Monthly Archives: August 2013

Review: Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani

16130324Title: Children of the Jacaranda Tree

Author: Sahar Delijani

Rating: 3 stars

Books set in Tehran are always striking to me for the same reason. The city becomes a character in its own right, more than any other city I’ve ever read about. It is amazingly loved and alive, and every author I’ve ever seen take on Tehran makes it incredibly beautiful, despite the horrors of political and religious persecution. 

The characters of Children of the Jacaranda Tree are scarred and damaged. Some of them break under the weight of imprisonment, separation, and loss. Some of them run from Tehran. Others are unable to ever escape, tethered to the land. But all of them, in the post-revolutionary fervor of the 80s and during the 2009 Arab Spring, are fighters, struggling to hold on to their basic human dignity. 

There’s a trend I’ve noticed recently of slapping “a novel” onto books that are, really, collections of short stories. It’s all semantics, and I get it. Novels sell. Short stories don’t. But it truly, truly annoys me. Children of the Jacaranda Tree is not a novel. It’s a series of linked stories, with characters who are related to each other in complicated ways and who drift in and out of each others lives. Instead of having one overarching narrative thrust, it is a series of discreet units, each with its own plots and climaxes. This occasionally led to me feeling adrift and unable to connect to the stories. The quiet, gentle rhythms and introspective pace of the stories would have perhaps been better served by a leisurely reading over a period of weeks, instead of the three day read I gave it. 

There are elements of Children of the Jacaranda Tree that work better than others. A passage about an imprisoned father laboring over a date-stone bracelet for a daughter he’s seen only once was so beautiful that it almost brought me to tears. But others were more prosaic, and the repeated themes grew boring after awhile (there are only so many times I can read about a man and a woman falling and love and being separated in essentially the same ways). The book is obviously very autobiographical, which makes me wonder if Delijani has any other “novels” left in her. I hope she does, the writing is quite nice, and there are those moments that shine. I’d love to see something a little more fictional, focusing on just one or two strong characters instead of a long stream of them.

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Review: Crazy Rich by Jerry Oppenheimer

16044969Title: Crazy Rich: Power, Scandal, and Tragedy Inside the Johnson & Johnson Dynasty

Author: Jerry Oppenheimer

Rating: 1 star

I received a copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

I honestly tried to find something good to say about Crazy Rich, a story about generally clueless and distasteful millionaire heirs who turned out to primarily be boring clones of one another rather than scandalous or tragic figures. Unfortunately, it was hard to even find the will to finish this book, hampered as it is by some of the worst writing I’ve ever seen in a professionally published work.

I did receive a galley of Crazy Rich, and can’t speak to how many, if any, of the ridiculous copy errors I came across made it to the final text, but proofreading was far from this book’s only problem. The author can often barely string a cohesive sentence together, wanders and rambles through his text without structure, quotes liberally from questionable sources and cites gossip rather than concrete proof for many of his assertions, and generally comes across as a hungover undergrad trying to pad out a thesis paper with extra words the night before it’s due.

Oppenheimer begins his narrative, such as it is, with the failed political machinations of current Johnson heir apparent, Robert Wood Johnson IV, “Woody.” He then jumps back into the lives of Woody’s great-grandfather and great-great uncles, his grandfather, father, mother, deceased brothers (but barely says a word about the surviving one), great-aunt and great-uncle, sister, ex-wife, her entire family for the past four generations, and deceased daughter (but again, barely mentions the surviving children). None of this is done with any concession to chronology, many of these people have half a dozen nicknames or appellations but the author can’t be bothered to stick to one or the other, and there are not only four Robert Wood Johnsons but three men called Seward. Confusing doesn’t even begin to cover it.

If someone is Jewish, their name is never mentioned without “Jewish” somewhere in the near vicinity. Likewise if they are gay, or black. Women are repeatedly referred to with all of their married names at once, so that Sale Johnson is usually called Nancy Sale Frey Johnson Rashad, Mary Lea called Mary Lea Johnson Ryan D’Arc Richards. Yeah, that sure makes for easy scanning.

