If you watch So She Travelled’s Instagram stories you’ll know that books for travel are my favourite extravagance and I often share a few (ok, all) of the passages that inspire to me while on the road.
I believed I’d be a paperback aficionado for life, fondly lugging a battered leather suitcase of dog-eared, yellowing books all over the world but in reality, I jumped on the Kindle bandwagon as soon as they released Paperwhite without a second glance at the bookcase, blowing a kiss to the trees as I went.
Since then I’ve maximized the ability to cart around my beloved library in a palm-sized computer with a ridiculously long battery life and now have almost 500 books on it! I donated 90% of my paper books to charity, what’s left now are photographic tomes, cookbooks and travel journals and even those provoke a minimalist eyebrow raise when I pass them. Travelling lightweight has changed my lifestyle in many ways!
Travelling can be a great chance to read books that match your destination and I’ve even travelled to places because I read a story set there first. I’m amazed that books can motivate real life pilgrimages yet going on the numerous Shantaram fans I met at Leopold’s in Mumbai, they really do!
I didn’t want to list any old travel themed books here because different destinations suit different moods so I thought a tailored list might be more interesting to pick and choose from. I will always need help choosing local delicacies but never to find the right book for the right adventure!
So I’ve arranged this holiday book guide into the countries I bought them to read in. In future I may add other tailored book lists that match cities, climates and seasons – that is if this method of travel mood reading makes sense to anyone else at all!
And I love book recommendations so please tell me yours!
Australia: Songlines by Bruce Chatwin
He’s the grandaddy king of all travel writing and if you like one of his books, you’ll like them all. While dated, this a beautiful exploration of Aboriginal tsuringa-tracks on his journey through Australian spirituality, marking two decades writing about nomadic instinct. Interestingly Chatwin didn’t believe in a distinction between fact and fiction and never shied from an honestly embellished description. It’s this fantastical element that makes each tale an intriguing legacy of a time gone by.
Still one of my favourite travel books! I wholeheartedly back the notion that pasta eaten in Italy is the greatest thing you can do for a tired soul. It’s a quick read and a nurturing reminder to not absorb guilt and forgive yourself when a relationship or career isn’t right for you anymore.
Ed Stafford is the first explorer I watched being honest about his fears, mental state and anxiety while making truly difficult trips. To me, it shows much greater courage than a stone cold face speaking with an action man voice. Ed’s the real deal and I’ve followed his various journeys and touching insights with interest ever since. This book is a personal favourite and a chance to experience the Amazon with a fresh perspective.
Caribbean: The Rum Diary by Hunter S Thompson
Set in Puerto Rico this is such a good road-trip book for sandy rum soaked adventures that I’ve applied it to the whole Caribbean as well. Instant transportation to escapism central.
Central America: The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux
An award-winning travel novel about the search for utopia. Allie Fox carts his family from US civilisation into central American jungles, dragging them deeper and deeper on a journey they didn’t necessarily want to go on. Such a good story; if you liked Captain Fantastic, you’ll love this.
Congo: Blood River by Tim Butcher
A family member gave me this many years ago to put me off travelling the Congo solo. It worked. This is a really bleak story and I appreciate that because it’s honest and doesn’t gloss over the experiences that made Tim Butcher’s lifelong dream of travelling the Congo river an absolute nightmare.
Czech Republic: Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor
This is a teen fantasy series and it’s great (like reading Northern Lights by Philip Pullman if you’re going to Svalbard. That’s not on this list because I simply expect everyone to have read it, or not be going to Svalbard if they haven’t). A holiday to Prague inspired Laini to write this book series and she wrote about the city with such glorious gothic ardour that I had to visit it afterwards and found it to be exactly as she’d described: wild with magic.
Being born in Denmark, brought up in the UK myself, it was great fun to read Helen’s first-hand account of moving to a sleepy village near Legoland in rural Jutland that even Copenhageners wouldn’t drive to visit! If you’ve ever dreamed of moving out to the sticks or emigrating for a year or two, this is a must-read.
