Not Suitable for Family Viewing, Vicki Grant

HarperTrophyCanada, 2009, 289 pages (soft cover)

I’d never heard of this book or its author, but it’s one of those random library picks that turned out to be an entertaining surprise. Not to mention it’s Canadian, and it made me LOL. I really love books that  literally make me laugh out loud.

Before I get to the meat and potatoes here, can we pause for a moment to communally groan at this cover? As a result I was forced to find creative ways to hold my book while reading on the bus….

That’s not really where the groans stopped for this book, either. The first-person present-tense story is told from the perspective of Robin, the oft-forgotten daughter of Oprah-like TV mega-personality, Mimi Schwartz. (Want to know the name of Mimi’s show? You, You, and Mimi. Groan.) In the shadow of her famous mother, Robin feels like a neglected, fat slob with no motivation to do anything. Then one day she finds a little clue to her mother’s pre-fame days, which is just intriguing enough for Robin to take off for a tiny po-dunk village to do some detective work. This is both where the real eye-rolling as well as nail biting started for me. Along her way Robin meets a guy, who slowly but surely (somehow) becomes a love interest [spoiler alert! highlight to read!] even after she punches him in the face upon their first meeting, and later proceeds to scream – yes, literally scream – every time she sees him thereafter. Obviously this leads to his finding her very quirky, funny, and sexy- sexy. Teeny-bopper romance aside – and I had to gag my way through plenty of that – there’s actually a pretty twisty mystery hidden in these pages. I didn’t realize how much red herring is strategically placed throughout the book, until I’d finished it and had it on my mind the next couple days. Coming off of Paper Townsthis one had a lot more to offer in terms of difficulty actually cracking the case.

I’m glad I was compelled enough to keep on through the first half of this book, because the second half proved well worth it. In the first half I wondered why it was an award winner; now I see why. Layered beneath the typical teen beach romance is actually a strong commentary about how appearances aren’t what they seem.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013, 310 pages (hardcover)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was that book I saw everywhere. I became curious, enough to read the synopsis. It was annoyingly vague. I knew I was in for some sort of family drama (possibly involving monkeys?) but – hoping it’d be nothing like When God was a Rabbit – this was enough for me to take the plunge. In this case, it was worth it! I was delivered all the heartfelt, realistic and zany family dynamics I’m always in the market for, plus I acquired a new favourite author!

I would explain Completely Beside Ourselves as Rosemary Cooke’s journey toward self-actualization. What we know about her from the beginning is that she used to talk incessantly. She also used to be part of a well-oiled and functioning household, alive with trouble-making siblings, an active mom, and a clever psychologist father. Fast forward several years and something has happened to upend all of it. Rosemary’s mom is lackluster, her dad an amorphous presence on the sidelines of her life, her brother a rogue domestic terrorist wanted by the government, and she, at the centre of it all, has gone silent. What the novel does is suspensefully walk us through events preceding and following the mysterious event – we quickly learn it has something to do with her sister, Fern – that changed everything. Clues are dropped here and there, but nothing will prepare the reader for what’s coming.

Fowler takes a really distinct approach to words that I quite enjoy. Her observations about life are either poignant or droll, and often both. She excels at holding off important information until the moment it will have maximum emotional impact. Probably because her own father was a psychologist who studied learning behaviours in animals, that’s something I found this book did really well in exploring. It boasts a lot of psychology, raising important questions about animal rights, our human relationships with animals, and the myriad implications. All I can do is highly recommend this novel to anyone interested in animals or behaviorism. That, and get my hands on another Fowler novel ASAP.