The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

photo of two haenyo The Island of Sea Women (2019) by Lisa See is a fascinating dive into the story of haenyo, Korean women who dive, fishing for sea creatures, and the matrifocal society on the Korean island of Jeju. Not being a huge fan of See, it took me awhile to get into this novel. Even though I was not caught up in the book’s main relationship, a friendship between two haenyo Young-sook and Mi-Ja, I read with interest about the Jeju uprising from April 1948 – May 1949, a protest to the government’s division of Korea, in which approximately 10% of the island’s population died. Another large segment of the population immigrated to Japan thereafter. An historical fiction novel based firmly in Korea’s recent history.

My utter lack of knowledge about this April 4 event on Jeju is somewhat like the Armenia genocide or the famine in Soviet Russia, large scale tragedies somewhat downplayed in traditional histories. See’s novels often revolve around a little-known aspect of history or geography and her own books such as The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane are likely the best read-alikes if you enjoy this one. If interested in Korea, try the following authors; Chang-rae Lee, Min Jin Lee and Han Kang. Photos of haenyo are available in this New Yorker article.

The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen

The Keeper of Lost Causes (2007) by Jussi Adler-Olsen is the first novel in his Department Q series. Although I love Scandinavian crime stories, I somehow missed this one when it first came out in translation. In this series, Carl Morck, one of Copenhagen’s best detectives, is injured in a case. After a shoot out that kills one of his partners and gravely injures another, Morck returns to active duty, plagued with guilt. He is put in charge of Department Q, a new department, consisting of himself, to solve Denmark’s cold cases. At first, Morck wants to hole up and avoid interaction with the outside world but eventually, with the help of his new assistant, a Syrian refugee, Morck starts in on the cold cases. They start work on the case of a missing liberal politician, presumed dead five years previous. Morck discovers enough holes in the case to investigate and it’s a race to read through to the end.

People who enjoy Nordic Noir like Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo will enjoy this police procedural set in Denmark. What is Nordic Noir? Mostly stories of brutal crimes in serene settings. For a better description of the genre and some great suggestions of films, podcasts and books in the genre, read this article. My favorite books of this type are Faceless Killers with Detective Wallander by Mankell and Voices with Detective Erlendur by Arnaldur Indridason. Also to try Raven Black by Ann Cleeves.

Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman

Catherine Steadman’s Something in the Water (2018) is a surprisingly fast paced intricately plotted thriller. Surprising as it is the debut novel from an already accomplished actor, who we last saw in the tv series Downton Abbey as Lady Mabel Lane Fox. The story opens with a grave being dug but it is all unsure- Who? When? Why? The story then progresses with a young British couple, Erin and Mark, who are planning their wedding. Erin is a documentary filmmaker, creating a film which follows three individuals who are being released from jail. Mark, an investment banker, loses his job just before the wedding and the couple is forced to economize. The one splurge they keep is their honeymoon trip to Bora Bora. There they find something in the water; a circle of floating papers. From there, they investigate while the reader is thinking no, don’t do that, stop! Mark and Erin decide to keep what they find and use it to fund their new married life but suspicions creep in. British investigators show up, Erin’s film criminals act oddly, and the Russian mafia makes an appearance. Definitely a page turner!

Reese Witherspoon’s company Hello Sunshine is turning this book into a TV series, so get ready and read it now! Read a bit about Steadman’s idea for the novel’s plot here. In these days of being stuck at home, read about Bora Bora and dream. Finally, try these other high- octane thrillers; Sharp Objects, In a Dark, Dark Wood and Eileen.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

early photo of Hillary RodhamRodham (2020) by Curtis Sittenfeld is the author’s newest offering, a counter factual novel based around the idea that Hillary and Bill Clinton never married. Initially, the book covers Hillary’s early years at Wellesley and Yale. Much of this is known to Americans and not a surprise. I felt uneasy with the first person narrative and whether or not the events were reported accurately. But once Hillary left Bill in Arkansas and the book deviated from reality, the drama noticeably increased for me. Hillary becomes a law professor and Senator (but not from New York), dealing non-stop with double standards for women politicians. All this comes into sharp contrast when Hillary runs against Bill for the Democratic nomination in the 2016 presidential race and wins. As Hillary goes on to become the first woman president of the US, her accomplishments, sacrifices and deal-making, both real and imagined, are on full display. A big book but a fast read after the first third.

