So, as you may have guessed by the name Tsundoku Girl, reading and Asian culture are both things I have a huge interest in. I’ve been an avid bookworm my whole life, and my very first real career ambition at the age of about 8 was to study China as a professional sinologist! After that, I became enraptured with Japan, and more recently, South Korea. From the culture to the languages, rich history and traditions, beautiful landscapes, music and awesome beauty products, East Asia is a region that has always fascinated me.
This culminated in me setting up the Asian Autumn reading challenge with The Open Bookshelf and The Annotated Bookshelf last year, to further explore Asia via literature. Now 2019 has rolled in, I’ve not only booked my first holiday to Asia (Seoul, to be specific!) but also spotted the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge, which sounds absolutely perfect for me!
Created by Shealea from Shut Up Shealea and co-hosted by CW from The Quiet Pond, Lily from Sprinkles of Dreams, and Vicky from Vicky Who Reads, the challenge is to read as many books written by Asian authors as you can! Shealea says these books can be backlist titles (i.e. released in 2018 or earlier), new releases, and even ARCs, and can be any genre, format, or length.
In order for a book to count, all you have to do is start and finish it in 2019. Rereads count too, just as long as they’re re-read between 1st January 2019 and 31st December 2019! You can also sign up at any point in the year, so it’s not too late if you’re thinking of starting now – I mean, here I am, joining in March!
As well as monthly link-ups, chats, prompts, giveaways and recommendations, another super fun element the team have created is badges to correspond with your reading goal! I really wanted to go for the giant panda badge, because anyone who knows me knows I have a penchant for pandas, but since my reading goal for 2019 is 45 books overall, I’m gonna go for the Malayan tapir badge instead. Which will you choose?
Follow the challenge on Twitter (@YearOfTheAsian) for announcements, surprises, and more bookish fun. The official hashtag for this reading challenge is #YARC2019. I’ll be updating on here and over on my Instagram especially, so make sure you stay tuned!
Let’s round up what I’ve already read
Since I’m starting this Asian reading challenge, I thought now would be a good time to do a round-up of the books I read for Asian Autumn and also outside of that by Asian authors from last year up until now. Thanks Maraia for reminding me I haven’t actually updated you guys on this yet!
This trilogy is one I genuinely didn’t think I’d like. I used to say I wasn’t one for romance books, but I realised I hadn’t really read many at all so could be making a sweeping judgement and depriving myself of good books! Books such as A Court of Thorns and Roses have confirmed that the smuttier sort of romance books are definitely not my cup of tea (sorry 50 Shades fans, you won’t find any recommendations from me here!), but the Lara Jean trilogy made me realise that actually, a little light-hearted romance can be quite refreshing.
(I know, pass the bucket. I’ve gone soft in my old age!)
Anyway, the trilogy follows Lara Jean Covey, a Korean-American teen, as she goes through the highs and lows of her first relationship. The series kicks off when a hat box full of letters Lara Jean had privately written to boys she liked to “exorcise” herself of her crushes goes missing, and the letters mysteriously start landing on the doorsteps of the boys in question. Mortified, Lara Jean goes into damage control mode but realises that actually, the letters coming out might have done her a favour.
This trilogy is light-hearted, but tackles some serious issues such as bullying, first love, loneliness, and more. It also has a great family dynamic and fab side characters, so it was a welcome first step into the fluffy world of romance for me!
This book is one of those ones that makes you stop and think. It questions happiness and wealth and if the two can exist together, and sheds light on productivity, the health of the mind and body, and how much we do on autopilot instead of stopping to savour the moment. Aside from being very insightful and pretty poignant in places, the book is beautifully written and very quoteable. One quote in particular that resonated with me was: “We are so obsessed with if the cup is half full or half empty, but the important thing is: there’s water in the cup – stop complaining and drink it.” This quote, along with the book itself, is a reminder that we can get wrapped up and bogged down in the tiniest aspects of daily life, without stopping to stand back and look at the bigger picture. When we do, we’re able to put that issue into context, and usually see we’ve got it pretty good overall. This book is a little piece of peace!
This is now one of my all-time favourite books. You know when you read something and you just think: “this author really gets me!”? That was this whole book for me! Funnily enough, towards the end of the book, one of the comics revealed that the author is the exact same personality type as me – an INFJ!
Anyway, this book is a collection of watercolour comics about life as an introvert. Some are laugh-out-loud funny, some are sad, and all (if you’re anything like me) will have you shouting “it’s me!”. As cheesy as it sounds, this book made me feel totally understood, and I turn to Debbie Tung’s Instagram for inspiration, understanding and motivation to this day!
This book was everywhere last summer, and I picked it up not knowing anything about it. I’m glad I did it that way actually, because I went into it totally blind and was able to really appreciate how bizarre and dark the plot was without warning!
