I read a lot, and I usually have a nice stack of books waiting for me at all times, but every once in a while I get to the bottom of the stack before my new books come on hold at the library. Such a thing happened this week (okay, it’s true that I have my next book club book waiting for me, “Cutting for Stone,” but I’m not quite ready to start that one), so I started browsing the stacks at the library looking for a few things that I could take home right away. I was in the mood for some YA fantasy, so I was scoping out likely titles in that section when I noticed the shelf of new YA books sitting apart. They were bright and shiny and tempting. Two different titles caught my eye, and a glance at both dust jackets convinced me to take both home.
I started with Pauley’s “Cat Girl’s Day Off,” since I was a little more suspicious of that title, but I was quickly sucked in by the quirky characters, hillarious chatter, and outragous plot. I finished the book in one day. The next day I started Cashman’s “The Exceptionals.” After only a few pages, I couldn’t believe what a strange coincidence it was that the two books I randomly picked up off the new YA book shelf at the library both had to do with families that have special abilities (talents, superpowers) that are impressive, while the daughter in each book has a talent that seems weak and embarrassing: talking to animals. The books are really quite different in every other sense, but, really, what are the odds? In the first book, Natalie can only communicate with cats, while Claire, in “The Exceptionals” can hear all animals (in fact, it’s the cat who gives her the most trouble, mainly because of its attitude, but that’s the point with cats, right?). And, oh wow, now that I’m writing about it, I realize that the book I read right before these two (a queer little juvenile book titled “Sunshine Picklelime”) also had the main character, a girl, that could communicate with animals–strange trend.
Anyway, “Cat Girl’s Day Off” is set in contemporary Chicago, in a world in most ways like our own, except that certain people have special “talents,” as they’re called here, but are more like superpowers. For example, in Natalie’s family, her older sister has three super cool Talents, including being a human lie detector; her younger sister can ‘disappear’ like a chameleon; her mother has a really high IQ and laser vision; and her father’s nose is hypersensitive and he can tell each bit of chemical component in things. For the most part they live and work among the regular folk and are not much commented on. Natalie is somewhat embarrassed by her meager talent of talking to cats, and so she keeps it under wraps at her high school (who wants to go through life being known as “cat girl,” right?). But, when she understands the wailings of a pink cat owned by a celebrity columnist, she gets caught up in a crazy mystery involving kidnapping, mistaken identities, and the filming of an homage movie to John Hughes and “Ferris Bueler’s Day Off.” The pacing is madcap and the writing is witty and often hysterical. I love the different cats and their attitudes.
On the other hand, “The Exceptionals” is a much more serious affair. Claire also has a family with “special” abilities, like telekinesis, clairvoyance, and the ability to talk with ghosts. They all live and work at or attend Cambrial Academy, a school where those with exceptional talents can practice them in an environment of safety and secrecy. Claire finds her “special” so humiliating that after a childhood of feeling like she was looked down on, she pretends that she has lost her ability, and so gets sent to regular school. Unfortunately, as a sophmore, she gets in trouble, and her parents decide it’s time for her to attend Cambrial Academy after all, even without a “special.” About the same time, some of the most exceptional students start disappearing, and Claire has to learn how to refine her talent to see if she can use it to help the school, her family, and even the world. It is not as unique as the other book, but the writing is competent and the characters are fleshed out enough for me to connect with and care about them. I love it that Claire tries to hone her skills on the principal’s cat, but that cat does not trust her at all, and repeatedly dismisses her and taunts her. It’s a small moment, but pretty funny. In the end, she connects with a hawk and its baby instead.
Both books were good and I might have given both about four stars, but “Cat Girl’s Day Off” had something a little more special, to my tastes, and I was tickled by the talking cats, so I gave it five stars. “The Exceptionals” paled a bit in comparison, and I think it will ultimately bemore forgettable, so I down-graded my review to three and 1/2 stars. I’d recommend either one, depending on your mood and reading tastes, as both are solid stories and well-written. But I definitely give the edge to that silly pink cat.