“Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World” by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter

DeweyEarlier this year, my mom’s book club read Katarina Bivald’s The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, and in an email, the Swedish author shared some information on how she managed to write about small-town Iowa despite the fact that she’d never even visited the U.S. “I chose Iowa because the only thing I knew about the state was that they had a lot of corn, and that they had a world-famous library cat named Dewey Readmore Books,” she said in an email. “If you haven’t read the book about Dewey, I heartily recommend it!”

I had heard of Dewey—he was pretty famous for a cat, after all—but I guess I assumed that the book would be 300 pages of cute-animal anecdotes. However, the Wikipedia article on Dewey stated that it “told the story of Dewey’s life at the library, interspersed with the difficulties faced by the town and [Vicki] Myron in her personal life,” which made it sound like it would be more interesting than I’d originally thought.

Librarian Myron, who discovered Dewey as a kitten in the book drop box one brutally cold morning, gives a lot of background about the town of Spencer, Iowa, a community hit hard by the financial crisis of the 1980s, in which half the farms in the area went into foreclosure. Then Land O’Lakes, one of the town’s biggest employers, closed its plant. “In 1979, there wasn’t a vacant storefront in town for Santa to set up shop in. In 1985, there were twenty-five empty storefronts… There was a running joke: the last store owner out of downtown Spencer, please turn off the lights.”

Then Dewey arrived, and his story “resonated with the people of Spencer. We identified with it. Hadn’t we all been shoved down the library drop box by the banks? By outside economic forces? By the rest of America, which ate our food but didn’t care about the people who grew it? Here was an alley cat, left for dead in a freezing drop box, terrified, alone, and clinging to  life. He made it through that dark night, and that terrible event turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to him.”

Dewey took up residence in the library, where he charmed almost everyone in town (Myron makes it clear that there were a few anti-feline cranks and curmudgeons, including several on the city council). Dewey was not shy; he loved people, and posed happily for photos, which undoubtedly helped spread his fame. In 1990, a profile in the national magazine Country exposed millions of readers to the handsome feline. Eventually, a film crew from Japan flew to Iowa to shoot footage for a documentary, and visitors from far and wide started stopping by the library in order to meet Dewey.

Hundreds of people believed that they had a special relationship with the cat, but Myron is the one who took him home when the library was closed for Christmas, brought him to the vet, and gave him occasional baths (which he hated). Myron suffered from serious health issues and was also raising her daughter as a single mom after divorcing her alcoholic husband, so she grew to rely on Dewey for comfort and solace, as well as moments of laughter and fun.

The author’s task is to make the case that Dewey truly was a special cat, and I think she does the job. “Dewey had that personality: enthusiastic, honest, charming, radiant, humble (for a cat), and above all, a friend to anyone and everyone. It wasn’t just beauty. It wasn’t just a great story. Dewey had charisma, like Elvis or any of the other people who will live in our minds forever. There are dozens of library cats in the United States, but none came close to accomplishing what Dewey accomplished. He wasn’t just another cat for people to pet and smile about. Every regular user of the library, every single one, felt they had a unique relationship with Dewey. He made everyone feel special.”

Dewey lived to a ripe old 19 years of age, and his obituary ran in over 270 newspapers. He died in 2006, and I would imagine that if he were around today, he’d have his own Instagram account and Facebook fan page. It’s easier for an animal to become famous now; a tabby named Nala Cat has over four million Instagram followers, as well as her own brand of cat food and lucrative sponsorship deals. It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which Dewey could have become such a celebrity that his fame would have interfered with the day-to-day operations of the library.

But while Dewey was an international icon, he was first and foremost a part of his local community, there to provide smiles and companionship to the library patrons of Spencer, Iowa. Thanks to Myron’s open-hearted and moving account of his life, his memory will live on.

“The Turn of the Key” by Ruth Ware

The Turn of the KeyIf last year’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway took inspiration from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, then the title of Ruth Ware’s latest thriller, The Turn of the Key, seems to pay homage to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. I’ve never read James’ novella, but according to an interview, Ware herself hadn’t read it either when she began writing: “I vaguely knew what the plot was, that it was about a governess and ghosts, but that was about it… It was only about halfway through that the penny dropped. At that point I decided that I had better read The Turn of the Screw so I knew what I was dealing with and so that I could ensure any overlaps were deliberate rather than accidental.”

Screw was published in 1898, while Key is undeniably a product of the 21st century, with most of the action taking place in a “smart house” in Scotland owned by two architects. The Elincourts have four children and are seeking a nanny who is willing to relocate to their remote Highlands home, a Victorian lodge that’s been modernized with a wide array of cutting-edge features. Lights, heat, phones, curtains, the coffeemaker and the shower—all those and more are controlled by the “Happy” system.

Rowan Caine figures dealing with the complicated app is a small price to pay for what seems like the perfect job, thanks to its fat salary and the luxurious environs of Heatherbrae House. But then she starts hearing frightening sounds, including footsteps from the supposedly sealed-up attic above her room, and mysterious shrieks that definitely aren’t coming from her young charges. One of the daughters, eight-year-old Maddie, seems convinced that they are sharing the house with ghosts. The fact that several previous nannies had left the Elincourts’ employ abruptly seem to indicate that something is very wrong.

Rowan may not believe in ghosts, but when both parents have to go out of town, leaving her alone with the children, the spooky goings-on accelerate, driving her nearly to the point of madness. “Suddenly… I understood what dark terrors had driven those four previous nannies out of their post and away. To lie here, night after night, listening, waiting, staring into the darkness at that locked door, that open keyhole gaping into blackness… I would not sleep again tonight. I knew that now.”

