The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

The Art of Racing in the Rain

The Art of Racing in the Rain

Garth Stein (Adult Fiction)

Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature.  And while I occasionally step over the line and into the world of the melodramatic, it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly and effectively. 

Enzo is just one of many mixed-breed pups (although he’s quite sure that his father was a terrier) living on a little farm in Spangle, Washington.  When Dennis “Denny” Swift sees him, he knows immediately that his heart will never again be his own.  “This one,” Denny states without a moment’s hesitation.  So begins a life that will include marriage, a child, some ups, more downs, but most of all, it will have racing.  Lots and lots of racing.

It isn’t often that you come across a book that allows you to view the world from a wonderfully unique perspective.  Seeing the world through the eyes of an aging Labrador-terrier mix was a delight and made for an unforgettable journey.  Enzo introduces us to his master, Denny, a semi-professional racecar driver whose natural talent behind the wheel is offset only by the misfortunes that seem to tail him at every one of life’s turns.  We also meet Eve, the woman Denny falls in love with and marries, and Zoë, Denny and Eve’s daughter.  Like all families, there is a mixture of good times and bad, only with this family, we are able to see their story unfold through a very special and astute lens.

Hailing from NASCAR country, I was familiar with most of the racing jargon that Garth uses throughout his book.  However, he goes the extra mile to ensure that non-racing enthusiasts will not only understand the terminology, but may also gain an appreciation for the sport and the talent and grit demanded of its drivers.  Several laugh-out-loud moments coupled with some tear-filled scenes balance out the racing sequences nicely to ensure that our story keeps moving along at a nice, smooth pace.

The Art of Racing in the Rain is the ultimate love story between a human and those furry, funny, and fantastically annoying yet adorable creatures we call family.  The book is also laden with racing metaphors that teach us a great deal about love and life in general: “The race is long—to finish first, first you must finish,” or “The car goes where the eyes go,” and my favorite, “It’s all about the ride.”  This last one comes after Denny takes Enzo on his first and only ride on a track and Enzo gets to experience the thrill and excitement that comes from actually racing versus simply viewing it through a dashcam video.  Throughout our story, Enzo is always wanting to go faster.  Faster, Denny, faster.  But as I was nearing the last page, all I wanted time to do was slow down.  I wasn’t yet ready to say goodbye to this wonderful narrator that showed me that life was about living, loving, and—most importantly—listening because listening is what Enzo, like all of our furry companions, does best.  Thank you, Garth Stein…and Enzo…for giving me a ride that I will surely remember for a long, long time.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.walmart.com

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Along Came a Dog by Meindert DeJong (J)

It’s Tween & Teen Tuesday when we review either a Juvenile (J) or Young Adult (YA) book.

Along Came a Dog

Along Came a Dog    

Meindert DeJong (Juvenile Fiction)

The little red hen was having a splendid day in the barnyard.  Spring had finally arrived and the weather was warm, the sun was bright, and she had just laid her first egg of the season.  Proudly, she sat atop the man’s shoulder as he cleaned the coop floor and spread out fresh hay.  Life on the farm was splendid indeed…until the big black dog appeared.  Suddenly, this fur-covered menace had disrupted her otherwise splendid day and that wouldn’t stand one bit.  After all, it was a pack of dogs that had killed all of the red hens in her flock and she alone had survived.  No, the big black dog had to go and it was up to the man to do it.  But no matter how determined the man was to get rid of the dog, the dog was more determined to stay for he had decided that this farm was his and no distance was going to separate him from his newly found home.

This is the second book I’ve read by Meindert DeJong (the first being The Wheel on the School) and he again delights with a beautifully told story that reads almost like a fairytale.  The actions and emotions exhibited by the animals are true to their nature so don’t expect camaraderie within the flock or gentle misunderstandings between the hen and the dog.  DeJong gives us an accurate portrayal of farm life in all its splendor and savagery and readers will soon understand that life is hard and often unfair in the barnyard.  Thankfully, DeJong is mindful of the age of his intended reader so he makes sure that bad is always followed by good and those possessing purity of heart and deed are eventually rewarded.  Also, the story does seem to lag just a bit near the middle, so readers are encouraged to dutifully plow ahead as the ending will merit their effort and patience.

