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Around the World in 80 Books!

  • Jun 8, 2010
When I visited, Vienna,I asked the local English book store proprietor to recommend the single novel (not a travel guide and not a history or geography) that would best serve as a fictional travel guide of the city and a great souvenir to remember the city by - a novel in which the city was just as important as the characters! She hit the ball right out of the park when she suggested "A Death in Vienna" by Frank Tallis.

Ever since then, I've tried to do the same thing with every city I've visited with wildly varying degrees of success. Here are the ideas!

I'm still looking for suggestions for Santiago, Buenos Aires, Budapest, Interlaken and, believe it or not, Rome. Let's hear 'em, you well-read travelers! I'll add books to the list as I receive good suggestions.
The Shadow of the Wind
The novel, set in post–Spanish Civil War BARCELONA, concerns a young boy, Daniel. Just after the war, Daniel's father takes him to the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a huge library of old, forgotten titles lovingly preserved by a select few initiates. According to tradition, everyone initiated to this secret place is allowed to take one book from it, and must protect it for life. Daniel selects a book called The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. That night he takes the book home and reads it, completely engrossed. Daniel then attempts to look for other books by this unknown author, but can find none. All he comes across are stories of a strange man – calling himself Laín Coubert, after a character in the book who happens to be the Devil – who has been seeking out Carax's books for decades, buying them all and burning them.
See the full review, "A post-modern Dickensian thriller!".
Les Misérables
Les Misérables, is an 1862 novel by French author Victor Hugo and is widely considered one of the greatest novels of the 19th century. It follows the lives and interactions of several French characters over a twenty-year period in the early 19th century, starting in 1815. The novel focuses on the struggles of ex-convict Jean Valjean and his experience of redemption. It examines the nature of law and grace, and expounds upon the history of France, architecture of PARIS, politics, moral philosophy, antimonarchism, justice, religion, and the types and nature of romantic and familial love.
Jar City
When a lone septuagenarian is murdered in his apartment in the Nordurmýri district of  REYKJAVIK, detective inspector Erlendur Sveinsson is called in, along with partner Sigurdur Óli and female colleague Elínborg. Everyone is related to everyone else in Iceland and refer to one another by first name, even formally. Erlendur is about 50, long divorced, with two kids in varying degrees of drug addiction. The victim, a man called Holberg, turns out to have been a nasty piece of work, and Erlendur is disgusted by the series of rapes Holberg apparently committed. The rapes and the deaths of a number of young women may be connected, and the search brings Erlendur to the forensic lab, whose old "jar city," since disbanded, held research organs. Meanwhile, Erlendur's daughter, Eva Lind, is pregnant and still using; she flits in and out of his life angrily, but may be crying out for help.
See the full review, "A compelling modern murder mystery in a unique setting".
Bohumil Hrabal, I served the King of England
PRAGUE ... Written in the form of a memoir, this playful social satire follows the rise and fall of a diminutive Czech waiter while mirroring the political turmoil of recent Czech history. Gleefully chronicling the grossness and corruption of the 1920s, Hrabal makes Ditie's early life delightful reading. The mood turns abruptly sour when Ditie falls in love with a German gym teacher in the '30s and becomes equally enamoured of her Nazi ideaology. After the war, Ditie is sentenced to prison as a collaborator; then becomes a hotelier with profits made from selling rare stamps stolen from Jewish concentration camp victims. By the end of the book, with the coming of communism, Ditie has lost everything; he is banished to the former Sudetenland, with only some farm animals as company. The book begins brilliantly, but Hrabal's depiction of post-WW II Czechoslovakia is unrealistically rosy, and Ditie's moral transformation is not entirely persuasive.
See the full review, "A "playful, social satire" I found quite distasteful.".
Prague: A Novel
In Prague, Arthur Phillips's sparkling, Kundera-flavored debut, five young Americans converge in BUDAPEST in the early 1990s. Most are there by chance, like businessman Charles Gabor, whose parents were Hungarian. But one of them, John Price, has the more novelistic motivation of lost love. He is following his older brother, Scott, intent on achieving an intimacy that Scott is just as intently trying to escape. The romantic hero of this unsentimental novel, John Price lives like an expatriate of the 1920s. He longs for experience but even more so for the great, obliterating love that takes the form of the perky assistant Emily Oliver. Mark Payton, a scholar of nostalgia whose insights are touched with mysticism, seems often to speak for the author. Phillips's five seekers are like mirrors that reflect Budapest at different angles, and that imperfectly--but wonderfully--point toward the unattainable city: the glittering, distant Prague.
