Book Review of Scent of the Missing
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Book Review of: Scent of the Missing

Love & Partnership with a Search and Rescue Dog

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Review of Scent of the Missing, by Susannah Charleson (Hardcover, 2010)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

I've got mixed feelings about this book. It started off well enough, with the picture of that gorgeous blonde on the cover (Puzzle is a good-looking Golden Retriever). And the subject matter is noble. The author isn't an investigative journalist writing about someone else's experiences as the human half of a Search and Rescue (SAR) dog team. She is that half. But there are drawbacks that kept me from giving the book a five-star rating.

The drawbacks:

  • Several times in the book, I stumbled over awkward prose.
  • The organization of the text confused me several times. I found myself stopping and going back through previously read pages to get my bearings.
  • Related to the previous point, the book didn't seem to be driving us toward any particular goal. The author almost had what writers refer to as a "MacGuffin." This is something that Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, is noted for talking about. The MacGuffin drives the plot forward and helps establish the tension that keeps the reader reading. In this case, the MacGuffin could have been the SAR certification but that "plot" just wasn't developed.
  • There were abrupt transitions from one "scene" to another. The book even seemed to end abruptly.
  • Development of ideas seemed uneven. It's as if the book had been too long and someone randomly edited out parts. Things at the same level of importance should be developed to the same extent, but I didn't get that feeling while reading this book. It seems some trivial things were more developed than some important things.
  • A few (very few) of the anecdotes would have been best left out, as they detracted from the momentum of the book (which was weak in this area to begin with).

Some of the pluses:

  • She "gets" the language of the animals and tells us what they said. This enriches the book.
  • She also understands and can articulate the relationships between Puzzle and the other dogs (and cats) living in her home.
  • We see Puzzle as a real personality, with feelings and intelligence of her own. The author could have focused on her own work, with Puzzle as just a machine or accessory. Instead, she did a great job of reading Puzzle's reactions and telling us what those were. The subtitle rang true throughout the book.
  • The book was hugely informative. I had no idea just how much SAR teams sacrifice or that they are unpaid volunteers.
  • The author, who is a highly accomplished individual, gently drops in facts that help us get to know her better.
  • Most of the anecdotes are interesting. Some made my pulse quicken.
  • Some of the anecdotes are hilarious. Puzzle's upside down posture on the airplane could have gotten a casual mention and been "so what?" but the way Ms. Charleson told it had me laughing aloud.
  • Ms. Charleson described some things so vividly, I felt like I was there.

This book consists of 25 chapters and an epilogue, occupying 288 pages. The book covers the first two years of this amazing partnership.

Ms. Charleson has many talents and excels in many areas. She completed that rigorous SAR training, and, for example, she's a flight instructor who teaches advanced courses. But we can't all be great at everything. She's not a great writer. She is, however, a passable writer with something important to talk about. To me, that beats a great writer with nothing in particular to say.

I've read many dog-related books in my time. This was the first one I've seen on SAR, and it's told from a personal, almost intimate point of view. If you're looking for a flawlessly written work of non-fiction, this isn't it. But if you'd like an insider's view of those brave people and dogs who give so generously to help find missing adults and children, this is it. If you've seen SAR teams and wondered who these people and dogs are, or what it takes to do what they do, this book is for you.

My time spent reading this book was well spent. I think yours will be, too.




About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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