Once again this year I’ve been reading the world… here are my top 20 favourites. There should be something for everyone here!
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye | Sonny Liew (Singapore)
Sometimes a book just blows you away with its brilliance and its mastery of craft. This is one of those books. This graphic novel tells the history of Singapore through the life of a (fictional) comic book artist, and in doing so use a whole range of styles. Educational, fascinating, and poignant.
Smaller and Smaller Circles | F.H. Batacan (Philippines)
An excellent detective novel with interesting characters, driven by angry commentary on social justice in the Philippines. Feels like it should be the start of a great series, but as far as I can this is the only book.
Snap | Belinda Bauer (United Kingdom)
Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2018, this is the best crime novel I’ve read in a long time. Expertly crafted, with pitch-perfect characterization and pacing, this book winds the tension tighter and tighter until you’re sure it is going to…. snap.
Quicksand | Malin Persson Giolito (Sweden)
This is a riveting thriller that is at once a courtroom drama, a psychological crime thriller, and a devastating social commentary. Brilliantly translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles.
Weird (in a good way)
The Impossible Fairy Tale | Han Yujoo (Republic of Korea)
This strange novel is a horrifying exploration of the violence that adults do to children through neglect. The book is divided into two parts, and the first part is one of the most brilliant pieces of writing I’ve read in a long time. Highly recommended.
Such Small Hands |Andrés Barba (Spain)
This short book – really a novella – is powerful. The tension builds page by page to a devastating conclusion. Exceptionally well written and translated (tr. Lisa Dillman). Highly recommended.
Lincoln in the Bardo | George Saunders (United States)
Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2017, this book is as brilliant as you’d expect from the author of The Tenth of December and other story collections. A weird mash-up of historical fiction and ghost story. You’ll either love it or hate it – I loved it.
The Coming | Andrej Nikolaidis (Montenegro)
This is a gripping novel that is at once a hardboiled detective fiction, apocalyptic science fiction, and historical fiction. An interesting read, full of complexity. Also led me to discover publisher Istros Books – check them out!
Succubus | Vlado Zabot (Slovenia)
This gripping novel follows a paranoid retiree who, following news of a gruesome murder in a neighbourhood he frequents, descends into madness. While I found the book somewhat repetitive and uneven towards the end, overall this is great read for fans of psychological horror.
In The Name of The Father | Balla (Slovakia)
This book, containing the title novella and three short stories, is a great find. The novella in particular is a darkly absurdist view of profound social and personal confusion and alienation in the modern era. If you like stuff by Kafka and Camus, or weird fiction by writers like Karen Russell, you’ll like this one. The LA Review of Books has an in-depth review.
Life Stories | Nora Ikstena (Latvia)
A wonderful collection of contemporary short stories, crackling with understated intensity. Favourites are “Still Life with Death”, “Nage”, “The White Handkerchief”.
Collected Stories | Patricia Grace (New Zealand)
Grace is the first Maori woman to publish a short-story collection, and this book brings together her first three short story collections. These highly readable stories drop you right into Maori culture and a society in transition. The gentle prose belies an underlying fierceness.
The Decapitated Chicken | Horacio Quiroga (Uruguay)
Brilliant short stories by an exceptional writer I had never heard of. Quiorga wrote in the early 20th century, and this book was first published in 1925. The stories cover a range of themes and styles, including horror reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe. My favourite stories here were the title story, “Sunstroke”, and “The Son”.
Mesopotamia | Serhiy Zhadan (Ukraine)
This is an exceptional book, both gritty and lyrical, bitter and funny. In nine vignettes, tells the story of Kharkiv, a city in Eastern Ukraine. Not for the faint of heart.
The Sad Part Was | Prabda Yoon (Thailand)
This are such funny and inventive stories, brilliantly translated. Check out this review from World Literature Today (and consider supporting their web site at the same time!)
Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree | Niq Mhlongo (South Africa)
A diverse, highly readable collection of short stories that explore contemporary life in the Soweto township of Johannesburg.
Another Morocco | Abdellah Taïa (Morocco)
This is an exceptional collection of short stories that collects stories from the writer’s first two books. As this LitHub review says: “These are stories of life in a working-class Moroccan family, of a writer’s affair with language, & much more.”
