“The Cat Who Wished To Be A Man” by Lloyd Alexander (1973)

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Friends, I have consented to dedicate the month of May to the writings of multiple-award-winning and much-beloved children’s author, Lloyd Alexander. He was a male American human who died in May of 2007 (a few years before I was born) and is most famous for his “Prydain Chronicles.”[1]

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Yet, who prevailed upon me to review the work of this figure? My human, of course. He’s been pestering me ceaselessly since I began this enterprise, begging me to dedicate a month to Mr. Alexander. As May drew near his insistences grew in intensity, since he thought it would be a nice tribute to the author whose writings lit the darkness of his own oft-troubled childhood. I told my human that that was nice, very touching and all, but hardly worthy of an entire month of Mondays on my blog – especially since I review books that are about (or which claim to be about) felines!

Then, gentle friends, why did I consent to review the work of Lloyd Alexander? Well, it was at that point that my human finally revealed why he thought it was such a fitting undertaking for a creature of my very specific interests: Lloyd Alexander was himself a great fan of felinity and had written not one! not two! not three! but FOUR books about cats. Books in which the cats are the heroes and acquit themselves in a suitably feline fashion!

So here we are.

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Now, it should be noted that the book I have chosen for today was not the first of Alexander’s cat-centric books. That honor goes to the deeply-intriguing Time Cat, his first successful children’s book which I shall discuss later in the month. Indeed, today’s book was published ten years after Time Cat in the year 1973![2] I had originally planned to review his cat books in chronological order, but the title and the premise of today’s book… well, it practically DEMANDED to be reviewed as soon as possible!

For you see, The Cat Who Wished To Be A Man is exactly what its title promises: a tale so ludicrous and insane that I seriously began to suspect Alexander might in fact have been a lunatic.

A CAT who yearns to be HUMAN?!

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RIDICULOUS! What feline in their right mind would ever wish for something so horrible? To sacrifice claws and fur and whiskers and night-sight and tail and hearing and scent and everything else marvelous about our kind for the dubious privileges of opposable thumbs?  To sacrifice the stability of four paws and the sinuous bone-structure of catus for a clumsy, hulking bipedal frame? Only the fevered imagination of a mad man could conjure such insanity into the world!

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You’ll note there is no song entitled “Everykitty Wants To Be A Human”

But, my friends, I judged Alexander too hastily. There is a method to his madness. He uses this book, not to trumpet the supposed glories of humanity, as such books are wont to do, but to expose your flaws and lambaste the very things which your species takes for granted as “logical” and “right.”

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So not only is this more complex and intelligent than a typical children’s book; not only does it wisely choose to teach human children how preposterous their own species inarguably is; but the book gives logical (internally so, anyhow) reasons for everything which takes place.

The protagonist of this novel, a ginger tom named Lionel, is scarcely out of kittenhood, and his only exposure to humanity is his human caregiver, the wise and powerful human wizard Stephanus. Stephanus is the best and most relatable character in the book – a rational, sensible man who eschews the company of his own kind and lives isolated in a forest out of an understandable contempt for humankind. Based on comments he makes, he is a being of immense age and unquestionable power, and it is these features which led him to regard humanity with such disgust. As he explains to poor, foolish Lionel, Stephanus once lived among humans and, moved by pity for their clumsy, artless forms, granted them the knowledge of metallurgy. He hoped that they could more effectively practice the newly-discovered science of agriculture with the use of metal, only to watch as they turned it against each other by making weapons. After a few such squanderings of his precious gifts to them, Stephanus finally gave up on humankind and vanished into the mists of legend…as far as his fellow humans are concerned.

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Hoping to share the wonders of his magical profession with someone worthy, Stephanus chose to grant Lionel the power of human speech[3] assuming that a feline would not only prove a brilliant conversationalist but an intellectual equal with whom he could undertake deep and meaningful discussions about the nature of the universe. And had he chosen nearly any other feline, or at least let Lionel mature a bit before making clear communication possible between the two, he might have proven correct! Alas, no sooner did he grant young Lionel the power to speak in a human tongue than the cat begins to plead with his kindly master for the “gift” of human shape! This is where the book begins and, if we are honest with ourselves, it makes perfect sense that a creature so inexperienced and naïve, a creature who has known only a single rare and miraculous example of humankind, would mistakenly believe humanity to be a good thing! Lionel is young and sheltered, and knows not what he asks.

But if Stephanus understands humanity so well; if he knows how wretched and detestable your species can be; why does he consent to turn Lionel into a human being? Why afflict his foolish young friend with a curse the kitten thinks he wants? Ultimately, Stephanus acts for reasons very similar to my own in dedicating a month to the works of Lloyd Alexander – because his impertinent simpleton of a companion refuses to leave him alone about it.

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Convinced he knows better than the ages-old master-magician, convinced that humanity cannot be as bad as all that, Lionel pesters Stephanus until the wizard mournfully consents to turn him into the very thing Stephanus hates – and therein lies the tragedy of this tale, dear friends. For rest assured, this book is a tragedy.

