The best travel books for ultimate escapism – from adventure epics to beach reads
Sometimes, even just the simple act of burrowing down with a book can create all the escapism needed. But if we’re really honest, the best books act as epic launchpads for adventure, inspiring you to hop off that couch and hit the road. From post-war portraits of Italy at a time of transformation to impossible-to-pinpoint locations where you’ll dream of spending long, slow summers, we’ve put together the ultimate reading list to inspire the traveller in you – or to gift as presents for that special travel-lover in your life…
Normal People by Sally Rooney
A coming-of-age story set in Ireland
Normal People took the literary world by storm upon its publication in 2018 for good reason. Author Sally Rooney evocatively captures what it’s like to grow up in a small town in Ireland, as she charts the shifting relationship between Marianne and Connor. The two protagonists leave school to go to the same university in Dublin, where their unlikely relationship takes on new shapes as the years ebb and flow. It feels fresh and contemporary, while tapping into classic themes of love and identity.
MY BRILLIANT FRIEND BY ELENA FERRANTE
A tale of friendship between two women over the decades
This is a story of two girls growing up on the outskirts of Naples in post-war Italy. Elena and Lila come to trust and rely on each other, as they navigate the challenges of adolescence and adulthood. Elena Ferrante depicts not only a tale of friendship, but a portrait of Naples and Italy at a time of huge transformation.
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME BY ANDRÉ ACIMAN
A beautifully queer love story between a teenager and his father’s doctoral assistant
You’ve probably seen (and loved) the film, but the book is even better. This is pure escapism, as American author André Aciman takes us back in time to a long, slow summer in the 1980s – in a romantic, impossible-to-pinpoint location, that we all want to visit. It’s about the coming-of-age sexual awakening of 17-year-old Elio, who falls for a handsome older scholar staying at his family home. The atmosphere Aciman creates is so heady and enveloping that it pulls you in with force.
THE ENGLISH PATIENT BY MICHAEL ONDAATJE
A wartime drama unfolding between four traumatised characters
Another story set in northern Italy, this time we’re going back to the end of the Second World War. In his most famous novel, Michael Ondaatje poetic post-war story centres around a deserted Tuscan villa, where four shell-shocked characters seek to make sense of the past. The book takes its title from a character called the English Patient, who revisits his memories of love in a time before the war, as he is looked after by loyal nurse Hana.
HOT MILK BY DEBORAH LEVY
A dreamlike thriller about a young woman’s relationship with her mother
Hot Milk is an interesting book filled with symbolism and dreamlike images, yet manages to be compulsively readable at the same time. It’s about a young woman, Sofia, who moves to Spain’s arid Almería desert with her mother, Rose, to find a cure for her paralysis. The narrative unfolds in Sofia’s mind, as she makes sense of her surroundings and explores her sexuality through random liaisons. The stifling heat of the desert is palpable, as are the tensions that simmer above the surface. You’ll be hooked.
CIRCE BY MADELINE MILLER
A feminist reworking of Greek mythology
From the very first line, Circe will transport you to the sun-soaked islands of ancient Greece. “Circe” is a minor deity in the Greek pantheon, the witch from Homer’s Odyssey who turns men into pigs. Here, writer Madeline Miller charts her backstory, giving life to this often-overlooked character in a deft feminist reworking. The writing is elegant and rich, with a gripping plot that will keep you hooked.
THE SONG OF ACHILLES BY MADELINE MILLER
The love story between Achilles and Patroclus during the Trojan War
Another one from Madeline Miller, this time turning the lens on Achilles. It’s the story of his friendship and blossoming relationship with Patroclus, a prince who is every bit as awkward as Achilles is heroic, as they enter the years of war in Troy. It unfolds like a Hollywood action movie, rounded off with Miller’s characteristic lyrical prose – the perfect escapist read.
THE MINIATURIST BY JESSIE BURTON
A thriller about a miniaturist whose disturbing creations mirror real-life events
Travel back in time to Amsterdam in the 1600s, a world in which Jessie Burton’s protagonist Nella is ready to begin life as a merchant’s wife. Her wedding gift is a doll’s house replica of her new home, which is filled with the tiny creations of an enigmatic miniaturist. The doll’s house starts mimicking real-life events, as disturbing things happen around her.