A Death in Vienna: A Novel (Mortalis)
In 1902, elegant VIENNA is the city of the new century, the center of discoveries in everything from the writing of music to the workings of the human mind. But now a brutal homicide has stunned its citizens and appears to have bridged the gap between science and the supernatural. Two very different sleuths from opposite ends of the spectrum will need to combine their talents to solve the boggling crime: Detective Oskar Rheinhardt, who is on the cutting edge of modern police work, and his friend Dr. Max Liebermann, a follower of Sigmund Freud and a pioneer on new frontiers of psychology. As a team they must use both hard evidence and intuitive analysis to solve a medium's mysterious murder–one that couldn't have been committed by anyone alive.
See the full review, "An elegant mystery that will appeal to lovers of both history and historical fiction".
Married coauthors Cruise and Griffiths, who have written several nonfiction books about Canada, tell the history of VANCOUVER from 16,000 years ago to the present in this ambitious, deeply imagined novel. In 12 parts, 12 protagonists make their ways in the region, from Manto, a boy of the peaceful Yupick tribe who settles in the area with his Tlingit wife in 13,811 B.C., to Ellie Nesbitt, a young woman ...dreaming of escape in 2003. In between these two stories, the authors loosely link 10 other tales: of Gistula, in A.D. 212, who fights to stay with her family rather than become a whaler's bride; of Soon Chong, a Chinese immigrant in search of gold in 1844; of the changing fortunes of Konrad von Shaumberg in the early 20th century. Though the authors offer much in the way of background information-they cover, for instance, primitive fishing strategies, climate change and mining techniques-they never lose sight of the human story.
Gorky Park
A triple murder in a MOSCOW amusement center: three corpses found frozen in the snow, faces and fingers missing. Chief homicide investigator Arkady Renko is brilliant, sensitive, honest, and cynical about everything except his profession. To identify the victims and uncover the truth, he must battle the KGB, FBI, and the New York City police as he pursues a rich, ruthless, and well-connected American fur dealer. Meanwhile, Renko is falling in love with a beautiful, headstrong dissident for whom he may risk everything.
A Town Like Alice
ALICE SPRINGS ... Nevil Shute's most beloved novel, a tale of love and war, follows its enterprising heroine from the Malayan jungle during World War II to the rugged Australian outback. Jean Paget, a young Englishwoman living in Malaya, is captured by the invading Japanese and forced on a brutal seven-month death march with dozens of other women and children. A few years after the war, Jean is back in England, the nightmare behind her. However, an unexpected inheritance inspires her to return to Malaya to give something back to the villagers who saved her life. But it turns out that they have a gift for her as well: the news that the young Australian soldier, Joe Harmon, who had risked his life to help the women, had miraculously survived. Jean's search for Joe leads her to a desolate Australian outpost called Willstown, where she finds a challenge that will draw on all the resourcefulness and spirit that carried her through her war-time ordeals.
See the full review, "Some bonzer story-telling!".
Garden of Beasts
"Garden of Beasts" is a fascinating historical thriller that is part psychological and part suspense with significant servings of provocative discussion about the meaning of good and evil. The historical context of the story is impeccably detailed and absolutely fascinating - the sights, sounds and geography of pre-war BERLIN; brownshirts; the social milieu and attitudes of everyday German folks living with the combination of hope, fear, patriotism, terror and awe that Hitler must have inspired as he consolidated his dictatorial grip on the Germans; Jesse Owens humbling performance in the 1936 Olympics; and much more.
See the full review, "A high speed thriller set in pre-war 1936 Berlin".
