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Review: A Dog’s Purpose

A Dog's PurposeNo two ways about it; A Dog’s Pupose is a must for dog owners. W. Bruce Cameron’s novel is heartwarming, insightful, and poignant, especially if you love dogs. The novel follows one dog — who narrates the novel — as he is born and reborn (reincarnated) over the years. Each life is enormously different from the previous one, and leads the dog to begin questioning what his purpose is in life. As he looks for his own meaning, the dog also explores human nature, family, and the relationships that shape us.

The novel opens with the dog being born as a stray mutt, scrounging for food in garbage cans and shying away from humans. He is eventually scooped up and taken in by a woman who collects stray dogs without a second thought, opening her home to an enormous pack. She names the narrator Toby, and he has a generally happy, but all-too-brief life in her home. His first death is horribly depressing, and reaffirmed my belief in adopting from shelters and/or the pound whenever possible.

The narrator is soon conscious that he has been reborn as a golden retriever, in what most readers should recognize as a puppy mill. It’s an inauspicious start, but after several close scrapes, the dog is rescued and taken home by a woman as a gift for her young son, Ethan. Ethan names the puppy Bailey, and the boy and dog immediately form an unbreakable bond. Much of the story is a dog’s-eye view of the daily world, with amusing interpretations of human behavior. However, Bailey also delves into darker, more complex issues, such as why the frightening boy down the street seems broken inside. In another instance, Bailey and Ethan get lost in the woods together, and must rely on each other to survive. The family loves Bailey, even when their own lives take sad and unexpected turns.

Bailey witnesses and plays his part in many events over the years, growing up alongside Ethan. The pair have over a decade of adventures and mishaps before Bailey grows old and tired, and eventually the family must make the hard decision to put him down. Anyone who has ever had to put a beloved pet to sleep will absolutely empathize with that scene; I had to stop reading for a few minutes to cry and hug my dog. This second death, while sad, is easier in some ways than the first, though, since at least in this life Bailey had a good long life full of love and happiness.

In his third incarnation, the dog is startled to realize that he is a female German Shepherd. As a puppy, the dog — soon named Ellie — is adopted by a police officer and is soon trained for the K-9 unit.  Ellie is an elite search-and-rescue dog, and has a strong working partnership with her handler Jakob. Jakob likes and is proud of Ellie, but does not love her the way Ethan did. Ellie’s life as a police dog is difficult, but also rewarding in its own way. Over the course of her life, Ellie faces danger, different handlers, natural disasters, and injuries. She also has a loving home for many years, and is proud of the work that she does to help people. Ellie once again lives a long and fulfilling life before she is taken to the veterinarian for the final time.

The dog is honestly surprised to find himself a puppy for the fourth time, this time as a black Labrador. His puppyhood is not happy, and I was fairly stressed for several chapters. The dog is determined to find his purpose this time around, and fate lends a hand when he is abandoned in an area that it turns out he recognizes. Without going into any spoilers, the dog (eventually named Buddy, the same as my dog!) finds himself determined not just to improve his own life, but to fully change the lives of the humans around him as well. Buddy is a miracle dog, with each life building on the ones before it. The memories from one incarnation often come back to serve him in the subsequent life. He is intelligent, loyal, and loving, with an endless capacity for optimism and courage. He is everything we hold up as to why canines are man’s best friend.

My dog, Buddy (adopted from the pound in Dec. 2010)

My dog, Buddy (adopted from the pound in Dec. 2010)

Cameron’s novel is well-written, exciting, and a pleasure to read. The action traverses the ranges from the everyday humdrum to the nail-biting extremes. It’s impossible not to love the dog narrating the novel, and my affection for the fictional dog only made my all-abiding love of my own dog all the stronger. I started wondering what my Buddy is thinking, why he reacts the way he does in any given situation, and even how he views my daily habits.

BuddyI highly encourage people to read this novel, especially dog owners. I think that A Dog’s Purpose is easily accessible to all readers, but the depth of meaning and understanding will be much greater for dog people, as will be the emotional impact of the stories. We have very special relationships with our dogs, and the novel reflects that. It both offers a potential insight into the thought processes of a dog, as well as encourages humans to be better, more respectful companions to their canines. The ending, while bittersweet, encapsulates everything that a dog owner already knows deep down: the purpose dogs play in our lives, and our purpose in theirs.

Much love, and Happy Reading!