Kintu | Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Uganda)
This is a masterpiece that deserves wide readership. While staying true to Ugandan history and culture, it is also highly readable and relatable. It traces the history of Uganda through a family bound by an 18th-century curse. Check out this excellent Guardian review.
My Name is Red | Orhan Pamuk (Turkey)
Embarrassingly, I had never read anything by this Nobel-prize winning writer. This is a brilliant novel set in late sixteenth-century Istanbul. Each chapter is like a piece in a gigantic puzzle, told from the perspectives of multiple (often unreliable) narrators. At once a murder mystery, a love story, and a meditation on art and religion, this book is also compulsively readable. Highly recommended.
Crossing the River | Caryl Phillips (Saint Kitts and Nevis)
This is an excellent novel that reaches across centuries and continents to tell the story of slavery through four narratives: a freed slave in Liberia in the early 1840s, an elderly black woman in the US west in the late 1800s, the captain of an English slave ship in the early 1800s, and a working-class English woman in WWII. Read this NY Times review. The scope and ambition of this book are astonishing.
More good books
Jordan: All the Battles | Ma’n Abu Taleb
This is a highly readable and enjoyable book. Powered by lean and muscular prose, this novel tells the story of a man in his late 20s who discovers boxing and searches for a meaningful life.
Lebanon: The American Quarter | Jabbour Douaihy
This is a nuanced and deeply affecting novel that explores several lives that intertwine in this declining neighbourhood of Tripoli. Ably translated by Paula Haydar.
Eve Out of Her Ruins | Ananda Devi (Mauritius)
A highly readable book about a group of teenagers living in poverty in the shadow of Mauritian tourism. Dynamic language in translation, mixing Creole with French.
Paradise of the Blind |Duong Thu Huong (Vietnam)
This fascinating novel sheds light on Vietnam as it modernizes, through the intersection of three women: a young woman, Hang, her mother, and her wealthy aunt. Through their stories, Huong conveys the complexity of Vietnamese life and the contrasts and its political, social, and generational divides.
The Piano Cemetery | José Luís Peixoto (Portugal)
This novel, based on the life Portuguese runner Francisco Lázaro, the first Olympian athlete to die during an event, delves into the complex relationships in a family. The story is sometimes difficult to follow, as it shifts between narration of father (now dead) and son, both with the same name. But it is worth the effort.
The Girl Who Fell to Earth | Sophia Al Maria (Qatar)
A fascinating coming-of-age memoir from a young woman growing up in split lives between Washington State and Qatar, with interesting insights into the changing lives of once nomadic tribes of Qatar.
Land of Green Plums | Herta Müller (Romania)
This is a stark, haunting book that evokes the terror of living in the Romania of Nicolae Ceaușescu. (As an aside, I remember vividly as a 17 year-old living in France watching TV coverage as Ceaușescu was overthrown and executed.) This semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of a girl and two friends, vaguely dissident, who make their way through a society devastated by totalitarian rule. The prose is spare but forceful, and powers a story filled with bitter rage. Müller won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009.
Year of the Comet | Sergei Lebedev (Russia)
A fascinating coming-of-age story that explores the disintegration of the Soviet Union through the eyes of a child. Included on World Literature Today’s 75 Notable Translations of 2017.
The Hired Man |
This book is so good and I couldn’t put it down. Set in Croatia, it explores the long aftermath of war and its betrayals. The understated narration belies the complex story and evokes a simmering tension and threat of violence. Read this one.
The Sickness | Alberto Barrera Tyska (Venezuala)
A powerful short novel, written in direct and compelling prose, that explores people dealing with illness and mortality. A father-son relationship is that its heart.
Links | Nuruddin Farah (Somalia)
A fascinating novel, the first in a trilogy, that looks critically (and sorrowfully) at the Somalia civil war of the 1990s. Embarrassed that I had not heard of Farah, one of the world’s fine writers and winner of the Neustadt Prize in 2008.
The Blue Sky | Galsan Tschinag (Mongolia)
This autobiography, the first in a trilogy, tells the story of the author’s childhood living with this nomadic shepherd family in western Mongolia in the 1940s. Its depiction of the difficult but beautiful life in nature, with hints of looming modernity, is deeply affecting. Simply wonderful storytelling.