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Lionel is delighted by his new form and heads straight to the nearest town, determined to have the full human experience before returning home to the tower of Stephanus. In his time as a human, Lionel meets a number of true humans, none of whom are very pleasant;[4] he takes a liking to some of them,[5] however, and through repeated application of cat-like strategies and techniques he proves one of the most successful and remarkable humans in existence. This, alas, spells his downfall! For the more time Lionel spends as a human the more “tainted”[6] by humanity he becomes; and despite wise Stephanus’ warning that he must return home and be freed from the curse of humanity before it is too late, Lionel cannot resist capering about in his new form, slowly losing everything else that makes life worth living…

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This is not the finest book that I have read, that I will confess, and my human himself admits it is not his favorite of Lloyd Alexander’s cat-centric works. But if it is not Mr. Alexander’s best, then it is certainly one of the most harrowing and heartrending works I have ever come across. Friends, I hope you will not think me weak if I admit that I wept bitter tears as I read this book. And that ending! Oh, by Lady Bast’s silken fur, it was a cold dagger through my soul! May such afflictions never befall me!

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Remember, friends – what you think you want may be worse than you could ever imagine, and striving to be what you are not out of vain ambition may lead you to terrors no soul should ever face. If only young Lionel had learned these lessons when he had the chance!

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[1] Two of which were adapted (POORLY) into a Disney film called The Black Cauldron.

[2] I like to think that it was intended to wash the noxious taste of 1972’s Ralph Bakshi filth-fest Fritz The Cat out of America’s psychic mouth.

[3] And this is the only instance in which I question Stephanus’ judgment, as a wiser man would have granted HIMSELF the power of FELINE speech. I have yet to encounter a human language that matches ours in both nuance and precision.

[4] Among them a corrupt watchman, a shell-game operator, an avaricious mayor, and a cut-purse.

[5] Among them a beautiful-but-shrewish tavern-keeper, a snarky child, and a “doctor” who uses faux-Latin to convince others of his non-existent credentials.

[6] Stephanus’ words, friends, not mine!

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“The Cat, The Quilt, and The Corpse: A Cats in Trouble Mystery, Book 1” by Leann Sweeney (2009)

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I believe I have figured out the precise formula utilized by all authors in this “cozy mystery” sub-genre of cat-lit:

1) Take a single, middle-aged, white female human. Make sure her precise physical appearance is never explicitly described.

2) Have her move from a major metropolitan area to a small town (preferably in “fly-over country”).

3) Have her be quirkily-employed and wealthy enough to maintain that quirky employment.

4) Have her meet at least one unrealistically-hunky human male near her age who finds her absolutely captivating (no matter how dull she actually is). Make sure he is some form of authority figure.

5) Have her become involved in a murder investigation despite the fact that she has no background in criminal justice.

6) Have her somehow uncover the true culprit and, through some variety of deus ex machina, survive the discovery and inevitable confrontation.

7) Add cats to season.

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“It’s just that easy!”

For instance:

1) Kathleen Paulson from A Midwinter’s Tail.
The fake-Nora Charles from Meow If It’s Murder.
Jillian Hart from this book.

2) From Boston, Massachusetts to Mayville Heights, Minnesota because her long-time boyfriend breaks up with her and marries someone else.
From Chicago, Illinois to Cruz, California because her mother died and she intends to take over her business.
From Austin, Texas to Mercy, North Carolina because her husband wanted to move there.

3) A former big-city librarian turned small-town library manager.
A former-crime reporter turned small-town gourmet sandwich-shop owner.
A widow living off her husband’s life insurance so she can keep making quilts for needy cats.

4) The local police officer.
The local police officer with a mysterious past.
The former local police officer with a mysterious past.

5) The mysterious death of a friend’s ex-wife.
The mysterious death of a local socialite.
The mysterious death of a local cat-napper.

6) I wouldn’t want to spoil these three books for you, but… Trust me on this one, friends. They’re nearly identical in this regard.

7) Owen & Hercules.
Nick.
Chablis, Syrah and Merlot.

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So there you are. I have handed you the keys to success as a cozy cat-lit mystery author. The formula is all that matters; cleave to that and you will be set for life! Or at least until the popularity of cozy-mystery cat-lit dies down.

But, as far as entries in this formulaic sub-genre go, you could do a lot worse than Ms. Sweeney’s. The setting is charming, the characters are charming, the plot is generally engaging, and the murder is relatively well done. If I did not predict who had committed the crime till a third of the way in, this was only because the murderer had not been introduced until then – yet I didn’t begrudge the book this late reveal. On the one paw, the more classical style of murder mystery draws its artistry from presenting all the potential culprits at the start and then letting the reader try to suss things out along with the detective; but on the other paw, there is something to be said for the secret criminal, the one lurking in the shadows whom you never see coming. Both types of criminal are extremely feline – the quietly-overlooked-in-plain-sight and the unseen-till-sought – and it really is just a matter of personal preference which of the two you prefer. Now, this week’s book isn’t perfect, but it does nearly everything better than the other two entries I have so far encountered.

