27 Great Books In Translation for Your 2021 Reading Challenge

27 Great Books In Translation for Your 2021 Reading Challenge

Monday, 3 May, 2021

The work of translators is art, craft, and more than a little bit of magic. They’re talented writers who collaborate with the original author — and the text itself — to bring us stories we couldn’t read otherwise.⁠

These books are set all over the world, and thanks to spot-on, sparkling translations, we get to experience the characters and the predicaments in which they find themselves.

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Translated from Arabic

Death Is Hard Work — set in Syria

Written by Khaled Khalifa, translated by Leri Price.

Death Is Hard Work
> Khaled Khalifa

The dying wish of elderly Syrian Abdel Latif is to be buried in his ancestral village. So his two sons and daughter pack themselves — along with their father’s body — into a minivan for the fateful road trip from Damascus to his hometown of Anabiya.

Siblings Bolbol, Hussein, and Fatima have grown apart, as adults sometimes do — and as the story unfolds, we learn that Abdel was not an ideal father. Hussein was his obvious favorite. Fatima has retreated into her own world, and Bolbol still seethes with resentment under the surface. Now, the three are trapped together in a web of obligation, commitment, and the stifling confines of their vehicle.

Aside from the obvious discomfort of sharing the backseat with a corpse, there’s another problem: It’s 2013, and Syria is a war zone. As the family endures checkpoints, bombings, and life-threatening stoppages on the open road, they reminisce about their lives and wonder if it’s possible to narrow the gaps between them to reclaim their sense of family. {more}

When Bolbol met up with his father for the penultimate time, he saw that Abdel Latif was no longer an old man filled with bitterness and loss, just waiting to die; he was an active man whose telephone rang at all hours, who had high hopes of living to see the regime fall, and breathing in the freedom for which he had waited for so long. — Khaled Khalifa

 

Translated from Czech

Prague Noir — set in Prague

Edited by Pavel Mandys, various translators.

Prague Noir
> Pavel Mandys

We love these hard-boiled detective stories, suspenseful yarns, and classic detective tales. Set in all of the neighborhoods of Prague, they highlight the darker side of Prague.

These are Czech stories written by Czech authors, so you get a strong sense of the Czech outlook on life. Spoiler: It’s darker than black shoe polish.

The stories are arranged thematically: crime teams, magical Prague and the supernatural, shadows of the past. Each category delves into Prague’s history, culture, and customs through the eyes of the marginalized — criminals, cops, informers, witnesses, and victims.

In ‘The Dead Girl from a Haunted House,’ a cynical private detective is hired by the patriarch of a carnival family to investigate a murder: a girl died in the haunted house at the carnival on the Prague exhibition grounds. Other stories reference the Golem, fortune tellers, modern drug dealers, and the conflict between old-school cops and modern technology. {more}

I watched Arnold’s scarred hand, bigger than that of the brown coal digger in the Mostecká Basin. It was scratched and scuffed like the hands of all carnival and circus men. These guys build their autodromes and centrifuges and circus tents and merry-go-rounds in rain and sleet. Their hands are as scarred as their souls. — Jiří W. Procházka, The Dead Girl from a Haunted House

The Other City — set in Prague

Written by Michal Ajvaz, translated by Gerald Turner.

The Other City
> Michal Ajvaz, Gerald Turner

Things get weird in this novel in all the right ways. It is 100-percent pure, uncut magical realism. Poetic and strange, this story brings to life a shadow version of Prague that overlaps the city seen by most of us, then asks the question: Which is actually more real?

The story begins when an anonymous narrator discovers a book on the shelf of a second-hand bookshop. The remarkable volume has a purple spine and emits a green glow. It’s written in a language he doesn’t understand. This unusual tome is the catalyst for his exploration of the other side of Prague — the other city — the one with dark, mysterious places and events that seem to defy the laws of nature.

Ajvaz’s words paint stunning images that propel you through the story. It’s a celebration — although an admittedly surreal one — of reading, of taking the unfamiliar path, of learning to truly see the wonders that surround us. One of the best ways to explore Prague is to wander down an alley or into a courtyard, to climb up a stairway or through a shadowy passage, just to see where you end up. This book is the literary equivalent of that experience. {more}

“I know who you are; I was watching television when they showed a live transmission of your duel with the shark — I was rooting for you all the way. I really envy you; it must have been beautiful to fight with a shark above the town at night. — Michal Ajvaz

 

Translated from Danish

Smilla’s Sense of Snow — set in Copenhagen & Greenland

Written by Peter Høeg, translated by Tiina Nunnally.

Smilla's Sense of Snow
> Peter Høeg

Grab a blanket and add a slug of whiskey to your tea: This immigrant story — masquerading as a breathless thriller — is set in the bone-chilling cold of Copenhagen and Greenland.

