Reading Around the World: A Guide to Books Set Around the Globe

Reading Around the World text with picture of books, model plan, and globe

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Ready for a world reading challenge? When you can’t actually hop on a plane, reading around the world is one of the best ways to learn about other countries and cultures. It’s also a great way to prepare for an upcoming trip! Plus, reading books set around the world enables you to visit countries and continents you might otherwise not be able to.

Below you’ll find some of my favorite books set around the world, plus links to book lists of books about different countries (and US states) to help you find the perfect books for your wanderlust.

Books Set in Africa

There are so many great books set in Africa! They tell the stories of colonialism and slavery, the modern struggles of many countries, and also the incredible wildlife of the continent. Here are a few of my favorites.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This powerful book starts in Ghana, with two half-sisters. One of them is captured and sold into slavery in the United States. The other is married to an Englishman and remains in Ghana. The book follows their subsequent generations, both in Ghana and the United States, as the lives of their descendants take vastly different paths. For fans of literary fiction.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

You probably know Trevor Noah as a comedian. And while this memoir does have some funny moments, it’s mostly a serious look at his life growing up in South Africa, as his very existence as a coloured person (that is half white and half Black) was proof of his parents’ illegal relationship. It’s a memoir about living in apartheid, but it’s also about the relationship between mother and son and about coming of age and being rebellious. For fans of memoir.

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Beryl Markham was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from Britain to North America. And while that is her legacy, this fictional account of her life focuses so much on her childhood and early adulthood, as she bucks up against the stereotypes of a proper English lady in 1920s Kenya. She loves horses and the freedom she finds in Africa’s landscape, but she also finds herself in a troubling love triangle. This book has such a strong sense of place and is perfect for fans of historical fiction.

Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey

This is the book that made me realize how misleading our culture has been about gorillas. Dian Fossey was, of course, famous for her work with gorillas in Rwanda and her work against poachers. This book is a both a memoir of her time with the gorillas in Rwanda and a study of the gorilla families she encountered. It’s one of those books that sucks you into a subject you might not think you were interested in, and it’s perfect for readers who love nature writing, adventure, and animals.

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga, Translated by Jordan Stump

In this memoir, Mukasonga writes about her childhood in exile as a Tutsi in pre-genocide Rwanda. And while it’s about her childhood, it’s really about her mother and their community, and how they worked to survive in Rwanda. The genocide is present here (the story is really bookended with hints to the coming tragedy) but most of it is focused before then, when already the Tutsis as a people group were being discriminated against. For fans of memoir, small books, and indie press titles.

More Books About Africa

Books Set in Asia

The cultures of Asia are so vast, it’s impossible to fully capture them in just a few books. But here are a few of my favorite books with Asian settings.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

I know The Kite Runner is Hosseini’s most recognized title, but I think A Thousand Splendid Suns is his best. At it’s center is two women who end up married to the same terrible man, decades apart. They are in Taliban controlled Afghanistan and subject to terrible mistreatment. But they are both determined to control their fates. For fans of historic fiction stories about incredible women.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my favorite writers, and while it’s hard for me to choose a favorite book of hers, I think The Lowland might be it. Here you have a portrait of two brothers, one drawn into politics and insurgency while the other lives a quiet life, eventually moving to the US to work at a university. I don’t want to spoil much more of the book, but just know that it’s about family duty and the relationship these brothers have with their family and what it means after a tragedy. For fans of literary fiction.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

If you want a book that is just pure fun while you’re reading around the world, Crazy Rich Asians it it. Yes, it’s about Rachel discovering that her boyfriend, Nick, is actually from like, the richest family in Singapore. But really it’s also about Nick’s family: his mother who is against their relationship, his cousin whose husband doesn’t like her wealth (Astrid is my favorite character!), and all the glitz and glamor of so much money. It’s just so much fun. For fans of snappy contemporary fiction.

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

This book about a Palestinian family is absolutely heartbreaking, as they move from country to country after they leave Palestine after the Six-Day War of 1967. The story spans from Palestine to Kuwait to Jordan, and it’s all about this family who is dysfunctional, but who also all care deeply about one another amidst their losses. And despite the hardships, it’s so beautiful. For fans of literary fiction.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Oh man. This book. It is so devastatingly beautiful. And while it could be classified as a book set in Europe (it’s definitely in Eurasia), we’re going to put it on our Asia list because I feel like it leans more that way. It’s about the wars between Chechnya and Russia, and it starts when a man sees his neighbor taken by authorities and goes to get his daughter to bring her to safety at a local hospital. But the plot is so beautifully interconnected, and it’s really about how we impact each other in small ways. For fans of literary fiction.

