Thursday, August 13, 2009

CLEO: How an uppity cat helped heal a family
Helen Brown

Allen & Unwin - $32.99
Note:Pub date 31 August.

Warning - this book made The Bookman bawl his eyes out in several places A sometimes sad (very), mostly wonderful story. Watch out for it at your bookshop or library later in the month and be sure to keep tissues at hand.

Helen Brown wasn’t a cat person, but her nine-year-old son Sam was. After he heard about a litter of new kittens, he pleaded to go and see them. Helen’s heart melted as Sam held one of the kittens with a look of total adoration. The deal was done: as soon as the kitten – dubbed ‘Cleo’ - was old enough, it would be delivered to Sam.
A week later, Sam was run over and killed. Not long after, a little black kitten was delivered to Helen Brown’s doorstep. Still totally traumatised by grief, Helen had forgotten about the kitten. She was ready to send Cleo back, but when Sam’s younger brother Rob held the tiny kitten, he smiled for the first time since witnessing his brother’s death. There was no choice: Cleo had to stay.
Kitten or not, there seemed no hope of becoming a normal family again. But Cleo’s zest for life slowly taught the traumatised family to laugh again. Cleo went on to become the high priestess of the household, vetoing Helen’s new men, terrifying visiting dogs and building a special bond with Rob and Helen’s new baby daughter.

Helen Brown grew up in New Plymouth. Following an unspectacular stint in journalism school, Helen embarked on a career in newspapers. Over three decades she has become an award-winning columnist for newspapers and magazines throughout New Zealand. Helen has written ten books, several of which are collections of her columns, and a one woman show, A Slice of Banana Cake.
In 1997 Helen moved to Melbourne with second husband, Philip, and three (now nearly grown up) children, though continued to write columns for New Zealand newspapers nationwide, as well as a monthly column in Next. She was recently awarded 2009 Columnist of the Year at the Qantas Media Awards. Cleo was completed while she was recovering from breast cancer surgery last year.
The Bookman always pays great attention to an author's acknowledgements as they often given interesting clues or insights into the pre-history of the book.
I was greatly taken by the first para of Helen Brown's acknowledgements which reads as follows:
Every kitten belongs to a litter. Likewise, Cleo’s story would never have been born without help from many wonderful people. I’d like to thank the Victorian Writers’ Centre for running a course on non-fiction writing by Meme McDonald. Without her encouragement, I would never have summoned the audacityto email the idea to Allen & Unwin’s Friday Pitch. I know of no other reputable publisher that encourages authors to submit unsolicited book outlines with a promise of a response within days. Friday Pitch is inspired, revolutionary and the best news for lonely writers. Thanks to fiction editor Louise Thurtell, Cleo landed in the hands of Jude McGee. Magnificent Jude believed in our cat story from the start. She provided unwavering support through various forms of self-doubt, along with an unexpected health hiccup while I was writing the book.
So to the folk at Allen & Unwin I say good on you for your Friday Pitch iniative, may you be rewarded greatly by more wonderful books like this, and to Louise Thurtell and Jude McGee in particular I say well done. How fortuitous for an author to end up with such a talented and sympathetic team. Finally to Allen & Unwin's NZ Publicity Manager, Abba Renshaw, my warm thanks for always keeping me up with the play.

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