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Ten Great Books set in Rio de Janeiro

18th February 2021

Rio de Janeiro is the latest place for us to visit in our Great Books series – ten Great Books set in Rio De Janeiro. Rio is a huge seaside city in Brazil, famed for its Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, 38m Christ the Redeemer statue atop Mount Corcovado and for Sugarloaf Mountain, a granite peak with cable cars to its summit. The city is also known for its sprawling favelas (shanty towns). Its raucous Carnaval festival, featuring parade floats, flamboyant costumes and samba dancers, is considered the world’s largest.

Fica tranquilo – ‘no worries’ ‘it’s all good’…  Brazilian saying

Ten Great Books set in Rio de JaneiroThe Consul General’s Wife by Aliefka Bijlsma

Melchior Steenbergen is leading an idyllic life. An elite member of Holland’s diplomatic corps, he is the Consul General in Rio, with a sweeping view of the Ipanema bay from his official residence, and a beautiful wife 20 years his junior. His trustworthy maid, Mercy, who is from Ghana and has followed him everywhere, attends to his every need. At 59, his time as a diplomat is winding down, but he expects to put one more feather in his cap: an ambassadorship. Paris, perhaps. Doesn’t he deserve it?

But Melchior’s glorious world is a façade, a house of cards, and sharp winds are starting to blow.

The Consul General’s Wife is the story of a man, elegant and dignified, unable to recognize his own flaws. Set against the mystical and unforgiving city of Rio, the novel is a comedy about a dying generation. And a tragedy about a man who has only a few days left to wake up.

Spilt Milk by Chico Buarque

Centenarian Eulalio Assumpcao has reached the end of his long life. From his modest bed in a Rio public hospital, as his mind falters, he grandly recounts his past to passing nurses, his visiting daughter and the whitewashed ceiling. His eccentric stories are seemingly nothing more than the ramblings of a dying man, yet as he overlaps each confused memory, they begin to coalesce into a brilliant and bitter eulogy for himself and for Brazil.

Charting his own fall from aristocracy, Eulalio’s feverish monologue sprawls across the last century, from his empire-building ancestors to his drug-dealing great-great grandson. He confronts his senator father who squandered the family fortune on women and cocaine, and recalls the imperious mother who he always disappointed: but as he drifts through each shifting episode, he never stops searching for Matilde, the girl with cinnamon skin, who danced her way into his heart and then broke it when she disappeared.

Ten Great Books set in Rio de JaneiroCity of God by Paulo Lins

Cidade de Deus, the City of God welcome to one of Rio’s most notorious slums. A place where the streets are awash with drugs, where violence can erupt at any moment, over drugs, money and love but also where the samba beat rocks til dawn, where the women are the most beautiful on earth, and where one young man wants to escape his background and become a photographer. Paulo Lins was born in Rio de Janeiro and at age seven moved to the ‘City of God’ housing project. He escaped the cycle of violence there to become an internationally celebrated writer, and still lives in Rio. This novel is the result of extended research in the housing project where Lins was raised. He spent eight years interviewing people and researching the drug trafficking and gang warfare that marked the history of the neighbourhood in the 1970s and 80s. Based on a true story, this is a sprawling, magnificently told epic about the history of gang life in Rio’s favelas. This is the original novel of the hugely acclaimed film.

The Silence of the Rain by Luiz Alfredo Garcia Roza

In a parking garage in the centre of Rio de Janeiro, young executive Ricardo Carvalho climbs into his car, takes a few drags of his cigarette and shoots himself dead. Handsome, rich and married to a beautiful wife, Ricardo seemed to have everything to live for. So why did he take his own life?

But when the police arrive at the scene, Carvalho’s death looks like a straight-forward case of robbery gone horribly wrong, since the victim’s gun and briefcase are nowhere to be found. And so Inspector Espinosa is called in to investigate. Not your typical detective, the world-weary Espinosa has the mind of a philosopher, the heart of a romantic, and enough experience to realise that things are not always as they seem.

Awakening of Spies by Brian Landers

Thomas Dylan is an unlikely spy.

