book club - monthly books

Vita Nostra

Vita Nostra — a cross between Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian is the anti-Harry Potter you didn’t know you wanted.” -The Washington Post

Vita Nostra has the potential to become a modern classic of its genre, and I couldn’t be more excited to see it get the global audience in English it so richly deserves.” - Lev Grossman

Winner of Best Book from both Amazon & Paste Magazine

“The definitive English language translation of this internationally acclaimed novel—a brilliant dark fantasy combining psychological suspense, enchantment, and terror that makes us consider human existence in a fresh and provocative way.

Our life is brief . . .

Sasha Samokhina has been accepted to the Institute of Special Technologies.

Or, more precisely, she’s been chosen.

Situated in a tiny village, she finds the students are bizarre, and the curriculum even more so. The books are impossible to read, the lessons obscure to the point of maddening, and the work refuses memorization. Using terror and coercion to keep the students in line, the school does not punish them for their transgressions and failures; instead, it is their families that pay a terrible price. Yet despite her fear, Sasha undergoes changes that defy the dictates of matter and time; experiences which are nothing she has ever dreamed of . . . and suddenly all she could ever want.

A complex blend of adventure, magic, science, and philosophy that probes the mysteries of existence, filtered through a distinct Ukrainian sensibility, this astonishing work of speculative fiction—brilliantly translated by Julia Meitov Hersey—is reminiscent of modern classics such as Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, Max Barry’s Lexicon, and Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, but will transport them to a place far beyond those fantastical worlds.”

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The Neruda Case

“Published for the first time in English, an atmospheric, brilliant novel from an internationally bestselling literary luminary.

Roberto Ampuero’s novels starring the wonderfully roguish Cayetano Brulé are an international sensation. In The Neruda Case, readers are introduced to Cayetano as he takes on his first case as a private eye. Set against the fraught political world of pre-Pinochet Chile, Castro’s Cuba, and perilous behind-the-Wall East Berlin, this mystery spans countries, cultures, and political ideas, and features one of literature’s most beloved figures—Pablo Neruda.

Cayetano meets the poet at a party in Chile in the 1970s. The dying Neruda recruits Cayetano to help him solve the last great mystery of his life. As Cayetano fumbles around his first case, finding it hard to embrace the new inspector identity foisted upon him, he begins to learn more about Neruda’s hidden agenda. Neruda sends him on a whirlwind expedition around the world, ending back in Chile, where Pinochet’s coup plays out against the final revelations of their journey.

Evocative, romantic, and full of intrigue, Ampuero’s novel is both a glimpse into the life of Pablo Neruda as death approaches and a political thriller that unfolds during the fiercely convulsive end of an era.”

(A special thank you to book club member, Elke Richelsen for the suggestion.)

Note: This novel about the poet Neruda was the book voted to be read by the club. Since a number of book club members also wanted to read Neruda’s poetry which was included in the list as well, the poetry is a slim volume, & reviewers have noted the novel is best accompanied by the poet’s work, both this novel above & the poetry are included as the monthly read. (Members can read either or both.)

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Isla Negra

Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the International Peace Prize, & the Lenin Peace Prize, Pablo Neruda remains one of the most influential voices in world literature.

“Few writers are as integrally bound to a place as Pablo Neruda was to the landscape of Isla Negra on Chile’s coast. From his arrival there in the late 1930s to his death in 1973 [from what is suspected to be poisoning by the Chilean military dictatorship], Neruda captured Isla Negra in words fundamental to an understanding of his work. It was at Isla Negra where Neruda ‘in the company of his muse, walked alongside the source of his most lyrical inspiration, the sea...and discovered a new way of seeing, as the ocean became a living metaphor for the infinite riches of the world.’”

Neruda’s imagery with words is sublime & this slim volume will make you long to live along the coastline. Neruda has been referred to as the “greatest poet of the 20th century in any language” & is recognized as one of the 26 authors that make up the Western canon of literature along with the likes of Jane Austen, Dante, Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, & Borges among others.

Note: The book voted to be read by the club was a thriller/mystery/historical fiction novel about this poet. Since a number of book club members also wanted to read this poetry, it’s a short volume, & reviewers have noted the novel is best accompanied by the poet’s work, both this volume of poetry above & the novel are included as the monthly read. (Members can read either or both.)

