I haven’t posted in a while, so in an effort to get more regular about that, I’m going to share edited and annotated versions of some of the reading lists I curate on LibraryThing. Making reading lists is one of my fave things to do, next to reading itself.
I enjoy books with a strong sense of place, particularly horror and dark fiction. It can be difficult to find books set outside the typical American and British locales, though. This list takes you around the world to some exotic destinations and offers thrills and frights at each stop.
Around the World — World War Z by Max Brooks:The story is presented as a series of interviews with key figures in the decade-long zombie apocalypse and war against the zombies. This format enables Brooks to go wherever in the world he likes and put zombies there. Fighting zombies in the catacombs under Paris? Check. Escaping from zombies in a high-rise in Japan? Check. Battling hordes of zombies in the streets of Yonkers? Check. Each interview is a mini-story in itself, often with a suspenseful climax or twist at the end, although some serve more to detail what was done to survive and eventually battle the zombies in an organized, militaristic way. The scope and breadth provided by the interview structure help this novel rise above an ordinary zombie thriller.
Arctic — Dark Matter by Michelle Paver: Three young men mount a scientific expedition to a desolate bay in the Arctic, as described in Jack’s journal. Once they get there, Jack realizes something is not right about the place, as he begins seeing and sensing disturbing things.
France — Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind: From the moment Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born, he is rejected by those who come in contact with him–especially women–because he has no natural scent. He also has the gift of perfect olfactory memory: he can detect any scent and remembers each one forever. As he gets older, he relentlessly pursues the ideal scent by thrusting himself into an apprenticeship at one of the most well-known perfumeries in 18th-century Paris. When he has learned everything he could, he sets out on a solitary journey, which results in him spending seven years in a cave and awakening to the realization that he himself has no true odor. He realizes that he can create and put on odors to evoke different reactions to him, making him practically invisible or respectable or whatever the case might call for. He also teaches himself how to distill pure scents from living beings. These realizations lead him to conceive of creating the purest possible scent, distilled from the virginal girls he murders. When he puts on this perfume at last, the effects on the people around him are monumental and shocking.
Germany — You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann: An unsettling story, told in journal entries. A family of three is vacationing in a house in the mountains when the father, a screenwriter, begins noting odd things happening in his journal along with his screenplay notes: a picture hanging where there was no picture, a door in the wrong place, his own missing reflection. Gradually, he begins to realize something is very off about the location where the house was built, but he becomes stuck somehow, as if time itself were sticky.
Iceland — I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardottir: In alternating storylines, a couple and their friend go to a deserted, creepy island in the dead of winter to renovate an old house and encounter the supernatural, while a psychiatrist tries to solve the three-year-old mystery of the disappearance of his young son. These seemingly unrelated events turn out to have much in common.
Sweden — Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist: The story is set in 1980s Stockholm, Sweden, where a young boy who is bullied at school befriends an androgynous vampire-child living in the next building. One thing that strikes me about Swedish fiction: it is bleak, bleak, bleak! This book was relentlessly depressing. You have been warned.
Eastern Europe — The Keep by Jennifer Egan: Out of money and options, Danny travels to an unnamed Eastern European country to join his cousin Howard in renovating a decrepit castle, where family secrets are dredged up in this story within a story. The castle is situated on a mountaintop overlooking a quaint, Old World village, and it contains a tower called the keep, inhabited by a crazy, ancient baroness who is the last of the family that originally owned the castle and who refuses to leave; a murky pool where twin children were said to have drowned, which may be inhabited by ghosts; and a maze of tunnels underneath that include a torture chamber complete with manacled skeletons.
Ukraine — The Bone Mother by David Demchuk: A series of vignettes, each narrated by a different person, set mostly in and around the Ukraine, frame traditional fairy tales and mythical creatures in the real world of WWII and Soviet occupation.
Turkey — Ararat by Christopher Golden: Set on Mount Ararat in Turkey, the story begins with an earthquake and avalanche, which exposes a buried ship that could be Noah’s Ark. Well, there’s something supernatural hiding in there, and the team of archaeologists investigating the ship must survive that plus a climb down the mountain in a blizzard.
Korea — The Hole by Hye-young Pyun: This is one of those horror novels that does its work on you after you finish reading it. Oghi is bedridden following a terrible car accident, in which his wife was killed. His mother-in-law moves in with him to nurse him, but gradually neglects him more and more, all the way digging a large hole in the garden for an unknown reason.
Japan — Confessions by Kinae Minato: After her four-year-old daughter is found dead under suspicious circumstances, a middle school teacher puts into action a plan for revenge. Each chapter is narrated by a different character, who fills in more details surrounding the girl’s death and subsequent events, beginning with her mother’s account as told to her entire class.
Himalayas — The White Road by Sarah Lotz: This is an uncomfortable book for claustrophobes as it begins underground in Wales, in a cave so dangerous that it has been closed to explorers. Simon is hoping to take pictures of three men who had previously died in the cave to post on a website he is trying to launch, but he and his guide, a surly and creepy alcoholic named Ed, become trapped by sudden flooding, and Ed dies. Simon barely manages to escape but comes out haunted. His next expedition is to Mount Everest, where he again has a near-death experience.
Australia — The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood: This was a harrowing survival story about ten girls who are drugged and taken to an abandoned sheep farm in the Australian Outback, where they are kept imprisoned by an immense electrified fence circling the compound. The girls’ only commonality is that they were all involved in public sex scandals. Their captor is an impersonal corporation, which has imprisoned them for unspecified reasons, and their guards turn out to be as much prisoners as they are when the power is turned off and the food stores start to run out. The ordeal takes a different psychological toll on each character, with some breaking down and others learning how to survive off the land they are stranded in.
Mexico — The Ruins by Scott Smith: Two young couples vacationing in Cancun befriend a German tourist. He tells them his brother had followed a female archaeologist to a remote site in the jungle and persuades his new friends to go with him to retrieve his brother. They agree, thinking it will be a lightweight adventure. After some searching, they find the deserted site, on a hilltop near a Mayan village, a hilltop completely covered by a red-flowered vine. However, the Mayans surround the hilltop with weapons and won’t let them leave. They quickly discover the vine-covered corpse of the brother, shot by Mayan arrows. That’s the setup. The real horror is to come, as the vacationers gradually figure out what kind of monster they are dealing with. The situation is relentlessly desperate. Will anyone survive, and how?