I started the year by reading the first three books in the Before the Coffee Gets Cold series and I loved that experience! It reminded me how much I enjoy translated fiction and how many translated books I have on my TBR. These are the translated works that are on my more immediate TBR!
Our life is brief . . .
While vacationing at the beach with her mother, Sasha Samokhina meets the mysterious Farit Kozhennikov under the most peculiar circumstances. The teenage girl is powerless to refuse when this strange and unusual man with an air of the sinister directs her to perform a task with potentially scandalous consequences. He rewards her effort with a strange golden coin.
As the days progress, Sasha carries out other acts for which she receives more coins from Kozhennikov. As summer ends, her domineering mentor directs her to move to a remote village and use her gold to enter the Institute of Special Technologies. Though she does not want to go to this unknown town or school, she also feels it’s the only place she should be. Against her mother’s wishes, Sasha leaves behind all that is familiar and begins her education.
As she quickly discovers, the institute’s “special technologies” are unlike anything she has ever encountered. 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, their families 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.
Vita Nostra (translated from Russian) received a lot of love in 2022 and the sequel has been translated into English and will be published in 2023. I have head amazing things about this book and it is said to be a unique take on the dark academia genre.
Bookish high school student Rintaro Natsuki is about to close the secondhand bookstore he inherited from his beloved bookworm grandfather. Then, a talking cat named Tiger appears with an unusual request. The feline asks for—or rather, demands—the teenager’s help in saving books with him. The world is full of lonely books left unread and unloved, and Tiger and Rintaro must liberate them from their neglectful owners.
Their mission sends this odd couple on an amazing journey, where they enter different mazes to set books free. Through their travels, Tiger and Rintaro meet a man who leaves his books to perish on a bookshelf, an unwitting book torturer who cuts the pages of books into snippets to help people speed read, and a publishing drone who only wants to create bestsellers. Their adventures culminate in one final, unforgettable challenge—the last maze that awaits leads Rintaro down a realm only the bravest dare enter…
You will notice that I am drawn to books about cats or books that have cats on the cover! The Travelling Cat Chronicles is arguably my favourite translated book after all. The Cat Who Saved Books (translated from Japanese) seems to get mixed reviews, but I am still hopeful that it will work for me. There is something about books that have cats as one of the POVs that just work for me!
Lying alone on the edge of the sidewalk in an abandoned cardboard box, a nameless narrator contemplates the indifferent world around him. With his mother long gone, his only company is the sound of the nearby train. Just as he fears that the end is near, a young woman peers down at him, this fateful encounter changing their lives forever
So begins the first story in She and Her Cat, a collection of four interrelated, stream-of-conscious short stories in which four women and their feline companions explore the frailty of life, the pain of isolation, and the limits of communication.
With clever narration alternating between the cats and their owners, She and Her Cat offers a unique and sly commentary on human foibles and our desire for connection. A whimsical short story anthology unlike any other, it effortlessly demonstrates that even in our darkest, most lonesome moments, we are still united to this wonderous world—often in ways we could never have expected.
She and Her Cat (translated from Japanese) is obviously another cat book! As someone who has had a cat all of her life, I think I will relate to this one. I love that the narration alternates between the cats and their owners.
In these twelve stories, Murata mixes an unusual cocktail of humor and horror to portray both the loners and outcasts as well as turning the norms and traditions of society on their head to better question them. Whether the stories take place in modern-day Japan, the future, or an alternate reality is left to the reader’s interpretation, as the characters often seem strange in their normality in a frighteningly abnormal world. In “A First-Rate Material”, Nana and Naoki are happily engaged, but Naoki can’t stand the conventional use of deceased people’s bodies for clothing, accessories, and furniture, and a disagreement around this threatens to derail their perfect wedding day. “Lovers on the Breeze” is told from the perspective of a curtain in a child’s bedroom that jealously watches the young girl Naoko as she has her first kiss with a boy from her class and does its best to stop her. “Eating the City” explores the strange norms around food and foraging, while “Hatchling” closes the collection with an extraordinary depiction of the fractured personality of someone who tries too hard to fit in.
In these strange and wonderful stories of family and friendship, sex and intimacy, belonging and individuality, Murata asks above all what it means to be a human in our world and offers answers that surprise and linger.
