Book Reviews: Irresistible historical fiction |

Book Reviews: Irresistible historical fiction

Jennie Lay/For Steamboat Pilot & Today

"China Dolls” by Lisa See

"China Dolls"

By Lisa See

(Random House 2014)

"China Dolls” by Lisa See"Euphoria" by Lily King

Lisa See steals our hearts and minds once again with "China Dolls." The Forbidden City nightclub in 1930s San Francisco is the sultry breeding ground for a story about vying for center stage, self reliance vs. entangling alliances in uncertain times, and complicated friendships that evolve within the confines of a dressing room. In her ninth book, See delivers the gritty realities of Chinatown circa World War II, and the Asian Americans who floated in and out of that tight community seeking sustenance and security.

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When See spoke at Literary Sojourn in 2006, the audience already was smitten by her novel "Snowflower and the Secret Fan." Our adoration was sealed by revelations of See's immaculate research. "China Dolls" is a tantalizing work of historical fiction that touches subjects as diverse as a world's fair on Treasure Island, Japanese internment camps, Chinese political protests, and early liberal anecdotes from UC Berkeley.

Told in the alternating voices of three glittering women who prove to be the best and worst of friends, the story reveals their personal complexities and entangling romances, beautifully juxtaposed against the sweep of a war-torn nation and a debauchery-soaked nightclub.

The novel picks at the scabs of racism and paranoia, questioning the limits of ambition and trust. It snares the pinnacle of stardom and the depths of betrayal, and as a result, "China Dolls" is glamorous and irresistible.

Note: Hear Lisa See talk about "China Dolls" at 7 p.m. July 29 in Library Hall, a free event that is part of the ongoing Library Author Series, including book sales and author signing.


By Lily King

(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014)

Lily King's intoxicating new work of historical fiction is a steamy re-imagining of the life and longings of revolutionary anthropologist Margaret Mead.

In "Euphoria," her fourth novel, King launches readers into a love triangle between three young, cutting-edge anthropologists surveying tribal life in 1930s New Guinea.

A thread that starts with a wife, a husband and a loner, tangles itself into tenuous collaborations spawned by isolation, lust and the indomitable passions of obsessed workaholics. Jealousy and greed complicate camaraderie as each seeks affirmation and revelation — perhaps discovery of a cultural milestone or civilization's Rosetta Stone.

The trio's methods rack up inconclusive theories for academia as they inhabit huts amidst the jungle river tribes and partake in everything from Rorschach tests to drug-induced trance dances.

A cultural clash amid British, Australian and American sensibilities, let alone personal quirks and life histories, obscures objective science while embellishing a juicy plot. Their observations proffer a world of wonder muddied by narcissism and cultural greed.

The setting is exotic and remarkably untrammeled between World Wars: While outsiders eventually will divide the tribes' alliances and rustle their cultures, it might be said that the quiet work of three angst-ridden anthropologists torn between cooperation and competition offers a grim foreboding of war's ravages to come.

The microscope on King's characters is as hard to resist as it is for these anthropologists to turn away from Sepik River tribal intrigue. Together, readers and characters alike are lured by daily banality and intermittent blood thirst. King's beautiful prose transports us through an irresistible unraveling marked by unrelenting passions and a generous allotment of savagery.

Jennie Lay is the adult programs coordinator at the Bud Werner Memorial Library.

These books are available at the Bud Werner Memorial Library and at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore; e-books can be found at

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