Archives for posts with tag: Cats

My recommended Fantasy read is something short and romantic. Short because I’m feeling guilty about recommending such a long book last time, and romantic because I’m writing this close to Valentine’s Day. Peter S. Beagle’s novella `A Dance for Emilia’ is both a love story and a ghost story. It was published in 2000 as a small hardback book of 87 pages with a beautiful cover drawing of an Abyssinian cat by Yvonne Gilbert. As far as I know, this is the only edition but copies are quite easy to find. Beagle is most famous for his 1968 novel `The Last Unicorn’ but his shorter works are well worth exploring.

Among other things, `A Dance for Emilia’ is a touching portait of a friendship. Sam and Jacob have been best friends since they were teenagers in Brooklyn. Drawn together by a mutual love of the performing arts, they both once had high ambitions. Sam intended to be a classical dancer and Jacob a great actor in serious theatre. Things did not go to plan. Told that he wasn’t good enough to get into a ballet company, Sam gave up dance completely and became a music critic. Jacob did go into the theatre, but has never been more than moderately successful as an actor. In middle age, Sam shares his small apartment in New York with an Abyssinian cat called Millamant, while Jacob is a jobbing actor in California with two failed marriages behind him. The two friends speak on the phone every week and joke about their `Museum of Truly Weird Relationships’ with `improbable women’. Then, on one of his visits to California, Sam confesses that he has met someone special – a young writer he calls Emilia.

Just as life seems to be on an upswing for the two friends, Jacob gets a phonecall to say that Sam has died of a heart attack. Jacob meets heartbroken Emily/Emilia at the funeral and for nearly two years they talk and write to each other about their memories of Sam. Emilia had taken in Sam’s cat and one day she arrives in California insisting that Millamant is behaving oddly. Jacob doesn’t understand until he sees the Abyssinian cat dancing in the way that Sam always longed to. Soon Jacob and Emilia are convinced that Sam has come back in Millamant’s body and is able to talk to them. At first they are both overjoyed but then they begin to ask disquieting questions. Has Sam become a dybbuk – a wandering soul that needs a body to hide in- and should they have snatched him back from death by `wishing for him so hard’?

I’ve felt free to reveal quite a lot of the plot of `A Dance for Emilia’ because the story starts with the haunted cat and works backwards. Sam’s death is announced as early as page 3. Then Beagle spends more than half of the novella describing how much Sam meant to his friend Jacob and his lover Emilia and how shocked and damaged they are by his sudden death. It is one of the most convincing depictions of grief that I know of. Sardonic Sam, with his mock English-accent, his `Italian gangster’ suit, and his wild flights of imagination, comes vividly alive as Jacob and Emilia remember him. The detailed realism of Sam’s life in New York helps to make the Fantasy element  of `A Dance for Emilia’ more credible. Even the magical way that Millamant, a cat with `the slouchy preen of a high-fashion model’,  dances in the moonlight is easy to believe. I’ve owned a number of long-haired Abyssinians and their balletic leaps and twirls are amazing.

Once the cat begins to speak, the tone of the story shifts back and forth between scariness and humour. As Jacob says, `Nothing in life – nothing even in Shakespeare – adequately prepares you for opening a can of Whiskas with Bits O’Beef for your closest friend, who’s been dead for two years.’  For once in a ghost story, the characters have really interesting conversations about the process of death and what it means to be a ghost. The intensity of Emilia’s love for Sam has brought him back to her but part of her knows that this isn’t fair to the cat whose body he is inhabiting. Emilia and Jacob are trapping Sam in their memories and preventing his essence from going on to a state he can’t describe in words – only in dance.

