I realize I’m late to the Rainbow Rowell fan club, having only just listened to Eleanor & Park this past spring. But I really enjoyed that one, so now I’m making my way through her others! Fangirl was available on audio from my library (without the waiting list Landline has), so I listened to it next.

About the Book:

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (audiobook cover)Cath and her identical twin sister, Wren, have been inseparable all their lives. They got each other through their mother leaving them in third grade. They kept their dad from losing himself to his manic tendencies. They even co-authored a bunch of fan fiction stories about Simon Snow, a Harry Potter-esque fantasy series that’s taken the world by storm.

But as they prepare to leave for college, Wren tells Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. More and more, she backs away from everything she and Cath have shared as she tries to find her own way through freshman year. Cath is left with an upperclassman roommate who hardly speaks to her, an irresistible preference for the world of fan fiction over the real world, and a stash of protein bars — which is good, because she doesn’t know where the dining hall is and doesn’t feel up to finding out.

The story unfolds from there, following Cath through her freshman year — through family emergencies and crushes and coursework and growing up. And a whole lot of Simon Snow, of course!

My Thoughts:

Goodness, I like the way Rainbow Rowell writes. Her stories could be so painfully cheesy, and yet in her hands, they’re perfect. If adult chick lit were like this, I’d read it. The characters, the dialogue, the narration that holds it all together — it all feels so real. The balance of heavy stuff and lighter bits is spot on. And the plot pacing, the rise and fall of the narrative, the events — nothing feels forced or contrived. All of which I find seriously impressive.

What I think added a whole extra dimension to Fangirl was the way it explored fiction. Each chapter starts with an excerpt from the “real” Simon Snow series or from one of Cath’s fan fic stories. There are times in the novel itself where Cath reads her stories out loud, and there are plenty of passages about what it’s like for her as she’s writing this parallel story that thousands of people are reading while they wait for the eighth and final installment in the official series to be released. On top of that, Cath has talked her way into an upper-level fiction writing course, and her work from that bleeds into the pages of Fangirl, too. Rowell even explores the relationship between fiction and fan fiction, just enough to make it interesting.

I know some people preferred Eleanor & Park to Fangirl, but I’m in the opposite camp. I felt like I “got” Cath more than I got Eleanor or Park, for some reason. And I liked that the narration stayed solidly with her instead of switching back and forth. The alternating approach certainly worked with Eleanor & Park, but with Fangirl, I liked following one character from start to finish. The supporting characters — Wren, Cath’s roommate Reagan, Professor Piper, the sisters’ dad — felt weightier in this one than in Eleanor & Park, which made the story feel more grounded somehow. The biggest thing that bothered me about Eleanor & Park — the ending — wasn’t an issue at all with Fangirl. I even preferred the romance in Fangirl to the one in Eleanor & Park, even though after reading the latter I’d probably have told you I couldn’t imagine anything better. Don’t get me wrong, though…I loved them both!

Rebecca Lowman, who narrated Fangirl as well as Eleanor’s half of Eleanor & Park, is magnificent once again. She’s perfect for these stories, with a gentle, warm, intimate, wonderfully expressive voice. She does guy characters without sounding weird, and her inflection throughout is just right. There are times when you can actually hear the smile coming through. Maxwell Caulfield reads the pre-chapter excerpts in a solid British accent, which fits nicely. I would definitely recommend the audiobook. It’s great!

Am I gushing? I think I’m gushing. I’ll stop now.

The Verdict: Excellent

Surprise! I loved this one. (Bet you didn’t see that coming!) It was one of those find-excuses-to-keep-listening, over-too-soon, wish-I-could-read-it-for-the-first-time-again books. I think I’m now solidly a Rainbow Rowell fan, and I’ve put myself on the list for Landline on audio at the library.

Your Turn!

Who’s the last author you binge-read (or listened to)?

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I put Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel on my TBR Pile Challenge list because, well, it’s been on my TBR list and then shelf since it came out! It always sounded a little scary to me, somehow, and it took the challenge — and finding the audio version at my library — to get me to take the plunge. I enjoyed the first book so much that I immediately borrowed the audiobook of the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. The two books are so tightly connected that I’ll talk about them together.

Note: If you somehow don’t know the story of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and you don’t want to before you read the book, maybe skip this review. I’m assuming most people know how it ends, so I won’t be too careful about potential spoilers!

wolf-hall-bring-up-the-bodiesAbout the Books:

When we first meet Thomas Cromwell, he is a boy, and his abusive drunk of a father is in the process of kicking him to within an inch of his life. Realizing the only way to escape his father’s wrath is to leave, Thomas sets off to find his own way in the wider world.

