Review: The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

Author: Rene Denfeld 
Title: The Enchanted
Format/Source: eBook/Library
Published: March 2014
Publisher: Harper
Length: 261 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
Why I Read: Intriguing premise, easily accessible through Overdrive
Read If You’re: Looking for something literary but different; interested in death row or the prison system
Quote: “This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it but I do.” (1)
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

Coming in under 270 pages, The Enchanted is a short read, telling a story easy to blaze through but not easy to digest. Consequently, I’m also finding it difficult to write about even though I have lots of thoughts and feelings on the book. Please bear with me.

When I first encountered the online marketing campaign, I thought The Enchanted was going to be a great new innovative fantasy. I was very surprised and a little bit confused about how wrong that impression was. Even after reading the description, I thought, “So… this is a prison in a fantasy world?” I cannot recall what prompted me to add it to the TBR pile once the fantasy illusion was broken. Some readers label this book as magical realism, but I don’t think it contains any magical elements. The ‘magical’ elements are just a part of that character’s viewpoint. It’s not actually a magical world. I would categorize this book as nitty gritty realism, presented from an enchanted perspective.

The narrator’s voice and the style of prose (they are the same thing in this story, perhaps) also create the magical feel, in the following manner: I could barely accept some of the things that happen in the story. I felt like they couldn’t really happen in my world. The people in the story live such different lives, they must be some far distance away in a magical land where all the rules are different (which is indeed one way to look at the prison system). They create their own rules, their own methods of survival, their own magic. The prose contributes to that mystical, distant feeling. The words are simultaneously heavy and light, beautiful yet horrific. It’s like the words of the story open a small door at the end of a long dark tunnel to allow you to peak into this world. The feeling I had while reading this book is proving very difficult to describe. It doesn’t feel like a story grounded in our world. It feels like a story floating away behind a distant fog. I felt distanced from the story, but only in the manner that I didn’t feel like it was in my world. The Enchanted is a brutally realistic story presented in stunning wrapping.

A large focus of this book is the failings of the prison system, the awful things that happen inside, enabled by a vast network of corruption. The story also explores the tragic events that can lead a person to commit terrible acts. The Enchanted could be a difficult read for many people. I appreciated the book’s length once I finished reading. If the story was much longer, it may have become too overwhelming. (The book’s shortness was another thing that surprised me. I’d not seen a physical copy, so I had no idea how long it was. I was anticipating something heftier.) I anticipated prisoners being portrayed too sypathetically (ex. only focusing on the terrible conditions in the prison and not on their terrible deeds), but actually I think the issue (whether criminals deserve prison, as it is now) is well balanced. Denfeld demonstrates how broken a prison system can be – how much more damage than healing it inflicts – while also conveying that many people caught inside are dangerous people who have done terrible things (even if they’re only that way because they had a terrible childhood). Of course, the story promotes prevention as the best solution (obviously, herpderp) and of course, it’s not so cut and dry to say all prisoners deserve some punishment. The young boy character in particular illustrates some of the massive failings of the prison system. Anyway, I don’t really want to get into social commentary here, but The Enchanted definitely provides a good starting point for an important discussion.

From the book’s description, you might think the lady and the priest have equal page time. But, the lady is definitely the primary character while the priest is secondary. I’m not sure the priest really contributed a lot to the story. I would have either liked to see him as an equal role with the prisoners (i.e., a lesser role, one of many stories)  or a fuller role equal to the lady’s. I really appreciated the warden. Too often such authority figures are portrayed as bad guys. As mentioned above, the narrator has a strong voice. Reading the ‘side stories’ about the interplay between guards and inmates, and inmates and inmates, was the most difficult, as Denfeld certainly knows how to make them feel like real people. I think if it weren’t for the ‘magical’ prose this story would be too close to real crime fiction for reading comfort.

The Bottom Line: I find books difficult to write about tend to be books difficult to read. Oh boy, is The Enchanted a tough exploration of prison and death row, but it’s a well-written and balanced one. A unique read certainly worth a go if you’re up for it.

Elsewhere:

Quick Review: A Snicker of Magic and Escape from Camp 14

When I do a quick review post, there’s usually two books and I’m able to connect them somehow, as indicated in the post title. But with these two I can’t manage a connection!