This is a story which asks when it is right to let go of lost loves and impossible dreams and make the best of what you do have.  Sam and Jacob’s one major quarrel was over whether Sam should have walked away from his dream of being a great dancer. Beagle leaves it up to the reader to decide who deserves the most respect – Sam who wouldn’t go on doing the thing he loved if he couldn’t achieve a high standard or Jacob for his life-long struggle to be the best he can. Emilia says that she always knew that there wasn’t going to be a happy ending for her and Sam but in a wonderfully romantic speech ghost-Sam promises that, `There’s no way in this universe that I could be reduced to something so microscopic, so anonymous, that it wouldn’t know Emilia Rossi’.  `A Dance for Emilia’ is a sad story about letting go but I promise that there is a beautiful twist right at the end. Until next time….


I’m declaring December my month to recommend lesser-known Fantasy Classics written for children. In honour of a new feline in our household (blue-silver Norwegian Forest kitten, Lilith) I’m starting with Ursula Moray Williams’ stories about a cat called Gobbolino. As a Christmas bonus, I’m recommending two books – `Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat’ (1942) and `The Further Adventures of Gobbolino and the Little Wooden Horse’ (1984). The first of these was illustrated by Moray Williams herself and the second by the incomparable Pauline Baynes. Both are still in print as paperbacks or as luxury edition hardbacks.

Gobbolino and his sister, Sootica, are the kittens of a witch’s cat. Pure black, green-eyed Sootica is looking forward to learning magic and becoming a proper witch’s cat like her mother but Gobbolino has been born different – he has blue eyes and one white paw. Even worse, Gobbolino longs to be an ordinary kitchen cat and says that, “I want to be good and have people love me.” Gobbolino soon finds himself rejected by his own mother and all the witches of the Hurricane Mountains.

Alone in the world, Gobbolino searches for a family to take him in. He thinks that he has found a loving home in a farmhouse but is soon expelled for being a witch’s cat. Gobbolino wanders the world, staying for a while with many different people including a group of orphans, the crew of a sailing ship, an invalid princess, a damsel in a tower and a travelling puppet-show. Every time he thinks that he has found a home, Gobbolino is forced to move on simply for being what he is. In the end his journey takes him back to the mountains where he was born. Can Gobbolino ever find a place where he belongs?

`Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat’ is a book which manages to be both timeless and distinctively of its time. Modern children (and adults) often find older books too verbose and slow-moving. There is no danger of that here. Moray Williams’ simple prose and snappy dialogue are still easy to read. The story fairly zips along with something new and dramatic happening in every chapter. Though some episodes, such as Gobbolino’s stay with an old man whose passion is winning prizes at cat shows, seem more modern than others, the book is essentially set in a Fairy Tale world which doesn’t date. Nor does the central theme of Gobbolino’s struggle to find acceptance in a society that is prejudiced against him. `Once a witch’s cat always a witch’s cat’ he is told.

Gobbolino’s misadventures are often amusing but there is an under-layer of sadness as the affectionate little cat faces rejection after rejection. Moray Williams wrote this book during some of the darkest days of World War Two when the ordinary joys of home and family life were not something that could be taken for granted. In the late 1930s thousands of refugees had arrived in Britain, where many of them still faced prejudice because of their race or nationality. I’m guessing that `Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat’ was inspired by the plight of refugee children who needed new homes. If so, I think that Moray Williams intended her story to be both an appeal to people’s generosity and a message of hope. Gobbolino does, in the end, find a new family. Given the current refugee crisis in Europe, his desperate quest for a home seems topical again.

During her long life (1911-2006) Ursula Moray Williams wrote over 60 books but her most famous is `Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse’ (1938). This was one of my `comfort books’ when I was a small child. It tells of a hand-carved toy horse who meets with both cruelty and kindness as he tries to win a fortune for his maker, Uncle Peder, who has been put out of business by mass-produced toys. In 1984 Moray Williams put her two favourite characters into a new novel – `The Further Adventures of Gobbolino and the Little Wooden Horse’. At the start of this story Gobbolino receives a message from his wicked sister, Sootica, begging him to come and help her. Sootica has always been loyal to him, so Gobbolino sets out for the Hurricane Mountains. Deep in a forest, Gobbolino encounters the Little Wooden Horse who helps him to endure the long journey. The pair face dangers, such as a haunted church and pack of fierce hounds, but when they finally reach the mountains the situation is not what Gobbolino expected…

