From Snowy Landscapes to African markets: 10 Favourite Settings For Books

Some readers (and also authors) believe that character and plot are king. But it’s the setting that makes all the difference to my experience of reading a novel. I usually forget many of the plot details and find it hard to retain character’s names. But I rarely forget the location in which the novel is set.

For this week’s Top Ten Tuesday I thought I’d share some of my favourite settings in novels.

Snowy landscapes figure in my 10 favourites settings for a novel

1. Shops

Though I’m not a big shopper I’m partial to novels set in retail establishments. Maybe because I grew up in that world, working in my parent’s bakery and cake shops from an early age. So any book which features a small corner shop of the kind run by one family, gets my vote. But I’m also happy at the other end of the scale in a department store setting. And then of course, there are the bookshop settings — how could I possibly resist those.

Some examples to tempt you:

The Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola: behind the scenes of a fashionable department store in Paris)

High Wages by Dorothy Whipple: an assistant in a draper’s shop dreams that one day she’ll own her own dress shop

This is non fiction but I couldn’t possibly pass on without mentioning one of my all time favourite books about bookshops. In 84, Charing Cross Road Helene Hanff shares story of her 20-year correspondence with an antiquarian bookseller in London

2. Libraries

Until I could afford to buy books myself, the local library was my home from home, a place for discovery and experimentation. Sadly their value doesn’t get recognised by current politicians who just see them as drains on their budget. If they disappear entirely from our communities, I’ll have to rely on books to remind me what magical places libraries can be.

I haven’t yet found a book that completely nails the atmosphere I remember from childhood but here are some suggestions:

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig: an imaginary library where every book acts as a gateway to the past.

The Librarian by Sally Vickers: a new children’s librarian arrives in a small town, determined to improve the lives of local children by giving them the right books. A promising idea, let down by insipid prose

Shadow of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon: in the labyrinth of narrow streets in Barcelona’s Gothic quarter, lies the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a library like no other

3. Artist’s Studios Or Homes

This is an odd choice for me considering I don’t have an artistic fibre in my body. Maybe this kind of setting represents some wishful thinking?

Some recommendations:

Notes From An Exhibition by Patrick Gale

The Last Painting of Sarah de Voss by Dominic Smith

4. Museums

Museums are in some way a lot like libraries and bookstores. They’re quiet (except if they have loud interactive displays), contemplative spaces filled with objects that can light up your imagination. Authors seem to like using them as settings for murder mysteries but the examples I’ve chosen range wider than that genre.

Behind The Scenes At The Museum by Kate Atkinson: Atkinson’s first novel traces the lives of six generations of women. The museum of the title is York Castle Museum, which includes among its exhibits the façades of old houses from the city, similar to those inhabited by some of these characters.

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose: based on the real life performance of Serbian artist Marina Abramović at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, this is a novel about the characters who are transformed by her performance.

Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson: a relationship develops between the curator of a Danish museum and a woman who writes to him about ancient exhibits

5. Extremes of Climate  

I’m miserable if I get cold so it’s a mystery why I enjoy fiction and non fiction books set in places with hostile environments. The non fiction ones often involve people who attempt feats that take them to the limits of endurance.

Fiction suggestions:

Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor: a catastrophic event on an Antarctic ice field has life changing consequences for a technical assistant. He survived the storm and a tragedy, but has lost control over his body and his speech. One of the best novels so far of 2021.

Travelling to the opposite pole, The North Water by Ian McGuire is an outstanding novel of intrigue and murder on a 19th-century whaling ship that becomes ice-bound in Arctic waters. McGuire does a fantastic job of capturing the harshness and bleakness of this location.

If you like snowy landscapes but prefer something a little less extreme, try the Chief Inspector series by Louise Penny where the fictional village of Three Pines in Quebec province is often cut off by snow but that’s a great excuse to drop into the bistro for hot chocolate and croissants.

As a bonus here are two non fiction suggestions:

Clouds from Both Sides by Julie Tullis: the autobiography of  the first woman to reach the summit of K2, the world’s second-highest mountain. It’s full of vivid accounts of the exhilarations of climbing but also the dangers, including frostbite, avalanches, snow blindness.

Mind Over Matter by Ranulph Fiennes: an account of the explorer’s attempt with his friend Dr Mike Stroud to achieve the first unsupported crossing of Antarctica. It almost cost them their lives.