More Books About Asia

Books Set in Australia and Oceania

Ok, this is clearly an area of the world where I need to do some more reading! So here are five books I want to read set in Australia, Oceania, and the Pacific region.

A Town Like Alice by Nevile Shute

After Jean is part of a terrible death march in Malaya (now Singapore), she travels to Australia to search for a soldier who helped the women during that terrible time. This sounds like it has a strong sense of place (set in the Australian outback) and is for fans of historical fiction.

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

In this book, Bill Bryson brings his classic humor to traveling through Australia. This is truly the guide I want when reading about Australia, and he takes readers to lesser known areas, talking about both the incredible amount of dangerous wildlife in Australia and the friendly people he meets. For fans of travel memoirs.

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton

This novel set in New Zealand is a suspense novel that also landed on a good number of 2023 Best Books lists. Here, Birnam Wood is a group of eco-guerillas wants to take over a now blocked off portion of land after a landslide. But there’s a billionaire who also has his eye on it. For fans of suspense and literary fiction.

The Last Whalers: Three Years in the Far Pacific with a Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing Way of Life by Doug Bock Clark

This book sounds absolutely fascinating to me and seems like one of those books you could get totally absorbed in when you didn’t actually think you had that much interest in the subject. In it, Clark, a journalist, follows a tribe of whale hunters from a remote Pacific island. They are subsistence whalers, but their way of life is threatened with modernization. For fans of narrative non-fiction.

Castle of Water by Dane Huckelbridge

This book set in the South Pacific is a castaway story, about the sole survivors of a small plane crash. Sophie is from Paris and Barry is from NYC, and together they must survive. And while it is a survival story, it’s really a character study of two people. For fans of adventure stories and character-driven novels.

Books Set in Europe

There is no shortage of books set in Europe, and you can travel anywhere from the coast of Italy to the fjords of Norway with a great book about Europe. Here are a few of my favorites that I feel like give you such a strong sense of place for various countries in Europe, plus lists of books set in different European countries.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway wrote this book about his time in Paris, and I’m not sure I have ever wanted to hop on a plane to Paris more than I did after I finished this book. Hemingway writes about other writers, about his time in the cafes of Paris, and gives us a real glimpse into the lives of the ex-pats in 1920s Paris. You’ll want both a plane ticket and a time machine when you finish this book. For fans of modern classics.

Circe by Madeline Miller

I didn’t think I cared all that much about Greek mythology. And then I read this book and boy, did I love it. It’s about Circe, a daughter of a god who is banished by Zeus to a deserted island. There, she interacts with various famous myths (for example, Odysseus comes to visit) and also masters her witchy powers. This book is full of beautiful language, but is also a propulsive story. For fans of literary fiction.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

I’m not usually a true crime person, but for some reason I was drawn to this book and I’m so glad because it’s one of my absolute favorites. While it was promoted as true crime, it’s more of a political journalistic thriller of sorts about the IRA in Northern Ireland, the convoluted motivations and actions of both the IRA and the British, and the terror of The Troubles. Centered in the story is the disappearance of Jean McConville, mother of 10. But it’s about SO much more than that. For fans of political books, journalistic non-fiction, and true crime.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, Translated by Ann Goldstein

This is the first book in the popular Neapolitan Quartet. I loved this series so very much! It’s about two girls growing up in Naples, and this book starts with their childhood in the 1950s. It’s a series about relationships (sometimes toxic) and politics and family and community. The writing is beautiful and carries you along with it in such a comforting way, even while tough things are happening. For fans of literary fiction and coming of age stories.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

This is one of my all-time favorite books about grief. But of course, it’s also about hawks. After her father dies, Helen Macdonald takes on the task of training a goshawk, which are notoriously difficult. You’ll find yourself wanting to learn more about birds of prey (a birds-of-prey experience is now on my bucket list) and also feel the bits about grief deep inside you. For fans of literary non-fiction and books about both animals and grief (but not necessarily grieving animals).

More Books About Europe

Books Set in North America and Central America

For the purposes of this list, we’re going to keep the United States separate (because below you’ll find another list of books set in different US states!). So let’s focus on the other North American countries as well as Central America.

I clearly have more reading to do here, as well, but here are a couple of books I love, plus a few I want to read.

Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

I love this book set in both Puerto Rico and New York (and I highly recommend it on audio!). Olga is a wedding planner in New York while her brother is a politician. Years ago, there mother left them, going to work as a radical activist in Puerto Rico. But now Hurricane Maria has hit the island, and their mother has come back to them hoping for some help. For fans of contemporary fiction.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

As has been the case for so many readers, Emily St. John Mandel became a favorite author for me after reading Station Eleven. This novel focuses on Vincent, a woman who marries powerful Jonathan Alkaitis, who we learn is running a ponzi scheme. The plot is intricate and perfectly done, and while a lot of this novel does take place in New York, it’s heart is a remote hotel in Canada near Vancouver. For fans of literary fiction.