Our (anti)hero Smilla Jasperson is an Inuit who spent her childhood in Greenland, and she possesses an innate ‘feeling for snow.’ A little prickly and a lot introverted, she’s much more comfortable with mathematics and solitude than she is with people and feelings.

But her 6-year-old neighbor has made small cracks in her icy resolve, beginning to thaw her defenses and create fissures in her heart that she thought were permanently closed. When the boy is found dead — presumably from a fall from the roof of their Copenhagen apartment building — she’s convinced that something more sinister is going on.

This black-as-pitch mystery moves at a good clip, and its atmosphere seeps into your bones like an imperceptible draft under the door. The foreboding location is another character in the story, reflecting both Smilla’s peril and the ache she carries alongside her fortitude. {more}

Do you know what the mathematical expression is for longing? … The negative numbers. The formalization of the feeling that you are missing something. — Peter Høeg

 

Translated from French

Disoriental — set in Iran & Paris

Written by Négar Djavadi, translated by Tina Kover.

Disoriental
> Négar Djavadi

Our heroine Kimiâ Sadr is a storyteller — sardonic and breathtakingly vulnerable, a modern Scheherazade with a predilection for punk rock. She’s an exile from Iran, the daughter of a dissident journalist, and the granddaughter of a woman born into a 19th-century harem.

When we meet Kimiâ, she’s alone in the waiting room of a Paris clinic. She bides her time by telling us her family’s life story and slowly revealing what brought her to this chair in this room.

Her family is almost the stuff of folklore. There’s the great-grandfather who collected 52 wives at his estate in Mazandaran, a province in the north of Iran with green hills and cooling mist. We meet her parents Darius and Sara, a pair whose love was rivaled only by devotion to revolution. And there are grandmothers, uncles, sisters, cousins, and neighborhood friends, all essential to the tale and to Kimiâ learning to understand herself. {more}

My sisters remember other times that I’ve completely forgotten. Summer nights sleeping on the roof of Grandma Emma’s house under a patched-up muslin mosquito net; the books Sara bought us before long vacations; trips to the hammam with my aunts and cousins in the villages of Mazandaran. On the rare occasions when the three of us are all together, without their husbands or children, having dinner in a restaurant chosen by Mina (who has been a vegetarian since THE EVENT), they always end up talking about those times… Then they warm up, and laugh, and cut off each other’s sentences, and repeat the same sentences as if no others could possibly be used to describe those moments. — Négar Djavadi

HHhH: A Novel — set in Prague

Written by Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor.

HHhH
> Laurent Binet

We could summarize this book by saying, ‘This is historical fiction about the assassination of a Nazi in Prague during WWII.’ But that doesn’t come anywhere close to describing what’s it’s really about.

It’s a deep dive into the 1942 attempt on the life of Reinhard Heydrich, a.k.a., the Butcher of Prague. Our heroes — Jozef Gabčik and Jan Kubiš — train in England, then parachute into German-occupied Czechoslovakia to bring a well-deserved end to Heydrich. As the story of the assassination attempt — and its devastating aftermath — unfolds, the narrator name-drops specific streets, museums, restaurants, squares, and parks in Prague that bring us into the heart of the action. You’ll feel like you’re peeking into the rooms where these unsettling conversations and startling events took place.

It’s written like the memoir of an author writing a historical novel about the assassination — so we get the author as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action. The book comprises 257 chapters of just one to two pages each, so it’s an irresistible page-turner. It makes this 80-year-old story feel fresh and dramatic. WARNING: It is a WWII story, so there are some brutal descriptions of the Holocaust. {more}

I imagine clouds of crows flying around the sinister watchtowers of the dark Týn Church. Under the Charles Bridge flows the Vltava. Under the Charles Bridge flows the Moldau. The peaceful river that crosses Prague has two names — one Czech, the other German. It is one too many. — Laurent Binet

The Dishwasher — set in Montreal

Written by Stéphane Larue, translated by Pablo Strauss.

The Dishwasher
> Stéphane Larue

In this lyrical, insightful ode to making mistakes, our would-be hero Stéphane is up to his elbows in dirty dishes and kitchen drama at a high-end restaurant in Montreal. What’s a kid with a penchant for Iron Maiden, Dungeons & Dragons, and video gambling to do?

Stéphane is a talented graphic designer with fresh ideas and a legit heavy metal band for a client. But before he can stop himself, he’s gambled away his first commission and blown the deadline. He’s also lying to his friends, his parents, and himself. Hiding out from the angry band members and desperate to stop his downward spiral, he takes the first job he can find: washing dishes at La Trattoria.

He quickly makes enemies and allies in the greasy kitchen, and Larue’s prose vividly conveys the unrelenting noise and aromas, as well as the repetitive, grinding physical effort required to churn out — and clean up from — hundreds of meals a day.