6. Castles and Mansions

The grand houses of the landed gentry and nobility are good for a day out but I don’t think I’d care to live in them — far too drafty for my tastes. But I’m very happy to read books which have these as their setting.

Examples include:

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn War: an old favourite of mine featuring Charles Ryder who becomes entranced with the Flyte family when he meets youngest son Sebastian at Oxford university.

Dracula by Bram Stoker: the only part of this novel I really enjoyed was the section in which solicitor Jonathan Harker travels to the Transylvanian castle home of Count Dracula and has an unnerving encounter with some vampires.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle  by Shirley Jackson: a dark and unsettling tale of  three members of a family who live in isolation in a large rambling house out of the sight of villagers. They’re the survivors of an arsenic poisoning. The question is who was the poisoner?

7. Familiar Places  

There’s a certain nostalgic element to my partiality for novels set in cities and countries I’ve visited on holiday or business. Names of streets or squares re-awaken so many pleasurable memories of walking a city or sitting at a local cafe with my husband or work colleagues.

For a touch of Parisian atmosphere you can’t go wrong with Georges Simenon and his Maigret novels; the Commissario Montelbano series by Andrea Camilleri took me back to the hill towns of Sicily and I loved A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles for reminding me of the bitterly cold (and snowy) night in December 1976 when I walked through Red Square.

8. Unfamiliar Places

I count myself very fortunate to have travelled extensively but there are still numerous regions of the world yet to be visited. Novels help fill in some of those gaps and give me opportunities to experience unfamiliar cultures.

Some of the more memorable novels include:

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak: one day I’ll get to Istanbul but until then I can immerse myself in the smells and sounds of the city through Shafak’s novel.

His Only Wife by Peace Ado Medie: I loved Medie’s depiction of the street markets and food of Ghana.

For insights into traditional beliefs and practices in some African nations, it’s hard to beat The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga

9. Past Times

I wouldn’t want to live in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries — I value creature comforts like showers and indoor lavatories too much — but I do love reading books set in those period. I discovered Jean Plaidy’s Tudor and Stuart series when I was about eleven years old and lapped them up; they were so much more interesting than history as taught in my school. I’ve often thought about revisiting these but a recent post by Lizzy at Lizzy’sLiteraryLife has convinced me that would be a mistake.

Instead I’ll just enjoy some of the best contemporary historical fiction writers, chief of whom has to be Hilary Mantel whose Thomas Cromwell trilogy has set a new gold standard.

Also highly recommended:

Pure by Andrew Miller: the stench of a graveyard seeps into the fabric of Paris

Little by Edmund Carey: all does not glitter at the palace of Versailles. Maids sleep in cupboards and rats run amok

10. Homeland

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, my final choice of setting won’t come as any surprise. I’m going to wave my patriotic flag and choose my home country of Wales. There’s more to this country than the male voice choirs, coal mines and rugby much loved by lazy directors when they need film footage.

For novels that convey a sense of the natural beauty of this part of the UK plus its culture and history, take a look at:

The Teifi Valley Coroner series by Alis Hawkins. The four novels published to date are all set in the rural communities of nineteenth century West Wales. It’s best to begin with book 1: None So Blind.

Anglesey Blue by Dylan Jones: the first book in a modern-day crime fiction series set on the island of Anglesey.

One Moonlit Night by Caradog Prichard: this classic in Welsh fiction is set in a slate mining community in North Wales

How you feel about these settings — do you love them or do they turn you off a book? Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish and now hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl. For the rules and the list of topics visit the Top Ten Tuesday page on her blog.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

29 thoughts on “From Snowy Landscapes to African markets: 10 Favourite Settings For Books

  • October 19, 2021 at 5:44 pm
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    Great setting choices! My favourite book set in Wales is How Green Was My Valley and it was odd for me because I NEVER though of coal mines when i thought of Wales but lush green landscapes. So it was an eye-opener for me. Also aren’t the Brother Cadfael books set in Wales or close by? And in Elizabeth Goudge’s Diary of Prayer she has a prayer by a Welsh poet, David ap Gwilym. Goodness, who would have thought I could come of with three links to Wales from memory. I’m rather surprised at myself, lol!

