Around the World in 27 Books

From Japan to the Nile River, the streets of Barcelona to the Amazon of Brazil, check out this collaborative list of both fiction and nonfiction books set around the world.

Half of a Yellow Sun

Location: Nigeria

Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This historical fiction depicts the lives of several friends and family members as they are caught in the midst of the Nigerian Civil War 1967-1970 and the independence movement of Biafra.

The book depicts brutal violence and the remaining influences of colonialism and racism within Nigeria during this time period. Among the main characters are twin sisters Olanna and Kainene who deal with the war and its effects in different ways. One of the most endearing characters of the book is Ugwu, a young servant in the house of Olanna and Odenigbo. He is forcibly conscripted into the military and the reader steadily sees him transform under the pressures of the situation.

Prisoners of Geography

Location: Global

Author: Tim Marshall

Generally organized by region, each chapter helps readers understand the geopolitical interests of countries around the world. This valuable nonfiction book is written by Tim Marshall, a British political scientist.

Its opening chapter covers Russia and helps explain the country’s interest in Ukraine. China, Africa, South Asia, Europe, and other regions and countries are covered. It ends with a discussion of the Arctic and the race to capture those resources.

Informative and easy to read, this book helps explain some of the current issues in the world. A New York Time’s bestseller, it has been generally well received though academic critics have argued that social conditions are bigger factors than geography in provoking current geopolitical issues.

The Railway Man

Location: United Kingdom and Thailand

Author: Eric Lomax

Recommended by Abi from I’m Going on an Adventure

One of the most interesting and emotional books I have read is The Railway Man the auto-biography of Eric Lomax, a prisoner of war during World War II. The story follows him as a child in the UK to working on the Death Railway before returning to the country of his imprisonment and torture, that being Thailand. Due to reading this book and watching the film ‘The Bridge Over The River Kwai’ I was inspired to visit certain areas of Thailand, but mainly Kanchanaburi where the museums, memorial cemetery and some of the death railway was built. 

The book shows the extreme dark side of humanity, but also the strength, compassion, and love of others. It reveals how people can be pushed to the edge of hell, but can conquer it with good friendships and bonds. While most of Western society knows much of the Second World War being based in Europe, this book and its stories allows the reader to learn more of the perils of Asia and the East at the time.

Like Water for Chocolate

Location: Mexico

Author: Laura Esquivel

Recommended by Shelley from Travel Mexico Solo

For those interested in Mexican culture, you’ll love Like Water for Chocolate. If the name sounds familiar, it was also made into a movie in 1992 which won 10 Ariel Awards (the Mexican equivalent of an Oscar). The book was published just a few years prior, in 1989.

Each chapter of this magical realism novel by Mexican author, Laura Esquivel, begins with a recipe for some of the best traditional Mexican foods. These intros will make you hungry to visit one of the foodie destinations in Mexico, like Oaxaca City, Puebla City, Mérida, and Mexico City.

The story takes place in a small town near the U.S.-Mexico border, and chronicles the life of Josefita, AKA Tita. Because of an ancient family tradition which says the youngest daughter in the family can never marry, Tita is forbidden from marrying her true love, Perdo. 

In lieu of marriage, Tita must devote herself to taking care of her mother. Pedro instead marries Tita’s sister, Rosaura, though he and Tita are very much in love. To quell her pain, Tita turns to another ancient Mexican tradition — cooking.

Honor

Location: India

Author: Thrity Umrigar

This novel tells the story of an Indian-American journalist covering the story of Meena, a Hindu woman who was brutally attacked for marrying a Muslim man. Smita, the journalist, grapples with her own painful memories in India and issues of identity as she is immersed into reporting the experiences of Meena.

At its heart, it is a story of seeking justice in a cruel patriarchal system where judges can be bribed and entire villages scared into silent submission.

The book can be startlingly sad at times, but has light hearted moments of humor as well. In addition, Smita develops a relationship with an Indian man while on assignment to cover Meena’s story. The two love interests, that between Smita and Mohan and the doomed love between Meena and her husband, illustrate the stark cultural divide and the privileges Smita has.

