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There are few pleasures in life greater than curling up with a good book, so I am excited to share my picks for the best books for travel lovers. To compile a manageable list, I selected only books that I have read or re-read in the last year and that I loved.
In these works of fiction and nonfiction, the sense of place is so palpable that the location itself becomes a character in the story. Whether you are an intrepid adventurer or more of an armchair traveler, there is something here for you. So, add these titles to your Goodreads list, check them out at your local library, gift them to a friend, or treat yourself and let the journey begin!
“Place matters when its story is told.” -@weareEDEN, #7WordStories
Best Books for Travel Lovers
Here we go, counting down from 10 to 1:
10. Pachinko, by Min Jim Lee
Synopsis from minjinlee.com “A saga about four generations of a poor Korean immigrant family’s fight to control their destiny in 20th-century Japan, exiled from their home. Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan. So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.”
Why I love it: While enjoying a compelling multigenerational story of hardship and resilience, I unwittingly absorbed a host of fascinating information about Korean history and culture, Japan’s colonization of Korea, and the lives of ethnic Koreans in Japan. A great read for book clubs—there’s plenty to discuss!
Synopsis from eriklarsonbooks.com “Set in Berlin in 1933-1934, the book tells the story of America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany, William E. Dodd, and his daughter Martha, as they experience the rising terror of Hitler’s rule. At first Martha is enthralled by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich, with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the “New Germany,” she has one affair after another, including with the surprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. Her father resolves not to prejudge the new government, but soon the shadows deepen. Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance—and ultimately horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder unmasks Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.”
Why I love it: How was Hitler allowed to commit the monstrous acts that he did? How did he get the German people to ultimately follow his will? In the Garden of Beasts sheds light on these points while showcasing both the history of the pre-war period and the city of Berlin itself. I first read this book before a trip to Berlin and, thanks to it, had a excellent sense of the city’s geography, landmarks, and history when I arrived.
8. Haunting Paris, by Mamta Chaudhry
Synopsis from mamtachaudry.com “A timeless story of love and loss takes a mysterious turn when a bereaved pianist discovers a letter among her late lover’s possessions, launching her into a decades-old search for a child who vanished in the turbulence of wartime Paris.”
Why I love it: Many moons ago, I had the great fortune to live in France. I am often frustrated when foreign authors write about the country, as so few really seem to understand it. Chaudry is not one of those authors. Her descriptions of Paris and French culture, woven into a page-turning, intensely researched account of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup of Jews in Paris, rang 100% true to me.
7. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, by Erik Larson, Scott Brick, et al.
Synopsis from eriklarsonbooks.com “The No. 1 New York Times bestseller about the architect who led the construction of the great Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and the prolific serial killer who used the fair as a lure.”
Why I love it: Wow, a second Erik Larson book on my list! I cannot stress how much I dislike blood and gore, yet I love this book. The serial killer story line, while gripping, plays second fiddle to the book’s north star: Chicago. The reader is introduced to the history of the city; the intrigue around the Chicago World’s Fair; the father of landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted (you’ll discover that his work is everywhere!); and of course the hunt for a serial killer. Magnificently written, this is truly one of the best books of any genre that I have ever read.
6. Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
Synopsis from deliaowens.com “Fans of Barbara Kingsolver will love this stunning debut novel from a New York Times bestselling nature writer, about an unforgettable young woman, abandoned at age ten to survive alone in the wild coastal marsh of North Carolina. For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet fishing village. Kya Clark is barefoot and wild; unfit for polite society. So in late 1969, when the popular Chase Andrews is found dead, locals immediately suspect her.”
Why I love it: More than just a coming-of-age story or murder mystery, Owens has crafted a poetic ode to the natural world. She effectively weaves Mother Nature into every element of the story, to beautiful effect.
5. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed
Synopsis from cherylstrayed.com “At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and she would do it alone. Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.”
Why I love it: Strayed’s beautifully written story is full of suspense as she brings you along on each step of the trail. I have seen Strayed speak multiple times (including at this year’s TravelCon) and, let me tell you, the woman is a bada$$. Check out her work. You won’t regret it.
4. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, by Edward Abbey
Synopsis from abbeyweb.net “Edward Abbey’s account of two summers spent in southeastern Utah’s canyonlands is one of the most enduring works of contemporary American nature writing. … First published in 1968 … Desert Solitaire lives on because it is a work that reflects profound love of nature and a bitter abhorrence of all that would desecrate it. … [P]erhaps the spirit of the man, the work, and the circumstances of its writing were best summarized by Larry McMurtry in his review for the Washington Post: ‘Edward Abbey is the Thoreau of the American West.’”
