I know I say this every week, but I love the Top Ten Tuesday topic for this past July 18. Settings are, have, and always will be my jam. To bad they are probably the most overlooked/under appreciated aspect of young adult books. A strong setting can totally set the desired atmosphere for a book, and I wish more authors would realize it. The absolute best thing though? When books expand their horizons and take place outside of US soil. There’s nothing quite like learning about a new place, and fiction can encapsulate the entire mood of a city in just a few hundred pages. You know what they say, ‘Books are the only kind of travel where you don’t pass the front door’…or something like that.
Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella
As a British based author, Sophie Kinsella always seems to weave her home country into the stories she writes. Finding Audrey is no exception of this effortless perfection. Though this isn’t a book that relies heavily on the presence of setting, I loved it when minute details of Britain crept their way into the narrative. You may think a person can only hear the word ‘bloody’ so many times ‘til it loses charm, but I have yet to reach that so called level. The best part of having a native write about their home, is that it’s a lot like an American author writing about an American place. It’s the single best way to find out what really makes a city tick. You get beyond the touristy sights like Big Ben and double decker buses, moving instead to little, under known places and spaces. Though I don’t think any publisher is going to be recruiting me to write a book on Illinois, this is how I’d like to think author Meg would handle the subject material at hand. Until that gem hits shelves though, keep writing Sophie!
American Girls by Alison Umminger
Ok, ok, maybe I’m cheating a little by including my new found favorite book on this list. The titular American Girls do reside in, well…America. But their particular corner of the map is so unlike my hometown it might as well be a different country. That particular corner being the ever sunny, golden land of Los Angeles. In actuality Alison Umminger sets out to portray the City of Angels as anything but, with the grit of forgotten dreams and failure. A perspective unseen on tabloid fodder and reality TV. Though it may not be as glamorous, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Umminger’s take on the city- one sans Instagram filter. Never have I seen a setting utilized so competently to enhance a story’s central theme, but I now know Umminger sets the bar to beat.From Lindsay Lohan esque celeb has beens to the Manson family, I can’t imagine American Girls set anywhere else. For a further gush that will have you heading to Amazon, here’s my full review.
A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry
Though A Fierce and Subtle Poison may hardly be my favorite novel, I can hardly fault the setting. Debut author Samantha Mabry describes her homeland of Puerto Rico with tender love and care, taking special pains to magnify each, seemingly minute, detail. Though in most cases setting is an arbitrary concern with little bearing over the story, in such whimsical tales as the one at hand I need to be able to breath the world: from mouthwatering tastes and knee weakening smells, to colors so rich they bleed off the page. And San Juan is as vivid as they come, a perfect breeding ground for the musings of Old Wives. Despite Puerto Rico being apart of the US, I know very little of its history/scenery. As a result this one was a breath of fresh, Caribbean air. I really enjoyed (as I mentioned above) how Mabry tied in some of the myths of her own childhood on the island into the story. Not only did it serve to further bring the setting to life, but made it so it flowed seamlessly into the actual plot as well.
Passenger by Alexandra Bracken
Passenger by Alexandra Bracken has four great settings, all of which wove together to make a fascinating piece of this story’s puzzle. The setting in question though is Damascus, Syria circa 1600- the final destination of Nicholas and Etta. What I truly loved about Bracken’s inclusion of this semi-mystical locale, is how it showed an aspect of the Middle East prior to its modern day conflicts. I never took note of Syria until it became a news staple, and as such know nothing about its history or beauty stripped by the ongoing civil war. Bracken’s efforts however put me on the road to understanding Damascus’ for what it is: a cultural centerpiece for religion and the arts. There are several lovely descriptions of the thousand year old mosques that pepper the city, along with the ceremonies that accompany them. Books that incorporate a special touch like that always wind up near and dear to my heart, with this one being no exception.
Zac & Mia by AJ Betts
I actually didn’t even realize Zac & Mia was set in author AJ Betts home of Australia until I was about 50 pages into the book. You know; as if the sayings, cultural references, and dialect weren’t enough to give it away. Once I finally made the crucial connection though, I happily absorbed every detail I could of Zac’s life on an olive/alpaca farm outside of Perth. Especially considering I wasn’t aware that a. olives could grow in Aussie and b. that alpaca are such a commodity. Color me surprised! For an extra dose of international street cred; some of the hands on the family farm are hip Dutch college kids, more than willing to enlighten this uninformed reader on the oh-so-cool coffee shops of Amsterdam. In any event, I now have two unique places too add to my bucket list. Fingers crossed that Betts eventually writes a book that also give us an inside glimpse of Perth, the current city clustering my Pinterest feed.
Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
Some adjectives that describe Anna and the French Kiss: post card perfect, picturesque, romanticized as all get out. Stpehanie Perkins chose to highlight only the most desirable attributes of the city of love (namely Pinterest worthy macaroons) and ignore all doses of realism. Nevertheless, I secretly loved every minute of it. Sometimes you just need to take a break from the real world and embark on a journey worth immediately booking plane tickets too. And if any of this was actually accurate… let me just say my butt would be on the way to Paris. Perkins undeniably knows how to describe (and sell) a landscape; from sugary sweet descriptors, to kind lies of the palpable ‘love in the air’. If I was a native Parisian I would likely be highly offended by this portrayal of my home. As an outsider looking in, things were pretty near perfect. Has anyone read Lola and the Boy Next Door? If so, does it describe San Francisco in much the same way?
Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple
Where’d You Go Bernadette first see’s our story unfold in Seattle. Much like the point I made discussing American Girls, the Pacific Northwest tech hub is as foreign to me as Bhutan. However the exotic locale Maria Semple’s titular Bernadette must come to terms with is Antarctica. That’s right, Antarctica Antarctica. The forgotten continent. The land of snow and ice. The…you catch my drift. Such a feat would be pretty remarkable for anyone walking down the street, but when you take into consideration that Bernadette hasn’t left the house in years, it becomes as impossible as scaling Mount Everest. You may think her hesitation would result in that uber cool location failing to be explored. In actuality her cynicism results not only in super funny one-liners, but a greater grasp on what exactly makes this unexplored terrain so daunting. Though I don’t think this book is going to inspire an uptick at travel agencies, but it did peak my interest. Not that this one of a kind story needed anything else going for it, but this was just the icing on the cake.
Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
Technically Battle Royale takes place in an alternate history Japan, to which I say tomato tomato. It still holds a lot of clout in this reader’s opinion on educating the world about Japan’s history and politics. A game reminiscent of The Hunger Games is simply a backdrop for these far more interesting matters 😉 I know very little about Japan outside of a small grasp on the inter workings of Tokyo, and enjoyed expanding my knowledge of under known gems like Kyoto. Unlike Sophie Kinsella’s England, Koushun Takami holds nothing back in describing Japan (where Battle Royale was initially printed), and the divergence in our countries can come across as a bit jarring and info dumpy. I promise however, that if you just keep pushing forward your brain will fuse to the world effortlessly. From names to place to some political/black humor, no book will allow you to experience Japan as this one does.
The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye
I’m only about 60 pages into The Crown’s Game, but holy bookish heavens do I love the setting! It’s a proven statistic that I’ll fall into utter joy with any book that can portray Russia with tender love and care (fictional or not, as this one is), and Evelyn Skye has thus far managed to fit the mold to a tee. I adore the descriptions in and around St. Petersburg (Winter Palace descriptors=swoon), as well as the fictional island that protagonist Vika lives in. Another detail that many authors ignore is Russia’s eastern frontier (the Kazakh steppe in this case), which is wild and untamed and draws far more influences from Asian culture than Europe. It’s a huge expanse that’s often forgotten, and I appreciate the fact that Skye placed other MC Nikolai’s birth there. Having not read the Shadow and Bone series I can’t say whether or not this one possesses a more captivating world, but it has to be at least a strong contender. I cheated a bit and already read Skye’s author note, of which she says she draw inspiration from a 2003 trip to St. Petersburg, along with various testimonies from friends. It’s always a plus when authors can back up their cred with fact, which is exactly what she’s doing. Two thumbs up! Though I’ve been known to change my mind at the drop of a hat, this one thus far is set out to possess many more awesome qualities beyond the setting. I’ll keep you posted.
I’ve never heard of a book with a Scandinavian setting, a fact I find dually disappointing. So to remedy that I’m sending my wish for one to the authors of this world, via blog post. May you write a totally awesome, interesting, and all around great book that just happens to be set in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, or Finland. It could be a contemporary set in one of Europe’s up and coming trendsetters: Stockholm or Copenhagen. It could be an intense thriller set in the scenic Lapland of the Arctic Circle. It could be a historical fiction novel detailing the genocide of the Finnish people during World War II, in the vein of Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray. The options are endless, and I’m just giving ideas away. That’s how desperate I am to see this project happen people! Oh well, when our friends of the north become the oh-so-hot literary setting you can say you heard it first at Megnificent Books.
What are your favorite books set outside the US? Have you visited any of the countries I mentioned? Let me know in the comments!
-Keep Calm and Read On