Books that inspire travel rank among the best presents you can stuff in loved ones’ stockings. A sparkling novel or a witty, worldly memoir can transport armchair travelers to places from the far-flung (Oman) to the familiar (the national park one state over). Plus, a good read (or listen) might provide practical tips for the next vacation, help navigate a new culture, or simply provide a great escape on a cold winter’s eve.
These 12 recently published books—on topics from international cooking for kiddos to the temples and political troubles of modern Myanmar—are sure to fuel thoughtful travel.
Celestial Bodies, by Jokha Alharthi, Marilyn Booth (translator)
This novel, winner of the International Booker Prize 2019, by acclaimed author Alharthi, follows multiple generations of an Omani family from the late 19th century to the present day. As their country transitions from ancient ways (slavery, arranged marriage) to a more modern reality (teenagers chowing at McDonald’s, women with careers), multiple characters recount a tale of blood ties and societal upheaval from a dusty mountain village to the manicured, ocean-side streets of Muscat.
The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste
Real-life African women warriors took up arms in the mid-1930s during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, which saw Mussolini’s troops invade and eventually occupy the East African nation. The novel’s heroine, Hirut, a young girl who goes from servant to warrior to POW, lyrically narrates much of the story, which moves between tiny villages and large battles. Mengiste weaves rich details of Ethiopian life—the tang of injera bread, the buzz of Addis Ababa—into a tale of the emotional and physical wreckage of war.
The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott
Zipping back and forth between Washington, D.C. and the U.S.S.R. during the 1950s, Prescott’s agile debut tells parallel stories of Boris Pasternak’s mistress (the muse for Lara in Doctor Zhivago) and a young CIA secretary cajoled into domestic Cold War spy craft. Descriptions of sites in the United States capital—the Reflecting Pool beside the monuments, the dreamworld of the spring cherry blossoms—contrast with the grim scenes of Soviet Moscow, but the snappy, strong women are both characters you’ll enjoy spending time with.
The Story of a Goat, by Perumal Murugan, N. Kalyan Raman (translator)
Beyond the Technicolor, pyramid-like temples of Chennai, the farmers of southern India’s Tamil Nadu state eke out a rough existence amid droughts and caste system woes. Murugan digs into their rural life via this fantastical novel. Through the thoughts of a rare black goat and the couple who adopt it, readers witness famines, death, and moments of beauty.
The Seine: The River That Made Paris, by Elaine Sciolino
France’s river Seine winds 483 miles from its origin on a deserted Burgundian plane to the sea, on the way skirting vineyards in Champagne; Joan of Arc–mad Rouen; and, mais oui, the City of Light. Sciolino’s flowing travelogue churns up fascinating history. The river is named for both a Gallo-Roman goddess and an early Christian priest; thousands lined its banks in 1840 to see Napoleon’s remains ferried back to Paris. Sciolino finds less-heralded, vivid characters—used-book sellers, antique-boat restorers—on the riverbanks, too.
In this warm, wry memoir, a Slate journalist recounts how he and his lawyer wife ditched full-time gigs in Washington, D.C., and took their preteen daughters to live four months each in New Zealand, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, and a small city in Kansas. Accounts of the family’s high points (cycling on jam-packed Dutch paths, getting to know all their neighbors in Kansas) are interspersed with asides about swarms of mosquitos in Costa Rica and whining kids. Overall, it’s a paean to unplugging from ordinary life to reconnect with loved ones.
Mudlark: In Search of London’s Past Along the River Thames, by Lara Maiklem
Wandering the banks of London’s Thames, amateur archaeologist Lara Mailem finds everything from Elizabethan pennies to contemporary Hindu statues of Ganesh, which residents toss into the water when they’re worn out. Her muddy discoveries spur delightful dives into city history, from a 1930s vicar who used barge loads of Essex sand to create a mini “riviera” near the Tower of London to 19th-century sailors who repaired ships with whalebones, fragments of which still wash up on the shore.
A Savage Dreamland: Journeys in Burma, by David Eimer
Eimer captures the complexities of life in modern Myanmar with a gimlet eye, whether he’s detailing people in the “Buddha Belt” who constantly watch chanting monks on TV or describing the hardships of Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine state. Journeying to every corner of the troubled country, he explores the ghostly, abandoned stupas of Yangon as well as the combustible mix of races and religions in a zone perpetually at a crossroads.
Epic Continent, by Nicholas Jubber
The Odyssey, Beowulf, and other early European sagas spurred Jubber to meander from Turkey to Iceland in search of the places mentioned in the texts. Part of his mission was to discover how these old tales still inspire new Europe, whether it’s Greeks in an Athens bar reciting passages from The Odyssey or Basque separatists protesting around a monument to the heroes of The Song of Roland. It’s a thought-provoking treatise interwoven with blistered-feet-on-the-ground accounts of spots both pretty (Budapest’s Nagytétény Palace, inspiration for Germany’s Nibelungenlied) and gritty (the wind-ravaged ruins of Troy).
Step-by-step instructions and photos of real kids chopping and stirring teach young cooks how to whip up international goodies such as Australian sausage rolls, Korean kimchi, and Ethiopian wat (a spicy stew). Other elements that seem designed to create future food travelers: numerous factoids about cuisine in featured countries and pull-out flashcards on how to say “I’m hungry” in 24 languages.
National Geographic Atlas of the National Parks, by Jon Waterman
Maps, dazzling photos, and historic and scientific details about U.S. national parks from Acadia to Zion headline in this comprehensive, compelling visual guide by an adventurer and onetime park ranger. Waterman organizes the outsize tome by region and topography (e.g. “Eastern Coast & Forest Parks,” “Desert Southwest”), making it easy to visualize a dream summer road trip while flipping through its 400-plus pages and 61 parks.
The Blue Zones Kitchen: 100 Recipes to Live to 100, by Dan Buettner
Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow, identified five “blue zones” where people live the longest. He delves into the cuisine and the culture behind healthful hotbeds like Okinawa, Japan, and Ikaria, Greece, with vegetarian recipes and lush landscape photos. On the menu: Japanese seaweed sticky rice balls, Costa Rican hearts of palm “ceviche,” and lots of legumes.
Jennifer Barger is a senior editor at National Geographic Travel. Follow her on Instagram.