In the name of festive cheer, we've gathered together some of our favourite reads from 2017. So whether you're in need of gift inspiration or just looking for the next addition to your bookshelf, we've got something for everyone...
Claire Armitstead - associate editor, culture for the Guardian; English PEN trustee: My pick is Year of the Drought by Roland Buti (Old Street), translated from French by Charlotte Mandell.
It's 1976 and the Swiss countryside is shrivelling in a historic heatwave. The old horse is dying, the dog keeps fainting, and 13-year-old Gus is desperate for "something astounding to happen", unaware of the climatic, industrial and social upheavals that have converged on his family's farm, changing their way of life forever. This deceptively slim and deadpan novel combines the relentlessness of classical tragedy with an oddball humour that is both disorientating and charming. It was the most unexpected pleasure of my reading year.
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Alice Frecknall - Administrative Assistant: I started 2017 with a new adventure, picking up Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (Picador). The 700+ pages flew by in a somewhat traumatic, though incredibly absorbing, whirlwind. It’s the sort of book you think you can only stomach once for all its emotional blows – high and low – and then, a few months later find yourself contemplating a second dive. My next standout read of the year has to be Caroline Bird’s new poetry collection from Carcanet, In These Days of Prohibition – a surreal, humorous, moving and wonderful concoction of language. I read it on a train to Woolwich and enjoyed the strange looks I got for ready poetry, of all things, on public transport. It also begins with a brilliant John Ashbery quote, which perfectly sets up the collection’s playful sincerity. And finally, finally I have just revisited Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (Scholastic). This was my favourite book as a teenager and it has been an absolute joy to return to as an adult.
Antonia Byatt - Interim Director: One of my first duties as Interim Director was to go to Lviv for PEN’s 83rd congress. I had just finished reading Philippe Sand’s East West Street (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), his extra-ordinary account of how the laws of crimes against humanity and genocide came to be included in the judgement at Nuremberg. Circling in and around Lviv, it is a compelling account of Sand’s own family history, intertwined with the story of how two law professors from Lviv created the new laws. I found myself sitting in the Great Hall in Lviv, listening to Philippe talking about the book, standing in exactly the same place Hans Frank had announced the extermination of the city’s Jews in 1942. It was a momentous introduction to PEN. We rely on the support and knowledge of so many generous lawyers; East West Street explains how law is the backbone of a fair society and how bad things can get when it is misused. East West Street is a weighty book but never hard going; I was captured by every word and story in it.
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Cat Lucas - Writers at Risk Programme Manager: My books of the year are Kit de Waal's stunning debut My Name is Leon (Penguin Books Ltd) and Amy Liptrot's The Outrun (Canongate), winner of the 2017 PEN Hessell Tiltman Prize. Witty and heartbreaking in equal measure, both books speak to the inestimable power of nature - be it planting a seed, watching a bird, peeing outside, or the freedom of two wheels - and its importance in discovering, or rediscovering, your place in the world.
Daniel Hahn - translator; English PEN trustee: I’ve chosen two very fine books that English PEN has supported this year, one from Brazil and one from Italy – both of them coming-of-age stories, in their way; and both I think insightful examinations of masculinity, too. Daniel Galera’s The Shape of Bones (Penguin Books), translated by Alison Entrekin, goes back and forth between the Brazilian protagonist’s present and his past, as we watch him try to come to terms with some terrible thing that once happened… It’s cleverly structured, tautly written and translated, and uncommonly, devastatingly powerful. Elena Varvello’s Can You Hear Me? (Two Roads), translated by Alex Valente, is a tense psychological thriller but also a beautifully drawn character portrait of a young man; and at its uneasy centre is an awful crime that sends chills through the sweltering Italian summer. It’s hard to stop reading once you’ve started it, and just as hard to shake once it’s over.
Gary Perry - Assistant Head of Fiction, Foyles: Samanta Schweblin's Fever Dream (Oneworld), translated by Megan McDowell, is a book that I have found myself returning to several times this year. Schweblin's spare prose style, coupled with her refusal to provide any neat answers to the novella's mysteries, means that Fever Dream lingers long in the reader's psyche. Unfurling with the terrible and enigmatic logic of a nightmare, it's one of the most unsettling things I've read in some time. It's still creeping me out, in fact.
