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Review: The Last Winter of Dani Lancing by P.D. Viner

17262454Title: The Last Winter of Dani Lancing

Author: P.D. Viner

Rating: 1 star

I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

This is one of those books that I was really excited to read. A dynamite cover (though it’s changed since I requested it from NetGalley, perhaps a sign of things to come). Good title. Cover copy that promised a riveting psychological thriller. But perhaps this is a sign that I should stop anticipating books so fiercely, because not only did The Last Winter of Dani Lancing fail to live up to the promise it showed, it ended up the worst reading experience I’ve had all year. And with some of the duds I’ve come across recently, that’s really saying something.

Twenty years ago, college student Dani Lancing was raped and murdered. The crime was never solved, and two decades later her parents have split up, her old boyfriend Tom is a police detective working on cases of sexual violence and murder against women, and new advances in DNA testing offer a slim chance of resolution in Dani’s case. When her mother Patty learns of this, things pretty much go to hell in a handbasket very, very fast.

The best thing I can say about The Last Winter of Dani Lancing is that it would make a fantastic Lifetime movie. The story started out fairly interesting, if cliche, but the leaps of logic and plot twists that brought it to it’s end were so increasingly improbable and ridiculous that I thought at times P.D. Viner was a high-school-aged fanfiction writer. If you’re committed to reading this novel, you may want to skip the rest of this review as there are spoilers I could find no way around in trying to convey how batshit crazy this plot got.

There were three main problems with the writing to take into account before even getting to the plot. First, the novel is told in present tense. This isn’t an automatic dealbreaker for me, but I really don’t like it. It also makes no concessions to chronology, jumping around Dani’s childhood, the murder, the aftermath, and the present day with incredible frequency. Again, not a dealbreaker, but not fun. Finally, the close-third POV jumps between characters without any pattern whatsoever, sometimes even within the same paragraph. Most of the POV characters are the main three and the villain, but some are so ancillary to the action that it completely threw me out of the story.

None of these writing problems, though signs of a weak novelist, bothered me much on their own. For quite awhile I was planning to give this book 3 stars. But then there were the characters, and then they started doing things.

First, we have Jim, who actually doesn’t do much of anything, except lie around the house being haunted by his daughter. That’s right, Dani Lancing is a ghost, and she’s been hanging out with dear old dad for twenty years. He takes her on walks to the park, luxuriates in the memories of her idyllic childhood, and doesn’t really do anything else for twenty years, until his ex-wife calls him to break her out of a hospital. (Dani, meanwhile, kind of just hangs there, with complete ghost amnesia, adding nothing to the plot.)

Next there’s Patty, Dani’s mom, an ex-journalist with Parkinson’s whose been living on bitterness for two decades and collapses a lot at helpfully plot-appropriate moments. Despite (because of?) a bad relationship with her daughter, she’s obsessed with revenge, and when she thinks she has pinned the man who killed her, she (I repeat, a 60 year old woman with a disease that makes her frail and prone to passing out a lot) kidnaps and murders him. This turned out to be probably the most realistic situation in the entire book.

Then, there is Tom. Oh, Tom. How I hated this little shit.

Once upon a time Dani Lancing gave him a kiss. She was thinking of someone else, they in fact never dated, and she never wanted anything to do with him romantically. And yet she is the great love of his life, he has spent twenty years thinking of no one else, and has been given the moniker The Sad Man because rapes and murders of poor, innocent girls make him cry. This was enough to make me turn away in disgust, but oh, it got so much worse.

Not only did Tom fancy that he was going to marry Dani Lancing (whenever she just came to her senses, whenever he  could convince her that he was her protector and savior), he basically assumed ownership of her. And that meant anyone who she was in a relationship with, or anyone who besmirched her good name, was fodder for  extreme physical violence and that he could use his status as a police officer to frame them for felonies. Nice guy, right? Really the kind of hero you root for, you know, cause he cries a lot.

The truth behind Dani’s death is that she was a drug addict (she becomes a full on smack addict in the course of like, three weeks) who was passed around as a sex object between some gang members and overdosed. Tom finds this out, and goes through extreme measures to cover it up, because his poor, precious Dani was so pure and lovely that it’s better to have twenty years thinking there’s a psycosexual killer on the loose than to have anyone say anything bad about her. This is all revealed by a mustache-twirlingly cardboard villain who’s after Tom for revenge (and who could blame him? Tom sucked). Dani’s ghost ascends to heaven in peace, the villain is knocked into a coma, everyone forgives Tom (cause he did it for his ONE TRUE LOVE, guys), and things pretty much end up hunky dory. Jim and Patty even end up reuniting because there’s nothing like kidnap and murder (with a horrifying bonus suicide thrown in) to make you want to dance on hillsides and renew your vows.

