books-to-read-when-you-cannot-travel

20 Books to Read When You Cannot Travel

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”- George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons.

As any bonafide bookworm can attest to, books (whether fiction or non-fiction) have the ability to take us places… We can travel to unknown cities, foreign worlds and even modern-day places at the turn of a dog-eared page.

And as many countries are under lockdown, with people staying home to stay safe during the unprecented COVID-19 pandemic, I cannot think of a better escape than a good book. Especially in a time when we cannot travel physically.

Books to Take Us Places by Heart

 

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In light of this, I have put together a post featuring books that either have a travel theme. Or else, they have inspired past readers to travel one day…

And until we can safely travel again, may they inspire you from the safety and comfort of your home.

Some of the books I have loved and poured over myself, while others are recommendations.

As such, please be advised that, while I have done my best to vet their quality (and selected ones with interesting-sounding storylines and good ratings online as far as possible), I cannot be responsible for the content or nature of the recommended books.

I have, however, tried to stick with books about real-world towns, cities or countries as a means of global solidarity.

Some of the books are light-hearted, shameless chick lit, while others bear a touch of real-life nostalgia or seriousness to them.

Either way, I hope they take you someplace else emotionally and mentally and cement a place in your traveller’s heart.

May you find at least one page-turner to keep your travel-loving heart content during these uncertain times:

My Personal Picks: Books That Helped Me ‘Travel’ Somewhere New

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Here are some of my own personal favourites.

Each of these books have stirred a sense of wanderlust within me or made me long to visit some foreign place.

And, more often than not, with their beautiful descriptions and vivid writing, they have also transported me there with my mind’s eye.

1) Heidi by Johanna Spyri

 

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Arguably one of the most famous books around, Johanna Spyri’s Heidi has captured the hearts and minds of many readers (and movie-lovers).

This touching story of a little orphan girl, who is sent to live in the Alps with her intense but loving grandfather, is a powerful, moving read.

It is simple enough read for a child, even as it tugs on the emotions and feelings of an adult.

Heidi is a lovely reminder of what it means to be good and kind and live a simple, yet happy life with those you love.

Travel Aspect – The Alps: For me, the descriptions – like the stunning beauty of the Alps or the deliciousness of butter melting on warm toast – are poetically beautiful in their simplicity.

I first read Heidi as a young schoolgirl and the story has stayed with me ever since.

2) For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

 

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During my pre-college gap year, I devoured Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. To me, it is a captivating, emotionally charged read.

Set during the Spanish Civil War, the book focuses on a young American, Robert Jordan, serving in the International Brigades.

From an emotional standpoint, it speaks of endless courage, love, sorrow and bravery and is written with the finest realism and tragic beauty.

It is a heart-breaking read in places – but it is also an entirely brilliant piece of literature.

If you decide to read anything by Ernest Hemingway, make sure it is this book.

Travel Aspect – Spain: Even when I think of it now, I can still feel myself transported to the then-war-torn mountains of Spain.

3) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

 

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As one of Jane Austen’s most well-known and beloved books, Pride and Prejudice – a great literary classic – needs no introduction. It is beautifully written, insightful and above all, daring in the way Austen (and her characters) challenges the stereotypes and prejudices of that time.

The novel follows the life of young Elizabeth Bennet, her parents and her four very different sisters, as they battle with the troubles and injustices of their time.

But the main protagonist is undoubtedly Elizabeth, who shows immense character growth by the end of the book.

Above all, this story shows the importance of not judging others, as well as what we do not understand, too quickly. It is masterfully written, with a high but not impossible standard of English.

Travel Aspect – England: Set in the Regency era of Great Britain, the richness of the countryside, balls, gowns and stately manors draw you into Elizabeth’s world, while also taking you across rural England in the early 19th century… certainly one of my favourite aspects about it.

4) The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

 

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The Great Alone is a bravely written novel that touches on human courage, toxic love, the force of nature, the wildness of humans and animals alike and above all, important mental and physical health issues.

For most, these would be scary prospects – but Kristin Hannah effortlessly, yet mindfully, exposes the reader to each with grace, tenderness and respect.

This book follows the story of a war-torn American family’s life during the 1970s and beyond.

