What I Read: January

Since I don’t really have any goals this year (I’m totally owning the fact that I’m completely lame, by the way), I haven’t set a reading goal like I did last year. But, I had fun sharing what I was reading in 2014, so I’ll continue on with these “What I Read” posts.


China Dolls by Lisa See

This novel was one of the 2014 releases that I was most looking forward to reading. I am such a fan of See’s earlier novels. She always explores interesting time periods and weaves compelling stories of complex relationships between characters. As soon as I started the first chapter, I could tell that I was going to be disappointed.

China Dolls follows frenemies Helen, Ruby and Grace as they compete for the spotlight at San Francisco’s exclusive nightclub, The Forbidden City. Their backgrounds could not be more different, but they each harbor their own secrets and heartbreak from the past. Along the way, the girls alternately protect and betray each other, but situations become even more complicated after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The country is plunged into the war and suspicion is cast on the Japanese, including Ruby, who has been trying to pass as Chinese for years.

While the premise was promising and the details of the time period and setting seemed well-researched, it lacked the sparkle I was used to from See’s past efforts. The language was simplistic and disjointed. As with See’s other works, the main characters alternate as narrators, but in this case, the author failed to create distinct voices for each of them. I found myself having to go back to the beginning of each chapter from time to time to figure out who was telling the story at the moment.

If you haven’t read any of See’s works before, I would skip this one, and opt for Shanghai Girls or Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. China Dolls is definitely not reflective of her usual style.


The Secret History by Donna Tartt

After enjoying The Goldfinch last year, I really wanted to tackle Tartt’s earlier works. Like that book, The Secret History goes on for much longer than it should, so here is a quick synopsis: A group of six students at a private New England College somehow manage to circumvent all of the rules of the institution to study the Classics with a professor that they all seem to think is some kind of god. Ultimately, their studies convince them to pursue all kinds of questionable behavior, including murder (I’m not giving anything away—the book opens with said murder and the rest of the novel explains why they did it).

A few people had told me that this was Tartt’s best work, but I still don’t know how I feel about it. On the one hand, I could not stop reading it because the story was so good. It was suspenseful in all the right places and I just had to stay up past my bedtime so I could see what would happen. But, on the other hand the characters were just so smug, annoying and self-absorbed that I wanted to hit them. And the writing was overblown and wordy that I just wanted to finish it.

Sure, the exploration of exactly what is going on in the minds of the characters and the level of paranoia and desperation that they succumb to as the deal with the consequences of their actions is interesting, but much like The Goldfinch it seemed like there were parts where the author was just writing to write.

The bottom line is that I I didn’t hate this book, but I didn’t love it either. I’d love to know what others think, since based on reading other reviews, I seem to be in the minority!

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