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Armchair Explorers: 9 Atmospheric Reads Where the Setting Comes Alive

by  | April 22
Woman reading on chair by the window

We could all use a bit of escape right now, and books can take us to the edge of the earth (and back) with adventure, different cultures, and faraway lands. Here are a few of our favorite books that involve traveling, exploring, and seeking out new histories.

The Island of Sea Women

The Island of Sea Women

by Lisa See

Following a pair of best friends, The Island of Sea Women spans decades, beginning in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation of a unified Korea. As the two women grow up during the Second World War, they struggle to maintain their traditional way of life as deep-sea pearl divers along the rugged coastline. This book follows the matriarchal haenyeo, giving readers a strong feminist perspective that will broaden your understandings of Eastern cultures. Full of exceptionally beautiful descriptions of a small, isolated community rocked by international events and a good dose of Buddhist philosophy, this book by an #OwnVoices author takes a long, loving look at the hard choices individuals face when trying to protect their friendships.

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Things in Jars

Things in Jars

by Jess Kidd

This missing-person mystery set in a supernatural, Victorian-era London is a mad rush of history, mythology, and old wives’ tales. Getting lost in this book is easy as we follow detective Bridie Devine into the seedy, scandalous underbelly of magical antiquities trading while she searches for the secret daughter of a nobleman. The changes in this book will keep you hooked, as people transform, expectations shift, and love and loss ensnare every character, sometimes literally. If you’d like to be transported to a different time and place, Things in Jars is the perfect book to pick up.

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Pride of Eden

Pride of Eden

by Taylor Brown

While we’ve all binged Tiger King, this is the lit fic version of the absolutely mind-numbing reality docuseries that we all love to hate. The book spans a few continents but mostly focuses on Little Eden, an exotic animal sanctuary on the Georgia coast. As the beguiling main character Anse Caulfield protects and fights for his wildlife, we’re pulled into the dark, grungy underground of exotic animal care and the lives of the misguided but (sometimes) well-intentioned people who look after them.

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Once Upon a Sunset

Once Upon a Sunset

by Tif Marcelo

This romantic drama is a globe-trotting exploration of family, love, and understanding where you come from. As Diana’s job forces her into sabbatical and her long-term relationship breaks apart, her mother moves in with her. After they find a series of old letters from Diana’s recently deceased grandmother, it’s revealed that there is a whole branch of the family tree that Diana never knew about—and they’re still living in the Philippines. Desperate for anything that will distract her from her current woes, Diana hops on a plane (remember planes?) and heads to the islands, searching for her family, and, just maybe, a little bit of romance for herself.

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The Impossible First

The Impossible First

by Colin O'Brady

Fiction is all well and good, but if you want a real-life story of adventure and exploration, you’ll want to pick up this memoir/tell-all about the first man to travel across Antarctica alone, on his own steam. This endurance athlete has scaled the highest peaks in all fifty states, as well as mountains across the world, but nothing could have prepared him for the solo journey across the ice. If you want a thrilling experience from the comfort of your own home, this is the book for you.

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The Satapur Moonstone

The Satapur Moonstone

by Sujata Massey

In this novel, the lauded follow-up to The Widows of Malabar Hill, Perveen Mistry, the only female lawyer in Bombay, is once again called upon to deal with a problem that only she can solve. Set in 1920s India, the book dissects colonial rule, customs and traditions of royalty, and the ways in which women take power for themselves. The Satapur Moonstone is a book about betrayal, love, hatred, and faith, centered around a clever, confident woman who makes change. This book will transport you to a vivid place, with a palace full of backstabbing and treachery, and into a tangled web that you won’t find easy to extricate yourself from even after you finish reading.

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House on Endless Waters

House on Endless Waters

by Emuna Elon

What starts as a family drama quickly escalates into a mystery-thriller embedded in the experience of Jews in Amsterdam and the trauma of the Holocaust. While visiting Amsterdam, writer Yoel finds a picture of his mother in a Holocaust museum, in which she is holding an infant that could not be him, or his sister. To uncover this mystery, Yoel digs deeper into the history of the Holocaust, his mother’s stories, and Amsterdam itself. The city in House on Endless Waters feels like it’s also a character, creating depth and a labyrinthine of relationships that elude simple cartography.

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Into the Jungle

Into the Jungle

by Erica Ferencik

Bored, impulsive, and dare we say prone to making foolish decisions, Lily is the embodiment of every one of our shelter-in-place frustrations. She takes off for another continent to find her own destiny, and it ends up stalking her in the dense Amazon jungle. As she struggles to live with her new beau in a small village, she finds herself in a terrible jungle spinoff of Naked and Afraid—running through the woods to escape hunters, anacondas, and ghosts (albeit fully clothed). This terrifying and merciless story is a thriller that features supernatural shamans, a true love gone wrong, and the worst kind of isolation—one without Wi-Fi or food delivery.

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Wild Seed

Wild Seed

by Octavia E. Butler

One of the ultimate fantasy reads, first published in 1980, Wild Seed follows two immortals—one a killer and the other a healer—locked in a clash of fate and destiny as they chase each other over continents and time, each hoping to escape, control, and understand the other. As an epic examination of love, hate, and power, this classic sci-fi/fantasy novel is an absolute must-read. The themes that Butler explores in this book resonate throughout science fiction, even to this day, and her work is as expansive as it is immersive. It’s a critical examination of motherhood and relationships, and the ways that systemic powers control us, no matter where we go. The perfect read to inform your next revolution.

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