Into the Light

Location: Norway and Iceland

Author: Dave and Jaja Martin

Recommended by Kat from Wandering Bird

If you’ve ever wanted to quit your life and sail away over the horizon, you need to read Into the Light by Dave and Jaja Martin. These two are entirely the reason I quit my job to go campervanning in Norway and Iceland.

Dave and Jaja packed up their three children and sailed up to Iceland and then on to Norway on a small sailboat. They all lived onboard for years, through the harsh Scandinavian winters and the blissful midnight sun summers. 

They share their experiences in a fun, inspirational manner, whilst cramming in hundreds of tips for living and traveling in a foreign country and how to deal with bureaucracy and nosy locals. 

I’ve read the book hundreds of times because I love the style of their writing and also the adventurous spirit they have- the had a plan to circumnavigate Iceland for a couple of months, but ended up staying for much much longer. 

Into the Light was published in April 2002 and is 330 pages.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Location: Botswana

Author: Alexander McCall Smith

Recommended by Erika from Erika’s Travelventures

The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is the first of many novels by Alexander McCall Smith about Precious Ramotswe, an intelligent and hard-working woman in Botswana who follows her dream of opening her own business: Botswana’s first and only female-run detective agency. Ramostwe uses her wit, perseverance, and feminine instincts to solve local mysteries like finding a missing husband, trailing a rebellious schoolgirl, and exposing dangerous con men. 

McCall Smith was born in Zimbabwe and taught for several years in Botswana, and perfectly depicts the ins and outs of modern, daily life in semi-rural Botswana. This novel, as well over 20 others following it about Ramotswe’s detective agency, will inspire readers to travel to Botswana to experience the magic of the country, its friendly people, and its mischievous animals. 

I loved this book because it is an easy read with funny quips throughout. Although the novel takes place in a country so different from the United States, how Ramostwe runs into many struggles and chases her passions is so relatable that I believe we are actually not very different from one another at all. 

All the Light We Cannot See

Location: France and Germany

Author: Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See is the story of two children in the context of World War II. A New York Times Best Seller, the book generally alternatives narratives between a young orphaned boy in Germany and young blind girl in France until ultimately their paths collide.

When Germany invades Paris, the young French girl, Marie-Laure, flees with her father to her great uncle’s home in Saint-Malo. Working as a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History, Marie-Laure’s father is tasked with protecting one of the most valuable jewels in France: The Sea of Flames Diamond.

Ultimately, it is a story of the desire for safety and security. It is imbued with the theme of survival and endurance, as well as the loss of innocence. Like other books in this list, it also highlights the ways in which war tear lives apart.

In 2015 it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The Lady of Galway Manor

Location: Ireland

Author: Jennifer Deibel

Recommended by Megan from Let’s Jet, Kids!

The Lady of Galway Manor spotlights Annabeth De Lacy, a British lady
whose father is of certain rank. Her father gets assigned to be
landlord over in Galway in Ireland where the British are not
necessarily welcome.

Annabeth is strong-willed and outspoken enough that her father is
quickly acquiescent to grant her request at setting up an
apprenticeship at a local jewelry store. Here she comes to know and
admire the Jennings father and son, as well as acquire jewelry-making
skills.

Stephen, the younger Jennings, can’t decide if he admires Annabeth or
is irritated by her wealthy British background. They are at the heart
of the Irish/British war and he has to decide where his allegiance
lays: with a new opportunity outside of Ireland, with the men of the
town who want to run the De Lacys out, or with Annabeth who has proven
she has a genuine heart for people.

I loved that The Lady of Galway Manor had both light, witty scenes as
well as historical aspects. I could feel the sense of pride the Irish
felt for their country and independence. It’s also interesting
learning about the history of the Claddaugh ring, which holds a strong
symbol and connection for Stephen and Annabeth as they decide if they
belong with each other… or not.

Old City Hall

Location: Canada

Author: Robert Rotenberg

Recommended by Stephanie from The World As I See It

If you’re looking for books set in Canada and love mysteries then you’ll want to read Old City Hall! The book takes place in Toronto and is by Robert Rotenberg. This thrilling mystery is about the murder of a popular radio host’s wife. The mood is dark at times, like any mystery novel, but it’s also littered with quirky humor to take the edge off. 

