Books To Read Before You Visit New Orleans

New Orleans is a multi-faceted city. It is lively and multicultural, with a distinctive cuisine and architecture. It has a rich and complex history and a perhaps surprising obsession with the supernatural. So you might want to do some reading before you go! Here are my suggestions for books to read before you visit New Orleans and Louisiana.

New Orleans Guidebooks

My first stop for guidebooks is always Lonely Planet, and their New Orleans Travel Guide has lots of background information about the city, as well as descriptions of the different neighbourhoods and tips for your visit. This guide was fully updated in 2023.

Once you have got a general introduction to the city you might like to look beneath the surface and discover some of the more unusual sights. This is where Secret New Orleans comes in – a collection of hidden and unusual sights that you might not find for yourself.

Unfortunately, the Lonely Planet Guide to Louisiana and the Deep South is now out of print – if you are travelling outside of the city you might try, as I did, to find a secondhand copy. (I have been unable to locate a good in print guidebook for Louisiana alone, but guides to the whole of the southern USA are available.)

New Orleans – Classics And Contemporary Novels

The books in this list bring out different aspects of the history and culture of New Orleans and Louisiana. Slavery and race relations feature here, as does Hurricane Katrina. But you’ll also get a real feeling of a vibrant and multicultural region.

  • Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening (1899) is set in New Orleans and the Deep South. It is regarded as an early feminist novel, and gives an insight into the lives of the upper middle classes at the end of the 19th century.
  • The controversial – and sometimes shocking – playwright Tennessee Williams regarded New Orleans as his “spiritual home”. One of his most famous plays, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), was set in the French Quarter.
  • John Kennedy Toole’s classic A Confederacy of Dunces takes place in uptown New Orleans in the 1960s. This is a picaresque novel based on the adventures of Ignatius J Reilly, an initially unsympathetic anti-hero who surrounds himself with chaos.  As you are pulled into the minutiae of Ignatius’ life you gradually become immersed in the city and its diverse underclass.
  • The Pelican Brief by John Grisham (1992) is a legal thriller centred around oil exploration in Louisiana. As with all of Grisham’s novels, it is gripping to the end!
  • Cane River (2001) and Red River (2006) by Lalita Tademy are fictionalised accounts of the author’s own family history. They trace four generations of an enslaved family from the 1830s to the 20th century. The novels are hard-hitting, and show the continuing problems of Afro-Americans following the abolition of slavery.
  • This theme is taken up again in A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton (2017), which follows a black family in New Orleans from 1944 to 2010.
  • For a different kind of conflict read The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke (2007). This is a crime novel set amongst the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Spooky Novels About New Orleans

A particular aspect of New Orleans culture is a fascination with death and the supernatural – you’ll encounter ghosts, voodoo and massive ornate cemeteries everywhere. Unsurprisingly this has spawned a whole genre of spooky novels! I don’t make any claim for the literary merit of these books but they do give a good picture of New Orleans past and present.

  • The undisputed queen of New Orleans Gothic fiction is Anne Rice. She was very prolific, but her best known works are The Vampire Chronicles. The first in the series is Interview with the Vampire (1976).
  • Midnight Bayou by Nora Roberts (2001) is a time-slip novel in which a wealthy lawyer purchases a derelict plantation house, encounters ghosts, and finds himself travelling back in time. (I’m not a fan of Nora Roberts, but she does give a good sense of place.)
  • Ciji Ware has written two “time travel” novels based in New Orleans. Midnight on Julia Street (1999) combines life in the modern city and arguments about the preservation of historic buildings with the city’s pre-Civil War history. (The second in the series, A Light on the Veranda (2012), appears to be out of print.)

Do you have any further suggestions for books to read before you visit New Orleans? Let me know in the comments below.

