Saturday, December 12, 2015

"Fifteen Dogs"

By Andre Alexis
ISBN No. 978-1-55245-305-6

How's this for a pitch? Two gods give 15 dogs staying overnight in a veterinary clinic "human consciousness" to see if they'll be as happy or miserable as their owners.
With its clever ground rules for a parallel reality of thinking, talking dogs (reminiscent of the rules of the afterlife in "The Lovely Bones") and the conundrum of mastery over "lesser" creatures (reminiscent of "A.I. Artificial Intelligence"), "Fifteen Dogs" is the latest in a very long line of stories about what happens when dogs whisper back.
The 1975 cult film "A Boy and his Dog" starred Don Johnson as a slacker Mad Max wandering through a dystopian desert with his talking dog. The 1989 movie "Baxter" was narrated by a French-speaking bull terrier. In the excellent book "The Dogs of Babel", a distraught husband tries to find out why his wife died in a freak accident by getting the only witness - a dog - to talk.
Like all of those aforementioned titles "Fifteen Dogs" is a compelling crossbreed of everything from the deepest philosophy about what constitutes a happy life to the most basic emotions around the death of a pet.
When the writing's good it's really good. A blind dog sleeping outside was "easily seen by all the creatures that walked, flew or crept past him on their way through the gardens." And when the writing's not so good (as it is in the first 44 pages) it's almost Disney-ish in its apostrophe-free depiction of plucky canine teamwork. Even worse, the gods make their bet over a few brewskis in a Toronto bar. (I know Toronto sees itself as the cultural and business centre of Canada, but now it's the mythological and philosophical centre of the whole universe??)
Yet "Fifteen Dogs" is still a very clever and rewarding read. At only 171 pages, the spareness of the writing (considering the complexities of the plot) is a miracle of sorts. When a storyteller is this assured and confident he encourages us to trust him as well. Besides, it's nice to think that our lives are determined as much by choice and circumstance as they are by imperfect gods of fate making it all up between games of Foosball.
"The first [god] spins the thread of a life," Alexis explains. "The second draws out the length of thread each being will have. The third cuts the thread and ends that being's time on earth." Whew... And when the gods toy with the fates of the dogs and their owners ("Atrapos cut two of the three lives that were wound together, then added years to the one that was left by way of balance.") make sure you have some tissues nearby. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

"Song for a Summer Night"

By Robert Heidbreder & Qin Leng
ISBN No. 978-1-55498-493-0

"Day's left the stage. Night's in the wings. The summer air sings what a summer night brings." In an age of books like "Go the F*** to Sleep" suggesting that already sleep-deprived parents let their children stay up waaaay past their curfews must be fighting words. But they are such lovely words. Those opening lines from this charming, beautifully illustrated lullaby of a book announce a contrarian kind of bedtime story about the promise, not of a new morning, but of the start of a day's end. When the children in this story break curfew to party with the cute creatures of the night (shy skunks, sparkling fireflies) they're appreciating the magic of a moonlit summer night many decades before they'll go gently into another, more sombre, good night. It's touching stuff.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

"The World Without Us"

By Robin Stevenson
ISBN No. 978-1-4598-0680-1

It takes a certain kind of courage to publish a youth novel about suicide when even the mainstream media is still trying to figure out how to report on it without nudging depressed millennials in that direction. It takes even more courage (balls? gall?) to give your book the same title as another one about what the world would look if the virus of humanity were suddenly gone for good. Stevenson's book is all those things (ballsy, galling, torn from the headlines) - just not to everyone at the same time. Yes, the titling of an end chapter "The Point of it All" suggests a certain resolution to a tragic phenomenon. It isn't. Instead, its characters are the human beings behind the headlines. They never feel like stock characters or ciphers and their motivations - ultimately - are always about doing the right thing and making the world a better place for themselves and their loved ones, now and long after they're gone. That's a heady ambition in contemporary adult fiction. That Stevenson achieves it in youth fiction is a miracle. It's a smart, daring read.