Why I love it: I will try not to gush too much, but I LOVE this book! If you plan to visit Arches National Park (or even if you don’t), get your hands on the audiobook version and prepare to be thoroughly entertained. Abbey’s love letter to nature and account of both the mundane details and acute perils of living in the wilderness were enthralling, but it was his caustic wit that had my family quite literally laughing out loud. Several times we had to rewind the book in disbelief and say, “did he really just say that?” A classic of nature reading that every well-read American should have on his/her bookshelf.
3. Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis, by Sam Anderson
Synopsis from crownpublishing.com “Sam Anderson arrived in Oklahoma City with a simple magazine assignment: to cover the city’s new (stolen) basketball team, the Thunder. This turned, very quickly, into an obsession. It wasn’t just the team that grabbed him. As Anderson wandered the city’s streets, talking to its citizens, and uncovering its wild history, he became convinced that Oklahoma City was unlike any other place in America—“one of the great weirdo cities of the world,” as he puts it in the book’s prologue, “as strange, in its way, as Venice or Dubai or Versailles or Pyongyang.”
Why I love it: If I had to go out on a limb, I would guess you weren’t expecting to find a book about Oklahoma City on this list, but I am telling you Boom Town is FANTASTIC! Neither Jim nor I had ever been to Oklahoma, so this year we decided to use our trusty Southwest Companion Pass for a long weekend in the Sooner State. In preparing for the trip, I stumbled across Anderson’s book. Who would think that it would be possible to weave together stories on the Oklahoma Land Run, the civil rights movement, catastrophic weather phenomena, architectural malpractice, urban sprawl, and OKC’s pride and joy: The Thunder? Anderson does that and more. My description cannot possibly do it justice. Trust me on this one: It is a great read!
2. Undaunted Courage: The Pioneering First Mission to Explore America’s Wild Frontier, by Stephen Ambrose
Synopsis from simonandschuster.com “[T]he definitive book on Lewis and Clark’s exploration of the Louisiana Purchase, the most momentous expedition in American history and one of the great adventure stories of all time. …
High adventure, high politics, suspense, drama, and diplomacy combine with high romance and personal tragedy to make this outstanding work of scholarship as readable as a novel.”
Why I love it: This book is a national treasure! Traveling to the northwest U.S. after first reading this book, I saw the legacy of Lewis and Clark everywhere. Ambrose takes you along with the Corps of Discovery every step of the way from St. Louis, Missouri to the Pacific. This is one to own—you’ll read it more than once.
1. The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah
Synopsis from kristinhannah.com “Ernt Allbright, a former POW, comes home from the Vietnam war a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he makes an impulsive decision: he will move his family north, to Alaska, where they will live off the grid in America’s last true frontier.
Thirteen-year-old Leni, a girl coming of age in a tumultuous time, caught in the riptide of her parents’ passionate, stormy relationship, dares to hope that a new land will lead to a better future for her family. She is desperate for a place to belong. Her mother, Cora, will do anything and go anywhere for the man she loves, even if means following him into the unknown.
At first, Alaska seems to be the answer to their prayers. In a wild, remote corner of the state, they find a fiercely independent community of strong men and even stronger women. The long, sunlit days and the generosity of the locals make up for the Allbrights’ lack of preparation and dwindling resources.
But as winter approaches and darkness descends on Alaska, Ernt’s fragile mental state deteriorates and the family begins to fracture. Soon the perils outside pale in comparison to threats from within. In their small cabin, covered in snow, blanketed in eighteen hours of night, Leni and her mother learn the terrible truth: they are on their own. In the wild, there is no one to save them but themselves.”
Why I love it: I need to give you fair warning, this can be an emotionally tough read (there is mental illness and domestic violence). It is, however, so worth it! Hannah’s writing is beautiful and, while the synopsis above focuses on the human characters, it is the descriptions of life in Alaska and what it takes to survive there that shine above all else. If you pick up only one book this year, it should be The Great Alone.
There you have it! Those are my picks this year for the best books for travel lovers. I would love to hear from you. What recent (or not-so-recent) books did you read this year that you would add to this list? I can’t wait to hear your recommendations!