One of the most common book recommendation requests I get—be that in my inbox, on the podcast, or in the MMD Book Club—is escapist reads. Believe it or not, this was a familiar query long before a pandemic upended all our travel plans!
Longtime readers know that a good book, carefully chosen, can take you on a grand adventure—even while you never leave the comfy chair in your living room.
Today, I’m sharing a list of books that invite you to come along on a vicarious vacation, or inspire your future travels. This mix of nonfiction and fiction features a variety of enviable vacations, from family cruises to solo backpacking adventures to sun-drenched island getaways.
I also included a little bonus category packed with vacations-gone-wrong. These thrillers might not stir up daydreams about faraway locations, but they will keep you turning the pages to find out what happens next, and the action unfolds in interesting and should-have-been idyllic locales.
This summer, I hope you find the restorative escape you need, whether by plane, on the road, or in the pages of a good book.
The perfect read for a rainy summer day, this escapist classic begins when one woman reads an advertisement for a small tumble-down medieval castle addressed to “Those Who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine.” She is suddenly struck by desire on this dreary, dripping day and finds a partner-in-travel to get away for a month. The two friends seek out two strangers to make a party of four women—one young, one old, two somewhere in the middle. As they travel to the Italian castle and spend the month finding out what they have in common, they find they are all unhappy with the life they find themselves leading. It's no spoiler to tell you: they come into their own. More info →
I don't want my real vacation to be filled with family drama, but a vicarious vacation? Give me ALL the juicy secrets, relationship tensions, and high-stakes arguments. This backlist book takes readers to the island of Mallorca, where Franny and Jim have invited their close family and friends to celebrate some major milestones. It all seems like sunshine and swimming pools until secrets come to light and longstanding rivalries reemerge. When it comes to complicated family dramas, you can count on Emma Straub to deliver. Her characterization shines, and though you may not like any of the people here, you will want to know what happens to them. More info →
In this enemies-to-lovers romance, bridesmaid Olive steels herself to get through her twin sister's wedding, which forces her to spend the day with her sworn enemy and best man Ethan. But when the rest of the party falls prey to food poisoning, Olive and Ethan find themselves on an all-expenses-paid honeymoon trip to Hawaii, determined to leave each other alone—until they are forced into pretending to be newlyweds to save Olive's job. They quickly discover that pretending can be a whole lot of fun. Fun and funny, this one had me fondly reminiscing about my own tropical honeymoon. More info →
In this fast-paced YA debut (and 2020 Summer Reading Guide pick), a girl travels halfway around the world to find herself, and maybe find love, too. Ever Wong is an eighteen-year-old Asian American girl in Ohio, a talented dancer who, unbeknownst to her family, harbors dreams of pursuing professional dance. When her parents find out she’s considering dance instead of med school, they send her to Taiwan to spend the rest of the summer at Chien Tan—an immersive high school program devoted to language and culture. When Ever arrives she’s surprised to discover that far from the scholarly summer she expected, the students themselves call the program “Loveboat,” because it’s tons of fun and so many long-term relationships begin here. I can't wait to read the sequel, coming in early 2022. More info →
This is a wonderful guide for anyone contemplating solo travel. Journalist Alice Steinbach took a four-month sabbatical from work to travel to London, Oxford, Paris, and Milan when she was in her 50s (what a dream!). Her memoir is as much about the places she goes as it is about the people she befriends, such as one acquaintance who asks her, “Why not turn this mishap into an adventure?” Witty, wise, and transporting, Steinbach's journey will make you feel as though you're traveling far from your own armchair—and perhaps inspire you to plan your own solo trip. More info →
Frances Mayes is best known for her memoirs exploring life as an expat in Tuscany, but here she shares about travels to Spain, Portugal, France, the British Isles, Turkey, Greece, the South of Italy, and North Africa. As much as possible, she rented a house and did her best to shop and eat like a local, thinking all the while about what it would be like to call that place home. Full of descriptive detail, this travel memoir is best suited for readers who love all things art and architecture, or who enjoy a slow meandering walk down an unfamiliar cobblestone street. More info →
“I am a storyteller. I go places, I come back. I tell you how the places made me feel.” — Anthony Bourdain. Before he died, Bourdain’s co-author and long-time collaborator Laurie Woolever met with him about this project just once, a meeting she details in the book’s heartfelt opening. Yet she managed to deliver a transporting reading experience in a true travel guide that combines Bourdain’s stories and travel tips with colorful essays from his friends and colleagues. Vicariously experience Bourdain’s favorite destinations near and far—from Toronto to Tanzania, Manhattan to Myanmar—as Bourdain tells you how to get there, where to stay, and, perhaps most importantly, what to eat. Jam-packed with potential for adventure and exploration (real or imagined). This title appears in the Expanded Edition of our 2021 Summer Reading Guide. More info →