  • A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
    • Rating: ★★★½ [ratings guide]
    • A very sweet and comforting story, about family and friendship and belonging and magic. I like that adult struggles were included alongside Felicity’s (the narrator) own.
    • I don’t think I’ve ever read a story where the only conflict was overcoming personal challenges. There’s no antagonist to be found here. This is part of the reason why I think this story is very sweet. No one is the bad guy, no one is against anyone else. 
    • I liked Felicity’s word collecting and her little sister Frannie Jo (can Frannie Jo have a spin-off book, please?)
    • Jonah, one of the main characters, has a physical disability. I think how Lloyd incorporates that disability into the story should serve as an example to anyone looking to do the same. His disability is not the story, but nor is it an invisibility. The references to Jonah’s wheelchair take up no more space than if he didn’t have a wheelchair. For example, where one might read “He ran ahead”, you’ll find “He rolled ahead”. This is how easy it is to include a diverse character. They really can be just like any other character.
  • Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden
    • Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide]  
    • An extremely illuminating and significant read 
    • Brutal and real in order to give readers an understanding of how life in the camp impacted Shin (could be difficult for some to read)
      • A saddening exploration of how a bad environment (nurture) affects a person. Shin’s only frame of references is life in the camp, under what he learns from the guards and his teachers, and so he buys into that completely, because he doesn’t know any different. The book does go on to explore the difficulties he has adjusting to life outside of the camp and how he comes to realize that he did not ‘learn’ to feel the right emotions (ex. didn’t care at all about his mother, now feels guilty about it).
    • Although Shin’s experiences are contextualized by what was happening in North Korea at the same time, the book doesn’t give a full picture of the situation in North Korea (and it doesn’t purport to; it’s primarily Shin’s story). Further reading is necessary if you wish to learn about North Korean history or the overall quality of life for general citizens (not those born and raised in a political prisoners like Shin)

Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Author: Shirley Jackson
Title: The Haunting of Hill House
Format/Source: eBook/Amazon
Published: 1959
Publisher: Penguin
Length: 182 pages
Genre: Suspense
Why I Read: Loved We Have Always Lived in the Castle; part of Estella Society readalong
Read If You’re: A lover of a terror or haunted houses, but prefer modern over Victorian
Quote: I would like to watch her dying, Eleanor thought, and smiled back and said, ‘Don’t be silly.’
Rating:  ★★★★★ [ratings guide]
GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

Please note: This review contains minor spoilers in the discussion of mood and character personalities/development. Readalong discussion at end.

The Haunting of Hill House is my favourite type of classic. With its Victorian heart of a terrific (in all senses of the word) haunted house, modern prose, and a small but sharp cast of characters, I think this is a tale that will stay with me for a long time. If you haven’t yet read The Haunting of Hill House, I urge you to read it now as we move toward the heart of autumn and the season of all things spooky. This is a story with which you should curl up under a blanket and feel your heartbeat quicken with each turn of the page.

Eleanor struck a chord with me. She is the main reason why this book trumps We Have Always Lived in the Castle for me. I’ve never found a character more relatable. It’s amusing now to think I initially imagined Eleanor as a crochety old lady! I’m not sure if this is because I associate the name Eleanor with the character from the Inkworld trilogy, or if that is the impression Jackson intended – the reader experiences the Eleanor burdened by her mother, her sister and her brother-in-law, then comes to know Eleanor as she wishes or knows herself to truly be. I enjoyed watching Eleanor spring to life as she drove out to Hill House.

On the main street of one village she passed a vast house, pillared and walled, with shutters over the windows and a pair of stone lions guarding the steps, and she thought that perhaps she might live there, dusting the lions each morning and patting their heads good night. Time is beginning this morning in June, she assured herself, but it is a time that is strangely new and of itself; in these few seconds I have lived a lifetime in a house with two lions in front. (14%)

Ah, Eleanor, now come to life, crack that bitter exterior and shine through! The above passage made me fall in love with Eleanor. At first she just delighted me, but I quickly began to see much of myself in her. I rarely empathize with characters, that’s just not how I am, but there were moments while reading when I actually cringed because I knew I had thought and felt the exact same as Eleanor at one time. I highlighted many passages and made a note at one point – “Geez, Eleanor, cutting it close to home.” This was a new reading experience for me. I’ll leave it to you to guess which bits resonated with me. I didn’t want to think Eleanor could lose her mind, so I think it took me longer than the average reader to recognize that was a possibility (as opposed to the her being haunted). I was happy to believe it was the house, it was the house haunting her, but by the end it’s clear the house affected Eleanor differently from the others. I discuss this further below, as part of the Readalong discussion.