The Maltese Falcon
From an Amazon review: SAN FRANCISCO private detective Samuel Spade is visited by a gorgeous redhead who needs to have a man tailed. When his partner is killed on the job, Spade becomes the prime suspect, and he must solve the case or take the fall. Fortunately Spade is crafty, cunning, and absolutely ruthless. His clients lie to him left and right, but he slowly learns about the mythical Maltese Falcon, a statue of immeasurable worth that is at the center of the maelstrom. While trying to solve the case, Spade must battle his inner demons over the beautiful, but treacherous, Brigid O'Shaughnessy. Setting this story in San Francisco is just the icing on the cake, because the city itself is beautiful, but it's also dark, wet, and mysterious. It's the perfect setting for a detective who must face everything alone, where the police, his own clients, and his enemies all lie in wait.
A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali
The pool in KIGALI at the Hotel des Milles-Collines is a centrally located gathering place in the early spring of 1994 for "international experts and aid workers, middle-class Rwandans, screwed-up or melancholy expatriates of various origins, and prostitutes." Here, Valcourt, a Canadian journalist, watches with a jaundiced eye over the drama of local wheeling and dealing, diplomatic toadying, military corruption and AIDS-ridden whoring: the colorful and tragic texture of life in a corrupt post-colonial African republic. It's a predictable enough portrait but it is seen with quivering rage and documentary exactitude through Valcourt's eyes; in a very true picture of a foreign correspondent's perception, he is jaded enough to show the truth but still retain a boundless capacity for moral outrage.
The Princess of Burundi
When the badly mutilated body of John Harald Jonsson—a working-class family man and an expert on the tropical fish known as cichlids—is found in the snow in the provincial Swedish town of Libro, UPPSALA homicide detective Ola Haver and his colleague, Ann Lindell, quickly identify a suspect, an embittered sociopath. The brilliance of Eriksson's richly detailed crime novel, his second (after The Illuminated Path) but his first to be translated into English, lies in its psychological and even sociological insights. Eriksson not only reveals a deep, sympathetic understanding for his large cast of characters but also evokes a pervasive sense of despair, reminiscent of Henning Mankell's, in the face of the violent, amoral nature of contemporary society and the challenges it places on the police. The title derives from the common name of one of Jonsson's beloved cichlids, and the aquarium is a neat metaphor for the dynamics of smalltown life.
South of Broad: A Novel
CHARLESTON, S.C., gossip columnist Leopold Bloom King narrates a paean to his hometown and friends in Conroy's first novel in 14 years. In the late '60s and after his brother commits suicide, then 18-year-old Leo befriends a cross-section of the city's inhabitants: scions of Charleston aristocracy; Appalachian orphans; a black football coach's son; and an astonishingly beautiful pair of twins, Sheba and Trevor Poe, who are evading their psychotic father.
The Cellist of Sarajevo
A tense and haunting novel following four people trying to survive war-torn SARAJEVO. After a mortar attack kills 22 people waiting in line to buy bread, an unnamed cellist vows to play at the point of impact for 22 days. Galloway brings to life a distant conflict.
A House for Mr Biswas
From an Amazon review ... "As a British colony, Trinidad became the home of many Indian immigrants, and "A House for Mr. Biswas" tells the story of a man who is born into and grows up in this society searching for a place he can call his own. In this novel, V.S. Naipaul vividly and picturesquely describes PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad as a thriving but generally poor island city populated by a strong Hindu community with a waning observance of the caste system and where, even well into the twentieth century, the most common mode of transportation is the bicycle."
Inspector Imanishi Investigates
The corpse of an unknown provincial is discovered under the rails of a train in a TOKYO station, and Detective Imanishi is assigned to the case.
The Madonnas of Leningrad: A Novel
Russian emigré Marina Buriakov, 82, is preparing for her granddaughter's wedding near Seattle while fighting a losing battle against Alzheimer's. Stuggling to remember whom Katie is marrying (and indeed that there is to be a marriage at all), Marina does remember her youth as a Hermitage Museum docent as the siege of LENINGRAD began; it is into these memories that she disappears. After frantic packing, the Hermitage's collection is transported to a safe hiding place until the end of the war. The museum staff and their families remain, wintering (all 2,000 of them) in the Hermitage basement to avoid bombs and marauding soldiers. Marina, using the technique of a fellow docent, memorizes favorite Hermitage works; these memories, beautifully interspersed, are especially vibrant. Dean, making her debut, weaves Marina's past and present together effortlessly. The dialogue around Marina's forgetfulness is extremely well done, and the Hermitage material has depth. Although none of the characters emerges particularly vividly (Marina included), memory, the hopes one pins on it and the letting go one must do around it all take on real poignancy, giving the story a satisfying fullness.
