The Underneath By Kathi Appelt Published by Simon and Schuster ISBN 978 1 84738 310 5 Novels with animals as the central characters are notoriously difficult to pull off. Animals don't speak, or experience human emotions. Any writer who humanises animals for a novel for older readers is asking for trouble. The central characters in Kathi Appelt's debut novel The Underneath are an ancient worn-out hound and the family of cats which adopts him. There is the snake who lives in a jar and who has terrible personality problems. And lurking in the still river is a giant alligator. The central human is the evil, damaged Gar Face, a very bad example of what humans can be. Appelt has set herself quite a task weaving this lot together into a story that manages to stay afloat. Her first clever move is to set The Underneath in the secretive, sultry bayou region of the southern states of America. The area is teeming with mysterious creatures and even more mysterious legends. An abandoned pregnant cat hears the sad distant howling of a dog somewhere in the backwaters of the bayou, so she goes to investigate. The baying hound is chained up outside a dilapidated wooden house. He is old and in pain. The old dog befriends the lonely cat, an animal his kind is supposed to hate. He tells the cat to hide in the Underneath, the dark space under the porch, where she can have her kittens in safety. When twin kittens are born, the four become an unlikely family.