Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams - Not As Good As Watership Down

Pros: An interesting and unique story
Cons: Difficult dialect to wade through; Adam's ramblings

The Bottom Line: If you want to read Richard Adams, go with Watership Down. This book bad, but not as good.

I first read Watership Down when I was in 7th grade. I thoroughly enjoyed it. When the library gave it away for free, I took it. I'd say with the exception of maybe 5 years (maybe a few more), I've read it every year.

I eventually discovered The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams, but as much as I was curious about it, I was reluctant to read it. The description and the cover kept me away. I mean, heck, the poor little terrier dog on the front has his little head all bandaged up from being a lab experiment. I loved Watership Down, but I was worried that A.) The Plague Dogs wouldn't live up to its counterpart and B.) it was going to be a sad make-me-want-to-cry story.

Turns out I was right on both counts.

Snitter, the little terrier, and Rowf, a big setter-like dog, are both experimentees at Animal Research, Scientific and Experimental (A.R.S.E. for short - and you can't tell me Adams didn't do that on purpose). Rowf is systematically drowned and revived, and has a terrible fear of the water. Snitter's had his brain operated on in order to confuse the objective and subjective mind. But both manage to escape one night and head out into the wild - the rough world of England's harsh crags and hardscrabble ground. They're forced to kill sheep and chickens to live, but even then without the help of the tod (a fox) they wouldn't make it. Meanwhile, rumors spiral out of control about them throughout the town and England - the dogs might be carrying the plague. Now not just the whitecoats are out to get them - it seems that the whole world just wants them dead.

I don't have any doubts that Adams was pushing some social commentary into this story. There's a lot of talk about men and how they're screwing up the world, a lot of comments are directed at animal research, a few at the government, and so forth. And while I don't mind social commentary, sometimes it's just an eensy bit heavy-handed and can get tiresome - especially if your reader already agrees with you.

While Watership Down had plenty of dialogue, action, adventure, and so forth, this book had a lot less of...all that. The tod's speech was very difficult to wade through, even if Adams does give American readers a little glossary in the front of words we'd never guess in a million years. I'm willing to bet that even some English readers had trouble with it though. The tod wasn't the only one with tough dialect - several of the humans that popped up who lived in the region also spoke that way.

The other downside was Adams's tendency to ramble and go off on tangents where I literally sat there thinking, "What the heck does this have to do with the story?" I'd start flipping ahead pages to see where he stopped and the actual story began again. This happened at least three times that I can remember because they went on for a decent sized chunk, though I know there were a few others that were paragraph or two sized. It was weird and I honestly don't know why those were there or what the point was. One of those moments where you wonder what the heck his editor was doing at that moment. Or his agent (if Adams had one) for that matter.

Another thing Adams does is sort of inject himself into the story in a weird way. Overall the book is done in third person in the view of Snitter, Rowf, or one of the many humans that pops up. Other times it's almost more omniscient. Still other times (particularly when he rambles), Adams includes "I" and speaks directly to the reader with "you" phrases. It jars you out of the story (if his tangent hasn't already) and is generally just odd and random.

The best parts about this book were Snitter and Rowf's story and the illustrations about their travels. I was never quite sure where they were going from and to - there were a lot, a lot of place names - but the illustrations were good all the same because it really helped me to visualize the kind of terrain these poor dogs were trekking over.

Snitter and Rowf each had their own distinct personalities, and I frequently found myself sad over their predicaments - particularly little Snitter because he used to have a master and was then sold (long story) to the lab guys. So he used to be happy and he still imagined he saw his master from time to time and it was just...sad. I don't often cry at books. I think in all the books I've ever read I've cried a grand total of three times. While I never actually cried at this book, I did get a bit teary from time to time just out of sheer empathy. I think I was probably more affected now because I actually own a little dog instead of a big one so somehow that translated over as well.

It does have a happy ending at least, so there's no worry there. The ending felt just a bit abrupt, but because of how it ended, I'm willing to let it go and be on its way. It's a good story, but with some cleaning up, could have been even better. It's worth a shot if you want something totally different from what you're used to. But I do have to recommend Watership Down over this one.


*I eventually learned that the original edition of the book did not end happily and an addendum was added to make a new ending. Good thing too, otherwise I would have been severely ticked off and felt my time had been wasted. I know life isn't fair and all that, but I read books to get away from real life, so I want happy endings dang it! (also the reason I'm not so sure I want to see the film adaptation anymore)

Originally posted on

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg - Good Times With Goof-Ups

Pros: A fun interactive book with plenty of silliness
Cons: Needs a companion book!

The Bottom Line: Get kids' imaginations and creative minds going with this little nugget of joy.

Usually I’m not impressed with pop-up books. Sure, they look nifty, and I can appreciate the effort that’s gone into making them (I sure can’t do it!), but the more elaborate they are, the more prone to damage they can be. You look through them, admire them, and then move on. Other books similar to pop-ups, like lift-the-flap books, are more fun because kids are encouraged to pull things, push things, lift flaps, twist circles, and more. Interactive books are more fun.

Beautiful Oops is by Barney Saltzberg, the same author of Peekaboo Kisses. It’s a different sort of interactive pop-up type book. Instead of teaching kids about animals or telling stories, it inspires them to use their imaginations even when goof-ups happen. It’s kind of like the children’s version of Wreck This Journal.

Inside, there are flaps to lift and little things to peek at. The idea in this book is that little moments of “Oops!” can still be turned into something nifty. A torn piece of paper. Spilled paint. A crumpled paper ball. Even a coffee stain from a mug can become something else. All of them are transformed into something else – elephants, alligators, and more. These goof-ups can be turned into works of art – or just some silly scribbles. Kids are encouraged to use their imaginations and see beyond the oops itself. Sort of like how we spot shapes in clouds. The text in the book points all these things out.

I think my favorite thing about this book is the color. It’s a bright, colorful book with all sorts of mixes and mediums. It’s a small party in a book, and my other favorite part is the stretch out spiral that you pull out of the book and then put your eye to in order to look down. It’s a really nifty effect, and there’s a bit of text down in the center to read. There are plenty of colors and patterns that dance their way down the spiral as well.

The book is rather small in size, but that’s good because for young children that makes it easier to handle as opposed to some of the massive pop-ups on the shelves. I think it’s compact size may also help it to last a little bit longer in kids’ hands (but if they’re keen on pulling out the spiral or tearing off the flaps, then it really doesn’t matter what it’s size is).

The only way I think this could be even better is if there were some kind of companion book to go with it. While that’s not really necessary (what with the current number of activity books out there), I think it would be fun for kids to have an empty book where they were encouraged to let some kind of oops happen and then make something of it. As it stands right now, the best you could do is snap up something by Keri Smith.

Still, it’s a fun little book and definitely worth taking a look at the next time you’re in the bookstore and thinking of buying something cute for your child.


Originally posted on

Notes from the playlist: "Upright Piano" by Without Directive

Caraval by Stephanie Garber

Whoops! I completely forgot to mention this. Last month I reviewed Stephanie Garber's amazing book Caraval for the web blog I curre...