After POW Ernt Allbright returns home from Vietnam, he uproots his family to the wildly beautiful, yet treacherously unforgiving Alaska, America’s last great frontier.

Haunted by past ghosts (which manifest in PTSD tendencies) and afraid of the advancing world, Ernt tries to protect his family from reality… But the family soon learn that, in settling in Alaska, there are forces far greater to contend with mentally, emotionally and physically.

As the author says, “people in Alaska are either running to something or running from something”, and when reading this book, you really feel that.

The book is a captivating, emotional read. It is written so that even its most complex characters still have redeeming traits.

For me, it is a story of human resilience and learning how to heal and start your life over and over again.

Travel Aspect – Alaska: Honestly, the way Kristin Hannah paints Alaska to the reader is incredible.

You feel as though you are there riding across the snow or trudging through the fading summer days, surrounded by wolves, raging waters and the harsh and fiercely beautiful landscapes of Alaska.

4) Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

 

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Another great classic, Les Misérables is a touching and powerfully written novel that reveals the best and worst of humanity.

It depicts terrible poverty, redemption, unconditional love and cruelty from one chapter to the next, while also exposing you to life in 19th-century France.

This epic, five-volume novel follows the redemptive story of harshly convicted criminal, Jean Valjean, who is hunted by an obsessed policeman, Javert, long after he has served his 19 years’ worth of prison time.

It also carefully touches on love in its many forms: between a mother and her child (Fantine and Cosette); between a father and his adopted child; between people fighting for their ideals; and yes, even between two hopeful, young, lovers so I think it is safe to say that love is the book’s prevailing theme.

It’s a long, though mesmerising, read and a nice challenge for anyone who is not used to reading such lengthy novels. Even for myself, I poured over much of the book in a few weeks and then revisited it a while later to finish the final volume.

However you read it, Les Misérables is a beautiful, well-written read with some keen moral lessons.

Travel Aspect – Paris and France at large: I love the contrasting scenes that Victor Hugo creates for the reader: first rural France, where poverty is the master, then the hidden beauty of a nun’s convent and the secret of Parisian house before ending up on unpredictable streets of Paris, where beauty, fighting and poverty seem to co-exist.

5) Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

 

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Anne of Green Gables is another much loved classic. Orphan Anne Shirley is a loving, whimsical and above all, enchanting protagonist.

With her startling imagination and passionate spirit, she has a way of bringing magic (and comic mayhem) to herself and those around her.

Anne is adopted by brother and sister, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert and goes to live with them on their farm, Green Gables.

With her quirks and adventures, she soon causes a stir in their home and in the fictional town of Avonlea (based on Cavendish, Prince Edward Island, Canada).

One of the standout features of this novel is how feelingly the author describes the scenery and things; they immediately come alive before your eyes.

I especially love Chapter IV where Anne is discovering Green Gables:

“…Below the garden a green field lush with clover sloped down to the hollow where the brook ran and where scores of white birches grew, upspringing airily out of an undergrowth suggestive of delightful possibilities in ferns and mosses and woodsy things generally. Beyond it was a hill, green and feathery with spruce and fir; there was a gap in it where the gray gable end of the little house she had seen from the other side of the Lake of Shining Waters was visible.

Off to the left were the big barns and beyond them, away down over green, low-sloping fields, was a sparkling blue glimpse of sea.”

Travel Aspect – Cavendish, Prince Edward Island: After reading Anne of Green Gables, I felt I had inhabited towns, Cavendish and Charlottestown on Prince Edward Island, places that inspired Lucy Maud Montgomery’s book and her engaging Anne.

6) Stravaganza: City of Masks by Mary Hoffman

 

 

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This book – the first in Mary Hoffman’s Stravaganza series – might be aimed at tweens and teens but it is no pushover… Especially as it deals with some serious content, like cancer, betrayal, love, secrecy and above all, the shadow of death.

The story deals with Lucien Mulholland, a contemporary 15-year-old boy living with his parents in England.

When Lucien is diagnosed with a brain tumour and begins undergoing chemotherapy treatment, his father buys a beautiful marbled notebook for him to write his thoughts in when his throat is too sore to speak.

The notebook, it turns out, is a kind of time-travelling talisman that, when he falls asleep clutching it, transports him to Bellezza, equivalent to 16th century Venice.