Stéphane makes some bad choices, and it’s almost physically painful to read the passages in which he rides the waves and troughs of his gambling addiction. But you also can’t help but root for him to triumph. {more}

… it made me think of everything I was burning, one twenty-dollar bill at a time. It wasn’t my life that was being burnt; it wasn’t just my body that was subjected to the ravages of my own stupidity. I was burning everything I touched: money, friendships, girls, plans. Deep down, I knew I wouldn’t stop until everything was gone. But I kept right on gambling anyway. — Stéphane Larue

The Godmother — set in Paris

Written by Hannelore Cayre, translated by Stephanie Smee.

The Godmother
> Hannelore Cayre

Say bonjour to Patience Portefeux, the 53-year-old heroine of this punchy contemporary crime novel set in the North African community of Paris. She’s bilingual, a good listener, and probably really sick of your sh*t.

Working for the Ministry of Justice as a translator isn’t the job of Patience’s dreams. Her specialty is translating wiretap recordings, mostly conversations between drug dealers — from Arabic to French. As time passes, she’s no longer sure that her sympathies lie with the police. Hours of the suspects’ conversations have humanized them in her ears — and she knows what it’s like to be in tight spots. Which leads Patience to make a shocking, life-changing decision.

Written like a memoir, this novel is cinematic and darkly comic without being cynical. An astute and entertaining look at life in modern Paris. It may be the City of Lights, but bright lights also cast dark shadows, especially for women of a certain age and citizens from somewhere else. {more}

I had been planning to get rid of that revolver – not only because I find weapons hideously ugly, but because this particular one had killed people whose bodies had been buried on The Estate. After all, if one day somebody stumbled upon those remains, it would inevitably lead back to me; and then if they were to find the weapon that had been used to bump off all those people, I would find myself having to offer all sorts of exhausting explanations. But getting rid of a gun is the sort of job you never get around to doing, always putting it off to tomorrow. — Hannelore Cayre

The Governesses — set in a fairy-tale manor house

Written by Anne Serre, translated by Mark Hutchinson.

The Governesses
> Anne Serre

This slim volume is a delightfully weird confection from beginning to end. You’ll devour it in one sitting, then wonder what just happened to you and to the characters that live in the country house behind the golden gate. Imagine three governesses — young and beautiful, lustful yet innocent. Inès, Laura, and Eléonore spend the majority of their time lounging about a sun-drenched garden. Like sated animals, they stretch and luxuriate in their bodies. Their wards — a group of boys of various ages — amuse themselves by playing at hoops, while the Austeur family, owners of the house, are absent, even when they’re at home.

The governesses, whose beauty and desire are a siren call to any men with eyes in their heads, attract both the old man across the street — who watches them through a telescope — and a series of nameless suitors who flirt and caress them through the bars of the garden gate. The three girls are variously muses, angels, and conniving vixens. Eventually, their true purpose at the house is slowly revealed, but the overall mystery of their existence lingers. First published in French in 1992, this erotic fairy tale by Anne Serre was on the longlist for the Best Translated Book Award in 2019. {more}

When all three are wearing yellow, anything can happen. It’s the wild color, the color that frees them, the color in which they feel naked and exposed, spellbound. You only see them in yellow at the gates, at night, or on days when they run amok in a blind fury. Yellow turns them into heartless, spiteful wretches. On days like that, they’re armed with stilettos, nurture an asp between their breasts, and cut through the tall grass like the Queen of Hearts slicing off the heads of her gardeners. — Anne Serre

Vintage 1954 — set in Paris

Written by Antoine Laurain, translated by Emily Boyce & Jane Aitken.

Vintage 1954
> Antoine Laurain

This story embodies the whimsical, madcap, effervescent, wistful, romantic Paris of daydreams. The story starts in 2017 in an apartment in Paris. A group of people, some of whom are well-acquainted and others who have just met, are sharing a vintage bottle of Beaujolais from 1954. There’s a gothy antiques restorer, an American named Bob (naturally) from Milwaukee who’s visiting Paris for a personal and poignant reason, a cocktail mixologist, and the host, a très français Frenchman who is unused to hosting company.

But something magical is happening this evening. The wine flows, as does the conversation. Perhaps the stars have aligned just right to form lasting friendships. They part on the warmest of terms — and the next morning, they all wake up in Paris of the 1950s.

As our confused heroes try to sort out just what has happened to them, we explore at their sides — Harry’s bar, the Eiffel Tour, the Louvre, and, eventually, the French countryside and the vineyards of Chateau Saint-Antoine. Warning: This feel-good read will make you homesick for Paris, even if you’ve never walked its cobbled streets. {more}

My friends, we are about to drink more than a wine: we’re going to drink a bygone era. A liquid that’s been in this bottle since 1954. This bottle was laid down in a different France, a different world. Back then, it was the Fourth Republic… people were going to see the films of Jean Gabin and were listening to Edith Piaf sing on the radio; few French people had televisions, and more than a quarter of the population lived off the land. All that is contained in what we are about to drink… To a bygone age! — Antoine Laurain

The Red Notebook — set in Paris

Written by Antoine Laurain, translated by Emily Boyce & Jane Aitken.

