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Armchair Travel: My All-Time Favourite Books Set Overseas

Whenever I cannot physically be travelling, I love to be transported virtually to another place or time via a good book. (Or a travel-themed TV show if I’m feeling sleepy!)

I’m particularly fond of matching my travel wish list to my reading list, soaking up the local literature or novels set in the location, to get a taste of a destination before I get there.

I’ve read lots of great novels set overseas in the last few years but these are the books that stand out in my memory the most.

Note: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. If you’re from the UK you can hop over to my Amazon shop for a list of 30 awesome books based all around the world. Read the disclosure for details.

I hope you enjoy armchair travelling around the world with this selection of my all-time favourite fiction and non-fiction books set in lush locations.

Books set in India feature A LOT! It’s an ongoing obsession I have!

Best Fiction Books Set Overseas

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
Location: Mexico

The most shocking, devastating, eye-opening and gripping book I’ve read in a long while, American Dirt follows a mother and son as they make a treacherous journey to flee the cartel in Mexico and cross the border into the United States. It’s an extraordinary novel – well researched, fast paced and beautifully written.

The Island by Victoria Hislop
Location: Greece

One of my favourite authors also happens to write about one of my favourite places in the world – Greece. Any of Victoria Hislop’s novels could quite easily sit on this list but I’ve started with her first, The Island, as its a beautifully woven tale of 4 generations battling war, illicit love, tragedy and leprosy on Spinalonga – Greece’s former leper colony. I’ve just downloaded her latest offering, Those Who Are Loved, which is set during the German occupation of Greece.

Catching the Sun by Tony Parsons
Location: Thailand

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 but end up embroiled in the island’s criminal underworld and become victims of a tsunami.

The Dry by Jane Harper
Location: Australia

Crime fans will enjoy this murder mystery set in a rural town in outback Australia that is struggling through a drought. I’ve always been fascinated by outback Australia so the backdrop of this book was as spell-binding as the plot. There are enough twists and turns to keep you guessing until the end and if you want to find out what Aaron Falk does next you can download Force of Nature straight after. (I’m reading it right now and am hooked.)

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
Location: Singapore 

I’ve read all 3 of Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians trilogy and I promise you the books are even better than the movie. Witty, bitchy and massively OTT, this book is every bit as delightfully wicked as some of Nicholas Young’s mega-rich family.

The Invisible Mountain by Caroliona De Roberts
Location: South America

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

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

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

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

Frankie (a great travel blogger friend of mine) is single-handedly responsible for my love of 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.

Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna
Location: India

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 God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Location: India

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.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Location: India

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

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 childrens’ lives are reflected in the political turmoil of India.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Location: India

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.

Read next: 10 best books set in India

Best Non-Fiction Set In Exotic Locations

best books set overseas

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

Bruce tells it exactly how it is; from the landscape to the people, the culture and the smells, he brings Australia’s 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.

Love With a Chance of Drowning: A Memoir by Torre De Roche
Location: South Pacific

Even though she had no sailing experience and a fear of the ocean, Torre followed her heart and her new man onto 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

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!

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

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.

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

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.

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

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 readers. The result is a novel that shares a fascinating insight into the mind of a terrific woman, while also chronicling a turbulent time for China.

And to finish, a humorous perspective of Britain:

Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson
Location: UK

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!

Images thanks to Sincerely Media, S O C I A L . C U T and Brianna Reak on Unsplash

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About Author

Travel blogger and freelancer writer who loves boutique hotels and brunching. I've been blogging for 10 years, visited 60+ countries and called London, Sydney, Melbourne and (oh so briefly) New York home at various points during the last decade. Now travelling with a baby and trying to make it as stylish and stress-free as can be!

13 Comments

  • Stacey
    July 27, 2015 at 2:37 am

    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 at 10:51 am

      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!

      Reply
  • Kirstie
    July 27, 2015 at 2:50 am

    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 at 10:49 am

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

      Reply
  • Lucy
    July 27, 2015 at 10:19 am

    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 at 10:48 am

      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.

      Reply
  • Terri @ Little Wanderings
    July 28, 2015 at 9:36 am

    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 at 11:10 pm

      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!

      Reply
  • Audrey
    July 30, 2015 at 8:45 am

    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!

    Reply
  • Gill Gardner
    July 30, 2015 at 8:56 am

    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 at 4:08 am

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

      Reply
  • Prachi
    August 11, 2015 at 7:29 am

    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 at 7:31 am

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

      Look forward to reading your list 🙂

      Reply

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