First and foremost, the cats feature far more prominently in The Cat, The Quilt and The Corpse than in the other two. This is no great surprise where A Midwinter’s Tail is concerned, but Ms. Sweeney’s book also manages to beat Meow If It’s Murder in that regard by having both more cats and making them integral to the plot of the novel as well as the protagonist’s life. The cats are not peripheral characters, quirky sidekicks or simple window-dressing – they are the reasons the various crimes in this novel are committed. And while I don’t mind a bit of magic in my fiction, both A Midwinter’s Tail and Meow If It’s Murder relied far too heavily upon the appeal of the supernatural while simultaneously failing to earn their executions of it. This book, on the other hand, neither contains nor requires a supernatural angle to keep it interesting. The cats of Ms. Sweeney’s book are real cats, lacking any magic beyond that which all felines naturally possess.

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At which point I will retire to my mansion on the private island which I will have purchased with all that “cozy-cat-mystery” money, eh wot?

The setting also feels more genuinely “small town” than did the settings of the other two. A Midwinter’s Tail felt almost more like the titular setting of the film Westworld, a fake place inhabited by automata who served the author-surrogate protagonist’s ego stroking. Meow If It’s Murder did a bit better, but the town of Cruz still felt woefully underdeveloped and spare, like a vast new subdivision with only a few houses occupied. The Cat, The Quilt and the Corpse on the other paw really manages to give you a sense of what life in a small Southern town might feel like, with everyone knowing everyone else’s business and a shared history gumming up the works for locals while proving an impenetrable barrier for strangers.

But again, this book isn’t perfect. For example, I’ve picked up on yet another odd quirk of this sort of book which The Cat, The Quilt and The Corpse likewise contained – such books showcase what appears to be the human female obsession with fashion and decoration. I already discussed this problem at length in my reviews of Meow If It’s Murder and Cat’s Claw, and it was also present in A Midwinter’s Tail. Ms. Sweeney seems to have sometimes mistaken references to clothing or housewares for literary richness of detail; halting the narrative to let us know a table is made from teak wood, for instance, contributes nothing when the table is only mentioned once and has no purpose within the narrative.

"I know who the murderer is! But first, a trip to IKEA..."

“I know who the murderer is! There isn’t a moment to spare! Quick, to the police station! But first, a trip to IKEA…”

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the book’s strange attitude towards technology. The Cat, The Quilt and The Corpse was published in 2009, yet the characters seem bewildered by the internet and use non-smart “flip-phones” – both things which seem odd to me as a kitten born around 2010. I assumed the oddness of these moments was simply a result of my callow youth, or perhaps of the characters’ middle age. But my human is somewhat technophobic, and he too seemed confused by those particular elements. He had a “flip-phone” until October of last year, and he remembers quite clearly being mocked by both the middle-aged and the elderly as far back as 2008 for his refusal to upgrade.

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I also found it somewhat jarring every time the protagonist’s cats’ names were mentioned, as all three had been named after wines. This quirk was immediately noticeable to me and I suspect it would be far more noticeable to its intended audience of middle-aged-to-elderly women, yet the author fails to address it until over halfway through the book. And when she did address it, it somehow felt even more jarring, as her previous consistent failure so to do had made me acutely aware of its absence. But I am a cat and I do not drink wine, so maybe I’m missing something?

Oh, and the romance! Hmm. How to address this? Friends, I hope this doesn’t come across as cold or excessively prudish, but I found the way Jillian Hart salivated over the hot young men in this town…well…unsettling. You see, Mrs. Hart is a recent widow and she assures readers over and over again at the start of the book how much she misses her dear, departed husband. But the moment a hunky guy crosses her path she IMMEDIATELY begins panting after him and then explains to us that her husband was never very physically attractive, and he couldn’t possibly compete with (for instance) the hot firefighter her friend is lusting after, and a widow SURELY can’t be blamed for lusting after all the hot country boys she’s been interacting with since they moved to Mercy, South Carolina given that she spent so many years saddled with a physically unappealing husband, etc. etc. etc. It’s also worth noting that once she starts lusting after these men, mentions of concern for her departed spouse seem to evaporate from the novel. As though every lamentation in the beginning were for show. As though she had been trying to convince us of a lie! Now, I don’t doubt for a second that there are such women out there, nor that many of the book’s intended readers will find it palliative to hear such views expressed as normal and natural, but I found it simply… icky. Honestly, for the entire novel I kept expecting the book’s final reveal to be that Jillian Hart had murdered her own husband! That’s the way her character came across, and if that is not something we discover later in the series, if that was not the author’s intention, then Ms. Sweeney needs to work on her characterization. Because I spent the whole novel assuming that the protagonist was a very shallow murderer, and that makes it hard to sympathize for or worry about her. Rather, with the introduction of her new former-cop love interest, I began worrying that if he didn’t prove handsome enough she might murder him as well!

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So, The Cat, The Quilt and The Corpse by Leann Sweeney is a bit of a mixed bag. If I cannot recommend this book wholeheartedly, I also cannot dismiss it as handily as I have A Midwinter’s Tail. It’s not bad! But it’s also not great. It’s an okay book, a fun, brainless read, with one or two unsettling (and perhaps unintentional) elements. If you’re going to read an entry in the “cozy” sub-genre of cat-lit, I would recommend this one. The title isn’t as fun as “Meow If It’s Murder,” but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a book whose title is!

