Book Review: Strays: A Novel, Jennifer Caloyeras (2015)

June 5th, 2015 12:08 pm by Kelly Garbato

Team Roman

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program.)

I wondered if the dogs were thinking the same thing about us – that we were all a bunch of strays.

[E]tched on the inside of the collar, where no one else could see, were the words I am loved.

Sixteen-year-old Iris Moody is what you might call a “troubled” kid. After her mother was killed by a drunk driver, her father beat a hasty retreat from Los Angeles, packing them up and relocating to a smaller, unfamiliar place in Santa Cruz – all without consulting Iris. Two years on and she still hasn’t quite come to grips with her mother’s death and her new surroundings. Dad is unhelpful at best, consumed as he is with his new job at a juice company; he seems completely oblivious to Iris’s feelings, including her mounting anger management issues.

When Iris is arrested (in a true “well that escalated quickly” moment) for making death threats and assaulting her English teacher during final exams, she’s sentenced to six weeks of community service and mandatory therapy – along with summer school, of course. Her court-appointed lawyer thinks he’s doing Iris a favor when he scores her a coveted volunteer spot, working with rescue dogs at Ruff Rehabilitation. The only problem is, Iris inherited her mother’s fear of dogs.

Iris is assigned Roman, a tripod pit bull who was used, abused, and ultimately discarded by a dog fighting ring. Though she thinks she’s the last person to teach Roman about trust and bravery, instructor Kevin – himself a graduate of the program – assures Iris that she and Roman have plenty to learn from one another. But just as Iris is warming up to her new charge, Roman’s status in the program is called into question. Can Iris step up to the plate – for Roman’s sake as well as her own?

A sweet but admittedly sentimental story, Strays feels like an abbreviated, YA version of last year’s The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances by Ellen Cooney. Both feature young women who need rescue – and find it by rescuing others; a strong animal welfare bent, including information about various forms of animal abuse (in Strays, this centers mainly on dog fighting); and questionable training practices (in this case, training a special needs dog in an uncontrolled, public area; what happened with Kite Boy comes as no surprise) that I’m *almost* willing to forgive in favor of the greater message.

Strays boasts an interesting and engaging story concept, but for me, that’s what it ultimately felt like: a concept. Both the plot and characters could use a little more fleshing out. I had trouble connecting with the characters, Iris especially – which is funny, because I’ve struggled with anger management issues myself. I thought I might see a little of my younger self in her, but not so much. Early Iris is a piece of work; and, while I understand that Caloyeras has to make her somewhat unlikeable so that there exists room for growth and redemption, Iris officially crossed the line for me when she fantasized about kicking Roman in his three remaining legs – for no reason other than that he’s disabled. Different.

Just, no.

I also felt like the resolution with Iris’s dad was way too pat. If a parent screwed me like that, I’d be moving in with Talbot and talking emancipation. Or at least threatening it.

My gut instinct is to give Strays three stars, but Caloyeras nabbed me in the end, when Iris connected the dogs on her leash to the food on her plate and decided to go vegetarian. The scene with the pleather collar was pretty nifty too.

Instead I’ll go with 3.5 stars, rounded down to 3 where necessary. All in all, it’s not a bad way to spend a summer afternoon.

(It’s also entirely possible that this wasn’t the right book for me, right at this moment. The day after I started it, I got some bad news about my eldest dog Peedee, who’s been fighting lung cancer for the past fourteen months. Subsequently, I read the bulk of the book with no small amount of trepidation at what might come next. And while heavily distracted. So, grain of salt.)

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Aside from general juvenile delinquency (Iris is in trouble for assaulting a teacher; Talbot totaled her car while driving drunk), none that I recall.

Animal-friendly elements: Yes. After she’s sentenced to six weeks of community service at Ruff Rehabilitation, Iris overcomes her fear of dogs and helps save the life of Roman, a tripod pit bull who was abused and exploited in an animal fighting ring for many years. Happily, she expands her circle of compassion to include other nonhumans as well; by story’s end, she realizes that she stopped eating meat since working with the dogs, and pledges to go vegetarian. There’s even a neat scene in which she buys Roman a graduation gift – a collar etched with the words “I am loved” – and she notes with some surprise that it’s made of pleather.


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