Look at this book. Look at its cover.
This, friends, is what LIES look like.
A Midwinter’s Tail was one of the first books my human brought back from the grocery store, one of the books that revealed to us the new world of feline-specific literature. The cover image promises a whimsical, cat-centric story; after all, there’s nary a human in sight and it states clearly in that little golden circle (modeled after a cat ID tag, I suppose) that this is “A Magical Cats Mystery.” That picture promises a tale of two frisky felines with magical powers, literate cats who enjoy a nice cup of cocoa in-between sleuthing experiences — cats to whom I could relate!
LIES! ALL LIES!
90% of this book is dedicated to the quotidian life of a human female and her incessant need to gossip about everyone in town with everyone else in town. There’s dress shopping, party-planning, flirting with her hunky cop boyfriend, and a few halfhearted attempts at solving a rather unengaging mystery. But those “magical cats” who give the series its name? The “magical cats” who are the only living beings on the cover and who are there wreathed in some form of mystical energy? Barely present. Within the first 100 pages, for example, they occupy perhaps 5 pages total during which they do NOTHING of any consequence. We don’t even find out that they are magical until 80+ pages in, and it is another 20 or so pages before one of them DOES anything magical.
And the lies don’t end there! Behold the back cover.
That description? MORE LIES!
Kathleen Paulson, the actual protagonist, is hardly “snowed under.” First of all, the library isn’t hers, it belongs to the town of Mayville Heights, and she barely spends any time in that library during the course of the story. She flits about the town, stopping in at her work only a handful of times for (apparently) a few minutes at most so she can gossip with some characters about other characters. The characters she is visiting at the library which she *ahem* “runs” seem to do most of the actual work, while Kathleen spends her time at parties, shopping with friends, eating at diners, bantering with her boyfriend, etc. She doesn’t even spend enough time at home to constitute “caring for” those so-called “extraordinary felines!” If stopping in and feeding them ONCE OR TWICE in the days-long narrative constitutes “caring” then I must conclude that my human servitor has chosen to lavish me with riches and adoration in a fashion befitting a god-emperor. Perhaps their magical powers include going without food for days at a time? Or requiring attention only when it is convenient to their owner? Forgive me, but neither of those “powers” sound terribly feline – they sound like the sort of selfish things humans would foist upon cats in a world in which genetic engineering has gone horribly awry.
I understand that this is the 6th book in the series, and perhaps I’d care more about this town and its inhabitants if I’d read the other five entries, but compare this tiresome exercise in banality with Ngaio Marsh’s twenty-seventh Roderick Alleyn story, Tied Up In Tinsel (1970). It was the first book in the series that I read, yet there Marsh handily introduced Troy, Roderick, Hilary and all the other characters at the manor house, and made me CARE about each and every one because they felt like real people. Meanwhile, Sofie Kelly attempts to introduce all her characters quickly and clumsily within the first couple chapters and they wind up coming across as little more than cardboard cut-outs inserted purely to serve the plot or massage the author-surrogate Mary-Sue-protagonist’s human ego. The gossiping scenes almost feel more like an attempt to remind us of who’s who lest we forget because they’re all so easily interchangeable! Even their names are entirely too similar! Roma and Rebecca, Boris and Burtis, etc. (Burtis…really?) It just meanders, trudges, swerving here and there but never living up to the potential of its premise, let alone of its cover art. As if that weren’t bad enough, the book is RIDDLED with said-book-isms! And if this 6th book is so tiresome and unengaging, I do not expect much felinity in the other five.
Does it sound like I am nitpicking? Well, rest assured that I am. It is in my nature to be finicky; I am a cat, after all. But in this case it is also because there is so little SUBSTANCE to this book! It’s not even candy-floss – this is the literary equivalent of Styrofoam packing peanuts, light, airy and utterly devoid of flavor! The characters, cats included, are dull as dross while the story crawls slowly and haphazardly along like a turtle who’s had one too many overripe apple. It goes NOWHERE! It says NOTHING! The mystery, murder included, has no stakes because I don’t care about any of the characters or about the town or even about the cats’ magical nature. The protagonist’s cats are hardly described, their appearances and individual personalities are mentioned perhaps once or twice; and they’re less cats and more an insulting combination of deus ex machina and comic relief.
These cats did not behave in proper feline fashion; they were more like…apes, truth be told. Monkey sidekicks. Trained chimps cavorting for the entertainment of the protagonist and the reader. There’s no dignity, no grace to these “magical cats.” It takes nearly 100 pages to even see them do something “magical” – which constitutes a single one of the pair walking through a closed door as though it were not there because he does not like snow. That’s the entirety of his magical power. Ho-hum. We are told that the other cat can become invisible, which he does to what I assume is supposed to be “comedic” effect. Charming, I suppose, but for a cat this is hardly “magic”! Even if we concede that this is indeed a “power,” these cats possess only a single power each – meaning they’re less “magical cats” and more like mutants, members of an all-feline version of the X-Men!
I urge cats everywhere to boycott this book until the author represents our species fairly and accurately!
Because for a book in a series called “Magical Cats Mysteries” the cats were barely featured and hardly magical, and the mystery was so thin I can scarcely remember the culprit, the victim or the stakes! Do you want to know the only way in which the cats are featured in the mystery itself? No, there’s no glorious feline-wizard battle; the cats don’t use their mutant powers to ferret out clues or lead the heroine to her quarry; as a matter of fact, no magic is used in the confrontation between Kathleen and the killer. So how do the cats fit in? Why, as it happens, one of the cats is thrown at the criminal by Kathleen. That’s right! While one cat languishes at home, the human protagonist uses the other cat as a projectile WEAPON against another human. That is the sole genuine contribution of the “magical cats,” and that scene itself feels tacked on — almost as though the author only later realized she needed to include a cat in the resolution of the mystery and grudgingly did so. As though she’d rather just be writing about wedding-planning and parties, and simply used cats, magic and mysteries as an excuse to write about the aforementioned topics. This is less a “Magical Cats Mystery” and more a “Mundane Human Ramble.” Harrumph!
If you are looking for a tedious story about small-town human romance, dress-shopping and gossip, then this is the book for you. But if you are looking for a corking good read featuring super-powered cats solving mysteries, look elsewhere. The author and her publisher have obviously realized that cats are a hot commodity, that we have a particular influence on the human psyche, and so they use images of us and the promise of central feline characters to dupe unwitting humans into purchasing books which are otherwise essentially cat-free!
Then again, this is a New York Times Bestseller, and the author has made that prestigious list several times… So what do I know?
PS: Apparently this novel is set during Christmas; I forgot to mention this earlier because, honestly, so did the book. Like the “magical” cats and the “mystery”, the Christmas element is barely and only loosely included in the book itself. You could have removed it entirely without missing a beat, or replaced it with another holiday and not changed a thing. Again, compare this with the Ngaio Marsh novel which includes that holiday because it is integral to the plot. Harrumph indeed.