I’ve decided to do something new this week and participate in the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly feature, Top Ten Tuesday. I’ve never done one of these before, so bear with me here. They post a new top ten list every week and you have to answer the top ten of whatever the category is for that week. This week it’s books set outside of the US. I find that many novels, even though they are fiction, can tell you a lot about the culture and feeling of a place. So reading books set in different places in the world can add another element of interest for me, so here goes, my top ten books set outside of the US (and Canada, I’m Canadian so I’m excluding Canada to go a bit more international).
1. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden. This is one of the best books that I have ever read, the movie is pretty good from what I remember, but the book is amazing. I read it a few years ago, so I was younger and more impressionable, but everything I remember was good. It’s set in Japan just around world war II, and it’s such a fascinating look at a culture that’s very different from our own. It follows the life of a Japanese Geisha in Kyoto, Japan from childhood, through world war II and through to her retirement and reflection on her life.
2. Millenium Series – Stieg Larsson. Has anyone not read the Dragon Tattoo books yet? It would be hard for me to argue that this series tells you a lot about Swedish culture other than that they have cool names and are apparently promiscuous (is that true?). However I really love this series and I’m not sure that I can say that I’ve ready any other books set in Sweden. I read the newest one recently, and while it’s not quite as good as the originals, it brought back why I loved this series so much in the first place.
3. The Broken Shore – Peter Temple. This is a murder mystery that doesn’t read anything like a murder mystery. It’s much darker and grimier than its American counterparts and is peppered with Australian reference and slang. I have an advantage having an Australian partner so I’m a bit more familiar with Aussie slang than most. I can see how it would be a bit off-putting for some, but if you want a deeper look at Australian culture than sun, sand and surf, this book is really good. Issues of race and politics appear through the story making it very multi-dimensional.
4. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan – Lisa See. This book take place in China in the 19th century and follows a woman’s life from childhood. I didn’t know a lot about Chinese foot binding and the culture of women in China, but wow this book really blew me away. I had a general idea of the concept, but when you read the process in detail and the cultures that surround it, it is really illuminating. I haven’t read any other books by Lisa See but definitely would after reading this one.
5. The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins. This seems the be THE hot book right now that everyone is reading. I went into it with low expectations because a lot of really popular books end up being disappointing, but I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a thriller set in the suburbs outside of London and everyone seems to be calling it the ‘next Gone Girl’ (I’m not calling it that, I haven’t actually read Gone Girl). I have to say, I love a good flawed protagonist and this one sure is flawed. This is one of those books that you’re yelling at the character in your head telling them not to do something. This book is a quick, easy read, without being too flighty and light. Also, can you really drink alcohol on commuter trains in England? You definitely can’t do that here.
6. The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga. I was given this book as a Christmas gift a few years ago but never actually read it until last year and I had zero expectations when I picked it up. This book is very unique in both style and content, written as a letter to the Chinese President from an Indian Entrepreneur in Bangalore. It is a rags to riches story of a man’s life and a social commentary of Indian culture. Once again the main character isn’t necessarily likeable and it’s written in a very casual, slangy (is that a word?) style. Based on the reviews at goodreads it’s a love it or hate it sort of book, and I thought it was great.
7. Outlander – Diana Gabaldon. I was really unsure of whether to put this book on the list or not, but in reality, I loved this book, and I now have an obsession with going to Scotland. Set in between two time periods in Scottish history this book straddles between historical fiction, fantasy, and romance. I don’t know enough about Scottish history to know how historically accurate this book is, but it paints an interesting picture about what Scotland was like during this time period. I highly recommend the book, but the TV show is rather good as well, so you wouldn’t be remiss to just watch that.
8. The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver This is another book I read in high school, quite a long time ago, but I have very clear, positive memories of this book. It’s about a family of American missionaries who move to the Belgian Congo and what their lives are like there. It takes place in the 1960s amidst a fair amount of political turmoil, with the family choosing to stay even after they’ve been told to leave. The book is narrated by the four daughters and reads as a sort of coming of age tale in rather exceptional circumstances.
9. The Beach – Alex Garland I read this book, very appropriately, while backpacking in South East Asia. It takes place in Thailand and is about a group of young people developing a utopian secluded society. It reads as a slightly older version of Lord of the Flies and again is a bit of a backpacking coming of age story. Of course everything does not go quite as harmoniously as they hoped and the society begins to unravel. This is a book that just seemed to appear at the exact right time in my life and echoes a lot of the sentiments of the backpacking subculture.
10. Papillon – Henri Charrier This is the story of a French man’s escape from a penal colony in French Guiana, it reads as a hybrid between truth and fiction. It is presented as a true story but people have been unable to verify it completely as several dates and locations are inaccurate, so it’s sort of an approximation of his life. Its a very interesting read, and Charrier is a good story teller. It’s told in a first person narrative in an informal style, like he’s telling you his story in person. This book also reminds me of my time backpacking, not because I read it while I was backpacking, but because everyone else seemed to be reading it.
Final thoughts: It was harder to come up with international books than I thought it would be. I chose to exclude Harry Potter, my obviously favourite international book, because well it seems already pretty international. I was surprised in writing this that half of the books are written by people from different countries than the book takes place, and only two of the books are translated into English (Papillion from French and Millenium from Swedish). It’s an interesting observation that many of the international books that I gravitated to are written from the perspective of people from western countries. Most notably Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and Memoirs of a Geisha which take place in China and Japan respectively, and are written by American writers. What does this say about my appetite for international fiction? That I can relate better to books written from a perspective that is similar to my own. I look forward to reading some books from other blogger’s Top Ten Tuesday lists and I will hopefully get some new book suggestions.