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REVIEW:  The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

REVIEW: The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

Dear Ms. McVeigh,

I was interested in The Fever Tree, your first work of historical fiction, partly because of this beautifully written excerpt at your site, partly because the Booklist review mentioned that it had a social justice angle (the novel is mainly set in late 19th century South Africa), and partly because of the pretty cover (yes, I’m shallow like that).

TheFeverTreeThis book was hard, at times even painful to read and it left me with mixed feelings. But before I get into that, a plot summary.

The novel begins with eighteen year old Frances Irvine’s discovery that her father is unwell. Frances’ father is a successful furniture maker who rose from humble beginnings to marry above his station.

Frances’ mother, the daughter of a gentleman, died when Frances was a child, and Frances, the only child of their union, now learns from the maid that her father had a collapse – due, it turns out to losing his fortune in a bad investment. Frances fears she may lose him too.

With her father is Edwin Matthews, a doctor as well as a cousin of Frances’ on her father’s side. Like her father, Edwin comes from a community of poor Irish workers in Manchester, and it was her father’s generosity that helped Edwin obtain an education and medical training.

When Frances was a young teen Edwin came to live with them. His manners appalled Frances, and she found the way he watched her, especially when she played piano, disturbing. After they finish discussing her father’s condition, she senses Edwin is attracted to her, but she wants no part of him.

Frances has cousins on her mother’s side, too, and to them she is the unwanted family member. Her uncle only deigned to invite her to visit after his father’s death. Frances’ grandfather never forgave her mother for marrying down, and her uncle is very cautious about how much he is willing to do for her.

Thus, when, a few months later, her father passes away, her uncle tells Frances that he has received an offer for her hand from Edwin Matthews, who is in England just then but lives in South Africa. Frances’ aunt on her father’s side has grudgingly offered to take her in to a small, shabby house in Manchester full of children who need looking after, and those, says her uncle are the  two choices she has.

Frances is dismayed. She already turned down one proposal from Edwin, and now his persistence in asking to marry her has cost her a potential invitation to live with her uncle’s family. She turns down Edwin’s proposal, but later, when all her father’s possessions are sold and it’s almost time to go to Manchester, she changes her mind. Anything would be better than Manchester, even South Africa.

On her way to her future husband, Frances shares a ship’s cabin aboard the Cambrian with Anne and Mariella, two working class girls going to South Africa because it’s hard to find work in England. At first they seem foreign to Frances, but later she befriends them and even stands up for them.

Also on the ship is the handsome William Westbrook. William, Frances learns, is “partly Jewish,” the Whitechapel-born nephew of Joseph Baier, a man who sailed to South Africa to make his fortune and eventually became a diamond magnate and then sent William to Oxford for polish.

William has excellent prospects and he appeals to Frances far more than Edwin. This attraction is reciprocated: William flirts with Frances and once, during a storm at sea, even saves her life. Frances eventually allows him to touch her, and one night when she has drunk quite a bit, sleeps with him.

What will happen when the Cambrian docks in Cape Town? Will Frances choose William over Edwin or Edwin over William? More importantly, will she remain the spoiled, cosseted girl she was in England, or will she discover a hidden strength and integrity she did not know she possessed?

I have to admit upfront that reading The Fever Tree was, for long stretches of the novel, not a pleasant experience.

Although we get to know a couple of the black characters somewhat, the focus is mainly on the white ones, and to me this felt at odds with how much the book focuses on racism and the evils of colonialism.

Discrimination, bigotry and privilege are major themes here, with Frances initially disliking Edwin in part because he reminds her that she too has Irish bloodlines, and William attracting her because despite his half-Jewish status, he hobnobs with the powerful.

Once Frances arrives in South Africa, the exploitation of black South Africans by white colonists is all around her, everywhere, and one of the men in her life tries to stand up to it at personal risk, while another embodies it.

The fact that she was still torn between them at this point was very difficult for me, though of course, this was the point the book made —that often it is easier to conform with a social wrong than to do the right thing, which may come at personal cost.

