Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Dog Detective: review of SCENTS AND SENSIBILITY, by Spencer Quinn

Spencer Quinn

$25; our price $20

In this latest installment in the Chet and Bernie Mystery series “Chet the Jet” supplies us with more fast-moving intrigue as he himself struggles to understand the humans around him, especially his favorite human of all, Bernie Little, owner of the Little Detective Agency.

Returning home from their last case (see Paw and Order), Bernie and Chet are dismayed to find their safe missing, and Chet's nose confusingly picks up the scent of his best pal Iggy who lives with the Parsons across the street. What could old man Parsons have to do with this apparent theft? Bernie and Chet find out soon enough when an illegally transplanted saguaro leads to murder.

When I introduce those deprived folks who have not yet had the pleasure of reading any of the books in this delightful series, I explain the concept the way Spencer Quinn himself does: Chet the dog serves as narrator of the mysteries, and never once seems any less doglike. He is easily distracted by edibles, often finds that his tail has a mind of its own, and relies on his superior nose to help his pal Bernie do what they do best. Although a K-9 School failure (“I’d somehow flunked the leaping test on my very last day. Was a cat involved?”), Chet is Bernie’s right hand, uh, dog, and loves Bernie with an unwavering devotion.

Chet is also somewhat philosophical in his observance of human foibles and fumbles. For instance in trying to understand the meaning of skin color, he muses:

The truth is there’s not much color variety when it comes to humans, not compared to how we roll in the nation within. Take me, for example: mostly black but with one white ear, which I know on account of how many people mention it in my presence. Ever seen a human colored like me? The point is humans go on and on about skin colors when it isn’t even one of their strengths. And they have so many strengths: cars, tennis balls, bacon, and that’s just without even thinking, which is how my mind works best.

Quinn masterfully moves the story along by use of dialogue, which Chet overhears, and generally misinterprets, and with Chet’s own observations. His senses are keen, but deductive powers are, as he puts it, Bernie’s terrain. He is unable to count past two, and his knowledge of colors, especially red, is, he says, not to be trusted. But what a nose, far superior to Bernie’s, even though he admires his friend’s bountiful feature:

"One thing for sure," Bernie said. "I smell a rat."
All at once Bernie had my full attention. He had never smelled a rat before, not in any back alley, Dumpster, or landfill we’d ever investigated, almost all of them as ratty as you could wish for. Once we’d even worked our way into a sewer system. Rats out the yingyang down there, my friends. Invisible, yes, on account of the darkness, but they’d smelled the place up in a way that couldn’t be missed. But that was the point: Bernie had missed it. That was when I’d first been certain that his nose—really good-sized in human terms—was mostly for decoration. And now he was smelling a rat, when—trust me—there was no rat to smell?”

Humor aside, the action is intense. Bad guys abound and Chet is pushed almost to the brink, as is Bernie, leaving us with a cliffhanger at the end of the book. Now we shall have to wait another year for the next installment. Unlike Chet, this human finds waiting terribly difficult. With no bone to chew or tail to admire, I’m left to wonder and worry about what awaits the Little Detective Agency.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Runaway: review of LET THE TORNADO COME, by Rita Zoey Chin

2014, paperback

$15.99, our price $12.79

A drawback to amateur memoirs is the writer’s inability to tell a story, no matter how extraordinary it might be. How often, in my years in publishing, I’d hear about someone’s “fascinating” life. And yet they were incapable of relaying it with any finesse or style, thus turning a fascinating life into a dull one.

Not so with this incredible memoir, which I would place on a par with Strayed’s WILD and MacDonald’s H IS FOR HAWK. 

Rita Zoey Chin suffered at the hands of her parents and later with predatory adults in ways we in this country prefer to ignore. Instead, we incarcerate, and she suffered that as well. Her only hope was to run. So from the age of eleven on Rita ran away, sleeping in stairwells or empty cars, struggling to find food in any way possible, begging for help from friends and strangers alike. Each episode would end with her back home, being beaten again, traumatized emotionally and physically.
All of this is survivable, and she does survive, and yet at age thirty-five, happily married and living the life she had always dreamed of, she is suddenly hammered by panic attacks, which become so debilitating she’s unable to leave the beautiful house she and her husband just moved into. The runaway is hamstrung, and that immobility frightens her to death.