    Reply
    • October 20, 2021 at 5:27 pm
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      I’m impressed you could come up with any – most people would be hard pressed to do that. Sadly we can’t claim Cadfael – though the main character was from Wales the monastery is in England (though not far from the border).

      Reply
  • October 19, 2021 at 12:07 am
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    I love extreme climates as well! For example Alaska, Antartica or Siberia. Lean Fall Stand has been on my radar for a while. I also enjoy London as a setting. And Africa. So in short, I like to read about places I am fascinated by in real life as well.

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    • October 20, 2021 at 5:33 pm
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      I could easily have included London on my list too. I’m trying to think if I’ve read anything set in Siberia but nothing is coming to mind at all so if you have any recommendations do let me know

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      • November 4, 2021 at 12:17 am
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        Hmm nothing comes to mind for me either (except for a few, where people are sent to prison there), although I am sure, I’ve read books set there. Will get back to you, if I think of some good ones.

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        • November 4, 2021 at 6:44 pm
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          Is One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovitch set there? I know it takes place in a labour camp but don’t remember if the location is specified

  • October 14, 2021 at 3:56 pm
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    Great settings—I love them all even a goodly number of the titles are unfamiliar to me! And I agree, there’s more to Wales than the stereotypes, but then I’m biased. 🙂

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    • October 15, 2021 at 9:57 am
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      Male voice choirs cause much rolling of the eyes in our household when used as ‘illustrative’ of Wales

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    • October 15, 2021 at 9:59 am
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      Absolutely Lydia. You reminded me of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. which I didn’t rate highly except for the shop of the watchmaker who did have a magical mechanical octopus (the best character in fact)

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  • October 14, 2021 at 9:00 am
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    If you like extreme climates, I can recommend The Arctic Fury by Greer Macallister!

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    • October 14, 2021 at 11:28 am
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      Just looked this up on Goodreads and it does sound pretty darn good. Thanks Davida

      Reply
  • October 14, 2021 at 7:55 am
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    I expect a novelist to have a good sense of the place where they’ve chosen to set their action (or lack of action preferably). Dublin/Ulysses is probably top of the list. Like you, I like settings with which I’m familiar – Perth (WA), Melbourne, Western Australia in general. I had never thought about types of places as you have in 1-4, but let me suggest (1) The Women in Black, Madelaine St John (department store), (2) The Strange Library, Murakami, (3) Trilby, du Maurier (Studio), (4) can’t improve on The Museum of Modern Love – it’s going to be a classic.

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    • October 14, 2021 at 11:30 am
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      I had another follower send me the recommendation for Women in Black today so the stars are clearly in alignment for that book!

      Reply
  • October 13, 2021 at 9:59 pm
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    Great headings! I wasn’t too sure what to do, so I didn’t post! I could definitely associate a book with each of your categories

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    • October 14, 2021 at 11:34 am
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      I often skip the topics if nothing comes to mind or I don’t find them interesting

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    • October 13, 2021 at 9:46 pm
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      Any titles you’ve found particularly good that have a museum setting?

      Reply
  • October 13, 2021 at 8:54 pm
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    I think setting is the first thing I check out when I look at a book. I love books set in the UK, in nature, or in a bookstore. 🙂

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    • October 13, 2021 at 9:46 pm
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      So many of us are in love with the bookshop setting 🙂

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  • October 13, 2021 at 8:01 pm
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    Settings are enhanced when we can relate personally!

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    • October 13, 2021 at 9:47 pm
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      Have you ever looked at a map of the place where a book is set? I’ve used Google earth a few time 🙂

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      • October 13, 2021 at 9:53 pm
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        Oh yes! The most recent was Gander, Newfoundland!!! I had to see how the roads were constructed to resemble a gander! Plus I had to know where exactly it was located!

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        • October 14, 2021 at 7:46 pm
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          Yep! The book is The Day the World Came to Town by Jim Defede …. About how the small town of Gander cared for 6,000+ passengers whose planes were diverted to Canada on 9-11. Fascinating account.

        • October 15, 2021 at 9:56 am
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          I read an article about Gander only recently – marking the 20th anniversary of 9-11. It featured a Rabbi and a local resident who until then had never disclosed he was of the Jewish faith.

        • October 15, 2021 at 4:52 pm
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          Yes that story was in the book, too.

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