Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Arty -- The Highway Cats by Janet Taylor Lisle

There are times when you just need a quick read to make you feel happy.  The Highway Cats fits this criteria.

It's about a community of cats who live, fittingly, by the highway - a rough-and-tumble community, a rag-tag collection of tough cats who look out for number one and no one else.  Among these cats is Shredder, an older tom who prides himself on being just as hard as the rest of them.

Shredder is out by the highway one regular day, in time to witness three tiny kittens trying to cross the road - in horrible traffic.  Miraculously, the kittens survive.  Not only do they survive, however - they also take a shine to Shredder.

Shredder, against his better impulses, refuses to have anything to do with them.  Thus the three kittens fall into the hands of Khalia Koo, a once-beautiful Siamese who was scarred by a fire and now wears various pieces of trash over her head to hide her hideousness.  Khalia Koo and her henchcat, Jolly Roger, run a rat farm; they take the kittens in to use as pillows on cold winter nights.

But the three kittens make an unexpected impression on the highway cat community.  Suddenly these mangy, dirty, careless, foul-mouthed cats are cleaning up their acts around the kittens; the rat farm experiences a surge in productivity; and even Shredder and Khalia Koo find themselves softening.  Is it all the work of these three miraculous kittens, who seem to have a glow of their own?

Then a greater threat to their newfound peaceful lives presents itself, and it seems that even the kittens' particular brand of magic may not be enough to save the highway cats.

The Highway Cats is really short and really sweet and really... I don't know what.  Magical?  Actually, the friend who rec'd it to me may have the best word for it - surreal.  It's very surreal.  Kittens who glow, a she-cat who wears orange juice cartons to hide her deformities, a plan to drive off oncoming construction workers - it's just a very odd collection of things to work with.

But work, it does.

It's just adorable.  At just over one hundred pages, there's not a whole lot of time for anything, and yet it feels complete.  It's a bare-bones story and it works.  Sort of like Dread Locks, but fluffier.  And sweeter.  And, in a way, more fulfilling.

The characters are awesome.  Shredder was the perfect old-guy-who's-not-as-tough-as-he-thinks; Jolly Roger and Murray the Claw were funny (if shallow) henchcat types; and the three kittens, who could easily have come off annoying and perfect, were really just adorable.  Khalia Koo, however, is definitely my favorite.  She started off 'evil' and then sort of became just 'nasty' and then plain old heroic. (I'm sure it has nothing to do with the fact that I love horribly maimed characters.  Khalia Koo actually does have horrific scars.  She has this awesome line... never mind, spoilers.)

It actually is hard to say too much about this book without spoiling a lot of the action that comes about. It's not that anything is shocking or unexpected, but... it's just the sort of book that you don't want to know too much about going into.  Let it surprise you.

Because the ending is terrific.  I started grinning when I read the last page - it's the perfect ambiguous ending.  Not a whole lot is explained, because it doesn't need to be.  It just... is.

So if you're in the mood for a quick, happy-feeling little book about cats and a bit of magic, The Highway Cats is definitely the right book.

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