And what a life he builds for himself. After traveling Europe, he ends up as a lawyer in service to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey is charged with getting King Henry VIII a divorce from his first wife, Catherine, who has failed to produce a male heir. A clever, savvy man like Cromwell, though, is fated for greater things still, and his trajectory places him at King Henry’s elbow.

Together, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies tell Cromwell’s story from childhood through the entire Anne Boleyn affair.

My Thoughts:

I was mildly terrified of two things when I donned my headphones and hit “play” on my iPod for the first time:

  1. That I wouldn’t be able to keep all the people named Thomas straight, and
  2. That Mantel’s use of “he” to mean Cromwell even if it should logically refer to someone else would leave me confused and frustrated.

Turns out neither was as bad as I’d feared! The first wasn’t much of a problem because Mantel rarely uses characters’ first names, referring to them primarily by last (or at least full) name. I’d probably still have gotten a bit confused, because there are a LOT of characters with all kinds of titles, and they keep moving around. But as I’ll explain in a moment, the reader for Wolf Hall was great with character voices, so by the time I got to Bring Up the Bodies, I was familiar enough with most of the characters to make it through.

The second would have driven me nutty in print. As it was, even with the aforementioned great reader, it still took me way too long to get used to the fact that “he” could mean the gentleman just mentioned, or — more likely — Thomas Cromwell. Eventually I learned to relax when I heard the ambiguous pronoun, to keep myself from jumping to conclusions until context made it clear what was going on. Maybe it was actually good for me, heh.

I really liked Thomas Cromwell. I’m not sure whether you’re supposed to like him, but I couldn’t help it. He’s clever and calculating, for sure, and he looks out for himself. The pictures of his domestic life, though, are so charming that they offset his chilly professional demeanor a bit. His household seems welcoming, and he gathers stray boys around him into a sort of family and trains them up like sons. He’s a gloriously multifaceted character, one I didn’t at all mind spending many hours with.

It’s interesting, too, to go through the events leading up to Anne Boleyn’s execution in such detail and from a different point of view. Various stars rise and fall, constellations of people change, loyalties and allegiances shift at the slightest breeze. There’s no mystery about what’s going on; with Cromwell as our eyes, we see each step, each political machination, each misstep along the way. I’ve always enjoyed this kind of careful historical fiction, and this pair of novels is no exception. Yes, it got a little tedious once in a while, when everything was going smoothly and the story seemed to wander or stall a bit. But honestly, it just gave a fuller picture of the time, I think.

Regarding the audio versions: This might be the one and only time you’ll ever hear me say that I preferred another narrator over Simon Vance. Simon Slater, who read Wolf Hall, sounded just like how I’d imagine Cromwell. He was a little gruff, a little hardened. He did a spectacular job creating distinct voices for every major character, which helped immensely as more and more Thomases started popping up. He also read the narration in a voice very similar to Cromwell’s, which helped me orient myself when Mantel used “he” to refer to Cromwell, even if he hadn’t been mentioned in pages.

Simon Vance, on the other hand, read Bring Up the Bodies. Don’t get me wrong — I adore Simon Vance. But I don’t think he was right for this book. For whatever reason, he didn’t use the same range of character voices (though I know he’s capable of it), and his narration sounded less like his Thomas Cromwell voice and more like his Simon-Vance-narrates-a-story voice. I’m not sure whether the print version of Bring Up the Bodies switched to using “He, Cromwell,” instead of just “he” a lot more often or if they added that for the audio production. It did help clear up the confusion (extra helpful because of how Vance narrated), but it also got a little repetitive after a while.

Honestly? If I hadn’t heard Simon Slater’s version, Simon Vance’s would’ve been great. Who’ll read for the third book?? I guess I’ll have to wait and see!

The Verdict: Enjoyable

I’m glad I finally knocked this sucker off my list, and I’m glad I went the audio route. If you’re a fan of audiobooks and you’ve been meaning to get to Wolf Hall, give it a try. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I’ll be doing the third and final installment of Cromwell’s story on audio when it comes out!

Your Turn!

What books scared you for a long time but weren’t actually that bad when you gave them a try?

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After reading One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni a few years ago, I’ve been stockpiling Divakaruni’s books when I come across them. I picked up The Palace of Illusions on a trip to India and have been meaning to read it since. I’m so glad I finally put it on my TBR Pile Challenge list!

About the Book:

The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (cover)The Mahabharat is certainly not a new story, and most people are familiar with at least part of it. So many of India’s heroes and myths come from the pages of this epic. It tells the story of the five Pandava brothers (the five husbands of Panchaali) and the great war they’re destined to fight.

