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“Barkus”

By Patricia MacLachlan, illustrated by Marc Boutavant

c. 2017, Chronicle Kids

$14.99, $20.99 Canada; 56 pages

Remember when your best friend stepped into your life? Was it this year or last when she approached you on the playground? Did you see her in the neighborhood, or at somebody’s birthday party? Or maybe it happened like it did for Nicky: in “Barkus” by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrated by Marc Boutavant, her BFF walked in on a leash.

Uncle Everton was Nicky’s favorite uncle. He was always full of surprises so when he told her that he had a present for her, Nicky knew it would be something good.

It was – and it was something big, too. Her surprise was a huge, brown, furry, swishy-tailed dog named Barkus. Uncle Everton said Barkus was the “smartest dog in the whole world.” Barkus could sit and whirl and shake hands. He hardly barked, and he never bit anybody. Nicky loved Barkus immediately.

Barkus loved Nicky, too, but he was a bit of “a sneak.” One day, he followed her to school and, because he was smart enough to sit quietly and help with lessons, Mrs. Gregolian said he could stay.

More: The Bookworm: The Beatles and the gadfly

On another day, Uncle Everton sent a package. When Nicky opened it, she got another big surprise: the package held a present for Barkus because it was his birthday. So what can you give a smart dog who has everything? How about lots of snow to play in, a “no school” day, and a few toys? How about a birthday party, with lots of noise?

Having a big furry dog was great, but Nicky still grew bored sometimes. Even Barkus needed “something new and exciting” so when he came home one day, carrying a tiny object carefully in his mouth, Nicky knew he’d found something that would make their summer even better. It would mean less room in their tent, when camping. It would mean different kinds of snacks at snack-time. It would mean a whole new part to the Nicky-and-Barkus story because Barkus found a baby. A small, furry baby, but not the kind of baby you might think a big, furry dog would love …

You’ve told your child that she must read at least one book this summer. She can’t slide through vacation without books, period. So why not make that one book enjoyable, by giving her “Barkus” to read?

For animal-loving boys and girls who are just starting to tackle chapter books, author Patricia MacLachlan and illustrator Marc Boutavant present them with a slight challenge that kids can really sink their teeth into. The title character is a big, goofy mutt with brains, and adventures that are mischievous but not malicious. Nicky is Barkus’ perfect companion and the narrator of this tale. She’s responsible, happy, kind, eager for fun, and the sort of kid anyone would want for a friend.

This book contains no drama. There’s no edginess to it, and no lessons to be learned here. It’s pure entertainment, and 7-to-10-year-olds will love it for that – and if that’s what you want for your child this summer, “Barkus” is a step up.

“Somebody to Love: The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury”

By Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne

c. 2016, Weldon Owen

$24.95, $33.95 Canada; 440 pages

Last year was a particularly rough one. Every time you open a newspaper or turned on the computer or TV, it seemed as though someone – a Hollywood actor, singer, or stage performer you liked – had died. Even now, whether it was six months, a year or, as in “Somebody to Love” by Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne, more than a decade, you still miss them.

Farrokh Bulsara was born in India in the fall of 1946 to Parsee followers of the prophet Zoroaster, facts he tried to hide as a young man. For reasons he didn’t belabor, Bulsara claimed that he was “Persian” and seldom discussed his relatively privileged childhood. He even changed his name to Freddie.

Known as a shy boy and famously ashamed of his prominent front teeth, Freddie was nevertheless so in love with music that he helped form his first band in 1958, in part to “impress the girls.” As soon as he was old enough, he moved to London, where he became a hanger-on for two popular local bands, one of which eventually hired him as a lead singer. Freddie, say the authors, loved to put on a show.

At around this time, he also fell deeply in love with a woman, though he “was struggling to come to terms with whether he was straight, gay or bisexual.” Indeed, despite social mores and legalities of the time, he was also undoubtedly sleeping with men, but he “had no intention of coming out … even if in truth he had felt able to.”

By mid-1970, Freddie changed his surname, while his latest band changed its name to Queen; both began attracting attention in the U.K. Meanwhile, Mercury fell in love with someone whom he considered his “common-law wife.” She, too, seemed to have no idea that he slept with men, which might not have mattered much anyhow: Mercury had led a “hedonistic” life for years and that was just Freddie being Freddie.

But then, possibly some time in 1982, he was infected with the HIV virus …

At nearly 400 pages, sans notes, “Somebody to Love” is one of those books that might have been enhanced by being shortened by a third. Authors Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne did an exhaustive job with the biography of Queen front man, Freddie Mercury, but that’s not all: this is also a surprising biography of the AIDS epidemic, beginning more than a century ago. That’s often imagined, since exact circumstances are unknown but, while it makes for a fascinating tale, it stretches too slowly, gets too breathy, and loses its punch. Even Mercury’s career seemed a mess here; readers get names and dates in a bounce-around narrative on a story-loop.

There’s merit in this book – early sections on the beginning of AIDS and the beginning and end of Mercury’s life are all stellar – but much of the middle part is pretty ho-hum. In the end, for fans, “Somebody to Love” may still be worth a try. Others may find this book to be a rough one.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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