June 07, 2007


A Dog Called Grk. By Joshua Doder. Delacorte Press. $14.99.

The Friskative Dog. By Susan Straight. Knopf. $14.99.

Marley: A Dog Like No Other. By John Grogan. Collins. $16.99.

Bad Dog, Marley! By John Grogan. Illustrated by Richard Cowdrey. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      There’s nothing quite like a central canine character to bring some warmth and fuzziness to a story – but not all tales involving dogs go the warm-and-fuzzy route. A Dog Called Grk veers, sometimes uneasily, among cuteness, tongue-in-cheek adventure and serious mystery, as a friendly stray dog that follows a boy home turns out to have connections with a kidnapping and coup in a mythical Eastern European country. “Grk,” Joshua Doder helpfully explains, is one of those untranslatable words, requiring at least three English words to convey its meaning – which is some combination of “brave, generous and foolish, all at the same time.” And when Timothy Malt decides to return Grk to his owners, Tim is pretty grk himself. It’s a little hard to get a handle on the book’s tone, which keeps changing. Sometimes it feels the need to be explanatory: “An APC led the way. (An APC is an Armored Personnel Carrier; it is halfway between a car and a tank.)” Or “Stanislavia is a landlocked country. This means it has no borders touching the sea.” At other times, the book is amusing; at others, semi-serious; at others, it seems quite serious indeed: “He spoke slowly, enjoying his power over them. ‘They attacked a guard. Their behavior left me no choice. I killed them both. …I shall kill your sister, just like I killed your mother and your father.’” The book does have a happy-enough ending and the promise of a sequel, and its combination of frenetic pacing with occasional humor can be appealing, but readers may be made uneasy by its frequent changes of approach.

      The tone of The Friskative Dog doesn’t change: it’s always serious. Here too is a dog with a special name, but this one is a stuffed dog. When Sharron was little, she used to make up words, such as “ambulamp” and “streetcreeper,” and when her dad gave her a stuffed puppy, she bounced it around and pronounced it “friskative.” But now Sharron is nine, and her father drove his delivery truck away and has not come home for almost a year, and she is being bullied at school, and only the Friskative Dog makes her feel centered and comfortable. So she takes it to school in her backpack – even though she is not supposed to – and that only makes things worse. Susan Straight’s story is a fairly conventional one of a troubled family and the meanness of preteens, but using the dog as a touchstone gives it more warmth than many other books of a similar type possess.

      There’s almost nothing but warmth in John Grogan’s stories of his yellow Labrador retriever, Marley. Grogan’s Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog was a bestseller last year, and now Grogan has parleyed that success into two new books directed at kids. Although children play at best a minor role in Marley: A Dog Like No Other, dog-loving families will enjoy this adaptation for middle-schoolers, which comes complete with plenty of amusing anecdotes, the inevitable heart-tugging at the end of Marley’s life, and the optimistic conclusion in which a new puppy seems to contain Marley’s reborn spirit. Marley: A Dog Like No Other is strictly for kids and parents who enjoy tales of canine misbehavior in what appears to be an endlessly supportive, heartwarming environment. Bad Dog, Marley, a fictional story for ages 3-8, is lighter fare. Thanks to Richard Cowdrey’s illustrations – based on the real-life Marley’s appearance – this picture book about a Lab whose constant misbehavior is forgiven when he does a big good deed for a family is a winner. Some illustrations are really funny, such as the one of Marley covered with feathers. The text is age-appropriate, and the story is simple enough to convince young children that they want a dog just like Marley. Hmm. Maybe parents should think twice before buying this book.

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