To Night Owl From Dogfish, by Holly Goldberg Sloan & Meg Wolitzer

From: Bett Devlin

To: Avery Bloom

Subject: you don’t know me

but I’m writing to you anyway. […] I found your address online. You have a strange name. I never met anyone called Avery. But that made it easier to find you. So thank you for having that name.

If you are the kind of reader to be immediately seduced by a narrator’s voice; the kind of reader who thrives on dialogue and has little time for descriptions of how the weather looked as Character A walked to the station as they contemplated Character B’s look over breakfast that morning; if you love to read someone’s email over their shoulder on the train: epistolary novels will probably be up your street. They are all voice, and they are voice in full flight, tangling, clashing and dancing with another voice (or two, or three –in this book at least). The voices of To Night Owl From Dogfish zing at one another across the miles: Bett in California (“If I could be any animal I’dchoose a dogfish. I love dogs + I love to swim. A dogfish is a SHARK. Noteveryone knows this”) and Avery in New York City (“I guess if I could be any animal it would be a night owl. I do a lot of reading at night when I’m supposed to be asleep but that’s not the worst thing in the world”).

They have been brought together by an emergency. Bett and Avery are twelve-year-olds who each live with their single Dads, each in their own idyllic world, private world. But their Dads are no longer single. As Bett explains to Avery, having broken into her father’s email, “Your dad + my dad met 3 months ago in Chicago at a building expo [and] THEY ARE NOW A COUPLE.” To add insult to injury, the girls find they are being sent to the same ‘Summer Programme for Inquisitive Teens‘N’ Tweens’ to encourage them to form a sisterly bond.

Mutually furious at the whole idea, the two girls plot to disrupt things and keep the two men apart: “How do two people even have a relationship when they live 3,000 miles apart? Doesn’t that mean it’s all in their heads? How do we get it out of their heads?” And of course, whilst collaborating on this project, they must be scrupulously careful not to become friends themselves.

A novel in email sounds slow and pensive, but they can be action movies in real time. Every revelation, every rebuke, every bright idea, every gap between one reply and another is like the electrical energy built up by a whirling, complex friction generator: electromagnetic energy, in fact, ever drawing you back for just one more page. Then there are the conversations we don’t see, or the secrets the girls don’t have access to, and Wolitzer and Goldberg Sloan take full advantage of the form to hide increasingly big twists in plain sight.

I picked up my copy on a whim,one Saturday in Oxford. I had finished it by Sunday evening. Not only that, I was desperate to read it aloud to my partner – till I was halfway through, thatis. By then, I knew I mustn’t spoil his experience of reading it for himself. I don’t want to spoil it for you either. (And now that I’m writing these shorter reviews, I don’t have room to talk about what it means to me to see a middle-gradenovel with this storyline, and handled with such exuberance and charm.) This book is a sheer delight. Read it.

The Last Zoo, by Sam Gayton

For too long, reviews on this blog have been, well, too long: self-indulgent, off-putting screeds that do little to actually promote the book they’re describing. With a good book there’s always a lot to talk about, but the irony is, the more I tell you now, the fewer surprises you get later. Sam Gayton’s latest middle-grade novel, The Last Zoo, is definitely a reading experience all the better for exploring, disorientatedly, with minimal spoilers.

               From the first page, you’re at sea in all sorts of ways: aboard a zoo, miles out from the mainland, on our world but after a great cataclysm. Let’s just say they call ours the i-era, a time of people taking photos of their lunch, who were complacent about the powerful technology they used every day. But this disaster isn’t the only thing separating our world from that of the zoo. After the cataclysm came a huge and wonderfully bizarre solution, and with it, a turning from reason toward imagination and all the possibilities of impossibility.

               Have you ever wondered what unicorn poo smells like?

               The enclosure we’re on in the first, dream-filled chapter of this surreal tale – and it is one of several, each with their own impossible occupants – is overseen by a young keeper called Pia. She’s a self-proclaimed klutz, whose friends and fellow keepers call ‘Catastro-P’, and from the very start, something’s gone wrong on her watch. Pia is responsible – she may even be to blame – and the more she tries to put things right, the wronger they get.

               Pia is an endlessly endearing character: I found myself picturing her as a Jamie Hewlett cartoon character, as she worries and wonders her way through increasingly unpredictable events. Each chapter yields a new puzzle piece and a new set of questions, leaving the reader to find connections between huge sci-fi and fantasy concepts. It shares some of the feel of Philip Reeve’s Railhead, and also some of the spirit of Pokemon and Minecraft (which gets a name-check, though these post-internet kids don’t get the reference).

               I don’t mean that as a slight, either: it shares those franchises’ themes of collaboration, world-building and the joy of creativity. Typical of Gayton’s linguistic conjuring is the name given to this impossible breed of creatures: a voilá, the voilá, some voilá (as in One of Our Voilá is Missing!). It captures the thrill of invention (literary, scientific, societal) as a conjuring trick that dazzles, but also – as the novel goes on to explore – has the potential to confuse our understanding of the world.

               A couple of character moments didn’t quite work for me, but that’s in part due to the frenetic pace and wild inventiveness. This is a novel of ideas, and not just noisy, apocalyptic, winged ideas either. There are all sorts of beautiful, disquieting ideas here: the whisper you can’t distinguish from your own internal monologue, the beings which can only be apprehended by the emotions they inspire, the question of humanity as ‘problem’ and how it can be dealt with. If you know someone who’s going to love the His Dark Materials when they’re ready for it, The Last Zoo would be a great place to take them first.

The Last Zoo is published by Anderson Press. You can order it from Waterstones here, or go and ask that nice person at the independent bookshop round the corner. This post is illustrated with the work of Leonora Carrington.