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Dogsbody

Dogsbody - Diana Wynne Jones The librarians of my childhood failed me. I'm sorry, there isn't a nice way to say it. They let me check out armloads of Goosebumps books week after week, when just a few shelves away, there were a dozen magical, wonderful books by Diana Wynne Jones just aching to be discovered and devoured by a dork like me, who would clearly have loved them. At least I was lucky enough to randomly stumble across Daniel Pinkwater on my own. Of course, I can't judge the librarians too harshly. The late '80s were a different time -- J.K. Rowling had yet to light up the dollar signs in publisher's eyes, and fantasy books by authors like DWJ went in and out of print haphazardly. In fact it is because of Harry Potter that I found her at all -- fueled by children's wizard lust, many unheralded '80s fantasy books came back into print in the late '90s so bookstores could offer alternate reading selections (no, really, there is a very interesting blog post about it from a buyer at Barnes & Noble here).I can still resent them though! I have said this before when reviewing DWJ, but many of her books, while perfectly enjoyable for adults, are clearly meant to appeal the weirdly absorbent brains of children, who do not try to cram in a few pages of reading during their lunch breaks while letting their minds wander to unpaid bills and unfinished assignments. Kids, real readers at least, hyper-focus -- they read like the rest of the world has ceased to exist. This is much, much harder to do as an adult, and does a disservice to DWJ, who focuses on character over detailed plotting and relies on her readers to fill in the gaps. Invariably, I finish one of her books scratching my head a bit, but feeling like it isn't the book, it's me. Does this make any sense, or am I idealizing youthful reading again? I don't think I am; it so explains why the epic books of my youth seem so small in the harsh light of adulthood.Dogsbody! This book is hard to find these days, and has been out of print for at least 10 years. I can kind of see why. For one thing, the story is very strange, which makes it hard to classify, which makes it hard to sell, probably -- you see, there are these supernatural beings who live in/control the stars and planets. One of them, the Dog Star Sirius, is accused of a crime and sentenced to live out his punishment in the earthbound body of a dog. He has a chance at redemption, but if he doesn't complete his mission in time, he'll die when his dog body dies. There are a few other luminaries of dark purpose who wouldn't mind seeing that happen. Just a warning: there is a puppy drowning scene. Right? You can see why this one is more of a hard sell post-Potter than "Oh yeah, Chrestomanci, these books also have a Wizard School." Also, there are elements that read strangely today, to children in the U.S. at least -- Sirius, in dog form, is taken care of by a sweet little girl named Kathy. Kathy has to live with her clueless uncle and his horrid wife because her father, a member of the IRA, is in jail. Kathy's Aunt Duffie and cousin treat her like dirt and she is constantly picked on by neighborhood kids... because she's Irish. I honestly have no idea how much of this still goes on in the U.K., but if I am any indication, American schoolchildren are taught next to nothing about Ireland's tortured political history, nor would many of them think to bother hating on a classmate for being Irish (I mean, as long as you're white, right?).Then there's the fact that few publishers have managed to produce cover art that isn't off-putting or unspeakably childish or obtuse. Which, I mean... yeah. It's a high bar. But it's a wonderful book. The creativity of the premise extends throughout, and I loved the scenes in which Sirius, in dog form, carries on snarky conversations with the sun, who gets no respect from the other luminaries, and the Earth, which is decidedly miffed about all these stars getting up in its business. There's the gentle sadness in Kathy's story, and lonely kids (which is most kids at one time or another) will find real truth in her struggles. Most of all, this is a book about animals that can talk to one another, but it is never cutesy. Sirius has to work to overcome his innate dog nature, which is (let's face it), dumbness and excitability (I love any scene where he talks to another dog, because all they want to do is keep saying "HI!"). If you are correct in your preference for cats, this book also has excellent and dignified cats. Anyone who realizes that cats aren't the villains gets a gold star.Diana Wynne Jones died last week. Even though I came to her books late in life, it was a very sad author death for me. It also made me stop and really consider the ending of this book, which reminds us that present pain need not be permanent, you'll find friends and family where you make them, and it's always worth holding on to hope.