The book spotlights societal prejudices, as we see the world through the eyes of Keiko, an unmarried 30-something who leaves on her own and works in a convenience store. It questions why society deems certain jobs to be “not real jobs”, why it’s supposedly shameful to reach a certain age and be single, and why women are expected to aim for marriage, children and being co-dependent housewives as opposed to a solitary life with a job to support it. It also highlights how different people are and how they can interact, and makes you question why your inner voice tells you that someone is strange for doing something that breaks these societal norms.
It was an unexpectedly dark book that was unapologetically bleak and real. I can see why it was flying off bookshelves!
My God, this book sucker-punched me in the heart. Told from the perspective of a beloved cat, the story follows Nana, a black cat who is taken on an unexpected road trip by his owner, Satoru. Along the way, we see the world through Nana’s eyes, understanding both his story and Satoru’s, and how they intertwine. It’s a very poignant tale about relationships, the joy of a pet, and life itself. I can’t say much more than that without giving it away, but there’s a reason this book is so popular and has been made into a movie. It really will stay with me for a long time, and I’d strongly recommend it.
Banana Yoshimoto has a very distinctive style of writing. Every time I read something by her, I feel like I’m in a kind of slow-motion, fuzzy dream world where nothing quite seems real. It’s hard to explain, but somehow, she makes the reader feel cocooned in this strange, safe bubble, then pops that bubble unexpectedly and leaves you to tumble to a heap on the floor of the real world.
This surreal book is a collection of three short stories, following three women bewitched into a spiritual sleep. Dealing with themes of loss, grief, love, and heartbreak, this book is dream-like, bizarre, and very Banana Yoshimoto.
I love Death Note. It conjures up fond memories of watching until way too late on a school night with my dad, and spending weekends sleeping over at my friend El’s marathon-watching it. As well as the manga, the anime has that same addictive cleverness, coupled with beautiful artwork.
Anyway, this book is a novel based on the characters in the Death Note series, though with an alternative timeline to the original manga/anime. It follows Detective L as he races against time to stop a terrorist group from unleashing a deadly virus on the world before the Death Note does its work and takes his life.
When it comes to comparisons, this one is dubbed the Charlotte’s Web of South Korean books, and I can see why. It’s got that same power to suck you into the animals’ stories and get you emotionally invested – and exhausted! It’s quite a feat really, making a human reader relate to a hen, but Sun-Mi Hwang has somehow managed it.
The story follows Sprout, an egg-laying hen who can no longer lay eggs of her own. Too scrawny to eat, she’s no longer any good to the farmer and is cast out to die. However, Sprout is determined to hatch an egg and have a baby of her own before she dies. Along the way, she meets unlikely allies, experiences prejudice, fights for survival, and learns the power of love and sacrifice. It’s a short but sweet story about unconvential families of all shapes and sizes, with a bittersweet takeaway that makes you feel both empowered, inspired and a bit broken!
I have mixed feelings about this one. The narrator is a Dexter-like character who instead of killing those he thinks deserve death, haunts lonely, struggling, and emotionally scarred people and suggests solace in suicide. On the surface, I thought this book would have the intriguing elements Dexter presents – is it right, is it wrong? Who deserves death? Shouldn’t we be the masters of our own end? However, I felt that all the book’s different elements, although vivid (sometimes a little too vivid!), weren’t quite embroidered together well enough to present one, single, impactful story.
Young-Ha Kim’s style, like a lot of East Asian books I’ve read, is described as “dream-like and cinematic”, and I can definitely see why, though it was a little too dreamy for my liking. For me, I was left feeling a little unsatisfied at the end, as there are so many threads that don’t quite get woven firmly into the final tapestry.
It kind of reminded me of Asleep in a strange way. On my journey through Asian literature, I’ve noticed a lot of it, in particular Japanese and South Korean books, have a focus on death, its impact on others, and a strange dream-like prose that to me, feels almost like watching a movie in slow motion. It’s hard to explain – it’s not a bad thing or a suggestion that the books feel slow, it’s just that the story feels like it’s caught in a bubble while the rest of the world in the book happens around it. It’s very different to Western literature.
This book has a similar cover to The Travelling Cat Chronicles, and was in the buy one, get one half price offer, so how could I resist?! However, unlike The Travelling Cat Chronicles, this book is not told from the point of view of the cat – though cats are quite heavily featured throughout, as you may guess! The premise is that our protagonist has a week left to live, and the Devil appears to him, promising one extra day of life in exchange for making something disappear from the world. Sounds easy enough, but it is a deal with the Devil after all – you can’t just get rid of, say, dirt on shoes, or racism, or something like that. The Devil dictates and our protagonist is left wondering what makes life worth living, the value of relationships, hobbies, and pets, and ultimately, questioning what makes one life more important than another. It’s poignant, and left me sitting looking a bit broken on the train after I finished it!