It has an interesting cast of characters and will keep you intrigued until the last page! One of the best characters in the book is Toronto itself! Rotenberg has a fascinating way of making every historic building, street corner, and place come to life. If you’ve never been to Toronto before you’ll feel like you know it after reading Old City Hall!

Robert Rotenberg is a Canadian lawyer that was born and raised in Toronto. So, he knows the city extremely well. Old City Hall is Rotenberg’s first novel that was released in 2009 and is part of his Detective Greene series. The novel is 384 pages, but is definitely a page-turner!

Next Year in Havana

Location: Florida and Cuba

Author: Chanel Cleeton

As historical fiction, this book is a good introduction to the political history in Cuba and the story of the early exodus from Cuba after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. The story explores the topics of identity and exile. If you are new to Cuban history or are planning a trip to the country, this is a great book that educates while also remaining captivating.

Into the Heart of Borneo

Location: Borneo

Author: Redmond O’Hanlon

Published in 1987, this is the story of an expedition to the center of Borneo. The author, O’Hanlon, travels with his friend and several guides through the jungle. It has moments of humor and plenty of travelogue adventure. It’s a relatively short read at only 208 pages. If you are looking for a book with a unique setting, Into the Heart of Borneo is a good choice.

End of the Wild: Shipwrecked in the Pacific Northwest

Location: British Columbia, Canada

Author: Jason Taylor

Recommended by Emily Mandagie from The Mandagies

End of the Wild: Shipwrecked in the Pacific Northwest by Jason Taylor takes place in the remote location of Hurst Island in British Columbia, Canada. Set in present-day, it’s the story of two unlikely sailing companions that get shipwrecked on the island…and can’t seem to leave. Filled to the brim with Coastal Salish mythology, legendary creatures, and indigenous stories, this book will immerse you in the magical and mystical setting of the Pacific Northwest rainforest.

It’s a book packed with atmospheric descriptions of the forest, and commentary on what happens when all the wild places disappear. This book is fiction but shares an important message about today’s environmental crisis. It describes what it could be like to have all the natural and beautiful places stripped away, but at the same time gives hope that it’s not too late to preserve these beautiful spaces. For the best possible experience, take a road trip to Vancouver Island to really immerse yourself in the setting. If you are into descriptive storytelling, this 255-page story is definitely for you! 

Labyrinth of the Spirits

Location: Barcelona

Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafrón

The fourth part of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, The Labyrinth of the Spirits is a historical fiction novel with a bit of fantasy twist. Ruiz Zafrón’s historical Spanish literature is a must read for anyone interested in visiting Spain.

In the context of the Franco dictatorship in Spain, a family bookstore works to preserve rare and abandoned books in a hidden chamber under Barcelona. Moreover, the plot follows Daniel Sempere and Alicia Gris as they investigate mysteries surrounding the corrupt government.

The God of Small Things

Location: India

Author: Arundhati Roy

Recommended by Faith from 3 Tickets Please

Published in 1997, Arundhati Roy’s first novel The God of Small Things 
is a feast of words and imagery. Set in Kerala, India, the book tells 
the story of the Ipe family as three generations navigate the love laws 
set down by the caste system.

Told through the eyes of the youngest generation of Ipe’s, Rahel and 
Estha, the two-egg twins, Roy creates a crushingly beautiful story by 
colliding two events: the death of Sophie Mol, the Ipe’s 9-year old 
cousin, and the forbidden love affair of their mother, Ammu, to a man of 
the lowest caste.

Roy writes about the India she grew up in. While the book is not 
biographical, the lush descriptions of the rivers, insects and historic 
and cultural moments of the text have clearly been lived by Roy. While 
The God of Small Things is not a light read, it is certain to immerse 
you in the culture, caste system, and landscape of India.

