After wrapping up our armchair travels through Europe, this month for the Book Voyage reading challenge we’ll be reading books set in Asia’s northern countries.
Asia is the largest and most populated continent on Earth and is home to some of the world’s oldest known human societies, dating back 600,000 years. As Asian societies became more sophisticated, they achieved remarkable accomplishments in technology, governance, and the arts.
Today, Asia is home to two of the largest economies in the world – China and Japan. It is also home to some of the most secretive governments, including North Korea and Turkmenistan.
With the increased violence against Asian Americans during the past year, we can’t publish this list of books set in Asia without stating our hope that, in addition to traveling virtually through their pages, these books will also help us all gain a deeper understanding of, and deeper respect for, our fellow humans. You can read more of our thoughts about the power of books here.
The Eurasian landmass is divided into two continents – Europe and Asia – but some countries, like Russia, straddle the border between the two. The Siberian region of eastern Russia is sometimes referred to as North Asia, but we are using a different definition of “Northern Asia” for purposes of the Book Voyage challenge. Since we grouped all of Russia in with Eastern Europe last month, we have not included Siberian Russia on our Asian list this month. In short, don’t take a geography test based on our divisions, they are for reading challenge purposes only!
For purposes of this reading challenge, we roughly divided Asia into northern and southern regions, and we consider northern Asian countries to include: Kazakstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China (including its autonomous areas, like Tibet), Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
PS: You can read all about the Book Voyage challenge, find new book lists each month, and download your free printable map book tracker, with a color-coded map of each region here.
As always, you are welcome to choose any book set in this region that you’d like. To help you get started, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best books set in Asia’s northern countries, including many great novels and historical fiction, compelling memoirs, and well-researched non-fiction reads.
We’ve worked hard to curate book recommendations that feature many Asian writers and emphasized books that provide atmospheric descriptions that transport you to the Asian country of your choice.
Best Books About Asia's Northern Countries
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Kohei has always loved words and devoted his career to creating dictionaries. As he nears retirement, he begins looking for a protégé that he can train to take his place. Kohei finds a kindred spirit in Mitsuya from the company's sales department. Mitsuya is assigned the monumental task of completing The Great Passage - a comprehensive 2,900-page tome of the Japanese language. Along the way, he'll find both friendship and romance, and he'll discover the way that words connect us all.
Translated from Japanese, this novel provides insights into Japanese culture and relationships. Through the character's many meals out together, you'll also learn about the important role that food plays in Japanese culture.
The Book Girls Say... This book is described as charmingly warm and hopeful. If you're looking for a lighter read that will have you craving delicious food and yearning to travel to Japan as soon as possible, this is that book.
The Kindle version is currently free with Kindle Unlimited.
In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja meets a wealthy man near her seaside home in Korea and becomes pregnant, only to discover that the man is married. He attempts to buy her off, but she instead accepts another man's offer and follows him to Japan, where they are discriminated against both for being Korean and Christian.
Sunja's decision to leave her home, and to reject her son's powerful father, sets the stage for this epic novel that follows four generations of a poor Korean immigrant family in 20th-century Japan. It is a history of one family and a political history of the relationship between Japanese and Koreans throughout the 1900s.
The Book Girls Say... This book is a bit slow to start and it can take some time to become familiar with all of the characters, but the investment pays off for most readers!
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 92% Would Recommend to a Friend
Named a New York Times “Notable Book of 2020,” and released on the 75th anniversary of the US dropping the nuclear bomb that decimated Hiroshima, Fallout is an engrossing non-fiction detective story, as well as an important piece of hidden history that shows how one heroic scoop saved—and can still save—the world.
Immediately after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US government began a secret propaganda and information suppression campaign to hide the truth about the devastating effects of nuclear weapons. Occupation forces closed the two cities to Allied reporters, preventing leaks about the horrific long-term effects of radiation which killed thousands during the months after the blast.
For nearly a year the cover-up worked - until New Yorker journalist John Hersey got into Hiroshima and managed to report the truth to the world. Even his fellow reporters didn’t know about his work until it was published in the magazine in August of 1946.
In Fallout, Blume reveals how Hershey courageously uncovered and reported on one one of the deadliest cover-ups of the 20th century. His revelations about the true effects of the atom bomb provided one of the greatest deterrents to ever using the weapons again, thereby potentially saving millions of lives.
