Best Books For Armchair Travel

Whenever I cannot physically be travelling, I love to be transported to another place or time via a good book. I’m particularly fond of matching my upcoming travels to my reading list, soaking up the local literature to get a taste of a destination before I arrive.

I’ve read lots of great travel literature over the last few years but these are the books that stand out in my memory the most. I hope you enjoy armchair travelling around the world with this selection of my favourite travel books.

(Note: India features A LOT! It was a phase I still haven’t quite gotten over!)

The Songlines (Vintage Classics)by Bruce Chatwin
Location: Australia
Non-fiction

Bruce tells it exactly how it is; from the landscape to the people, the culture and the smells, he brings the Northern Territory to life in vivid, fascinating and humorous prose. The Songlines attempts to unravel centuries of Aboriginal history and beliefs in a sensitive and often moving manner.

Catching the Sunby Tony Parsons
Location: Thailand
Fiction

Thailand fans look away now – this novel will dispel any illusions you may have about setting up home in ‘paradise’. A British family move to Thailand to escape trouble back home and end up embroiled in the island’s criminal underworld and become victims of a tsunami.

The Invisible Mountain by Caroliona De Roberts
Location: South America
Fiction

Covering a turbulent time in South American history through the lives of three passionate women who make bad decisions, this book will suck you in and spit you out in tears. An educating and moving experience.

City of God by Paulo Lins
Location: Brazil
Fiction

City of God is a shocking insight into the gang violence of Rio’s favelas during the 70s and 80s. Painstakingly translated from the Portuguese original; the language, mindset and needless brutality of the gangsters it profiles reveals what life in the City of God must have been like for the author who grew up there. It’s gritty, violent, and real – I couldn’t put it down.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
Location: Afghanistan
Fiction

Following the fate of several generations of an Afghan family through separation and reunion, I choked up on several different chapters of this brilliant book. Every bit as good as Hosseini’s other much-praised work – The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.

My favourite travel books of all time

Love With a Chance of Drowning: A Memoir by Torre De Roche
Location: On a boat!
Non-fiction

Even though she had no sailing experience and a fear of the ocean, Torre followed her heart and her new man on a small vessel into the South Pacific. This book is her skilfully told account of that real-life adventure. It’s a story that inspires awe and wanderlust; I’ve never craved a sailing expedition to Tonga before but quite fancy it now!

On The Road To Mr Right by Belinda Jones
Location: USA
Non-fiction

Belinda and her friend Emily embarked on a bold and brilliant quest to find a man in all the romantically (and not so) named towns in the USA. They find themselves in Intercourse Pennsylvania, Kissimmee Florida and Climax in Colorado* hoping to find suitable dates in the States! The resulting book is a witty, road-trip-romp which I chuckled all the way through in just one weekend.

* Yes these are all real place names – who knew!

Shy Feet: Short Stories Inspired by Travel by Frances M. Thompson
Location: Various
Fiction

Frankie (a great travel blogger friend of mine) is single-handedly responsible for my newfound love for short stories. Through a cast of complex and unique characters, Shy Feet will take you around the world, from Thai massage parlours to Gatwick Airport. I loved being able to dip into a new character and plot line every day and almost whooped with joy when a familiar name popped up in later stories.

Shy Feet by Frances M Thompson

Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna
Location: India
Fiction

One boy’s mistake ruins the lives of the people he loves most, and he has to sit back and see the damage he had caused everyday. A tale of miscommunication, loss, tradition and unrequited love that will keep you spellbound until the last sentence.

The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux
Location: India
Fiction

Modern day India is explored through three separate perspectives, as a middle aged couple, a lawyer and a backpacker each pass through the Elephanta Suite in Mumbai. Each character comes to India in search of something but they are all repulsed in some way with what they find.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Location: India
Fiction

This novel centres around an event in the past which the reader knows is horrific, fatal and potentially sexual but nothing else. The story unfolds through the eyes of the characters most affected by the event, a pair of twins who were young and innocent at the time of it happening but we find are ruined in adulthood. It’s a novel that wrenches the heart and questions it actions, all whilst set against the hypnotising backdrop of southern India.

Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard by Kiran Desai
Location: India
Fiction

This book is as crazy as the title sounds. It’s an imaginative, comedy caper about a disillusioned, potentially mad, post office worker who quits his job to live in a tree in the guava orchard. Using information he has gleaned from hacking people’s letters he beguiles them into worshipping him as a guru. All the characters in the novel paint a pretty parody of Indian life – the entrepreneurial father, the lovesick sister and the insane mother who cooks up a disastrous storm. Incredibly witty and superbly paced, I raced through this novel and laughed all the way to the very odd end.

Never Mind the Bullocks: One girl’s 10,000 km adventure around India in the worlds cheapest car by Vanessa Able
Location: All over India
Non-fiction

If you imagine there was a Top Gear special set in India and hosted by a solo woman you’d come close to understanding the challenges and capers featured in Never Mind The Bullocks. It’s a brave and inspiring read with just the right amount of humour, honesty (bowel movements included!) and romance (in the form of red-headed, French-American, heroic sounding Thor.) Fans of India and/or Top Gear will love this.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Location: India
Fiction

When two poor tailors move into the house of a proud widow in need of some cash their three lives become as intricately woven as the tapestries they work on. Exploring the concept of family and love in extreme hardship, A Fine Balance is a heart breaking book I could not put down.