Along Came a Dog is a story of duty, purpose, loyalty, and an overwhelmingly desire to belong, and it serves as a wonderful example of the benefits of perseverance and the virtues of honor.  It was both heartbreaking and heartwarming to see dog so steadfast in his mission to return to a place where he obviously wasn’t welcome.  But, his rationale was quite simple: “He was back.  Twice he’d been taken away, and twice now he’d come back.  And if the man were to take him away thirty times, he’d come back thirty times.  He wasn’t dim-witted—he knew he wasn’t wanted here.  But every time he was taken away, he’d try to come back.  It wasn’t a plan in the big dog’s mind. It was a need, a desperation to have a home.  He was going to have a home!  It was that simple.”  On that fateful spring day, a friendship was formed and a home was discovered when a hen with broken feet and a dog with an unbroken spirit found each other.  When you think about it, it turned out to be a rather splendid day after all.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

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The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst

The Dogs of Babel

The Dogs of Babel

Carolyn Parkhurst (Adult Fiction)

“Here is what we know, those of us who can speak to tell a story: On the afternoon of October 24, my wife, Lexy Ransome, climbed to the top of the apple tree in our backyard and fell to her death.  There were no witnesses, save our dog, Lorelei.”

Paul Iverson is desperate to understand how his young, beautiful, and artistic wife died.  Judging by her injuries and how her body landed, the police conclude that she didn’t jump.  There are so many things that Paul is just discovering like there are two ways of falling and that each one tells a story.  That on the day she died, Lexy rearranged the books on their bookshelf and cooked an entire steak just for Lorelei.  The books, the steak, and the apple tree all tell Paul that the day Lexy died wasn’t a usual day.  There are so many questions and the only one who can answer them can’t even speak…yet.

Carolyn Parkhurst delivers a novel that is a thriller wrapped around a mystery and enclosed within an endearing and heartbreaking love story.  Paul is our narrator and shares with us the moment he heard of Lexy’s death and then rewinds to show us how his and Lexy’s story began with their initial meeting and subsequent first date.  His voice is rich in detail and overflows with the love he feels for his wife and the loss he experiences by a life cut tragically short.  Every marriage has its ups and downs and Paul and Lexy’s marriage is no different; however, she was the yin to his yang and their union was symbiotic albeit sometimes tempestuous.

The Dogs of Babel is a beautiful, painful, thoughtful, and at times humorous story, but at its very core is a man grieving and desperate for answers.  His obsession of finding out the truth from his dog is futile and ridiculous.  We know it, his friends and colleagues know it, and even Paul himself knows it, but when you’re drowning, you’ll grasp for anything that can serve as a lifeline.  In this case, his lifeline is Lorelei.  Parkhurst gives us a memorable and stirring novel about the ones left behind when a sudden and untimely tragedy occurs.  The ones left with questions, loneliness, and oftentimes guilt and whose daily goals are measured by mere breaths.

Paul Iverson was a linguist by profession, and he often made a game of seeing how many words he could make out of a name.  He felt that these newly formed words somehow gave insight into the person themselves.  With The Dogs of Babel, I see the words blood, desolate, loathe, and death, but I also see self, glee, holdfast, and heals.  In the Bible, The Tower of Babel signified the beginning of the division of mankind through the infliction of diverse languages—punishment for man’s desire to reach the heavens for “godlike” status.  But Parkhurst reminds us that grief and love are universal and transcend the written word or spoken language.  They unite us in our healing and help us find a way to move forward…one breath at a time.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

 

Dogsong by Gary Paulsen (YA)

Dogsong.jpg

Dogsong    

Gary Paulsen (Young Adult Fiction)

During the winter, Russel Susskit and his father live in a sixteen by twenty government house in a small Eskimo village.  Come summer, both will move to the fish camps.  For now, Russel wakes up every morning to his father’s smoking-induced cough; the absence of his mother, who left with a white trapper; and the growing unhappiness he feels when he thinks of his current life and, more importantly, his future.  Russel wants to be more, but when he looks ahead, he only sees less.  Russel’s father sends him to the local shaman, Oogruk, who owns the last team of dogs in the village.  Oogruk tells Russel that he needs to discover his own song and returning to the old ways of his people may help.  Driven by a recurring dream and a team of five great red dogs, Russel heads north searching for answers and a song.

Dogsong is divided into two parts: Russel’s training with Oogruk and his solitary journey north.  It is the second part of this book that is disappointing and not particularly compelling.  We find ourselves caught in a seemingly tedious storyline loop:  run, eat, dream, repeat.  The story drags like a sled maneuvering through slush and Paulsen fails to provide enough action to hold either the reader’s interest or attention.  A sudden story twist near the end arrives far too late to save what could have been an interesting boy-versus-nature adventure story.