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Review: The Blind Assassin

I really enjoy Margaret Atwood’s writing. She has a really elegant style, evocative and emotional without being flowery. Atwood doesn’t sugar-coat the way she sees the world, even as she fictionalizes it in her novels. She tends to refuse the neatly-packaged happy endings that many readers have come to expect. Her books are believable, though sometimes it nearly makes you sick to your stomach to believe in them. The Blind Assassin is one of those novels that leads you, so gradually, to the unavoidable truth that you can’t refuse it; you want to push away and deny the conclusions you are left with, even as your more practical brain reminds you that you’re just a reader, the book is just fiction.

But “just fiction” has great power in Atwood’s hands, as she has shown over the decades. The Blind Assassin is narrated by Iris, an octogenarian that is seeking to set down the truest version of her (and her family’s) life that she is capable of writing. Be warned: this is a serious tome, 521 pages of family dirt, from the boring to the scandalous. Her personal history is interspersed with newspaper clippings from major events throughout her life, spanning from before the Great Depression up through current times. Autobiographical chapters are alternated with chapters from a novel called The Blind Assassin, which newspaper clippings tell us was written by Laura Chase, Iris’s younger sister. The novel begins, however, with Iris receiving word of Laura’s suicide, though her husband’s power and money ensure that the papers report it as an accident.

Iris tells her story in small bursts, mostly linearly, though she often refers to things that will happen in the future of her narrative without explaining them. Eventually, when she does come to that incident, the event explains many of the odd little moments that readers likely noticed in her story that Iris had glossed over. It is not a happy life, overall. Iris and Laura grew up in Port Ticonderoga, Canada, isolated by their family’s money and importance in the town. Their mother passes away when the girls are young, so much of their upbringing is left to their housekeeper, Reenie, and a succession of ineffectual tutors. Their father is a war veteran and an alcoholic. It is no secret that he wanted sons, and was disappointed that he ended up with two daughters instead. Iris is matter-of-fact about these aspects of her childhood. She neither asks for nor expects pity; the reaction of whoever finds and reads her account of her life is not the issue she is concerned with. Iris only wants someone, even if it’s only one person, to know the truth of her life and the choices she made along the way.

Atwood does an impeccable job of weaving major world events into the novel. The Depression, along with World Wars One and Two, do not simply occur in the background of Iris’s story. We see the very real impact of these eras on the Chase family, Iris, and Laura, as well as all those around them. It’s not the world history, however, that captivated me while reading this novel. It’s Iris. She is the heart of this novel, flawed and unhappy in many ways but still beating on. It’s fascinating to watch the strands of this novel come together, to see the differences in how Iris remembers an event versus the way the newspapers at the time reported on it. On top of this, the reader inevitably begins looking for parallels between The Blind Assassin and the life history Iris describes. The two major revelations of the book are not entirely unexpected: I suspected both plot points well before Iris confirmed them. Atwood drops many hints, though many more clues can also be seen in retrospect. The twists (though they aren’t twists, really — they’re just the hidden driving force behind the novel) are linked, though Iris is responsible for one and Laura for the other. Laura’s secret is the one  that basically did me in. I correctly guessed it about a hundred pages before Iris confirmed it, but that did not lesson the emotional blow.

Atwood paints her characters beautifully, to the point that the awful things that come to pass don’t seem out of keeping with what we as readers know about them. Iris and Laura are both tragic figures in their own way, and the respective villains they battle are horrific without being caricatures. Iris and Laura’s sister-in-law Winifred in particular is dreadfully familiar: the vast majority of women know a woman like her, a petty tyrant that hides her cruelty behind designer clothes and superficial friendships. Iris and Laura themselves are also familiar, and anyone with siblings can empathize with their complicated relationship. It’s not hard to imagine knowing them or someone like them. Many people can also relate to the ever-present notion in the novel of “family business,” of secrets kept and lies told in the name of keeping up appearances.

As I mentioned, Atwood does not give readers fairy-tale endings, nor anything resembling closure. I am used to this from her other novels (including three of my favorites: The Handmaids’ Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood). The open-ended nature of this novel didn’t bother me. What has me unhappy, however, is the bleakness of The Blind Assassin. There is the sense that the sacrifices made and the battles fought were all for nothing. That there might have been small victories, but they will be rendered useless by later actions. Iris herself feels this to a certain extent, though she does not dwell on it. Instead, she prefers to hope that her own story will set right some of the awful wrongs that have been committed over time. As a reader, though, I couldn’t shake the feeling of melancholy that settled over me after finishing this novel. I am still as big an Atwood fan as ever, but I don’t know that I will come back to this book in the future. It was well written and an excellent read, but the futility of the ending is hard to deal with. I think it would be for any reader that got emotionally engaged with this novel.