But where is the voice of the tale’s women? That’s what Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni wanted to know. In her Author’s Note, she writes:

[A]lways, listening to the stories of the Mahabharat as a young girl in the lantern-lit evenings at my grandfather’s village home, or later, poring over the thousand-page leather-bound volume in my parents’ home in Kolkata, I was left unsatisfied by the portrayals of the women. It wasn’t as though the epic didn’t have powerful, complex women characters that affected the action in major ways… But in some way, they remained shadowy figures, their thoughts and motives mysterious, their emotions portrayed only when they affected the lives of the male heroes, their roles ultimately subservient to those of their fathers or husbands, brothers or sons.

If I ever wrote a book, I remember thinking… I would place the women in the forefront of the action. I would uncover the story that lay invisible between the lines of the men’s exploits. Better still, I would have one of them tell it herself, with all her joys and doubts, her struggles and triumphs, her heartbreaks, her achievements, the uniquely female way in which she sees her world and her place in it. And who could be better suited for this than Panchaali? (p. xiv-xv)

Well, she ended up writing that book — and The Palace of Illusions is it!

My Thoughts:

You know those books that are good enough while you’re reading them, but you realize only halfway through — or even after the fact — that they’ve somehow soaked deeper into your being than you’d thought? The kind you enjoy, but you can’t point to the one thing about them that makes them so spectacular? The Palace of Illusions was one of those books. By the midpoint, I found myself sneaking in one more chapter whenever I could. I still feel pulled by it, though it’s been days since I read the final page and moved on to other books.

Divakaruni’s writing style is deceptively simple. It’s clean and straightforward, yet the emotions and stories it conveys are anything but. She manages to distill all the complicated rules and curses and lineages and connections and legends of one seriously massive epic down into something clear and complete without losing too much of that inherent complexity. It’s impressive, delightful, and very much appreciated.

I really do feel like Divakaruni accomplished what she set out to do: to relate the famous, oft-told stories of the Mahabharat through the eyes of its most famous heroine. But she also breathes a very real kind of life into her words. The characters lived generations ago, and the deeds happened far in the distant past, but Panchaali herself and the world she inhabits spring into being in the pages of Divakaruni’s novel. Even as history unfolds as it is destined to do, the people living it out feel anything but dry or flat. You can see the choices that led each down his or her path, the real life living the story instead of just the well-worn paths left behind. Sometimes, when I read an ancient story even in a modern translation, I feel distant from it, like there’s a wall between me and the words. I felt none of that with Divakaruni’s rendering.

All else aside, The Palace of Illusions makes a good introduction to the Mahabharat. The original is scarily long, but Divakaruni did a wonderful job trimming, condensing, and streamlining to fashion the story through Panchaali’s eyes. Purists might be annoyed that a particular side story was brushed over or omitted, but the novel feels complete as Panchaali’s own story and stays true enough to the details I know, and that was plenty for me. If you’re looking for a taste of the story without having to commit to reading multiple volumes, The Palace of Illusions should work nicely.

The Verdict: Excellent

Clearly, I enjoyed this one. But more than that, I feel like it touched something deeper in me, something only my favorite books manage to get to. Divakaruni is now two for two in my book, and you can bet I’ll be reading more of hers!

Your Turn!

What books have unexpectedly ended up staying with you long after you’ve read their final words?

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I received a copy of Going Somewhere by Brian Benson for review through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

About the Book:

"Going Somewhere" by Brian Benson (review on erinreads.com)Going Somewhere is mostly about a cross-country bike trip Brian Benson, the author, took with his girlfriend, Rachel. After meeting in South America and then returning to their respective homes in Wisconsin (Brian) and Oregon (Rachel), the two decided to bike together from Brian’s home to Rachel’s.

Aside from the initial setup, in which the pair meets one another and makes plans, the book focuses on their ride, mile by mile and town by town. It follows them through broken spokes and illicit campsites; generous people and creepy strangers; exhilarating downhill adrenaline rushes and grueling, relationship-straining climbs. As they creep ever closer to Portland, Brian tries to make sense of his life, his relationship, and his place in the world.

My Thoughts:

I was excited to read Going Somewhere because it’s been compared to Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which I enjoyed. (There’s even a blurb from her on the cover.) Sadly, I was disappointed.

It’s not that Going Somewhere was bad. It just wasn’t what I was hoping for. It felt shallow somehow, immature. Maybe that’s because of where Benson was in his life when he took the trip; the book could be an accurate telling, even if it’s not what I’d expected or hoped for.

It felt like the book was supposed to be profound somehow, but it never really was. It just felt…young. Even the heavier moments seemed to be made light of because of the overall tone. And there was no lesson at the end. I didn’t feel like Benson came out of the experience changed. That’s fine, of course, except that the whole book seemed to be building toward some eventual revelation (which never materialized). Maybe I’ve been trained to expect too much from ordinary stories! But if you’re going to put your story in a book, I’m not sure those expectations are entirely unjustified.

