The Art of Racing in the Rain — Review by Chris

People who live with animals, or "pets," have a special relationship with them — and probably anthropomorphize them more than those who do not have intimate relationships with animals. I myself wonder just how much credit I give my cats that they don't deserve.

Then I see Khan sitting by the door when I return from my run so he doesn't miss me (or, really, his soft food that he gets every morning). I see Cisco tread carefully on the bed to see how I am feeling when I am sick or sad. I watch them, listen to them and know that while they may not have my same thought process or frame of reference, something is going on in their brains that allows them to analyze the situation.

Garth Stein lets Enzo show us the inner workings of devoted dog's brain in The Art of Racing in the Rain. The title does not refer to what I had expected, which that was a nice surprise.

When we first meet Enzo, the narrator, he is at the end of his long life. He gives us clues as to what has happened in his decade of life, little tidbits of who we might meet (or not), and a glimpse into his interests. (Yes, Enzo's interests. You'd be amazed.)

Through the course of the novel, Enzo unfolds for us the story of his life, which is the story of his family, the human who adopted him and the people who come along in his life. We meet Denny Swift, a race car driver who adopts the puppy Enzo from a farm in Washington. We meet Eve, who marries Denny. We are present at the birth of Denny and Eve's daughter, Zoë.

Stein captures with clarity and affection the relationship people have with their animals. Each family member has a different relationship with Enzo and each tell him what they will tell no one else. If you can't tell your dog your greatest fears, hopes, dreams and truths, you shouldn't have a dog — and in this story, it is clear that the Swift family should have a dog.

Enzo meets plenty of people who probably shouldn't have dogs, and many who should. He does not judge all people, but he does have opinions about those he knows. We meet all of the people who are in Denny's life, including his in-laws (whom Enzo calls the Twins), Denny's friends and co-workers, and the Swifts' extended family.

There are many lovely, light moments, when a dog loves being a dog. (Denny is a race car driver. Need I say more?) There are dark and terrible moments, when loss eclipses love, when people — and animals — react the only way they know how. Through it all, Enzo remains a reliable narrator, honest and observant. And he is observant in ways humans aren't, which provides an excellent dimension to the story. He offers the good and the bad, which is only fair, despite — or perhaps because of — his stalwart loyalty to his master and his family. When he is not privy to information or experiences firsthand, he reveals what he finds out from whom and how. (Readers may find themselves more judicious when speaking in front of others after Enzo reveals how keenly some around them may listen.)

I dread most "animal stories" with the animal as a narrator because they are terrible. The animals often act like or are treated like humans in the story, a betrayal of both the animal and humans. Animals are not humans, and Enzo (and Stein) never make that blunder of confusion. Enzo'a observations are true to character.

My friend Kathy warned me to have tissues ready at the end. I kept them nearby from the beginning, which for me was a good thing. It is not maudlin, but lovely and true, and good for all readers — even dog lovers of a tender heart who avoid books like these.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book for everyone, no matter their relationship with dogs.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — Review by Chris

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a well-written novel with interesting characters and a compelling story. It started off like gangbusters with an intriguing first few pages describing an old man receiving a mysterious gift in the mail, continued ripe with suspense and intrigue, and ended with heartbreak. I should really have liked it.

However, I didn't like it, and I wouldn't recommend it to another reader.

First and foremost, it was very lurid. I stopped watching the television shows CSI and Law & Order because every crime seemed to involve a young, attractive woman who was raped and/or murdered in gross, horrifying ways. The excruciating details of these crimes laid bare in 42 minutes made me ill.

Such was the case with this book. Every section title page included a statistic regarding violence against women, so we had an idea that more would be revealed. Two main female characters were brutalized, and as the story unfolded, so did the immensity and scope of their brutalization. To their credit, neither accepted the mantle of "victim," and each found a way to make herself a "survivor."

The number of women who were not survivors, however, is staggering. The range and the luridness of these crimes literally disgusted me. Readers have to plow through this information to get to the end, and it is a terrible path to have to take. I didn't need to read such tragic stories.

Author Steig Larrson, may he rest in peace, touts Lisbeth as quite the hero. I suppose she is — but at such a cost that I wish he hadn't created her. Maybe she isn't a victim, and never will be, but what she experienced still broke my heart.

The rest of the book deals with finance, corporate greed and corruption, romance, family intrigue, mystery, history, journalistic integrity, Swedish law and the love of Apple products. Oh, and computer hacking. And possibly autism. Are all of these important? Sure, but I couldn't get past the awfulness of the crimes to which the women in this book were subjected.

It also seemed interminable: the book was much like the Energizer bunny and I just so wanted someone to find a way to thwart it. Just when I thought the violence toward women couldn't get any worse, it did. (By the way, men were brutalized, too, and it was quite terrible as well.)

I recently discovered the Swedish title originally was Män som hatar kvinnor (which translates to Men who hate women), and it made the book more intriguing — until I got to the horrors, then I understood exactly what the title meant. It didn't make the revelations in the book any less awful, or more intriguing.

Stieg Larrson wrote two sequels to this book, the second of which, The Girl Who Played With Fire, was published this summer. I won't read either of them.


Dangerous Reading

I have a habit of reading as many books as there are rooms in which to read. It’s a lofty idea, and not a bad one for someone who likes the challenge. I have two books going on upstairs — Shadow of the Wind and Good Omens — and a “mobile” book (currently The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) I take with me wherever I might wish to lounge.

This weekend I also read four PostSecret books, but those were living/dining room books, working books of sorts about which I was taking notes.

Do you know what this means? (Oh, besides Who the heck is Blumkvist and which Vanger are we talking about now? — though I suspect that would be a question even if it was the only book in my repertoire.)