The leading characters make a well-contrasted pair because Gobbolino is nervy and highly emotional while the Little Wooden Horse is quietly brave and steadfast. Their `Further Adventures’ may lack the poignancy of the earlier books but I think the story will still charm and surprise many readers. Just when Sootica’s witch seems set to be the villainess of the piece, Moray Williams makes us feel sorry for this lonely old lady. The delightful drawings by Pauline Baynes, who was the original illustrator of books by C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien (see my post on `Smith of Wootton Major’, August 2012), are a great bonus. Not many artists could rise to the challenge of illustrating the line, `The younger bats sat down and cried’  but Baynes does. So, if you are looking for heart-warming stories to read to your children over the Christmas holidays, the Gobbolino books could fit the bill. Until next time ….


P.S. In case you are wondering, I’m sure that my naughty Lilith would rather be a witch’s cat than a kitchen cat.


This week I’m recommending a captivating story about a boy who is transformed into a cat. Matt Haig’s`To Be A Cat’ was published in 2012 and has charming illustrations by Pete Williamson. It is marked on the cover as being suitable for readers of 9+. Please concentrate on the plus bit rather than the nine. Haig has written acclaimed science fiction novels for adults (`The Humans’ ) and young adults (`Echo Boy’) on the theme of what it means to be human but in my opinion `To Be A Cat’ is as good or better than both of these books. Paperback editions of `To Be A Cat’ are easy to find but if you’re embarrassed to be seen reading a children’s story, just order it on your Kindle. No-one need ever know…

In the boring town of Blandford lives a boy called Barney Willow. His parents are divorced and Barney lives with his Mum and his dog, Guster. Two hundred and eleven days before the story starts, Barney’s Dad disappeared. On his twelfth birthday, Barney is bitterly disappointed to hear nothing from his Dad and his Mum has to work. Barney’s best friend Rissa ( a very tall girl with `Hair like a pirate’) does give him a handmade card but the rest of his birthday is `Totally Terrible’. Barney is tormented at school by a gang of bullies led by Gavin Needle and he unfairly gets into trouble with the child-hating head teacher, Miss Whipmire. No wonder he detests his life and fervently wishes that he could swap places with a cat…

Barney wakes up the next day as a small black and white cat and soon realizes how wrong he was to think that cats have lovely lazy lives with no worries. He has a lot of worries. His Mum and his dog don’t recognize him. He’s thrown out of his home, while a cat in his body goes to school in his place. Barney is now a `no-hoper’, a former human trapped in a cat body. He’s pitied by `firesides’ (cats who are content living with people) and chased by the vicious street cats known as `swipers’, who fear nothing but the legendary Terrorcat. While Rissa is on the trail of Barney’s missing father, Barney is uncovering Miss Whipmire’s dark secret and learning why she wants him dead. With Rissa’s help, can Barney survive long enough to seize his only chance of being turned back into a boy?

`To Be A Cat’ is what I would call a `what if?’ fantasy. Everything stems from the one question – what if people could become cats and cats could become people? This in itself isn’t an original premise. I’ve already recommended Fantasy novels in which a cat suddenly becomes a woman (`Fudoki’, March 2014) and a boy learns important life-lessons by being transformed into a series of animals (`The Sword in the Stone’, December 2012). What makes this book different is Haig’s thinking on why cats and humans might want to change places. Humanity seems to be divided  into dog-loving people and cat-loving people. I’m a cat person. Judging from the number of adorable dogs in his books, Haig is a  dog-person but he still has a shrewd understanding of cat psychology. He knows about cats’ contempt for human rules, their single-minded devotion to their own comfort, and the fact that they will do almost anything for tinned sardines. The Siamese cat who has become Miss Whipmire has been traumatized by casual human cruelty. She wants power over her own destiny, or at least to be able to open tins herself. She’s fiercely protective of her only kitten and totally ruthless towards everyone else – a truly terrifying Fantasy villainess. As someone brought up in a house full of Siamese cats, I found her behaviour perfectly plausible.