Here, as ‘Luciano’, he discovers he is unaffected by his cancer but finds there are other dangers he must face.

The book is thrilling from a fantasy perspective and while it seems an unlikely contender for a travel-inspiring book, it really does reveal interesting, fun facts about real places.

I also just love the rich of the silks, secret masks and carnival spirit it incorporates into its plotline.

Travel Aspect – Venice, Murano, Burano and Torcello: What I love about this fictional, time-travelling novel is how, even when Mary Hoffman is describing imaginary places, like Bellezza (based off 16th century Venice), Merlino (Murano), Burlesca (Burano) and Torrone (Torcello), she paints a very real, evocative and interesting cultural tapestry for you.

I learnt so much about Venice, the ‘Carnevale’, the neighbouring islands of the Lagoon, Murano glass, Burano lace work and more that it really made the book fascinating beyond the fiction and fantasy.

7) The Orphan’s Song by Lauren Kate

 

 

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Another Venice-inspired novel, The Orphan’s Song is a gorgeous read for so many reasons. Not only are its characters magical, talented and brave – but it also deals with family secrets, forbidden love, danger, mystery and redemption.

It tells the story of two Venetian orphans, Violetta and Mino, living in glorious Venice during the 1700s.

The two meet as teenagers and fall in love, only to be separated by fates and forces beyond their control.

It’s a gripping read, enhanced by the beauty of its narration; the vividness of Venice’s sultry city streets; colourful, extravagant scenes; and above all, the poignant music that, figuratively, plays through its pages.

Travel Aspect: 18th century Venice: Parts of the book are heart-wrenching, while others are like lapping up pure written joy… All and all, it’s a beautiful novel and one that plants you firmly in 18th century Venice.

Reading it in 2019, I really felt like I was stepping back in time and history. (And, having read City of Masks growing up, dipping into this book felt like revisiting an old friend: Venice of yesteryear.)

8) Chocolat by Joanne Harris

 

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Chocolat is, as the name implies, a delicious read thanks to its food descriptions…  ‘A warm wind for February, laden with the hot greasy scents of frying pancakes and sausages and powdery-sweet waffles cooked on the hot plate right there by the roadside, with the confetti sleeting down collars and cuffs and rolling in the gutters like an idiot antidote to winter’.

I’ll be honest, though, it is not my favourite book of all-time (I enjoyed the movie more) – but it is still an interesting, eye-opening one.

It is set in a fictional French town called Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, where Vianne Rocher, a young single mother, and her daughter, Anouk, end up settling.

Their arrival shakes up the conservative, somewhat stiff town, whose people and perceptions have not changed in years.

So they are especially scandalised when Vianne opens a chocolaterie opposite the church and incites the priest, Francis Reynaud, who tries to drive her from town.

At first, the townsfolk stay away at the priest’s urging – but they slowly begin to discover that chocolate isn’t the most sinful force at play here…

I think, at its core, it deals with how to rise above gossip and other people’s perceptions; let go of the things we carry with us; and above all, how to show true tolerance for others.

Travel Aspect: France (but most importantly, while discovering good food): What I did enjoy about the book more than anything else was its uniqueness and the way that Joanne Harris weaves incredible, mouth-watering good food – one of the great passions among the French – into its storyline.

It made me want to visit a sleepy French town and tuck into really good food.

9) The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

 

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A tale of two sisters, devoted wife and mother, Vianne and rebellious free spirit, Isabelle, living during World War II: this is one of the saddest but most beautiful books I have read.

It deals with war and grief; courage and love; self-sacrifice and troubles bravely borne in a way that is startlingly raw and emotional.

Set in Paris and a small, fictional village in France during German occupation, it is a story of immense bravery in all its many forms.

Importantly, it tells the war from the women’s perspective – and it makes for a fascinating, if not hard, read.

Travel Aspect – France: It shouldn’t have made me want to travel but it did.

I felt as if I was sheltered in the town before the war or trying to navigate Paris during the occupation. (And Vianne’s rustic garden feels like a place of hope even throughout the hard bits.)

10) Star of Light by Patricia St. John

 

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Set somewhere in North Africa – presumably Morocco – during the 20th century, Star of Light is a touching story about a brother’s love for his little blind sister, even in the face of extreme rural poverty and cruel circumstances.

