Here at Shark On Fire, we believe you can learn a lot about where you're travelling by reading. We're not talking guidebooks here, but fiction and nonfiction books that are tied to a city, region, or country. Some are quirky, some are funny, some are sad, but what they all have in common is a strong sense of place. Click on any title or book cover for quick Amazon ordering. Is your favorite missing? Drop us a line with your recommendation!
Enjoy the books for every corner of The Continent!
The 1989 masterpiece by Ken Follett (normally a writer of spy thrillers) follows the construction of a cathedral in southern England for several generations in the 12th century. If you want to experience life in medieval England, Follett lays it out in enthralling style with colorful characters and unforgettable storytelling.
Sequel to Pillars. Although technically a sequel, it takes places a few hundred years after Pillars of the Earth. The town and cathedral are the same, but the characters are all new. This time around, Follett explores the awful time around the Black Death sweeping through the English countryside. The same wonderful storytelling keeps you from putting it down.
Laugh-out-loud historical SciFi about the Victorian period in England. Connie Willis writes about a crew of historians from Oxford in the not too distant future. We've discovered time travel, but unfortunately the world seems to prevent you from changing anything when you go back, so the only people that use it are historians. Here, we follow a harried historian searching the Victorian era for the fate of an artifact ridiculously named the Bishop's Bird Stump. Mystery and hilarity ensue.
Historical SciFi about the Bubonic Plague outbreak sweeping England. Much darker but more poignant than To Say Nothing of the Dog, the Doomsday Book juxtaposes a future pandemic outbreak with the historical fiction account of the plague. The characters and storytelling will grip you tightly.
Before visiting Greenwich, you should read Longitude. It tells the true story of John Harrison and his quest to a build a clock accurate enough to solve the longitude problem once and for all. Of course, even after he does this he has to fight for a long time to get the recognition he deserved. When you visit Greenwich, you can see his first four clocks, all of which are still running to this day.
WWII spy novel mostly set in war-time London. Tense thriller with many layers of intrigue. Great look into wartime life in England (and to a lesser extent Berlin). Mostly fictional events, but with many real characters.
More Ken Follett, and this time he builds a huge trilogy covering Western history throughout the 20th century. Ranging across all of Europe and America, these tomes follow a few families from the buildup of WWI all the way through the fall of the Berlin Wall. Epic and wide ranging, it gives you new insight into the people, places, and movements that shaped modern Westen society.
After a long night of drinking, comedian Hawks wakes up to find out that he'd apparently made a bet that he would hitchhike around Ireland for a month while traveling with a refrigerator. Never one to back down, he honors the bet, travels around Ireland with a mini-fridge on wheels, and finds laughs wherever he goes.
If you want to step into the world of Dutch wheeling and dealing when Amsterdam was the business capital of the world, then this historical novel will fit the bill. Liss spins the tail of a Jewish trader in the mid-17th century who has a plan to introduce to Europe on a grand scale. The novel gives a real feeling of Amsterdam in the times of the world dominance of the Dutch East Indies Company.
Hutchinson is a Catholic journalist who travels to Rome in an attempt to break into the bureaucratic fortress that is the Vatican City. When In Rome recounts his many forays into the inner workings of the city-state at the head of the Catholic Church, along with his family's adjustments to life in the Eternal City. Throw in accounts of some of the more outrageous moments in Vatican history (see the chapter titled The Sex Lives of Popes) and wrap it up with hilarious style, and you've got a great book to read if you're traveling to Rome.
Considered somewhat of an Italian classic, I struggled through this one. A murder mystery set fascist-era Rome, our detective hero scours the city for answers. But the timing and plot meander at a variety of plodding paces and the conclusions are ... well ... inconclusive. Revisiting my thoughts on it several years later, I do realize that there is something quite intrinsically Italian about the book such that it has much more insight into the culture than the place.
A slightly more traditional crime book set in the Umbrian town of Perugia. A nice window into central Italian culture as we follow a small-town detective solving a big-town murder.
Italian mystery story where Venice is certainly a main character. Follow Commisario Guido Brunetti as he tracks down the twists and turns in the case a poisoned opera conductor. Lots of interesting characters and places.
In the place where Back to the Future and classical Vienna meet resides The Little Book. The narrative follows Wheeler Burden, an improbable combination of author, rock star, and baseball star, as he travels back in time to Vienna in 1897. The story unfolds across three generations of Burdens, but the real star is the city itself.
A set of loosely connected stories about the chaos in France during Nazi occupation. Nemirovsky began writing the story while she was herself on the run. Sadly she was taken by the Nazis and did not survie the war. Her manuscripts survived unrecognized until recently when they were first published.
In the brutal landscape of WWII Leningrad, two young prisoners attempt to gain their freedom by going a quest for a dozen eggs. Their rambling adventures paint an excellent picture of Nazi-sieged Russia.
