Thoughts on “The Martian Chronicles” by Ray Bradbury

The Martian Chronciles was recommended to me by a bookstore coworker several years ago, and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since — a perfect candidate for the TBR Pile Challenge. I enjoyed Fahrenheit 451 when I listened to it a while back, so I was looking forward to wandering into Bradbury’s world again.

About the Book

"The Martian Chronicles" by Ray Bradbury (cover)The Martian Chronicles is structured as a collection of loosely related short stories. Their titles include a date, and they move chronologically, from January 1999 to October 2026. Together, they tell the story of how humans came to Mars, what they encountered when they landed, and what happened over the years that followed.

My Thoughts

I found The Martian Chronicles to be…interesting. Not in a “fascinating!!” sort of way, but with a bit of skepticism and reserve thrown in. “Interesting” preceded by a moment’s pause, the word you choose when you’re not entirely sure what other word would be more accurate.

There were certainly fascinating moments. Bradbury is an impressively creative writer, working in details that really make the story and coming up with little plot twists that create moments of surprise and even delight. My favorite story/chapter, one entitled “April 2000: The Third Expedition” that occurred early on in the book, had a particularly clever and chilling twist, as did my second favorite (“September 2005: The Martian”) a little later on.

I think it was the format that got to me. It felt much more like Bradbury had taken a bunch of Mars-related stories he’d written, figured out which order made the most sense, written a few short pieces to provide transitions, and then published it as a novel. That may, in fact, be what happened, as several of the longer stories included notes saying that they were originally published separately in the 1940s and 50s. There are a couple of characters that appear in two stories instead of just one, but the vast majority of characters, and even some of the world-related details, are isolated to their single, confined appearance.

At the very least, I wanted some kind of continuity when it came to Mars itself. But it seemed like sometimes there was water and sometimes there wasn’t; sometimes the Martians behaved in one particular way, and other times they were completely different. Was Bradbury trying to show that different parts of the planet were as diverse as Earth? I couldn’t tell. For me, it just made the collection feel disjointed, like the setting was tweaked between tales.

It’s an interesting book, as I said, and I’m glad I read it, but aside from a few of the stories, I don’t think it’ll stay with me, and I don’t plan to keep it on my shelf.

The Verdict: Mediocre

Bradbury is, as ever, a wonderfully creative author who surprises you and makes you think. I just wish The Martian Chronicles had been more novel than collection of stories.

Your Turn!

How do you feel about the interconnected-short-stories format? Does it work for you?

Thoughts on “Sovay” by Celia Rees (Audiobook)

I can’t remember where I heard about Sovay by Celia Rees, but when I saw the audiobook version at my library, the title jumped out at me as familiar, and I decided to give this YA novel a try.

About the Book

Thoughts on "Sovay" by Celia Rees (audiobook)Our first introduction to Sovay Middleton, the fiery daughter of an English aristocrat, is when she dons men’s clothing and sets out as a highwayman to stop the carriage in which her fiance is riding. There have been rumors that he’s been unfaithful, and Sovay is determined to test him. He wears a ring she gave him, one he swore he’d rather die than remove. And therein lies her test: Will he remove this token of her love when the mysterious highwayman demands it? Or will he die instead?

But errant fiances quickly become the least of Sovay’s worries. As the French Revolution rages on the continent, things in England are far from peaceful, and Sovay soon finds herself and those she holds dearest entangled in an invisible and dangerous web of suspicion and conspiracy. Not one to sit quietly at home and wring her hands, Sovay launches herself into the fray, determined to do what she can to help the people she loves.

My Thoughts

Sovay has about it the air of a legend or a fairytale, the kind of story where all the rough edges have been smoothed away and the narrator has her timing down perfectly from many retellings. Miraculous coincidences occur. Resolutions come easily. All the extraneous bits that make a story feel rich and real have been stripped away. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. It just made for a different kind of book, one I wasn’t expecting and don’t normally gravitate toward.

Sovay was almost too impetuous for me to like. She’s strong-willed, to put it mildly, and, for the most part, unafraid to the point of rashness. Because of these traits, she ends up in situations that a less hasty person (of either gender) would use common sense to avoid. There was little in her character to endear me to her, especially since I quickly realized she was untouchable and would get out of any scrape she got into relatively unharmed. Also? Every man who crosses paths with her falls for her, though she remains conveniently (and frustratingly) oblivious. Don’t go looking for a great love story here.

It was some of the more minor characters I really liked: Gabriel, the son of the Middletons’ steward; Virgil, an American whose work brought him to England; Captain Greenwood, one of Sovay’s highwayman peers; and Toby, a poor young orphan Sovay runs into (somewhat improbably) time and again in her London adventures. They, more than Sovay herself, kept me mildly engaged in the story…and prevented me from docking the novel another metaphorical star.

I wondered, as I listened, whether Sovay were based on some fragment of a true story. Several of the bigger incidents felt like the only way an author would choose to include them would be if they’d really happened, because otherwise no one would believe them. It turns out the very first scene, with Sovay as highwayman, was inspired by a traditional ballad that tells a similar story. The rest, however, is the author’s own creation.

Bianca Amato read the audiobook, and she was ok. Her narration style had a matronly air to it. As I listened, I could almost imagine a stately nanny reading the story aloud to her young charges in a warm, almost teacherly voice. The thing that really bothered me was the lack of accents — particularly for the American, though there were Irish and French characters who could’ve used a little flavor and differentiation, too. Everyone sounded British. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by too many stellar narrators, but it grated on me just a little when rough-and-tumble American Virgil perpetually sounded like a mild, genteel English gentleman.

The Verdict: Mediocre

Sovay was enough to keep me mildly entertained, which is why I didn’t quit partway through. But it didn’t make much of a lasting impression, and you won’t find me begging people to run out and read it ASAP. Not bad, per se, but not amazing, either.

Your Turn!

What books have you enjoyed that were sparked by a little-known scrap of history?

Thoughts on “Fangirl” by Rainbow Rowell (Audiobook)

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)?

Thoughts on “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel (Audiobooks)

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?

Thoughts on “The Palace of Illusions” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

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?