Going Somewhere also felt repetitive. I’d imagine biking across the country could, indeed, get repetitive. But partway through the book, after a number of nearly identical small towns and daily routines and overnights with gracious hosts and tensions between the couple about riding speed, everything started to run together for me. The book began to read like a trip log wrapped in a gauze of flimsy narrative rather than a proper story. And I started to get impatient.

Also, it bothered me that the book begins several chapters before the ride but ends (I don’t believe this is much of a spoiler, but feel free to skip this paragraph if you’re worried!) before the ride does. I think I’d have liked it better had it been structured as either (a) the ride in the middle, with context on both ends, or (b) just the ride, with other relevant details (including how Rachel and Brian met) told as flashbacks throughout the ride. Ride as contained, or ride as container — not half and half.

The redeeming characteristic was Benson’s writing style. He truly has a way with words, simultaneously playful and profound. His metaphors and over-the-top-hyphenated adjectives were spot on rather than cliched. There was more than one turn of phrase I marveled over, paused to enjoy. Without that aspect, I’m not sure I’d have kept reading, honestly. (Also, the cover is quite lovely. Yet another example, though, of why you should not judge a book by what’s on the front of it!)

The Verdict: Mediocre

I didn’t love Going Somewhere, as I suppose is evident. The writing kept me from regretting the time I spent reading it, but I suspect it won’t stay long in my memory. If you want a soul-searching journey through the wilderness, go for Cheryl Strayed’s Wild instead.

Your Turn!

Have you ever read a book you expected might be like another one you’d enjoyed, only to be disappointed? What was it?

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I never read Room. I know it’s supposedly wonderful, but I couldn’t get past the subject matter. I was curious about Emma Donogue, though, so when I found the audiobook version of Frog Music at my library, I decided to give it a listen.

About the Book:

"Frog Music" by Emma Donoghue (audiobook) (erinreads.com)Blanche Beunon is perfectly happy with her life in San Francisco, where she’s been since she and her two fellow ex-circus performers emigrated from France. Her burlesque performances are highly sought after, as is her company afterward (by those gentleman who can afford her). But everything changes when the unconventional Jenny Bonnet crashes into Blanche on her high-wheeler bicycle. As the two women grow closer, it seems like nothing in Blanche’s life remains untouched.

Then Jenny is shot one night, on a remote edge of the city, in the room where she and Blanche have gone to lie low. (Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler — it’s where the book starts!) Blanche is sure she knows who killed her friend, but no one will believe her. Fearing for her own life and the life of her infant son, who has gone missing, she attempts to keep herself safe while she puts together evidence to support her suspicions, along the way uncovering a side of Jenny she never knew.

My Thoughts:

What an interesting book. It actually begins with the night Jenny is killed and then dips back into the past, starting with the day just a month earlier when Jenny crashes into Blanche on her bicycle. From there, the story moves forward on two timelines: the first narrating what happened from the women’s first encounter to the night of the murder, and the second covering Blanche’s frantic days following Jenny’s death. This alternating unspooling worked well and kept things interesting.

Donoghue did an excellent job bringing to life San Francisco in 1876, when the new and vastly multicultural city was gripped by a smallpox outbreak and sweltering under a horrific heat wave. Perhaps part of my appreciation comes from the fact that I live near San Francisco and recognized many of the landmarks Blanche mentions, have walked down some of the same streets. But I think even without the familiarity, I’d have enjoyed Donoghue’s rendering. On top of that, Jenny and Blanche are both music lovers, and Donoghue wove snippets of songs throughout the story, from both their mouths and the mouths of other characters. The music adds an additional dimension to the already rich setting.

Frog Music is based on a crime that was never solved. Donoghue managed to piece together a plausible explanation, complete with a reason why the truth never came to light. I’m not sure how much of the story is based on truth and how much was stretched or fabricated, but it does make for an intriguing and enjoyable read.

As I mentioned, I went the audio route, and I’m glad I did. When a book is heavy on a foreign language, as this one is on French, I often prefer to listen to it rather than frustrating myself by trying to slog through the written text. For whatever reason, though I don’t understand it in either form, I’d rather listen. (Donoghue did a wonderful job getting the gist of any French she included across without directly translating it, which I very much appreciated.) The narrator, Khristine Hvam, was fine. No complaints from me. Her accents were good, her singing voice passable (yep, she sang some of the songs!). Definitely one I’d recommend.

The Verdict: Enjoyable

I liked Frog Music. I thought it was a well told, absorbing story that didn’t stretch the limits of believability beyond what I was willing to accept. The audio production is good. Overall, a nice introduction to Emma Donoghue. Based on this experience, I’m sure I’ll read more from her in the future.

Your Turn!

What novels have you enjoyed that were based, at least in part, on a forgotten tidbit of history?

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