If you’re an Atwood aficionado, you’ll probably like this book for her style and storytelling. If you’re coming to Atwood for the first time, I might suggest one of her other works, perhaps of the speculative fiction variety. At least with those, you can console yourself with the knowledge that — while not impossible — those events have not yet come to pass. The Blind Assassin‘s storyline is all to easy to conceive as having happened before, with the potential to happen again.

It’s hard to sign off with my usual cheery salutation after finishing so weighty a novel, but nonetheless: happy reading!

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Review: Deadlocked

For a long time, I thought of books by Charlaine Harris as a sort of guilty pleasure. I was worried my fellow English majors in college would think I was above the frivolity of modern vampire stories. (Of course, the mass Twilight obsession also made me feel like I should shove my adoration of this particular series to the back of the proverbial closet.) I would like to say this, though: The Southern Vampire Mysteries, a.k.a. the Sookie Stackhouse novels, are not Twilight. I respect the mythology that Harris built on and uses, and the topics and issues she tackles. There are vampires, were-animals, fairies, and other magical creatures, and they all pretty much adhere to the rules you’d expect them to. Vampires drink human blood and burn in the sun. Werewolves have a pack order that proves ruthless. Fairies, elves, and demons come in all forms, with varying degrees of darkness or light inside of them. Ditto on witches. The books are decidedly adult; there is violence, drugs, sex, and other serious themes. Sookie, the heroine, is an independent adult woman — likeable, relateable, and strong, flaws and all. She is telepathic, due to being part fairy. Her relationships are partnerships, in which — while there are most certainly problems — she holds her own. I like the characters here. I like the mysteries in each book, and the overarching plot lines that have tied the series together. Overall, though, I like these books because they’re fun.

Enough justifying and explaining! On to the review! (Note: no spoilers for this book, but I will be mentioning things that might be spoilers if you haven’t read books #1-11 in the series.)

Deadlocked is book number 12 in The Southern Vampire Mysteries series. I liked it significantly better than book number 11, Dead Reckoning.  In Dead Reckoning, I felt that the first part of the novel dragged, and then, just when things got exciting, the novel ended. Pacing is not a problem at all in Deadlocked. Harris begins the book with regular problems that Sookie and her mortal friends face: a difficult pregnancy, a possibly lying boyfriend, workplace dynamics. These issues, while not unimportant, are put on the back burner for Sookie relatively quickly when a dead body turns up in the front yard of her vampire boyfriend, Eric. This murder proves to be the central mystery of the novel, with dizzying possibilities for not only who their killer might be, but also what their motive could have been.

Sookie and her vampire friends Eric, Bill, and Pam, along with others, have extra reason to watch their backs: they killed Victor, who worked for the vampire king Felipe. It just so happens that Felipe and his entourage are at Eric’s house when the murder takes place, trying to ascertain guilt for the disappearance of Victor. Of course, the issue is also complicated by the mortals, fae, and weres involved in the plot. Were-animals (or “shifters”) and vampires are known by the general public, but fae are not. Of course, all the magical creatures know about each other, despite the secrets kept from mortals.

On top of the tangled web of relationships surrounding the dead girl, Sookie is forced to face the unraveling relationship between her and Eric. Eric has been signed into a contract that would wed him to a beautiful, ambitious, and lethal vampire queen. Though the vampires have their own strict rules and ethics, the events and feelings surrounding the marriage contract are murky, and Sookie feels that Eric should be able to extricate himself from the situation if he truly loves her and values their relationship. Likewise, Eric is looking to Sookie to prove her love by using her own brand of magic to free him. Being at odds with Eric doesn’t help Sookie’s complicated relationship with other important men in her life, Bill (vampire, former boyfriend) and Sam (shifter, boss/business partner, friend). Sam has his own relationship and its host of issues to worry about, including the fact that his girlfriend dislikes Sookie to a truly alarming degree.

I’m pretty firmly staying away from saying much about the plot, because this really is a quick, fun read and I think you should experience it for yourself without any bits being given away. For perspective, I started this novel on Monday and finished it on Tuesday after work. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down. Harris writes great characters and sharp dialogue, all in her wonderful realm of magic realism. She tackles social issues such as religion, sexism, racism and bigotry, all without getting preachy or downtrodden. Like I said, Harris writes fun books, but they’re still books with something to say. These vampire/werewolf/fairy/magic novels are fluffier than, say, Anne Rice, but they’ve still got a bite. (Hardy har har — I had to do at least one pun!)

Happy reading!

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