‘Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982,’ ‘A Beginning at the End,’ and More—6 Novels for Mid-Year Reading
6 novels to read, from a sci-fi family drama to the plight of Korean women
For your mid-year reading, we’ve rounded up 6 new novels you can check out, from crime fiction mixed with historical fiction, intricate mysteries, and sci-fi family dramas.
More than being compelling crime mystery stories, these two novels wonderfully capture particular eras, bringing them to life. With Finch, it’s 1855 London, while Price whisks us to upstate New York and the Catskills from the 1950s to the present day.
With Moore’s The Holdout, there are echoes of 12 Angry Men; while Harvey’s The Western Wind is driven in reverse, as the medieval mystery is revealed in reverse order over four holy days.
Chen’s sci-fi family drama has as a premise, the aftermath of a global pandemic, while Cho’s novel is a searing expose of the plight of today’s Korean women.
The Last Passenger by Charles Finch
A Charles Lenox prequel-mystery, this novel opens in 1855; years before Lenox formally began his career as a private detective and Member of Parliament. With a wonderful sense of time and place, Victorian London, it would do well to note that Conan Doyle published his first Sherlock adventure in 1887. So as Finch would have it, Lenox predates Holmes. And for those who are interested, Finch has written several well-regarded Lenox mysteries, and it was back in 2017, that he began a trilogy of prequels - the Last Passenger being the concluding installment.
When the Manchester-London train arrives at Paddington Station, one solitary passenger remains in his seat. He’s been murdered, disemboweled, and he’s been stripped of every possibly identifying item on him, including the labels of his clothes and shoes. Lenox is called upon to assist Scotland Yard, and before long, an ugly conspiracy that has to do with stamping down anti-slavery Americans seeking support important British politicians, rears it’s head. But nothing is ever as cut and dry as it would seem, as there are deeper and more venal considerations at play. A well-written, fascinating mystery, and probing study of social interaction in Victorian London.
The Hotel Neversink by Adam O’Fallon Price
The 2020 Edgar Award Winner for Paperback Original, this mystery novel uses a family saga and the checkered history of a grand hotel in the Catskills to gift us with a compelling, sweeping novel. Asher Sikorsky emigrates with his poor family to the United States in the early 20th century; and turns his little upstate New York farm to what would be called today a successful B&B. After years of continued success, Asher acquires the Foley’s Folly of a hotel, and rechristens it the Neversink. One would have to look back to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, to find a Hotel casting this kind of shadow across the pages of a novel.
The novel uses different narrators for every chapter; and the mystery starts up in the 1950’s as daughter Jeanie narrates, and talks about the disappearance of a young guest, Jonah. The disappearance is followed by other young children in the locality also going missing. From the man who would be Head of Security, to other family members, including in-laws, grandchildren, and great grandchildren; we are treated to the glory days, decline, and eventual failure of a family’s fortunes, and the establishment. A family, it’s fortunes, the price it’s members would pay for that success, and the secrets that lurk below the surface - they’re all part of the magical spell cast by this novel.
The Holdout by Graham Moore
Author of The Sherlockian and The Last Days of Night, Graham Moore has become one of my favorite young authors on the strength of those two earlier works. He’s also dabbled in the world of cinema, writing the screenplay for The Imitation Game, and if ‘dabbled’ is still the right word, that film earned him an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. With The Holdout, Moore takes on the legal thriller genre. There are two timelines in this novel; one, from a decade ago, finds Maya Seale in her mid-twenties, summoned to perform jury duty on a much-celebrated case, while the second timeline is the present day, and Maya is now a defense attorney.
The ‘case’ has to do with the disappearance of the 15-year old daughter of an LA billionaire-developer. The young girl’s African-American teacher would seem to be the last person to have seen her, and there are all sorts of incriminating evidence giving said teacher motive and opportunity. Maya sways the jury to hand in a very unpopular Not Guilty verdict. On the anniversary of the trial, and now a lawyer, Maya is asked to join a TV documentary; and when one of her co-jurors is found dead in her hotel room, Maya finds herself enmeshed in a high stakes game of proving her innocence. Told in time-sensitive alternate chapters, Moore masterfully takes us for a ride through the legal system, miscarriages of justice, and suspenseful revelations.
The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey
Set over four days in 1491, this novel is the unravelling of a medieval murder mystery. The very unique thing about is that it starts on Shrove Tuesday, then moves backward in time, over four fateful days, to Egg Saturday. So rather than addressing the question of What happens next?, this novel becomes a matter of us understanding why things happened as they did, the motives and reasons behind the turn of events we discover at the outset of the story. The setting is Oakham, a small isolated village; where John Reve, our main protagonist, is the parish priest.
The themes of the narrative have a lot to do with community, the nexus of power within the village, and how it deals with outside forces (as represented by the deacon, who arrives when a mysterious drowning occurs). Central to the unraveling of the story is the concept of confession, and how the parish priest is privy to the innermost secrets of the members of the community, and has the obligation to use this knowledge to help the deacon get to the bottom of the drowning, and presumed death of the local ‘richest man’—one of two persons who would be considered the landed gentry in the locality.
A Beginning At the End by Mike Chen
This novel was released in January of this year, but to call it prophetic is an understatement. The story is set in San Francisco 2025, 6 years after a global pandemic wipes out 70% of America’s population. But rather than going into detail about the virus or the events of 2019, the novel focuses on individuals trying to stitch their lives back together. There’s widower Rob, with daughter Sunny, who’s not been told the truth about her mother having passed away years ago during the pandemic outbreak. Then we have Moira, who was a 19-year old teenage pop star when the global chaos and quarantine broke, and Krista, an events and weddings planner.
What resonates with this novel is how Chen makes us invest in his main protagonists. The cracks and fissures in their personalities are exposed from the outset, making them that much more vulnerable, human, and easy to relate to. In the case of Rob, it’s the glaring mistake of keeping secret from Sunny the death of her Mother in the hope of protecting her. With Moira, it’s the nightmare of constantly looking over her shoulder as her domineering father is still looking for her; and Krista has her own ghosts of her past to reconcile with and settle. Ultimately, it’s a timely novel about friendship, family, and relationships during a time when survival and looking out for oneself would be the knee-jerk reaction.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo
This is the novel that became such a controversial bestseller when it was first published in South Korea in 2016. In novel form, a slight 162 pages; its notoriety stems from being a subdued, but hard-hitting expose of the continuous gender inequality and discrimination that exists in today’s modern Korea. When it was published, the inescapable fact remained that despite enjoying First World status as a nation, the average Korean woman entering the work arena would earn only 65% of her male counterpart. This despite having the same education and training. And beyond that financial disparity, there was the factor of opportunity - how promotions and advancement would be reserved for men.
Structured as the report of a psychiatrist asked to examine Jiyoung’s seeming descent into madness, after the birth of her daughter - which she still has to apologize for to her in-laws, as it isn’t the favored and hoped for son. Through said report, we understand Jiyoung’s journey, as a child, her teenage years and education, her stalled professional career, marriage and motherhood. It’s the patriarchal society at work, dictating how Korean women have to balance work & family, the set roles that have to execute. A film adaptation was released late 2019, and during the recent Baeksang Awards, the film won for Best New Film Director. On a postscript note, to this day, when women celebrities reference the novel, hate mail arrives.
Lead photos from Amazon