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Jane Johnson

REVIEW:  The Salt Road by Jane Johnson

REVIEW: The Salt Road by Jane Johnson

“My dear Isabelle, in the attic you will find a box with your name on it.”

Isabelle’s estranged archeologist father dies, leaving her a puzzle. In a box she finds some papers and a mysterious African amulet — but their connection to her remains unclear until she embarks on a trip to Morocco to discover how the amulet came into her father’s possession. When the amulet is damaged and Isabelle almost killed in an accident, she fears her curiosity has got the better of her. But Taib, her rescuer, knows the dunes and their peoples, and offers to help uncover the amulet’s extraordinary history, involving Tin Hinan — She of the Tents — who made a legendary crossing of the desert, and her beautiful descendant Mariata.

Across years and over hot, shifting sands, tracking the Salt Road, the stories of Isabelle and Taib, Mariata and her lover, become entangled with that of the lost amulet. It is a tale of souls wounded by history and of love blossoming on barren ground.

Dear Ms. Johnson,

In 2008 I read and enjoyed your first book, “The Tenth Gift.” The mixture of modern and historical, England and Morocco captivated me, sucked me in and wouldn’t let me go until I’d finished the story. I freely admit that I had looked for more books by you in the years since but didn’t keep up with you as I should have and so missed the release of “The Salt Road” last year. Now I’ve made up for that. But you might not be happy that I did.

salt-roadI figured that this would be another book with a dual narrative – and it is. And that it featured two sets of people, part of it would take place in England and then it would carry on and finish in Morocco – and it does. As with the first book, it starts out a bit slowly – in both narratives – but to me it stayed in first gear for far too long. In fact, it grinds along for most of the book. I kept waiting for my interest to be caught for good but instead I contemplated setting the book down quite a few times. Still I stuck it out just to see how everything would finally knit together. It was a long journey.

I don’t mind some detail in the books I read. In fact, generally I like it but here the climbing stuff that Izzy is into and that brings her to Morocco was mind numbing. During the climb that injures her and then introduces her to Taib, who comes to her rescue, Izzy thinks that her painstaking technique was driving her climbing partner insane. I was right along with him. When Izzy comes to grief and almost plunges down the mountainside, all I could think was, “Finally. Something happens!” Cold blooded of me, I know but by then I was desperate.

Meanwhile, the narrative of the young Tuareg Princess – and didn’t her exalted bloodlines get trumpeted enough – Mariata was crawling along at an equally slow pace. At first, I thought this bit was farther in the past and it wasn’t until you mentioned something about trucks that I realized this section was probably taking place in the late 1960s which, again to be honest, kind of killed my “oooh, more about historical Morocco” buzz. The information about Tuareg life is interesting but the story as a whole simply limps along at camel pace.

Neither Izzy nor Mariata are especially warm and cuddly people either. Izzy veers from wild child to uber self contained and back to a point where she throws a temper snit that makes even a four year old stop his tantrum and take notice. Mariata – the Princess! and don’t you forget it, bub! – reminds me of nothing so much as a sulky, whiny teenage snob. It wasn’t until she heads off on her own to escape the fate her stepmother has in store for Mariata that I felt any respect for her.

And just when the action picks up for all concerned, several things happened that I hated to see occur. Taib takes Izzy out to see someone who might be able to explain the mystery behind her amulet and then dumps a lecture on her about Berbers and Tuaregs after which Izzy falls prey to a heaping amount of White Guilt. Great, Huge amounts of White Guilt. Berbers and Tuaregs aren’t free of historical past social injustices – though I noticed that in the book only the evil tribe that Mariata stays with for a time actually have slaves – but Taib sure dumps a sack of ashes in Izzy’s lap for her to pour over her head all the while remaining saintly as he does so.

Mariata’s world has fallen apart when her father carts her off to a new life trying to be modern in a town. For Mariata it’s the seventh level of hell and made more so by her Eeeeeeevil Stepmother. Honestly, if there was ever a character straight out of central casting it’s this stepmother. And only because that woman is so Eeeeeeevil can I put up with more of Mariata’s “My bloodlines! I’m a Princess!” routine. I wanted to seriously stuff a sock in that. Then comes the suitors the Eeeeeeevil stepmother tries to foist Mariata off on and it dawns on me that Mariata is a Mary Sue. All men either love her or want to screw her – depending on their own evilness or lack thereof. And for a woman who’s lived out in the wild and traveled across deserts and been around camels all her life, Mariata is certainly ignorant of how to prepare for a journey and whiny once it starts. Only when she doesn’t have anyone to bitch to does she suck it up and get on with survival.