The trilogy that launched an empire and a fascination with Scandinavian crime writing, Larsson's characters and settings jump off the page, with Sweden always at the forefront.
Norway's answer to Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo wrote the very popular Hole Hole series. Hole is an alcoholic detective based in Norway that you love to hate, but always root for. Although the first two books in the series mostly take place in Australia and Thailand, the rest gives an excellent picture of life in Oslo and Norway.
A Danish entry in the Scandanavian crime genre, follow semi-disgraced Copenhagen detective Carl Morck as he attempts to solve a cold case that turns out to be anything but cold. Ranging over Denmark, it's a highly suspenseful plot that will keep you reading.
The supposedly true adventures of a Dutch buccaneer in the golden age of pirates. The stories told range all over the Caribbean and west coast of South America. A unique firsthand look into the famed pirate era.
Modern tale of the search for a golden age pirate ship in the crystal waters of the Dominican Republic. Great story and adventure with lots of background on the pirate age.
Classic children's novel about a young white boy and old black man shipwrecked together on a desert isle in the Caribbean. In addition to learning to survive, young Phillip also learns to overcome his racial prejudices and builds a strong bond with the older Timothy.
A well-written history of the Caribbean and how outside forces shaped it and it shaped massive empires right back. If you're interested in a sweeping overview of the history of the Caribbean from native settlement to the modern tourism industry, give this title a read.
Classic young adult tale of a planned trip to the Canadian wilderness that goes horrbily wrong when a boy's small plane crashes into a remote lake. With nothing but a hatchet for a survival tool, a young man has to survive, grow up, and escape with his life.
The proverbial "Canadian Lewis and Clark," McKenzie was a trapper in Canada who actually crossed the continent of North America decades before Lewis and Clark's expedition. Follow his journals to get a peak into the true wild west.
Lehane gives us an epic story of Boston in the 1920s. Get lost in the lives of black and white, rich and poor, immigrant and native families in a tough and dynamic period of American history. A great read.
Well-to-do Cambridge, Mass resident Dana decides that his health will be better if he takes a journey at sea. Instead of leisure cruise, though, he enlists to work on a ship sailing to California to collect cowhides. A great study of sailing life in the 1830s and life in California before it became a state or even a territory. Later in life, Dana went on to become a noted abolitionsist and the California town of Dana Point in Orange County is named after him.
Clive Cussler introduces a new main character, Detective Isaac Bell, a dashing, briliant, and hard-punching private detective. In this debut he chases a master criminal all over the West at breakneck speeds on he newly completed railroad networks. The wit and action will have you rooting for Bell and wanting to read the rest of the novels in the series.
Three bumbling anti-heros decide to turn their Central Valley lives around by searching for a long-lost gold mine inconveniently located in the midst of an Army weapon testing ground. This book is a study of the "interesting" set of cultures that come together in this part of the world.
The classic American journey from a first-person perspective. Follow Lewis and Clark through their hardships and successes as they push towards the Pacific coast. Also, try to count how many different ways Clark spells 'Sioux.'
Tony Horowitz relives his childhood fascination with the Civil War in adulthood and heads off on a trip around the South to see why the Civil War continues to have such a hold on the hearts and minds of many Southerners. Along the way we hear crazy history, meet crazy characters, and explore issues that seem especially relevant today.
Whether you're trekking the Andes or slogging through the rain forest, we've got the read for you.
Both a modern and historical travelogue, follow the author as he retraces the journey of one of the last lone Victorian explorers, Henry Fawcett. Fawcett led many adventurous and foolhardy treks through the Amazon basin. He eventually became obsessed with finding a great golden city lost in the jungle until he disappeared without a trace on one fateful final expedition.
The always hilarious Tim Cahill and professional driver Garry Sowerby set out to break the speed record for driving from Tierra del Fuego to the top of Alaska. Their trials, tribulations, and misadventures are met with the only infallible tool at their disposal: laughter.
Taking in the culture of China? Travelling the Silk Road? Exploring the Middle East? We've got you covered.
A translation of "Journey to the West," one of the great classics of Chinese literature. One of the original travel books, it follows a folk hero on his quest for some sacred scrolls along with a cast or sidekicks including the title simeon. Fun adventures ensue, along with insight into Chinese culture and storytelling.
Veteran traveller and writer Thubron follows the ancient Silk Road route through countries and cities you've hardly heard of, uncovering vibrant cultures and places forgotten in time.
Harrer was an escaped German POW in WWII who made a temporary home in Tibet. A good study of mid-century Tibetan culture. Of course, it was made more famous as a movie staring Brad Pitt.