Oppenheimer quotes interviews liberally, and what bland and boring interviews they are. Instead of neatly summarizing the information people told him, he makes the reader labor through every “um” and “hmm,” often talking about 50 year old events with people who don’t even claim to remember them properly. He relies heavily on these interviews and old newspaper archives, instead of presenting any actual research into the family. He can’t even be bothered to find out which of Libet Johnson’s husbands was the fourth and which the fifth, because no one he interviewed could seem to remember. Shouldn’t that be public information that a professional biographer should be able to track down?

Never mind the fact that the closest interviews he gets to the Woody Johnson branch of the Johnson family, the one he appears to be trying to focus on, are with a cousin and an ex-wife. Everyone else interviewed seems to be a college friend who hasn’t talked to the family in three decades or an octogenarian who grew up in the same hometown as some ex-wife of one of the older family patriarchs.

By somewhere around page 350, it seems as if the copyeditor gave up reading the text, as I wish I had done 300 pages earlier.

From page 371:

“It’s hard to say if anything happened between Libbet and Arnold, but there was certainly a flirtation between them,” “Notes Ryan Chris and Libet ended up getting divorced shortly thereafter. She got bored with the in, sold it, and they moved to Concord, Massachusetts. Their marriage only lasted about fourteen months, from inception to end.”

From page 385:

Ircha, however, later claimed that she and woody were introduced by a publicist. “My friend said, ‘you know woody Johnson is single…

Again, I am quoting from the digital galley and was not able to check against the finished book, but these kinds of elementary errors were not infrequent in the text and I can’t believe it got as far as the galley stage looking so sloppy. Added to a lack of structure and a general impression that the book was mostly predicated on society page gossip, it made for an unwelcoming reading experience. There’s maybe 200 pages worth of relevant facts here, padded out to double that length with unnecessarily repeated information, tangents (we get a detailed family history of Woody Johnson’s mother-in-law’s grandparents, boy I was really salivating for that), and irrelevant facts (did you know that Ahmad Rashad means “Admirable One Led to Truth”? Well, now you do!).

I cannot believe that an author of a book this bad has almost a dozen books under his belt. And I wish I could get the last week back, and never have wasted my time on it.

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Review: Midsummer Magick by Laura Navarre

cover33886-mediumTitle: Midsummer Magick

Author: Laura Navarre

Rating: 3 stars

I received this book through NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Midsummer Magick is a clever, sizzling supernatural romance set in Tudor England and Faerie. It’s published by Carina Press, a digital-first imprint of Harlequin. I have literally zero experience with Harlequin novels in their physical form, but this is the second or third book I’ve read from Carina, and I have really enjoyed each one.

Linnet Norwood, newly made a countess and running from a scandalous past, comes to the court of the newly crowned Elizabeth I looking for the truth behind her parentage and to find a respectable husband to help her rule her lands. Meanwhile, Zamiel, an angel of death and the son of Lucifer, is questioning his place in Heaven, and is exiled to a human body until he repents to God. When Linnet and Zamiel meet, sparks fly, and they embark on dangerous journey across England, Faerie, and the lost realm of Lyonnesse, uncovering Linnet’s powers and falling madly in love.

I’m not a frequent reader of romance, and I have to admit that there were plenty of things that made me roll my eyes. Insta-hard nipples (Seriously. All anyone had to do was look at this chick and her nipples were busting through her corset.). Attempted incest-rape. That damn ‘k’ on the end of magic. And for a bodice-ripping romance hero, Zamiel seemed weirdly physically unattractive to me (a ‘triangular’ face and hair like ‘oil’. Eww.), enough so that I kind of groaned in horror every time he was further described.

But I actually requested this book because I was interested in the non-romance elements of the plot. An angel struggling with the realities of mortality and potentially being damned. A bastard of Henry VIII learning about her parentage and trying to prove that she is loyal to Elizabeth, not trying to supplant her with a royal claim. Faerie and England bleeding together with consequences for both realms. There was really interesting stuff here, and I appreciated the fact that it wasn’t just empty, plotless erotica.