The Red Notebook
> Antoine Laurain

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to own a darling neighborhood bookshop in Paris, this is the novel for you. Bonus: It’s a romantic caper as sweet and satisfying (and endearingly flaky) as a pain au chocolat.

Our would-be hero Laurent Letellier is the owner of the Le Cahier Rouge bookshop. He’s a fixture in his Parisian neighborhood and has a routine that suits him. But one day, he finds a mauve handbag on the street. Was it dropped? Lost? Stolen? Inside, there’s no identification or phone — just a red notebook filled with feminine handwriting, ‘sometimes with crossings out, underlinings, or words written in capital letters.’ Suddenly, he’s in the grip of a small adventure. He becomes fascinated with the woman who jotted down her thoughts ‘as the whim took her, on café terraces or on the Métro.’ He makes it his mission to find her and return her handbag.

As Laurent follows the meager clues to her identity, he travels from police station to bookshop to dry cleaner and café, through the village streets of Paris lined with small businesses and neighborhood characters. We get to know the quirky people in his life and the city of Paris itself. {more}

As he left the building, he glanced over at the metal shutter of the shop. Shortly he would raise it by turning a key in the electronic panel, then nod a greeting to his neighbor Jean Martel (of Le Temps Perdu — antiques, bric-a-brac, bought and sold) enjoying a café crème on the terrace of Jean Bart. He would also wave to the lady from the dry cleaner’s who in turn would wave back through the window. Then after the shutter was up, he would look over his own shop window as he always did with its ‘New fiction,’ ‘Art books, ‘Bestsellers,’ alongside ‘Books we love’ and ‘Must reads.’ — Antoine Laurain

The Mystery of Henri Pick — set in Brittany, France

Written by David Foenkinos, translated by Sean Taylor.

The Mystery of Henri Pick
> David Foenkinos

The library in a small town in the Brittany region of France should have remained mostly unremarkable. But librarian Jean-Pierre Gourvec created a space on a back shelf for the world’s homeless manuscripts, a repository for books that no one wanted — not even, perhaps, their authors. In the 10 years that followed, he collected nearly 1000 manuscripts, and then, one day, he died. And the rejects sat on the shelves, collecting dust.

This is where our heroine Delphine enters the action. She’s a Parisian editor in search of a hit. While on holiday in Brittany, she discovers a discarded novel that she’s sure will be the next big thing, and she takes it back to the city for publication. This act sets off a string of events that affect the small town’s quirky inhabitants and the literary intelligentsia.

This is a sweet, light-infused, funny tale of self-discovery draped around the skeleton of a literary mystery. It reveres the tender moments that add up to a life: the joy of getting lost in a just-right-for-you book; the first wistful, promise-filled hours of a love affair; a moment you recognize as perfect while it’s happening. {more}

One thing is certain: Gourvec’s enthusiasm and passion for his library never faded. He gave his full attention to every customer, striving to listen carefully to what they said so that he could create a personal journey through his book recommendations. According to him, it was not a question of liking or not liking to read, but of finding the book that was meant for you. Everybody could love reading, as long as they had the right book in their hands, a book that spoke to them, a book they could not bear to part with. — David Foenkinos

The Elegance of the Hedgehog — set in Paris

Written by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog
> Muriel Barbery

On the outside, Renée fits the stereotype of an inconsequential concierge. She’s middle-aged, prickly, irascible, dowdy, her television playing nonstop in the background. Little do the residents know that it’s all by design. Renée is secretly a reader and deep thinker who consciously dons her frumpiness like armor against the wealthy, vapid neighbors she serves in her building.

And Paloma. Paloma is a typical pre-teen in her disdain for her family. She documents resentments of her family in a journal labeled ‘profound thoughts,’ enumerating her issues with their wealth, their frivolousness, their privilege, their hypocrisy. She yearns for life to prove to her that there is real beauty in the world.

When Renée and Paloma strike up an unlikely friendship, it upends the lives of everyone in the building. But the simple plot is merely an excuse to spend time wandering in the minds of these two women. They take turns narrating the story, and their first-person flights of fancy are a delight. They dish on philosophy, art, literature, class, love — all the big stuff — with a world-weary enthusiasm (Renée) and a vibrant naiveté (Paloma) that’s impossible to resist. {more}

Note: This is also fantastic on audiobook with two narrators who bring Renée and Paloma vividly to life through their voice acting and accents.

The tea ritual: such a precise repetition of the same gestures and the same tastes; accession to simple, authentic and refined sensations, a license given to all, at little cost, to become aristocrats of taste, because tea is the beverage of the wealthy and the poor; the tea ritual, therefore, has the extraordinary virtue of introducing into the absurdity of our lives an aperture of serene harmony. Yes, the world may aspire to vacuousness, lost souls mourn beauty, insignificance surrounds us. Then let us drink a cup of tea. Silence descends, one hears the wind outside, autumn leaves rustle and take flight, the cat sleeps in a warm pool of light. And, with each swallow, time is sublimed. — Muriel Barbery

 

Translated from Japanese

Convenience Store Woman — set in Tokyo

Written by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori.