Journalist Matthiessen travels throughout Nepal on foot. He finds rich Buddhist and mountain cultures, but, spoiler alert, he never actually sees the reclusive snow leopard. The classic quest is still worth a read!
A study of life in big-city India in the '70s that follows the intertwined tales of a number of people who move to the urban area for work and school. While not exactly uplifting, it's a good study of the issues India faces in that unsettled time.
Fun travelogue about a woman who becomes a little obsessed with the world's cheapest car, the Tata Nano. She decides to buy one and then drive it 10,000 km around the whole of India. Fun adventures and hijinks ensue.
A classic British adventure, Newby leaves a comfortable life in Britain to become a mountain climber in Afghanistan. Never mind that he has no mountain climbing experience and plans to drive to Afghanistan in a station wagon. Funny and interesting throughout.
Beautiful fiction tale about a Golem and a genie who find themselves making an odd duo in late-1800s New York City. In addition to being a great story of their adaptation to their new lives, it brings to life three different places and cultures: bustling NYC, Arabic nomads, and European Jews.
The classic set of Arabic folk tales as translated by great traveller Richard Burton. Imprisoned wife Sharahazad must spin folktales to her husband every night to ensure her survival. Caliphs, princes, and genies all come to life through the stories.
One of the greatest travel tales of all time, Thesiger manages to implant himself with the nomadic tribes of Saudia Arabia's empty quarter and become the first westerner to ever cross the forboding desert. He immerses himself in the nomadic life, slowly learning the amazing lengths the tribes must go to in order to survive in this harshest of environments.
The story of Lawrence of Arabia in his own words. Follow him as he learns the Arabic culture and helps shepherd the British interests through WWI.
Thesiger returns to the Middle East, this time to Iraq to live with the Marsh Arabs, a small culture who live not in the desert but on floating islands of reeds in the Fertile Crescent. Saddam Hussein later drained these marshes, destroying the Marsh Arab culture.
Stewart is a British diplomat who finds himself appointed to be governor of an Iraqi province after the second Gulf war. He has to learn the culture, alliances, and agendas of the Iraqis, and he approaches it all with traditional British aplomb and humor.
Safari or Sahara, we're on it.
Follow the wondrous life of Beryl Markham, one of the earliest female pilots in Africa. She flies all over Kenya and beyond, ferrying medicine, tracking elephants, ad eventually searching for her missing husband. Experience the lives of European colonists in Kenya through the eyes of this amazing woman.
Two rivals challenge each other to a birdwatching contest with the winner getting a date with their mutual crush. Sounds different, but it's a fun romp around the natural beauty of Kenya and a really fun story.
Antoine de Saint Exupery is much better known as the author of the French children's classic The Little Prince, but he was also a mail delivery pilot in the early days of aviation. His beautiful descriptions of North Africa and his mail runs to Morocco will leave you wanting more and his essays about the joys of travel and adventure will make you get off the couch.
Clive Cussler's prolific hero Dirk Pitt takes on a mega-polluting villain while exploring the Niger River and Malian Sahara. As always with Cussler books, the action and andventure come fast and furious but with a side of history and archaeology.
A true story of survival after a group of American sailors is shipwrecked off the coast of Africa in the early 1800s. They battle the elements and hostile native to surrvive and get back to civilization.
McCall Smith's popular series follows the first all-female private detective agency in Gaborone, Botswana. Hijinks ensue and life in Bostwana draws you in. This book was also made into an excellent HBO show starring Jill Scott.
Headed down under or hitting the beaches and isles of the South Pacific? Read on!
Nonfiction story of a group of native Hawaiians who plumb the depths of Polynesian history and culture to revive the amazing navigation skills of traditional Hawaiian voyaging canoes.
Follow the intrepid Victorian traveller Isabella Bird as she travels solo throughout the Hawaiian islands. Armed with nothing but the pluck of the classic British traveller, she climbs volcanoes, descends treacherous paths to reach hidden waterfalls, and explores the remaining outposts of native culture.
Classic tale of Heyerdahl's famous expedition to recreate ancient Peruvian reed rafts and prove once and for all that ancient South Americans could have reached Polynesia without the aid of any modern technology.
Beautifully written story of the Malaysian island of Penang during WWII. A young man must make the awful decisions that war brings while balancing his love for his Japanese sensei-turned-occupier with his family and country.
Follows Captain Cook's journeys around Australia the South Pacific in his own words. Cook's epic vofyage of discovery led him around Australia and New Zealand, onward thrrough the small isalands of the Pacific and finally to Hawaii.
Amazing and mostly forgotten true survival story in the jungles of New Guinea in the waning days of WWII. An America cargo plane crashes in the wilds and the survivors must carry on in the jungle amongst unconctacted tribes until outside help can arrive and a somewhat crazy rescue plan is enacted. Interesting story and examination of the history of New Guinea.