This novel was so bad. I felt incredibly sorry for Dani, who wasn’t so much a character as a blank canvas for everyone to project their expectations on. The plot was tortured; the characters flat, cliche, and universally unlikable. And if this is held up as an example of an intense psychological thriller, well, perhaps I’m done with the genre for awhile.

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Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

cover29436-mediumTitle: Burial Rites

Author: Hannah Kent

Rating: 3 stars.

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

Burial Rites is a novel based on the story of the last person executed in Iceland, Agnes Magnusdotter. Convicted of the murder of her lover and another man, Agnes is sent to live with a family in the country in the months leading up to her execution. She struggles to come to terms with her fate while slowly revealing the details of her life to the family and a young priest.

The language of this novel is beautifully atmospheric. The harsh landscape comes vividly to life, and there are beautiful and unusual metaphors. “Invigorated by a sudden curl of anger…” (p. 42) “It was only later that our tongues produced landslides…” (p. 164)  “Those who are not being dragged to their deaths cannot understand how the heart grows hard and sharp, until it is a nest of rocks with only an empty egg in it.” It’s absolutely gorgeous, and definitely compelling.

But, perhaps because it’s hampered by adherence to historical events, the structure of Burial Rites is unsatisfying. Reverend Toti is set up as a major viewpoint character, but then gets sick with an unspecified illness and drops out of the book for a long time, with only scattered references to Agnes wondering where he is. The daughters of the family, Lauga and Steina, have different reactions to Agnes’s presence in their lives, and Lauga wonders if they will ever be able to marry after what she perceives as the stigma thrust upon them, but while these issues are raised they are never sufficiently dealt with. In fact, most of the characters’ plotlines felt insufficiently resolved.

And Agnes is a difficult protagonist, to say the least. Because her sections are told in first person, unlike anyone else’s, the reader is constantly forced into her head. One can certainly empathize with a woman facing execution, but after awhile it starts to feel like relentless whining and my patience as a reader wore thin. Her first person narrative contained the best writing in the book, but I couldn’t help feeling it would be better served in a short story, where I would have less chance to become annoyed with the voice.

Burial Rites is a first novel, and while it isn’t perfect, it is solid literary fiction that promises good things to come from this young writer. I found it hard to be passionate about it, but those who read lots of historical fiction will almost certainly enjoy it.

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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: Zealot- The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

17568801Title: Zealot- The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Author: Reza Aslan

Rating: 4 stars

There’s something I have to confess. I am a religion junkie.

I used to spend Sunday afternoons as a child watching something called Mysteries of the Bible, a historical survey of Biblical times that went way over my head at the time but still fascinated me. I came fairly close, within a class or two, of minoring in religion in college. That spot was ultimately taken by history, because I was not ready to go so in depth with my studies, but I still love learning about the history and development of religions from all cultures, and read lots of popular religious surveys.

When I heard that Reza Aslan had written a biography of the historical Jesus, I knew I had to read it as soon as possible. Jesus is a figure very close to my heart, even as I no longer hold to most of the tenents of faith I was raised with. I was also skeptical about what Aslan would have to say. The number of “facts” that can be said to be known about the historical Jesus of Nazareth are few, and can be very divisive. But Zealot turned out to be very compelling narrative, very accessible to general readers while backed up with extensive research.

Most of the book has little to do with the historical Jesus in and of himself. Aslan takes what is known about Jewish culture in such a tumultuous and transformtive time, and what is known about men who interacted with and followed Jesus, to construct a template of how the historical Jesus probably acted, who he probably was.

He begins his narrative with the Jewish Revolt of 66 CE and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem. This, not the birth, ministry, or death of Jesus, turns out to be the central linchpin of the book, as he argues that it is with the destruction of the Temple that the Jesus cult was able to fully break from the Jewish roots of the faith. Christology and the Roman church truly began at this point, but most links to Jesus the man, Jesus the Nazarene, were buried.

He also spends a lot of time talking about figures such as John the Baptist, James the brother of Jesus, Paul, corrupt high priests of the Temple, and Roman officials. There were many ideas I have already been exposed to, but also many things that were new to me, and yet make complete logical sense (for instance–Jesus of Nazareth was probably initially a disciple of John the Baptist. Something that had never even crossed my mind, but struck me as a complete ‘of course!’ moment).

The book is small, barely weighing in at two hundred pages, but there are a ton of notes and further reading at the back for anyone interested in how Aslan came to his conclusions, or looking for greater depth of study. The student part of me would have preferred footnotes and in-text reference, but the structure of the book does make sense. It’s cleaner, makes for faster reading, and I would assume hooks more causal readers who would be turned off my footnotes and tiny text.