Cold Coast

Location: Norway

Author: Robyn Mundy

Recommended by Jenny from Charge the Globe

Set in Norway’s Svalbard in the 1930’s, Cold Coast tells the story of Wanny a young mother and widow who convinces Anders a life long trapper to give her the opportunity to offside him over the upcoming arctic season. His disdain for her sex, her capabilities and her ability to learn is no hindrance to Wanny who embraces the upcoming four months of polar winter as a chance to change her life. Alongside Anders and Wanny’s story runs the tale of a tiny arctic fox, “Little Blue”. A runt at birth, Little Blue’s character is written with a finesse that enables you to smile at her cunning and cleverness, constantly cheering her on. Little Blue and Wanny’s characters evolve alongside each other. Both underestimated, they quietly and tenaciously give it their utmost to succeed in a male dominated environment.

While the underlying theme of hunters would suggest an unforgiving brutality, that is far from the case. Robyn Mundy manages to showcase the life and trials of this intense lifestyle with a finesse that I would not have thought possible. The dramatic landscapes blend into the fierce determination of the characters leaving Wanny, Anders and their dogs hopelessly entwined with the harsh polar winter. This becomes even clearer when they arrive back into town after their treacherous season. They are so well known to you that you feel their awkwardness toward everyday life when they set foot again on the streets of Tromso.

Cold Coast is a fictional account of the true story of Wanny Woldstad, the first female trapper of Svalbard. The underlying story of a woman fighting to be seen with nothing but strength, courage and conviction lays the foundation for a remarkable story. You won’t be sorry you’ve read this. 

The Third Bank of the River

Location: Amazon of Brazil

Author: Chris Feliciano Arnold

This book presents the complicated tensions in the Amazon of Brazil. Between descriptions of activists, indigenous tribes, drug dealers, Christian missionaries, and capitalist developers, the book is an adventurous, contemporary account of the present dangers facing the rainforest.

Presented first in the context of the 2014 Wold Cup fiasco in Brazil, the author takes the reader to Manaus where gang and drug related violence gripped the city. Furthermore it discusses the difficult decisions indigenous groups are facing as the world encroaches further into their lands and way of life.

Shantaram

Location: India

Author: Gregory David Robert

Recommended by Samantha from Intentional Detours

Shantaram is the absolutely riveting memoir of Australian Gregory David Robert’s true tale about his life in Mumbai (then Bombay, India, where he became deeply entrenched in its underworld. Many of the people in the memoir and its successor are still alive today, and while some of the events have been slightly embellished, nearly every insane character and happening was in fact, real. 

Shantaram is set in the ’80s and was published in 2003. The book truly makes you feel like you’re traveling while also giving an unprecedented look into the underbelly of a mega-city. The book is extremely long–936 pages–but never truly boring.

The book genuinely seems too good to be true–and partly because of the author’s otherworldly writing skills. Having been to Mumbai myself, the book truly took me right back. I could smell the various Indian street food options and see the scenes he was describing. I’ve read hundreds of books in my life but none have pulled me in quite like this.

Shantaram details a decade of Roberts’ life, including a period of time when he lived in a slum by choice and started a medical clinic for the locals. Gregory soon adopted the name of “Lin Baba” and became fluent not only Hindi (India’s national language) but also Marathi, a regional language of Marathi. The book details years of scenes you’ll have to read to believe.

Even if you’ve never traveled to India or aren’t sure you want to, this book will surely give you some sort of wanderlust. You’ll never see Bombay quite like this.

Death on the Nile

Location: Egypt

Author: Agatha Christie

Recommended by Joanna from The World in My Pocket

Death on the Nile is a fictional book written by Agatha Christie. It is one of her most famous books, published in the UK in 1937, and in the US one year later. The book follows the story of famous detective Hercules Poirot, trying to solve a murder that happened on board the ship Karnak, whilst sailing on the famous Nile River in Egypt. 

Agatha Christie has spent a lot of time in Egypt and based the book Death on the Nile on her own experience of cruising on the Nile from Luxor to Aswan. She created some of the characters in the book based on people she met during her three months in Cairo, during her teenage years. Much of the setting is very well researched, as Agatha Christie was often accompanying her husband, Max Mallowan, to archaeological excavations in the Middle East. 

Death on the Nile is a murder mystery book that you must read before you decide to travel to Egypt, especially if you will be traveling south to Luxor and Aswan. 