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“Apprentice Cat” by Virginia Ripple (2012)

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I feel I should mention something right off the bat, something which I wish I had known when I first picked up[1] this particular volume: before beginning her career as an author, Ms. Ripple went to a seminary to train as some form of Protestant minister. Had this been included in an introduction or preface to the text itself, rather than an afterword, it might have spared me some confusion and shock when this fantasy novel set in another world full of talking cats and wizards began to depict a very transparent Christianity-analogue in a positive manner[2] complete with cat-filled parable-analogues and at least one actual quote from the New Testament.

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So there’s that.

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But passing over that, will you enjoy this book? That depends in large part on whether or not you find the following premise intriguing: “Harry Potter” with cats as protagonists and villains.

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Yes, this is a book about young wizard-cats at wizard-cat-school stopping an evil wizard-cat from pursuing his murderous dream of wizard-cat supremacy.

A young bright-orange tom named Toby (whose father mysteriously disappeared years ago) must leave behind his wizard-cat mother and her wizard-human colleague so that he can attend wizard-cat-school. Wizard-humans evidently also go to school, but both groups of wizards pass through a training period where their own individual magical talents are evaluated; after this training period, each “chosen” cat is paired up with a similarly-“chosen” human to train together. And in a refreshing departure from so much of fantasy and horror literature, these cats are not mere familiars! Rather, wizard-cats must team up with wizard-humans lest either one be overwhelmed by their magical experimentation and wind up dead…or worse. In fact, the text seems to imply (vaguely, I’ll admit) that while humans require cats to help control their magic, talented cats can work on their own – these solitary feline-wizards are called (fittingly enough) “Loners.” Cats who are not “chosen” are allowed to return for the following year and be re-evaluated; whether they can do so as often as they please or eventually exhaust their re-application opportunities is never explained, but since “Loner” wizard-cats are explicitly stated to be wizard-cats whose wizard-humans have died (with a single exception featured in the novel) one assumes that they can just keep re-applying and being re-evaluated until they either give up or get it right.

So Toby must undergo the evaluation period, endure mockery and abuse from cats of noble lineage  who believe non-nobles shouldn’t be admitted to wizard-cat-school (he himself is only half-noble), and hope against hope that he is paired with a friendly, competent human-wizard. Because once a wizard and a cat are paired up, then their magical training begins in earnest!

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But all is not well in wizard-cat-world… A mysterious cabal of feline-supremacists is working to undermine the current state of feline/human relations even as a terrifying plague sweeps through the civilized world, felling cat and human alike. And his lone friend at wizard-cat-school is taken under the wing of a suspicious and snide wizard-cat leader named “Chivato”[3] whose relationship with his wizard-human may conceal far darker secrets than any within wizard-cat-school wish to confront.

Will Toby make it through the evaluation stage? Will Toby be “chosen”? If chosen, will his new human-wizard partner prove a boon companion or a bane? And, most important of all, how do the feline-supremacist movement and sudden plague connect to the disappearance of Toby’s father?

Now, I will admit that I’m assuming a lot of things here in my explanation of the plot. This is because the book leaves a lot unexplained – for instance, we never really learn about what the humans are up to before they are paired with their feline masters. Thus I assume they went to school to prepare to work with wizard-cats, since the cats’ initial schooling is focused on evaluating whether or not they are ready to work with a human. And since no human “Loner” wizards are ever mentioned, I have to assume that those who fail to meet the cat/human wizard-team criteria are simply sent home in shame or permitted to re-apply indefinitely.

But while young Toby is busy attending his magic lessons, being bullied by the purebloods…er, I mean, “nobles,” and  stopping Voldemort…er, I mean, “Chivato” and thwarting his nefarious use of the Dark Arts…er, I mean “Shadow Arts,” there’s a lot more going on here than you might expect. And a number of intriguing questions are raised.

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For example, everyone in this world appears capable of learning magic, which leads one to wonder why anyone would choose NOT to study magic. The world clearly has plenty of non-wizards, as the protagonists encounter carriage-drivers, barkeeps, bar-wenches, gardeners, etc. none of whom use magic. But why? Did they opt out of wizard school? Did they decide magic required too much study? At least in the “Harry Potter” novels it’s established that magic-use is an inherent ability; this book makes no such claim, yet also fails to explain why anyone would choose to study anything else.

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Furthermore, all cats and all humans can speak to one another. Now, think about that. In the book they are depicted as speaking in English, but are they really? Is it not more likely that, in this world of magic and wizards, humans have learned to speak in meows, posture, scent, etc. like we felines? Certainly it would be a more civilized mode of communication.

Also, the books make a big deal out of “noble” vs. “lowborn” cats (rather like the “Pureblood”/”Mudblood” dynamic in the “Harry Potter” novels), yet the criteria for these designations are never explained! There seems to be no analogous binary at play among humans, so how do cats wind up “noble” or not?