I will raise white cats and sew white curtains for the windows and sometimes come out of my door to go to the store to buy cinnamon and tea and bread. (15%)

A dog slept uneasily in the shade against a wall, a woman stood in a doorway across the street and looked at Eleanor, and two young boys lounged against a fence, elaborately silent. Eleanor, who as afraid of strange dogs and jeering women and young hoodlums, went quickly into the diner, clutching her pocketbook and her car keys. (16%)

I would never have suspected it of myself, she thought, laughing still; everything is different, I am a new person, very far from home. (17%).

The limited cast of characters pleased me. I generally prefer this focused approach, where I can really come to know a handful of characters (a notable exception being the Unwind dystology, which has a host of fantastic characters, some of who only appear for a couple pages). Eleanor stands out as the central character, but her three companions can hold their own. I liked how they play off one another, and I liked watching their relationships morph as their time at Hill House progresses. The character relationships reminded me, afterwards, of Never Let Me Go (some similarities between Eleanor and Kathy, Theodora and Ruth, Luke and Tommy).

Theodora is the next strongest character after Eleanor. Oh, the tension between those two! When Theodora was first introduced, I thought “Oh dear, these two will be at odds for the whole story and that will quickly grow tiresome” but I was wrong. They got along very well, maybe too well, so that I began to wonder “Are they forcing their friendship as a coping mechanism?” but as I came to know the characters better, I believed more in their friendship. Ah, but then along came a crack. Eleanor and Theodora’s personalities have a fundamental difference, and the house doesn’t let them overcome that difference easily (in my opinion). Only retrospectively have I come to understand that Eleanor’s characterization of Theodora could be twisted and tainted by Hill House. I always take narrators’ words at face value. If Eleanor thinks Theodora is wicked, then Theodora is wicked. This is why I am ‘bad’ at reading unreliable narrators – usually when a twist is revealed I’m totally taken aback (good), but with this sort of book it means I miss out on nuances or the underlying story (not so good).

If I have one tiny critique of this book (if you held my toes over a fire and forced me to say), it’s that the male characters are perhaps less well-drawn than the female characters. Doctor Montague seemed to serve primarily as the enabler of the story, while Luke seemed to serve primarily as someone for Theodora and Eleanor to play off. I don’t think their characterizations distract from the story, though, and I don’t think they’re poorly written. They just aren’t as developed as Eleanor, or Theodora, and they don’t need to be.

Now, moving on from characters to the reason why I read the book in the first place – the spookiness! The house frightens from the start, thanks to Jackson’s superb storytelling. The reader cannot physically see or experience the house as the characters do (derp). Jackson utilizes the character’s reactions to the house (as opposed to simply describing the house) to prompt the reader to feel the house’s terror as its inhabitants do. Not every writer can prompt their readers to feel the same as a character just by describing that character’s thoughts and actions. Yet I felt the same emotions as Eleanor did upon first entering Hill House (though thankfully not as intensely!). Admittedly, this could be because I identify strongly with Eleanor and other readers may not have the same experience, but I think Jackson really has a skill at creating atmosphere through character. For example, Jackson introduces the idea that the house looks evil in a single paragraph at the start of chapter two, then continues with Eleanor’s thoughts as she enters the house. Consider: “I’m going to cry, [Eleanor] thought, like a child sobbing and wailing, I don’t like it here…” (%), as she speaks with the housekeeper to find her room. To me, this line is one of many from Eleanor’s perspective that highlight the house’s eerie atmosphere and prompt a sense of dread.

I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster, she thought, and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside. (22%)

At first, I kept myself on edge waiting for something horrific to happen. I messaged my friend while reading, “Ohhhh, it’s nighttime, now there’s going to be terrible happenings!” I suppose that shows how often I read books like this… Perhaps if I read horror instead of terror I would be correct in my anticipations, but of course I was incorrect here. Terror is when you grow more and more spooked, as I did, waiting for something to happen. I should be clear that not every page of this story will terrify you. But, almost every page of this story will make you feel uneasy (if you are like me). This feeling makes the smaller events feel all the more terrifying. The following passage may not frighten you on its own, but come across it in the book after being on edge for a hundred pages and it might make you shudder. Even in my quiet apartment in very safe Japan, with the sound of cars and laughter outside my window, I could feel the chill created by an evil house.

A thin little giggle came, in a breath of air through the room, a little mad rising laugh, the smallest whisper of a laugh, and Eleanor heard it all up and down her back, a little gloating laugh moving past them around the house, and then she heard the doctor and Luke calling from the stairs, and, mercifully, it was over. (57%)

 

Most Gothic novels are written in an ornate style, but Jackson chooses a simplistic style with a conversational word choice. What does it add to this harrowing tale? Do you find that it detracts in some places? 

