Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger

rip4banner

Well, fittingly enough, I read this on the first official day of the RIP IV Challenge.  I got an ARC from the lovely and obliging people at the Regal Literary Agency (thanks, y’all!  I was so, so pleased to have it!) on Monday, and read it all in one go yesterday evening.

In Her Fearful Symmetry, due for proper release at the end of this month, Elspeth Noblin dies and leaves her London flat to her twin nieces, daughters of her own estranged twin Edie.  They can have it on their twenty-first birthday, and must live in it for one year before they can sell it; their parents are not to be allowed in the flat.  Julia and Valentina very sensibly accept this offer (I am mildly hoping that my mother has a rich estranged London twin like this who can conveniently die soon and let me do this exact thing), and take up residence in the flat, which is just outside Highgate Cemetery.  The flat downstairs contains Elspeth’s lover, Robert, who is missing her terribly; the upstairs flat contains Martin, whose crippling OCD has caused his wife to leave; and the twins’ flat contains Elspeth’s possessions.  And her ghost.

For a ghost story, this one isn’t very spooky.  That isn’t a criticism!  It’s just that the aim of a ghost story tends to be to give you spine prickles, but that doesn’t seem to be the goal here.  Remember how Audrey Niffenegger wrote about time travel in a clinical, matter-of-fact sort of way?  Time travel was part of the characters’ lives, and they try to figure out the rules and deal with it as best they can in their everyday lives.  Some people deal with it perfectly sensibly, and other people do not manage quite so well.  The ghosty aspects of Her Fearful Symmetry are handled in a similar fashion – this isn’t what I expected, but I liked it.

I loved the theme of identity, creating yourself as an individual, that runs all through the book.  The central characters are so vivid (apart from Robert – what is Robert all about?  I couldn’t figure him out), and they all struggle to decide who they are apart from the significant people in their lives.  It was completely opposite to The Time Traveler’s Wife, how Henry and Clare create themselves as a couple, but equally intriguing.  I particularly liked the friendship that develops between Julia and Martin, who are both going through the same thing – trying to be healthy and sane as their main life person is tugged away from them.  Martin’s OCD was not quite on, as is often the case when book characters have OCD, but apart from that, Martin was generally a wonderful character.  Maybe my favorite character.

Except, maybe, for the graveyard.  Highgate Cemetery is a character in this novel: the people buried in it and the secrets that it keeps (and Robert knows) are all very much a part of the story.  I love the scenes set in the cemetery, and I wish we could have had a bit more of the cemetery people – maybe that would have helped explain who Robert was.  Highgate feels like a co-conspirator in the – let’s say, in the slightly sketchier events of the novel, and like a haven for the nicer moments.

Her Fearful Symmetry is much more me than The Time Traveler’s Wife – I mean with the ghosts and the graveyard and the sisters – and I thought I might like it better.  Right now I am not sure.  It is a quieter book than Time Traveler’s Wife.   I mean that it doesn’t have that same wrenching emotional pull, and it is more understated about all the things that happen.  They are so different it’s hard to compare.  Which is great!  On with more books by Audrey Niffenegger that will all be individual and different and wonderful!

Hey, and this book mentioned David Tennant!  The twins one time watch that episode of Doctor Who, “The Girl in the Fireplace” (he does have long fingers), with the horse, and the Doctor gets smashed and Rose says, “Oh look at what the cat dragged in – the Oncoming Storm”, and I love that line and I love that episode!  David Tennant, hooray!

I have some very spoilery things to say, but I won’t say them until after the book has been released.  I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun.  I advise you to trot out and buy this book promptly upon its release, because I enjoyed it a lot and will definitely be rereading it and, I expect, enjoying it more and more with successive rereadings.  I love a ghost story.  I loved this one.

Other reviews: Carl’s non-spoiler review & spoiler review, At Home with Books, Sophisticated Dorkiness, Books on the Brain, the book lady’s blog, Devourer of Books, 5 Minutes for Books, The Literate Housewife, S. Krishna’s Books, Yule Time Reading, let me know if you’ve reviewed this and I will add a link!

The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman

The reason for the brevity of those last two reviews is that I am really mostly just excited about The Graveyard Book, which came out today.  At last!  The Graveyard Book!  I have been yearning and yearning and yearning for it, and at last it came out, and I read it all outside on a blanket in my side yard, and it was nice and shady and breezy, and I felt very, very, very happy!

I went to Bongs & Noodles today to get The Graveyard Book, and they had not yet even opened up the box with the display that The Graveyard Book was going to be on.  The salesperson had to get a pair of scissors and open the box up just for me.  (I offered her my keys, which would have been more effective actually, but she insisted on using the scissors.)  It was very exciting.  I love it when Neil Gaiman writes a new book.  He should write a new book every day, and then I would be happy every day, and I wouldn’t have enough time to read all of them, so that when he died way off in the future I would still have dozens of new books by Neil Gaiman to read.

That would be nice.

The Graveyard Book is all about a boy whose family is killed when he is very wee, but he escapes and toddles away into a graveyard, and the graveyard decides to adopt him.  The ghosts all look after him and teach him useful lessons like Fading and Dreamwalking, and he has got a guardian called Silas, who consumes only one food, and it is not bananas.  He grows up gradually, and they call him Bod (with a D), short for Nobody.  The man Jack, who killed his family, remains interested in killing him, so Silas and the rest of the ghosts do their utmost best to keep him safe until he is a grown-up.  He becomes clever and resourceful, and he doesn’t like people who are wicked.

