In her debut novel The Calligrapher’s Daughter (Holt, $26), Eugenia Kim focuses on the story of Korean resistance to the indignities of the Japanese occupation of their country from 1905 to 1945. Her characters navigate early 20th-century Korean history as the society changed from a static and highly structured culture to one of increasing modernity. Najin, based on Kim’s mother, is a young woman who wants to be recognized for her own contributions rather than merely facilitating the achievements of her father, husband, and brother. Najin’s story is unique, but it is also a common story of women who want to choose their own lives. Najin and the rest of her family, her mother, father, and brother, emerge from the pages of Kim’s book as people you might know. Kim joins the ranks of other excellent Korean-American authors, among them, Chang Rae Lee (Native Speaker) and Min Jin Lee (Free Food for Millionaires).
In Homer & Langley (Random House, $26) E. L. Doctorow uses the true story of Manhattan’s eccentric Collyer brothers and re-imagines it to take the reader on a tour of 20th-century America. From World War I through the Summer of Love, Doctorow brilliantly and poignantly writes in the voice of Homer, the blind younger brother, discussing the changes in the larger world while he and Langley continue to erode inside their smaller one, searching for love and companionship in a society they understand less and less with each passing year.
As she did in her memoir, The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls spins family dysfunction into a riveting, triumphant tale. Walls writes Half Broke Horses (Scribner, $26), a “true-life novel,” in the voice of her spirited, defiant grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. Lily grew up in the Depression’s grueling rural poverty, moving from a Texas dugout to a failing New Mexico ranch. She was forced to leave school when her father spent her tuition money on a pack of great Danes, but she still became a pilot, rancher, and teacher. Think Little House on the Prairie, with a bit more grit and a lot more sass.