BURIAL RITES BY HANNAH KENT
A condemned murderer lives out her final months, as the truth starts to emerge
Uncover the desolate landscape of 1800s Iceland, as we follow the final months of heroine Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed in Iceland, condemned to death for the murder of her lover. She awaits her execution on the farm of a district officer and his family, which is where she forms a friendship of sorts with a young priest. Over the months, Agnes’ story begins to emerge and the family begin to realise that all isn’t what it seems.
THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS BY ARUNDHATI ROY
A story of twins Rahel and Estha growing up in a time of political instability
Arundhati Roy’s Booker-winning novel will transport you to India’s tropical south, where a set of twins are growing up against a backdrop of political turmoil. When their cousin visits from England, the twins experience a change to their usual way of life, as secrets begin to emerge. Populated with a memorable host of characters, Roy evokes family life in 1969 Kerala with lyrical prose and intricate plotting.
WE THAT ARE YOUNG BY PRETI TANEJA
A contemporary reworking of King Lear set in modern India
This gripping thriller will plunge you into northern India’s darkest corners, from the glamourous bustle of New Delhi to the slums of Kashmir. It follows the three daughters – Gargi, Radha and Sita – of millionaire tycoon Devraj, as a brutal power struggle ensues for the ownership of the company. It’s a gritty family tale of social injustice and violence that conjures the spirit of Shakespeare’s tragedy, while remaining contemporary and original.
LIFE OF PI BY YANN MARTEL
An adventure story about a boy and a tiger lost at sea
This novel begins in India and ends in Canada, navigating the vast Pacific Ocean in between. It’s the story of a boy and a tiger who are the only survivors of a shipwreck, stranded together on a lifeboat as they drift through the wild open sea. A classic adventure charting the poignant relationship between boy and beast as they endure the elements.
TANGERINE BY CHRISTINE MANGAN
A Hitchcockian thriller about an unsettling relationship between two women
Set in 1950s Tangier, this pacy thriller sketches out a tale of obsession and menace between two old university friends, Alice and Lucy. As Alice struggles to acclimatise to her new life in Morocco, her old friend mysteriously shows up and helps ease her out of the house. However, Alice soon starts feeling oppressed by Lucy, as we discover there are more twists and turns to the narrative than we first thought. Mangan has been compared to both Hitchcock and Highsmith in her depiction of psychological tension.
HALF OF A YELLOW SUN BY CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE
A story of three intersecting lives during the Nigerian Civil War
Adichie’s epic novel takes us back to the Nigerian civil war, into the intersecting lives of three characters: Ugwu, a houseboy to a university professor; Olanna, the professor’s mistress; and Richard, an Englishman drawn to Olanna’s twin sister. So begins a tale charting the final years of colonialism in Nigeria, and the ways race, class and love affect the lives of the characters.
BLACK LEOPARD, RED WOLF BY MARLON JAMES
The first novel in a fantasy trilogy about the hunt for a missing boy
Loved Game of Thrones? This epic from Marlon James has been touted as Africa‘s answer to GOT, weaving rich mythological traditions with pacy fantasy plotting. It follows the tale of Tracker, a hunter hired to find a lost boy. He joins a larger group of hunters all searching for the child, each of them hiding their own secrets. Soon, Tracker begins to ask himself why they’re searching for the boy at all. Undoubtedly one of the most exciting modern fantasy books to emerge recently.
AMERICAN GODS BY NEIL GAIMAN
A fantastical road trip through the soul of America
Another great fantasy book to lose yourself in is Neil Gaiman’s epic road-trip saga. It begins with Shadow’s release from prison, as he meets the mysterious Mr Wednesday who claims to be an ancient god. The two embark on a journey into the soul of America, encountering a host of forgotten deities and powerful forces along the way. Brimming with magic and Americana in equal measure, you can’t help but feel whisked along the dusty highway with Shadow and Mr Wednesday.
