A big trip is coming up, and before departure I’m racing through some last minute e-books from the NYPL (see below). Can’t send them back un-read! I’m also pulling out a nearly abandoned manuscript to revive/revise for a writing retreat in September — a chance to meet with two editors to discuss “next steps”. More on that in the coming months. For now, just know that the manuscript needs some major and minor tweaks, but I already know what those are. What I don’t know, yet, is how those tweaks will reverberate through the rest of the story.
As for those NYPL books:
Dogsbody, Diana Wynne Jones (1975, NYPL e-book). DWJ’s novel is utterly charming. Sirius is a violent-tempered star-being (yes, that star — the brightest one in the night sky, part of the Canis Major asterism), sent to earth as punishment for bad behavior. His one hope is to find a zoi (a powerful object that can wipe out entire solar systems) that has gone missing. Only problem is, Sirius lands on earth as a new-born puppy.
The story is narrated from Sirius’s point of view, and we watch him learn about his new world from the viewpoint of a rapidly growing dog, whose outsized feet and uncontrollable tail are constantly getting him into trouble. He gets help from a couple of astral beings, but also finds some other astral beings have arrived to destroy him and take the zoi for themselves. And, of course, humans come into his life as well, teaching him about love and loyalty and charity. Wonderful.
The Descendants, Kaui Hart Hemmings (2007, NYPL e-book). While reading this, I couldn’t help hearing George Clooney’s voice as the narrator, even though I’ve never seen the film based on this book. Set in modern-day Hawaii, this is the story of a wealthy family (Matthew King, his daughters, his in-laws) waiting for his wife, Joanie, to die. (She’s in a coma, soon to be taken off life-support.)
Hemmings weaves humor into this sad story, as Matthew debates the various moral choices he has to make over the course of just a few days: who should he sell the family land to? can he be a better father to his daughters? does Joanie’s lover (whom Matthew has just learned about) have a right to know that she’s about to die? does he still love his wife, even after learning she’s been unfaithful? who are these girls/women who are his daughters?
Flying Lessons and Other Stories, Ellen Oh (ed.) (NYPL e-book). Ellen Oh, the co-founder of We Need Diverse Books, gathered stories from 10 well-known children’s authors, including Kwame Alexander, Meg Medina, Matt de la Peña, Jacqueline Woodson, Grace Lin, Tim Federle, and Walter Dean Myers. The stories feature a diverse set of male and female protagonists — African American, Asian (both ancient Chinese and modern Indian American), Latinx, Choctaw, gay, straight, disabled.
Each of the stories is wonderful, and in no way does it seem as though the stories were created to feature diversity. Instead, these are stories about real people, dealing with with life-shattering or life-affirming events. In the Foreword, Christopher Myers quotes his father on “hospitality in writing”: Said his father, “No matter what harrowing or amazing tale you will experience in this book, know you are welcome here. Let me share what I have, and we will enjoy the sharing.”
It’s easy to see how this book will appeal to all readers. 2 of the stories are about sports, several feature families struggling to succeed, some are set in schools, another in a library, another around a campfire. Some are fish-out-of-water stories (the only black person in a small New Hampshire town), others are land creatures jumping into deep water (a wheel chair basketball team plays their first away game). Some are even about falling in love.
As a collection, this works well in meeting the goal of “hospitality in writing”. All readers are welcome, all readers will find a comfortable home here.
The School for Good and Evil, Soman Chainani (2013), A World Without Princes (2014), The Last Ever After (2015) (NYPL e-books). One of Soman Chainani’s stories is in the Flying Lessons book — about a shy teen traveling with his much older and extremely flamboyant aunt (think Auntie Mame). I saw that he’d written these books and lucky for me, they were available. I’ve only read the first, but I’m moving on to the second after I finish writing this post.
This is a clever school-setting series, but with this twist: every 4 years, 2 children are taken from the town of Gavaldon to attend the School for Good and Evil, which trains fairytale characters to create their own stories for children called “readers”. Previous graduates include Jack the Giant Killer, the Giant, Snow White, Maleficent, the Little Mermaid and the Little Match Girl (slight slip-up there, because these last two had no happy-ever-after. I blame the School for Good and Evil, who probably hired bad PR people; I don’t blame Chainani). Side note: the less successful students have futures as beasts, even plants, featured in fairytales. This is what happens when one doesn’t study! Fail this test and you’ll be Jack’s next beanstalk.
Sophie and Agatha are this year’s victims, but something goes wrong. Sophie, who trained all her life to attend the School for Good, ends up at the School for Evil; Agatha, not interested in leaving Gavaldon at all, ends up at the School for Good. Agatha discovers that none of the other students are from towns like hers — they’ve all come from fairytale families. She and Sophie are the only “readers” on the campus.
Students, wolves, fairies, teachers, plus the mysterious shadow responsible for the quadrennial kidnappings, all conspiring to hide a direful prophecy — a volcanic combo promising a rousing finish, and Chainani doesn’t disappoint. It’s great to watch Agatha and Sophie figure out what’s happening, and Chainani doesn’t stint on the gruesome details — moats filled with sludge and uniforms that are cloyingly sweet (School for Good). Put it this way: there’s a lot of bubblegum pink, and a lot of filthy sludge.