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A General Theory of Oblivion

Winner of the 2017 Dublin International Literary Award, winner of the English Pen Award, shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016, & shortlisted for the 3% Best Translated Book Award

“The story challenges what we imagine to be the clearly drawn lines between 'hero' and 'villain' and forces a reconsideration of history and our fictions. It does what the best of literature ought to do: keep us glued to our seats, unable to break away.“ - Words Without Borders

“On the eve of Angolan independence, Ludo bricks herself into her apartment, where she will remain for the next thirty years. She lives off vegetables and pigeons, burns her furniture and books to stay alive and keeps herself busy by writing her story on the walls of her home.

As the country goes through various political upheavals from colony to socialist republic to civil war to peace and capitalism, the world outside seeps into Ludo's life through snippets on the radio, voices from next door, glimpses of someone peeing on a balcony, or a man fleeing his pursuers. A General Theory of Oblivion is a perfectly crafted, wild patchwork of a novel, playing on a love of storytelling and fable.”

(A special thank you to book club member, Leslie Tchaikovsky for the suggestion.)

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Night Watch

"Night Watch is an epic of extraordinary power." - Quentin Tarantino

“Brace yourself for [an adult version of] Harry Potter in Gorky Park. . . . The novel contains some captivating scenes and all kinds of marvelous, inventive detail.” -The Washington Post Book World

“An international bestseller [as] potent as a shot of vodka. . . . [A] compelling urban fantasy." -Publishers Weekly

“They are the ‘Others,’ an ancient race of supernatural beings—magicians, shape-shifters, vampires, and healers—who live among us. Human born, they must choose a side to swear allegiance to—the Dark or the Light—when they come of age.

For a millennium, these opponents have coexisted in an uneasy peace, enforced by defenders like the Night Watch, forces of the Light who guard against the Dark. But prophecy decrees that one supreme ‘Other’ will arise to spark a cataclysmic war.

Anton Gorodetsky, an untested mid-level Light magician with the Night Watch, discovers a cursed young woman—an Other of tremendous potential unallied with either side—who can shift the balance of power. With the battle lines between Light and Dark drawn, the magician must move carefully, for one wrong step could mean the beginning of annihilation.”

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The Kiss Murder

“The Number One Ladies' Detective Agency meets Pedro Almodovar in this outrageous new series featuring an ultraglamorous sleuth

Bestsellers in Mehmet Murat Somer's home country of Turkey and set to take the world by storm, the arrival of the Hop-Çiki-Yaya (aka Turkish Delight) mysteries is cause for excitement (and lip gloss!) here in the United States.

A male computer technician by day and a cross-dressing hostess of Istanbul's most notorious nightclub by night, the unnamed heroine of The Kiss Murder is the most charming and hilarious sleuth to debut in recent memory. When Buse, one of the ‘girls’ at her club fears someone is after private letters from a former lover, she comes to her boss for help. The next day, Buse is dead and our girl must find the murderers before they find her. Fortunately, she is well armed with beauty, wit, the wardrobe of Audrey Hepburn, and expert Thai kickboxing skills.”

Featuring an irreverent & saucy drag queen, this highly entertaining & occasionally over-the-top story is the perfect read if you’re looking for something light, fun, and a little different as Charlaine Harris, USA Today, Publishers Weekly, & the Guardian all rave. (Also, it’s interesting to read about a feisty gay sub-culture in a traditionally conservative Muslim country.)

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The Collini Case

“The internationally bestselling courtroom drama centering on a young German lawyer and a case involving World War II.

A bestseller in Germany since its 2011 release—with rights sold in seventeen countries—The Collini Case combines the classic courtroom procedural with modern European history in a legal thriller worthy of John Grisham and Scott Turow.

Fabrizio Collini is recently retired. He’s a quiet, unassuming man with no indications that he’s capable of hurting anyone. And yet he brutally murders a prominent industrialist in one of Berlin’s most exclusive hotels.

Collini ends up in the charge of Caspar Leinen, a rookie defense lawyer eager to launch his career with a not-guilty verdict. Complications soon arise when Collini admits to the murder but refuses to give his motive, much less speak to anyone. As Leinen searches for clues he discovers a personal connection to the victim and unearths a terrible truth at the heart of Germany’s legal system that stretches back to World War II. But how much is he willing to sacrifice to expose the truth?”

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The Family Mansion

“Bringing history to life via the quixotic character of Hartley Fudges is an impressive enough feat, but it is Winkler's uncanny ability to add uproarious humor to this shameful history that sets The Family Mansion apart from the standard fare of historical fiction.

Winkler may be the best novelist you've never heard of with a brilliant, irreverent recasting of Europe's colonization of Jamaica. This lyrical and engaging novel transports readers to his native country’s sugar cane plantations in the tumultuous years before the abolition of slavery.

