”
22. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Haruku Murakami
Will transport you to: Suburban Tokyo
I always describe Murakami’s books like being in a dream. Nothing makes sense, but the storytelling is so compelling that you emotionally invest and go along for the ride all the same.
He is one of the most talented storytellers I know of, and all of his magical, surreal books include the most wonderful of characters, delving into suburban Tokyo life, classical music and talking cats. I can’t really describe this book in any further detail – but I do highly recommend it for an incredible journey.
“What we see before us is just one tiny part of the world. We get in the habit of thinking, this is the world, but that’s not true at all. The real world is a much darker and deeper place than this, and much of it is occupied by jellyfish and things.”— Haruki Murakami (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)
23. Memoirs of a Geisha Arthur Golden
Will transport you to: The Gion district of Kyoto
A work of beauty, each time I devour this novel I am transported back to Gion, Kyoto. A city I fell in love with at first site, this story is a tragic and beautiful account of the life of a Geisha. The language is strikingly lovely, and I could read this over and over just for the experience of highlighting new favourite passages.
While there is some controversy, and ultimately a much more fascinating story would come from the true memoirs of a Geisha – this is still a fascinating introduction to Japanese culture and a great way to escape to a foreign land for a few evenings.
“At the temple there is a poem called “Loss” carved into the stone. It has three words, but the poet has scratched them out. You cannot read loss, only feel it.”— Arthur Golden (Memoirs of a Geisha)
What have I missed?
I’d adore some more book recommendations focused on different countries & cultures, ways to spend this current time of stillness traveling through exotic countries and other cultures in my imagination – so let me know in the comments what I should read next.