I was introduced to Dorthe Nors as a shortlisted finalist for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize for this book and it’s a wonderful read blending sharp wit, courage and vulnerability in perfect measures. Recommended for anyone finding it difficult to settle back into a routine after returning from travelling too.
England: AA Gill Is Further Away by AA Gill
My favourite journalist who sadly passed away in 2016, AA Gill said all the things I wish I said and visited all the places I wish I could visit ie. everywhere he possibly could. His books can be devoured in single sittings and combine candid opinion with poetic observation in a way that no one else can or will. His turns of phrase when describing obscure British towns make me want to visit them all even though I’m quite certain he was making the point that they’re all naff.
France: The Reader On The 6:27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent, Life A User’s Manual by Georges Perec, Chocolat by Joanne Harris
3 books for France but all of them oh, so different! Reader On The 6:27 is beautifully bittersweet and a reminder of how far one can travel in the confines of the imagination. An unusual and abstract character study and surprising romance.
Life A User’s Manual is a fantastically sharp set of short stories centred a moment in time in an apartment block in Paris in 1975. It’s classic literature with the perfumed scent of old Paris lingering on each page (Kindle tap).
Chocolat doesn’t need an introduction but I can assure you that the book is at least as rewarding as the film. The descriptions of the small French town of Lansquenet and its characters will transport you there faster than you can find your passport.
Ghana: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
This is a wonderful debut novel weaving the dark history of slavery with bright characters and captivating storytelling. There are many uneasy human truths in this book covering seven generations of Ghana from the 18th century to the present day. It’s impossible to put down because of the fast pace and engaging tone Gyasi writes with. Great for overland trips.
Even though this was written before World War I it still imparts the beauty of Greek islands clearly and the warm qualities of its people through the eyes of a mourning Englishman come to claim his inheritance on Crete. If you need a holiday but can’t get away this is one of those books that will whisk you to the sights, sounds and smells of everything that is blue and golden. It somehow manages to invigorate the reader and it’s hard not to get up and travel somewhere yourself once you’re a few chapters in! Also, I love this book cover art. Now you know.
India: Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts & Are You Experienced? by William Sutcliffe & The Unsafe Sex by Nalini Natarajan
India is huge so of course, it needed 3 books. Shantaram changed my life when I read it many moons ago. The school of life philosophies threaded into each chapter are enough to make anyone question the brevity of life and what they’re doing with it. On visiting Mumbai for the first time I was amazed at how familiar everywhere felt because of Gregory’s astute descriptions.
Are You Experienced? is hilarious. It’s the kind of modern travel story I hope to see more of in the next few years. It’s modern, brutally honest and grasps the humour of backpacking as a young clueless adult better than anything else out there right now.
I found The Unsafe Sex in the world famous City Lights bookstore in San Francisco at 11pm (it’s the kind of wonderful bookstore one dreams of) and couldn’t put it down until the store closed and I took it with me. Although it predominantly explains the abuse of women’s rights in India and the fundamental causes that need to be addressed to change that behaviour, it also covers every single reason why there is sexism in every country today and how to fix it. And somehow it’s easy to digest! This one’s difficult to get hold of in Europe but worth ordering in if you can.
Indonesia: Amba by Laksmi Pamuntjak
Another delicious find from City Lights, this is the first novel by poet, Laksmi, about the 1965 massacre of 1 million accused communists in Indonesia that somehow manages not to cast judgement or paint good and evil players. Instead it focuses on the story of Amba and her loves and redemption while finding the courage to walk her own paths and stand by those difficult decisions.
Iran: Poetry of Hafez, Rumi and Forugh Farrokhzad, All The Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer, My Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pezeshkzad
A big country with so much literary prowess it’s difficult to select a handful. Firstly, stock up on Hafez and Rumi. You can actually get much better Hafez translations in Iran (I recommend the bookstore outside the pink mosque in Shiraz). Forough is a modern feminist poet beloved by Iranians and I really enjoyed her collection, Sin. I became so obsessed with Rumi’s philosophy that I was gently advised by a scholar not to delve too far because everyone who studies his work in depth goes mad with the truth of its complexities. He’s basically a galaxy in the form of poetry!