The Book Girls Say... Our readers report that the audiobook is a bit monotone, so we don't recommend listening to this one.
Amaterasu Takahashi lost her daughter and grandson in 1945 when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. So imagine her disbelief when, 40 years later, a man knocks on the door of her Philadelphia home, claiming to be her grandson. He is badly scarred and has in his possession a collection of sealed private letters.
Ama now finds herself face to face with the painful memories from the years before WWII - memories of her the daughter she tried too hard to protect and the love affair that drove them apart, and memories of her own younger years pouring sake at a hostess bar where Ama first learned that a soft heart was a dangerous thing.
Along with the memories, Ama must confront the painful family secrets that she tried to leave behind when she fled Japan all those years ago.
The Book Girls Say... Although this book starts in the United States, it's very much a story about Japan, and one that will fully immerse you in the Japanese culture.
The audiobook version is currently free with Audible Plus. Although, you may prefer the printed copy in order to see and better understand the Japanese words used throughout.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 93% Would Recommend to a Friend
Nitta is a young girl taken from her Japanese fishing village at the age of 9 and sold into slavery to a renowned geisha house.The city of Kyoto in the 1930s is a world in which appearances are paramount, where a girl's virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder, where women are trained to attract the most powerful men, and where love is scorned as an illusion.
The Book Girls Say... Memoirs of a Geisha is one of the best-selling books set in Japan of the last few decades, but keep in mind that this is an America novel that never gained the same level of popularity in Japan. Our list also contains some of the recent, best fiction set in Japan, written by Japanese authors and translated into English.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 96% Would Recommend to a Friend
Translated from the original Japanese, Convenience Store Woman is a heartwarming tale of Keiko. She never felt like she fit in, at home or at school. But at 18, she begins working at Smile Mart. The store's procedure manual helps guide all her interactions and even her clothing. She loves feeling "normal" at the store and works there for 18 years - about 17 years longer than the average Smile Mart employee. At age 36, she feels societal pressure to make big changes - like finding a husband and getting a "proper" job.
The author based this contemporary novel on her own experience working at the convenience store chain, which explains how she was able to so perfectly capture the atmosphere of this store that is a familiar part of life in Japan. From a Western perspective, we might picture grabbing an occasional drink, candy bar, or a not-so-great hot dog at the gas station, but convenience stores in Japan are completely different. Not only do they provide a wide variety of freshly-made food that people rely on daily, but Japan’s convenience stores are also a central part of everyday life.
The Book Girl’s Say... This short novella is a very quick read that provides a sharp social commentary on conformity and was a huge hit in Japan before being translated into English. This books is darkly comic and offbeat - both in story and structure.
This North Korean book is the memoir ofHyeonseo Lee, who shares the harsh realities of growing up under the secretive and brutal communist regime. She was raised to believe that her home country was "the best on the planet," but the famine of the 1990s began to open her eyes. Her home was located near the Chinese border, which gave her small glimpses of the outside world that most of her fellow citizens never saw. That, combined with the poverty and starvation they suffered for years, allowed her to realize that she and her family had been brainwashing by her government.
At age seventeen, Lee decided to escape North Korea. She details her terrifying struggle to avoid capture by the ruthless dictatorship. It then took more than a decade for her to reunite with her family and help guide them to freedom as well.
The Book Girls Say... The audiobook is read by the author, which could make this a great choice to listen to.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐½ 100% Would Recommend to a Friend
Award-winning journalist Barbara Demick has written one of the best books on North Korea that takes us deep inside the secretive country to shed light on what life is like under a repressive totalitarian regime. Her reporting follows six average North Korean citizens over the course of a fifteen-year period that covers the death of Kim Il-sung, the rise to power of Kim Jong-il, and the famine that killed one-fifth of the North Korean population.
Life looks very different in a country that is not connected to the Internet, where radios and tvs are limited to one government-controlled station, and where you can be punished for showing affection, yet in some ways the human experience is also the same.