Midnight’s Children (Vintage Classics) by Salmon Rushdie
Location: India
Fiction

This hefty tome with a big reputation chronicles the birth of modern India through the life of Saleem Sinai, born on the day of Indian independence. Unusual gifts connect all of ‘Midnight’s children’ to telepathic Saleem, and the ups and downs of these special children’s lives are reflected in the political turmoil of India.

Holy Cow!: An Indian Adventure by Sarah McDonald
Location: India
Non-fiction

A comedy take on one Aussie expat’s experience of living in India. Sarah moved from Sydney to New Delhi after her boyfriend was posted there for work, even though she had vowed she would never return after backpacking there a decade earlier. She has a lot to learn; from dealing with the servants to partying with Indian glitterati, and describes with humble wit her life in modern India.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Location: India
Fiction

Balram Halwai is a servant, philosopher, entrepreneur and murderer. Taking career progression to a whole new level, this book might make you think twice about Indian call centres. Laugh out loud funny in places and disturbingly scary in others.

Falling Leaves Return to Their Roots: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter
Location: China
Non-fiction

Adeline’s autobiography makes no attempt to dress her story of childhood neglect, bullying and abuse with fancy words, rather she describes events of twisted cruelty with frank honesty. Throughout the book, and her life, Adeline has refused to ask for sympathy, she is merely looking for acceptance from her family and perhaps also from her reader. The result is a fascinating insight into the mind of a terrific woman, which also chronicles a turbulent time for China.

Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson
Location: UK
Non-fiction

Notes From A Small Island are Bryson’s hilarious thoughts on the small land us Brits call home. As he travels the country his comments on the (largely) strange people he meets and bizarre habits of the British had me in stitches at every turn. When his travels bought him to the parts of the UK I grew up, I positively guffawed at his accurate and cutting observations on the ugliness of some of these places. Bryson absolutely loves Britain though and says exactly how it is:

“What a wondrous place this was – crazy as f**k, of course, but adorable to the tiniest degree.”

Quite!

Do you have a favourite travel book not on the list? Let me know in the comments below!

13 Comments

  1. Reply

    Stacey

    July 27, 2015

    So glad you posted these as I love getting recommendations for my next great armchair adventure. Like you I like to read all about the places I’m visiting to prepare for the trip, and then reading about them after and remarking “Hey, I’ve been there!”.

    I’m also on a mission to “Read Around the World” which is trying to read at least one book set in every country. I’m far from accomplishing it but there isn’t any rush. These are going on my TBR pile for that little goal for sure.

    To add to your India reading may I suggest “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”? This is one of my favourite books in quite awhile. I actually listened to the audio book and I almost think it was better because of it. The characters seem to come alive and I really couldn’t wait to get in the car each day, before and after work, to listen and learn more about their lives. It made me cry at points, and it made me mad at many others. Overall it really opened my eyes to a whole other world.

    • Reply

      Jayne Gorman

      July 27, 2015

      Wow what a great idea for a challenge. How many countries have you managed so far?

      I have also read ‘Behind the beautiful forevers’ and enjoyed it but I loved so many other books set in India more it didn’t quite make it onto this list. A fascinating (and I agree frustrating in parts) read though – great suggestion!

  2. Reply

    Kirstie

    July 27, 2015

    I’m in need of some book suggestions, and I haven’t read any of these, so this is great! I especially want to read The Invisible Mountain – Latin American history fascinates me.

    • Reply

      Jayne Gorman

      July 27, 2015

      I LOVED the Invisible Mountain. Let me know what you think if you read it!

  3. Reply

    Lucy

    July 27, 2015

    I absolutely adored Shantaram which made me desperate to revisit India, Wild by Cheryl Strayed is my favourite travel memoir, and Joanne Harris’s Chocolat series always conjure up a magical image of France for me!

    • Reply

      Jayne Gorman

      July 27, 2015

      I loved Shantaram too, it’s especially good if you’re reading it on a beach in Goa. I (sadly) watched the movie version of Wild before reading the book so didn’t feel like it made sense to go back and read it after – maybe I should so. I also found Chocolate mesmerising.

  4. Reply

    Terri @ Little Wanderings

    July 28, 2015

    What a list! I absolutely love reading books for travel inspiration, and ones set in places I’ve already had the fortune of visiting. Adore a good bit of armchair travel indeed!

    I haven’t read her book, but saw Torre de Roche speak at a Melbourne Writer’s Festival event last year. Quite a tale!

    Great travelish books I’ve read lately have been Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (for Iceland!) and The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (for Amsterdam!).

    • Reply

      Jayne Gorman

      July 28, 2015

      We read Burial Rites for travel book chat and I found it spell-binding. I’ve never quite fancied The Miniaturist though, not sure why. I’ll check it out!

  5. Reply

    Audrey

    July 30, 2015

    Any recommendations for books about Istanbul or Berlin? I have Orhan Pamuk’s books on my list but not quite sure about others! Thanks in adv!

  6. Reply

    Gill Gardner

    July 30, 2015

    I loved A Fine Balance – it was so moving and an insight into the castes in India. I have a signed copy of Midnight’s Children but I struggle to get into it. Will try again!

    • Reply

      Jayne Gorman

      August 3, 2015

      A signed copy? Wow! It definitely is a bit tough to get into but well worth sticking with in the end!

  7. Reply

    Prachi

    August 11, 2015

    Great list! I did a (very small) list of mine couple of years ago – http://www.deliciouslydirectionless.com/2013/05/5-travel-books-to-treasure.html

    Also, when are you making your way over to India? Give me a shout-out when you do 🙂

    • Reply

      Jayne Gorman

      August 11, 2015

      I would love to come back to India! It’s been too long already.

      Look forward to reading your list 🙂

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