Book Review: Doggirl

Brande, Robin. Doggirl. Ryer Publishing, 2011.

Riley Case has always been an expert with dogs–it’s people she doesn’t understand. But when the chance comes to use her talents as a dog trainer to help her high school drama department compete in a national contest, Riley has to set aside her shyness and fears, and finally let the world see what she can do. It’s THE DOG WHISPERER meets GLEE as Riley and her dogs help put on a show no one will forget.

When Riley sees an announcement advertising the need for a dog trainer, she knows that she is not just the perfect girl for the job, but the only girl for the job. She’s so sure of it that she rips the notice off the bulletin board. She wants to be a professional animal trainer on Hollywood movie sets, and she has been practicing with her dog Fig for years. It turns out the drama department is entering a nationwide contest called the Thirteen Day Theater Thrash, which entails writing a play and putting it all together, from scenery to costumes to props, and performing it to be filmed in one take… in thirteen days. And Danny, the director, thinks adding a trained dog to the cast will push his team over the top into the winning spot. After Fig impresses the team with several tricks, Riley stuns them by telling Danny she has two more dogs, and that Jack and Heidi can do tricks too.

Danny decides to put the dogs in every scene, thus Riley is swept up in a frantic new schedule of rehearsals every free hour of the day, helping Beverly with the costumes, and letting Nate the camera guy film her training her dogs for his behind-the-scenes documentary of the whole Theater Thrash experience. Riley usually prefers to fade into the background, but she can’t pass up this opportunity to add some real experience to her resume. Plus it will be great practice for the dogs.

Riley left her old school in Pennsylvania due to something very bad that happened. Riley reveals this gradually, as if she is waiting until she can trust the reader. I love that! Riley is the same way with people, reluctant to trust after what happened in middle school. She questions her new friends, not even sure if they are indeed her friends until she finally gets the courage to ask, and wonders if they call her Doggirl with affection or because they are making fun of her.

The cast of characters in this book are amazingly realistic. Each one reminded me of kids I went to high school with in some way, and the dogs also had very distinctive personalities. Riley is uncertain how to maneuver in the human world, and often starts a chapter talking about dog behavior, and then relating that in some way to the people. I learned a lot about dogs, but it’s more important because it shows Riley trying to understand people better in the only way she knows how.

Doggirl is a complex story because Riley starts off very reserved, and the reader gets to watch her evolve as she opens up and lets people in, getting hurt and hurting others in the process. There is always a risk when you let people in, and the reader is compelled to root for Riley, despite her insisting that after Theater Thrash she will again disappear into the background. I kept reading because I loved the plot, but I was equally curious as to whether Riley would ever learn to trust Beverly and Nate and the others.

Without giving too much away, I do want to say a note about the ending. There is a moment at the end of a really good book when things are drawing to a conclusion, and you don’t want it to end but you have to know what happens, and your hopes are very high. You loved the rest of the book, but the ending can make or break it. Mentally, you are almost begging the author to give you that sign that this main character isn’t doomed. Even if you’re concerned about her right up to the penultimate sentence, the final sentence has to give you that sigh of relief that you have nothing to worry about after the story ends. She’s gonna be okay. And for Riley, the last action of the book gave me that “she’s gonna be okay” feeling.

I promised Robin Brande gushing, so in case I haven’t fulfilled my promise, let me just say right now… Gush, gush, gush! I love this book to pieces. I really do. I want to start reading it all over again just so I don’t have to say goodbye to the  characters. I know this whole post is a lot more summary than review, but it only goes to show how much I enjoyed the book – I want you to know so much about it that you can’t help but read it for yourself. I was excited since I first heard about this book, since I read Robin’s book Fat Cat in the Fall and thoroughly enjoyed that one too. (Review to come shortly.)

Disclosure: As a librarian, I requested this book from the author through her website and received a free e-book version. If I hadn’t gotten it free I would have gladly paid for it anyway.