Olga Tokarczuk is arguably one of the greatest writers at work in Europe today. Every work of hers feels like a revolution, in terms of what we expect the novel to look like and, indeed, to do. Flights (Fitzcarraldo Editions), translated by Jennifer Croft, jettisons convention, crosses places, times zones and eras, and ushers into being a new form for the novel in our hyperconnected age. It sets a new standard for contemporary fiction.
Finally, Robert Croll's translation of Ricardo Piglia's The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years is nothing short of a literary event. Seriously, we should all be shouting about this book from the rooftops. Collectively, Piglia's diaries, like those of Kafka and Woolf, have come to be viewed as a masterpiece in their own right. It's almost impossible to find a Latin American writer, at work today, who doesn't cite Piglia as an influence (indeed, Samanta Schweblin is a fan). For the avid reader, these diaries are a real treat.
Robert Sharp - Communications Manager: My recommendation is The Djinn Falls in Love and other Stories (Solaris) edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin .
Ifrit, Genie, Djinn, Jinn? It doesn't matter what you call them or where they're from - these ancient, supernatural beings are all around us, influencing our fate whether we like it or not. Murad and Shurin have assembled a wonderfully diverse collection: Stories of ancient times; stories of the present day. Stories of the Orient; stories of the Occident. Stories written in English; and stories in translation. Kamila Shamsie and Neil Gaiman are among the contributors. "Exquisite and audacious" says the New York Times. To which I'll add: great fun too!
Theodora Danek - Writers in Translation Programme Manager: Iris Murdoch said that her ideal reader ‘is someone who likes a jolly good yarn and enjoys thinking about the book as well, thinking about the moral issues’. That basically sums up what I like in a book. Vigdis Hjorth’s A House in Norway (Norvik Press), translated by Charlotte Barslund, tackles an issue that I’ve thought about all year: how do our political ideals translate to our daily lives? Written in clear, lucid prose, Hjorth’s novel is about Alma, a middle-aged, left-wing artist whose socialist ideals don’t extend to feeling empathy for her own neighbours, a young Polish couple. We dive deep into the psyche of the protagonist, and by the end of the novel we are faced with our own limitations. This is a vital book that has stayed with me all year.
Cesar Aira’s latest short novel in translation, The Lime Tree (And Other Stories) left me in awe of Chris Andrews' translation and obsessed with Aira’s writing. I never wanted it to end (which was too bad, because it is a mere 106 pages long). A meandering fictional memoir about growing up in the small town of Colonel Pringles, it also offers intriguing insights into Peronist politics and the power of memory. Effortless, beguiling, beautifully written and translated; and it comes with the added bonus of singing the praises of one of my favourite teas.
And finally: Sarah Rees Brennan’s In Other Lands (Small Beer Press) is a weird and wonderful YA novel, full of tenderness for its characters and their flaws. Yes, it’s a coming of age story set in a magic school. Yes, teenagers fall in love and fight enemies. Yes, it is completely worth your time: more deeply felt and insightful than many a literary novel I’ve read this year. Often bizarre and genuinely funny, the protagonist worries constantly about diplomacy, friendship, and bisexuality. All in all: just what I want from a book.
Hannah Trevarthen - Events and Development Manager: Fever Dream (Oneworld) by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell. This short book packs a real emotional punch; it is one of the books that really got under my skin this year – in a good way, obviously! Fever Dream opens with a boy in conversation with a dying young woman in hospital clinic – their relationship is unclear and as the story unfolds a nightmarish sense of dread build as you turn each page. I read it in one feverish sitting and the themes of ‘rescue distance’, family, environmental contamination stayed with me long after that. The taut prose and rhythm of the storytelling is masterful and it was rightfully shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.
We were lucky enough to hold a PEN Atlas event with Samanta and fellow Argentine author Mariana Enriquez in May this year. I wholeheartedly recommended catching up with their wonderful conversation with critic Lucy Scholes here.
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Kat Lewis - writer; Brave New Voices facilitator: For crisp prose and gripping suspense, in a story we’re all familiar with carefully explored to draw every gasp from it, Reservoir 13 (HarperCollins). For a complicated but mighty return that immersed me in another mind, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Penguin Books). For the achingly beautiful and imaginative storytelling that puts a refugee experience under the nose of the everyman, Exit West (Penguin Books). For a timely interrogation of societal failures that makes for the stuff of horror stories, The New Poverty (Verso Books).
The World Bookshelf is home to over 200 brilliant books from around the globe which English PEN has supported through its Writers in Translation programme. This is a unique showcase of the most exciting contemporary literature available in English translation and is essential reading for everyone who cares about international writing.