At this point, I was holding onto my patience and beginning to skim a bit just to see how it ends. I had a rough idea and it turned out I was right. What I didn’t count on was the completely unnecessary return of a previous evil character, a sick revelation from Izzy’s past (was this really necessary?) and the revelation of how long Mariata had to wait for her HEA. Serious saga stuff. Oh, and the second lecture Izzy – and this time Taib too – get on Tuareg oppression. I could hear the ax grinding during the impassioned speech. The “two years after” chapter is an almost sickly sweet wind up of the whole and I find it hard to believe that Izzy has gone native as quickly as she has.

Thus “The Salt Road” fails me almost completely. I never much warmed up to either heroine, the stock characters were ridiculous, the lectures were tedious and the ending wrap up was everything I hate in epilogues. Except for the facts I learned about Sahara desert survival and the Moroccan setting the grade would be an F but as it is, the location and cool stuff brings it up to a disappointing D.

~Jayne

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Dear Author

REVIEW: The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson

Dear Ms Johnson,

book review Since I love historical fiction, I checked out “The Tenth Gift” when I saw it listed at Fictionwise. The blurb intrigued me but not enough to immediately buy it. But I kept going back and looking at it. Something about it wouldn’t let me go and when Fictionwise offered a sale, I took the plunge. It was a little slow going at first. Then suddenly it took off and I couldn’t stop reading it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And when I had finished it, I was so glad I’d taken the chance.

I used to do some simple embroidery myself though nothing on the scale of Catherine Anne Tregenna’s work. Cat sounds like a true artist; someone with a rare gift and talent few are blessed with. I had no idea that in the seventeenth century, women – who would have actually done the work – were not considered able to join an embroidery guild nor would they have drawn most of the patterns they used. Typical men – foist the work on the women then take the credit.

I can well understand her frustration with that aspect of her life and also her dread of being forced into a marriage she didn’t want – no matter that her cousin seems like a decent man. As she puts it – married, living in a small house, pregnant year after year, slowly going mad in Cornwall – I’d dream and scheme to get the hell out of Dodge myself. And for a young woman who’d never seen anything of the world, the idea of actually seeing Barbary pirates would seem grand. Until, as Cat finds out, you need to be careful what you wish for.

Just as Cat has her faults, modern Julia isn’t a squeaky clean angel either. In fact, I rather didn’t care for her at first. Having a long standing affair with her best friend’s husband is awful. No matter that the man himself is a heel. Then she wasn’t the mistress of tact in helping her cousin deal with her husband’s death by suicide. But as she began to dig into the mystery of Cat’s past via the embroidery book in which Cat had painstakingly written her true thoughts of life as a servant in Cornwall, to be followed by Cat’s initial account of being seized, along with 59 other people from a Cornish church by pirates, I was snagged for good.

I love how you let the story of what happened to Cat be slowly revealed – both through her writing, what scarce items remain of her and in glimpses of the past. Thank you for the manner in which you convey information to the reader by having Julia look it up herself on Google rather than awkwardly cramming it down our throats in huge gulps. And oh, the descriptions of Cornwall and Morocco. I was there seeing the Cornish light by the sea. The scents, sounds and sights of the souqs of Rabat engulfed me. I was gripping my ereader as Julia and I survived her wild stretch limo taxi ride from Casablanca to Rabat – complete with gestures, curses and suddenly swerving across three lanes of traffic. Definitely take your valium before trying that!

By the end of the book, I had come to appreciate how none of the characters are blameless. Each has done something which shames them and most acknowledge their failings. I got the feeling that redemption had been sought and given. That love had cleansed and cleaned. And about that love. Sometimes an author has a hard time getting me to believe in one love story, much less two. When one love story begins in a pirate kidnapping, proceeds through a hellish slave journey by sea, then wanders through the heroine being sold at auction, my belief is sorely tested. I don’t like uneven power divisions between my heroes and heroines. But to be honest, I felt Cat was calling the shots long before she decides to finally end her lover’s torment and agree to marry him. Poor bastard.

Another thank you for giving Julia and her love time to get to know each other, to court each other before handing us a line about any rushed wedding and HEA. Those two have a lot to work out and deal with even in the face of “twue love.” It’s also sad to see how little some things have changed over the centuries – war and religion will always bedevil us it seems.

Why didn’t I give you an A? The woo – woo stuff – both with the old ladies and their predictions, the echoing of the farewell letters, and at the end with settling Rob’s ghost, brings the grade down slightly. But it was eerie how you tied it all together and had it make sense.

Thanks for a fascinating trip through two different worlds and an introduction to some memorable characters. I’d like one taste of Moroccan mint tea. Though only one sip as I’ve got about 10 pounds to go in my diet! A-

~Jayne

This book can be purchased in mass market from Amazon or Powells or ebook format.