What this means is that it will take me three or four times longer to finish a single book, and I will finish multiple books at once.

That’s not a big deal. Normally. Unless there’s a blog that benefits from book reviews. (And I do believe I have one of those.)

So, for your benefit and for my convenience, I may have to leave Daniel Sempere wondering what Fermín was doing with Nuria.

Adam might be on his own with Dog, the latter of whom has begun to enjoy rolling on his back in the sun, while nuclear power plants lose uranium.

I may instead have to see who might have killed Harriet and whether Kalle will get anything out of the Vangers despite their best efforts to stay at war with each other and remain cranky in the bitter winters they spend within sight of each other’s houses.

Or not. The Vangers may be on their own — though the recent discovery that the Swedish title originally was Män som hatar kvinnor (which translates to Men who hate women) may catapult that book to the front of the pack.

No matter which book wins the contest, they’re all good reads and I can’t wait to finish all of them (and write about at least a few of them).

What are you reading? How many books do you juggle at once?


Allusions, Anyone?

I just found one of the best books for book lovers: Literature Lover's Book of Lists.

I read fewer than two dozen pages before I had to take a break. The table of contents was enough alone to make me dizzy. It was that good.

So, from time to time I might just pull a gem or two out of the book to share with you, Gentle Reader. You might know some or all of them, but I appreciate you humoring me.

For example, do you know from whence many literary terms originated? "Big Brother" isn't just a television show, after all. While familiar, many of these terms have become such common usage that their original meanings often are obscure to later generations. I delighted in reading about them, and being reminded of their origins.

Beau geste is from the novel (and movie) of the same name. As you remember, the eldest Geste brother, Michael (also known as "Beau") dies heroically. Now, any grand gesture or sacrifice can be a beau geste. The phrase is French and means the same.

Brave new world is from Aldus Huxley's novel and referred, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, to a heartless, soulless society.

Perhaps less well-known is Brahmin, which is the name of the first of four castes (varnas) of Hinduism. Oliver Wendell Holmes and his influential companions of his close-knit Boston community. This group was influential, well-educated and politically powerful — and referred to as the Boston Brahmin.

Peyton Place, the novel by Grace Metalious, gives us the term for a community that shows a veneer of respectability with a seething underbelly of real problems.

Svengali was a creation of George DuMaurier. In his novel Trilby, the lead character was being groomed to be a singer by — and under the hypnotic spell of — the musician Svengali. Now, strong personalities who hold too much sway over their proteges are called by the name of this character.

I could go on, but I'm sure you have a few of your own favorites. (Ugly American? Noble savage? Man for all seasons? Shangri-la?) Share them!


Johannes Cabal the Necromancer — Review by Chris

Johannes Cabal isn't your typical necromancer, if such a thing exists. First of all, he's a little unconventional (and the opening chapter will give you a clue). Second, he doesn't give a damn about what Satan thinks, wants or expects. Third, he'll get his soul back at any cost — no matter what's thrown at him.

In the spirit of Christopher Moore, Jonathan L. Howard crafted a clever, funny and unique book about life, death and everything else in between, courtesy of Johannes Cabal the Necromancer.

In this debut novel, Cabal has taken a road less traveled. He's become a necromancer, not a typical career choice in England (or anywhere else on the planet). He's taken the additional step of trying to ensure his success by selling his soul to Satan to succeed at this endeavor.

Alas, he's learned that lacking a soul throws a necromancer's experiments off just enough to mess up the works. Like a stomping baker, everything Johannes attempts falls flat.

He isn't going to take this lying down. He makes a wager with the Big Guy (Down Under): he will bring Satan 100 souls in a year's time or he loses his soul. Forever. Again. In nasty ways.

Knowing Satan doesn't make a bet he can't win, Johannes takes the wager and finds himself saddled with a traveling carnival. In a word, "Eeeeew." If you were skeeved by human carnies, the folks on this train will keep you awake at night — but in a humorous way.

This book could have been dark and foreboding, brooding and wicked. Instead, it careens toward the dark, nicks just enough to make it interesting, then puts a different spin on the story.

Take Horst. He's Cabal's brother, but he's so much more. He's a vampire, but he's not without some morals. He knows his brother (better than one imagines) and has, as brothers are wont to do, seen his brother at his worst and best. Horst is brought on because (a) he will play along and (2) he knows what people want. And he does, to an extent — he can recognize a damned soul from a hundred paces, and he knows what attracts them. But does he play along, really? What does it take, and what would it cost?

Horst is not alone. Johannes is surrounded by an interesting collection of creatures who know their roles and their positions. They know their jobs and they perform them well. The characters Johannes meets along the way make the tale intriguing in surprising ways.

Can Johannes collect a hundred souls with a ragtag carnival inconceivable to the Prince of Darkness himself? Can he do it without losing any more of what makes him a man? Can he use his talent to gain his talent? Can anyone beat Satan at his own game?

With wit and surprises, laughs and truly incredible moments, Howard crafts a compelling and entertaining story. I was captured by the first scene and riveted before I reached the end of the first chapter. I cared: about Horst, Cabal, Bones, the Laytex Lady — even the criminally insane escapees. The story unfolded with grace and precision, and I enjoyed it greatly. The carnival was reminiscent of (but nowhere near as dark and evil as) Ray Bradbury's classic Something Wicked This Way Comes, whom Howard credits in the book's acknowledgements.

Rumor has it that there is a sequel planned. I'm glad, in part because I really need the end explained to me — and a second book is a lovely way to do it.

Pick up this book, and thank Emily at Borders for the recommendation. (I already did.)