- The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld
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.
- A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith
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!)