This review of straydog (originally published in the Manila [Philippines] Bulletin, was written by Carlo Cordova, and encapsulates a reader’s emotional response to a writer’s voice in a way so direct and so lovely that I gave up trying to adequately paraphrase, and am just reposting it (with Mr. Cordova’s permission). Thank you, Carlo, for putting that emotion into words we can share.
THERE GOES MY HERO
straydog by Kathe Koja
People who affected me in the past, I find, turn up in my present in the strangest ways.
It was in 1992 when I first read Kathe Koja’s sexy “Angels in Love,” a girl-next-door horror story of searching for something to transcend a drab day-to-day existence. Ms. Koja’s debut novel, The Cipher, would later be the initial offering in Dell Books’ “Abyss” line of psychological horror novels. I bought her next three novels too: Bad Brains, Skin, and Strange Angels. I read a few more of her stories, including one in Omni, “Queen of Angels,” which put me on the verge of tears, and which I then passed on to the poetess Karen Kunawicz.
Most likely, I failed to convert Karen but my admiration for Ms. Koja was not without good reason. Her characters did not lead ideal lives. They eked out a living (as record-store clerk, or metal sculptor, etc.) and then something would happen – life would get worse and their lives would change forever. Looking at Ms. Koja’s photo at the back of each book – she’s wearing a leather jacket and that look in her eye – just gives one the idea that this woman knows what she’s writing about, that she’s been through a lot, but then she came out ahead. Who wouldn’t believe in someone like her?
Somehow, though, I never found a copy of her fifth novel, Kink. My admiration, as years passed, was transferred to persons who were accessible to me. Then I started seeing Kathe Koja’s name again in young-adult books. I was dumbfounded: Was this the same Kathe Koja who once wore a leather jacket, and taught me that death could be sexy?
It’s not the only time, though, that a well-loved horror writer turned her back on the genre and tried her hand at something else. … The question is, whatever she chooses to write, can a writer still impress with her style, with whatever it is that separates her from other writers? …As for Kathe Koja, I was a bit hesitant to buy her first young-adult book that I found, especially since it’s about — a dog? But surprise, surprise, surprise: Koja’s characters in this book are as similarly endearing as the ones in her adult novels.
Teenagers Rachel and Griffin are both social misfits. Rachel, especially, seems always headed for arguments with her mom and dad; and with Melissa, her supervisor at Brookdale Shelter, where she volunteers.
One day, a feral collie is brought into the shelter. When Rachel sees this collie, whom she names Grrl, she forms an attachment to the dog which will later result in her learning a thing or two about life.
Koja’s writing is as dramatic as it used to be, especially near the ending. Although straydog was meant for younger readers, Koja doesn’t spare us the brutal facts about stray animals’ existence. The book ends with a high degree of emotion, and with even adult readers knowing they are not being fooled. This is not a book that will get turned into a Walt Disney animated film.
The dialogue between Rachel and Griffin, after they’ve gotten close to each other, seems so beautifully natural. It’s like the first time I heard a song by my favorite band, where every word in every line counted and made a direct connection.
I knew, just looking at her old photo, one ordinary day in 1992, that there was something special about Ms. Koja. Now of course she looks different, more like a teacher, and she’s chosen a different genre. The messages, however, like this line from straydog, remain priceless: (p.39, “It’s like the pain is a splinter in the joy…but only both of them together can teach you how sweet joy really is.”)
Reading straydog, my feeling was like being reunited with someone I danced with at prom night, finding out that the music had merely paused, and she and I could pick up where we left off.