Ross Poldark

Location: United Kingdom

Author: Winston Graham

Recommended by Sarah Carter from Cornwall’s West

Set in the English county of Cornwall in the 18th and 19th century, Winston Graham’s series of 12 books about the life of Ross Poldark and his family are a dramatic sweeping saga.  

The first book in the series, Ross Poldark sees Ross returning to Cornwall from the American War of Independence.  The vivid descriptions of Cornwall, England’s most westerly county and stark, stunning, and incredibly evocative.  Originally published in 1945, the books have twice been adapted for television, and created an entirely new industry in Cornwall, that of the movie location tour!  And so while the book educates about life in Cornwall during this time period, it also seriously engages the reader with wanting to travel to Cornwall!  

While the series sweeps across various areas of Cornwall, the mining area depicted is that of the area around St Just in Penwith.  This is a sweeping family saga of a book – and series – that leaves you wanting more at the end of it.  With around 400 pages in each book, these are engaging, but not overwhelming.

The Last Tea Bowl Thief

Location: Japan

Author: Jonelle Patrick

Recommended by Helen from Japlanease

In The Last Tea Bowl Thief, Patrick manages to combine evocative images of a tiny family business selling bowls and dishes in Tokyo’s modern-day Kappabashi Street with a history lesson that encompasses Japan during both feudal times and during World War II. 

The story focuses on two women, Robin Swann, an antiquities expert, and  Nori Okuda who is trying to work out how she’s going to keep her family business alive when the grandmother who is its backbone is in the hospital. 

The two join forces when Robyn realizes that Nori possesses a priceless work of art in her family collection – a tea bowl lost for many years; but as others doubt its authenticity, they unravel a story far more extraordinary than either of them could have imagined.

Patrick has an amazing talent when it comes to writing about Japan. She manages to explain the many nuances of this complex society, both past and present while drawing you completely into her stories. Today Kappabashi Street is best known to tourists as the street of plastic food, but, in this book, Patrick explores the other side of the street, the small family businesses that have been supplying the homes and restaurants of Tokyo –and beyond – for centuries.

Not surprisingly, the street is also one of Patrick’s top suggestions of how to spend a perfect day in Tokyo.

Wilder Shores: Women’s Travel Stories of Australia and Beyond

Location: Australia

Editors: Robin Lucas and Clare Forster

Recommended by Iris from Mind of a Hitchhiker

I encountered this book in a small shop in Edinburgh, Scotland during one of my first big solo hitchhiking trips in 2013. Forty travel stories of women who traveled to, from, or within Australia throughout the last 150 years or so.

The initial appeal was that Wilder Shores promised to contain stories that are about women traveling for themselves, and not for the (potential love of) men in their lives—as too many women’s travel stories are. Other plusses were that it’s a collection of short stories suitable for a coffee break and that it was the perfect size – about 200 pages – for the top compartment of my backpack.

This bedtime reading once swept me away from Mexico and into the Australian outback with Robyn Davidson and her camel trek. Another time I was immersed in a journey at sea from England to Australia. Other stories didn’t really relate to any place in particular because they took place in the author’s mind.

Some chapters didn’t appeal to me, while others left me wanting more. Reading this variety of voices helped me realize what I like and dislike in travel narratives. And it helped me get started with my own writing as I soon started my blog after finishing it. For young travelers, it’s a good introduction.

This book is one of the many longstanding reasons I want to travel to and through Australia. After many more years of perpetual travel, I finally came close to traveling to the continent country. I booked my flight from Singapore to Darwin for April 2020.

The Stranger

Location: Algeria

Author: Albert Camus

Recommended by Palo from Moons & Roses

L’étranger, or The Stranger, by Albert Camus isn’t a classic in French/North African literature simply by chance. The book is an amalgamation of absurdism, existentialism, and cultural philosophy. Set in 1940’s Algeria, The Stranger introduces us to the fictional character of Meursault and his journey through murder and his eventual death sentence. 

What makes this novel so phenomenal is not only the well-written, chilling plot, but rather how the author presents such complex themes (existentialism in particular) – which is in a very relaxed, nonchalant manner. L’étranger also captures a lot of Algiers’ customs and the relationship between France and Algeria back in the 1940s. However, given the themes of the book, it may not be the one to pick up if you wish to picture yourself on the pristine beaches of North Africa! 