In addition to his Ph.D, Aslan also holds an MFA in Fiction, and it shows in the meticulous construction of his prose. Zealot is beautifully written, with vividly drawn descriptions of the Temple, the life of the peasantry, and of a world overflowing with wandering messiahs.

Some, especially conservative Christians and Bible literalists, may find this book controversial. They should not. Having a greater understanding of the historical roots of the world’s largest religion is important to keeping that religion relevant in the modern world. Whether you believe Jesus was divine, a man, or some combination thereof, there is no doubt he was a charismatic and fascinating figure, and Aslan shows how he gained such a hold over the human imagination through the most humble and prosaic of roots.

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Review: The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

16158600

The Other Typist

Title: The Other Typist

Author: Suzanne Rindell

Rating: 4.5 stars.

Done well, there are few things I find more enjoyable than an unreliable narrator. We are all the heroes of our own stories, but it can cause delightful feelings of schadenfreude to watch a narrator to get their own story so unbelievably wrong. It is of course even better to think you as a reader know where a story is going, only to have the rug ripped out from beneath you.

Rose Baker, the protagonist of Suzanne Rindell’s debut novel The Other Typist, is a slightly prudish, old-fashioned type of girl who falls unwittingly under the spell of a charismatic conwoman. Or is she? There are as many different realities in this stunning and enjoyable novel as there are characters, and it is incredibly difficult to determine what truth, if any, there is to be found.

In Roaring Twenties New York, Rose works as a typist in a police precinct, taking down criminal confessions. She thinks herself an excellent judge of character, but in most cases she is spectacularly unaware of what is actually going on around her. She also prides herself on her strict morals and decency, but very early on, even before the intriguing Odalie Lazare shows up to upset Rose’s world, Rindell drops hints that not all is right with Rose. In the story she tells us, she passes herself off as quiet, unassuming, good, but underneath there are hints of a sociopath peeking out.

Once under Odalie’s spell, Rose moves from her drab world of convent orphanages and boarding rooms to the glittering, wild paced realm of speakeasies and house parties thrown by millionaires. Odalie is beautiful, enigmatic, rich; she has a dozen stories to explain her past, but none of them quite add up. And as the novel goes on, Rose is drawn into a complicated web of crime, lies, and murder.

The real joy of The Other Typist lies in the narration, the eerie moments when the real Rose breaks through the façade she has constructed to show her underlying violence, manipulation, anger. The descriptions are so vivid that you can almost smell cigarette smoke leaking off the page, feel the seasons as they pass. And the magnificent final scene is something I’m still trying to parse out in my mind. I still don’t quite know what happened there, but I loved it.

If her first novel is this good, I can’t wait to see what else Rindell has in her future.

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Review: Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

8149392

Island Beneath the Sea

Title: Island Beneath the Sea

Author: Isabel Allende

Rating: 3 stars

Set first against the backdrop of the Haitian Revolution and later in pre-American New Orleans, Isabel Allende’s Island Beneath The Sea is the story of Zarite, a young slave, her master Valmorain, and the various complicated relationships that came out of the slave culture of the late eighteenth century.

The characters are vivid and varied–from the cowardly, oblivious Valmorain to the seductive and frivolous yet loyal and kind mulatta Violette, from the hot-blooded young warrior Gambo to the daring doctor Parmentier. At the center of it all is Zarite, a slave who is bought by Valmorain at the age of 9, and for the next three decades is raped, degraded, and lives at his mercy, while raising two children and trying to forget the loss of another.

At times, Island Beneath the Sea is sweepingly historical, as it details the lives of real revolutionaries and historical persons and gives an account of the Haitian Revolution. But it always comes back to the personal narrative of Zarite, and it is here where the novel works best. Zarite’s story is that of a slave yearning for freedom, a mother anxious for her children, a woman learning how to love. Nothing revolutionary per se, but it was a great way to tie the greater themes of the novel together, and add some humanity to the sometimes overwhelming scope of the historical plot.

There are elements here that you find in a lot of Caribbean fiction–the mad (white) wife, voodoo conflicting with and adapting around Christianity–and I certainly think this book will appeal more to readers who are fans of books by authors such as Jean Rhys and Maryse Conde. I found it a little flat. Despite being interested in the characters and aesthetically pleased by the setting, I was rarely moved or invested in Island Beneath the Sea. The ending in particular felt rushed and a little strange–here be spoilers I can’t figure out how to totally avoid–incest is brushed off as pretty much no big deal because one partner is white and the other is biracial, and nobody seems overly surprised or bothered. It was an odd resolution, and I felt like there was much more book to be told, or that the book we were presented with turned out to be mostly prelude to a story that was never fully explored. It was unsatisfying, and certainly not the best Allende has to offer, but certainly worth reading if you’re interested in the history or the setting.

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