Adventures in East Asia

Catherine Coles
Coles Notes

If my reading list is any indication, 2020 must be the year that East Asia-set books flooded the Western market. Whether literary fiction, historical fiction, fantasy or mystery, there is no shortage of compelling new novels set in this vast, diverse region. Some are new translation while others are English originals, but they will all suit armchair travelers desperate to immerse themselves in new cultures.

One of the better books I have read so far this summer is If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha. Set in Seoul, it follows four young women trying to make their way in a society with impossibly high standards for women. Strict social hierarchies, the insanely profitable Korean beauty and plastic surgery industries, sexism, classism and the like – it is all covered in this book. If you are looking for an eye-opening slice of life that pulls back the curtain on some of the glamour associated with K-drama and K-pop, this is it.

The next book on my to-read list is Braised Pork by An Yu, which is set in Beijing. It tells the story of a woman trying to find purpose in her life after she finds her husband dead in a bathtub. It is clear to her that it is not suicide or accidental drowning, but the only clue is left for her is a drawing of a half fish/man creature. Braised Pork is literary fiction that incorporates some magical realism and a thread of mystery. Part domestic noir, part folklore myth, and partially a story about a woman finding her way in contemporary China, this book sounds like it at least ought to be memorable.

The Library of Legends by Canadian Janie Chang also has some elements of magical realism. Set in 1937 China, as Japanese bombs begin falling on the city of Nanking, Hu Lian and her classmates at Minghua University, entrusted with a priceless treasure (147 volumes of The Library of Legends), must embark upon a treacherous thousand-mile journey to Chengtu in order to keep the 500-year-old collection of myths and legends safe.

The Aosawa Murders is famed Japanese writer Riku Onda’s English debut. In 1973, 17 people die of cyanide poisoning at a villa on the Sea of Japan, including three generations of the well-to-do Aosawa family. They had consumed spirits and soft drinks delivered to the house as a gift. The mysterious crime reverberates through the decades as the community remains unsure “whodunit”. This book belongs to an emerging genre (at least in North America) of puzzle mysteries (called shin-honkaku or “the new orthodox” in Japan), which apparently gives the reader an entirely new mystery formula to work with. If you are tired of never being surprised by Western mysteries, maybe give The Aosawa Murders a try?

Breast and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami, another big-name writer in Japan, is a literary novel that takes a dark look at gender norms and expectations for women, tackling topics such as fertility, body image, and gender conformity. It is narrated from the perspective of an aspiring author and sometime blogger named Natsuko who lives alone in Tokyo and is struggling to move forward with her life. The latter portion of the book follows Natsuko nearly 10 years later, now a successful writer but still alone and considering artificial insemination, something unavailable for single people in Japan. Breast and Eggs has been endorsed by Haruki Murakami (who is very selective!), which means it is getting plenty of buzz.

Little Gods by Meng Jin is set in China in the turbulent 1980s. It follows 17-year-old Chinese American Liya on her journey to China with the ashes of her recently deceased mother, a mysterious woman with whom she had a fraught relationship.  Told as a series of stories about a mother to her daughter, from the perspectives of her former neighbour and classmate, the reader follows Liya as she tries to uncover who her enigmatic mother really was.

While it technically does not take place in East Asia, the Vietnam-set The Mountains Sing by Phan Que Mai Nguyen certainly delivers on evoking a strong sense of time and place. In the vein of Pachinko, this sweeping family saga follows a young girl in Hanoi whose family is torn apart by the Vietnam War. Her story is interwoven with that of her grandmother, who was born into privilege in the 1930s but barely survived the 1940s famine and the shockingly savage 1950s Land Reform. Beyond having some vague knowledge of the Vietnam War from the American POV, until reading this book I knew basically nothing about the dark, action-packed modern history of Vietnam. While devastating, The Mountains Sing is also a story of hope, survival, and the power of the human spirit. The library’s online book club is reading it this month and you are welcome to join us.

The books mentioned here are available in various formats. Reserve your copies at

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