Much of what happens to cat-Barney is very funny, especially in the Needle household, where he’s treated like a toy by Gavin’s ghastly little sister, but there is an underlying seriousness to his adventures. Barney and Rissa have both been picked on for being different but Rissa sees this as meaning that she’s special. Besides, she genuinely doesn’t care what other people think of her. Barney does not have Rissa’s self-confidence. He has a `glass half empty’ outlook and he’s inherited from his father a tendency to run away from difficulties and responsibilities. Becoming a cat, gives Barney the opportunity to find out how imperfect other people’s home lives are and learn to appreciate the good things about his own situation. In order to break the spell, Barney has to want his own life back but becoming human again means accepting an inevitable mixture of success and failure, hope and fear, happiness and sorrow.

Matt Haig is an author who has suffered from severe depression himself. He `wrote himself out of depression’ by creating stories about people who find reasons to go on living, however bleak things may seem. His books celebrate the often taken for granted pleasures of friendship and family life and the amazing capacity of humans to love one another. So, why read `To Be A Cat’, rather than Haig’s novels for older readers? For a start, the conventions of children’s fiction allow Haig to insert a delightful version of himself into the narrative. As `the author’  he addresses the reader directly  – `…stories aren’t always lies. They are things stored in all our imaginations’ – and keeps interrupting the story to point out the important bits, even though he has promised not to – `I’m not good with promises, they make me itchy’.

The book still has a strong plot (there’s a brilliant twist concerning the Terrorcat) and a fast pace. Children’s authors have to condense their ideas until they can be expressed in the very bones of the story and that often makes them come across more strongly. You can’t get away with sloppy story-telling when writing for children and you must never, ever be boring. Another thing you can’t get away with is sentimentality. Some people find Haig’s adult novels a bit sugary and sentimental. `To Be A Cat’ has a pleasing sharpness about it. The plot may be fantastical but the human and animal characters are presented with realistic flaws. Consequently there cannot be a simplistic family-reunited happy ending. `But that’s what life is like sometimes. It has bits of sadness in it, splinters in the happiness.’

If I still haven’t convinced you to try `To Be A Cat’, go to Haig’s excellent website ( and look at his `10 reasons why it is okay to read YA’. He makes a strong argument for the value of Children’s and Young Adult literature. Until next time…


P.S. I think I may have changed places with my Birman cat years ago. It explains a lot.




I’m recommending a double dose of Fantasy fiction this week. Set in 12th century Japan, Kij Johnson’s `Fudoki’ is a Fantasy novel about the leading character’s fantasy life. It came out in 2003 and is available in paperback or on Kindle. The paperback edition is rather expensive but it does have a  wonderful cover-picture by Michael Dringenberg showing a warrior who is half woman and half cat. In the framing story, 70 year old Princess Harueme looks back over her life while writing a story about a cat who is turned into a woman. As for the title, fudoki can mean `records’ but also a collection of stories and traditions that sums up a person (or a cat’s) heritage and identity.

Harueme is an Imperial Princess, the daughter and sister of Emperors of Japan, but she has never had much power over her own destiny.  Now that she is dying, custom decrees that she must leave the palace which has been her home for so long and spend her last days as a Buddhist nun. While she is preparing to go, Harueme recalls incidents from her life such as her disastrous marriages, her efforts to help her grieving brother,  the one time she ran away from court and the one lover who meant the world to her. As she writes a bizarre story about a cat-woman, Harueme ponders the relationships that were most important to her. The Princess comes to realize that she may have been wrong about the love of her life.

