WHENEVER I CAN’T AFFORD TO TRAVEL, I hunt down a book that’ll let me go somewhere else in the world on the cheap. A good writer can transport you to a new place without the help of planes, trains and automobiles — here are 7 books that take you to a totally new world.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Marquez’s magnum opus is basically a magical history of the country of Colombia. You can’t travel to the fictional town of Macondo outside the pages of this book, but the story itself is a look into the mind of an entire country, and is a metaphor for the history of Colombia and the rest of Latin America.
If you like your travel to be a little bit surreal, a little bit magical, and totally absorbing, this is your book.
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
Carsten Jensen’s masterpiece is basically like getting to live in Denmark for 700 pages. The sprawling epic covers a century in the real-life maritime town of Marstal, where the boys grow up to be sailors, and where the girls grow up to be widows. As the boys go out and have adventures with wars, pirates, shrunken heads, and shipwrecks, the girls struggle to grow up, run the town, and try to build a life for their sons that doesn’t end at the bottom of the sea.
It’s deep, it’s gripping, and it’s a totally immersive glimpse into an unassuming country during incredible times. It’s especially delightful if you like a little buckle with your swash.
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Aravind Adiga’s 2008 book won the Man Booker Prize, and rightfully so. Balram Halwai is a poor young man who wants more in life, and will stop at nothing to get it. This dark rags-to-riches story could’ve been told in America a century ago, but The White Tiger is set in modern day India. It’s a story about how caste, poverty, and family are faring in a society that’s fundamentally changing thanks to globalization, but despite the deep themes, it manages to remain absorbing and entertaining. If you’ve been to India, you’ll feel like you’re back. If you haven’t: welcome. It’s crazy here.
In the Woods by Tana French
Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series is good across the board — each story is narrated by a different member of the fictional Irish detective agency, and covers the investigation into a different crime. The first book in the series is In the Woods, though we could just as easily recommend the rest of them. It follows Rob Ryan, a detective who, as a child, was found alone in the woods with blood-filled shoes. The two friends who wandered into the woods with him were never found, and Rob couldn’t remember what happened. Years later, a girl is murdered in the same woods, and Rob, now a detective, is assigned the case. It’s haunting, it’s beautiful, and it’s slightly magical — just like modern day Ireland.
Lost Horizon by James Hilton
James Hilton’s famous 1933 book invented the idea of Shangri-La, the forgotten Himalayan paradise that was totally cut off from the rest of the world. Today, different cities and countries claim to be the real Shangri-La, from Bhutan to Tibet to Zhongdian, a town which actually changed its name to Shangri-La to bolster its claim.
The book itself follows travelers who stumble across the town after a high-altitude plane crash, and realize that the town is a true utopia, where they can do whatever they want, but can never escape. It’s written by a westerner, so the culture portrayed in it isn’t super authentic, but the description of the Himalayas, with it’s unspeakably huge mountains and its crystalline skies, are spot-on.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Once upon a time, Afghanistan was at peace. Back then, kite flying was a popular sport in the city of Kabul — but it was banned when the Taliban came into power. Khaled Hosseini’s amazing 2003 book follows a young boy and his friend as their country collapses around them. One of them betrays his friend, escapes to California, and returns decades later, in the era of the Taliban, to make things right.
It’s one of the more haunting, incredible books you’ll ever read, and it humanizes the people of Afghanistan, who are so regularly reduced in the west to horrible, easy-to-ignore news stories.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
There are too many great books about London to count, but Neil Gaiman’s 1996 novel Neverwhere (itself a spin-off of a TV series Gaiman created) is particularly incredible. It’s set in modern London, and imagines an underworld in London’s sewers and tube stations populated by the Londoners who slipped between the cracks of society. If you’ve been to London, you’ll recognize the places and stations they stop at, and if you haven’t, you’ll get a feel for the city’s unique, eerie atmosphere.