My Uncle Napoleon is a charming comic story told from the perspective of Uncle’s least favourite nephew as three generations grow up around their grumpy patriarch while trying to pursue their own hopes and dreams with hilarious results. It’s a great reminder of all the similarities we share as humans regardless of our cultures and nationalities.
Hosseini only ever makes me cry. His stories are heartbreaking and his characters too well written not to fall in love with and shed bitter tears over but I keep coming back because his descriptions of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria before, during and after war are the best there are. He paints with words the places I’ll never see in their former glory and this is the only way I can travel to them.
Also a film directed by and starring the oh, so talented, Natalie Portman, this is such a passionate read covering Israel past and present through Amos and his mother’s stories of Jerusalem and his experience coping with her early death while forging his identity in a country still forging its’ own.
I read this en route to Venice and fell in love. It’s old and English and fabulously rhapsodic while somehow being entirely relevant to a woman in the modern age. The descriptions of Tuscany are perfect for a rainy day at home. Reading it feels like lying on your stomach in a sunny flower garden.
This isn’t modern day Kenya, it’s a dreamy rendition of old Africa however, it’s still valid as a heartfelt memoir of what it feels like to fall in love with Africa, Kenya specifically. Blixen’s writing is blunt yet lyrical and many lines from it are never far from my mind. She weaves her true love of Africa into every sentence.
Mexico: Out Of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyers
This spans many countries including Mexico where writer, Geoff, has been tasked with writing a book about D H Lawrence and instead tries to avoid doing that at all costs by travelling the world. He moves fast but mostly to tropical destinations with beaches aplenty.
There are certain places that reverberate with myth and magic and Morocco is right up there at the top as one of them. With so many disjointed tribes and modernity seeping into every mountain pass, this book is a stunning collection of national folk stories that Richard Hamilton travelled the country to collect in writing before they were lost in time.
Nigeria: Half Of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda gets a lot of press for being an actual living, breathing wonder woman with a brain the size of Kilimanjaro AND she can write fiction like nobody else. This is a great introduction to her evocative prose with powerful insights into Nigerian daily life.
North America: Wild by Cheryl Strayed & A Walk In The Woods by Bill Bryson & American Indian Myths & Legends by Alfonso Ortiz & Richard Erdoes
Well, Wild had to feature on this list! And beware, it’s a powerful force for travel motivation – after buying it for a friend, he left England to walk the Pacific Crest Trail himself. This book is as much about the beauty of America’s west coast as it is about growing up and taking responsibility. It’s wonderful to have a modern coming of age story by a female American writer.
I have a big soft spot for A Walk In The Woods, which covers the Appalachian trail. I saw the film at the incredible art deco cinema, The Labia Theatre, in Cape Town just after finishing my first African trip and it made me feel better about the ‘selfish’ choice to travel and the forces that drive it.
Originally, I bought this book, and several others, for my father-in-law, who lived with Native Americans in his youth. This particular one was so extensive, exciting and hilarious that I ‘forgot’ to give it to him and eventually had to buy my own copy!
Two very different books here. The Sunlit Night is for anyone who’s ever studied (or wanted to) in a country with a completely different culture to their own. The experience of living through half a year of daylight in northern Norway is explored really well.
The Unseen covers the oft-neglected islands of Norway (there are loads!) and having read this in both languages, it’s also the best translation work I’ve ever seen. A beautiful story of family life and thwarted dreams on a hard, cold island facing all the elements, all the time. The writing is musical, it’s like having a steam bath on a rugged mountaintop overlooked by Shetland ponies.
