The first thing I need to acknowledge is that the title and cover of this book are pretty awful. I would have had ZERO urge to pick this up based on either of those, and they do not really give you any hint of the facts or feeling of the story you're getting into.
I book talked this one so aggressively at work that all the YA librarians have read it and are spreading the gospel of Naomi Kritzer's Catfishing on CatNet. This is a book for people who love heartwarming stories about finding friends and family who will take care of you when the world gets scary.
You might have heard of Naomi Kritzer recently because she wrote a pandemic story a few years ago that was so prescient it's been getting a lot of notice--"So Much Cooking." But what I first read by her was the story "Cat Pictures Please," which is the story on which this novel is based. Go ahead and read it first, if you want--it doesn't give anything away. It's just about the character; the book introduces a bunch of people and problems.
The main character and heart of the story is a sentient AI that knows all about you. It knows everything about everyone--it is basically comprised of all the information on the internet. Mostly what it loves and wants are cat pictures, so it started a chat room for people to post cute animal pictures. It acts as a mod and calls itself CheshireCat, and it chats with friends, reposts pics, and studies human nature.
One of CheshireCat's friends is Steph, a teenager on the chatroom. Steph and her mom live a life in hiding, running from her scary dad. She's finally making IRL friends in the new town they've come to, though, so she'd really like to not have to run again. But when Steph's problems start getting bigger, the AI and her friends might need to save Steph from IRL dangers that might be over their heads.
Ugh, I'm not a blurb writer. Two big selling points here: one, everyone in this story is lovely. Well, not everyone. There are bad guys. But the big group of online friends and friends at Steph's new school are just all great. The show up for each other, and trust and respect and believe in each other. They roll with each others' weird home situations, changing pronouns, romantic confusions, and new attempts to understand humanity. Some of the bad guys are scary, and those bad guys come after them, but this story is full of people taking good care of each other, without being perfect.
Point two: watching an AI figure out how people work will never not be fun. CheshireCat is sweet and well-meaning, but only knows the internet parts of life--which is a lot, but not everything. Watching it navigate interactions with a combination of expertise and bafflement is just so heartwarming and charming and funny.
I loved this book. And the Amazon page says there will be more CatNet books, about which I am super excited. So please ignore the cover and give it a try.
(Welcome to post 2 of my dreck writing. I apologize. I make no quality promises for at least a month.)
Thank you Netgalley for sending me an advance review copy of this book before it came out months and months ago.