See the full review, "A heartbreaking story of two different battles".
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has been heralded as a "lyrical work of nonfiction," and the book's extremely graceful prose depictions of some of SAVANNAH, Georgia's most colorful eccentrics--remarkable characters who could have once prospered in a William Faulkner novel or Eudora Welty short story--were certainly a critical factor in its tremendous success.
See the full review, ""If you think that last bump was vulgar, honey, watch this one!"".
Old City Hall: A Novel
OLD CITY HALL bills itself as a legal thriller but I believe it would be more accurate to describe it as a low key legal procedural or mystery. Every inch of the road, every street scene and every event in the story right down to the hopeless futility of being an eternally unfulfilled Toronto Maple Leaf hockey fan resonated with absolutely accuracy and completely conveyed me into the life of downtown TORONTO.
See the full review, "OLD CITY HALL bills itself as a legal thriller but ...".
The Big Sleep
The Broker
The Broker marries the best of John Grisham's many talents--his ability to immerse himself in the culture of small town life (in this case, BOLOGNA, Italy), and his uncanny mastery of the chase. The first half of the book focuses on Backman's transformation from infamous power broker to helpless victim in his own game. Upon his release from prison, Backman is taken into "protective custody" and whisked off to Italy where he is assigned a new identity, and a tutor to help him blend in. Sure he is on the run, but some readers may feel that Backman's time spent in Bologna is a bit too leisurely--readers join him on an almost cinematic tour through the Italian town, complete with language and history lessons. Impatient readers will be happy to know that the final half of the novel is classic Grisham--a fast-paced, thrilling cat and mouse chase pitting Backman against the numerous agencies that want him dead--as the broker makes a move to take back his life.
See the full review, "The unique (and successful) combination of thriller with a European travelogue!".
The death of a nameless prostitute in a glitzy MELBOURNE high-rise is the first in a series of crimes that Insp. Stephen Villani discovers are all tied to protecting the interests of the city's elite in this brutal tale of corruption, greed, and revenge. Burdened by a shaky marriage and an increasingly rebellious teenage daughter while trying to stay afloat in Melbourne's treacherous political climate, Villani doesn't know where to turn. The discovery of three savagely tortured men with ties to one of the city's biggest crime bosses only adds another layer to the already twisted case, and makes Villani question eve-rything he thought he knew about the line between cop and criminal. Temple's elliptical storytelling—the past and the present are often interchangeable—fits the slippery subject of deeply ingrained police corruption and one man's determination to uncover the truth.
It begins with an explosion. Another day, another bus bomb. Everyone it seems is after a piece of Turkey. But the shockwaves from this random act of 21st century pandemic terrorism will ripple further and resonate louder than just Enginsoy Square. Welcome to the world of The Dervish House; the great, ancient, paradoxical city of ISTANBUL, divided like a human brain, in the great, ancient, equally paradoxical nation of Turkey. The year is 2027 and Turkey is about to celebrate the fifth anniversary of its accession to the European Union; a Europe that now runs from the Arran Islands to Ararat. Population pushing one hundred million, Istanbul swollen to fifteen million; Turkey is the largest, most populous and most diverse nation in the EU, but also one of the poorest and most socially divided. It's a boom economy, the sweatshop of Europe, the bazaar of central Asia, the key to the immense gas wealth of Russia and Central Asia.
The Rosetti Letter
When the Venetian courtesan Alessandra Rossetti wrote a letter that exposed the 1618 Spanish Conspiracy, VENICE was saved. Four hundred years later in Phillips's lovingly researched half-historical, half-contemporary debut, Claire Donovan, an American graduate student, struggles to finish her dissertation on the courtesan's brave act. Claire attends a Venice conference to check out the work of British superstar historian Andrew Kent, who sees Rossetti as nothing more than the pawn of very powerful men in a diplomatic double cross: once Andrew's work is published, his ideas could derail Claire's fledgling career. Phillips, developing parallel plots, unspools Alessandra's story directly to the reader in detail denied Claire and Andrew, who overcome their initial animosity to solve the greater mystery.
