Wolven, by Di Toft (Chicken House, middle grade, 336 pages)
Nat and his mother have come to a small English village to live with his grandparents in a house overlooked by a forbidden woods, home to a secret government research agency. People have disappeared in those woods, and many locals know secrets they aren't telling...
Soon after Nat's arrival, his grandpa offers to get him a puppy. But the dog being offered by a local farmer isn't the cute little thing either of them quite had in mind. It's the huge white thing with a head too large for its body, crusty, patchy fur, and a powerful stench. But when Nat looks into the dog's amber eyes, something strange happens--it's almost like the dog is inside his mind, showing him the death by drowning that might lie ahead if Nat won't take him, and "Woody" becomes Nat's dog.
But this isn't your average "boy and beloved canine companion" story, and Woody isn't your average malodorous mongrel. He is the last of the Wolven, an ancient race of anti-werewolves (as in wolves who can take human form). When he's human, he's just a kid who doesn't know much about how the real world works...but he does know that he's being hunted by the power-hungry evil scientist controlling the government research center. Twisted were-wolfian experiments are being conducted up in the woods--experiments that have had deadly consequences. And Woody is destined to be the next lab rat (more accurately, lab Wolven), if they can catch him.
This book came out last year in the UK, and has just recently been released here in the US (with its UK English intact, as far as I could tell--yay!). It was displayed prominently at the last Scholastic Book fair I visited--and I think it is just the sort of book that the fourth and fifth grade browsers would enjoy. The larger threat of the were-wolves and mad scientists is balanced by Nat's more personal problems of absent father and local bully; he's not a special Chosen One, but an ordinary kid in extraordinary circumstances. I especially liked Toft's decision to allow adults (including a revolver-packing, overweight, more than middle-aged woman) to act heroically and help save the day. Left to themselves, Nat and Woody, although certainly brave, would have been were-wolf toast.
The story is scary in places, but not overwhelmingly so. The disturbing experiments are, in fact, disturbing, but they aren't dwelt upon in too much detail; the main bad werewolf character is a nasty piece of work, but his nastiness is, I think, exaggerated enough so that it doesn't disturb deeply. And the danger is leavened nicely with humor.
Cat lovers might have trouble getting past the initial completely and utterly unappealing description of Woody; once this has been managed, it's a fun adventure. Although it comes to a satisfying conclusion, there is more to come--the sequel, Wolven: The Twilight Circus, is already out in the UK (thanks to Geranium Cat for bringing that to my attention).
Other reviews at Manga Maniac Cafe and Mr. Ripley's Enchanted Books.