Friday, December 5, 2014

two entirely different tales: The Enchanted (Denfeld) & A Star for Mrs Blake (Smith)

Once again, delayed more than I intended but I hope other readers find the insights helpful!!!

There's one review I read that referenced Dead Man Walking and that is exactly what went through my head at moments during this book.  You are reading about people who have done terrible things (the only first-person narrator's crimes are only hinted at but his crimes are called the very worst), some that I think one fairly would call terrible people.  And yet....  You do come to care.  The book, in large measure through the character called The Lady who is an investigator who works with a team that tries to overturn death sentences (the author's own background is in this job), asks you to consider how these men came to be who they became and do what they did.  (Aside: In case it helps provide context, I am a liberal who supports the death penalty in theory but recognizes severe issues in practice).

There's a lot of reality here.  And there's a lot of magic, brought in via the above-noted narrator.  The chapters shift b/w him, The Lady, a new prisoner (a 'pretty' young boy, he's not on death row but one can guess that his stay is not going to go well), and a fallen priest who works at the prison...we see background on all, as well as on the prisoner whose case The Lady is working on for most of the book...but the most-infamous criminal is the only first-person narrator.  He is mute who hides under his blankets, emerging only to grab reading materials and perhaps food.  He has been in the prison for a long time (not all in his current state) and he sees all sorts of magical beings in the dungeon-like structure, from terrible little creatures that feast on the ashes of the dead to powerful horses and beautiful nightbirds.  

Four stars.  I might even go to four and a half and I can't voice any particular aspect that keeps it from hitting five (which i do realize doesn't make for too helpful of a review!), but it didn't.  The language is often gorgeous, even when it is terrible,  The characters are full, a major plus for me (I'll take characters over plot, though both are present here).  I did get a bit tired of the magic and maybe that's my hesitation at even truly saying 4.5,  I'd recommend this to people who really enjoy words and what they can do.  It reads fairly quickly, but is certainly not light reading and you need to be ready to face a good bit of the very worst (both done by and done to the prisoners).  

Thanks to the publisher for the ARC, provided for this review but with no constraints on my comments.  
I never listed history as one of my favorite subjects largely because a poor memory for facts hindered my skills (I still rant about a Calculus test in HS that asked for memorized replies when I had managed to memorize half of the responses and knew how to derive the rest...that seemed reasonable to me and it balanced my strengths!).   Still, I can't recall ever hearing about a federal government program that sent mothers (and wives too, but mothers are the focus here) overseas to see where children who had been killed in WWI (and later WWII) were buried (here, in France).  It's a cool factoid to know.

Such a trip is the underlying setting of this book, opening with one woman receiving final notification of her impending voyage to her return.  In the midst, we meet a group of thrown-together travelling companions including the primary protagonist from a small island in Maine very much feeling the Depression, an Irish immigrant working as a maid in Boston, a Jewish New Yorker, and an upper-crust New Englander.  There's a fifth, but that takes some ironing out and the posse has a military escort and a nurse.  The book deals with how the travelling group relates to each other and copes with an emotional journey.  There's also a side story dealing with a reporter who was severely hurt in the war and now wears what sounds like a Phantom of the Opera mask but was the best potential option for covering burns and was painted to be as realistic as possible.

In general, this just hit me in the so-so ("meh" is a touch too negative") range.  It was an easy read and I enjoyed the concept as well as the mini-history lesson.  It is interesting to consider how such a random group would be pulled together and apart by such an emotional journey (and there's some hints to the role of the media that would certainly impact the trips today!).  However, I just wasn't overly drawn in to the book or the style.  It kind of hits me like Olive Garden...I can enjoy Olive Garden and believe it has its place, but it is not "real" Italian....the book held my attention, but didn't truly sustain me.  Historical fiction meets chick lit (and, again, I DO enjoy chick lit time to time). Could be an easy train/plane read.  

Three stars.  Thanks to the publisher for the ARC copy (though it took a little extra time to get to on my shelf!)

Monday, October 20, 2014

Book Review --- US by David Nichols- Let's Tour of Europe as Our Family Crumbles!

Again, I have delayed writing about so very much, truly from love (the wedding) to loss (of my mother-in-law).  But, despite reading quite slowly, I am determined to get reviews up in a timely fashion, or a reasonably timely fashion.  Though this book did hit the stores (and many private orders) on Sept 30 so maybe it is a great time to write.  The destined-to-love-it folks who pre-order because they knew the author's prior work (One Day).  And now it sits on shelves, hits some lists (Booker Prize longlist), and people are starting to look to reviews....

Douglas, a straitlaced scientist, is awakened one morning by Connie, his free-flowing artistic wife of nearly 25 years.  She thinks their marriage has run its course, that she can't see happiness in it now that their only son is off to university.  But, she still wants to continue a planned family Grand Tour through Europe.  She agrees to put off a final decision until the travelers (Connie, Douglas, and son Albie) return.

This is primarily a study in family dynamics (though moments of art history are thrown in).  We see the love story from the day they met and follow it through some unimaginable lows and the addition of family member three, a son much more akin to his mother than his father.  We follow as they embark on their long vacation and....well, i'll leave the rest....

I enjoyed this book, but it got far too long.  The beautiful words seemed to hold me inside.  Emotions ring true and actions feel real.  You could like, or disllike, multiple characters at once without inconsostency.  Both more depth than expected yet remained true.

4 of 5 stars.  As always, thanks to Harper for the advance readers' copy.   Would be interested to read a (shorter!) version from another point of view, or even a "response

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Book Review:A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman

Mini-post.  A short book review, far from my most detailed, because I'm tired but also tired of it dangling off my mental To Do list.
  • A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman 

Odd.  That's definitely the word for this book.  Slava, an immigrant trying hard not to be pulled in the "all-but-home" community.  After his grandmother dies, he gets entwined in an unforeseeable way - he "ghost writes" claim forms that are sent to the German reparations programs.  During this time, Salva is also desperate to become a printed author, particularly in the New Yorker, and engaged in an undefinable relationship.

I just wasn't drawn to this book.  At times, the language certainly felt lovely but even then, I couldn't come to care.  And that tends to be the death knell for my enjoyment.

Two stars (of 5).  As always, thanks to Harper for the opportunity to read and review an advance wasn't a book I loved, but it was an interesting concept and worth a ponder or two...