Further, the N word is used casually by some of the villainous characters. A reader who finds any of the above painful, as I did, may want to avoid the book because of these triggers.

In my own case, I was also disturbed by the portrayal of Joseph Baier, the diamond magnate, when he appears on the stage. I understand that Baier has to be a villain, given his position of extreme power and his exploitation of black South Africans, but I’m not certain he had to be Jewish. Though some powerful investors in the diamond trade were indeed Jewish, Baier’s worst actions are based on those of Cecil Rhodes, the son of a Church of England vicar.

To clarify further, I don’t categorically object to Jewish villains, but I feel that when one is portrayed, it is extra important to avoid stereotypes. Baier’s portrayal skated very close to the edge of Nazi era stereotypes in that he was not only money-grubbing but also predatory and physically unattractive, though the latter was due to a corpulent physique and not to stereotypically Jewish features.

A scene in which Baier uses his knowledge of Frances’ personal life to blackmail her into rubbing his bare feet and breathes heavily while she does so struck me as offensive and I feel his power over her could have been portrayed in a more sensitive way.

I want to be clear, though, that the book also had a social conscience and took a stance against racism over and over. There is a scene in which a spoiled Frances, in one of her worst actions, complains about the laziness of a black maid and one of the men in her life reads her the riot act—I wanted to cheer when that last happened.

The love triangle at the center of the story frustrated me because it took Frances far too long to see the truth about these two men. One was strong minded, passionate about social justice and compassionate to others, while the second was power hungry, womanizing, immature, and by far the most damning of all in my eyes, openly racist.

I wanted to kill the second man, and I couldn’t understand why he had such emotional power over Frances, especially since during their first sexual encounter, her consent was in question. I can handle reading about unfaithfulness, but this man was so horrible that I didn’t feel Frances’ blindness where he was concerned was sufficiently supported in the text.

Two of the novel’s biggest strengths are its well-crafted prose and its scenic description of South Africa. So many images formed in my mind as I read it, and I especially loved the stark beauty of the Karoo, where Frances spends part of the novel.

I also enjoyed Frances’ turnaround, when it finally arrived. It was good to see her redeem herself in my eyes but I wish this had come sooner. I was a bit reminded of Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber when I read this novel because Frances took so long to come to her epiphany about the men, and more importantly, about herself and her own values.

As I said above, big stretches of the novel were difficult to read, and some even painful. Craft wise The Fever Tree was fairly well executed for the type of book it is, but it was also too triggering for me. C-.


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REVIEW: Fever by Joan Swan

REVIEW: Fever by Joan Swan

Dear Ms. Swan:

I had not planned to read this book. I kind of recoil from the blend of paranormal mysticism and romantic suspense. For some reason these blends don’t appeal to me even though I have read and enjoyed them in the past (Dream Man and Now You See Her by Linda Howard, for example, are favorites of mine). However, Wicked Pixie alerted me to Mandi’s review on Goodreads and that she had DNF’ed the book because of the racial slurs that peppered the story. Mandi took some grief for this review and you came in to say that the voice behind the racial slurs died just a few chapters into the book, as if the dying of the character washed away the offensiveness of the book. I was curious enough to find out for myself what would justify the use of repeated racial slurs in a contemporary genre fiction book and thus bought this book at the indecently high price of $9.99.

Fever by Joan SwanI recognize that by writing this review, I will be propelling sales to those who are curious, just as I was curious but I want to talk about the book and the uses of the racial slurs and thus even though I find the book troublesome and offensive, I think the inadvertent promotional benefit is worthwhile.

Teague Creek was convicted of the brutal murder of his girlfriend, a DA who was investigating a series of arsons. (Pay no attention to all the legal errors such as the DA doing the investigating that a fire cop would do. I’m not sure that this book contains even one correct legal representation). It was posited that she figured out it was her paramedic/firefighter boyfriend and he killed her to silence her.  Teague breaks out of prison during a medical visit with the help of another prison, Taz, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood.  The two take a hostage, a woman named Alyssa Foster. Alyssa is a mix of heritages.  She identifies with no particular race and the only reason that the reader knows she might have some non Caucasian blood is that she becomes the target of a variety of racial slurs from Taz.  He calls her a dink immediately.  The first four chapters of this book are a barrage of racial terms and racial stereotypes.  Luckily for me, the book moves beyond that once Taz is dead, but for the first 80 pages or so you don’t go three pages without something offensive being slapped in front of your face.  The following are the excerpts with corresponding page numbers (according to my Kindle copy).  I am putting everything in a spoiler code (except for you RSS readers) because the racial slurs are so numerous and so offensive that I think that they could be considered triggers.