Really, this book has a lot of potential, especially if you are a fan of the work of J.K. Rowling, but it never quite gels. There are far, far too many questions raised about the setting and the characters which are left unanswered for no clear reason; yes, there are at least two other books in the series and this is only the first, but Toby is not a complete novice when this volume begins. Unlike Harry Potter – who grew up in an abusive, neglectful non-magical household and thus needed to slowly learn everything about his new magical environment while simultaneously jugging his studies, his social life, and his struggles against Voldemort & co. – Toby is raised in a wizarding household by attentive wizard-cat parents and a wizard-human. Theoretically this means he will not need as much explained to him, but it also means that the author’s burden is greater: she must explain to us what Toby should ostensibly already know without making it seem like she is ham-fistedly inserting exposition into the narrative. Yet, throughout the book, Toby often appears as utterly clueless and ignorant about his OWN WORLD as young Mister Potter. I suspect the author didn’t really think that hard about how she wanted things to be explained to the readers, and as a result much of the richness and detail of the setting she has created…simply isn’t. It’s absent. It feels like we’re watching Toby’s adventures through a cracked and fogged glass, sometimes hearing only every other word! Even the interpersonal relationships lack depth: by the end I really didn’t know how Toby felt about anyone other than his one wizard-cat friend (arguably the best-written character in the novel), didn’t know how they felt about him, and didn’t especially care either way.  And Toby’s mother actually comes across as abusive, judgmental and hateful, though we are clearly supposed to assume she deeply loves her son and is just using tough love on Toby. Thus, at a later point in the novel when her life is imperiled, the reader is left nodding approvingly and thinking “Oh, good. She is too awful to survive!” only to marvel at Toby’s inexplicable concern for and tenderness toward her. While a complex psychological reason could be given, no such reason appears within the pages of this novel. She’s just his mother, so he’s just concerned for her. That’s all. Because that’s what sons feel towards mothers, right? No matter how horrid they are to them, right?

No, Ms. Ripple.

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That’s not right.

We need to BELIEVE the relationships and dynamics established in the novel, but so many of the elemental components are missing that it never quite hangs together as a coherent narrative. It’s very fashionable to sneer at Ms. Rowling’s work today, especially when one knows nothing about the Late Antique Mediterranean magical tradition,[4] but she at least knows how to world-build effectively and create engaging characters and relationships.  Most of that is missing from Apprentice Cat, and I hope these flaws are eliminated and the writing refined in the following volumes. Because at it stands this is yet another example of a lost opportunity in cat-lit. The cats demonstrate emotions in very feline ways, with posture and whisker movements and repetitive kneading, and they largely control their magical powers with tail-movements – that’s all very well-thought-out and pleasing to imagine! Ms. Ripple has the marble, but she hasn’t finished releasing the statue from it! We might have had our own “Harry Potter” franchise had Ms. Ripple just born down a bit harder on this story. But once more we are left with only the lingering promise of what might have been…

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[1] Well, dragged using my fangs and claws from the pile sitting beside the bed.

[2] One rarely expects non-sectarian fiction to positively depict ANYTHING having to do with religion, let alone Christianity, these days.

[3] Those fluent in a Romance language will likely recognize what this name portends…

[4] EG: “Accio” was one of the most common and basic components of any Latin summoning spell; “Alastor” was the name of a Greek vengeance spirit; etc.

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“The Color Kittens” by Margaret Wise Brown, Illustrated by Alice & Martin Provensen (1949)

What…

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I mean, what?

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What on Earth IS this?

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I… I don’t… I mean, I just can’t… WHAT?!

Forgive me. I intend no disrespect to the late, great Ms. Brown, author of numerous classic children’s books, but… I mean, HONESTLY! This book makes no sense.

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Are the eponymous Color Kittens, Hush & Brush, the CREATORS of all the world’s colors? Certain portions of the narrative seem to indicate as much, and I will admit that it’s rather flattering to see felines – even young ones – depicted with such power.

But other portions of the narrative seem to indicate that the kittens are merely replicating pre-existing colors for themselves as a bit of a larf.

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Which is it? Are they godlike elemental beings, kittens who invented color at the dawn of time? Are they part of a long line of kittens responsible for giving the world its colors each and every day? Are they simply two anthropomorphic-but-otherwise-normal kittens learning their colors by painting on the walls? Ms. Brown, PLEASE! I don’t understand! What is meant by all this?

And how can a tale as simple as Captain Kitty (whose characters these kittens resemble in cat-ness) have such depths, while a tale as baffling as The Color Kittens leaves me at a total loss for words?

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I encourage all readers, cats especially, to pick up a copy of this children’s book and then TELL ME WHAT IT MEANS! Do I need to be on drugs to understand? What kind of parent would give their small children drugs simply to make a children’s book comprehensible?

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I SIMPLY DON’T UNDERSTAND!

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“Meow If It’s Murder” by T.C. Lo Tempio (2014)

Zoophilia.

Now that I’ve got Google’s attention, this is a book about zoophilia!

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No, really.

I mean, it’d have to be, considering the protagonist is named “Nora Charles” and she names her pet cat “Nick” – after her famous literary/film namesake’s HUSBAND.

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This, after she is told by a friend that the cat is a fulfillment of that friend’s “psychic” prediction that she would be visited by a “dark, handsome stranger.”

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A prediction which both of them affirm as part of a long-running series of predictions her friend has made about the protagonist’s LOVE LIFE.

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“It ain’t fiction / Just a natural fact…”

So, yes. Zoophilia.

This disgusting take on interspecies romance is set in a small California seaside-town[1] called “Cruz”, the hometown of the protagonist[2] to which she has returned after her mother’s death. She was apparently a successful crime reporter or investigative journalist in Chicago, but has now begun to take up her mother’s legacy and pursue the delicate art of sandwichcraft. In Cruz she stumbles across a local cold case which she is determined to solve, and makes the acquaintance of an unnaturally communicative cat and a suspiciously perfect police officer.

