Guest Review: Cat House by Michael Peak

This WTF guest review is from Courtney Milan, who gives fair warning that this book is bonkers.

Here’s her intro so we can ease on into this thing:

At RT, somehow I mentioned that one of the first sexy books I ever read was a non-romance novel.

I was 13. My sister had just turned 15. She liked fantasy novels and cats, and so one of her friends found what looked like the perfect birthday gift for her: a fantasy novel called…Cat House. Look at the cover. It’s so cat-filled. Anyone could make this mistake, especially if they were 15 and didn’t know what a Cat House was.

My sister read the book, then solemnly put it on the shelf and told me it was a Very Bad Book and Nobody Should Ever Read It.

Naturally, I read it immediately.

In my memory, it was filled with cat sex. Tons of cat sex. I told my sister, after I’d finished, that it was definitely a Very Bad Book and Nobody Should Ever Read It. Having thus demonstrated that we were still people who were true to our relatively conservative upbringing and definitely not at all into books about cat sex, this book somehow, magically, continued to be read until the binding split and pages started falling out.

Sarah heard me tell this story and naturally asked me to write a review.

I am sorry to report that this is a Very Bad Book and Nobody Should Ever Read It.

Please do not read any further if you do not want to be spoiled for a book in which cats repeatedly have lots of sex.

Also please be warned for discussion of rape, consent, and casual racism.

The premise of this book is…

It’s…

Our protagonists are a group of housecat prostitutes–hence the title, “Cat House.” Our Heroines are a group of female cats who have been spayed. These spayed cats have decided that they still want to have sex, and so they now trade sex with male cats in exchange for dead animals. They don’t need the prey to survive; they all have homes. I’m not really sure what the point of the prey is except to get the male cats annoyed later on in the book.

There are also unspayed cats who live in the area. They believe that the spay scar is a punishment meted out by Lady Farri, cat queen/demigod/underdetermined entity in the world building of this novel. It’s apparently considered immoral for cats to have sex except when they go into season? And also toms should not have to pay for sex?

In any event, these other cats believe that the cat prostitutes are very bad cats who are stealing decent toms away from good honest cats. They cause difficulties for our heroines, starting with increasingly organized bullying of the group, and rising to outright coordinated attacks.

There is also a group of coyotes who live in a nearby open space. There’s some drama with the coyote pack, but basically, the coyotes are very hungry and also want to eat cats because yum, cat.

The Cat House cats nonetheless venture into the open space which by the way does not remotely seem to follow rules of predator territory. There, they enlist a mountain lion named Sarena to come scare both the coyotes and the bully cats.

The bully cats arrive; there’s a fight. A mountain lion shows up, scares all the cats, and then is shot by a human. At this point, the Cat House cats decide that maybe those other mean cats were right–it’s an omen that Sarena was killed, and Lady Farri really doesn’t want them to have sex.

Eventually, the Cat House cats change their minds. For Reasons. Not entirely clear what those reasons are, but it’s definitely necessary for the plot that they do so, so they start meeting again. Their enemies regroup. The coyotes, emboldened by the death of the mountain lion, threaten our heroines. Our heroines discover the coyotes are planning an attack and get the coyotes to kill all their enemies. Then Sarena shows up. Turns out, it was another mountain lion that got shot!

She and two lynx friends kick the coyotes’ asses.

All ends happily.

That’s the best I can do as a summary of how this book goes.

Now, the review.

1. This book is bananapants.

My summary probably did not convey how freaking bananapants this book is. It’s bananas all the way around. There are rattlesnakes and demons and repeated religious references to Lady Farri. There’s a B-plot with humans that involves a human who feels strangely like an authorial self-insert–has a similar job to the author, lives in the same place, and yet is an incredibly sad figure of a womanizer who can’t get with the one woman he wants. He hates his neighbor for no rational reason. He and his crush get threatened by the police when they investigate this neighbor. His neighbor gets arrested for dealing drugs. You can tell the neighbor into bad shit because he spends too much time around Mexicans for a white boy (the book’s words, and thankfully this B plot is so half-baked that you can wave away the very casual racism).

There are random asides about cats watching humans having sex and about how humans are blind at night because they used to watch animals having sex and the animals were like, sheesh, God, can we have a little privacy here? So that’s why humans have no night vision.