Worried that his cruel stepfather will sell Kinza as a blind beggar, Hamid and Kinza are sent away by their mother, to find a kind nurse in a neighbouring town.

It is religious fiction so if that isn’t your thing, rather give it a miss. But I find it is a sweet book with real human struggles at play.

Travel Aspect – 20th century North Africa or Morocco: St John paints the era and the people’s sufferings and living conditions with real feeling and a sense of reality. No doubt thanks to the author’s time in Morocco as a missionary nurse.

11) The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton

 

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This is another beautifully written, yet ultimately sad, novel.

It tells the rather tragic story of a group of budding artists and friends who visit an English manorhouse in the summer of 1862.

Their dream trip goes horribly awry though as one woman ends up shot dead, another goes missing, a family heirloom is lost and a man’s life is ruined…

The book is narrated by multiple people. It jumps back and forth between past years and present day, always revolving around Birchwood Manor: a house that holds an unsolved secret.

I loved the beauty, not just of the house but of the lives it has seen unfold around it.

I also liked having to piece together the plot. It does reveal some sad truths as you get deeper into the book – but the conclusion felt a bit unfinished to me.

Travel Aspect – the English Countryside: Kate Morton captures the essence of the idyllic English countryside. With her tender narratives, she will have you yearning to explore the garden, nearby pub and woodlands alike.

12) War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

 

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Another great classic, War and Peace is one of the more challenging but ultimately rewarding books I have tackled.

It is a very long, make no mistake – but it doesn’t really ever lose your attention. Instead, it just feels very heavy in places… but that’s more a sign of the emotive writing and contrasting characters than anything else.

It chronicles Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and shows the impact that had on ‘Tsarist society’.

Tolstoy carefully unfolds the lives of five aristocratic families: the Bezukhovs; the Bolkonskys; the Rostovs; the Kuragins and the Drubetskoys. Each family’s story is carefully woven before intense, frightening elements of war envelop the plotline.

The individual stories are often wrought with joy, happiness, pain and human error so they feel very real.

Some of the characters will irk you more than others but I think almost all of them have redeeming qualities and moments of beauty as they themselves change with time.

Travel Aspect – Saint Petersburg during the 1800s: Above all, this book made me feel like I was living and breathing in Saint Petersburg during the 1800s – and that is one of its greatest gifts to readers.

13) Still Me by Jojo Moyes

 

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For a lighter, modern-day read, Jojo Moyes’ Still Me is a fitting conclusion to her Me Before You trilogy.

Whatever your thoughts on the movie, the book trilogy series has a gritty, tender realness to it.

Each book thoughtfully deals with life and death; heartbreak and love; and perhaps above all, finding yourself anew after you have been left behind, time and again.

In this book, our cheerful heroine, Louisa Clark, heads to New York City to seek out some much-needed independence.

Here, Louisa ends up working for yet another wealthy family, the Gopniks but she quickly discovers that life among the super rich – and long-distance relationships – are not all sunshine and roses.

While mingling with high society, Louisa befriends Joshua Ryan – a man who reminds her of the past – and unearths a vintage clothing store, where she feels truly at home.

As she grapples with her relationships, her employers and above all, herself – we discover just who Louisa Clark really is.

Travel Aspect – modern-day New York: I loved how Jojo Moyes captured the frenetic energy of the Big Apple; the sleepiness of a local NYC diner and perhaps above all, life in a luxury New York residence.

It really made me want to visit Manhattan, if only to walk its bustling, colourful streets.

Book Recommendations from Fellow Travel Lovers:

14) Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa

 

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Synopsis: A heart-wrenching read that tells the story of a family removed from their ancient village, Ein Hod into a Jenin refugee camp.

It begins in the 1940s and spans across four generations of a single Palestinian family.

This is a story of love, loss, parenthood, childhood, marriage and what it means to be human.

Travel Aspect – Palestine (through the years): This book will take you through Palestine, as you walk side by side with its people: “We come from the land, give our love and labor to her, and she nurtures us in return. When we die, we return to the land. In a way, she owns us. Palestine owns us and we belong to her.”