Convenience Store Woman
> Sayaka Murata

This weird and wonderful novel focuses on the microcosm of a Japanese convenience store and expands it into the entire world of our heroine, Keiko. She’s 36 years old, she’s never had a boyfriend, and the convenience store is her safe place.

Keiko’s entire life revolves around the store where she’s worked for 18 years. She finds solace in the repeating rows of products and the routine of her work shift. She takes pride in re-stocking the shelves just so. She cheerfully greets each customer with a perfect cadence, just as she was instructed in her training video.

Her friends and family — a devastatingly normal sister, snarky friends, ambitious co-workers — don’t understand her: Why she doesn’t crave a more respectable job? A husband? Babies?

In her own way, Keiko makes sense; her world is compact but complete. Then a new employee invades her life and upsets her equilibrium in ways that she — and we — could never have anticipated. {more}

I love this moment. It feels like morning itself is being loaded into me. The tinkle of the door chime as a customer comes in sounds like church bells to my ears. When I open the door, the brightly lit box awaits me — a dependable, normal world that keeps turning. I have faith in the world inside the light-filled box. — Sayaka Murata

Showa 1944-1953: A History of Japan — set in Japan

Written by Shigeru Mizuki, translated by Zack Davisson.

Showa 1944-1953
> Shigeru Mizuki

With kinetic black-and-white art and a narrative that’s both sweeping and intimate, this autobiographical manga is a time machine to Japan in the late stages of World War II.

Award-winning author Shigeru Mizuki is one of the most beloved and respected manga artists of all time. But before all of the books and acclaim, he lived through the events described in this historical (and personal) account of Japan’s Showa period. Named for Emperor Hirohito, this era stretches from 1926 to 1989, encompassing the second Sino-Japanese War, the final years of WWII, the Korean War, and the Cold War.

As we follow along with his larger-than-life experiences, we get an inside look at Japanese culture, particularly the notion of ‘the noble death’ — and just what that means for the living and the dead.

This is a powerful anti-war novel wrapped in the engaging and affecting guise of a graphic novel. Mizuki, as a human and as a character, is a charming, loveable man; you will grow to care about him. His story, and all the others his story represents, will stay with you. {more}

panel of elephant in the jungle with a Japanese soldier on its back

The Devotion of Suspect X — set in Tokyo

Written by Keigo Higashino, translated by Alexander O. Smith & Elye J. Alexander.

The Devotion of Suspect X
> Keigo Higashino, Alexander O. Smith

In this super-twisty thriller set in Tokyo, Japan, a mild-mannered math teacher might be a criminal mastermind. There’s no doubt who committed the crime; the suspense is in watching the police and their consultant, known as Professor Galileo, try to unravel the knot of the crime.

The story begins with a seemingly average woman. Yasuko is a single mom who works at a bento shop and lives a quiet life in a Tokyo apartment building. But when her violent ex-husband shows up unexpectedly one day, circumstances spiral way, way out of control. He’s dead, and she’s falling to pieces.

Her neighbor Ishigami — the unassuming teacher who’s literally just on the other side of the wall — comes to her rescue. He’s been in love with her from afar, and this tragedy is his opportunity to show his devotion. Ishigami’s solution creates a dangerous bond between the two of them and sets off a shocking chain of events that attracts police attention.

As Ishigami schemes to outsmart the police, the tension is almost unbearable, but deliciously so. This is a hyper-intelligent blend of police procedural, character study, and logic puzzle. The twists as the story heads into its denouement are dizzying — and make perfect sense. {more}

Kusanagi had met plenty of good, admirable people who’d been turned into murderers by circumstance. There was something about them he always seemed to sense, an aura that they shared. Somehow, their transgression freed them from the confines of a mortal existence, allowing them to perceive the great truths of the universe. At the same time, it meant they had one foot in forbidden territory. They straddled the line between sanity and madness. — Keigo Higashino

The Great Passage — set in Tokyo

Written by Shion Miura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter.

The Great Passage
> Shion Miura

This is a sweet and gently told story set in Japan that speaks lovingly of the power of words and the emotions contained in the particular arrangement of a few letters.

Not much happens — a group of people toils for more than a decade on a new 2900-page (!) dictionary called The Great Passage — but everything happens: people fall in love, live and die, question themselves, make friends, break up, succeed, and fail.

Our hero is Mitsuya Majime, a young book collector with a background in linguistics and a personality wholly unlike his mentor Kohei. Majime devotes himself to parsing the true meaning of words for the epic dictionary, including left, right, man, woman, and the most important of all — love.