Pacific Islands: Sex Lives Of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost
This is very funny. Troost and his girlfriend did what many of us have fantasized about and jumped ship to reestablish their lives sans rat race on a remote South Pacific island. This is his account of how they integrated with the bizarre customs of the locals and how the locals came to terms with their bizarre new ex-pats.
Bit of a left fielder but by this point, I’m sure you’ve noticed my reading tastes are a tad eclectic! This is an ancient song about an ill-fated campaign lead across Russia by Prince Igor. Nabokov, even when translating, gets it right every blimmin time.
Scotland: Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
Scoff all you like but I’m even more astonished at so-called well-read adults that haven’t read Harry Potter! It’s like being president but refusing to live in the White House because you prefer New York. Oh, wait… So if you’re headed to Scotland, especially Edinburgh, these books are going to make you very happy. There aren’t many writers that can transport a reader within a sentence – and spoiler, J K takes you a lot further than Scotland – but she can and she does again and again.
South Africa: Blacks Do Caravan by Fikile Hlatshwayo
Another surprise. I found this in a bookshop in Kruger National Park and couldn’t believe it was an actual book until I read the whole thing and realised what a wonderful book it is; one that everyone can benefit from especially in South Africa. Caravanning should be a thing everyone does in a place as rugged and varied as SA but that’s not the case. Fikile has done a huge amount of campaigning work since writing the book to share the adventures of caravanning with her family and why she hopes everyone will give it a go.
You get a double whammy of South Africa and Sweden wrapped up in this book. It’s erratic, slightly bonkers and oh so charming – typically Swedish then. Although they can be long-winded and veer off course for whole chapters at a time, Jonasson’s stories have amazing protagonists who provide wry analysis concerning the mindset and outlook of modern Sweden.
Taiwan: Taipei by Tao Lin
This is a romantic saga that sweeps from New York to Taipei ending in Las Vegas. It’s a hipster take on naughties life and all its trappings and while the protagonist, Paul, and his situation can be difficult to relate to, the intense isolation he runs from and toward, as well as his attempts to connect with the world, are all instantly recognisable.
The one, the only, the legend that is Sir Ranulph writes as well as he walks and what I find touching about this story is the huge part his wife, Ginny, played in his explorations and the incredible partnership the two had in helping each other to achieve their dreams. Fiennes’s most epic story for me is always that of his romance with Ginny.
Ukraine: Red Famine by Anne Applebaum
Controversial, but you know what? I found this in Foyles in London while – oh, why bother? I just hang out in Foyles whenever I have a spare half hour – and couldn’t put it down. Although I love talks about history, I find it hard to get through even small guides without falling asleep. Horrible Histories is about as much as I can manage. So Anne thoroughly deserves her Pulitzer Prize because I didn’t know about the 4 million Ukrainians who died of starvation under Stalin’s enforced famine in 1932 when I picked it up and I feel like I know quite a lot now since I finished the whole thing. If you’re seeking some insight into Russia and the Ukraine’s current strained relationship, this is a wonderful place to start.
Vietnam: Life Is A Trip by Judith Fein
I sometimes feel publishers only push female travel memoirs that make us all out to be lonely and clueless when travelling solo (until the end where the heroine miraculously puts on her own backpack) or just up for a good time on the most shallow of levels. Travel journalist, Judith Fein, succeeds in writing a book about her travels that incorporates her past, philosophies and observations while still being full of adventure and intrigue – more of these, please!
Bonus (the ones that cover A LOT):
Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles by Richard Dowden & Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
Africa sounds like a bit of boastful brag for one book but unlike many, this is the real deal. Dowden covered African news events for his entire career and it’s all in here. I found this in a charity shop and have enjoyed it so much that it’s not even been Kindle-ised yet!
Barbarian Days is one of those rare books about a specific topic, in this case surfing, that you don’t need to know anything about in order to enjoy. It features all the major surf spots around the world and Finnigan’s writing style sells the dream while telling the truth, warts and all, and creates something epic in the process. Perfect for summer trips to the coast or pretending you’re on one in the middle of winter.