Monday, February 22, 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry - Audrey Niffenegger

This is the second UBC book from Niffenegger. This chick is into the supernatural.
Her Fearful Symmetry is sort of a mystery books. It features two sets of twins, American twenty-somethings Julia and Valentina and their English mother and aunt, Edie and Elspeth. At the opening Elspeth dies and leaves her apartment in London to the younger twins. Edie and Elspeth are estranged, haven't seen each other in decades, and Edie is forbidden from visiting Elspeth's apartment if the girls move in.

The girls are sort of a codependent dichotomy, Julia is strong, healthy and forceful and Valentina is ill and weak-spirited, but longs for independence. Elspeth the ghost is ever-present in the apartment and Niffenegger spends more time than you'd expect on the science side of the afterlife. She explains it from Elspeth's perspective as Elspeth discovers her ghostly nature.

As the story develops, there's an expected rift between the twins as Valentina falls in love with Elspeth's depressed boyfriend who lives in the apartment below and Julia befriends the obsessive compulsive that lives in the apartment above. Eventually, the story takes a bizarre supernatural twist and the truth behind the Edie/Elspeth rift is revealed.
I am not really a mystery-reader, so I'm not totally familiar with the usual plot devices, but I was pleasantly surprised by this book. There were some obvious red herrings and some leading foreshadowing, but the twist was still a surprise. While I had guessed the truth, I hadn't guessed the whole truth, nor did I see the ghostly hijinks coming. It was fun and I was amused by all of it.
As with The Time Traveler's Wife, Niffenegger gives the characters what they want and then makes them suffer for it a bit. The ending was far from happy, but when I finished I realized I wasn't sure who the protagonist was. The characters are each flawed, but their actions often belied their character so it was hard to root for anyone in particular.
I definitely recommend this book, it's a quick read but has a lot of interesting perspectives on death and truth and hurting the ones you love.
If they decide to make this into a craptacular movie like they did with Time Traveler, I'm hoping they cast the Olsen twins as Julia and Valentina. They are the right age and look and it would be an awesome way for them to reunite on screen. In what would definitely be a horrible movie.

The Petticoat Commando by Johanna Brandt

Interestingly, all of Amazon doesn't have a summary of this book. Which is unfortunate because my tenuous relationship with historical facts is going to make it hard for me. I didn't pay attention to the details while I was reading and it seems like a lot of work to look them up now.

Okay, so in the early 1900's there was this war, right? in the Boer region of South Africa. It seems to have been between the Boer (who may have been Danish settlers) and the British. Whatever, all the historical context is pretty much irrelevant because the story is about this young woman, Hansie and her mom who were badass spies.

Hansie and Mrs. Van Warmelo were living out in the country, their house is totally surrounded by British encampments and they spend a few years of the war sending out secret correspondence to Europe and harboring spies and stealing shipping information. The book is largely sourced from Hansie's secret diary that she kept during this time, written entirely in invisible ink. Which is cool.

Unfortunately, Brandt doesn't just quote the diary (for reasons unexplained) and instead covers the entire story in short anecdotes. There is basically no narrative arc, or plot to speak of. Now, it's nonfiction so I understand that there's only so much you can do, but it was a little hard to follow. Also, she seems to have reported these anecdotes slightly out of chronology, favoring to group some stories because they involve the same characters or the same type of missions. Not terrible, but it kind of leaves you hanging.

Brandt also writes like an excitable, emotional woman who faints all the time. Lots of extraneous exclamations over the suffering of others and lots of exclamation points. This seems to be a trend with women writing non-fiction in the pre-women's lib days. Not a fan. It's like Lifetime Original Programming for Books. Stories about Women, For Women, By Women.

Anyway, I liked this book and it covered places and events with which I was completely unfamiliar (thanks public school!) so I feel like I learned something. I'd consider reading more about the Boer war because it was interesting how closely controlled information was. Censors read all incoming and outgoing mail so the events of the war were largely unknown in Europe, even though the fighting sides were both European.

If it tilts your opinion, you can download this book for free on Kindle.