Open a book, step into another place.
January 23, 2009 8:19 PM   Subscribe

I like novels where the setting is almost as much of a star as the characters. What should I be reading?

Reading is most enjoyable to me when I can vividly and clearly imagine another place, through the descriptive words given to us by the author. To cite a few examples: The Chronicles of Narnia, Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series, and the Mitford series by Jan Karon. I especially love it when the book includes a well-drawn map of the city or world. I realize this is a common facet of fantasy novels, but I'd prefer more cuddly hometown type stories, as I'm not so much into YA, sci-fi, or fantasy these days. What fictional place can I delve into next?
posted by cloudsandstars to Media & Arts (48 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Off the bat, I'd say -- James Michener?

J.R.R. Tolkien is a pretty safe bet for this, if fantasy is your thing.
posted by puckish at 8:26 PM on January 23, 2009

The Navigator of New York by Wayne Johnston is fantastic in that area -- it's set in New York around the turn of the century and in the Arctic. He has two novels (The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and The Custodian of Paradise) and a memoir (Baltimore's Mansion) set in Newfoundland that are also very evocative and lovely.
posted by bewilderbeast at 8:28 PM on January 23, 2009

How about Calvino's Invisible Cities? The descriptions of the places are short, but are the basis for the novel itself.
posted by stachemaster at 8:29 PM on January 23, 2009

Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem. Quite literally.

I don't know if you've seen either of the movies, but the book is way better. I never get tired of recommending it. It's some of the best science fiction ever written, bar none.
posted by Rinku at 8:34 PM on January 23, 2009

The world of PG Wodehouse which is sort of a perpetual roaring 20's inhabited by oblivious upper class british people. The langauge is beautiful, very funny, and quite descriptive.

Specifically the Blandings stories, centered around the acenestral home of a British family

or the Jeeves stories, about a rich young man and his valet. I cannot recommend these enough.
posted by pseudonick at 8:35 PM on January 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, modern day Savannah, Georgia. The Alienist by Caleb Carr, 19th century New York City. Devil in the White City: 19th century Chicago during the Exposition. These all have a lush sense of place and none could have occurred in different settings. And yes - the latter two have maps!
posted by Lou Stuells at 8:37 PM on January 23, 2009

Also: China MiƩville's Bas-Lag novels: Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and (maybe to a lesser extent, but also excellent) Iron Council.
posted by Rinku at 8:42 PM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I find most books set in Newfoundland to be like this.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:46 PM on January 23, 2009

posted by rhapsodie at 8:54 PM on January 23, 2009

The most obvious one to me is Huckleberry Finn...there's a coherent argument to be made that the Mississippi is the main character of the book. I'd also say many books by William Gibson (in particular the Neuromancer series) fit this description in the sense that when you're done reading them, you don't remember plots or characters as well as you remember ambiances.
posted by crinklebat at 8:55 PM on January 23, 2009

I'm here to second Solaris.
posted by Coatlicue at 8:55 PM on January 23, 2009

Cannery Row
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:55 PM on January 23, 2009

I was going to suggest China Miéville also; though Perdido Street Station and presumably also The Scar are fantasy-esque, they meet your other criterion exactly. I have only read the former but I was totally engrossed.
posted by librarina at 9:02 PM on January 23, 2009

Have you read Richard Ford's series of novels, The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land? They are intensely focused on place, along with people.

Richard Russo's Empire Falls and Mohawk also have tremendous attention to place, as do the books of Dennis Lehane and Richard Price. David Guterson brings the same attention to the northwest.
posted by Forktine at 9:21 PM on January 23, 2009

(Whoops, missed "cuddly" -- you might want to look at the reviews carefully before reading anything that I just suggested, because while all those are first-rate novels, none of them are cuddly at all. Just the opposite, in fact.)
posted by Forktine at 9:23 PM on January 23, 2009

Edward Rutherfurd, who writes novels that follow the history of the location. Some of his novels include London, Russka, and Sarum (which is set in Salisbury)
posted by DrGirlfriend at 9:40 PM on January 23, 2009

posted by pluckysparrow at 9:57 PM on January 23, 2009

I know that the Anne of Green Gables series often gets lumped into YA, but I think that's an unfair characterization. These books are about as hometown cuddly as they come and I fell just as much in love with the places as the people...
posted by yogurtisgenocide at 10:03 PM on January 23, 2009

Since you named some YA fantasy, I have no qualms recommending Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. Lyra's world is pretty well drawn, and the follow up book to the trilogy has a detailed map of the Oxford of her universe.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:13 PM on January 23, 2009

The Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durrell. Although the four novels are focused on a group of friends, the city is as much of a character as they are.
posted by greycap at 10:33 PM on January 23, 2009