Rejected by MI6 he joins the Ministry of Defence where his first mission is a total failure. Unexpectedly he is then sent to Rio de Janeiro to recover a submarine interrogator stolen from the US Navy.

In Brazil he discovers that those supposedly on his side, MI6 and the CIA, have their own priorities and his life is not one of them.

A murderous game which began with the death of a British spy in Argentina is being played out in a city of sun, sea and secret police. When he comes face-to-face with the brutal realities of Brazil’s military dictatorship Dylan has to trust somebody. But who?

He knows for sure that the woman he wants to trust has been lying to him from the very beginning. But why?

This is a fast-paced thriller in the vein of John le Carré and Eric Ambler.

Ten Great Books set in Rio de JaneiroFrom my Window by Otávio Júnior and Vanina Starkoff (Illustrator)

What do you see from your window? This #OwnVoices picture book from Brazil offers a first-hand view of what children growing up in the favelas of Rio de Janiero see everyday. A vibrant and diverse celebration of urban community living, brought to life by unique, colorful illustrations that juxtapose brick buildings with lush jungle plants.

Ten Great Books set in Rio de Janeiro1808 by Laurentino Gomes

How a crazy queen, a frightened prince and a corrupt court tricked Napoleon and changed the history of Portugal and Brazil. A book set in Brazil. The story of Portuguese King Dom João who fled Portugal as Napoleon was cutting a swathe through Europe. With initial support from the British, he fled to Brazil and transformed the colony, giving it its independence as he returned to Portugal. Translated from the  Portuguese.

Invisibles by Ed Siegle

From the streets of Brighton to the bars of Rio de Janeiro, Ed Siegle weaves the rhythms of Brazil and the troubles of his characters into an absorbing story of identity, love and loss. Simultaneously familiar and foreign, this sweet, sad and compulsively readable first novel throngs with visceral memory and unbreakable yet ordinary heroes.

The Book of Rio by Toni Marques and Katie Slade

It’s the city the rest of the world descends on to party…. whether for the spectacular annual Carnival, the sun-kissed beaches, the World Cup, or, in 2016, the Olympics. It’s also a place that’s sadly become synonymous with some of the excesses of partying, the dark underbelly that accompanies any urban hedonist’s destination. But these are just two images of Rio. There are countless others: opulent seat of two former empires; stronghold of brutal, twentieth-century dictatorships; sprawling metropolis stretched between stunning mountain tops and equally stunning economic extremes – from the affluence of neighbourhoods like Leblon and Ipanema, to the overcrowded slums in the foothills, the favelas.

This anthology brings together ten short stories that go beyond the postcards and snapshots, and introduce us to real residents of Rio – the cariocas: young hopefuls training to be the next stars of samba, exhausted labourers press-ganged into meeting an impossible construction deadline (the nation’s pride being at stake), bored call-girls, nostalgic drag queens, married couples having petty middle-class domestics…. These are characters who’ve developed a deep understanding of Rio’s contradictions, a way of living with the grey areas – between the grime and the glitz – that make Rio the ‘marvellous city’ it is.

Bahia Blues by Yasmina Traboulsi

Since the arrival of Gringa, everything has been going wrong. Maria Aparecida, the queen of the slums, has disappeared: one-eyed Tonio has stopped singing: Ze and Manuel are feverish and Mama Lourdes the clairvoyant can only predict bad news. The area is dying – one by one its children are abandoning sleepy Bahia to follow their fortunes in the big cities of the south. Bahia Blues draws the reader into the heart of modern-day Brazil: amid the squalor of Rio de Janeiro shantytown, along the lively streets of Sao Paolo and within the cells of Canju, the prison of Bahia.

Enjoy your literary trip to Rio – and left us know in the Comments below whether there are any titles you would add to this list!

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Enter the 2021TripFiction 'Sense of Place' Creative Writing Competition!

A story in which the location plays as important a role as the rest of your words.

2,500 word maximum, 750 word minimum

Judges include Victoria Hislop and Rosanna Ley

First Prize of £1,000 / US$1,350

Prizes total £1,750 / US$2,362 

Winning entry published on TripFiction site and publicised on Social Media

Entries close 6th November 2021