BOOKS SET IN GREECE
If you’re traveling to Greece perhaps you’d like to know a little more about it or to get firmly in the mood for all the Greek greatness. Or maybe you’d just like a bit of escapism or to learn more about places you’ve already been. Well, there’s no better way than to read fabulous books set in Greece. And there’s quite a few to choose from!
I am a voracious reader and have devoured many books set in Greece over the years, including several this year alone. Unsurprisingly some of my all time favourites books have had a Greek theme. Here are my favourite twelve. Please let me know when you read any and what you think.
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Circe by Madeline Miller
One of my favourite novels of all time, this book completely revolutionized my attitude towards Greek Mythology. Miller is also the author of A Song for Achilles (see below) and has a way of normalizing the various gods and other characters so they are completely relateable.
Set mostly on the island of Aeaea where Circe, daughter of Helios, has been banished by Zeus. Here she hones her powers and embarks on relationships with a variety of visitors and lovers including Hermes and Odysseus. Her fate includes passion, love, tragedy and death.
Much awarded and deservedly so. You will not be able to put this book down.
Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres
Luckily I read this book well before the movie was made with the badly cast Nicholas Cage as Captain Corelli.
Set during the 2nd World War on the island of Kefalonia Captain Corelli’s Mandolin centres on the Italian invasion of the island and an ensuing love story between the Italian Captain and a local girl.
This is mostly a feel-good book filled with delights and wonderful characters but tempered with the sadness of war and loss. You find heroes in the most unlikely places, especially in fiercely proud Greek communities.
A Collar for Cerberus by Matt Stanley
I don’t know how I stumbled across this book but I’m sure glad I did. Despite excellent reviews this novel seems to have flown under the radar and remains largely unknown. A Collar for Cerberus was my favourite read of 2019.
Centered around a road trip on the Greek mainland and Peloponnese undertaken by an elderly, cantankerous award-winning Greek author and a young, somewhat naïve British fan, this story has it all. Sex, drugs, friendship, fame and intrigue, it’s a roller coaster of a trip with a big cast of fantastic characters. Honestly, if they had stopped at one point and picked up Anthony Bourdain it wouldn’t have surprised me.
Ending in Mt Athos, which is fascinating enough on its own, this book will delight and reward you on every page.
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
I read the Corfu ‘trilogy’ ( My Family and other animals and the two sequels) whilst holidaying on Corfu a few years ago and was completely charmed. Imagine my delight when the BBC released the television series adaptation which in fact i just finished viewing last night!
This book recounts the true story of Gerald Durrell’s childhood in the 1930’s when his widowed and quite destitute mother decides to relocate the family to a ramshackle house on the Greek Island of Corfu. There are many wonderful anecdotes and Gerald’s obsession with animals sees him go on to become one of the world’s most respected Zookeepers.
I cannot recommend this, and the entire trilogy, enough.
Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis
The great Greek classic and probably the most famous book in modern greek literature.
This is a story about friendship. Zorba, played brilliantly by Anthony Quinn in the movie adaptation, is a big, likable character who finds joy in the simplest of things. He accompanies the unnamed narrator to Crete to work in his lignite mine and the two develop a deep friendship.
If you are heading to Crete make sure you visit the ‘Gold Coast’ or Stavos beach northeast of Chania where you can still see the mineshaft used in the movie.
The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault
The Last of the Wine examines the Peloponnesian war and the deadly conflict between Athens and Sparta in the second half of the 5th century BC through the eyes of fictional Alexias.
A student of Socrates and a friend of Plato, Alexias is a well-to-do young man with an interest in philosophy as well as being a soldier.
Renault is a skilled author and she recreates ancient Athens in a way that makes you feel you have been transported back in time. Ancient concepts and practices are portrayed in a way that makes them easy to understand, not only for what they were but what they meant to the people who lived them.
Not a quick, nor easy read but very satisfying
Murder in Mykonos by Jeffrey Siger
If you love Greece and a good murder mystery that doesn’t require too much brainpower then this is the book for you.
