Tag Archives: animal stories

A Shaggy Dog

I Thought You Were Dead by Pete Nelson (Algonquin, April 2010)

This reviewer had such high hopes for this novel, a “love story” by Pete Nelson.   Like many readers, I loved The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein and hoped that this would be a worthy follow-up in the same genre.   In Stein’s book the animal protagonist is Enzo the dog; a dog whose thoughts can be heard by his race car driving owner.   Enzo is old and looking forward to his passing so that he can be reincarnated as a human being.   In Nelson’s book the featured animal is Stella the dog; a dog who can speak to her owner Paul Gustavson.   Stella is old and mostly immobile; she is fully prepared for her upcoming last trip to the vet.   Are the similarities a bit obvious?

I Thought You Were Dead starts off as a truly hilarious story due to Stella’s wise, sarcastic and biting voice.   The dog realizes that her divorced owner is pretty much a loser – he’s a hack writer who writes for the Moron series of books (like The Moron’s Guide to Nature, Paul’s current assignment).   Paul has a girlfriend, Tamsen, who takes out insurance in the form of a second boyfriend.   Paul might as well have the Beatles’ song “I’m A Loser” playing in the background of his life.

Stella’s spirit keeps the reader glued to the story until the point at which her health takes a turn for the worse, although it is not a fatal turn.   Because Stella looks at life as something to be enjoyed and valued in times of good health, she does not desire to hang around as something to be pitied when she drops stool around the house and has to be carried up and down the stairs.   In this, as in other things, she’s wiser than her owner.   Stella, in her wisdom, eventually convinces Paul that he must set up an appointment for her to be euthanized.

It is at the point of Stella’s sad death that the novel pretty much comes to an end.   Oh, Nelson continues it with a secondary plot about Paul’s father having a stroke and Paul having to come to terms with his past in order to understand his future.   Right…  It seems that Paul’s father crashed a family car when Paul and his siblings were young and tragedy ensued, a fact that everyone must deal with again for reasons that are not quite clear.   Paul is supposed to learn a great lesson when his father, recovering from a stroke, tells him not to drink.

One wonders if something happened in the author’s life that is being revealed here as a form of catharsis?   If so, it wouldn’t be the first time an author wrestled with his past in the form of thinly disguised fictional events.   In the forthcoming book The Mentor: A Memoir, Tom Grimes admits to including a factual incident in a novel he wrote – the night his father crashed the family automobile, “drunk and doing ninety.”

The family story in Dead feels like a secondary plot that was tacked on as the author could not decide what to write about once Stella the dog was removed from the spotlight in this novel.   It’s unfortunate as the glue lines attaching the funny and overly downcast plots are almost visible.   With Stella gone, the story limps painfully and overly slowly along to a conclusion – a disappointing one – that will come too late for the average reader.

There are some who criticize Anna Quindlen (unfairly in my eyes) for what they view as her slow and detached style.   Quindlen’s latest family novel, Every Last One, virtually soars compared to the final few plodding chapters of Dead.

Joseph Arellano

Take Away:   This one starts off as cute as a puppy before it turns into an old tired dog of a story.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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One Good Dog (a preview)

One Good Dog is a novel by Susan Wilson that was released today on St. Martin’s/Macmillan.   We haven’t had a chance to look at it yet but writer Rita Mae Brown says, “One good dog equals one great book!”   And here’s what Garth Stein, the author of The Art of Racing in the Rain says:  “One Good Dog is a wonderful novel:  a moving, tender and brilliantly crafted story about two fighters – one a man, one a dog – hoping to leave the fight behind, who ultimately find their salvation in each other.   Susan Wilson’s clear and unflinching style is perfectly suited for her story that strips away the trappings and toys we all hide behind, and exposes our essential need to give and accept love in order to thrive.”

Here is the way One Good Dog opens:

He was a rough-looking thing.   Big ears, wiry hair.   His muzzle just beginning to grizzle.   He looked like the sort who’d been living outside of society for a while, maybe never really been a companion.   After a long parade of supplicants appearing before me, each wanting me to choose him or her, their noses pressed up to the chain-link fence that separated us, there was something in this one’s deep brown eyes, not a pleading – pleading I can overlook – but something else.   A quiet dignity, maybe even an aloofness, as if he really didn’t need me or my kind being nice to him.   Yes.   That was it, a haughtiness that declared he needed no one’s pity; he shouldn’t even be here.   Don’t look at me; I’m only here by coercion.

Our eyes met and held, but then he turned away.   Beta to my alpha.   But in that brief gaze, I saw something I recognized.   Maybe it was just that I saw my own independent streak, the one that has kept me on top.   Or the eyes of a fighter down on his luck, but with memories of recent glory.   Maybe I saw that underneath the rough exterior lay a heart, like mine, not entirely hard.   You’ve got to be tough to live in the world, whether your lip is curled in real anger or fear aggression, you have to be ready to carry out the threat.   This battle-scarred fella understood that, and on that basis I made my decision.   He was the one for me.

So I wagged my tail.

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New Tricks

You’re in for a doggy treat (although not the Milk Bone type, of course).   Author David Rosenfelt is a master of timing, understatement, and spoofing.   His most recent novel, New Tricks, is an all around good book; a mystery complete with a Patterson, New Jersey based attorney who has a reputation for defending dogs (of the canine variety), a temperamental and outspoken judge named Hatchet, and a lady police chief from Wisconsin who just happens to be the attorney’s long-distance girlfriend.   The cast of characters is enhanced by a friend who communicates with the attorney by singing the lyrics of popular songs.   The center of attraction is Waggy, an eager and energetic Bernese puppy whose ownership is in dispute.

