Contemporary (or almost)
Gail Tsukiyama. Beautifully written novels set in Japan, China or other countries of the east.
A Clean Kill in Tokyo (previously published as Rain Fall) is the first of a series of action-packed novels by Barry Eisler. The protagonist John Rain is half Japanese and half American. Both cultures pull at him and, as a Good Reads reviewer DG said,
“The descriptions of Tokyo, noir and bright, added to the atmosphere and made the city a character on its own"
Though living now as an assassin, the way John is torn between conscience and reality, make him fascinating and sympathetic. It's the first of series about Rain.
The Pearl Diver, by Talarigo. Gorgeous prose by an American living in Japan; set in 1948 Japan when a diagnosis of leprosy sentences you to a life far from family on an island with other lepers. Beautiful, haunting and immersive. Read to understand the countryside, the older side of Japan.
The Bride's Kimono, The Salary Man's Wife and other novels by Sujata Massey. This mystery/romonace series features 27-year old Rei Shimura, born in San Francisco to a Japanese immigrant father and white, American mother. Pleasurable reads for learning of things traditionally Japanese and the pull that the young protagonist, Rie, feels between two different worlds..
The Hidden Letters of Velta B by Gina Ochsner. A narrator facing death passes on local lore and wisdom to her son with enormous ears. In Latvia of the Baltics foreigners have often ruled, most recently Russia; many Russians still reside there. The wit and marvelous descriptions with which Ochsner writes and her tragic-comedic flair makes this a joy to read.
Little Bee by Chris Cleave. A contemporary tale that set off both accolades and controversy for this British author. A engrossing story of when a Nigerian teen and a British family collide.
Distant Land of My Father and City of Tranquil Light, by Bo Caldwell. Gorgeous, lyrical novels.
Distant Land portrays Shanghai through the eyes of young adult sisters before Japan invades and in the hardships visited on them afterwards. A truly historical novel.
The City of Tranquil Light is a fictionalized memoir of two missionaries to the northern plains of China during early 1900's. The account is based on Caldwell's reading of journals of her grandparents) Evocative and heart rending exploration of a marriage under duress and responding in love and wisdom to suspicion and hate.
Jhumpa Lahiri (contemporary; primarily set in the U.S. with characters of Indian origins)
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. Contemporary; set mostly in Ethiopia but ends in the US. characters of various cultures)
The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. Focus on Afghan characters in Afghanistan and the U.S.
The Kite Runner is the story of a young boy struggling to establish rapport with his father and coping with haunting memories of a traumatic childhood event. Set in Afghanistan and Fremont, California.
A Thousand Splendid Suns. The entwined lives of two Afghani women during Afghanistan's tumultuous 30-year transition from Soviet occupation to Taliban control through post-Taliban rebuilding.
The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman is the first mystery among many set within the Navajo Nation. Jim Chee and Leaphorn, the main protagonists, are complex characters often torn between two cultures. I love Hillerman's deft depiction of First Nation culture. Hillerman has the credentials to writing with intimate knowledge and sympathy of Navajo tradition, land and thought. Read this and you may get hooked on the 18-book series.
The Salaryman's Wife by Sujata Massey. One of several Massey mysteries set in Japan, based on the author's years lived there and extensive research. Though I've lived six years in Japan, I learned a lot about Japanese antiques, kimonos and other fascinating Nihon-mono from Massey's work. The protagonist Rei Shimura pivots between her Japanese side and American background. This novel and ensuing Rei S mysteries reveal customs and personalities of traditional Japan, often conflicting with outsiders, and more modern Japan. The plot kept me coming back for more.
Yasunari Kawabata (Pulitzer prize winner; beautiful, sparse novels translated from Japanese)
Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha (historical of period around WWI)