How I loved The Graveyard Book!  It was such a dear book!  There are all these ghosts you don’t get to know nearly well enough, and every chapter is a little story, and Bod gets into all kinds of trouble and learns valuable lessons and sometimes makes a friend.  I only wished there were more of it.  More Silas and more of the poet ghost, who was extravagant and helpful.  I am not usually overcome with sadness when a book ends, but I was extremely sad when I got to the end of The Graveyard Book.  I suppose because it was rather episodic, I expected it to go on and on and on, and then instead of that it ended, and I felt really sad because I was sure there were more bits that could have happened in the middle before it got to the end.  I was insupportable.  I had to lie on my back and stare at the humongous sky for a while before I was able to overcome my grief and start reading it all over.

Read it!  Neil Gaiman is wonderful!  I am glad he is still so young and can continue to write for many years still!

The Mercy of Thin Air, Ronlyn Domingue

Recommended by my mother.  Of course.

This is a book about a girl in 1920s New Orleans who dies prematurely, before anything about her life gets properly decided, particularly before she makes a decision about her boyfriend Andrew, a fact that proves troublesome to her after she dies.  She is called Razi, and she haunts a Baton Rouge couple, Amy and Scott, who are dealing with the fallout from a loss of their own.  The story flips back and forth between their story and Razi’s life as a – for lack of a better word – ghost, over the years, and Razi’s life when she was properly alive.  She is a really excellent character.  When she is alive she says to her Andrew, “One lifetime isn’t enough to make all the trouble of which I am capable.”

I really love the main character’s name – it’s Raziela, the meaning of which I’ve seen alternately given as God’s secret and My secret is God, both of which are wonderful.  I like My secret is God particularly, to be honest.  My secret is God.  That is a good sentence.  I will have to find a use for that sentence.

The Mercy of Thin Air was good.  I like books about people successfully coming to terms with things that have been problematic to them.  This was melancholy in bits and joyful in bits and with good characters and good dialogue and I just liked it a lot.  Plus, you know, sister’s from the home state and her characters are always going to places that I have been, in Baton Rouge and in New Orleans.  Hooray for Louisiana!  We have good food!  We have streetcars!  If anywhere in this country was going to have ghosts, it would be us!  Up with Louisiana!

Tamsin, Peter Beagle

When she reached the first tree she swung around it to face me, and if the trees looked like men, she looked as young as Julian.”Still here – oh, still here!” she called – halfway singing, really. “Oh, still holding to Stourhead earth, they and I.” She hooked her arm around the tree and swung again, as though she was dancing with it. I knew she couldn’t have touched it, felt the bark or the dry leaves, any more than I could have felt her arm against mine – but nobody looks as beautiful, as joyous, as Tamsin looked right then when they’re feeling nothing.

“I saw my father plant these trees,” she said as I came up with her. “And see them now, grown so great and grim – stripped and battered by the years, yet still here, unyielding.” She wheeled toward the beech trees again, asking them, “Were you waiting for me then, little ones, all this time? Would you ask my sanction before you fall? Well, I do not grant it, do you hear me? Nay, if I’m to stay on, so shall you – and I am even older, so you’ll mind what I say. Whiles I remain at Stourhead, you’re to keep me company, as Roger my father bade you. Hear!”

So this is what happened with Tamsin: One year my mum espied this book, Tamsin, by the same dude who wrote The Last Unicorn, and because my family’s gift life is very hardcore about giving each other books that we think are going to be good, she bought it for my sister Anna, the biggest Last Unicorn fan of the four of us, for her Christmas stocking. With excellent intentions, she (my mum) started to read a bit of it to check it was good enough to be a stocking stuffer. Then she couldn’t stop reading it, and she read the whole thing. Then she bought Anna a fresh unread copy. Then she bought copies for everyone else in the family.

That’s how good a book it is.

The other day I was getting ready to go to the rec center, and I had picked out two books to read while I was working out, and they were two wondrous and captivating books: The Color Purple – which I might add I haven’t read for two years (holy shit, I cannot believe it has been that long) and was thus absolutely aching to read – and The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, which I had forgotten about until recently. These two books were on the kitchen counter ready to go, but then I remembered I wanted to glance at the topics for my Victorian lit paper, and I had to download them and my computer was running slow and what with one thing and another I grabbed Tamsin to read while I was waiting for that to work. I wasn’t even reading for two minutes, literally, but when I went to put Tamsin down and go exercise, my hand wouldn’t let go of it. Even though, even though, I had these two completely brilliant books waiting for me on the kitchen counter.

That’s how good a book it is.

It’s about a girl called Jenny (hooray! I <3 heroines called Jenny!) whose mum gets married to a British farmer and so they move to a British farm – where, may I say, they have big thunderstorms, a phenomenon I observed precisely never in my nine months in England so either Peter Beagle is using poetic license or I was in the completely wrong part of England. The farm is in Dorset and has many spooky things: a boggart and a pooka and a Black Dog and, hooray, the ghost of a Stuart-era girl called Tamsin with a messy past now leaking into the present and needing to be sorted.

Tamsin is a gorgeous book. Mr. Beagle really does make such a good group of interesting, vivid characters and a really interesting, vivid plot, and I certainly do wish we could get hold of his latest book. Tamsin is just so lovely and I always do get sad when it ends. Luckily I have The Color Purple and The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail to console me. If they’ll take me back.