Unlike many other books about life in North Korea, Demick's work allows us to see these six North Koreans through the everyday experiences of falling in love and raising families. However, we also see them struggling for survival, and one by one they experience moments when they realize that their government has betrayed them.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 87% Would Recommend to a Friend
In this 2020 release, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick's reporting allows us to explore one of the most hidden corners of the world. The Tibetan town of Ngaba is perched at eleven thousand in elevation, and it's one of the first places whether the Tibetans and Chinese communists first encountered one another in the 1930s.
During the Chinese Civil War, the hungry and Red Army took refuge in Ngaba where they looted monasteries and ate religious statues made from flour and water (which to Tibetans was as if they were eating the Buddha).
In this book, which spans several decades and also looks back at Tibetan history, Demick follows the private lives of wide array of Tibetans citizens - including a princess, a nomad, a poet, a schoolgirl, an upwardly mobile entrepreneur. Through their eyes, we learn about life in Tibet during the 21st century, and we see each of them face the same dilemma: whether to hold onto their Buddhist teachings of nonviolence or to join the Chinese.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 100% Would Recommend to a Friend
Wild Swans is a bestselling non-fiction classic that has been translated into more than 30 languages around the world. Author Jung Change sheds light on Mao's impact on China as seen through the lives and experiences of three generations of her family, covering most of the 20th century. We meet her grandmother - a warlord's concubine, and her mother - an idealistic young Communist. We learn about her parents' experiences as members of the Communist elite during the Cultural Revolution. And we also hear Change's own extraordinary story.
This memoir provides a window into the female experience in modern communist China that is at times violent, moving, and ultimately uplifting.
The Book Girls Say... This memoir is long and dense, so save this read for when you're in the mood to really dig deep on the past century of Chinese history.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 91% Would Recommend to a Friend
The Akha people live in a remote mountain village of China, where for generations their lives have revolved around farming tea. Yi-lan is one of the few educated girls in the village, and everything begins to change for her when a stranger arrives at the village gate driving a jeep - the first automobile any of them have ever seen. Little by little, Li-yan begins to reject the customs of her village.
When Li-yan becomes pregnant out of wedlock, local tradition calls for her to give her child over to be killed. Instead, she flees to a nearby city where she leaves her baby at an orphanage. She then remains in the city and puts her experience and education to use by pursuing a career in the tea business outside of the fields.
Li-yan's daughter is adopted by loving American parents and is raised in a life of privilege in California. As she grows, she continues to wonder about her origins, and back in China the mother she never knew longs for her as well. The two remain connected across the continents by their family heritage of tea.
The Book Girls Say... Many readers have assumed that Lisa See would write a sequel to this modern historical fiction, but the author has stated in numerous interviews that no sequel is planned. Nonetheless, reviews consider this among the best fiction set in China.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐½ 96% Would Recommend to a Friend
If you love WWII historical fiction, then of all the books set in China, this novel may be the one for you! Inspired by true events, this novel will introduce you to an aspect of the war that you've likely never learned about before - the Japanese Army's internment of teachers and children in China.
Teacher Elspeth Kent accepted a teaching position at a missionary school in northern China to escape an unhappy life back in England, but in December of 1941 she is eager to return home to help with the war effort. But before she's able to leave China, the Japanese Army declares war on Britain and America, Japanese forces take control of the school. Separated from their parents, the students turn to their teachers, including Ms. Kent, to seek comfort and safety. When the school community is sent to a distant internment camp, new dangers await them.
The Book Girls Say... While this book is not classified as a YA, half of the story is told from the perspective of a young schoolgirl, and some of the difficulties of war are told with a softer tone than in other WWII novels.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐½ 96% Would Recommend to a Friend
The wealthy Zhen family spent years in America, but return to Shanghai, China joining an elite group of other nouveau rich Chinese families moving back to their birthplace. Wei, Lina, and daughter Karen move into an ultra-lux apartment building, complete with a dedicated housekeeper.
While their life looks perfect from the outside, Lina is lonely in her new life as a stay-at-home wife. Wei struggles with his work in marketing not being considered noble by others in their class. When an ivory bracelet disappears, those tensions combine with other aspects of their past to set off a ripple effect exploring what we own to our countries, families, and selves.
The Book Girls Say...While we haven't read this one yet to verify, reviewers note that this is a clean book without profanity.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐½ 80% Would Recommend to a Friend
In the late 1930s, China welcomed Jewish Europeans trying to flee Hilter. In this book, one of those refugees, Romy, meets a local, Li, and the young girls develop a quick friendship. You'll feel like you're in Shanghai as the girls explore the city together. Unfortunately, the realities of World War II begin to overshadow their friendship.
