The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani; HarperCollins, 488 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.
This marvelous fantasy reinvents the fairy tale and explores the mythic power of fairy tale images, heroism and gender roles, while offering marvelous entertainment at the same time. (The author is a screenwriter who wrote his thesis at Harvard on why evil women make irresistible fairy tale villains.) Best friends Sophie, blond and pretty, and Agatha, ugly daughter of an ugly witch, end up at the famous School for Good and Evil, where village children are trained to be fairy-tale heroes or villains. Both are shocked when Agatha ends up at the School for Good, studying Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication, and Sophie at the school for Evil, learning Death Curses and Uglification. As both struggle to find their rightful place, could it be that the Story Master is using them for his own purposes? This marvelous fantasy makes use of a school setting as J.K. Rowling did in Harry Potter – the rivalries, the allegiances, the misguided romances, brilliantly adding familiar fairy tale elements here and there (a glass coffin etc., dancing in burning iron shoes).
– Jean Westmoore
Until She Comes Home by Lori Roy; Dutton, 352 pages ($26.95)
Lori Roy mixes lyrical prose, a noir approach and gothic undertones for an urban story set in 1958 about a community pulled apart by racism, fear and image in her second novel. As she did in her 2011 Edgar-winning debut “Bent Road,” Roy delivers a timeless story that gives shape to those secrets and tragedies from which some people never recover.
Detroit’s Adler Avenue is the kind of neighborhood where a woman makes a roast beef dinner twice a month for the widower down the street; where a mentally challenged woman can wander uninvited into a family’s unlocked home. It’s also a place where domestic violence hides behind front doors; where couples grow apart because they refuse to communicate. And it is a place of fear – fear of the nearby, but unseen, apartment complex where black families live; fear of the broken glass that shows up nightly in the alleys behind the houses.
A black woman’s murder near the tool and die factory where each of their husbands work causes each woman on Adler Street to worry. Then, mentally challenged Elizabeth Symanski disappears when walking to her home after leaving the house of Grace Richardson. Everyone is sure that someone from that apartment complex is to blame. In addition to bringing out their racial bigotry, the jealousies and angst that have been simmering rise to the surface. As “Until She Comes Home” gracefully moves toward its emotional finale, the subtle storytelling that makes the novel such a rich experience also becomes a bit of a detriment. Two vital plot points are alluded to so subtly that they are easy to miss. Still, there is no mistaking the poignant ending.
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani; Riverhead Books (390 pages, $27.95)
The year is 1930, and the Great Depression is settling in. Thea Atwell, 15, has been sent away from her Florida home, her parents, her twin brother, her pony, and everything else she’s ever known, because of an unnamed scandal. Her destination is the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, a finishing school for the daughters of wealthy Southerners
As the story unwinds, the scandal unfurls; it involved a boy, and it ended in violence. Thea made poor choices then, and at Yonahlossee, she makes more of them.
Author Anton DiSclafani, who clearly knows her way around an equine, spins a highly readable narrative, an unconventional coming-of-age story.
DiSclafani displays a good feel for time, place and mores, although she falls into anachronism when the family decorates for Christmas the day after Thanksgiving. In the ‘30s, trees and trimmings still went up on Christmas Eve.
Most of the characters are little more than sketches. Thea is clearly delineated, but she’s not particularly sympathetic: When she does the right thing, it’s often for the wrong reason. Some scenes are sexually explicit, and one could see Thea going on to cut a seductive swath through the country club.
DiSclafani demonstrates manifold gifts that should develop more fully as she refines her craft.
– By Sarah Bryan Miller, St. Louis Post-Dispatch