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Books in brief

> NONFICTION

The Puppy Diaries: Raising A Dog Named Scout by Jill Abramson; Times Books/Henry Holt, 243 pages, ($22)

New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson lives up to her resume as one dogged journalist. You can't keep the reporting out of her work -- first laid out in a New York Times blog series any more than you could keep the naughty-puppy moments out of her puppy, Scout.

Abramson's husband had his heart set on a purebred British standard golden retriever. With 3 million to 4 million dogs put to death every year in the country, Abramson "felt guilty and with local animal rescue groups actively looking for new homes for goldens who were given up or mistreated how could we justify getting a new puppy?" Some of Abramson's friends "reacted as if we were buying a Hummer." It seems, she writes with fine understatement, "that almost every aspect of dog ownership has fierce, partisan battles lurking just below the surface."

"Diaries" is Abramson's quest to bring up Scout properly and positively. The book's most useful sections are the diaristic, moment-by-moment setbacks and exhilarations, and Abramson's push-back against the omniscient dog-rearing manuals, so full of certainty about the author's expert method. She interviews animal behaviorist Temple Grandin and takes Scout to meet dog trainer Cesar Millan. "In the end," Abramson writes, "the truth seemed to be that no single training approach consistently worked for us."

-- Los Angeles Times

> FICTION

The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell; G.P. Putnam's Sons, 272 pages ($25.95).

"The Train of Small Mercies" is a compelling first novel that weaves the fictionalized stories of several into a drama of cumulative force. The stories unfold on a single, memorable day in American life: June 8, 1968, as the body of U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy is carried by train from New York City to Washington for burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Hundreds of thousands lined the route to pay homage to the presidential candidate assassinated two days earlier.

Rowell, an editor at Washington Post magazine, re-creates the day through vivid portraits of a range of characters, whose mostly humdrum and ordinary lives turn on events as they set out to watch the train pass. Each of their stories, told in staggered vignettes that begin that morning, unfold in modest, commonplace settings and revolve around familiar hopes, fears, schemes and family dynamics.

Rowell has said he was inspired by photos taken by Paul Fusco, a Look magazine photographer aboard the train.

-- Associated Press

> CHILDREN'S

Wildwood by Colin Meloy; illustrations by Carson Ellis; Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins, 541 pages ($17.99). Ages 9 and up.

One might hesitate to declare a new book a classic, but the lead singer/songwriter for the Decemberists has crafted a wondrous fantasy adventure in the vein of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis in this fine first novel of a series. Adding to the magic are the elaborate pen and ink illustrations by Meloy's wife, Carson Ellis, who illustrated the "The Mysterious Benedict Society" books.

Set in a wilderness outside Portland, Ore., normally impenetrable to "outsiders," this epic fairy tale adventure offers up a richly imagined alternate reality populated by ragtag bandits, heroic avians, traitorous crows, coyote soldiers, a hapless governor regent, an evil governess, a brave postman and a noble owl.

Our hero, 12-year-old Prue McKeel, leads a rather ordinary life, often baby-sitting her baby brother while her hippy parents (her mother is knitting something unidentifiable from "an amoeba of yarn") are otherwise engaged. Then one afternoon, a murder of crows carries the baby away, into the Impassible Wilderness, and Prue decides she must be the one to find him. Her nerdy classmate Curtis insists on coming along. Both Prue and Curtis are swept up into what turns out to be a battle for the survival of the wilderness itself.

Much is reminiscent of the first Narnia book (particularly the unhappy lad in thrall to the queen), but there is no Christian allegory at work here; rather there is a universal message of humanity, creatures and all wild things and their interdependence on one another, and the fragile cords of goodwill and tolerance that allow a community to survive.

The novel is beautifully paced, deliciously suspenseful and cleverly written to work as a self-contained story, while leaving open the door to more adventures down the road. A movie is in the works. -- Jean Westmoore