Clearly set on Mykonos ( where in fact the American author now lives) Murder on Mykonos centres around a serial killer who has been operating across the Aegean for 18 years. Police Chief Kaldis takes on the case on his first day on the job and his investigation takes you through the bars, beaches and back streets of the famous island.
The first in a series these are great yarns for a summer holiday, but you may find yourself looking over your shoulder a little more than normal.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The Song of Achilles is a re-imagining of Homer’s Iliad and the story of Achilles and his great friend Patroclus. The author takes the facts told in the Iliad and weaves a deep and complicated background for these two characters that give us an alternative way of looking at the original story.
It also portrays clearly how women are used throughout history as pawns in war and how the love affair between Paris and Helen of Troy was all that was required to create a bloody ten year war.
We visited Troy in Turkey before a trip to Greece a few years ago and found it fascinating. Read this together with Circe and make sure you have plenty of tissues on hand.
Eleni by Nicholas Gage
Set in 1948 as Greece is in the grip of civil war Eleni tells the true story of Eleni Gatzoyiannis who arranges the escape of her children from the terror of the communist insurgents. A price for which she pays dearly.
Eleni takes you to the heart of war-ravaged villages and the lengths a mother will go. The author is in fact Eleni’s son.
I read this book when my own children were quite small and it had quite a profound effect on me.
The Iliad by Homer
Probably the most famous piece of Greek Literature The Iliad is an epic poem that recounts the final weeks of the ten year Trojan War, including the tale of the mighty warrior Achilles.
Written in the mid-8th century BC it is thought by many to be the first official work of western literature. The war scenes play out violently and the theme is ultimately about glory or death.
The sequel, also by Homer, is called The Odyssey and tracks Odysseus and his journey home from Troy to his beloved Ithaca and his wife Penelope ( see Circe above).
Most of us would have little to no interest in these books when we were at school but reflecting back as adults, particularly if you have traveled to Greece and Turkey you will appreciate this writing in a whole new light.
The Island by Victoria Hislop
Best selling British author Victoria Hislop shares her love of Europe and particularly Greece in most of her novels and her smash hit The Island is her most popular novel to date.
Set in Crete it tells the tale of a young women’s quest to know more about her Greek heritage and her mothers mysterious past.
This leads her to the island of Spinalonga, a former leper colony, and the secrets it holds.
You can visit Spinalonga today as a day trip from the nearby town of Agias Nikolas.
Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborne
I’ve only just read this novel and I have to say I’m impressed. Mostly set on the island of Hydra ( one of our very favourites) in the Saronic Islands, the author beautifully describes summer on the island and the complexities of families and relationships.
Beautiful Animals is a slow burn initially and not much happens for a while until things suddenly escalate and the popular elements of murder, intrigue, deception, and passion play out.
The prose is quite stunning and I defy anyone not to literally smell that salt in the air and hear those church bells.
British Actor, Playwright and Writer Stephen Fry fell in love with Greece when he was young and has been obsessed with Greek Mythology ever since.
Who better than to retell the stories of the Gods with his typical wit and humour. In Mythos, he covers everything from Hades Underworld to Pandora and her magical box.
Be sure to pay a little extra for the audio version and hear the stories told in Fry’s distinctive voice and affable manner. He also has a new book out called Troy.
A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
If the Iliad and other books about Greek Mythology seem a bit heavy going this book may be your answer, especially if you are more interested in some of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ stories rather than the sweeping war epics.
Told as a series of short but often interwoven stories from the women of Greek Mythology – wives, daughters, princesses, nymphs and Goddesses A Thousand Ships is a fascinating insight not just into the religion of the time but the many rituals and cultural boundaries that affected women of the day. Some stories are quite heartbreaking whilst others are uplifting.
Listed as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, this beautifully written but often heartbreaking book looks at the real consequences of the refugee crises in the Mediterranean from a child’s perspective.
When a teenage Greek girl on an Aegean Island decides to help a 9-year-old Syrian boy they are both changed forever.
This is not an uplifting book but a poignant view of how real people, including children, are impacted by war and the efforts to seek asylum and how lives are impacted, on both sides of the conflict.
What Strange Paradise is an important read and faces real issues that lie behind the beauty and splendour of modern day Greece.