Books To Read Before You Visit New Zealand

This is the first of an occasional series on “Books to Read Before You Visit…” I always like to prepare for a visit to a new country by reading as much as possible. Not just history and guidebooks, but fiction as well: I find that novels and short stories can often bring a place to life more vividly than a guidebook. I’m starting with New Zealand, a fabulous country that I have visited many times. There are LOTS of books I could include in this list, but here is my personal selection of books to read before you visit New Zealand.

History And Travel Guides

My Lonely Planet guide always accompanies me to New Zealand. It is easy to use, with lots of practical information and articles about history, culture and food. It also has all sorts of interesting snippets like “Waitaki wine on the way up” and “Glowworm magic”. Lonely Planet guides are also available in pdf form, which some people find preferable when travelling.

I’m a big fan of the Traveller’s History series. These give you a broad overview of the history of a country, helping you to make sense of contemporary society and of the historic sites that you visit during your trip. A Traveller’s History of New Zealand & South Pacific Islands by John H Chambers (2003) is particularly good in putting New Zealand into context as one of many Pacific islands colonised by Europeans.

New Zealand Authors

Probably the best known New Zealand author is Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923), who made her reputation through writing short stories. Although she spent most of her adult life away from her homeland many of the stories focus on New Zealand in the early 20th century and the often precarious position of the Maori people.

The Garden Party and Other Stories includes one of Katherine Mansfield’s longest stories At The Bay, as well as The Garden Party, both set in New Zealand. If you enjoy these stories, you might also like to visit the Katherine Mansfield House in Wellington, her childhood home.

Garden with plants and trees. In front of a fence is a brick pillar with a bust of Katherine Mansfield
In the garden of the Katherine Mansfield House, Wellington

Another notable 20th century writer is Janet Frame (1924-2004), who wrote both novels and short stories. Like Katherine Mansfield, she lived in Europe for a while, but she later returned to live in New Zealand. She battled against mental illness for much of her life, and this is often reflected in her writing. The Carpathians (1988) was her last work, a magical realist novel featuring an American living in New Zealand. If you prefer short stories, try The Daylight And The Dust (2010), a collection of stories written at different times during her career.

Patricia Grace (1937- ) is a prominent Maori writer. She has written a mixture of novels, short stories and children’s books. Her first collection of stories (and the first published collection by any Maori author) was Waiariki (1975).

Contemporary Authors

Keri Hulme (1947- ) was the first New Zealander to win the Booker Prize. Her novel The Bone People (1984) is a haunting portrayal of the landscape of New Zealand and of the Maori people.

Maurice Gee (1931- ) is well known in New Zealand, but less so internationally. He has written for children and adults, many of his books being murder mysteries such as Going West (1994). (Many of Maurice Gee’s books are now out of print, but they can be picked up secondhand or in e-book format.)

Eleanor Catton (1985- ) is another Booker Prize winner. The Luminaries (2013) is a cleverly constructed mystery, building up a picture of Christchurch and the South Island during the 19th century. What I liked most was the grand sweep of history, covering the gold mining industry, the attempts to build a British style city and the mix of different races and cultures.

Rose Tremain (1943- ) is actually a British author, but The Colour (2004) is set in 19th century New Zealand. It focuses on the Gold Rush and the hardships of the gold miners and their families.

Lord Of The Rings

OK, so this one is a bit of a cheat! JRR Tolkein’s The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of The Rings (1954-55) aren’t about New Zealand at all. But that didn’t stop the five films of the series from being filmed there, inspiring many more people to discover the country’s stunning countryside for themselves.

If you don’t want to read the books you might like to get yourself into the mood for your trip by watching the films and enjoying the wide empty landscapes. You can continue the adventure if you find yourself near Matamata, south of Auckland. From here you can take a tour of the nearby Hobbiton Movie Set. You may also spot reminders of Middle Earth elsewhere, like the Tourist Information Office in Matamata which looks suspiciously like a hobbit hole.

Looking into a building through a small circular door, designed to look like a hobbit hole
A tourist information office… or a hobbit hole?

This list is just a few suggestions from the many available. If you have a favourite that I haven’t included, please let me know in the comments below.