If any of that sounds vaguely familiar, then you may also have read A Midwinter’s Tail; the two books seem to follow the same basic pattern and I’m told that this is a staple of the new “cozy” mystery genre  – again we have a successful middle-aged career woman leaving behind her successful career in a major metropolitan center (in A Midwinter’s Tail, Boston; in this book, Chicago) so she can move to a small town in another State and run a small, local business. In that small town she encounters a cat with supernatural capabilities and begins a romance with a tall, gorgeous law enforcement officer who is inexplicably attracted to her. None of this is new, and it almost reads like a paint-by-numbers approach to mystery novels aimed at 21st century female readers. Zoophilic undertones aside.

But perhaps the most insufferable part of the book is that, all things considered, it’s actually not that bad!

For one thing, neither the cover image nor the title is a lie. At least, not entirely!

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It is indeed the first in a new series; there are characters named Nick and Nora who form the novel’s central dramaturgical dyad; the case does appear to be “open and shut” until they scratch the surface; and much of the book takes place in a sandwich shop. There is indeed a black-and-white cat and that cat does spell things out using other objects (though not, as in the illustration, using bread). Meowing occurs and the meowing is even intended to communicate that a murder has been committed!

After some of the previous books I have read — books whose titles and cover art appear as little more than calculated deceptions — this development is almost too beautiful to believe.

As I said, there are several familiar elements, but they are done far, far better here than in Sofie Kelly’s book. The protagonist is less blandly obnoxious than the protagonist of A Midwinter’s Tail and she is far from the Mary Sue beloved by all other characters in Kelly’s novel. The protagonist of Meow If It’s Murder is snarky, snippy, stubborn, and those same traits are shown to have real consequences for her interpersonal relationships; many of the other characters actually become indifferent or hostile towards her as the narrative progresses. Characters in general seem more like actual individuals and human beings (albeit thinly sketched) and the protagonist’s circle of allies consists solely of her childhood best-friend and the partner of Nick’s previous human. The mystery itself occupies most of the protagonist and author’s attention and is remarkably well thought out! I didn’t have it solved right off the bat, I cared about its unraveling, and it seemed integral to the narrative rather than a half-hearted element only grudgingly introduced into a story primarily dedicated to shopping, gossip and party-planning. Most importantly, Nick the cat is introduced in the first chapter, is consistently and frequently present throughout, is invaluable in solving the mystery, and is presented as a properly uncanny feline, cunning, resourceful and ravenous.

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Make no mistake: Ms. Lo Tempio is in desperate need of an editor and some more critical pre-publication readers. Some of the plot beats are telegraphed so obviously in advance that it’s actually offensive; some of the clues (such as the first word which the cat spells out using Scrabble tiles) are agonizingly obvious to the reader yet apparently impenetrable to the heroine; and some of the characters are… off. Ms. Lo Tempio seems to share a weakness I have noticed among many female human authors – giving long, Long, LONG descriptions of character’s sartorial choices but only vague and unmemorable references to their actual physical appearances. I could tell you the brand of pants and socks an incidental character wears, but not the color of the protagonist’s hair! Vague references are made to the appearances of some characters, like her best friend, another detective, and an executive’s assistant, but they don’t stick and they are rarely if ever mentioned again. The characters are personalities and accents in lovingly-described outfits while their actual physical realities remain in question. Given that I have noticed this in the writings of many modern human female authors, I am beginning to suspect that many of your kind share a sort of expanded face-blindness, perceiving fellow humans as little more than accents and personalities swathed in very specific articles of clothing.

The cat is described fairly well on the other hand. Nick is a handsome, sturdy feline of the “tuxedo” variety, with a smooth, rolling gait and an air of untroubled confidence. He understands the case, the clues and the stakes better than any of the human characters, and without his expert aid the murder undoubtedly would have gone unsolved. One can readily understand why the protagonist would fancy him, but humans must learn to confine their romantic aspirations to their own species! What cat could ever be content with one of you blundering, ungainly primates? I suspect that, as the series continues the protagonist’s struggle between her love for the cat and her lust for the police officer will form a key part of her internal conflict. Given how much they set up the zoophilic romance at the novel’s start only to shift attention to her yearning for the human male lead, that’s really the only way I can see it turning out.

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As for the human romantic interest, he is suffocatingly obnoxious in how perfect he comes across – and honestly, given everything she says about him physically, financially, etc. one cannot help but feel that he deserves much better than the protagonist! He doesn’t appear to have some fetish she satisfies; he doesn’t appear to find it thrilling when women worship him; he doesn’t seem to enjoy feeling superior; he’s not even especially fond of her sandwiches. So why on Bast’s green EARTH would this living god want to be involved with a bumbling, irritable, would-be-detective like her? My human’s fondness for William Shatner’s musical stylings makes more sense than this romance! Indeed, Twilight makes more sense!