The Stranger is more of a read for the curious minds that seek a deep understanding of human nature, North African culture, and simply a thrilling story to journey through.

The Places in Between

Location: Afghanistan

Author: Rory Stewart

Recommended by Erica from Travels with Erica

The Places in Between by Rory Stewart follows Rory’s journey walking across Afghanistan in 2022.  He walked from Herat to Kabul and was alone the majority of the time.  Rory is from the UK and went on to become a member of parliament in 2010. 

Rory relies on the kindness of strangers and shows that there is much more to Afghanistan than what you see on the news.  There are instances where Rory faces dangers, but the majority of the book highlights his amazing journey and the emotional transformation he undergoes. 

The Places in Between was published in 2004 two years after Rory began his journey.  The book is just over 300 pages, but it’s a quick, enjoyable, easy read, which makes it the perfect book to enjoy while flying or on your travels. 

The Places in Between is a must-read book for anybody interested in a seeing a more human side of Afghanistan and learning more about the ordinary people Rory met along the way.  It adds humanity back into Afghanistan and helps readers remember there is more to the country than just what the media shows. 

Oro

Location: Costa Rica

Author: Cizia Zyke

Recommended by Catherine from Nomadicated

Born in Morocco of French-Albanian descent, Cizia Zyke led a daring, adventurous life of lawlessness, with careers from sculpting to bootlegging, Pre-Columbian Art dealing to archeology. It comes as no surprise that his darker money-making schemes upended his life multiple times, chasing him to new adventures around the world.

Oro chronicles Zyke’s story on one such money-making scheme, hunting rumors of rich sources of gold in the wild, remote jungles of Costa Rica. In 1978, Zyke arrived steadfast in his search for gold and found the rumors to be true, but marred with an inhospitable environment of malaria-ridden mosquitoes, constant mud, and dangerous rival prospectors. Oro details the classic story of ascent into leadership, the fall of his enterprise, all the while skirting the authorities, as Zyke often does. Racy and almost unbelievable, Oro is a great reminder to the most adventurous of us that someone is always doing something more extreme.  

Flight from the USSR

Location: Georgia

Author: David Turashvili

Recommended by Baia from Red Fedora Diary

Flight from the USSR is a novel by Georgian writer David Turashvili. The original version in Georgian has a different tile, Jinsebis Taoba, translated as “the jeans generation,” and is based on a true story. 

It is one of the great novels to read if you’d like to know what it was like to live in Soviet Georgia. The plot follows seven youngsters in the 1980s who want to hijack a plane to escape the Soviet Union. This was a scandalous decision back then, as even thinking of running away from the regime was a crime. 

The government denounced most of them to death for their immature and destructive attempt. The public opinion was split in two – one considered them terrorists, while others justified their actions as living in the Soviet times was unbearable.

The book is available on Amazon as Kindle and paperback covers of a bit older edition. Alternatively, you can get a newly republished book in various bookshops in Tbilisi once you travel to Georgia

Paris

Location: France

Author: Edward Rutherfurd

Recommended by Lisa of Waves and Cobblestones

Paris is a historical fiction novel written by Edward Rutherfurd.  Published in 2013, ‘Paris’ spans eight hundred pages and covers eight centuries of history in France’s famed City of Light.

Readers are transported back in time with storylines spanning the struggles and triumphs of six families in Paris, from the years 1261 through 1968.  Edward Rutherfurd skillfully entwines stories of these generations of fictional characters with true historical people and events such as the French Revolution and the Nazi occupation during WWII.  Though it is quite a long novel, Rutherfurd’s engaging storytelling brings the culture and iconic landmarks of Paris to life and inspires readers to travel to Paris to experience it for themselves.

My favorite storyline involves a worker involved in the complex, innovative, and rigorously precise construction of the Eiffel Tower.  Designed by Gustave Eiffel, the Eiffel Tower was built for the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris.  ‘Paris’ also portrays how the workers sabotaged the elevator cables during the Nazi occupation so that Hitler could not ride to the top of the tower to gloat over his occupation of Paris.

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