New Girl in Little Cove by Damhnait Monaghan

In this novel set in Canada, Rachel moves to a small village in Newfoundland to teach French. But the place has its own culture and dialect that make it hard for her to fit in, especially when someone seems to be actively trying to make her feel unwelcome. For fans of heartwarming women’s fiction and books about small towns.

What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché

When Forché is invited by a mysterious man (maybe a CIA operative? maybe a communist?) to El Salvador to learn more about the political terror gripping the country, she accepts. This is a memoir about her time there, the dangers she faced, what she saw, and the the suffering of this Central America country. For fans of political books and narrative non-fiction.

The Adventurer’s Son: A Memoir by Roman Dial

When Roman Dial’s son goes missing in a remote Costa Rican jungle, he travels there to search for him. And along the way he has to wonder how his mission to raise his son as a fearless adventurer led to his disappearance. For fans of adventure stories and non-fiction mysteries.

More Books About North America and Central America

Books Set in South America

Again, this is another area where I have more reading to do! Actually to be honest, I’ve read more books than this, but I didn’t really love them. So time to do some more reading and find more South American books I truly love! Here are a couple I’ve enjoyed though along with some I want to read.

Deep Down Dark: The Untold Story of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free by Héctor Tobar

This look at the Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days in 2010 is absolutely fascinating! While it’s about the collapse of the mine and the rescue effort, it’s really about the community these miners formed underground and their collective effort to survive. For fans of narrative non-fiction.

Infinite Country by Patricia Engel

When Talia escapes a correctional facility in a remote area of Colombia, she sets out on a journey across the country. She needs to make it to Bogotá to make her flight to the US, where her mother lives. And while this is a story about her journey, it’s really a story about a family that has been splintered by immigration and the difficulties they face. For fans of contemporary fiction and family stories.

Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis

When homosexuality is considered a crime in 1970s Uruguay, a group of women find a secret island where they can live their true lives. The book is told over decades, and it’s about family and community and authenticity. For fans of queer stories and historical fiction.

Enduring Patagonia by Gregory Crouch

Patagonia may make you think of beautiful landscapes of mountains, but it is also a harsh landscape. In this memoir, Crouch tells readers of all the time he has spent in Patagonia, ascending mountains under dangerous conditions. For fans of adventure stories.

On a Night of a Thousand Stars by Andrea Yaryura Clark

Paloma is a college student in Argentina, and when a surprise visitor seems to shake her father, she dives more into his past. What was his life like during the Dirty War? And what does her father’s past mean for who she is? For fans of political and women’s fiction.

More Books About South America

Books Set in the United States

Literature for the United States includes a huge variety of genres and topics. Here are a few books that cover some major US themes, like, you know, a complete history of the US plus our National Parks and September 11. Just, you know, a few light US topics (*please read the sarcasm*).

Really though, here are some books I love! Plus lists of books set in different US states and landmarks (like Disney).

These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore

This book is HUGE but it is fantastic. Lepore gives readers the entire history of the United States, with a special attention to the groups of people whose stories haven’t always been told. Unless you can power through an almost 1000-page book, my recommendation is to read it how I read it: a little at a time over the course of a year. For fans of history, or if you just feel like your knowledge of US history needs some gaps filled in.

Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park by Conor Knighton

I credit this book with really inspiring me to check more National Parks off my bucket list. Here, Knighton spends a year traveling to every US national park. Except he doesn’t tell his story chronologically. Instead he organizes it by themes like water, volcanoes, or animals. It’s a beautifully reflective book, but also so funny in parts. For fans of travel memoirs.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

September 11, is of course a defining moment of tragedy in American history. And I love this book about a boy who lost his father in the Twin Towers and goes on a search through NYC, trying to find a lock that matches a key from his father. For fans of literary fiction.

Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx

When talking about books that are quintessential USA books, we have to include the American West. And I think this collection of short stories about cowboys and ranchers in Wyoming is perfect. It also includes “Brokeback Mountain” which is one of most beautiful short stories I’ve ever read. For fans of literary fiction.

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Ok, yes this book is about Hawaii, which sounds easy and nice and vacation-y. But really this is a book about the sometimes less-than-stellar history of the United States when it comes to colonialism. It’s a book about the culture and history of Hawaii and the missionaries who arrived and started the events that eventually led to Hawaii becoming a state. It also incorporates Vowell’s own story about doing this research and her classic dry humor. For fans of narrative non-fiction and history. (And it’s great on audio!)

More Books About the United States

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