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You may never hear me say something like this again, but the attraction of Edward to Bella in Twilight is comparatively well-written; she smelled addictively delicious, so it makes sense that he would pursue her.[3] If I met a female cat who smelled like fresh tuna day and night, I doubt I would ever leave her side! But we are never given enough information to explain why the male lead of Meow If It’s Murder might be interested in the book’s protagonist. She is smart, but not very; witty, but not very; successful, but not very; and her appearance is… um… er… Well, that’s where the author’s apparent aversion to physical descriptions of humans works against her yet again. We know the basic outline of the love interest – that he is a glorious, chiseled, muscular, tanned, blonde Adonis with expensive designer clothing, etc. – but we know nothing of the protagonist’s appearance. She too might be a living goddess, a regular Bast or Ishtar, but the reader remains ignorant of this; and judging by how bewilderedly dumbfounded his appearance leaves her, one can safely assume that she is not on his level physically. Is this to better allow the reader to imagine herself[4]  in the place of the protagonist? I think Lloyd Alexander did something rather similar with the protagonist of his “Prydain” novels, but there it worked – the first and only being who ever pointed out to me that element of Alexander’s novels was my human. And good for him! Even I hadn’t picked up on it! Yet whereas Alexander’s use of this is so subtle it escapes most readers’ notices, Lo Tempio inadvertently calls attention to the protagonist’s gaping lack of appearance by calling so much attention to the love interest’s idealized appearance.

By comparison Nick the cat is down-to-earth, rugged and striking. He’s a cat with whom you’d like to share a plate of bacon. So the choice between the police officer and Nick is rather like giving a human the choice between Azathoth and Nodens:

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If they know what’s good for them, the human will choose the latter. But humans never do.

So while, again, this book is not without its flaws, Ms. Lo Tempio actually shows a lot of promise; and as this is her first real novel, one suspects that many of its flaws can be written off as simple first-time-author errors. She wrote herself into a corner with the romantic leads, needs to work on more artfully dropping clues, and needs to learn to describe human beings instead of simply the outfits they are wearing. But after reading A Midwinter’s Tail, I can hardly work up the visceral hatred necessary to condemn or dismiss this novel. I wouldn’t say it’s good, not exactly, but… Well, it isn’t bad. You could definitely do worse. I certainly have in the past!

Are there better reads? Better romances? Better mysteries? Better examples of cat-lit? Absolutely. But it’s a first novel; this could be the start of something great, and I wish Ms. Lo Tempio all the best!

 

 

 

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[1] In film and literature, there is apparently no other kind.

[2] I will only refer to her as “the protagonist” and other similar phrases because I refuse to acknowledge that she has anything in common with Dashiell Hammett’s immortal character or the character portrayed on the silver-screen by the divine Ms. Myrna Loy.

[3] There. I did it. I said something kind about Twilight and compared it to something favorably. I feel so dirty, but stand by my analysis.

[4] Because this book, like most mystery novels of the “cozy” variety, is unquestionably intended for a female readership.

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“The Cat of Bubastes: A Tale of Ancient Egypt” by G.A. Henty (1889)

Betrayed once more! And this time by a far more promising book.

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Perhaps some of you are familiar with the “Women in Fridges” trope? Well, I propose that a new trope be recognized: “Eponymous-Yet-Inconsequential Felines.” I will grant that A Midwinter’s Tail and The Nine Lives of Clemenza did not explicitly promise any felinity in their titles, but THIS book?

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Why, human authors? Why do you mock me thus?

The word “cat” is right there! It’s the first word after the definite article! I don’t think I’m asking too much, am I? Is it really so demanding of me to expect that a book’s title will accurately reflect its contents?

The title character, the so-called cat of Bubastes, is not even mentioned till midway through the book only to die almost immediately thereafter. The cat’s appearance is barely described, and I can scarce recall if the cat was male or female, so utterly and ultimately irrelevant was he/she to the actual narrative. I want to say that the cat was female, but, after all, does it even matter? Alas, no. It doesn’t matter in the slightest. This is another anthropocentric entry in the annals of “cat-lit,” though nowhere near as offensively limited in its scope as the two novels I previously mentioned.

At this point I am irritated enough by this trend in literature that I am reluctant to discuss the actual narrative and characters. Do we cats mean so little to you humans? Are we mere objects to you? We cats may rightfully regard you as possessions and servitors, but have we not done right by you? We calm you with our purring, we permit you to pet us,[1] and we keep your domiciles free from the myriad vermin which accompany any and all human settlement. I rather think we deserve to be regarded as more than mere mascots and plot devices.

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In ancient Egypt we were gods! Our likenesses graced great monuments, our mummified remains kept company with kings, we were given our own goddess, and the act of killing one of us – even accidentally – was a crime punishable by death! Oh, THOSE were the days…

To his credit, Henty does acknowledge this reality, and the latter half of the book is driven by that last fact – albeit indirectly. The protagonist is a young Rebu prince whose father is slain and people conquered by the mighty Egyptians under the reign of Pharaoh Thutmose III. The young prince Amuba, his loyal general Jethro, and all the other important Rebu men are enslaved, and Amuba and Jethro find themselves owned by Ameres, the High-Priest of Osiris, who makes them integral members of his household staff. Jethro becomes the guardian of Ameres’ young daughter, while Amuba becomes the boon companion of Ameres’ second son, Chebron. This comprises the entire first half of the novel. The only mention of cats made up till this point is the observation that Egyptian fisher-folk and bird-hunters apparently used trained semi-aquatic cats to help them catch their quarry – an observation made early in the first half and then never brought up again.