This book is the biography of Japan’s most famous geisha – in fact, the one the very well-known Memoirs of a Geisha is based on. It offered a really interesting insight into geisha culture, dispelled myths (e.g. geishas are not in any way prostitutes), and wove a rich tapestry of Japan’s history and values through Mineko’s own experience and her accompanying photographs. The story is both inspiring, saddening and insightful, and really educated me on geishas and their place in Japanese society.
This book got me totally hooked on Korean skincare. Written by licensed esthetician and Soko Glam co-founder Charlotte Cho, the book translates skincare science into bitesize nuggets, so that anyone who picks up the book can understand how skin works, how skincare ingredients work, and how to get both to harmonise. It also offered a great cultural insight, as Charlotte is Korean-American who grew up in America and was very much into Western beauty and skincare, so the book is an awesome way to show the differences and best bits of both Western and Eastern beauty and cultures, as well as offering some cool tips as to what to look for and where to go if you visit South Korea! (Thanks Charlotte, I’ll be using your tips in May when I go!)
This book was a total surprise. I won’t lie, I picked it up because I thought the story sounded sort of interesting but mainly because the cover is so pretty. But it was a kind of reverse judging-a-book-by-its-cover situation, because I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the book as much as I enjoyed the cover. As it stands, the book really made an impact on me and I’ve since recommended it to multiple people.
Sweet Bean Paste follows Sentaro, a man who once dreamed of becoming a writer, as he works what he considers a dead-end job to pay off the debts he owes after getting out of prison. Every day, he half-heartedly makes dorayaki – a Japanese delicacy consisting of tiny pancakes filled with sweet bean paste – and serves to half-satisfied customers, before going home and living a miserable half-life until it’s time to come back to work again.
All this changes when a withered old woman with disfigured hands asks to work in the shop. Sentaro says no, but Tokue eventually wins him over with her amazing home made bean paste. She begins to work in the shop, and an unlikely friendship blossoms between the two outsiders – an ex-convict and a cripple who people turn away from on the streets. This story is one of redemption, happiness, heartbreak and the importance of friendship, with a poignant message for its readers.
This book wasn’t quite what I was expecting, and some of the tips I was a little skeptical about, but this book does offer a nice insight into the benefits of traditional Korean foods on the skin, and offer some recipes that certainly look tasty, whether they actually do benefit the skin or not!
Good god, what is it with these books and hurting my heart?!
This book really made an impact on me. Set in 1980s/90s South Korea, Human Acts is an imagined snippet of a bleak time in Korean history when the president (nicknamed The Butcher) passed martial law, leading to protests from the public and horrendous, brutal consequences at the hands of the barbaric government soldiers. Through various different characters and stories, the books shows the impact of this period on individual people and the country as a whole through time, creating a ripple effect that still touches people in South Korea today. Kang makes sure you know the visceral, physical torment of this era – I found myself utterly horrified yet utterly gripped and unable to put the book down. It’s by no means a happy story – in fact, it kind of made me feel down for a while afterward – but it’s one that needs to be heard and delivers a powerful message about humanity.
(We’ll get onto the second book pictured in just a minute 😉 )
To be honest, I didn’t quite get the hype around this one. It’s not a bad book, by any means, but I wasn’t quite enraptured by it like others seem to be.
It follows a Chinese American family living in 1970s Ohio, and does very clearly show the differences in the supposedly shared life of interracial couples and people. A husband and wife can live the same life, but not experience the same prejudices or struggles, and this book shows that. It also shows this struggle for interracial children, as well as what family life looks like behind closed doors.
Lydia Lee is the favourite child of both her parents. With the bright blue eyes of her American mother and glossy dark hair of her Chinese father, both parents project the dreams they didn’t fulfill onto the “perfect” Lydia. Her brother and younger sister have strained relationships with both Lydia and their parents, but the whole family maintains a delicate balance – up until Lydia’s body is found in the bottom of a lake, and that balance is completely and utterly shattered.
It’s a story about the secrets between family members, and how you can know a person but not really know them or understand them.
Oh, would you look at that? Another book that made me unexpectedly emotional!
This book is set in the same era as Human Acts which I mentioned above, but deals with the emotional torment more than the physical torment. It has the dream-like narrative of a Banana Yoshimoto book combined with the visceral tragedy of Han Kang’s book. The story follows Jung Yoon, who was a university student during the political uprising of 1980s Korea, as she is dragged back into her past by a phone call from a friend she hasn’t spoken to in years which forces her to relive the most intense time of her life. This book deals with tragedy, torment, relationships, and what you’d do to save the one you love.
I see why this book is so famous! I much preferred it to Asleep. Kitchen is a tale of grief and unconventional families. It follows Mikage, who is taken in by her friend Yoichi and his mother Eriko, who is a transgender woman. The story explores identity, relationships, romantic, platonic and familial love, and is a somewhat bittersweet look into life and what it actually means.
Whew! That was quite a few! I’ve got a tonne more on my list, which I’ll be venturing through for the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge this year! Drop me a comment and let me know if you’ve read any of these, or let me know your favourite book or most anticipated read for 2019!