The action gets sparky when Kaguya, the daughter of Majime’s landlord, shows up. She’s a chef, and the scenes at her restaurant are packed with food descriptions that add a richness to the story without drawing undue attention to themselves. She’s also the recipient of one of the most awkward love letters ever written in any language. {more}

‘A dictionary is a ship that crosses the sea of words,’ said Araki, with a sense that he was laying bare his innermost soul. ‘People travel on it and gather the small points of light floating on the dark surface of the waves. They do this in order to tell someone their thoughts accurately, using the best possible words. Without dictionaries, all any of us could do is linger before the vastness of the deep.’ — Shion Miura

 

Translated from Polish

Gottland — set in Czech Republic

Written by Mariusz Szczygieł, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

Gottland
> Mariusz Szczygieł

Polish investigative journalist Mariusz Szczygieł wanted to explore everything that the Czech Republic is and has been. This compelling collection of essays about fascinating Czechs is the un-put-downable result. The first essay is about the Bata family, and it sets the tone for the entire book. Written in short one- to four-paragraph chunks, it tells the made-for-a-movie story of a legendary Czech shoe-making family.

You’ll also meet other remarkable Czech citizens: Lida Baarova, who was the mistress of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Gobbels. Jaroslava Moserova, an expert in skin grafting and a translator who adapted 44 Dick Francis mystery novels from English to Czech. And Karel Gott, the Slavic answer to Elvis Presley.

Engaging, humorous, and surprisingly moving, this is one of those ‘Can I read this to you?’ books in which you discover bits so shocking or well-written, you need to read them aloud to someone else. {more}

This we know: in order to survive in unfavorable circumstances, a small nation has to adapt. — Mariusz Szczygieł

 

Translated from Serbian

Estoril — set in Portugal

Written by Dejan Tiago-Stankovic, translated by Christina Pribichevich-Zoric.

Estoril
> Dejan Tiago-Stankovic

This charming, affecting novel tells the interwoven stories of the guests at the luxurious Hotel Palácio Estoril in Portugal during WWII. Our hero Gaby is a young exile sent to the hotel’s relative safety by his Jewish parents, desperate to get beyond the reach of the Nazis. When the hotelier Mr. Black meets Gaby, he breaks all of his own rules about propriety, allowing the serious and besuited little boy to take up residence in a hotel room. Soon, Gaby is ‘adopted’ by the staff and guests as they ride out the war together.

Dejan Tiago-Stankovic — born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and now a naturalized citizen of Portugal — tells a tough story with a light touch. The fictional characters who become Gaby’s found family share the elegant spaces of the hotel with real-life historical figures, including British agent Ian Fleming, Russian chess grandmaster Alexander Alekhine, the famous Polish pianist Jan Paderewski, and French writer (and pilot) Antoine de St Exupery. It’s a fantastical and whimsical way to move the story forward, a respite from the bleak reality of wartime. {more}

When you approach Lisbon from the sea, just before the boat turns into the river, to the left, in the background, you will see a bluish mountain. That is Sintra. It blocks the path of the rain clouds, and as a result, Estoril offers visitors more hours of sunshine than any other resort in Europe. At least so says the tourist brochure for the ‘Sunshine Coast’… Perched among its palm trees, cypress trees, and variegated bushes, is the famous resort’s biggest attraction: the Grand Casino Estoril. Right next to it is a white, three-story building, its windows offering stunning views of the park and ocean. And on top of its dark roof is a big sign saying: HOTEL PALÁCIO. — Dejan Tiago-Stankovic

 

Translated from Spanish

Havana Fever — set in Havana, Cuba

Written by Leonardo Padura, translated by Peter Bush.

Havana Fever
> Leonardo Padura

Our hero Mario Conde is a retired policeman and now makes his living in the much more civilized world of antiquarian books. He spends his days ferreting out fine book collections, paying a fair price to people who desperately need it, and then reselling the books for a tidy profit.

One day, as Mario flips through a volume in a vast library of valuable books, he finds a faded newspaper clipping about a 1950s bolero singer, the alluringly named Violeta del Rio. She disappeared under mysterious circumstances decades ago, and, against all reason, Mario becomes obsessed with finding the truth. What happened to her? What’s her connection to this library? And just how was Mario’s father involved? ‘I won’t fail to find out what happened to Violeta del Rio,’ he tells his friends. ‘I want to find out why history swallowed her up.’

Author Leonardo Padura was born in Havana and was an investigative journalist before turning his talent to fiction. His Cuba pulses on the page; you’ll hear the music, taste the rum on your tongue, and feel that seductive tingle of danger up the back of your neck. {more}

As soon as the doors to the library slid open, the smell of old paper and hallowed places floating in that mind-blowing room overwhelmed him. In his far-off years as a police detective, Mario Conde had learnt to recognize the physical signs of his situation-saving hunches: he must have been wondering if he’d ever experienced such a powerful flood of sensations. Initially, he was all set to be ruthlessly logical, and tried to persuade himself that it was pure chance he’d come across that shadowy, decaying mansion in El Vedado: an unusual stroke of good fortune for once had deigned to come his way. — Leonardo Padura

Like Water for Chocolate — set in Mexico

Written by Laura Esquivel, translated by Carol and Thomas Christenen.