Since this is inherently a political tale, enjoy this Washington Post podcast about the book.  People who enjoy this book would also love Sittenfeld’s other novel, American Wife, based loosely on Laura Bush. Listen to this podcast in which Sittenfeld discusses how and why she writes about living political figures. Other counterfactual novels to try include The Man in the High Castle, The Plot Against America, and 11/22/63.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such a Fun Age (2019) by Kiley Reid, her debut novel, is a complicated coming of age story. The plot is full of millennial concerns, childhood joys, racial tensions and feminist challenges. The story centers around two women, a babysitter and the mother of the babysitting charge. Emira, a 25 year old black woman, works as a part-time babysitter and typist, while trying to figure out how to have an adult life, preferably with health benefits. Emira babysits three-year-old Briar, the child of Alix, a white woman who has recently moved to Philadelphia for her husband’s career while putting her own on the back burner. Alix asks Emira to take Briar out of the house late at night while Alix deals with an issue at home. Emira takes the child to a grocery store, where a white customer contacts security about her, a black woman out with a white child late at night. The heart of the book comes next, the reactions and repercussions of this main event. While a lot is going on in this book, it reads smoothly and eloquently with beautifully drawn characters. Really a page turner while the reader considers the double meaning of “such a fun age;” the idyllic early childhood time and the poignant early adult years.

 For more information about this new author, read this interview with her. For a rigorous dive into black authors, here is a possible reading list. Read-alikes for this novel include Little Fires Everywhere, Queenie, That Kind of Mother and Another Brooklyn.  All of these books are contemporary character-driven novels with story lines linked to race, adulthood and motherhood.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

The Library Book by Susan Orlean (2018) is a non-fiction tale about librarianship, centered around the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Central Library. While Orlean investigates the fire and searches for a suspect, she also highlights the LA librarians and the entire profession. The reader grows to love these eccentric librarians, really caring about the Great Library War at the turn of the last century, a staff battle between an incumbent female employee and an incoming male one. Each librarian was unique and each improved the library. Orlean extensively researches her subject, detailing how the LA Library has tried to evolve with the times, including their response during the Great Depression, the war years and after the Internet. During those trying times, the library adapted with first aid courses, a defense information desk, later hours and more. Orlean’s book had me taking notes on ways libraries today can reconfigure their services in light of the coronavirus.

To get a feel for the LA Library then and now, enjoy these photos. Other books to read about libraries include the following fiction choices; Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson, The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami and The Bad Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer, a non-fiction read.

A Beautiful Crime by Christopher Bollen

A Beautiful Crime by Christopher Bollen is a literary thriller in the full sense of the word; beautifully written, atmospheric, immersive and just plain fun. The novel is set mostly in Venice, where two young men try to pull off heist, stealing from a millionaire and hoping he won’t really notice. The two con men, Clay and Nick, are Americans, both escaping chaotic personal and professional lives in New York City. They set off on a new relationship and aim to use their smarts and charm to sell counterfeit antiquities and ultimately fund their future life together. Lots of things, people and in fact, Venice itself, get in the way of crime but, as the title suggests, the whole thing is so beautiful I didn’t mind at all.

Clay, one of the main characters, gets to Venice by means of an internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. Listen to this podcast about Peggy Guggenheim and how she came to set up that museum for more background. Readers who enjoyed Snow Falling on Cedars, Ordinary Grace or The Secret History would also enjoy this novel.