Chin refers to her childhood self as a runaway with a mixture of derision and pride. As a young girl, she hears the sound of hoofbeats in her mind, and longs for the wild, galloping freedom they represent. But when she meets the horse who will become her salvation in many ways, he is himself troubled by a possibly rough past, and certainly by some untreated physical ailments. Claret requires a presence of mind on Rita’s part, with precludes running away or freezing in panic. When he spooks at falling ice in the barn and tosses her to the dirt, he returns to her and puts his nose down on her helmet. His breath reassures her and she climbs on him again—a major accomplishment for this runaway rider and for her fearful horse. It’s clear they need each other, and that the bond between horse and woman is stronger than the trauma they both have faced: “… I stood beside him in the paddock and looked up at the pine trees. He seemed to be looking, too, both of us standing so still. Sometimes a breeze would flutter his mane, and I’d think, You wild, wild thing.”

As with Helen MacDonald, Rita Zoey Chin is a poet, and her sense of lyricism and rhythm is prominent throughout the book. But she’s as much a storyteller, compelling us to read, even as we cringe at the monsters she faced. We know she made it out alive and well, and we know the mutual devotion she shares with Claret will beat off the panic they both confront. How such broken lives are mended is what propels the reader. This fascinating life makes for a fascinating read.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

First Dog: review of THE DOG MASTER, by W. Bruce Cameron

The author of the celebrated A DOG’S JOURNEY and A DOG’S PURPOSE, among other fine books, W. Bruce Cameron here offers a novel set in the Paleolithic era, about 30,000 years ago, when climate change was threatening modern man with imminent extinction. Starvation forced human tribes to fight each other as well as wild predators for the rapidly diminishing or migrating prey. Humans needed every angle to survive, from weaponry to cunning. Biologists and archeologists have demonstrated that the most important element of our survival and evolution was domestication of plants and animals, and perhaps above all, wolves. Domestication and artificial selection not only saved our species from doom, but have altered our own biology substantially.
THE DOG MASTER unfolds with mankind divided into tribes, including one called Wolfen, who worships wolves, paying tribute by offering them food, and mimicking their ways. Wolves were their gods, not their enemies. Spirituality and art were just beginning to surface in this era. The Wolfen represent early devotees.
Another tribe, the Kindred, is organized by sex: the men as hunters, the women as gatherers and in charge of marriages and any domestic issues. One woman heads the council, and thereby holds much political clout. Through her brutal pursuit of power, the council leader banishes a crippled child of her most hated adversary, claiming his disability is proof of a curse upon the tribe that has led to the decreased hunting. Mal, the banished son, eventually forms the bond with a female wolf and her pups that will change the course of his and his peoples’ lives.
Cameron’s characters in both of these tribes become intertwined, with a wolf at the center. He weaves the narrative in such an expert and enthralling pattern that one can easily forget the more fantastic elements: for instance, the communication among the people and tribes. In fact, he states as much in his very entertaining Afterword:
“With no manuscripts to study, I could only speculate on what a conversation might be like between two members of the Kindred…. For all I know they would say ‘LOL’ to each other…. I am not alone in having to guess: as I read what experts had to say about this particular era, I was struck by how current theories attract consensus and controversy, and how some dogma, accepted in the past, has fallen into disfavor.”
What experts do seem to agree on is that at some point one wolf was thoroughly domesticated by one human, and that act created an evolutionary leap. (For some really fascinating reading about evolutionary development, read DOMESTICATED by Richard C. Francis.) The wolf’s superior ability to hunt and track prey was of vital importance to human survival. But in the story, it is more than simple basic survival that brings the two species together. There grows a trust, an empathy, and a strong emotional attachment between the Kindred man Mal and his “Dog.”
I’m not generally a fan of “cave” fiction, although I did love REINDEER MOON by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. And yet I found myself utterly enthralled and invested in each character. Once again, W. Bruce Cameron has written a brilliant novel that will certainly inspire more thought and conversation about the wolf’s role in our evolution and survival, and about animal/human codependency. But it is also just a damn good read!