MAXI’S SECRETS (OR, WHAT YOU CAN LEARN FROM A DOG)

By Lynn Plourde

Penguin, 2016

265 pages, $16.99

ISBN 978-0-399-54567-2

Humorist Robert Benchley (1889-1945) once wrote: “A boy can learn a lot from a dog: obedience, loyalty and the importance of turning around three times before lying down.” But Timminy’s dog Maxi teaches much more than that.

“Maxi’s Secrets” is Winthrop author Lynn Plourde’s debut novel for middle-school readers (ages 12-14). Plourde is already a prolific and popular author and illustrator of more than 30 children’s books, and now she showcases her talent for storytelling with this funny and tender story of a boy and his dog.

Timminy is in the fifth grade, starting at a new middle school where his father is the assistant principal. A new school would be scary enough, but Timminy is also really short, the shortest kid in school, making him an easy target for teasing, pranks and bullying. To ease the family’s move to the new school district, his parents get him a puppy — a big, white, hairy Great Pyrenees dog named Maxi.

Maxi, however, is deaf, so Timminy must learn how to train, communicate and care for a loveable deaf dog, as well as handle the bullies at school. And then he meets his nextdoor neighbor, Abby, who is in the sixth grade and is blind. Friendships develop and are tested, as Timminy discovers that he, Maxi, Abby and several other kids all have challenges to overcome.

The story is not all hilarious middle-school hijinks and giggling potty humor. There is a very sad situation that tearfully touches all the kids and their parents with life lessons for everyone (keep a hanky nearby). Plourde cleverly includes 51 Maxi Secrets, like Number 11: “There’s nothing so bad in the world that dog kisses won’t make it better.”

ROMA AMOR: A NOVEL OF CALIGULA’S ROME

By Sherry Christie

Bexley House Books, 2016

482 pages, $22.99

ISBN 978-0-69259-632-6.

The ancient Roman empire produced famous scholars, historians, poets, engineers and soldiers. It also produced tyrants and dictators, men of high ambition and low morals, men like the treacherous Roman emperor Caligula (12 A.D.–41 A.D.).

“Roma Amor” is a sweeping historical drama by Jonesport author Sherry Christie, focusing on Roman intrigue in 37 A.D., the first year of Caligula’s reign as Caesar. Christie has written five nonfiction books, but this is her first novel.

This is an ambitious effort, the first book in a planned series featuring Marcus Carinna, a respected soldier, legionnaire officer and son of a Senator, as he tries to navigate the dangers of Roman politics, uphold his family’s honor and discover the real reason his brother, a confidante of Caligula, killed himself.

Marcus triumphantly returns to Rome after a military campaign against Germanic barbarians, bringing a beautiful barbarian princess as a hostage. Once home he learns his brother had been charged with treason and had committed suicide in disgrace.

Marcus and Caligula had once been friends, but now each is wary of the other — Marcus fears and hates the emperor for complicity in his brother’s death. Caligula fears assassination and Marcus’s influence with possible conspirators.

Caligula forces Marcus to spy on his friends and suspected conspirators, manipulating the young tribune in his twisted web of paranoia and debauchery. Murder, betrayal and scandal follow, complicated by a startling family secret and Marcus’s illegal love for the barbarian princess.

This is an epic story, too long by a hundred pages, but filled with historical accuracy and vivid portrayals of the brutality and duplicity of Roman life — its customs, laws, religion, cruel class structure and the sadism and sexual perversion of Caligula and his court toadies.

Bill Bushnell lives and writes in Harpswell.