Spoiler: Show

  • page 17 4.0% –  In re the half Asian heroine: “she was a beauty. A goddamned, exotic Barbie-doll, wet dream beauty”
  • page 18 4.0% – Some part of his sesame-seed-sized brain evidently still worked” says our hero.
  • page 33 7.0% – The Aryan Brotherhood sidekick: “I know just how to fill a couple hours with a dink like that”
  • page 33 7.0% – “This is a shit hole, man, everything is a dive. Nothing but niggers and spics live here.”
  • page 42 9.0% – The AB sidekick, the hero and heroine confront a bunch of slang talking black guys who spout off cliched lines like “once you go black, you never go back”. This also treats us to “porch monkeys, wiggas, cracka”
  • page 46 10.0% – AB sidekick telling the dreadlocked black guys to get lost “you heard him, monkey meat,” Taz said. “Get the fuck out of here before he shoots your ugly black faces clean off.”
  • page 49 11.0% – Taz, mad that the tires of their get away car are flat, says “yeah, like how the fuck we’re getting out of the hell hole that bitch got us into now that those niggers jacked our ride.”
  • page 49 11.0% – Apparently it is Heroine’s fault. “I’m going to fuck the living shit out of this slant-eyed cunt.”
  • page 56 13.0% – Taz is concerned hero, a fellow AB (supposedly) is taking a liking to heroine. “I think that chink is more important to you than I am.”
  • page 57 13.0% – Hero, who has controlled the entire escape and enforced certain behaviors from Taz (such as not raping Alyssa), now allows him to go off with two black prostitutes.
  • page 58 13.0% – Hero and heroine go to Walmart while I presume Taz is doing something unspeakable to the prostitutes.
  • page 60 13.0% – Hero warns heroine to stay away from Taz because he killed his sister for having sex w Mexican. Tied her to a field and ran over her with a discer machine but apparently letting those two black prostitutes get roughed up by Taz is acceptable.
  • page 85 19.0% – Taz is back. Replete and bloody from beating the prostitutes. “Those jigaboos can fuck, man. Those fat lips are the best for blow. They can fucking sick white off rice-” “Enough” Teague barked
  • page 85 19.0% – Taz is undeterred and we get one more insult before Teague kills Taz accidentally. “That rice-picker ain’t got no meat on her bones and all she uses her big mouth for is spewing shit.”

The sadly ironic part is that the next two hundred pages are incredibly boring. The two talk, drive, talk, eat, talk, kiss, drive, and end up at a cabin.  Teague isn’t supposed to be much of a talker but the two seemed to have non stop repetitive conversations and internal monologues about how angsty their situation is.

Alyssa’s initial representation is contradictory and relies heavily on the romance reader’s assumption that all heroes are intrinsically good.  In other words, Teague who has the tattoos of a member of the Aryan Brotherhood such as a swastika and other symbols of hate on his body; who hangs around with a man who uses the worst racial slurs possible; who  has threatened Alyssa at every turn to do her harm; to kill a cop, a child and a woman if she doesn’t cooperate with him; who has placed in her harm’s way repeatedly; who has essentially ruined her career by helping to plant evidence that makes her look like an accomplice, is really a good guy.  When Alyssa voices her physical desire for this racist murderer as she defines him, we are supposed to nod our heads at her good taste.  When Alyssa doesn’t trust him and treats him with doubt, we are supposed to be chagrined at her inability to see through all the superficial bad things to the truly heroic guy underneath.

