Stranger in the Shogun’s City by Amy Stanley , Simon & Schuster Just as works about nothing are really about everything, so this is a book in which the life of a nobody reveals much about society. The time is the early 19th century; the location Japan’s “snow country”; the protagonist one of eight children of a Buddhist priest. Unlike her brothers, who studied feudal administration, the girl, Tsuneno, was taught to sew and, at 12, thrust into marriage. Her destiny, as historian Amy Stanley notes, was always to “grow up and leave for another household”, such was the lot of women in Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868). But because affairs did not proceed “smoothly” she found herself in and out of three marriages, by which time she was in her mid-30s and questioning what life had to offer. Edo (now Tokyo) was a beacon. Stanley chanced on Tsuneno’s letters to family members, who disowned her after she married for a fifth time (twice to the same man). Obsessively, the author started translating the correspondence, reinforcing it with research producing sharp, albeit sepia, images of an isolationist land whose history was on the cusp of change. At 49, while Tsuneno was dying, American Commodore Matthew Perry was sailing towards Japan to open the country to the West. Stanley has sewn biography to history, in the process producing valuable feminist scholarship that stitches “extra” to ordinary. Amy Stanley and Mike Chinoy’s “Exploring History Through Biography”, with Jeffrey Wasserstrom, takes place on November 14 at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival . The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts , Doubleday In The Lost Pianos of Siberia readers are introduced to a region better known for its punishing winters and gulags than for its culture. But this vast Russian province was also home to pianos, many of them transported to the inhospitable territory during the 19th century’s “pianomania”, when superstars such as Hungary’s Franz Liszt put on the equivalent of rock concerts in Russia for irrepressible crowds. Sophy Roberts became attuned to the country’s piano history when she embarked on a madcap quest to find one worthy of a musician she had met in Mongolia. One thing led to another (a favourite phrase of the author) and she found herself in Siberia chasing the legacy of Catherine the Great, under whose reign (1762-1796), Russia became a cultural power. Thus began her search for old uprights and grands, whose stories help tell the history of Siberia. Roberts travelled “on the hoof” (including by snowmobile and reindeer) checking out leads, such as those from people responding to requests made on local news channels for information about “lost” pianos. Moving discoveries and (re)connections are made, including of a Russian-made Mühlbach grand, the last piano of a French-born concert pianist exiled to a Siberian labour camp in 1943 after her Russian husband, accused of being a spy, suffered the same fate. Siberia takes on new dimensions with this extraordinary book. Sophy Roberts takes part in “The Future of Travel Writing”, moderated by Patrick Holland, on November 14. Skyhunter by Marie Lu , Roaring Brook Press In the nation of Mara, Basean refugees live in shantytowns outside the city walls, scavenging in scrapyards for items of value. Known for their light-brown skin and blue-black hair, they need permits to enter the Inner City. Talin, however, is an exception. She’s a “rat”, allowed to serve with its elite defence force because someone inside has pulled strings. Like most science-fiction, Marie Lu’s far-future setting reflects present-day anxieties, including those concerning xenophobia and discrimination. An immigrant to America from Wuxi, China, the bestselling author of the Legend series is back with a mute heroine whose outsider status she understands well. Skyhunter is a character-led tale of good and evil that transports you at speed, with its first-person narrator and protagonist, to a foreign but recognisable world. An imperialist power known as the Federation has conquered all but Mara, using Ghost warriors mentally shackled to each other for optimum efficiency. Except that one of them defects before he’s been altered irreparably, and becomes a prisoner of war in Mara. Could he be their saviour? Cue light romance with our protagonist, who saves him from certain execution, and you have the bulk of ingredients for a mostly satisfying front half of a two-part series. Marie Lu talks about Skyhunter on Nov 10.