Midsummer Magick is the second of a trilogy, but I believe the first novel centers on a different couple and, in any case, it stands well on its own. It ends up exactly where you think it will, but the journey getting there is a lot of fun.

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Short Story Sunday: Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

sssFirst Line: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.”

Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is a classic piece of American fiction, subversive and darkly funny. Like many great American stories, an entire small town becomes a character. As the residents of the town get together and wait for their mysterious annual lottery, the tension and discord builds, until it reaches an inevitable, disturbing conclusion.

You can read “The Lottery” here.

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First Impressions: A Scandinavian Crime Fiction Face Off!

10776592So, it turns out that in the summertime I really crave Scandanavian crime fiction.

For awhile I didn’t even know this was a thing. Over the past few summers, I’ve read and re-read and adored Stieg Larsson (yes, there are many problems with the Millenium books. That doesn’t make me enjoy them any less), but I had no idea there was such a ‘genre’ as Scandanavian crime fiction. But when I started work in a library, I began to realize there’s an awful lot of books by authors with extra vowels in their names, and they all seem to deal with similar issues and themes.

Which leads me to a face-off. I picked up novels by Lene Kaaberbol and Jo Nesbo and read them back to back, to see how they stacked up.

The Boy in the Suitcase by Lene Kaaberbol

The setup: The first book by Danish writer Lene Kaaberbol to feature Red Cross nurse Nina Borg, it starts with a bang as Borg, thinking she is doing a simple favor for an estranged friend, picks up a suitcase from a train station locker and opens it to find a drugged toddler. Soon on the run from a dangerous hit man and the police, Borg struggles to keep the child safe and learn where he is from. Meanwhile, the child’s Lithuanian mother works to piece together her son’s abduction and the people who took and lost him him desperately try to get him back.

The outcome: I enjoyed the fact that Kaaberbol dealt extensively with the meaning of motherhood, both willing and unwilling, something I haven’t seen often in my past experience with mystery and crime fiction. Nina Borg was a fascinating, deftly written character with a backstory I was itching to uncover as I tried to understand her motivation. Unfortunately, the plot is fairly unsurprising, and in order to try and keep it surprising, Kaaberbol ignored some key characters until pretty late in the novel. They were really interesting characters, and I wish I had known them earlier in the book. I figured out the reason for the kidnapping pretty early on (I won’t spoil it just in case, but the big reveal left me feeling pretty ‘meh’), and the ending was way too neat and tidy.

Rating: 3 stars

The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo 465226

The setup: The Redbreast is Norwegian author Jo Nesbo’s third book featuring inspector Harry Hole, but the earliest translated into English, which is why I chose it. Shoved into a new job title that’s supposed to keep him from causing trouble, Hole uncovers an assassination conspiracy involving Norweigan soldiers who fought for Hitler at the Eastern Front. There are Neo Nazis, people with Multiple Personality Disorder, tangled and twisty plots, and lots and lots of bird imagery.

The outcome: The past- and present- setting of The Redbreast kept me on my toes and kept me guessing. The characters were incredibly complex, with no easy heroes and villains. Everyone had mostly empathetic motivations, even the Nazis. There were actual stakes; it’s not just the bad guys who have things to lose. And the prose was often surprisingly beautiful for a tense crime thriller. It was a long novel–weighing in at over 500 pages–but it I enjoyed every second of it.

Rating: 4 stars

Ultimately, I think Nesbo has fully moved onto my reading list. I can’t wait to read more of his work. But I’ll probably pass on Kaaberbol in the future. Her prose was good and Borg was a fantastic character, but I’m not hooked enough to check out the rest of her work.

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Short Story Sunday: S.H. Carlyle’s “Dinner Party Timeout”

sssFirst line: “Sweetheart, I’m trying to help you out there.”

McSweeny’s is always the place to turn for off-kilter humor, and I love this short, strange story by S.H. Carlyle. Relationships are a competitive team sport here, and this sardonic pep talk ends up in an unexpected place.

You can read “Dinner Party Timeout” here.

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