There’s a tiny thread about the cats trying to figure out missionary style by watching humans because they want to try it out but can’t manage the mechanics.

This book is not just bananapants. It is bananashirt and bananatie and bananasocks. It is an entire banana tree.

2. This book is sometimes sex positive-ish but mostly not.

I first read this when I was growing up in a conservative household. I actually think it was, on balance, good for me to read something like this. The two main cat protagonists are represented very differently, despite both liking sex, and yet they’re both strong, likable characters. They are definitely sex workers, and the book is very clear that this is okay and they like it and anyone who says that’s not okay is going to get eaten by coyotes/trampled by mountain lions/grabbed by a hawk and left to plummet to their death. So yay for sex worker heroines who are (mostly) not punished and in fact end the story triumphant.

That being said, the depiction of other cats was so wooden as to veer into a “Not Like Other Girls” thing. Cats were either sex workers or religious fanatics about sex. It should be okay to want to have sex, or not want to have sex, or to only want sex for kittens. But in this book, there’s very little nuance in presentation of female cats beyond the two main heroines (and the one cat that is killed by a rattlesnake).

I also would not suggest reading this book if sex negativity is going to be bothersome to you. The cats in question are called “trash cats” and all sorts of other epithets repeatedly, and while the cats that call names and are violent eventually die, you’re exposed to that language over and over in ways that are wearying to read.

I would additionally not call this book a model of feminist positivity for cat sex workers. This is what our cat leader (named Halina) says to the other cats about their business:

As you know, we have never refused a tom for any reason, as long as he could contribute fresh game of some kind. None of us need the food, for we all live with good paladins [this is what they call the humans they live with] who provide well for us. But the paladin cannot provide mates for us, and since we have become scarred and no longer go into season, we must be aggressive and often take what we can get. Rejection of a single tom could instill fear in other potential clients that they too might at sometime be rejected.

As an adult, I can break this down a little better than I could as a kid. First, this is sloppy world-building. If all you want is sex, and you don’t need the food, but also don’t want to drive anyone away, why do you ask for food at all? I can’t figure out at all what the motivation is.

Second, this is just terrible. What is this bullshit idea that women can’t tell men no for fear they won’t get any men at all? Consent matters, and the implication that people who sell sex for money (or mice) don’t get to consent any longer is definitely gross.

(The book does explain that male cats can be rejected if they are disgusting enough. The cat who is rejected–a stray who smells bad–goes crazy because he is unwanted. More on this later.)

3. There isn’t any good sex on the page in the book.

My younger self remembers this book being FILLED with cat sex. Sadly, with several decades of reading experience to judge by, it isn’t so.

There is a lot of implied sex, both between the humans and the cats (though thankfully only once did humans and cats come together in a sex scene, and in that case, the cat was acting purely voyeuristically). The vast majority of the sex is either fade to black or so sparsely described as to be nonexistent. There is – with one exception – no description of cat parts actually meeting.

That exception is relevant. The only time sexual intercourse is actually not fade to black in this book is when one of the main cats is raped by one of the sanctimonious cat villains. That experience is actually described in greater detail than any of the other, positive encounters in the book.

It was pretty traumatic to read this time around. There is detail about the penetration and the length of the act (not long), which is definitely not the case for any of the prior sexual activities.

Even though the cats think this is monstrous, the cat who is raped is shaken up for an evening and not much longer.

As for the rapist? He does it because he went crazy in part because he got rejected by the cat he rapes. The entire set up reinforces the idea that rejection is something that you should do only if you really want to turn someone against you.

Otherwise, just shut up and close your eyes and consent.

Another cat watches her being attacked and does nothing to stop it, either, until the attack is over, even though she is big enough and fierce enough to stop him before the attack. The cat who was attacked holds a grudge about this. She is admonished repeatedly that the watcher was not the REAL enemy, and she needs to get over it. That’s the end of that plot thread.

I can’t get over how badly this is handled and how little emotional space this is given in the narrative. The rape is just there to prove that the Villain Cat is a Bad Cat – which we already knew because he’s raising up a mob to fight and kill our heroines simply because they want to have sex, but not with him.

4. There’s a lot of misogyny. A lot.

There’s a B plot involving the cat’s people – uh, paladins – and I sadly have to mention it at some point. Roger, the main human, works at a newspaper in San Diego selling ads.