Globetrot with Alex and Poppy in this modern twist on When Harry Met Sally (our June MMD book club pick). The pair of opposites once shared a ride home from college and their witty banter ignited a decade-long friendship. Now free-spirit Poppy lives in NYC, working as a travel writer for a posh magazine. Strait-laced Alex lives in their small Ohio hometown, longing to start a family and live that picket-fence lifestyle. Connecting once a year for an epic vacation, these besties were always in sync…until they weren’t. Now they haven’t spoken in two painful years, and against all odds, Poppy is hoping one great vacation can save them. More info →
Jake cited this "champagne cocktail in book form" as a recent favorite in WSIRN Episode 277: Books that feel like a vacation for your brain. When I read it last year, I didn't realize it was a retelling of A Room with a View until I thought "hmm, the name Lucy Church seems familiar," and started picking up more connections. But you do not need to be familiar with E.M. Forster's classic in order to enjoy this glittery, glamorous, and gossipy novel that opens on an island holiday in Capri—and then jumps forward seven years later to a decadent summer vacation in East Hampton. More info →
If The Underground Railroad or The Nickel Boys made your favorites list, have you dipped into Colson Whitehead's backlist yet? This humorous coming of age story will take you to 1985 Manhattan, where 15-year-old Benji Cooper, the only Black student at his prep school, attempts to fit in with his classmates. Trying to break free of his label as a bona fide nerd proves exhausting, but escape comes every summer when Benji's family stays in Sag Harbor, along with a whole community of upper-middle class Black families in their social circle. With freedom from school, parents, and the perception of his peers, Benji thinks this summer might be the perfect time to reinvent himself. Travel to the Hamptons with Benji for summer vacation vibes, teenage angst, and Whitehead's stunning writing style. More info →
5 books about vacations gone horribly, terribly wrong
This heart-pounding thriller is set in the Rocky Mountains, where the whole Courtland family hoped to enjoy a wilderness vacation, and the parents specifically hope to reconnect and patch up their broken marriage. Daughter Caitlin is about to begin college on a track scholarship, and sees the mountain trails as a challenge for her running strength and stamina. But their peaceful vacation turns into a nightmare when Caitlin and her younger brother Sean set off on a hike together, and only Sean returns. Each member of the family deals with Caitlin’s disappearance alone, yet they grapple with the same unspeakable questions. More info →
Liv and Nora are cousins, close as sisters. After a rough year and lots of family drama, they're in desperate need of a low-key family getaway. The cruise was going to be perfect. And it is, for a while. But then on a normal—almost boring—Central American shore excursion, a series of misunderstandings and misjudgments ends with terrifying confusion—where are the children? Soon enough, the adults realize six children have vanished—and from alternating points of view, we discover where they went, and why, and who's to blame. (There's lots to go around.) Readers take note: this is messy, and a little racy.
Moriarty says this story actually started as a joke: after a stressful season, she began saying her next novel would take place at a tropical resort, and she'd have to spend a lot of time vacationing "for research purposes." But as she thought about it, she realized it really would make a good story. Swap out the tropical setting for a luxurious health retreat, bring in nine strangers, each with their own reason for renewal, and you're in for a great reading experience. The miniseries boasts a star-studded cast and is set to premiere on Amazon Prime August 20th. More info →
When Winifred Allen's best friends suggest a wilderness adventure in Maine for their annual girls' trip, she reluctantly agrees. Swimming in depression and grief, Wini could really go for more of a beach vacation. But hiking and rafting through the Allagash Wilderness proves to be revitalizing...until their trip takes a treacherous turn. After a freak accident, Wini and her friends are stranded and forced to rely on strangers for supplies and shelter. Just when the women think they're safe, the battle for survival really begins, and Wini must prove her strength. More info →
Does Hercule Poirot ever get a vacation? It seems that wherever he goes, he must investigate. His cruise along the Nile is interrupted by a shocking murder (of course). Honeymooner Linett Ridgeway has been shot, and Poirot might know the culprit: he overheard a passenger say incriminating, threatening things about the beautiful (and filthy rich) young woman. But it wouldn't be a Christie novel without a few unexpected twists and turns. Devoted Poirot fans will enjoy several references to his other mysteries sprinkled throughout the novel, and heads up: it's been adapted for another Kenneth Branagh film, set to release in 2022. More info →
What books have YOU enjoyed as a vicarious escape? We’d love to hear your recommendations—please share them in the comments section!