Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: books and reading, coming of age, fantasy, magical realism
Published by HarperVia on December 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository, Bookshop.org
A celebration of books, cats, and the people who love them, infused with the heartwarming spirit of The Guest Cat and The Travelling Cat Chronicles.
Bookish high school student Rintaro Natsuki is about to close the secondhand bookstore he inherited from his beloved bookworm grandfather. Then, a talking cat named Tiger appears with an unusual request. The feline asks for—or rather, demands—the teenager’s help in saving books with him. The world is full of lonely books left unread and unloved, and Tiger and Rintaro must liberate them from their neglectful owners.
Their mission sends this odd couple on an amazing journey, where they enter different mazes to set books free. Through their travels, Tiger and Rintaro meet a man who leaves his books to perish on a bookshelf, an unwitting book torturer who cuts the pages of books into snippets to help people speed read, and a publishing drone who only wants to create bestsellers. Their adventures culminate in one final, unforgettable challenge—the last maze that awaits leads Rintaro down a realm only the bravest dare enter...
When we first meet Rintaro Natsuki, he has come to a fork in his road, at the point where he’s going to have to take it whether he wants to or not. He’s just been orphaned for the second time. When his parents died, he was still a child, and packed off to his grandfather without any choice or protest on his part.
At his grandfather’s death, Rintaro is in high school, even if he skips class a lot. He’s old enough to have a voice in his future – if he can come to terms with the reality of his loss. And if he can manage to reach out of his own social isolation to take it.
His legacy from his grandfather is a beautiful, marvelous and just barely profitable second-hand bookstore. A place that Rintaro has no desire to leave, but he seems to have no option to stay. At least not until the talking cat Tiger the Tabby swaggers out of the back of the bookstore and demands that Rintaro come with him on a journey to save books.
Rintaro loves books and reading. He also has nothing better to do and no motivation to do it. So he follows the cat through the suddenly endless book stacks and emerges into a labyrinth of wonder and danger. He’ll need not just courage and a bit of cunning, but every single drop of his love of reading to save the endangered books – and himself along the way.
Escape Rating A-: I picked this one up for the cat and the books, in that order. Which reminds me that the cat pictured on the US cover does not do Tiger the Tabby justice. The UK cover (pictured at left) does a much better job of giving Tiger his due.
But the story, of course, isn’t really about the cat. It is, however, at least in part about the way that cats – or any companion animals – can save us even from ourselves if we just let them. And the way that books and reading can give us time and space and tools to save ourselves if we let them into our minds just as the cats do when we let them into our hearts.
It’s also a bit of magical realism that leads into a very modern type of fairy tale. Tiger leads Rintaro into a series of labyrinths where books and reading are under assault in the guise of the love of books combined with bowing and scraping to market pressures and other distractions of modern life to save books by means that will, in the end, destroy them.
I think the story does conflate the love of the container – the physical book – with the love of what it contains and the experience of reading. I’m a bit concerned about that as I’m mostly an ebook reader because the genres I read are not widely represented in large print. If I were confined to the physical artifact I’d miss out on the thing I really want out of reading – the immersion in the story that the physical AND the electronic article contain and present for my enjoyment.
I digress just a bit.
What makes The Cat Who Saved Books such a lovely little read, however, is the totality of Rintaro’s journey. Not just the thoughtfully scary labyrinths where books go to die in the name of loving them, but Rintaro’s first steps on that path to adulthood. Because the story is about Rintaro’s chance to choose his life. To stay a socially withdrawn hikikomori, always dependent on someone else to deal with the world he has retreated from, or to take up the reins of the bookstore and his own life and learn to stand on his own. And that’s the part of the story that grabs the heart in its sharp, feline claws.
Because this is a book about books and reading, I can’t resist leaving this review without including a couple of readalikes. Any reader of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld will recognize that the way the back of the bookstore opens into endless shelves means that the store connects to ‘L’ space, the liminal place where all great libraries connect. The Discworld is not at all like The Cat Who Saved Books but that love of reading certainly exists in both places. The Girl Who Reads on the Métro by Christine Féret-Fleury is another lovely story about someone looking for a purpose who finds it in books and reading and loving them and the people she associates with them. And last but not least, more in tone than in specific, “All the World’s Treasures” by Kimberly Pauley, included in Never Too Old to Save the World, a story about a young woman inheriting a shop from her grandmother and discovering that there are connections to more places and infinitely more treasures than she ever imagined.