15) Eat, Pray, #FML by Gabrielle Stone

 

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Synopsis: Gabrielle Stone’s story is one of triumph over her circumstances: her husband’s affair with a nineteen-year-old, followed by a new lover planning a month-long vacation with her and telling her last minute that he needs to go alone…

Instead of sitting at home heartbroken, she makes a decision to embark on a new, solo adventure, do some serious soul searching and finally, learn how to love herself.

Please note: This book contains some strong language and mature content. It is recommended for readers over 18.

Travel Aspect: A solo travel trip across Europe, as the writer pieces herself back together.

16) The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

 

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Synopsis: A young boy, Theo Decker, loses his mother in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Before he leaves, he steals The Goldfinch painting, her favourite work of art.

This, along with the death of his mother, becomes the catalyst that spurs him take new adventures and risks.

The book explores the meaning of art, how it affects us, and also looks at aspects of love, friendship and loss.

Travel Aspect: After facing exile in Amsterdam and a temporary return to NYC, Theo embarks on travels around the world, to find solace. And perhaps also, in a bid to never settle in any place for too long.

17) The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker

 

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Synopsis: This is a moving, inspirational love story set in Burma. It spans the decades between the 1950s to the present day.

When a top New York lawyer mysteriously vanishes, neither his wife, nor daughter, Julia, have any clue where he might be until they discover a secret love letter, written many years before, to a Burmese woman, Mi Mi…

Determined to discover the truth and learn more about her father’s past, Julia sets off to find the village where the woman used to live. There, she unravels a story of incredible resilience, passion and hardship.

Travel Aspect:Julia’s travels to Burma to discover the village of Kalaw.

18) The Odyssey by Homer

 

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Synopsis: Homer’s classic tells the tale of a warrior’s epic journey to return home to his family.

It picks off after the Trojan War and recounts Odysseus’s incredible, ten-year voyage back home to Ithaca.

It is a timeless story about human survival, moral endurance and one man’s employ of skill and wit to survive divine and nature forces alike.

Travel Aspect: The fictional travels of Odysseus, as they take you from Troy to his home, Ithaca.

19) A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

 

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Synopsis: Written with warmth and wit, Peter Mayle shares his long-held dream of moving into a 200-year-old stone farmhouse in the remote Lubéron region with his wife and two dogs.

In it, he shares how he survives a frosty January, with the wind howling down the Rhône Valley; discovers the ‘secrets of goats’ racing through town – and of course, savours the region’s glorious food.

This book showcases the best pleasures of Provençal life in a most beautiful way.

Travel Aspect:
Peter Mayle’s own adventures in Provence, the gorgeous south-eastern region of France.

20) The Travelling Tea Shop by Belinda Jones

 

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Synopsis: To escape her own family drama, Laurie Davis sets up a new life for herself in New York City.

Soon after, a new work opportunity arises: the chance to serve her baking idol, Pamela Lambert-Leigh as an assistant and tour guide.

But Laurie quickly discovers this is not so much an exciting adventure, as it one spent scouting locations for the cake queen’s new cookbook… with Pamela’s mother and rebellious daughter tagging along for the ride.

As they explore bakeries dotted across New England, trading local delights as they go, more than recipes are revealed.

And as Laurie and the others discover, there is nothing a good cup of tea, a sweet treat and friendship can’t soothe…

Travel Aspect: Road trip adventures, across New England, in a red double-decker bus, complete with good cakes and friendship.

More Notable Recommendations Received by Travellers:

The Beach by Alex Garland

Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam by Andrew X. Pham

Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

West with the Night by Beryl Markham

 

Disclaimer: I cannot be held responsible for, nor do I condone any explicit, crude, offensive, racist, prejudice, sexist or otherwise derogatory content that any of these book recommendations may contain.

But I hope at least one of these novels whisks you away on an adventure, captivating your imagination… or at least inspires you to travel one day when it is safe for us to do so again.

Author: Tamlyn Ryan

Content writer by day and blogger by night, Tamlyn Ryan passionately runs her own travel blog, called Tamlyn Amber Wanderlust, from her home base of Cape Town, South Africa. And, despite a national diploma in Journalism, in her free time, Tamlyn’s preferred niche remains travel writing.

Tamlyn is a hopeless wanderer, equipped with an endless passion for road trips, carefully planned, holiday itineraries and, above all else, an innate love for the great outdoors.

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