Any number of Len Deighton's novels could meet your criteria; they're as much about their time and place as the people in them.
posted by rodgerd at 10:44 PM on January 23, 2009

Night's Dawn Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton. The Edenist Habitats are sentient biotechnology. In fact there is dialog between the habitat and humans.
posted by schyler523 at 10:45 PM on January 23, 2009

East of Eden
posted by ws at 11:00 PM on January 23, 2009

This is almost certainly not what you're looking for, but if you really want someone who is into describing place, try Alain Robbe-Grillet, perhaps La Jalousie (translated sadly as "Jealousy").
posted by Casuistry at 11:04 PM on January 23, 2009

One of the most setting-important books I have ever read is A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov. There are some seriously beautiful descriptions of the Caucasus' and once you have read it, you will understand how the book could never be set anywhere else.
posted by Carillon at 11:29 PM on January 23, 2009

Mark Helprin's "Winter's Tale" and Jack Vance's "The Dying Earth" come to mind.
posted by Aquaman at 11:33 PM on January 23, 2009

Neil Stephenson's Baroque Cycle trilogy, as well as Anathem.
posted by delmoi at 11:38 PM on January 23, 2009

The Gormenghast series by Mervyn Peake. The first book is Titus Groan. Very detailed descriptions about the castle of Gormenghast and inhabitants. Fantasy.
posted by meta87 at 11:49 PM on January 23, 2009

Wuthering Heights comes to mind. And maybe Frankenstein.
posted by Emilyisnow at 10:19 PM on January 24, 2009

Les Miserables is the first thing I thought of.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:17 PM on January 24, 2009

Most of what I've read of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas...also, The Canterbury Tales
posted by mumstheword at 11:37 PM on January 24, 2009

Watership Down
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:02 AM on January 25, 2009

Blood Meridian. The Texas/Mexico countryside is arguably one of the main characters of that book.
posted by saladin at 4:03 AM on January 25, 2009

The Road. It's not a pleasant place (ash-covered, nuclear winter America), but it does have a strong sense of place.

I'd also recommend the End of the World half of Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
posted by slimepuppy at 5:08 AM on January 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

Seconding The Road.
posted by Bahro at 6:29 AM on January 25, 2009

The Moosepath League books by Van Reid. I've only read the first one, but it had this feeling in spades.

Places are very much as important and living as characters in the novels of John Cowper Powys, and I'd highly recommend A Glastonbury Romance, but yeah, not exactly cuddly.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 7:40 AM on January 25, 2009

Anything by John Steinback (but especially Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday) or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Also, I'm not sure if this is quite what you want, but many war novels will describe the battlegrounds in detail.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 7:40 AM on January 25, 2009

The Redwall series by Brian Jacques. He originally started writing them for blind kids, so he uses really descriptive language in the books.
posted by InsanePenguin at 8:44 AM on January 25, 2009

Graham Greene's books are often very evocative of their setting.
posted by Hello, Revelers! I am Captain Lavender! at 8:48 AM on January 25, 2009

Sci-fi: 'Legacy' by Greg Bear, imagine a huge character development about... a planet, which has many secrets about its lifeforms.
posted by uni verse at 2:45 PM on January 25, 2009

If you want to love New Orleans forever, get "A Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy Toole immediately. God, it's a wonderful book with things about old NO that only a native would know.
posted by willmize at 2:49 PM on January 25, 2009

Annie Proulx's Wyoming Stories, any volume.
posted by lgandme0717 at 6:28 PM on January 25, 2009

Not a novel, but I think you would love browsing though the Dictionary of Imaginary Places.
posted by susanvance at 7:00 PM on January 25, 2009

another vote for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt. Also The City of Falling angels, which is by the same author and is about Venice
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 8:30 PM on January 25, 2009

Oh, also The Cure for Death by Lightning, by Gail Anderson-Dargatz. Really fantastic book
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 8:32 PM on January 25, 2009

Independent People - Iceland's landscape is as important to the story as its inhabitants.

House of Leaves is about a creeeeeepy house and the family that dwells in it.

On the more fantasy end, The Song of Fire and Ice series has a very vividly drawn world...

Seconding Steinbeck and Wodehouse, and also William Faulkner's stories are pretty region specific...
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 8:35 PM on January 25, 2009

Oh! How could I forget Cold Comfort Farm and I Capture the Castle!
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 8:38 PM on January 25, 2009

anything in the Moomintroll series -- they're for children but def. for adults, too. and while they're fantastical in nature, they're not exactly fantasy.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola

The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon

Lolly Willowes, and also Mr. Fortune's Maggot by Sylvia Townsend Warner

The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis

The Fountain Overflowes by Rebecca West

The Towers of Trezibond by Rose Macaulay

I also second the Graham Greene recommendation!
posted by unicazurn at 12:22 AM on February 3, 2009

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