Asia Travelling

Read Your Way Around The World

Travel books don’t necessarily have to be books written by travellers, most of the books that have inspired me to travel are novels in which the setting is important to the atmosphere of the book.  As a child I was addicted to the ‘Famous Five’ books and, although they never went further afield than Wales or Kirrin Island, I always loved that they grabbed their backpacks, hopped in a horse-drawn gypsy carriage and went to find adventure.

I am now a more sophisticated reader but I still love to read books that fill me with a longing to travel so here is a selection of my favourite novels that I think strongly evoke a sense of place.

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

“It was the early evening, in the momentary cool which came when the sun had just gone down, and the candles were lit on the stalls in the side streets. The dice rattled on the tables where the French were playing Quatre Cent Vingt-et-un and the girls in the white silk trousers bicycled home down the rue Catinat”

This incredible short novel is primarily set in Saigon, Vietnam, during the French occupation of Indochina. Fowler, an aging English journalist loses his Vietnamese love Phuong to young, idealistic American Pyle. What I loved most about this novella is the way that Greene evokes the atmosphere of a country on the brink of one of history’s most famous wars.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

“There was a bright full moon, with heavy black, driving clouds, which threw the whole scene into a fleeting diorama of light and shade as they sailed across. For a moment or two I could see nothing, as the shadow of a cloud obscured St. Mary’s church and all around it. Then as the cloud passed I could see the ruins of the abbey coming into view…”

Is there a scene in fiction creepier than when Dracula comes ashore in England, and attacks Lucy Westenra in the grounds of Whitby Abbey? The deep, tangled forest covering Romania’s creepy Carpathian Mountains also creates a perfect backdrop for Dracula’s castle.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis deBernieres

“I found that in Cephalonia the night falls without the intervention of twilight, and that before it rains the light is like mother-of-pearl. After it rains, the island smells of pines, warm earth, and the dark sea. The second thing that struck me, curiously enough, was the incredible size and antiquity of the olive trees. They were blackened and gnarled, twisted and stout, they made me feel strangely ephemeral, as though they had seen people like us a thousand times, and had watched us depart.”

It is almost impossible to read this novel and not be swept away by the beauty and emotion of Debernieres’ evocative descriptions of Greek island Cephalonia, or to feel the pain of a country scarred by centuries of war and turmoil.

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

“Twenty million people live and work in Tokyo. It’s so big that nobody really knows where it stops. It’s long since filled up the plain, and now it’s creeping up the mountains to the west and reclaiming land from the bay in the east…It’s a tall city, and a deep one, as well as a spread-out one. Things are always moving below you, and above your head. All these people, flyovers, cars, walkways, subways, offices, tower blocks, power cables, pipes, apartments, it all adds up to a lot of weight. You have to do something to stop yourself caving in, or you just become a piece of flotsam or an ant in a tunnel”

The events of this wonderful novel spans Russia, China, Mongolia and the UK, but it is Mitchell’s description of Tokyo that really transports the reader into the exciting pulse of modern-day Japan.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish…On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once—somewhere—far away—in another existence perhaps.”

Although this novel famously ends in ‘The Horror’ of colonisation, the stunning description of the African Congo is enough to inspire any traveller with dreams of exploring the great unknown.

So, these are some of my favourite books but I’m always keen to hear recommendations. Please use the ‘Leave a Comment’ section below to tell me about your favourite travel books.

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  1. Very nice article Elaine. And just the thing to get me in the mood for planning some holiday reading. I have three of those five (Greene, Stoker and Conrad) on my Kindle so I might be tempted to check them out in the near future – appreciate the tip!

    As for my suggestions, I’d have to start with ‘The Shipping News’ by Annie Proulx, partly because it’s one of my favourite novels, but also because it really evokes the Newfoundland landscape, as well as capturing the sense of displacement that New Yorker Quoyle feels when he has to rebuild his life in such a remote community. I like novels that remind me of places I love, so Iain Banks’s ‘Complicity’ reminds me of several favourite haunts in Edinburgh and I’m looking forward to re-reading Paul Auster’s ‘New York Trilogy’ after several visits there. I don’t think you have to have been to a place to appreciate the author’s skill in capturing the essence of a place either. One day, when I get to visit Washington, I will feel like I’m coming home thanks to the vivid depictions of the city in almost every one of George Pelecanos’s crime novels. I’ll approach my holiday reading in a more thoughtful way having read this piece – thanks!

  2. Thanks for your reply, Gareth. I am honoured to have a response from a real writer 🙂 I will check out ‘The Shipping News’, it sounds good.

    You are completely right that you don’t have to have visited a place to appreciate the author’s skill in capturing it, I am really looking forward to visiting Valparaíso (hopefully later this year) as I feel that I already know it through the work of Isabel Allende and Pablo Neruda. The way I see it, when I can’t be out travelling I can at least be reading about it!

    I really enjoyed your poetry tweets too, by the way.

  3. says:

    Just where is the facebook like link ?

  4. It’s there now 🙂

  5. Can’t wait to read “Ghostwritten”. I’m a tad obsessed with Japan. Anyhow, really enjoying reading your blog. The design and layout are great and you’ve got some absolutely fantastic photos also.

    1. Thanks very much for the compliments. I thoroughly recommend Ghostwritten, it’s a great book. Have you read any Haruki Murakami?

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