Books

Views into various cultures open unexplored chapters on the human condition

One needn’t read travel books to vicariously immerse oneself in other cultures. Novels can do a fine job of that, with the bonus of being able to take us into the past. Consider these titles, some available now, some to come:

“Dragon Springs Road” by Janie Chang (William Morrow, $16, 400 pages; on sale Jan. 10): In 1908, the Eurasian child Jialing is abandoned by her mother at an estate in Shanghai, at the mercy of the owners, the Yangs, who use her as a servant. To survive, she befriends the oldest Yang daughter and the “spirit guide” known as Fox. As she reaches womanhood, she finds herself on the periphery of a murder and falls into a love affair that could spell disaster.

“Selection Day” by Man Booker Prize-winner Aravind Adiga (Scribner, $26, 304 pages): In this tale set in the slums of Mumbai (a la “Slum Dog Millionaire”), an obsessed father grooms his two sons for fame and fortune on the cricket field. Now teenagers, they find the pressure is on from unexpected quarters to stand and deliver. Complications arise and the tension mounts in this different sort of coming-of-age tale.

“The Acid Test” by Elmer Mendoza (MacLehose Press, $25, 240 pages): Mendoza’s latest novel to feature police detective Lefty Mendieta is once again set against a backdrop of violence and drug-trafficking. This time out, Lefty investigates the murder of a stripper, which leads to a confrontation with Samantha Valdes, the boss of the Cartel del Pacifico. Mendoza is a master of narco-literature, a subgenre of crime fiction set in Mexico that puts perspective on how narcotics trafficking has affected the culture and politics of that country.

“Lucky Boy” by Shanthi Sekaran (Putnam, $27, 480 pages): The impoverished Soli Valdez is in the United States illegally when she gives birth to a son in Berkeley, a boy she loves madly but can barely support. Meanwhile, well-to-do Indian American Kavya Reddy is childless, so she and her husband are ready to adopt. Soon, baby Ignacio becomes the pawn in a custody battle that raises larger questions about adoption and the socioeconomics of immigration.

“Human Acts” by Man Booker Interntional Prize-winner Han Kang (Hogarth, $22, 224 pages; on sale Jan. 17): Kang interconnects the chapters in her novel to focus on characters who are irreparably affected by the historic Gwangju Uprising in South Korea in May 1980, in which government troops killed an estimated 600 protesters. The Guardian calls it “an act of unflinching witness.”

“The Refugees” by Pulitzer Prize- and Edgar Award-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Press, $25, 224 pages; on sale Feb. 7): The stories in this “captivating testament to the dreams and hardships of immigration” follow the travails of Vietnamese emigrants who arrive in their new lives to discover more questions than answers.

Grab bag of new titles

Feel free to reach in and help yourselves:

Artists around the world with compelling stories to tell have proved that graphic novels inhabit a universe far removed from “comic books.” In “Comics Confidential,” editor Leonard S. Marcus compiles interviews (and a dozen original strips) with 13 cutting-edge graphic novelists, who talk about their “stories, craft and life outside the box” (Candlewick, $25, 192 pages).

Among crime novelist Gregg Hurwitz’s 18 books are a pair concerning the superquirky Evan Smoak, a unique character who is a highly trained ex-assassin now devoted to championing underdogs in need. “The Nowhere Man” is the latest (after “Orphan X”), in which the ingenious Smoak is held prisoner by a madman and must use all his wits to escape (Minotaur, $26, 368 pages; on sale Jan. 17).

In “History of Wolves” by Emily Fridlund, teenager Linda lives with her out-of-touch parents in the Minnesota woods in a commune long passed over by the counterculture (Atlantic Monthly Press, $25, 288 pages). When the “mainstream” Gardner family moves in nearby and asks her to baby-sit and hang out, she feels she’s finally found some normalcy – until their life-threatening secrets are revealed. This debut thriller is getting big buzz.

You’ll do fine to think of “The Bear and the Nightingale” as a dark fairytale for grown-ups, but then you’ll discover so much more (Del Ray, $27, 336 pages). Wild-child Vasilisa lives in 14th-century Russia “on the edge of the wilderness” with her father and, yes, evil stepmother, who denies the existence of their sustaining household spirits and the woodland sprites. That’s when things go south and ancient beings emerge from the forests, and they are not happy.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

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