In Princess Harueme’s story, a young tortoiseshell is part of a large group of female cats and kittens living in a derelict mansion in Kyoto. When an earthquake sets the mansion on fire, the tortoiseshell is the sole survivor, the only one left to pass on the stories of her feline clan. Devastated by her loss and unwilling to lose her identity by joining another group of cats, the tortoiseshell takes refuge in an ancient gateway to the great Tokaido road. There she encounters one of the millions of kami (gods or spirits) that inhabit Japan. The tortoiseshell doesn’t see the point of gods but the kami of the Tokaido road transforms her  into a woman. She begins a thousand-mile journey along the great  road and discovers that everything she might need in her new life is magically provided.

The cat may have the body of a woman but she doesn’t yet know how to behave like a human. Close to a shrine dedicated to Fox spirits, she encounters a noblewoman called Nakara, who herself has a curious history. Nakara invites the cat-woman to join her on a pilgrimage. In spite of their differences the two become friends. The cat’s killer instincts make her a formidable warrior and when she saves Nakara’s group from bandits, she earns the nickname Kagaya-hime (Princess Glory). She later meets Nakara’s adopted brother, Kitsune, who like Kagaya-hime isn’t what he seems. Kitsune’s brother has been killed in a feud with a rival clan. When he rides off to war with the formidable old warrior Takase, Kagaya-hime goes with them. She still has a lot to learn about the brutal world of humans.

This novel is a personal favourite of mine for a number of reasons. Firstly it is set in the extraordinary period of Japanese culture when aristocratic women were writing revelatory personal diaries and the world’s first great novels. The survival of these books means that we know a great deal about life in the sophisticated Imperial court where nobles were judged by their ability to improvise poems, play sad songs and wear subtly matching colours. This is an era which inspired one of my own Fantasy novels (White Cranes Castle) and if you want to know more about it I recommend a book called `The World of the Shining Prince’ by Ivan Morris. Johnson obviously did a great deal of research before writing this novel and its predecessor, `The Fox Woman’, but the result isn’t dry or scholarly. She describes the landscapes and lifestyles of early medieval Japan in a passionate and sensuous way and she has created a sympathetic central character.  Harueme is an intelligent woman forced to live an elegant but restricted life. Controlled by her male relatives, she is not allowed to travel and even within the palace she must constantly  hide herself behind screens. No wonder that Harueme chooses to write a story about a creature who has no family and is entirely free to roam Japan.

As a cat lover I was bound to find `Fudoki’ irresistible but you don’t have to like cats to enjoy this novel because Johnson writes about them in such an unsentimental way. The cat colony is beautifully observed. The cats drowse and groom and play until an earthquake strikes. The subsequent fire is vividly portrayed from the point of a view of a baffled and terrified young cat, running away on badly burned paws. The tortoiseshell can expect no help or pity from other cats. She is on her own. Even after Kagaya-hime has been turned into a woman she continues to think like a cat. She hunts and kills and is focused on her own survival. She understands lust but not love and she gets on better with her horse than with people. However, Kagaya-hime’s encounter with a kami does leave her curious about whether everything has a soul, even prey-animals. This leads to charming scenes in which she questions a representative of the Empire of Mice and has an argument with some feisty riceballs.

As a writer, I love this book because it is about the importance of choosing and telling your own story, however strange that story may seem to other people. Like her feline heroine, Princess Harueme has always had an interest in mice and other small creatures. She has been much mocked for this eccentric behaviour but it is one of the things which makes her unique. Two of the characters in `Fudoki’, Kitsune and Nakara, played traditional roles in `The Fox Woman’ but in this novel they have chosen their own histories and life-paths. Unlike `The Cat with a Litter of Ten’ or `The Cat Born the Year the Star Fell’, Kagaya-hime was too young to have earned a place in the story of her original clan. Can `The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles’ found her own fudoki? Read the novel to find out. Until next week…