Like Water for Chocolate
> Laura Esquivel

Food, love, and appetite color this luscious family saga set in a Mexican border town around 1900. This intimate story of one family is played out against the dramatic backdrop of the Mexican Revolution.

Wistful and full of magic, the tale reads like a legend that’s been passed down through generations, and it centers on the forbidden love of Tita and Pedro. As the youngest daughter, it’s Tita’s fate to forsake love and to care for her domineering mother, Mama Elena, until her mother’s death. But Tita and Pedro fall madly in love. When Tita felt Pedro’s gaze on her, ‘she understood exactly how raw dough must feel when it comes into contact with boiling oil.’

To be close to her, Pedro marries Tita’s older sister, and no one’s life remains untouched by this flawed decision.

Tita spends her days in the kitchen, both her gift and her curse. The food she prepares is infused with deep emotion and magical powers. Her tears, bitterly wept into the batter of a wedding cake, induce a devastating sense of longing in the guests who take a bite. A delicate sauce made of rose petals inspires incendiary passions around the dinner table.

This is an enchanting and sorrowful story of family obligation, the things that feed us, and a desire that cannot be extinguished. {more}

Tita knew through her own flesh how fire transforms the elements, how a lump of corn flour is changed into a tortilla, how a soul that hasn’t been warmed by the fire of love is lifeless, like a useless ball of corn flour. — Laura Esquivel

The Cemetery of Forgotten Books Cycle — set in Barcelona & Madrid, Spain

Written by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated by Lucia Graves.

The Cemetery of Forgotten Books by Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón comprises four interconnected novels set in Barcelona. He’s said that he wrote this cycle of novels to create a literary labyrinth that we’re invited to enter at any point; the characters and setting overlap, but they can be read in any order. All the stories swirl around the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a secret library where beloved and threatened books are protected. Visitors to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books are allowed to take out one title, thus becoming the protector of that book to ensure its existence.

The Shadow of the Wind

The Shadow of the Wind
> Carlos Ruiz Zafón

It’s 1945 in Barcelona. The furor of the war years has diminished, but the city is still healing from its wounds. Shadowy and somewhat sinister, but not without hope, the city is home to a young boy, a good-natured family friend, a troubled author, and a mysterious book — all caught in a web of intrigue together.

When Daniel awakens on his eleventh birthday and can’t remember his mother’s face, his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a labyrinthine collection of books left behind by the rest of the world. The books on the spiraling shelves wait for someone to care about them again. When Daniel carefully pulls The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax from the shelf, he unknowingly sets in motion an adventure that will change the lives of everyone he knows.

At the heart of that story is the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, the magical, sinister place where the real story begins and ends. It’s a celebration of literature and what stories mean to us. How they help us cope, understand the world, and find the truth of ourselves. {more}

Once, in my father’s bookshop, I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later—no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget—we will return. — Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Angel’s Game

The Angel's Game
> Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The story is set in Barcelona of the 1920s and ’30s — a volatile city populated by anarchists, communists, monarchists, and people merely trying to eke out a living.

Our hero, David Martin, lives in an abandoned mansion — alone — writing sensationalist novels under a pseudonym and exploring the shadows of his imagination. To escape a painful past and troubled present, he hides in the words and worlds of his books.

But his home may be haunted by more than his flights of fancy: Within a locked room, he finds mysterious photographs and letters that imply the house has secrets. When an enigmatic French editor makes him an irresistible offer — money, fame, power — to write a one-of-a-kind book, David agrees, and his life takes on deeper shades of darkness. {more}

Before that, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books was hidden under the tunnels of the medieval town. Some say that, during the time of the Inquisition, people who were learned and had free minds would hide forbidden books in sarcophagi, or bury them in ossuaries all over the city to protect them, trusting that future generations would dig them up. In the middle of the last century, a long tunnel was discovered leading from the bowels of the labyrinth to the basement of an old library that nowadays is sealed off, hidden in the ruins of an old synagogue in the Jewish quarter. — Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Prisoner of Heaven

The Prisoner of Heaven
> Carlos Ruiz Zafón

It’s a time of celebration in Barcelona. Christmas is coming. The War, over for a dozen years, is fading into a thing that happened once. Newlyweds Daniel and Bea have a bouncing baby boy, and their dear friend will soon be married. What could possibly go wrong?

On an otherwise uneventful day at the family-owned bookshop, a mysterious stranger appears and requests the rare copy of The Count of Monte Cristo that sits in a display case behind the counter. He writes a cryptic inscription on the title page: For Fermín Romero de Torres, who came back from among the dead and holds the key to the future.