The Family Mansion tells the story of Hartley Fudges, whose personal destiny unfolds against the backdrop of 19th-century British culture, a time when English society was based upon the strictest subordination and stratification of the classes. Hartley's decision to migrate to Jamaica at the age of 23 seems sensible at first. But for all its fabulous wealth, Jamaica was a difficult and inhospitable place for an immigrant. The complex saga of Hartley's life is revealed in vivid scenes that depict the vicissitudes of 19th-century English and Jamaican societies.

‘The Family Mansion is written with the comic sensibility of Wodehouse and the insightful social comment of Orwell.’ -Midwest Book Review

‘Winkler's fiction magics the island into a place of rough-edged enchantment.’
-The Independent

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The Man Who Spoke Snakish

Winner of the Eduard Vilde Literary Award.

The Man Who Spoke Snakish is one of those important books that speaks to your soul in its own language and which marks a milestone in your personal reading history.” - des Bouquins

“A bestseller in the author’s native country of Estonia, where the book is so well known that a popular board game has been created based on it, The Man Who Spoke Snakish is the imaginative and moving story of a boy who is tasked with preserving ancient traditions in the face of modernity.

Set in a fantastical version of medieval Estonia, The Man Who Spoke Snakish follows a young boy, Leemet, who lives with his hunter-gatherer family in the forest and is the last speaker of the ancient tongue of snakish, a language that allows its speakers to command all animals. But the forest is gradually emptying as more and more people leave to settle in villages, where they break their backs tilling the land to grow wheat for their ‘bread’ (which Leemet has been told tastes horrible) and where they pray to a god very different from the spirits worshipped in the forest’s sacred grove. With lothario bears who wordlessly seduce women, a giant louse with a penchant for swimming, a legendary flying frog, and a young charismatic viper named Ints, The Man Who Spoke Snakish is a totally inventive novel for readers of David Mitchell, Sjón, and Terry Pratchett.”

(A special thank you to book club member, Linda Varick-Cooper for the suggestion.)

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Cloudstreet

“From award-winning author Tim Winton comes an epic novel that regularly tops the list of best-loved novels in Australia.

After two separate catastrophes, two very different families leave the country for the bright lights of Perth. The Lambs are industrious, united, and—until God seems to turn His back on their boy Fish—religious. The Pickleses are gamblers, boozers, fractious, and unlikely landlords.

Change, hardship, and the war force them to swallow their dignity and share a great, breathing, shuddering house called Cloudstreet. Over the next twenty years, they struggle and strive, laugh and curse, come apart and pull together under the same roof, and try as they can to make their lives.

Winner of the Miles Franklin Award and recognized as one of the greatest works of Australian literature, Cloudstreet is Tim Winton's sprawling, comic epic about luck and love, fortitude and forgiveness, and the magic of the everyday.”

(A special thank you to book club member, Karen Roberts for the suggestion.)

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Wife of the Gods

"Mystery fans have an important new voice to savor." - Los Angeles Times

"Move over Alexander McCall Smith, Ghana has joined Botswana on the map of mystery." - Kirkus 

"Introducing Detective Inspector Darko Dawson: dedicated family man, rebel in the office, ace in the field—and one of the most appealing sleuths to come along in years. When we first meet Dawson, he's been ordered by his cantankerous boss to leave behind his loving wife and young son in Ghana's capital city to lead a murder investigation. In a shady grove outside the small town of Ketanu, a young woman—a promising medical student—has been found dead under suspicious circumstances. Dawson is fluent in Ketanu's indigenous language, so he's the right man for the job, but the local police are less than thrilled with an outsider's interference. For Dawson, this sleepy corner of Ghana is rife with emotional land mines: an estranged relationship with the family he left behind 25 years earlier and the painful memory of his own mother's inexplicable disappearance. Armed with remarkable insight and a healthy dose of skepticism, Dawson soon finds his cosmopolitan sensibilities clashing with age-old customs, including a disturbing practice in which teenage girls are offered to fetish priests as trokosi, or Wives of the Gods. Delving deeper into the student's death, Dawson will uncover long-buried secrets that hit much too close to home."

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Butterflies in November

Long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014

"In Butterflies in November, internationally best-selling author Auur Ava lafsdttir crafts a 'funny, moving, and occasionally bizarre exploration of life's upheavals and reversals' (Financial Times).

