We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Main character Rosemary has lost so much, and in the course of her narration she revisits episodes from her past, trying to make sense of that loss and reexamining her own role in her family’s tragedy.

When she was five, Rosemary lost her sister and still harbors guilt over events leading to that loss. Soon after, her only other sibling, brother Lowell, left home in grief and anger and never returned. Left alone with her scientist parents, her father drinking and her mother unhinged, raw, and remote, Rosemary grows into a self-conscious, directionless misfit.

When you learn that the sister Rosemary is mourning is a chimpanzee named Fern, brought to live with the family as an experiment in human-chimpanzee communication, you may wonder why Rosemary’s sense of loss is so profound. But Fowler develops these characters- including Fern- so thoroughly, and portrays their relationships in such glimmering lucidity, that by the end there is no denying that Rosemary and Fern bonded as sisters, twins. Rosemary did not lose a test subject, a friend, or a pet; she lost her sister, her other half.

As Lowell’s animal rights crusades garner FBI attention and Rosemary stumbles through college life in a haze of longing, the circumstances of Fern’s removal from the family are slowly revealed. Which leads to the question, so consuming to Rosemary and reader alike: where is Fern? Is she still alive? Communication from Lowell, now a fugitive, leads Rosemary to finally confront her past.

Guilt, family dynamics, ethics, animal rights, humanity and humanness all wind through the story, making it so compelling, so impossible to put down. It is a credit to Fowler that she does not romanticize Fern’s place in the family.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Daughter of Smoke & Bone

Karou is not your typical teenager.  Having blue hair, living in her own apartment, speaking many languages, and being an art student in Prague set her apart from many other 17-year-olds… but there’s much more to it than that.  She also travels around the world to collect teeth for a chimaerae named Brimstone who is, basically, her foster father.  She has no idea why he needs those teeth, but she is sure that his dwindling supply is a problem.  People credit Karou’s imagination with creating all of the fantastic creatures in her sketchbooks, and she is more than happy to let them believe what they want, but the creatures are very real to her.  In fact, these chimaerae are the only family she has ever known.  When angels mysterious appear all around Earth, using their scorched handprints to seal off the doors that act as portals between Earth and the land in which those monsters exist, Karou ends up locked out.  She has always been taught that the chimaerae were good and that the angels were actually horrible monsters, and now she has to fend off these killer angels without any help from Brimstone.  Karou can’t help being attracted to one of the angels, though, and wonders if there’s a reason why she has a strange feeling that she’s somehow connected to him already…

The Wisdom of the Shire by Noble Smith

The Wisdom of the Shire

This book had me utterly charmed at the dedication, which is a hint at all the goodness that lies ahead. There is no way to put the book down after reading that gem.

Much of the wisdom presented is common to 21st-century denizens with any civic conscientiousness and environmental awareness — reuse, recycle, eat local, make nice with your own personal Gollum — but presented through the lens of Hobbitness, the message has a freshness and appeal that is hard to resist. Do not, however, think for a minute that the Hobbit angle is simply a gimmick. Smith is a deep thinker with keen intellect, a big, generous heart, and a wicked knowledge of The Lord of the Rings. He has captured the essence of Tolkien’s lands and characters and seamlessly relates them to life in our stressed, hurried, consumer world. Each and every chapter gave me something to enjoy, to take away and ponder, to apply to my own life. From the big (challenge corporate and governmental corruption) to the simple (get more sleep!), Smith’s suggestions are inspired and inspiring.

The Wisdom of the Shire will be enjoyed not only by devoted Tolkien fans, but also by anyone with a passing familiarity with the books or films.

Flora by Gail Godwin

Flora

In the mid-1940s, ten year-old Helen lives in a rambling old house, formerly a convalescent home, on a mountain in North Carolina. Her mother is long dead, her beloved grandmother has just passed away, and her father is leaving for the summer to work in Tennessee. Her father recruits a distant cousin, 22-year-old Flora from Alabama, to stay with Helen for the summer. Helen considers Flora a country bumpkin and a twit. Flora has suffered losses of her own and is determined to connect with and care for Helen. Helen learns to tolerate Flora’s pink-cheeked guilelessness when she realizes that Flora is a source of information about Helen’s mother and grandmother. Helen pastes together the snippets of family history revealed by Flora and begins to see a different picture of the past than she had imagined.

Foreshadowing is thick and ever present as Helen narrates their story from a decades-later vantage point, beginning with the lovely opening line:

There are things we can’t undo, but perhaps there is a kind of constructive remorse that could transform regrettable acts into something of service to life.

It is clear that this summer isn’t going to go well for Helen, and waiting for that pivotal moment when we finally learn why is a perfectly measured torture.

There are so many layers to this novel, and days after finishing it I am still turning each facet over in my mind, finding connections and consequences and entertaining “what-ifs.” This is one for my top 10 list. A must-read.

Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan by Jane Maxwell

Jane - the woman who loved Tarzan

(Audiobook)  It’s 1905 in Cambridge, England.  This story follows the adventures of Jane Porter from her time as the only woman student in Cambridge University’s medical program to her ill-fated travels in Africa with her father.  There they search for fossils that will prove Darwin’s theories.  Jane, after being injured, is rescued by Tarzan.  Various reviews of the book are critical of many aspects of the story that vary from the original Tarzan of the Apes series.  This book is, however, authorized by the Edgar Rice Burroughs Estate.  I was prepared to like the audiobook and, in spite of changes in the story, found this to be a fine romance with strong characters, well read and performed, and very enjoyable.  Jane is a woman ahead of her time and takes a dominant role as the main character.