Song of the Silk Road, by Mingmei Yip

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One star, read in August 2011.

I saw this book at local bookstore a few months ago and fell in love with the cover, and I’ve been dying to read it since then. Now that I have, I regret to inform you that this book is absurdly, laughably, painfully bad.

At first I wondered if it was a translation, because of how unnatural the writing is. It isn’t. Then I wondered if it was just because the author is a native Chinese speaker, but I think we’ve all read books by non-native English speakers and they sounded at least like they had good editors. Finally I gave up looking for an excuse—I think this book is just that bad.

I honestly don’t know why I let myself finish it; the story is interesting, but not anything so intriguing that I couldn’t have just skipped to the end to find out what happened. In the beginning of the book, Lily—who thinks she has no relatives now that her parents are dead—receives a letter from an aunt she’s never heard of, giving her instructions to take a trip to China and fulfill all kinds of crazy tasks in order to receive three million dollars at the end. She’s a fairly unlikable protagonist and has the usual love interests that make anyone with the faintest feminist tendencies gag, but this book wouldn’t actually be bad if it didn’t also suffer from some truly awful writing—that’s what really killed it for me. I just couldn’t get past the awkwardness.

The disaster began on page one, when I saw the words “Three Million Dollars,” capitalized just like that. That was followed by this sentence:

Wow. I had to use all my willpower to stifle my about-to-shoot-out, uncontrollable, deliriously happy laughter to be able to continue to read. 

By page three I had determined that the weirdly hyphenated adjectives were not a solitary occurrence, and in fact they only got worse as I went. Observe:

I also did not want to take any chances on this dropped-from-the-sky bonanza.

I was willing to face the challenge, of course for the pending fortune, but also to satisfy my dying-to-be-relieved itching curiosity.

I told myself that if I didn’t come back alive from the Silk Road, So. Be. It. At least I’d die in a romantic place–not as a back-straining, leg-numbing waitress; a stomach-rumbling, mind-constipating novelist-to-be; or a bed-warming, albeit not-childbearing, mistress.

But of course I swallowed these would-be-firecracker-like strings of words. This was not the time to be antagonistic.

Once she wriggled her mahjong-table-wide bottom away from my sight, I got up and hurried to Alex’s room.

Speaking of bottoms, Yip likes to talk about them. A person can never just walk away—it’s always “her generous bottom waddled away,” or “she dragged her wide posterior away.” (Or “I settled what Chris referred to as my cute little yellow bottom on the sofa,” which isn’t talking about someone walking away, but is just really annoying. And racist.)

She uses the expression “shot out from __ mouth” at least once every twenty pages (“the question shot out from my mouth,” “a loud ‘What!’ shot out from my mouth), and describes people’s eye contact in ways like this: he threw down an “I’ll-be-right-back” look, and she cast me an “old Chinese horny with young American honey” look, and he cast me a “don’t pretend, you know exactly what I mean” wink. In fact, all her descriptions are bonkers. “His two fingers collided to give out a small explosion.” (You mean he snapped his fingers?) “The adults would bounce against each other like pork chops slapped down upon a sizzling grill.” (Describing a bus accident. Do pork chops on a grill bounce against each other??) Everything is sensuous: a woman’s lips, someone’s fingers, the weight of an ivory bracelet.

Then there are the sequences that sound like they were written by a fifth grader with a thesaurus:

Just as I was wondering what to do, the hawk plunged toward me. “Ahhhh!” I ducked to avoid a possible hit and run. It was indeed a hit and fly, albeit the prey was not me, but my camera!
“Alex, do you think we’re crazy doing this?”
“Doing what?”
“Traveling through this hellish Go-In-But-Never-Come-Out place.”
“Lily, then you’re the one who’s crazy, because it was your idea, not mine.”
“Are you afraid?”
“Hmm, yes and no. I feel OK having you with me, though.”
We turned to look at each other before a loud “Yeah!” exploded from our mouths as we bumped fists… “Oh, my God!” we screamed simultaneously.

Why do American publishers use “OK” instead of spelling out “okay”? Maybe this is something I should remember from my editing classes, but all I know is it makes me want to rip out a page in the book. And of course she does the thing where almost every sentence of dialogue starts with a person’s name, which in real conversation never happens. Think about it—when you’re talking with someone, how often do you actually say their name? The answer is, approximately 1/1283439th as frequently as Mingmei Yip believes you do.

So, that’s that. The book really wasn’t worth this much description, but whenever I read something truly awful, I can’t help but try and demonstrate to you just how bad it was—and I could go on and on with the examples. I even had to create a new label for my old book rating system, because this was the first book I rated below a 4 (out of 10). You might actually like it if you don’t care about these things as much as I do. But as beautiful as the covers are, I don’t think I can ever pick up a book by this author again.

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