After a day of being dumped - twice - and accidentally killing a goose, a young woman yearns for a tropical vacation far away from the chaos of her life. Instead, her plans are thrown off course by her best friend's four-year-old deaf-mute son, thrust into her reluctant care. But when the boy chooses the winning numbers for a lottery ticket, the two of them set off on a road trip across Iceland with a glove compartment stuffed full of their jackpot earnings. Along the way, they encounter black sand beaches, cucumber farms, lava fields, flocks of sheep, an Estonian choir, a falconer, a hitchhiker, and both of her exes desperate for another chance. As she and the boy grow closer, what began as a spontaneous adventure unexpectedly and profoundly changes the way she views her past and charts her future.

Butterflies in November is a blackly comic, charming, and uplifting tale of friends and lovers, motherhood, and self-discovery."

(A special thank you to book club member, Karen Vingan for the suggestion.)

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Like Water for Chocolate

"Earthy, magical, and utterly charming, this tale of family life in turn-of-the-century Mexico blends poignant romance and bittersweet wit. 

This classic love story takes place on the De la Garza ranch, as the tyrannical owner, Mama Elena, chops onions at the kitchen table in her final days of pregnancy. While still in her mother's womb, her daughter to be weeps so violently she causes an early labor, and little Tita slips out amid the spices and fixings for noodle soup. This early encounter with food soon becomes a way of life, and Tita grows up to be a master chef, using cooking to express herself and sharing recipes with readers along the way."

(A special thank you to book club member, Aisha Esbhani for the suggestion.)

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Tears of the Desert

"Like the single white eyelash that graces her row of dark lashes–seen by her people as a mark of good fortune–Halima Bashir’s story stands out. Tears of the Desert is the first memoir ever written by a woman caught up in the war in Darfur. It is a survivor’s tale of a conflicted country, a resilient people, and the uncompromising spirit of a young woman who refused to be silenced.

Born into the Zaghawa tribe in the Sudanese desert, Halima was doted on by her father, a cattle herder, and kept in line by her formidable grandmother. A politically astute man, Halima’s father saw to it that his daughter received a good education away from their rural surroundings. Halima excelled in her studies and exams, surpassing even the privileged Arab girls who looked down their noses at the black Africans. With her love of learning and her father’s support, Halima went on to study medicine, and at twenty-four became her village’s first formal doctor.

Janjaweed Arab militias started savagely assaulting the Zaghawa, often with the backing of the Sudanese military. Then, the Janjaweed attacked Bashir’s village raping 42 schoolgirls and their teachers. Bashir, who treated the victims, could no longer remain quiet. But breaking her silence ignited a horrifying turn of events.

In this harrowing and heartbreaking account, Halima Bashir sheds light on the hundreds of thousands of innocent lives being eradicated by what is fast becoming one of the most terrifying genocides of the twenty-first century."

(A special thank you to book club member, Ester Elbert for the suggestion.)

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The True Actor

Prize-winning author Jacinto Lucas Pires has written a dream of a book—part murder mystery, part satire, & part hallucination.  

"The favored prostitute of Lisbon’s rich and powerful has been found dead amid austerity protests in Portugal, and down-on-his-luck actor Americo Abril, who has just won the role of a lifetime playing Paul Giamatti in the avant-garde film Being Paul Giamatti, is the prime suspect.

Abril seeks the real killer, and he grapples with what it means to be Paul Giamatti. Confounded by the role he plays in the film and the roles that he plays in real life—weary dad, blocked artist, henpecked husband, miserable lover, wanted man—Abril struggles to hold together himself, his family, and his country.

The True Actor, the English debut by award-winning Portuguese author Jacinto Lucas Pires, manages both a postmodern boondoggle and a touching story of identity and love and loss in austerity-era Portugal."

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Daring to Drive

Note: After most of the book club had finished reading this book, we found out that it was actually ghostwritten by an American. This is the first book to our knowledge included in our global list which falls into this category & is normally not a book we'd read. However, since it was the book read for the month & then discussed, we've included it here. To read books by a Saudi author, we recommend any of the other 5 on our Saudi book list.

"A ferociously intimate memoir by a devout woman from a modest family in Saudi Arabia who became the unexpected leader of a courageous movement to support women’s right to drive.

Manal al-Sharif grew up in Mecca the second daughter of a taxi driver, born the year fundamentalism took hold. In her adolescence, she was a religious radical, melting her brother’s boy band cassettes in the oven because music was haram: forbidden by Islamic law. But what a difference an education can make. By her twenties she was a computer security engineer, one of few women working in a desert compound that resembled suburban America. That’s when the Saudi kingdom’s contradictions became too much to bear: she was labeled a slut for chatting with male colleagues, her teenage brother chaperoned her on a business trip, and while she kept a car in her garage, she was forbidden from driving down city streets behind the wheel.