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Amuba and Chebron have several adventures, then a plot emerges to murder Ameres; Ameres’ daughter’s favorite pet cat is selected to replace the sacred cat of Bubastes (which had died) but Amuba and Chebron accidentally murder it, and then all Neter-khertet breaks loose. Henty apparently felt his novel needed to be of the “kitchen-sink” variety after that point, as we literally get: a tale of mob violence, a tale of political assassination, a tale of fugitives on the run from the law, a tale of a kidnapped girl being rescued, a tale in which one of our heroes meets the HEBREW PROPHET MOSES, a tale in which our heroes face bandits, a tale in which our heroes travel across the ancient Near East, a tale in which our heroes mount a political insurrection, and a tale in which open war breaks out. And after all of that, the author then has the gall – the sheer, unmitigated GALL! – to have one of the heroes blithely comment that all of that would never have happened had they not accidentally murdered that poor innocent cat.

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I appreciate the effort to depict ancient Egyptian reverence for feline life, and the acknowledged centrality of that one cat’s life to the plot; there is a part of me that would otherwise be inclined to applaud the careful symmetry with which the author constructs this narrative. After all, the first half is a tale of war, going into Egypt, and living in prosperity and security there; then the cat appears; then the cat disappears; and the second half is a tale of enduring danger and hardships there, going out of Egypt, and another war. If I were not concerned with spoiling the details, I would describe the other careful and minute parallels the author uses – it really is a technical achievement

The theology of the book is also intriguing, perhaps influenced by the Rosicrucian movement in that it proposes a great secret which only the highest levels of the Egyptian priesthood possessed. According to Henty’s Ameres, there was, in truth, but a single god and the myriad Egyptian gods and goddesses were mere manifestations of that singular deity incomprehensible to common humans. He asserts an evidence-from-nature history of religion, arguing that this god’s existence is self-evident through observation of the natural world, but that only the truly enlightened and intellectually mature can bear the knowledge that all things were the work of a single deity. Polytheism (or rather, henotheism) is a dumbed-down, degenerate iteration of the true monotheistic religion which the highest levels of the Egyptian religious hierarchy followed. Henty avers that the Hebrews erred only in ascribing to this deity a particular interest in their people, implying that their “foolish” belief that the singular universal god was their own personal god led to — or was a product of — their eventual apostasy and enslavement. (You’ll permit me an ironic smirk at that bit of implicit victim-blaming, I hope.) In any event, as I said, it is an intriguing proposition and a cut above the theology proposed in the previous week’s opening salvo; and it masterfully weaves the contemporary passion for Rosicrucianism into a tale of ancient Egypt. Another technical achievement.

But, you see, those technicalities do not spare it from being an otherwise cat-free narrative. The eponymous cat isn’t a character, and there is nothing about him/her that really contributes to the narrative or the events that drive the plot. ANY cat could have occupied that role. He/she existed solely to die and set in motion the second half of the narrative, and after a certain point the cat’s death isn’t even mentioned again until the last line of the blasted novel!

I can’t say I hated this as I hated that wretched “Magical Cats Mystery,” but I also can’t give it the unadulterated praise I gave to Captain Kitty. There’s much of worth here, particularly the author’s attempt to set his novel in the period between the family of Israel’s settlement in Egypt and the Israelite Exodus from Egypt (again with the symmetry), but I went into this work expecting one thing and got quite another instead. I’m almost tempted to suspect that you humans might simply be using us to capture the attention of other humans whose due fondness for feline-kind makes them seem a soft touch.

Will “Bait” and “Switch” prove the watchwords for all further cat-lit? Friends, I pray that it will not be so!

Cat-Praying

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[1] Which, I feel I must note, scientists have long since proven results in a release of serotonin, oxytocin and prolactin in humans. That’s right: petting us grants you a depression-fighting hormone, a “love hormone” associated with the female orgasm, and a hormone associated with the development of breasts in women (and only in women). You’re welcome, humans.

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“I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats” by Francesco Marciuliano (2012)

This may surprise my human readers, but poetry is not the sole province of humanity.

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We felines also take time out of our busy lives to compose meaningful verses in celebration, lamentation or contemplation. For my part, I prefer rhyming poetry, but there can be a simple elegance in free-verse as well.

That is where Francesco Marciuliano’s book, “I Could Pee On This: And Other Poems By Cats,” comes in:

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It purports to be a collection of feline-authored poems gathered by Marciuliano, poems which address a variety of feline-specific experiences and ideals.

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12 my chair

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My human has suggested (read: insisted) that this book was written entirely by a human aping the style of several felines; I suspect he is for the most part correct, but my heart wants to believe otherwise.

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They are not splendid poems, I will be the first to admit that, and some of them are downright insulting.

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Even so, it would be nice to finally see feline-authored poems published for consumption by human and cat alike. To see a poem written by one who is openly feline in the American Poetry Review! To know that we are finally being recognized for the sensitive, articulate souls that we truly are!

Ah, that is the dream…

But a dream it must remain, I suppose.

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