Roger is a womanizer. He is depicted as having multiple women over frequently, and I can’t figure out how since the pickup lines he tries out are incredibly gross.

Roger is currently having a relationship with someone named Tammy, who is so stupid that she doesn’t know what a cougar is. Roger is very clear that he doesn’t actually like her beyond her physical appearance, and she has basically no redeeming qualities in the narrative except to help Roger keep his dick wet and to make him realize that he really does want this other woman.

About that other woman. His cat is more clear:

There’s this one female who comes over every now and then… She is truly a special creature on this earth. There is something very magnetic about her… Roger likes her the best of all. He really likes her. But it’s curious because he never touches her. They’ve never mated.

Oh, for crying out loud.

In a book that beats the reader over the head with an anvil about how people who are sanctimonious about sex are villains, is it too much to ask to not have This Trope again? The one where the Special Girl who is Not Like Those other boring Sluts?

Sigh.

The discussion of human relations – both by humans, and by cats – is also pretty darn misogynistic.

Example: “The way the female paladins smell when they go into season… They smell a lot like vinegar or something really unpleasant.” Uh, thanks.

Or, when Roger meets his neighbor:

Roger mentally played his little game of matching people with a stereotype of the opposite sex. The woman falling for Jerry Radcliff would have to be an insecure romantic, a woman with no brains who craved complete domination.

Eyeroll.

5. This wooden characterization extends to basically everyone.

I honestly cannot untangle anyone’s motivations here. There are no character arcs for anyone. There’s no growth or learning. There’s just stupidity and getting eaten by coyotes or mountain lions. The closest you get is two cats deciding that they want to be exclusive at the end of the book.

Roger knows his neighbor is a jerk because Roger has something like ESP (direct quote from the book), but Roger works for a shitty newspaper selling ads. This book was published in 1989 so we know exactly how stable that job is, so I’m not sure I trust his ESP.

The neighbor is described as a redneck who you can tell is a bad person from the get-go because he arranges a shooting party to go after a rabid mountain lion that tried to kill a young child. Don’t get me wrong. We should definitely have a conversation about gun control in this country, but shooting rabid mountain lions that go after small children is probably an appropriate use of the second amendment.

But that’s typical of the characterization in this novel – knee jerk and stereotypical from the beginning to the end. The plot advances in such a way as to demonstrate that in fact the people being depicted are precisely as deep as the stereotype in which they are first portrayed. Sigh.

6. The plot lacks any subtlety whatsoever.

I might have made it seem like there were plot twists what with the two mountain lions and one being thought dead and all that. But the book doesn’t just telegraph these plot twists; it staples them to your forehead at the beginning and then clears its throat and taps the papers hanging there repeatedly just in case you might forget.

We’re told there are two mountain lions from the very beginning. And then when one of them is shot, we’re told (by the humans) that it’s the rabid mountain lion. We, the reader, know Sarena is not dead, and sit there sighing heavily while the cats talk about her death and whether it’s a punishment from Lady Farri blah blah blah. It’s not a surprise to the reader when Sarena shows up again. It’s more like, God, why did this plot element take so long to surface?

Ditto for the “coyotes eat all the bad cats” thing at the end. The coyotes are like CAT CAT LET US EAT CAT. And the cat house cats are like, gosh, what do we DO about these mean cats? If ONLY there were someone around who would just EAT them. Wah, what a bind.

7. The writing is clunky as all hell.

As an example picked from a random page: “Mahri thought about how strange the conversation had turned out. She had gone from indulging romantic dreams to discussing murder, although there was no such word or concept in the language of farries.” (Cats are called farries in this book.)

What the hell kind of point of view thought is this? “I don’t have the word or concept for this word and concept I just expressed to myself.” That’s…not…how…thoughts…work.

There are entire paragraphs where every sentence follows the same sentence pattern. The writing is bad and it’s wearying to read.

Items 2-7 weigh so heavily that even considering the entertainment value generated by item 1, I cannot even recommend this as an “F+, this story is bananapants” read.

I’m very sorry. This is a Very Bad Book and Nobody Should Ever Read It. I apologize to my former self that this was the only book with sexual content on my shelves. I deserved better.

Self, you should have started reading romance faster.

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