These words send Daniel and his dear friend Fermín on a quest for a perilous truth that could upend all of their lives. Their investigation takes through the Gothic Barcelona of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s imagination, to the 1940s and the early days of the fascist Franco dictatorship — and closer to learning a heart-piercing secret. {more}

I write these words in the hope and conviction that one day you’ll discover this place, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a place that changed my life as I’m sure it will change yours… I know that if you ever read these words, you’ll be overwhelmed by questions and doubts. You’ll find some of the answers in this manuscript, where I have tried to portray my story as I remember it, knowing that my days of lucidity are numbered and that often I can only recall what never took place. — Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Labyrinth of the Spirits

The Labyrinth of the Spirits
> Carlos Ruiz Zafón

In the final, epic installment of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, author Carlos Ruiz Zafón takes us back to Barcelona and Madrid, just before and just after WWII. Combining elements of fantasy, historical fiction, romance, and detective procedural, this story hinges on one of his most compelling characters yet. Meet Alicia Gris.

At just 29 years old, Alicia is already cynical and gifted with street smarts she earned the hard way. By all objective measures, she is also stunningly beautiful and a force to be reckoned with in Madrid’s secret police. The world-weary girl, suffering from an injury that won’t heal and the heavy baggage she carries in her heart, wants to get out of the business. Her boss coerces her into taking just one more case, and then he’ll let her go: She must find Spain’s Minister of Culture who just poof! disappeared from his palatial estate.

The scaffolding of this sweeping story is the investigation into what happened to the Minister. Gripping as the mystery is, it’s merely an excuse for Zafón to snare us in his spellbinding world where every conversation has subtext and truth hides in the shadows, even on the sunniest of days. And, as always seems to happen in Barcelona, the path to the truth passes through the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. {more}

When a library disappears, or a bookshop closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure that it gets here. In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands… in truth books have no owner. Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend. Now they only have us. — Carlos Ruiz Zafón

 

Translated from Swedish

Written by Mikael Niemi, translated by Laurie Thompson.

Meet Matti, a young boy growing up in Pajala, a town in Swedish Lapland, where the men are stone-faced, the women are silent, and — if fate smiles — the trout and grayling and salmon run strong.

In this coming-of-age story liberally sprinkled with magical realism, Matti is our guide to the extraordinary everyday events in his hometown, near the Arctic Circle. We meet beautiful women from Finland and a terrifying witch. There’s an African priest, a Nazi, and long-lost cousins from Missouri. Plus, the Beatles and a music teacher whose hands have sprouted thumbs in the middle of his palms.

As Matti navigates his path to becoming the man he — and his very traditional father — want him to be, we get snapshots of the brutal landscape and culture of Sweden. The seemingly endless rounds of schnapps and ensuing arm-wrestling competitions (and fistfights). The feasts with reindeer stew and crispbread with salmon and sugarbuns and whipped cream with warm cloudberry jam. The sweetness of first romance and rock concerts and saunas and skiing under the stars. {more}

The wedding took place in the middle of summer when everybody was on holiday, and the family home was flooded with relations. I was nearly thirteen and was allowed to sit at the table with the grown-ups for the first time. A solid wall of silent men, shoulder to shoulder like huge blocks of stone, and here and there their pretty wives from Finland, like flowers on a cliff face. As was normal in our family, nobody said a word. Everybody was waiting for the food. — Mikael Niemi

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — set in Sweden

Written by Stieg Larsson, translated by Reg Keeland.

This grindingly suspenseful novel is an adroit combination of locked-room mystery, character study, political thriller, and family saga that begins in the 1990s and reaches back through time to the 1960s and WWII.

When we meet our antihero journalist Mikael Blomkvist, he’s just lost a libel case and will soon be reporting to jail for three months. At loose ends until his sentence starts, he’s offered a somewhat sinister lifeline by the patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in Sweden — the Vangers. Forty years ago, Henrik Vanger’s beloved niece disappeared, and he wants Mikael to use his investigative journalistic skills to dig into the case.

Mikael is forced to get to know the siblings in the Vanger family, and they are terrible: damaged, inconsistent, ruthless, wildly intelligent, and shut off from the rest of the world by their estate and their privilege.

Then Lisbeth Salander, punk hacker and a talented investigator in her own right, enters the picture. Covered in tattoos and emitting a loud F-off vibe, she’s also brutally intelligent and an unrelenting cyber spy.

When she and Mikael team up, they uncover secrets galore, unintentionally set off emotional bombs that rock the Vangers, put themselves in shocking danger, and ultimately, discover what really happened on that summer day in the ’60s. {more}

Much stronger boys in her class soon learned that it could be quite unpleasant to fight with that skinny girl. Unlike other girls in the class, she never backed down, and she would not for a second hesitate to use her fists or any weapon at hand to protect herself. She went around with the attitude that she would rather be beaten to death than take any shit. — Stieg Larsson

Top image courtesy of Billion Photos/Shutterstock.

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