Books to transport you

Books have always had the power to take us to somewhere other than where we are, whether that's a fantasy land, outer space, or to a different time and place in history.

Now, perhaps more than ever, being able to "travel" via the medium of books is important. Here, the team shares the books they read when they want to escape their surroundings. 

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

Although all books have the power to transport you, my favourite stories are those that reference our own world. You know, the books that tell you that if you just stepped in-between platforms 9 and 10 at King's Cross you might end up on a train to a rather famous school for witches and wizards, or if you fell down a rabbit hole you would emerge into an enchanted land of grinning cats and Mad Hatters. 

Philip Pullman is a master at this, as demonstrated with the His Dark Materials series, where portals allowed characters (and readers) to travel from Oxford to the Arctic, and even into a mysterious land in the sky.

Pullman's not-quite-prequel series The Book of Dust, which began with La Belle Sauvage, grounds us in a bygone Oxford a bit like the one from our own history books, but different enough that it proves exciting. Our hero is Malcolm Polstead, who is charged with seeing a baby Lyra Belacqa to safety through a flooded city with evil on his tail.

If you're up for an adventure full of magic and fantasy, this is the book for you.

Chosen by Sarah McKenna


The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber (2014)

The Book of Strange New Things made me realise I'd been reading the wrong books all my life. Not normally a big sci-fi fan, I picked this up after reading Under the Skin as I wanted to quickly duck into another of Faber's books, and tore through it.

Set on a newly-colonised planet, light years away from earth, with a pastor as its main protagonist, it sounds ridiculously mind-bending. And that's before I've mentioned the genderless aliens with no discernible facial features. But it's written so gently, that while it's about an improbable place and time, it never feels like you’re reading a writer's bad trip. It's sci-fi that's rooted in human existence and everything that encompasses, and it's a testament to Faber's writing ability that he can lull you into another world so far-fetched, yet make it seem like home.

Chosen by Donna Mackay

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee (2017)

Crime might seem a strange genre to use an as escape, but it's so all-encompassing that it actually proves quite easy to forget where you actually are in favour of solving a mystery. Add in a completely different place to my suburban surroundings – like 1920s Calcutta – and I’m fully immersed.

Abir Mukherjee's A Rising Man, the first novel in his Wyndham and Banerjee series, whisks readers to post-First World War India. In the bustle of Calcutta, Sam Wyndham must find his place as a detective on the police force, with the help of police officer Surendranath Banerjee. But before he can settle in, a senior official is found dead, and there’s a note in his mouth telling the British to leave India. 

Mukherjee’s descriptions of Calcutta are so vivid that you can almost hear the noise and breathe in the heat of the city, while his mysteries always have you guessing to the last page. The perfect escape.

Chosen by Sarah Shaffi 

How to be Both by Ali Smith (2014)

Has there ever been a more fitting time to long for the Palazzo Schifanoia, or the Palace of Not Being Bored? Ali Smith makes a character of the Italian building in How to be Both, her shapeshifting 2014 novel on loss, ambiguity and identity, catapulting the reader back to the 15th century in the process. We learn of the palace through its now-famous frescoes (the palace is real, and remains intact today) and the artist who paints them, Francesco del Cossa, who was born female but binds her chest and lives as a man. 

Smith twists between Francesco's narrative and that of George, a bereaved teenage girl living in Cambridge, but her poetic insights into the former's life – and how it manifests on the walls on which she paints – make it both so intriguing and intimate that it becomes irresistible. Here, there isn't just life in the world continuing beyond the palace walls (the spring flowers, the street workers) in early Renaissance Italy, but also in the vivid frescoes that Francesco creates. Both demand to be sunk into.

Chosen by Alice Vincent

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)

There are so many ways a book can transport you – through time, around the world or to far-off fantasy worlds – and yet, I still can't think of a more transportive book than Virginia Woolf's evergreen classic, Mrs Dalloway.

From the moment the eponymous character has agreed to "buy the flowers herself", readers are enrobed in Dalloway's every thought and feeling, propelled along by a stream-of-consciousness writing style that makes the novel's events unfold in something resembling real time. It may not take you somewhere otherworldly, but where else can you be transported so wholly into the mind's eye of another?

Chosen by Stephen Carlick

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (2014)

H is for Hawk is Helen Macdonald's story of her attempt to train a hawk. Her dad dies and she buys a wild goshawk, driving it from Scotland to Cambridge in a box. In her living room, with the huge bird on her fist, she lifts its hood and the bird goes nuts. It's terrified, she's terrified, I'm gripped.

As she slowly, slowly starts to tame the hawk, Mabel, and begins to take her out to fly, I am transported to the forests, fields, thickets, skies and hedges she describes. Even when she's back in her home – alone with the curtains closed, playing a game with Mabel and crumpled pieces of paper – I am there too.

Chosen by Stephanie Tait

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin (1996)

When I'm looking to go on journey from the comfort of my own home, George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones – the first book in his A Song of Ice and Fire series – is just the ticket. It's epic in every sense of the word: in the world building, the length (694 pages to be exact), and the unadulterated entertainment.

Set in an alternate universe but reminiscent of medieval England, I'm able to travel from the cold, harsh and desolate lands in the North of Westeros, down to the warmer climes of King's Landing, and then across The Narrow Sea to the immense continent of Essos. I encounter the different noble houses of the Seven Kingdoms, each with their own sayings – "Winter is coming" – folklores, and cultural practices. And I meet a colossal range of characters, all with different motivations and agendas - and not all of whom are virtuous.

In short, it's a breath-taking trip I advise everyone to go on.

Chosen by Imogen Rayfield

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

It's the sand, sea and sunshine, mostly – so soul-warmingly un-British! But also the cutlasses and the eye-patches, the jolly rogers, the black spots, and the 'seaward hos!' Robert Louis Stevenson's 1882 coming-of-age classic about a boy who goes on a pirate adventure has been my turn-to book since I first read it as a child (actually, it was first read to me, across many consecutive bedtimes, by my dad).

I have come back to it many times when I've fancied an escape. Never usually all at once, mind – I know the story well enough now that I can dip in and out, like a wind-weary seagull diving for scraps of the past. I can still hear my dad's voice when I read it. It's become a kind of anchor, I reckon, carrying my mind to a faraway world of pirate hats and treasure maps, but also back to a world that sometimes feels even further away than that: my childhood, when nothing mattered. Nothing, that is, except pirate hats and treasure maps.

Chosen by Matt Blake

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