Jackson’s style is a significant factor in why I’ve enjoyed her novels so much, and the third reason why I love this story. To me, her style is very sharp and modern. This style brings the terror closer to home. The only other author in this genre I’ve read is Susan Hill. While I enjoy her books and feel spooked by them, the Victorian air creates some distance between me and what’s happening in the story. Jackson’s style makes the story feel more realistic and believable, as though the story could have happened to a friend of a friend, or even me, if I just wandered through the forests and found such a house.

The Big One: what is it about Hill House that allows it to consume Eleanor’s sanity so efficiently? Or, what is it about Eleanor that allows Hill House to consumer her sanity?

Oh, what indeed! Moonlight Reader rephrased this question – is the house haunting the characters, or are the characters haunting the house? This question can be especially applied to Eleanor. Is the house haunting a woman or is the woman haunting the house? I like to think the house is haunting the characters (I like my ghost stories straightforward like that), but perhaps they open themselves to this haunting.  As you might me be able to tell from the perspective of the bulk of my review, I prefer to think it’s the house doing the haunting. I didn’t doubt that while reading the book, but now that I’m reflecting back… I’m not sure of the best answer to this question. As JoAnn commented on the discussion post, “I liked the book, but felt like I never knew what was really happening”. I think I’ll need a few rereads before I settle on an answer that satisfies me. But for now, I think Eleanor wanted something, and somewhere deep inside she thought the house could give her that and so she made herself vulnerable to its evils. I don’t have any concrete proof for this claim (thankfully, despite the length, I’m not actually writing an academic paper here…) but that’s the feeling I got. 

One last thought… I’ve only just realized as approach the end of this review. This is the first book to come anywhere near to one of my all-time favourites, White is For Witching, which I first read in 2009. White is for Witching isn’t a frightening book, but it does feature a haunted house, a similar protagonist named Miranda, and prose that evokes the same mood.

I can hear everything, all over the house, she wanted to tell them (85%)

The Bottom Line: I am full of nothing but uncritical praise for this book. That’s how I know it’s a new favourite. I look forward to a reread next autumn! Do read if you like crisp prose, well-drawn characters and a haunted house driven terror. If you’ve never read a spooky story before, start with this, one of the best.

Further Reading: 

    Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

    Author: Robin Sloan
    Title: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
    Format/Source: eBook/library 
    Published: October 2012
    Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
    Length: 304 pages
    Genre: General fiction/mystery
    Why I Read: Liked the idea of a 24 hour bookstore, stumbled across some reviews that remind me to read it
    Read If You’re: A Google superfan??
    Quote: “You and I will have a son, and we will name him Hadoop, and he will be a great warrior, a king!”
    Rating:  ★★ [ratings guide]
    GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

    This book appeared to be one I would love. A catchy name? A 24-hour bookstore? A cover featuring bookshelves and a ladder reaching further than the eye can see? Normally that’s all it would take to sell me, but I didn’t add it to Goodreads until April this year. I guess deep down I sensed it wasn’t going to be a great read for me. After reading Lianne’s recent review, I decided to finally check it off my TBR list.

    My first impression was that this would be a warm and fuzzy story meant to appeal to book lovers. I discovered through reviews that this book is primarily about old vs. new technology. I adjusted my expectations, but I still thought it might be a good read. Yet when I started reading, I realized my expectations were still way off. The tone and plot were not at all what I expected. Talk about “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” – not since 1Q84 have I been so let down!

    The plot was the largest disappointment for me. The ‘secret’ behind the bookstore is (highlight to reveal spoiler) an ancient cult society trying to unlock the secret to immortality? This was not what I wanted to be reading about, and I found the reveal a big disappointment. I hoped for a more poignant reason motivated the customers of Penumbra’s store, something that would comment on why we love to read perhaps, but for me it was a dull plot point. I was not interested. The final reveal was also elicited an “oh boy big surprise =.=” reaction from me. The story was just not for me – I found it flat, disinteresting, cryptic but meaninglessly so. All the little steps leading to the conclusion didn’t mean anything to me. The use of modeling is an example of this. I think it served the plot somehow later on…but whatever. (Also who actually thinks Skyping into a party is a good idea?! Ms. Super Googler thinks it’s a fantastic great social experiment or something? Good lord, these people.) There’s little conflict and little motivation for me to care how the story will go. 