You'll also meet Alexandra, a British girl who visits her grandparents, Romy and Wilhelm, in Australia in 2016. As she learns about her family history, she's compelled to visit Shanghai herself, determined to understand more.
Family secrets, friendship, and courage fill the pages of this split-timeline book. It also shares the little-known history of Jewish refugees who fled to Shanghai and the effects of Japanese control of China during the way.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 100% Would Recommend to a Friend
Set in contemporary Seoul, South Korea, this novel is narrated by four women living in the same apartment building. Each woman is struggling with the impossible standards of beauty and the ruthless social hierarchies of the region.
Kyuri works in an underground bar entertaining businessmen. Her roommate, Miho, is an artist in a tricky relationship with a wealthy heir. Ara is a hairstylist obsessed with K-pop star. Wonna is a newlywed who wants to have a baby despite having no idea how they will afford it in Korea's economy.
As the four women slowly build a friendship in this tricky culture, they discover their individual strengths. The book is a great look at the wealth gap and expectations of women in South Korea.
The Book Girls Say... Some reviews warn that it ends rather abruptly without total resolution of each woman's storyline.
When Anna's adopted mother passes away, she decides to travel to Korea to track down her birth mother. At the orphanage, she's devasted to learn that her birth mother is also already gone.
Then, a stranger hands Anna a package containing an antique comb and an address. She's lead to the home of Hong Jae-hee, who shares her family history, which includes the Japanese occupation of Korea during WW2. Jae-hee was one of the 200,000 Korean women forced to serve Japanese soldiers as "comfort women".
While this challenging story is fiction, it's based on the true events of little-known comfort women. The treatment of these women was horrific, and their stories must be shared instead of buried.
The Book Girls Say... After adopting a daughter from Korea, the author was inspired to research more about the countries history. He learned so much that this book is the first in a three-part series. The Kindle version is currently free with Kindle Unlimited.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 100% Would Recommend to a Friend
Korea's Jeju Island has a fascinating real-life history of female deep-sea free divers called haenyeo, who collect seaweed, clams, and abalone. Inspired by true events, this book is set in the aftermath of World War II while Japan is withdrawing from the peninsula and the United States is establishing troops in the region.
Junja has followed in her family's footsteps to become a successful haenyeo and is allowed to take her first trip into the mountains to trade their harvest. After being saved by a local during her journey, she quickly falls in love with him. Unfortunately, when she returns home, she finds her mother dying after a treacherous dive.
Junja must learn to navigate the world without her mother, despite memories of her at every turn. Her loss is amplified by the tumultuous political situation throughout this enchanting story set leading up to the Korean War.
The Book Girls Say... There's another fiction book about the haenyeo called The Island of Sea Women that has overall great reviews, but be aware it contains some very violent, graphic scenes so may not be enjoyed by everyone.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐½ 100% Would Recommend to a Friend
This memoir covers Lara's experience competing in the Mongol Derby, a horse race that covers 1000 kilometers (621 miles) across Mongolia on wild ponies.
Most riders in the derby train do extensive training for the rigorous event, but at nineteen, Lara jumped in without understanding the difficulties she would face. Each morning, she had a fresh horse to cover mountains, dunes, woodlands, and wetlands. You'll get an excellent feel for the diversity of Mongolia's ecosystem while sitting on the edge of your chair, waiting to see what Lara has to overcome each day.
This Mongolia book, which tells a story of perseverance and the ability of underdogs to turn into champions, has been compared to Wild by Cheryl Strayed.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐½ 75% Would Recommend to a Friend
Do you want something very different to read? This unique pick from the mountains of northern Mongolia might be for you.
The first and only member of the Tuvans to use written language to tell stories, Galsan Tschinag chronicles their traditions in this fascinating, bittersweet novel about a shepherd boy's coming of age.
The Book Girls Say... Because this short book is NOT plot-driven, but instead reads more like a collection of stories, it has mixed reviews but could be a fascinating look into a culture that hasn't been shared before.