Daring to Drive is the fiercely intimate memoir of an accidental activist, a powerfully vivid story of a young Muslim woman who stood up to a kingdom of men—and won. Writing on the cusp of history, Manal offers a rare glimpse into the lives of women in Saudi Arabia today. Her memoir is a remarkable celebration of resilience in the face of tyranny, the extraordinary power of education and female solidarity, and the difficulties, absurdities, and joys of making your voice heard."

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The Sound of Things Falling

"National Bestseller and winner of the 2014 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award

Juan Gabriel Vásquez has been hailed not only as one of South America’s greatest literary stars, but also as one of the most acclaimed writers of his generation. In this gorgeously wrought, award-winning novel, Vásquez confronts the history of his home country, Colombia.

In the city of Bogotá, Antonio Yammara reads an article about a hippo that had escaped from a derelict zoo once owned by legendary Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. The article transports Antonio back to when the war between Escobar’s Medellín cartel and government forces played out violently in Colombia’s streets and in the skies above. Back then, Antonio witnessed a friend’s murder, an event that haunts him still. As he investigates, he discovers the many ways in which his own life and his friend’s family have been shaped by his country’s recent violent past. His journey leads him all the way back to the 1960s and a world on the brink of change: a time before narco-trafficking trapped a whole generation in a living nightmare."

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Central Station

An international multi-award winner, international bestseller & one of the few Israeli sci fi books in the world. NPR Best Book, Amazon Featured Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Book, Guardian Best SF & Fantasy Book, Longlist - British Science Fiction Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award nominee & World Fantasy Award

"A worldwide diaspora has left a quarter of a million people at the foot of a space station. Cultures collide in real life and virtual reality. The city is literally a weed, its growth left unchecked. Life is cheap, and data is cheaper.

When Boris Chong returns to Tel Aviv from Mars, much has changed. Boris’s ex-lover is raising a strangely familiar child who can tap into the datastream of a mind with the touch of a finger. His cousin is infatuated with a robotnik—a damaged cyborg soldier who might as well be begging for parts. His father is terminally-ill with a multigenerational mind-plague. And a hunted data-vampire has followed Boris to where she is forbidden to return.

Rising above them is Central Station, the interplanetary hub between all things: the constantly shifting Tel Aviv; a powerful virtual arena, and the space colonies where humanity has gone to escape the ravages of poverty and war. Everything is connected by the Others, powerful alien entities who, through the Conversation—a shifting, flowing stream of consciousness—are just the beginning of irrevocable change.

At Central Station, humans and machines continue to adapt, thrive...and even evolve."

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Qissat

"These fascinating and diverse stories reflect the everyday concerns of Palestinians living under occupation. Writers who were children during the first intifada appear alongside those who remember the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war. They offer compassionate, often critical, insight into their society in times of hardship and turmoil, drawing upon the warmth of human relations and the hope that better times will come. Qissat is a rare showcase of Palestinian women writers across generations and places, including Gaza, Ramallah, the United States and the Gulf.

'Raw and honest ... lyrical and beautifully written' - Sunday Times

'Layered, haunting, sensuously rich' - The Times

'In turn lyrical, sensuous, comic and ironic ... it is the quality of subtle, evocative writing here that makes Qissat remarkable.' -Independent"

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Midnight's Furies

"Named one of the best books of 2015 by NPR, Amazon, Seattle Times, and Shelf Awareness.

A  few bloody months in South Asia during the summer of 1947 explain the world that troubles us today.

Nobody expected the liberation of India and birth of Pakistan to be so bloody — it was supposed to be an answer to the dreams of Muslims and Hindus who had been ruled by the British for centuries. Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s protégé and the political leader of India, believed Indians were an inherently nonviolent, peaceful people. Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was a secular lawyer, not a firebrand.  But in August 1946, exactly a year before Independence, Calcutta erupted in street-gang fighting. A cycle of riots — targeting Hindus, then Muslims, then Sikhs — spiraled out of control. As the summer of 1947 approached, all three groups were heavily armed and on edge, and the British rushed to leave. Hell let loose. Trains carried Muslims west and Hindus east to their slaughter. Some of the most brutal and widespread ethnic cleansing in modern history erupted on both sides of the new border, searing a divide between India and Pakistan that remains a root cause of many evils. From jihadi terrorism to nuclear proliferation, the searing tale told in Midnight’s Furies explains all too many of the headlines we read today."

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