The mystery immediately grabs the reader’s attention as a mansion explodes, leaving nothing but massive collateral damage and a dead owner.   The plot twists, turns and then doubles back on itself.   There are plenty of red herrings, hidden motives, puns and double entendres that give an appreciative reader cause to laugh out loud.   The plot twists and turns are worthy of The Rockford Files and 77 Sunset Strip, and reminiscent of the style of author Ellen Raskin (The Westing Game).

Highly recommended.   A charming tale that’s also a tail wagger!

Grand Central Publishing, $24.99, 309 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review

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Potential is a heavy burden

“There’s no heavier burden than a great potential.”   Charlie Brown

I’m usually a cheerleader for stories involving animals but this one lacked something, I’m not exactly sure just what…   excitement, charm, humor, human relevance?   The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter: A Memoir is the true tale of a woman whose father literally raised up to 9,000 gerbils at a time.   The publicity for the book made it seem as if the father did this to promote medical research for the condition (cystic fibrosis) that killed the author’s sister.   But sister Gail died well before the mega gerbil farm was established.

It may also be that the author’s father – the prime character here, more than the author –  is simply not someone the average reader will identify with.   A retired navy commander, he comes off as gruff and argumentative; someone who uses and abuses his wife and children.   (At one point he fires his wife from the family business replacing her with his mother.)GerbilThen there’s author Holly Robinson, who displays some odd contradictions.   For example, at one point (pages 140-142), she asks her high school classmates, “Why do you hate me so much?   I haven’t done anything.”   She asks this as the victim of mean behavior and bad language.   But then just one  page later (143) she uses very negative language to make fun of some neighbors:   “…the Albino children wore plastic bread bags wrapped around their feet instead of boots.”   The Albinos, a derogatory term adopted by Holly’s mother, are poor – “The one thing they all had in common besides missing teeth was their white-blond hair and pink-rimmed eyes…”

As far as the reader can tell, the neighbors never did anything to the author and her family…   So why did they hate their neighbors so much?   Simply because they were poor?

Once we realize that there’s no nexus (connection) between the gerbil farm and life saving research, a lot of the assumed charm and relevance (if not romance) of the story melts away.   Robinson might have been better off writing a straight biography of her life – with her family members as secondary figures – or a cute modern guidebook to raising gerbils (an updating of the books her father used to write).   As it is, there was just something missing in this book’s 289 pages.

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Our Book Review Rules

Some book review bloggers with more experience than I have strongly suggested posting a set of book review policies, so here are my Lucky 13 rules.   Fair warning!

1.   I am interested in receiving review copies on most subjects but especially biographies and memoirs; music; poetry; sports; business books; inspirational stories (but not directly tied to religion); popular fiction; crime dramas; Young Adult (YA) novels; children’s books and stories involving animals.   In fact, I’m a sucker for true animal stories!

2.   I am not interested in science fiction; vampire or zombie books; conspiracy theory books; political tracts; books laden with philosophy (been there, done that); overly simplistic self-help books (of which there are many); or books in which the author says the same thing on every page!

3.   If the reference to popular fiction was too vague, let me be clear: yes, I will and have read “chick lit” (distinct from bodice ripers or old fashioned romance) books.

4.   Whenever possible, I like to receive early stage review copies – paperbound galleys or ARCS, even if they are subject to final review, corrections and editing.   No one wants to write the last review of a new book.

5.   Yes, I do want to review books that are being re-released in paperback – especially in trade paperback form.   In this economy, paperbacks are often the only books on the radar screen of economy-minded consumers.

6.   I finish around 80 percent of the books I start, but if I can’t finish it – meaning that attempting to do so is more painful than dental work – I’m not writing the review.

7.   I’m a speed reader but it nevertheless takes me forever to read pages that have not been edited by someone in the world!

8.   Send an e-mail to me at josephsreviews@gmail.com if you want to know if I’d like a copy of your book; but my receipt of your book does not equate to an automatic positive review (I just try to be honest) nor a guarantee that I can or will finish it.   Again, I cannot guarantee that I will post a review of your book because you have sent it to me.   I have a full-time job and a part-time one and family obligations, and these must take priority in my scheduling.   Please do not send me e-mails asking when I will be reading/reviewing your book.  

9.   Some authors want me to not only review their book but to also include a link to their website, or their Twitter or other online address.   Sorry, I don’t do that.   Readers who have seen my review(s) and are interested in more information on an author can do a Google search. 

10. I do not read/review digital or e-books or pdf files.

11. I love audio books on CD, so if your book is available in this format and you or your publisher or publicist can supply me with an audio book copy it’s a big plus.

12.   Publishers, if you send me a book, please do include a P.R. sheet with some basic information on the book and the contact information for the assigned in-house publicist or contract P.R. staff person.   If I post a review, I will make sure to let the contact know when it is posted.

13.   New authors – especially of non-fiction or self-published books – please have an experienced editor vet your work before submitting it for review.

That’s it.   Good reading to all!  

Note:  I will not be reviewing any self-published books between now and August 2, 2011.

Photo:   flickr (electriclibrarian)book rules (electriclibrarian)

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