Skeleton Women by Mingmei Yip

Title: Skeleton Women
Author: Mingmei Yip

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1930s / China / Shanghai / Assassin / Singers / Betrayal)
Publisher/Publication Date: Kensington (5/29/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Okay to liked, depending...
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: The story of an orphan-turned-seductress in 1930s Shanghai.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Eh, I'm not wild about it. It does the ambigu-Asian thing which I think minimizes the flavor of the story, and I don't think the flowers featured are camellias, which show up a lot.

First line: It all happened because I was considered perfect material to be a spy -- beautiful, smart, and most important, an orphan.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you like assassins but aren't into urban fantasy.

Why did I get this book?: The setting -- 1930s Shanghai!

Review: I'm of two minds about this book but I think in the end I can say I enjoyed it. Camilla, a 19 year old orphan, was raised by a Chinese gangster to be the mistress of his rival -- in hopes that Camilla can lead the man to ruin and death. Beautiful, a talented singer, ruthless, and emotionless, Camilla flourishes in Shanghai amid wealth, decadence, violence, and intrigue -- until she meets Shadow, a beautiful and talented magician and illusionist who vies for her seat in Shanghai royalty.

The title comes from a phrase tossed at women like Camilla, either a curse or a compliment: 'skeleton women' are women who drive men to death, bleed them dry, leave them empty like skeletons.

Yip employs an artificial, coy writing style for Camilla that mimics the ornate, flattering way she flirts with her gangster lover. I mostly enjoyed it -- the narrative is peppered with the aphorisms and wise sayings she takes to heart, the stratagems of Sun Tzu (Sunzi in this book) she studies -- but now and then, it felt childish and awkward.

I didn't feel much for Camilla, neither like nor dislike; as Camilla often tells us, she was trained not to have feelings but as a result, I didn't have any for her in return. I read along, interested enough, but not invested, even when I could tell Camilla was thawing, having feelings, making decisions from the heart -- but it was a little too late (for me at least).

My jacket blurb doesn't mention the 1930s and had I not read it elsewhere, I don't think I could say this was a historical novel necessarily. Perhaps the lack of cell phones clued me in that it wasn't contemporary, but otherwise, I don't think there's a strong historical emphasis. Those wanting a very evocative sense-of-place might not find it here.

Rereading what I've written makes it sound like I had many problems with this book, which I guess I did -- I've only noticed it now that I'm having to respond. While reading, I raced through it, entertained, and I'm curious about Yip's other novels.

Comments

  1. I love to read about Shanghai - especially in the 19302 after Daniel Kalla's the Far Side of the Sky. It's too bad the place-as-character wasn't strong in this one. Shanghai is such an interesting, multicultural place to read about - I am always looking for a new novel set there.

    I'm mildly intrigued by this (assassins!), but it looks like one I should grab from the library, rather than buy.

    Great review, Audra :)

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    1. It's a fascinating locale -- there is some sense of place here -- but it didn't feel as vibrant as I wanted it, esp given that the women featured were such huge players in the social scene. Still -- the assassin angle made me immediately think of you! (Perennial question -- want my copy? :))

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  2. The title definitely intrigues me, though ambivalence about a main character isn't usually great. Still, I'm interested in the place and setting -- I might still give this one a shot!

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    Replies
    1. It's a fun read -- dramatic, a little sexy (at least, there's sex in the story, I don't know how 'sexy' it is), and it's an interesting set up. I'm not sure that my not clicking with the narrator was a problem -- she felt superficial because she *was* superficial, so in that sense, the author was v successful!

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  3. Hahaha, I love how your review ended. There are some books where I totally enjoy reading it, sit down expecting to write a pretty flattering review and then write a bunch of critical stuff. Just because it's enjoyable doesn't mean it's good. I usually end up lowering my rating a bit when that happens. This one intrigued me, but I'm not entirely sure if it's my thing. Still not sure. I do like sexy female assassins, because why not, so maybe I'll add to GR just in case I do decide I want to read it.

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    1. I hate it when I sound grinchy because I wasn't while reading -- I was pretty captivated during the book because Camilla was so messed up and in a real lose/lose situation. In that sense, it was very fun. The narrative style was odd, though -- too odd for me to shake, I think...

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  4. This one doesn't seem to be getting raves, but the fact that you zipped through it says a lot.

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    Replies
    1. It's an odd one to articulate -- it worked for me while reading, very much so -- perhaps I should have just left it at that! :/

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  5. Although I like the sound of the setting, I really don't think this would be a book for me!

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  6. I was interested in this one for the setting, but since there's no emphasis on the historical stuff, I think I'll pass.

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, sadly, it could have been any ambigu-era.

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  7. I'll read your review later since I'm on the tour, but I wanted to stop by and say that I'm looking forward to this.

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  8. I did an interview with Yip recently, and her responses were quite fascinating. I largely enjoyed her previous novel, but I did find that there's something about her writing style that distances the reader from her characters.

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    1. Ooh, I'll go look for your interview. In some ways, the distance is fine because Camilla is clearly wanting to keep everyone at an arm's length -- but ... I don't know -- her transformation felt real enough but didn't grab me and so I was ambivalent as to her fate and choices.

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  9. I have to say none of the reviews I've read so far make me want to run out and get this!

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  10. It is funny how I can enjoy a book while reading it but then have issues with it when I go to review it. I can definitely relate to your experience with this one! I'm glad that you did enjoy the reading experience though - that's a good thing.

    Thanks for being on the tour Audra.

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