Sayaka Murata wrote Convenience Store Woman, another one of my favourite books. Life Ceremony (translated from Japanese) is a collection of short stories that seem to tackle themes I am always interested in reading.
Barcelona, 1945: A city slowly heals from its war wounds, and Daniel, an antiquarian book dealer’s son who mourns the loss of his mother, finds solace in a mysterious book entitled The Shadow of the Wind, by one Julian Carax. But when he sets out to find the author’s other works, he makes a shocking discovery: someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book Carax has written. In fact, Daniel may have the last of Carax’s books in existence. Soon Daniel’s seemingly innocent quest opens a door into one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets–an epic story of murder, madness, and doomed love.
The Shadow of the Wind (translated from Spanish) has been on my TBR for years! I know that this is a lot of readers’ favourite book of all time. This is one of those situations where I know I am going to love the book, so I have been saving it…
Seven students find unusual common ground in this warm, puzzle-like Japanese bestseller laced with gentle fantasy and compassionate insight.
Bullied to the point of dropping out of school, Kokoro’s days blur together as she hides in her bedroom, unable to face her family or friends. As she spirals into despair, her mirror begins to shine; with a touch, Kokoro is pulled from her lonely life into a resplendent, bizarre fairytale castle guarded by a strange girl in a wolf mask. Six other students have been brought to the castle, and soon this marvelous refuge becomes their playground.
The castle has a hidden room that can grant a single wish, but there are rules to be followed, and breaking them will have dire consequences. As Kokoro and her new acquaintances spend more time in their new sanctuary, they begin to unlock the castle’s secrets and, tentatively, each other’s.
I have been seeing the cover for Lonely Castle in the Mirror (translated from Japanese) everywhere lately! I love this kind of speculative fiction and I think it is the kind of fantasy that really works for me.
In a remote Polish village, Janina devotes the dark winter days to studying astrology, translating the poetry of William Blake, and taking care of the summer homes of wealthy Warsaw residents. Her reputation as a crank and a recluse is amplified by her not-so-secret preference for the company of animals over humans. Then a neighbor, Big Foot, turns up dead. Soon other bodies are discovered, in increasingly strange circumstances. As suspicions mount, Janina inserts herself into the investigation, certain that she knows whodunit. If only anyone would pay her mind . . .
A deeply satisfying thriller cum fairy tale, Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a provocative exploration of the murky borderland between sanity and madness, justice and tradition, autonomy and fate. Whom do we deem sane? it asks. Who is worthy of a voice?
Olga Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature and I have been curious about her books ever since. I have a few of her novels on my TBR, but Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (translated from Polish) is the one that appeals to me the most. The fact that it is a blend between a fairy tale and a thriller caught my attention!
Britt-Marie can’t stand mess. A disorganized cutlery drawer ranks high on her list of unforgivable sins. She is not one to judge others—no matter how ill-mannered, unkempt, or morally suspect they might be. It’s just that sometimes people interpret her helpful suggestions as criticisms, which is certainly not her intention. But hidden inside the socially awkward, fussy busybody is a woman who has more imagination, bigger dreams, and a warmer heart that anyone around her realizes.
When Britt-Marie walks out on her cheating husband and has to fend for herself in the miserable backwater town of Borg—of which the kindest thing one can say is that it has a road going through it—she finds work as the caretaker of a soon-to-be demolished recreation center. The fastidious Britt-Marie soon finds herself being drawn into the daily doings of her fellow citizens, an odd assortment of miscreants, drunkards, layabouts. Most alarming of all, she’s given the impossible task of leading the supremely untalented children’s soccer team to victory. In this small town of misfits, can Britt-Marie find a place where she truly belongs?
There are so many Fredrik Backman books on my TBR. Britt-Marie Was Here (translated from Swedish) is one I don’t hear as much about, but the premise sounds sweet to me! I also really want to get to Bear Town this year, but I know that tackles heavier themes.
Working at the local processing plant, Marcos is in the business of slaughtering humans —though no one calls them that anymore.
His wife has left him, his father is sinking into dementia, and Marcos tries not to think too hard about how he makes a living. After all, it happened so quickly. First, it was reported that an infectious virus has made all animal meat poisonous to humans. Then governments initiated the “Transition.” Now, eating human meat—“special meat”—is legal. Marcos tries to stick to numbers, consignments, processing.
