Friday, July 17, 2020

Cleo: The Small Black Cat Who Helped Heal a Family by Helen Brown

Reviewed by Jeanne

I have reviewed Cleo before; I love all of Helen Brown’s books but this one holds a special place in my heart.  I’ve read it a couple of times at least, and checked specific passages more times than that.  However, it has finally come out on audio, read by the author herself, so I have a good excuse to bring it up again.

For the uninitiated, Cleo is the story of how a family ends up with a small black kitten after a tragedy.  Helen was a young mother with two sons and a somewhat rocky marriage when Sam, her older son, decides he wants a kitten as a gift for his ninth birthday. He picks Cleo out but has to wait until she’s ready to leave her mother. Before that happens, Sam is hit by a car and killed. 

Numbed and in shock in the weeks that follow, Helen is taken aback when the kitten is delivered after Sam’s death.  Her first impulse is tell the woman to take the kitten away, but her younger son, Rob, is insistent that they take “Sam’s kitten.” The kitten turns out to be a handful, but her antics prove a distraction from the pain the family is experiencing. 

I always say that this book is a bit of a hard sell because not many people want to read a book about the death of a child.  I picked it up because of the feline on the cover (of course!) but I admit to having reservations at first. What I found was a wonderful, warm meditation on life, love, family, forgiveness, healing, and cats, told with honesty, pain, and more than a bit of humor. She challenges her own assumptions, admits her failings, and shows her readers how she not only survived but thrived.  Her family and friends emerge from the pages as vividly as if I knew them personally, and Cleo—Egyptian goddess Cleo!—could be one of my own cats, had she condescended to live the Appalachian region with a clowder of misfit felines. 

In short, I adored the book and have given it to many people. It resonates.

When the audio became available recently, I thought it would be fun to check it out and listen to a little bit of it to hear Helen’s voice. (Her writing style is so intimate and warm that I feel we’re old friends so I can call her by her first name without feeling presumptuous.)  I wouldn’t need to listen to it all, since as indicated above, I had already read it; and besides, I am not much of an audio book person. I like reading. 

Well, audio fan or not, I was sucked in immediately all over again. I loved hearing the story in Helen’s New Zealand/Australian accent and I picked up on things I had forgotten from my reading.  I admit I had been slightly concerned before I started listening because I had listened to another book “Read by Author!” and felt that they really really should have employed a professional; words that had sparkled on the page died in monotone.  In this case, however, no voice actor could have read this book any better.  I had always loved Helen’s writing voice—the lush descriptions, the delightful choice of words, her use of metaphor—and now I could hear her physical voice, just as warm and friendly as her writing. She tells her story with impeccable comedic timing as well as with glimmers of emotion under the words.  

Print and audio versions come highly recommended!

(Note:  Cleo has been published in numerous countries with several variations in subtitle; our print version is Cleo: The Cat Who Mended a Family. This is true of most of Helen’s work.  My personal favorite title is Cats and Daughters:  They Don’t Always Come When Called because it reflects the content so well.  Please do not tell Helen’s current cat, Jonah, this since the same book carries his name in most editions. I would not hurt Jonah’s feelings for the world. At present, he joins Helen for weekly Facebook readings of the above book, known also After Cleo Came Jonah. See for videos and more information.

Also, followers of the Bristol Public Library's Facebook page may have noticed that Helen's books pop up frequently in the Flora Loves the Library videos.  You can see Cats and Daughters in the bingo video, Bono in the bookdrop video, and the audio book of Cleo in the the video about audio books.  Check them out at

I haven't worked Tumbledown Manor into a video yet, but stay tuned!)

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