The Devil In The White City: Murder, Magic,
Not long after Jack the Ripper haunted the ill-lit streets of 1888 London, H.H. Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett) dispatched somewhere between 27 and 200 people, mostly single young women, in the churning new metropolis of CHICAGO; many of the murders occurred during (and exploited) the city's finest moment, the World's Fair of 1893. Larson's breathtaking new history is a novelistic yet wholly factual account of the fair and the mass murderer who lurked within it. Bestselling author Larson (Isaac's Storm) strikes a fine balance between the planning and execution of the vast fair and Holmes's relentless, ghastly activities.
See the full review, "Ferris wheels, Cracker Jacks, Buffalo Bill and a serial killer!".
Time and Again
From an Amazon review ... "A classic of time travel, romance and history ... Finney, with meticulous detail and the support of numerous old photographs and drawings from the period (this is referred to as an "illustrated novel") recreates NEW YORK in 1882, letting us and the main character, Si Morley, marvel as we walk over the old streets, see places where one day great skyscrapers will stand, gaze on a traffic jam of hansom cabs, discover the arm of the Statue of Liberty sitting in Madison Square awaiting the rest of its body, play old parlor games in a boarding house, and look at Fifth Avenue when it was a thin street of trees and apartments. People who have lived in New York will especially adore these decriptions of the vanished city and the comparision Finney makes between the "modern" city (1970; vanished now to us as well) and the 1880s city. However, even if you've never been to New York in your life, you'll feel like you have after reading this."

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August 29, 2010
Claudio Magris wrote about the Danube in this manner, if not one city on it. "Prague" I read after visiting both Prague (ha) and Budapest and I agree Phillips captured it well.
June 11, 2010
What a neat idea! Thanks for posting!
June 12, 2010
Thanks for commenting. I've been adding to it a little bit at a time so I hope you'll come back and check it out again. Even as I'm posting this, I've found a couple or three more cities that I'll be adding today or tomorrow.
June 10, 2010
Wow, what a creative idea! I had never thought about intentionally reading a fictional novel about a city or a country. I always look for the guide books. This is something new I will definitely have to try next time i'm traveling!
June 10, 2010
This kind of thing would never replace a guide book, of course. But when you've got a city fresh in your head from a trip, it makes the novel seem so much more alive and meaningful. Street and place references in a novel positively come alive off the page if you've been there to actually see them.
June 09, 2010
Great list. Most of the books that I have read that deal with a city are historical in nature (example: Devil in the White City), so I don't think that I can contribute based on the criteria. However, the Stella Mooney novels from David Lawrence would serve as a guide to London. Not the side of London that any tourist would see, but it is London (and really good mysteries, to boot). Very thought provoking list. Nice!
June 08, 2010
Cool, I never thought of reading a novel to become more acquainted and knowledgeable with a city and country, but what a great idea! Thanks for these great suggestions! ...And did you mean 8 books? :P
June 08, 2010
No I meant 80 (it was a pun on "Around the World in 80 Days"). I'm looking for suggestions to add the list for cities from all around the world. Surely most major world capitals, Tokyo, Beijing, Cairo, Johannesburg, Stockholm, Oslo, Amsterdam, Moscow, Mumbai, etc. have had books of this kind written about them. I want to hear everyone's ideas!
June 08, 2010
Ah, I get it now! I'm sure Lunchers, especially the Cafe Libri members have great suggestions. I'm drawing blanks right now, but if I have any suggestions, I'll get back to you! :)
August 27, 2010
Good idea and list. Having read both your New York and Chicago books might I suggest much better reads such as Jack Finney's Time and Again and Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City for Chicago. Both of these books are way superior and have a lot more intricate detail of their respective cities.
August 27, 2010
Well, I definitely like my science fiction and I've come to respect your opinions and reviews so I'll certainly make the New York change. I'll check out the details for The Devil in the White City and see whether or not it's a book that I'd enjoy. Of course, I want all the books on the list to be books that I'll eventually read.
About the list creator
Paul Weiss ()
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   A modern day dilettante with widely varied eclectic interests. A dabbler in muchbut grandmaster of none - wilderness camping in all four seasons, hiking, canoeing, world travel,philately, … more
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