One notable bright spot was Oogruk’s advice to Russel about life and living.  “It isn’t the destination that counts,” Oogruk said.  “It is the journey.  That is what life is.  A journey.  Make it the right way and you will fill it correctly with days.  Pay attention to the journey.”  All too often we find ourselves consumed or distracted by the things that have little to no effect on our life or circumstances.  In hindsight, we often come to realize that it is the small things that have the biggest impact.  If we take an old shaman’s advice and simply look up, look around, and pay attention, perhaps we too can find the words to our own song.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

 

The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford (J)

The Incredible Journey

The Incredible Journey    

Sheila Burnford (Juvenile Fiction)

How far would you travel and what would you be willing to endure just to be home again?  Three animals—a Siamese cat, a bull terrier, and a Labrador retriever—travel nearly 300 miles across the Canadian wilderness and battle fatigue, hunger, wild animals, cold, and sickness in order to be reunited with their beloved family again.

Burnford gives us a story of loyalty, inclusivity, diversity, and empathy.  This is not a warm and fuzzy tale of three pets and their charming and delightful antics throughout the frontiers of Canada.  This is a harsh and brutally honest story of survival, death, pain, and endurance.  There is plenty of bone crunching and flesh tearing to remind young readers that this isn’t just another cutesy animal story, but this should not deter them in the slightest from reading this book.  The Incredible Journey is an exquisite story of love and friendship.  Each animal must depend on one another for survival while proving their own unique worth at pivotal parts of the story.

This is one of those rare books that is so captivating, you almost forget (and really don’t miss) the fact that a majority of the story lacks dialogue.  Through Burnford’s adept and masterful storytelling, we understand the language “spoken” between the three companions through their actions, reactions, hisses, and howls.  A flick of the tail or drawing down of the ears convey more emotion and drama under Burnford’s nuanced pen than pages and pages of dialogue ever could.  Serving as a brilliant complement to Burnford’s words are the beautiful and rich illustrations by Carl Burger.  The two combined give readers an emotional, exhilarating, unforgettable, and one incredible journey.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

 

 

Bunnicula by Deborah and James Howe (J)

Bunnicula

Bunnicula   

Deborah and James Howe (Juvenile Fiction)

Who would have thought that a seemingly innocent rabbit found in a movie theater would turn a happy family upside down…and possibly threaten the world?  Chester, that’s who.  The Monroe’s family cat knew the instant that snuggly bunny entered their home that something was definitely not right.  Harold, the family dog, was clueless and Mr. and Mrs. Monroe and their two boys were no help at all.  No.  It was up to him and him alone to expose this furry fraud for who he really was.  Soon, Chester would make his discovery known to all since the clues were all coming together:  the nocturnal sleeping habits, the drained vegetables, the Houdini-like talents of escapism, the FANGS!  Come on!  Why is he the ONLY ONE WHO SEES IT?  Well, cats are far more intelligent.  Thankfully, Chester has a plan, but can he make it work in time to save his family and everyone on the planet?

Bunnicula is a harmless and hilarious way to get your young reader into the Halloween spirit.  FAR more benign and innocuous than The Witches by Roald Dahl (reviewed on October 9), the antics of Chester and Harold are entertaining and lighthearted.  Perhaps the only scary thing about this book is the cover (an adorable rabbit with red eyes and fangs?  Yikes!).  And, if your youngster wants more fun with the Monroe pets, Howe provides fans with six more books in the Bunnicula series.  Hare-ray!

So, hide your vegetables, put your garlic necklace on, and prepare yourself for some hare-raising fun with the most adorable vampire you’re likely to ever meet.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.amazon.com

 

 

 

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (J)

The Underneath

The Underneath  

Kathi Appelt (Juvenile Fiction)

This is a tale of two love stories separated by one thousand years.  The first is of a possessive, jealous, and cruel love.  It is about an enchantress, a king, and a family of three.  The second tale tells of a selfless, devoted, and pure love.  It is about a brave mother, a set of twins, and a gifted but abused blues singer.  But like so many tales, these two worlds eventually collide and when they do, which love will prove to be the strongest?

Appelt offers up a modern-day fairytale that gives readers heroes, villains, magic, mystery, and danger.  Like most fairytales, we can count on the villain getting his comeuppance, the misguided antagonist having a change of heart, and the power of true love winning in the end.  The book has very short chapters and makes for an easy read for younger readers (or an ideal bedtime book to be shared and read aloud).  The story has some instances of animal cruelty, so parents of sensitive readers should be warned.  Also, although Appelt gives us a truly suspenseful tale, it does stall near the middle and needlessly prolongs the action.  At just over 300 pages, this may frustrate some readers, but perseverance has its rewards and a satisfying ending awaits the patient reader.

Time and time again our little protagonists are told to “Stay in the Underneath.  You’ll be safe in the Underneath.”  And true enough, safely tucked underneath this dust jacket is a wonderful tale of devotion, friendship, family, and the importance of a promise kept.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com