Plot: In 17th-century China, a girl who is almost 16 and facing an arranged marriage breaks convention and falls in love with a mysterious poet. Under the influence of an opera, she becomes lovesick for the poet and starves herself to death before her wedding day. As a ghost, she wanders for 20 years until finally freed to become an ancestor.
Gist: I'm not a fan of ghost story romances, but if you are, here's one that brings to life aspects of Chinese history and culture.
Plot: A murder mystery set in the 19th-century Canadian north: When a French trader is murdered, a 17-year-old boy disappears and becomes a suspect. The Hudson Bay Company sends a raw recruit to help solve the crime. The trail reveals many long-buried secrets, including homosexual relationships.
Gist: In quiet, understated prose, Penney unfolds her tale, using the barrenness of the setting to highlight the psychological and spiritual isolation of her characters. One interesting aspect: A Christian commune provides food and refuge.
Plot: With the aim of overthrowing Egypt's repressive government, radical Muslims carry out audacious bombings in London and kidnap the daughter of the American ambassador. Israeli operative Gabriel Allon, who doubles as a restorer of fine paintings, vigorously responds.
Gist: Silva brilliantly portrays a dark world where some men must take bloody action and suffer the consequences. Meanwhile, political ditherers both depend upon and condemn the acts that allow their people to carry on relatively normal lives in the face of the gathering storm.
Plot: When war overtakes a small, remote Pacific island, the island's lone white man begins teaching school: He introduces the students to Dickens' Great Expectations.
Gist: Matilda, 15, tells this story of a brutal war and the teacher who enlarged her world and allowed her, through Dickens, to imagine a different existence. The author shows the power of literature, even when the writer comes from an entirely different world from the reader-but he also explicitly pits Dickens against the Bible as a source of knowledge and wisdom.
Marina Lewycka begins her first novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Penguin, 2005), by describing the blonde, 36-year-old, Ukrainian divorcee who marries an 84-year-old Ukrainian widower in England: "She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside."
This sensitive yet humorous portrayal of the problems of aging takes off as narrator Nadia and her older sister Lena, both grown, don't want their father to marry the "gold digger." He is eager, though, to have one more fling at love. Lewycka's black comedy successfully weaves together many threads-the improbable romance and its aftermath, the old man's writings about tractors, the family's history of surviving the Ukrainian famine and war, and the sibling rivalry born out of different experiences and different understandings of human nature.