During a one-year sojourn in London in the 1970s, my secondary school O-level history curriculum covered about a century from mid-1700s on. A decade into a discussion of the Napoleonic Wars, the history master (for such he was called) mentioned, almost in passing (and, in retrospect, probably for my benefit), that after marching through a swamp, a detachment of British soldiers had burned down the White House. “That’s the War of 1812!”, I interjected, finally twigging to what we had been discussing. “That’s what you call it,” was the reply. The “war” that engendered the National Anthem was to the British a mere police action in a far more important conflict.

The Korean War began 70 years ago. In the United States, it is known as the “forgotten war”. Not so in China. In his new book Attack at Chosin, Professor Xiaobing Li, a prolific historian who teaches at the University of Central Oklahoma, and who once served in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), explores the Chinese Army’s second offensive against US, UN, and South Korean forces at the Chosin Reservoir during November-December 1950.

It’s late 1935 and Mauna Loa is erupting. Residents of Hilo worry that Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes, is angry. Gail Tsukiyama sets her new novel, The Color of Air, in this still small city populated mainly by sugarcane workers and fishermen during an eruption that actually took place in the 1930s. The novel, meanwhile, is populated mainly with the children and grandchildren of Japanese immigrants that arrived in Hawai’i in the late 1800s.

The Sino-Russian relationship is often seen by the West (for which, read the USA) as a sort of counterpoint to Sino-American relations with Russia ready to step in when the US takes a step back. Sören Ubansky’s recent book is one of the periodic but salutary reminders that China and Russia’s mutual dealings are not just centuries old but have also for the most part had little to do with third parties.

Iris Weijun Wang is just like any other New Jersey teen. She enjoys shopping, hanging out with friends and spending time with her boyfriend. Her parents are Chinese immigrants who speak English at home and are pretty hands off when it comes to their daughter’s school work and extracurricular activities. But when they learn during Iris’s last semester of high school that she’s about to flunk out and has been rejected from every college she has applied to, Iris’s parents flip out. Her otherwise laid-back father comes up with the perfect solution to teach Iris some responsibility. Off to China she goes.

For some men, getting to know a woman isn’t quite what it seems. In this quirky collection of stories by Xu Xu, we can read about a man who dates a would-be ghost, another takes up with a supposedly mentally-challenged girl who has conversations with birds and eventually becomes a Buddhist nun, a third hooks up in a pro forma marriage (which later becomes real) with a mysterious Jewish woman whom a new acquaintance has asked him to help get to Europe, and a fourth falls in love with a strange girl who eventually kills herself after telling her tragic personal story to the narrator.

What brings a city to life in fiction? Written by expat writers in South Korea, the stories in A City of Han lead the reader past the opulent towers and neon-lit facades towards lonely apartment buildings and small alleyways hidden away from view. Each show an excellent command of the short story form and much like the city itself, these stories reveal that there is more than what first meets the eye: an argument for how predicaments and preoccupations of a city’s inhabitants do more than physical markers in defining the character of a place.