Then one day he’s given a gift: a live specimen of the finest quality. Though he’s aware that any form of personal contact is forbidden on pain of death, little by little he starts to treat her like a human being. And soon, he becomes tortured by what has been lost—and what might still be saved.
Tender is the Flesh (translated from Spanish) was on so many “best books” lists in 2022 and I am morbidly curious. I am not sure if I have the stomach for it, but I want to find out!
This story is, in short, about a monster meeting another monster.
One of the monsters is me.
Yunjae was born with a brain condition called Alexithymia that makes it hard for him to feel emotions like fear or anger. He does not have friends—the two almond-shaped neurons located deep in his brain have seen to that—but his devoted mother and grandmother aren’t fazed by his condition. Their little home above his mother’s used bookstore is decorated with colorful post-it notes that remind him when to smile, when to say “thank you,” and when to laugh. Yunjae grows up content, even happy, with his small family in this quiet, peaceful space.
Then on Christmas Eve—Yunjae’s sixteenth birthday—everything changes. A shocking act of random violence shatters his world, leaving him alone and on his own. Struggling to cope with his loss, Yunjae retreats into silent isolation, until troubled teenager Gon arrives at his school and begins to bully Yunjae.
Against all odds, tormentor and victim learn they have more in common than they realized. Gon is stumped by Yunjae’s impassive calm, while Yunjae thinks if he gets to know the hotheaded Gon, he might learn how to experience true feelings. Drawn by curiosity, the two strike up a surprising friendship. As Yunjae begins to open his life to new people—including a girl at school—something slowly changes inside him. And when Gon suddenly finds his life in danger, it is Yunjae who will step outside of every comfort zone he has created to perhaps become a most unlikely hero.
Almond (translated from Korean)
Sentaro has failed. He has a criminal record, drinks too much, and his dream of becoming a writer is just a distant memory. With only the blossoming of the cherry trees to mark the passing of time, he spends his days in a tiny confectionery shop selling dorayaki, a type of pancake filled with sweet bean paste.
But everything is about to change.
Into his life comes Tokue, an elderly woman with disfigured hands and a troubled past. Tokue makes the best sweet bean paste Sentaro has ever tasted. She begins to teach him her craft, but as their friendship flourishes, social pressures become impossible to escape and Tokue’s dark secret is revealed, with devastating consequences.
Sweet Bean Paste (translated from Japanese)
Cursed Bunny is a genre-defying collection of short stories by Korean author Bora Chung. Blurring the lines between magical realism, horror, and science-fiction, Chung uses elements of the fantastic and surreal to address the very real horrors and cruelties of patriarchy and capitalism in modern society.
Cursed Bunny (translated from Korean)
The Witch is dead. And the discovery of her corpse—by a group of children playing near the irrigation canals—propels the whole village into an investigation of how and why this murder occurred. Rumors and suspicions spread. As the novel unfolds in a dazzling linguistic torrent, with each unreliable narrator lingering on new details, new acts of depravity or brutality, Melchor extracts some tiny shred of humanity from these characters that most would write off as utterly irredeemable, forming a lasting portrait of a damned Mexican village.
Hurricane Season (translated from Spanish)
Violeta comes into the world on a stormy day in 1920, the first girl in a family of five boisterous sons. From the start, her life will be marked by extraordinary events, for the ripples of the Great War are still being felt, even as the Spanish flu arrives on the shores of her South American homeland almost at the moment of her birth.
Through her father’s prescience, the family will come through that crisis unscathed, only to face a new one as the Great Depression transforms the genteel city life she has known. Her family loses all and is forced to retreat to a wild and beautiful but remote part of the country. There, she will come of age, and her first suitor will come calling. . . .
She tells her story in the form of a letter to someone she loves above all others, recounting devastating heartbreak and passionate affairs, times of both poverty and wealth, terrible loss and immense joy. Her life will be shaped by some of the most important events of history: the fight for women’s rights, the rise and fall of tyrants, and, ultimately, not one but two pandemics.
Told through the eyes of a woman whose unforgettable passion, determination, and sense of humor will carry her through a lifetime of upheaval, Isabel Allende once more brings us an epic that is both fiercely inspiring and deeply emotional.
Violeta (translated from Spanish)