Top Ten Tuesday: books well-travelled

Top Ten Tuesday bannerTop Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created and hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, in which we all talk about a bookish topic and have fun making lists. This week we’re looking at books set abroad.

The original theme this week was to look at books set outside the US, but as someone who lives outside the US this felt too broad for me – books set in the UK aren’t exotic when you live here. However, I am keeping it to real world locations, so this is one of those rare weeks where I don’t enthuse at you about SF/F titles!

A lot of my books are biased towards the North and the Arctic Circle, so let’s start there…

Greenland: Cold EarthSarah Moss

Nina – a neurotic English Lit postgrad – is the least likely person to take on an archaeological dig in Greenland. When she begins to have nightmares about (historical) violent deaths, the archaeologists are more worried about radio news of a pandemic sweeping the globe and their remote location becomes both a blessing and a curse. Humour gives way to horror in this excellent epistolary debut novel.


Sweden: The Unit – Ninni Holmqvist

Sometimes dismissed as Never Let Me Go with old people, this deserves more considerations (although be warned: triggers a-go-go). I found it excellent and provocative, and it’s an increasingly relevant warning to be politically engaged and to always, always think through the consequences.


Denmark & Greenland: Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow – Peter Høeg

This is not your typical Scandi thriller: Smilla wrestles with her mixed heritage (half Danish, half Inuit) and struggles to fit in in Copenhagen. When a young Greenlandic boy she has befriended dies and the authorities rule it an accident, she is suspicious and takes it on herself to investigate. This is much more than a crime thriller, and I must reread it – it’s been years.


Iceland: Jar City – Arnaldur Indriđason

While I don’t read a lot of Scandi noir (honest), I was delighted by the gift of the Icelandic equivalent. This is character-driven crime, with a down-at-heel alcoholic inspector trying to solve murders (which is another must re-read now that I’ve actually been to Iceland, as I suspect it will resonate rather differently).


Russia & Siberia: Gorky Park – Martin Cruz Smith

Arkady Renko – another low-key crime investigator who can’t turn resist investigating a politically-encumbered murder in Moscow. I love these books for Arkady’s depressed demeanour and political haplessness: he cannot navigate pre- or post-Glasnost Russia, an intelligent man who is simply too honest for his own good. Excellent thrillers with a compelling hero.


I do enjoy books that are set south of the Arctic Circle though! Here’a s few from around the world that particularly resonated:

Thailand: Fieldwork – Mischa Berlinski

One of the best random book gifts I’ve received, this is the meandering story of a bored American journalist on what amounts to a gap year (for him) in Thailand. When he encounters the story of a Dutch anthropologist in jail for the murder of a enRaptured missionary, Mischa becomes intrigued and uncovers a bitter struggle for the soul of the hill tribes.


Japan (historical): The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – David Mitchell

Jacob de Zoet works for the Dutch East India Company and is a fish out of water in the trade enclave at Nagasaki (too competent, too honest – a recurring theme for me? Perhaps). He falls in love with a local midwife, and feels compelled to find her when she is sent away to join a temple cult. From historical trading drama to slightly daft fantastic horror, I enjoyed this enormously.


Saudi Arabia: Girls of Riyadh – Rajaa Alsanea

Locally-controversial Saudi chick lit doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, but it is a fascinating glimpse into the stifling, frustrated lives of well-educated Saudi girls focusing on vibrant central characters as they struggle with their dreams of love. Having previously read A Thousand Splendid Suns and Infidel, this is a very different view of womanhood in Islam, introducing the lens of privilege.


Nigeria (historical): Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Set in 60s Nigeria before and during the Civil War, this award-winning novel tears apart characters, gender roles, identity, politics, religion and foreign intervention (in various senses). It’s hard reading, both brutal and intimate, but rewarding nonetheless.


Italy (historical): A Thread of Grace – Mary Doria Russell

We rarely speak of the Resistance within the Axis countries during WWII or the role of the Catholic Church in attempting to hide Jews from the Nazis. This heart-breaking novel of a remote Italian community sheltering Jewish refugees is at once a little-known history and a moving examination of courage and guilt. Highly recommended.


In looking through my books, I realised I have a big gap of South American authors and settings. I need to do something about that, starting with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, whose books loom large at the top of my To Read pile.

What’s your favourite overseas setting or story?