By the middle of February, winter’s frigid temperatures and biting winds can leave anyone but the most serious snow-lover desperate for a break. What better way to cast away the worst of the season than to lose yourself between the covers of a great book?
We’ve assembled a list of five recently-released books that can take you around the world, beginning in Portugal and heading east through France, Rome, and South Korea, before ending in the backwoods of Canada. From the heights of lonely mountains to bustling urban centers, the stories below (some fantastical, at least one of them true) are sure to pull you in and help you forget the world outside your door—or get through a long flight to somewhere warmer.
1. The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel
Martel is best known for his Booker Prize-winning novel, Life of Pi, which had a dazzling second life on the silver screen courtesy of director Ang Lee. Martel’s latest promises to be as memorable as Pi’s adventures in the Pacific, adrift on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Set in the eponymous region of the country, The High Mountains of Portugal is comprised of three interlocking stories set decades apart. In the early 1900s, Tomas finds an ancient manuscript and goes in search of a mysterious treasure after suffering an almost unspeakable tragedy. Thirty-five years later, a grieving pathologist becomes wrapped up in the mystery. Finally, a Canadian politician reeling from his own loss finds himself with a rescued chimpanzee in northern Portugal, where the three parts reveal themselves as a singular, wholly-formed exploration of love, loss and the power of belief.
2. The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
As a gifted soprano in the 19th Century Paris Opera, Lilliet Berne’s star is rising. When she’s offered the chance of her career—an original role, she’s shocked to discover that the libretto is based on a personal secret she’s long kept hidden. Who has betrayed her? In one of the most highly anticipated books of the season, Chee weaves a literary mystery that moves back and forth through Lilliet’s amazing life, beginning as an orphan in frontier America. The author brings the world of the Second French Empire and historical Paris to life, but it’s Lilliet and her friends and enemies—some of them real-life figures—that will prove unforgettable in this beautifully told tale of art, love and transformation.
3. In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri, author of Interpreter of Maladies and The Lowland, has a gift for language. Indeed, her work in English has garnered her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. It’s somewhat of a surprise, then, that her first book-length work of non-fiction was written first in Italian, not English or Bengali, her mother tongue. A love letter to Italian, In Other Words describes Lahiri’s growing passion for the language which began when she was young, eventually leading to her decision to move with her family from the U.S. to Rome. Translated by Ann Goldstein, the slim book is a memoir of exile and discovery by a writer courageously reinventing her voice.
4. The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Han Kang is a celebrated author in South Korea, where she has been publishing fiction and poetry since the early nineties. But until this month’s release of a translation of The Vegetarian, English-language readers have had little opportunity to appreciate her talent. The novel begins with Yeong-hye, beset by troubling dreams, deposing of all the meat in the house and announcing to her husband that she is going vegetarian. That seemingly benign act sets off a series of increasingly unhinged and violent reactions among her family. Told in three sections, focused first on her husband, then her brother-in-law, and finally on her sister, In-hye, this short book is a visceral, haunting experience.
5. Debris by Kevin Hardcastle
Released last fall in Canada, but just now hitting shelves in U.S. bookstores, this collection is full of gritty stories of rural outsiders and outlaws, each one well-told. Hardcastle’s working-class protagonists are tough folks: a close-knit family whose business is robbing liquor stores, a small-time mixed martial arts fighter hoping for a big break, a rookie police officer doing his best to enforce the law no matter how dangerous or unpopular, an elderly woman who takes justice into her own hands when she discovers a murderer living in the woods near her house. Hardcastle’s attention to what they’re hiding beneath their hardened exteriors and his strong, unique voice earns these stories a place beside the best of short fiction.
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