The Turn of the Key is an ideal Halloween read, though I must admit that I found the ending rather disappointing, as Ware throws in perhaps one twist too many. If you’re not already a fan of her work, this is perhaps not the best book to start with (I’d recommend either Mrs. Westaway or The Woman in Cabin 10), but all of her talent for creating a creepy, evocative mood is on full display here, and Key does provide plenty of gothic, spooky fun.

“Heaven, My Home” by Attica Locke

Heaven My HomeNow that we’re almost three years into the Trump presidency, most of the new books, films, music and TV shows reaching the market were conceived and created during this particular era in American history. Not all of it deals directly with current events; a Los Angeles Times piece called the 1980s-set evil-clown film “It” “a thinly veiled parable of life in Donald Trump’s America,” while even romance writers have changed their approach to alpha-male heroes as a result of the man in the White House.

Mystery novelist Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird was releasead in 2017, so considering publishing’s long lead times, it was written well before the 2016 election. However, its sequel, Heaven, My Home, takes place in the immediate aftermath of the election, announcing itself as a Trump-era novel right from the start, as its protagonist, African-American Texas Ranger Darren Mathews, is described as “depressed, sick with a rage that was eating him from the inside. Daily, he marveled with a befuddled anger at what a handful of scared white people could do to a nation. He never again wanted to hear them question the point of rioting in Ferguson or Baltimore, or Watts and Detroit for that matter, hear them wonder why black folks would torch their own neighborhoods, because in an act of blind fury, white voters had just lit a match to the very country they claimed to love… After Obama, it was forgiveness betrayed.”

Some of Mathews’ misery stems from the fact that he’s stuck on desk duty at the Houston office, largely in an effort to save his marriage, which was hanging by a thread due in part to all the time he was spending on the road. He’s busy investigating the Aryan Brotherhood, poring through bank records and chat room transcripts, when an opportunity arises to travel to East Texas to help investigate the disappearance of a nine-year-old boy. Levi King is the son of a notorious white supremacist who is currently in jail on drug-related charges. (“Never mind that he’d skated on assault charges in a separate case that had left a black man, a father of two, dead, Darren thought.”)

Mathews’ boss sees a chance to take down the Brotherhood “before the change of power in Washington. Before a Trump Justice Department mistakes the Aryan Brotherhood for some sort of honor guard.” As a black Ranger, Mathews is seen as someone who can speak freely with the other African-Americans in the community, potential witnesses to the ongoing racial violence.

Adding an extra dollop of intrigue is Mathews’ strained relationship with his mother, who has been blackmailing her son due to a piece of evidence she has hidden away which implicates him in a cover-up. This is a direct continuation of events that took place in Bluebird, Bluebird, which is why I referred to this book as a sequel, not a word I generally use when discussing mystery series, where new installments are traditionally expected to stand alone. I wouldn’t suggest reading Heaven, My Home unless you’ve first read Bluebird, Bluebird.

I recognize that not everyone will be up for reading a novel that never lets you forget about the traumas our country is going through right now. A lot of the reason I read is for the pure joy of escapism. But Locke is a tremendously good writer, and there’s a big difference between reading an exciting mystery novel and something like, say, Proof of Conspiracy. (Don’t expect a review of that one anytime soon.) Long after the time that Trump has finally left office, people will turn to Heaven, My Home to find out what life was like in this era, but also for the pleasure of reading a fine and entertaining book.

“Royal Holiday” by Jasmine Guillory

Royal HolidayJust a few months after her appearance in The Wedding Party, fashion stylist Maddie Forest is back in Royal Holiday, which sends her to England to pick out clothes for a young duchess (unnamed in the book, but obviously inspired by Meghan Markle). However, Maddie and the duchess play small supporting roles in Royal Holiday, which focuses on Maddie’s mom, Vivian Forest.

Vivian is an Oakland social worker who hasn’t taken a vacation in years when her daughter persuades her to come along on her Christmastime work trip. (The duchess’ regular stylist is out of commission due to a difficult pregnancy, so Maddie will be filling in.) It may be her last chance to relax before starting a new job—Vivian’s boss is retiring, and she’s in line to become director of her department once he departs.

Vivian, who has been divorced for decades, was not expecting to find romance on her trip, but then she meets Malcolm, the Queen’s private secretary. Smitten with the American visitor, Malcolm offers to show her around the property. Their flirtation develops into a friendship, and when it’s time for Maddie to go home, Malcolm invites Vivian to stay on and spend a few extra days with him. Surely there’s no chance that this fling could turn into something more, considering that the two of them live thousands of miles apart?

After reading Guillory’s trilogy of novels about a group of friends who are mostly in their early 30s, it was refreshing to encounter a more seasoned pair. Their priorities are different, and they’re both in stable, successful careers. Certainly The Wedding Party was more of an emotional roller-coaster ride, while Royal Holiday is basically a pleasant opportunity to spend time with some very likable characters in splendid surroundings, from Sandringham House to the Victoria & Albert Museum’s jewelry collection.

[Incidentally, I went to Guillory’s launch event at a bookstore in Oakland, and she was asked who she’d like to play Malcolm in a hypothetical Royal Holiday film. Idris Elba’s name came up, but Guillory felt it might not be believable for the “sexiest man alive” to portray a character who has been unattached for several years. Of course, readers may “cast” the characters in any way they please, and I think Elba and Viola Davis would make a perfect Malcolm and Vivian.]