This book is also titled Apples are from Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins
Despite being the 9th largest country in the world (by square miles), little is known about life in Kazakhstan. In this travel memoir, Christopher Robbins explores the hugely varied landscape, mixing in humor and history along the way. With topics ranging from apple orchards to gulags (labor camps), this book is the perfect primer on the country.
The Book Girls Say... There is some criticism that the book highlights the positive aspects of then-President Nursultan Ábishuly Nazarbayev without giving the full picture, so additional research may be needed before forming a full opinion of him. Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐½ 100% Would Recommend to a Friend
Setting: KAZAKHSTAN, KYRGYZSTAN, TAJIKISTAN, TURKMENISTAN, and UZBEKISTAN
Do you enjoy offbeat travel memoirs and dry British wit? Stans by me will take you along author Ged Gillmore's trip through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
He documents the landscapes and ancient traditions he encounters at each stop along the way. You'll feel like you've visited Central Asia by the time you're done reading, and may even add one or more of his destinations to your bucket list.
His travel companions from his bus tour are fascinating characters on their own and add another level to his stories.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐½ 88% Would Recommend to a Friend
Setting: TURKMENISTAN, KAZAKHSTAN, TAJIKISTAN, KYRGYZSTAN, and UZBEKISTAN
While Stans By Me is a witty travelogue of a group travel tour, Sovietistan is a journalistic travel memoir of the same countries by Erika Fatland, a social anthropologist. Her journey is focused on discovering how the Soviet roots of the Stans have influenced the countries well after they became free in 1991.
As you read, you'll get a good sense of what it's like to live in these countries today through her meetings with locals. Each encounter helps explain the countries' complexity and what their citizens have endured, whether they're fighting for human rights or victims of bride snatching.
Book Girls Say... Our readers loved this book and recommend it for those interested in travel, history, and geography.
First published in 1957, The World of Suzie Wong was a contemporary novel at the time. Since the original release, it's inspired a film, ballet, and even a song.
You'll be transported back in time and dropped off in Wanchai, Hong Kong, where an ex-pat artist, Robert, lives in a hotel where all the other rooms are rented by the hour. When he meets Suzie, he befriends the feisty prostitute trying to make it in post-war Hong Kong.
The Book Girls Say... Many reviews wonder if the book came from the author's own journals as it feels like it was written by someone with a true love of the region and its people. However, keep in mind that the book was written in the 50's and includes some culturally insensitive language.
Green Island blends the story of Taiwan with the story of the Tsai family. The narrator is born in 1947 on the night of the 228 massacre (also called the February 28 massacre), just as the country enters martial law. Her father is soon thrown in prison as Chinese Nationalists try to stop any resistance to their takeover.
A decade later, he returns after suffering brutal and inhuman conditions. His family and community alienate him and worry he is putting his younger daughter at risk as their relationship grows. Later as a mother, she's also forced to decide between what is right and what can save her family.
This heavy book covers six decades of post-war Taiwan, from the end of Japanese rule through Chinese martial law (1947-1990) and eventually into democracy.
The book shifts in time and perspective, so if you prefer linear stories, this might not be for you.
Books Set in Asia: Southern Countries - Book Girls' Guide
Tuesday 20th of April 2021
[…] month, we read books set in the northern countries of Asia, and this month we’ll be focusing on the southern region the covers the all countries […]
Sunday 21st of March 2021
Your blog post made me cry this morning. Yes, this is exactly what books are meant to do - inspire empathy and connection. It is a happy coincidence that April's theme is Northern Asia and I look forward to reading a few from your list. I have Wild Swans and Pachinko on my TBR shelves, so those would be the logical choices...but you never know what will grab me when it is time to read. Thanks for a wonderful challenge!
Sunday 21st of March 2021
Thanks again for a wonderfully curated list of books! As Asia has always been a special interest of mine, I've already read 5 of the listed books (including the World of Susie Wong when I was in High School!) Still, I've found 8 additional books on this list that appeal to me..... I hardly know where to start. As I am also a food/cooking person, I may start with The Great Passage. I'm also going to pretend that The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See ( already in my stack of TBR books) is on the list and read it too.
Saturday 20th of March 2021
Your reading lists are always so great and well-researched! Thank you!
Books Set in Eastern Europe & Russia - Book Girls' Guide
Saturday 20th of March 2021
[…] Next up, pick your book set in the northern region of Asia! […]