THE LUMINARIES BY ELEANOR CATTON
A gold-mining mystery shaped by enigmatic forces
Wind back the clock to the gold rush days of the 1800s, when New Zealand beckoned those who sought to find their fortunes. So begins Catton’s mysterious tale, as 12 men convene to discuss a series of strange events including a missing fortune, a sex worker’s attempted suicide and the disappearance of a wealthy man. It’s dense and tightly plotted – and a hugely enjoyable read. If you’re into horoscopes, you might just love this.
NORWEGIAN WOOD BY HARUKI MURAKAMI
A nostalgic coming-of-age love story
When he hears his favourite Beatles song, Toru is transported 20 years back to his youth, to an age when he left home to study in Tokyo and discovered a world of casual relationships and loss. This was the book that catapulted Murakami to international fame; it’s sweet, tender and full of nostalgia for a lost time. Known for his surreal and strange stories, Norwegian Wood is by far his most accessible work of fiction.
LABYRINTH BY KATE MOSSE
A historical time-slip thriller set in the 1200s and 2000s
Pining for the South of France? Discover the romance of Carcassonne in these pages. Weaving between 1209 and 2005, this thriller follows two women in different centuries in the Languedoc region, each uncovering mysterious symbols that point to a secret hidden in a labyrinth (clue: it’s got something to do with the Holy Grail). If you love Dan Brown’s books and you’re looking for some historical escapism, this is the one for you.
AN ARTIST OF THE FLOATING WORLD BY KAZUO ISHIGURO
A retired artist confronts demons of the past in the aftermath of WWII
Famous artist Masuji Ono spends his retirement tending his garden and spending time with his family. Despite this seeming tranquillity, memories from the Second World War come back to haunt him. As Japan comes to terms with its defeat, the artist reflects on his personal history, how his choices made him both a hero and a coward. It’s a nuanced portrait of a nation dealing with its demons in the aftermath of war.
THE LONELY CITY BY OLIVIA LAING
Explores urban loneliness through the works of New York’s most famous artists
When Olivia Laing moved to New York, she felt consumed by feelings of loneliness and urban alienation. In this intelligent and poignant memoir, she finds solace in the city’s artists, looking at the ways loneliness shapes the works of Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper and David Wojnarowicz, among others. From the superficial glamour of Warhol’s circles to the devastating AIDS crisis, Laing takes on an affecting journey of New York through the ages.
STASILAND BY ANNA FUNDER
Anna Funder uncovers the details of ordinary lives under Soviet rule
This is a history book, but not as you know it. Anna Funder brings Soviet stories to life in her engaging and personable style, interwoven with candid references to her own life. The result is an intelligent, accessible and original account of East German lives behind the Berlin Wall.
THE SILK ROADS BY PETER FRANKOPAN
A historical journey along the crossroads of civilisation
Immerse yourself in an epic historical journey along the Silk Roads, which once acted as vital trading routes between east and west. Commerce thrived along these routes through Central Asia, but it was also a melting pot of ideas. Dive into this monumental story across different lands and cultures – you’ll feel a million miles away from home.
PERSEPOLIS BY MARJANE SATRAPI
A coming-of-age memoir set in revolutionary Iran
Marjane Satrapi’s celebrated memoir takes the form of a graphic novel, in which she shares a funny and heartbreaking personal journey against the backdrop of the Islamic Revolution. Growing up in Tehran, the young Satrapi attempts to make sense of the bewildering changes unfolding around her, before escaping to Vienna. Her black-and-white illustrations will enchant you with gentle humour and poignancy.
A COOK’S TOUR BY ANTHONY BOURDAIN
Anthony Bourdain dives into the cuisines of the world, from Vietnam to Spain
In his trademark irreverent style, the late, great Anthony Bourdain takes us from Saigon to San Sebastián in search of culinary riches. What ensues is an adventure involving gangsters, medieval pig slaughters and pilgrimages in equal measure – with a still-beating cobra heart being consumed along the way, too (yes, really).
Feeling inspired? Grab your favourite books and join Flash Pack on a group adventure with other like-minded travellers in their 30s and 40s.
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