This book asks the reader to buy into the idea that Alyssa should instinctively know that all these bad things are merely acts and a true heroine would recognize the decency and humanity behind the swatiska emblazoned escaped felon/convicted murderer. About 40% in, Alyssa notes “There was a lot of good in this man, more good than she’d seen in most men.” and I couldn’t help but think that Alyssa must know really horrible men if Teague is the guy she think is better than most men.

Teague and Alyssa have a dilemma. In order for the happy ever after to occur, Teague must be exonerated from his crime; solve the mystery behind who framed him; and repair past sundered relationships.  Teague wants to do none of these things and although he has no money, he is intent on doing things his way which would essentially mean life on the run for him and his child.  Alyssa wants to do things a different way.

Here’s what struck me the most after thinking about this book for a while. The Aryan Brotherhood character’s dialogue is crafted with such attention to detail. Some of the slurs were so obscure to me I had to google them. Others were all to painfully familiar. This was a throwaway character who dies in Chapter 4 and then only two passing references are made to him throughout the rest of the book. Teague supposedly hooked up with Taz because Taz had outside contacts, ones that were willing to help him, but those contacts never come looking for Teague and Taz.  Never.  There is never any repercussions for Taz dying.  He was, literally, a throwaway character one whose deletion from the book would not have affected the plot arc in any fashion. You could have replaced him with anyone and the story would have remained much the same.  Additionally, it did appear that Teague had at least one friend on the outside who may have been willing to help him.

Contrast this to the legal aspect of the book. The hero is a convicted murderer. In order for a happy ever after to occur, the conviction has to go away. There are ways for this to happen but not in the way that is described in the book. I’m not sure how much legal research was done for the story, but I wondered if there was even one legal detail in the story that was correct. The ending was almost comical in its improbability.

There were other important inconsistencies. For instance, at one point Teague points out that he is totally broke and cannot afford any more appeals. Earlier in the story, however, Teague uses a credit card to do a cash balance transfer of $5,000 to Alyssa’s account to implicate her heavily in his escape.  Where did he get the credit card?  Was it just lying dormant for 3 years?  I thought he has spent all his money in pursuing custody while in prison!  (Yes, he pursues custody of his child while in prison and is devastated when he loses). And then he, a firefighter/paramedic, asks Alyssa what PTSD is:

What the hell is PTSD”

“Post-traumatic stress disorder.”

There are almost no details given regarding the hero’s paranormal ability which consists of primarily being able to burn things with his hands and heal things (mostly cauterization but also reversing his burns). Throughout the story, this paranormal element is never explained and used in the most shallow of ways. He alternately burns and heals Alyssa and uses his high internal energy to hot wire about five cars. That’s it.

This is a Brava and I did think the story would be more spicy than it was. The story contained two full sex scenes and one was fairly tepid. It’s definitely not overly spicy. I wasn’t convinced of the chemistry between the two characters. Alyssa was constantly ruminating about Teague’s amazingly hot body but that seemed about it. Oh, and she noticed how, once he had showered all the blood off him, he looked “cleaner,more human.” Those powers of observation are keen.

These inconsistencies aren’t fatal to the book, but placed in juxtaposition with 10-12 hateful, racial slurs used to build the character of one throwaway person in the book, the inconsistencies place the use of racial slurs in sharp relief. Why?

These words are hateful and harmful. Why are they used? What do they add to the story? I wished some editor at Kensington had taken a step back and asked these questions.  This is no Huck Finn comparison. In the first place, the use of racial slurs in Huck Finn were period appropriate. Those terms, unfortunately, were used in regular commonplace vernacular. The use of these types of slurs today get people fired, even if they are used accidentally.

This language added nothing to the story other than to be shocking and offensive. Maybe people who have never been the subject of racial slurs don’t recognize how harmful these words could be but people whose business is made out of the use of words should recognize their power.

I’m not saying that racial slurs should never be used in literature or even genre fiction like romance, but I do believe that when you go down that route, there should be a good reason for their use.  There was no good reason for the barrage of hateful words used by a character that is non essential to the storyline.  I’m giving the book a D because I feel I may be overly biased due to the racial slurs.

Best regards,