6 New Novels To Keep You Engaged During The Quarantine
Our resident critic recommends the books he’s reading to while away the time during the quarantine
Novels that carry trenchant social commentary often run the risk of becoming too preachy or didactic, but here you’ll find two authors who have a lot to say about knowing your own identity and today’s world of social media, but know how to keep you laughing while providing food for thought.
For the next two books, as one can imagine, Korea is much more than Crash Landing On You, K-Pop, and even the social tension of Parasite. Organized crime, for example, is very much entrenched in this country, its tentacles reaching far and wide. You’ll find two crime fiction novels that explore crime from a Korean perspective.
And finally, while the library and a museum are places where there’s a premium placed on silence; you have to extend a loud shout-out for these two really enjoyable novels.
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
Often cited for his fiction and his work on television (he was nominated for two Writers Guild of America Awards for his work on HBO’s Westworld); Yu reflects upon his own Chinese-American heritage in this latest work that skewers identity, and the racist imagination that prevails in contemporary America. While it’s a vicious, biting commentary on popular culture and racism, it’s also a big-heartedly family tale.
Willis Wu works on a television cop series, and longs for the day he can ascend to play 'Kung Fu Guy'— which for him is the top of the hill in terms of casting possibilities open to actors of Chinese-American lineage. But season after season, he plays 'Generic Asian Man,' or can be picked out to play 'Disgraced Son,' or 'Background Oriental Making a Weird Face'—which is better than 'Oriental Fatality in Chinese Restaurant or Street Scene,' as that means minimum three months of no work until you can be ‘resurrected’.
What’s brilliant and playful about this novel is how it’s written in the form of a screenplay. You’ll love Willis’ mother who herself works in television, formerly 'Pretty Chinese Waitress,' and now, 'Chinese Restaurant Manager,' and keeps telling Willis to be more. On the level of Hollywood tropes and Asian stereotypes, it has a lot to say about finding your place in the world and the struggle to rise above the system.
Identity Crisis by Ben Elton
For those unfamiliar with Elton, he’s been writing for decades now; and has an uncanny knack for taking whatever happens to be the zeitgeist of the moment, and using it as fodder for his comedy novels. In the past, he’s dissected our obsession with celebrities, reality TV shows, and so on. In this latest work, he takes on our current world of being politically correct, the #meToo movement, and how the blizzard of hashtags has only made life so confusing.
It’s all nestled within a murder mystery plot device, how seemingly random murders are brought to the attention of old-school detective Mick Matlock, and it soon turns into a jumbled jungle of making sure he doesn’t offend some cause, movement, or fringe group as he goes about trying to solve the murders.
In a way, we can surmise that Matlock is Elton, a middle-aged regular Joe who’s now bewildered by all the additional letters being hoisted on identity groups such as LGBT, and then there was Q... +IA. Elton also pokes fun at the ‘public apology’; how it’s a device used to curry favor back for the individual who might have purposely said something controversial or offensive just to get the social media traffic. The whole ‘This is not who I am’ shtick. You’ll find this novel so familiar, and enjoy how Elton creates light comedy from the various identity groups who inhabit our world today and dominate the headlines. It’s all said in fun... or is it?
The Plotters by Un-Su Kim
If you’ve watched the film Old Boy in its original Korean; you’ll have a feel for what novelist Un-Su Kim brings to the table, and why he’s gathered so many fans from across the globe. It’s tense, muscular prose that doesn’t beat around the bush; with a plot that’s action-driven, and yet manages to inject an Everyman philosophical veneer. It’s a thriller, and there’s wry humor, shafts of sudden violence, and nuggets of wisdom.
Our anti-hero in The Plotters is Reseng, an aging hitman. The title refers to the faceless, shadowy bosses who pull his strings and have, for decades now, been giving him his ‘homework’. We’re thrust into this sub-world of crime syndicates, ‘players’, and assassins, and we’re treated to how they interact with the wider community and deal with life on an everyday basis. In other words, Kim projects then as people we’d pass on the street without giving them a second glance—blissfully unaware of the covert lives they lead.
The conflict arises as a semblance of a conscience suddenly pricks the side of Reseng; and he begins to do things that aren’t to the letter. He lets one woman die in a manner of her own choice; and this ruffles more than a few feathers. The reaction to Reseng’s change in routine, and the moves he takes to hopefully, protect himself, are what make for compelling reading.
Diary of a Murderer by Young-Ha Kim
Winner of practically every major Korean literature award, and translated into more than a dozen languages, this Seoul native is highly regarded—considered the best writer of his generation. Diary is really the title novella and three unconnected short stories. Together, they give us a glimpse of Kim’s range, and just how he manages to imbue his stories with strangeness and humanity in a single breath.
The titular novella is a minor masterpiece—it’s about a former serial killer who’s never been caught; and now in his old age, is suffering from dementia and memory loss. This Alzheimer-ed murderer now devotes his life to one final target; the boyfriend of his daughter, who he suspects is also a serial killer. It’s the ‘it takes one to know one’ adage; but given a surreal twist, and complicated by the fragile mental state of our protagonist.
The other three stories are little gems as well—one about a very unusual relationship between childhood friends, one about the aftermath of a child’s kidnapping and what happens when years later, the child is recovered, and finally, about the travails of a writer who’s seeking to reconnect with his creativity via erotic means. In other words, they’re all slightly twisted tales, and yet, we can relate to the stories—and that’s the magic conjured up by this author.
The Library of the Unwritten by A. J. Hackwith
If you’re looking something that’s clever, and a feast for book-lovers; this fantasy-adventure novel of A. J. Hackwith would certainly fit the bill. In terms of world-building, it imagines a section in Hell called the Unwritten Wing—a neutral, seemingly benign space, where all the stories unfinished by their respective authors reside. So essentially, these are ‘restless’ unfinished stories, and the unrealized characters keep trying to escape the library, searching for their author, to egg on or inspire completion.
Claire is head librarian of the Unwritten Wing; and the adventure starts when a frustrated hero escapes to enter the real world. Assisted by former muse and assistant librarian Brevity, and an unsure, nervous demon named Leto; the trio set off on a quest that turns out to have far more pressing implications than mere hero retrieval.
Of interest beyond the major characters are the figures introduced in this work of fervid imaginings; there’s the angel Ramiel who’s trying to atone for misdeeds of the past, and there are devils who are high up in the ‘food chain’ of Hell—flitting in and out of the proceedings and turning the story into a frantic play of reshaping the boundaries between Heaven, Earth, and Hell. A fun read.
Metropolitan Stories by Christine Coulson
More than some plot-driven novel, these are tenuously interconnected vignettes, both realistic and surreal, that serve as a ‘love poem’ to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The author began her career at the Museum in 1994 (she was a summer intern in 1991, and evidently fell in love with the institution); and left the Met in 2019 to write full-time. Her long professional relationship pays off as this book is one imaginative, enjoyable homage to her home of twenty five years.
It’s really a lovely excursion into the inner world of the Met. Naturally, there are stories that revolve around the people running the institution—personages who have been there even longer than Coulson. There are vignettes about the people who sit on the Board and help raise the money that keep the Museum afloat. And there are stories about the acquiring of pieces and the putting up of Special Exhibitions and shows at the Met.
And you’ll love it when Coulson’s creativity goes on full display, as when one short story is narrated by an antique chair, and the voice proceeds to compare itself and discourse with other chairs that are on display at the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. Playful, filled with detail, humor and magic, this was one great ‘tour’ of the Met from the comfort of one’s own armchair.
Lead photos from Amazon