    I wanted to see more reading and less obsession with technology. I thought it was a strange…The story seems to suggest the importance of balance between old and new technology but there’s waaaaaaay more emphasis on new technology.  It felt like some sort of odd new tech manifesto to me. Which made me wonder – I’m not one to dwell on ‘target audiences’ of a book but…who is the target audience? Who was the author trying to reach out to? What kind of person is meant to enjoy this story? It’s marketed towards book lovers and I see a lot of praise from such persons on Goodreads, but I’m definitely not one of them. There was a lot less book loving happening in this book than I would have guessed from the title and praises. I’d almost recommend it to a guy who doesn’t read much? Perhaps it could be ‘dude lit’. But there is the main/undercurrent of ‘reading is great, books are great’… hm, difficult. 

    I’ve written so much about the plot, I don’t have much left to say about the style. It suits the story, if that gives you an idea… It’s very straightforward, I did this, I did that, Wow this girl works at Google I love her.Very casual, inside average Joe’s head style. I dunno, not my thing.

    One could argue the characters aren’t great either. I could go there, but as I’ve already gone there enough with this book, I’m not going to. I didn’t mind the characters too much, even if they didn’t interest me. Most of them were stock characters, Kat is too gung-ho for me, Clay’s friends seem out of place, but Clay I actually kind of like. Possibly because I know a lot of guys like him. He’s an everyman character of sorts, a generally well-rounded, decent guy. He’s not very interesting. But at least he didn’t stand out as particularly annoying. The humour in this book also falls into the “well, it didn’t bother me much” category. I thought it was silly and cute, but some might find it annoying.
     

    Well. This book didn’t bother me so much while I was reading it, but now that I’ve been stewing and I’m trying to reflect on my reading experience, I can’t think of any very good or redeeming characteristics, or a reason to recommend it. How did this book seem interesting to me for two years?! Tooooo baaaaaad. But wait, there is a small light! One could argue this book supports embracing both old and new technology…but there’s too much emphasis on new tech for me. I think the reader is meant to understand Clay’s love for books, but there’s little proper reading, no demonstrations of said love, just “I really liked these books as a kid once” and old people reading to break code. 
     
    The Bottom Line: Maybe I’m just sour about this book because it wasn’t at all what I wanted. I just don’t get this book. Give it a shot if you feel desperate for some light fluffy Google praises? Don’t give it a shot if you’re looking for a charming tale of a 24 hour book store meant to delight book lovers (please let me know if you can recommend such a book).

    A Quick Review In Disguise: Emberton by Peter Norman

    Author: Peter Norman
    Title: Emberton
    Format/Source: Paperback/library 
    Published: March 2014
    Publisher: Douglas & McIntyre
    Length: 295 pages
    Genre:Um, some sort of literary (see below)
    Why I Read: Reviewed in local paper; “comic gothic thriller for lovers of books and language”!!
    Read If You’re: Looking for a strange mystery, interested in the power of language
    Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
    Links: GoodReadsIndieBound Chapters | Book Depository 
    I finished this book just before I left for Japan (end of July). I started to outline a review because I really enjoyed this book and I think it could use a signal boost, but I ran out of time!Although this looks like a full review, it’s really just a bits and pieces one…I had all the formatting done before I left Japan, though, so I’ve left it in 😛

    I loved the noir atmosphere of this book, even if it got a bit twisted towards the end (see next paragraph). I loved the mystery of an old school dictionary company going out of their way to hire an illiterate man. What’s the catch?! I enjoyed the writing style and wish I had a copy of the book still so I could post a quote or two. I think this is a good debut novel and I will be intrigued by what Norman publishes next.

    The ending of the book felt a bit slow and drawn out. I did like the strangeness of it all, but it gave me a weird feeling. It unsettled me? It was an odd feeling, one I haven’t really encountered while reading. I like the idea of how everything played out, but it was definitely a bit odd and maybe even creepy for me. The last forty or fifty pages took a shift in mood that made me feel off. The unique mix of mystery, language, humour and horror really comes to a head in the book’s ending. Ack, hard to describe…

    I really liked Lance (the main character) as a person. I don’t usually think that about characters – how  much I like or dislike them – but with Lance, I did think “Wow, he is a really likeable character!” I would like to be friends with Lance. I thought Norman portrayed Lance’s illiteracy very well, in a manner that broke my heart to realize what being illiterate means for many people. Some of the other characters are less interesting (Elena failed to really capture my interest) but I think Lance makes up for that.

    The Bottom Line: If you love reading or language and have an interest in something a little strange, give this book a go.

    Elsewhere: