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The Basic Eight

The Basic Eight

4.3 40
by Daniel Handler

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Flannery Culp wants you to know the whole story of her spectacularly awful senior year. Tyrants, perverts, tragic crushes, gossip, cruel jokes, and the hallucinatory effects of absinthe -- Flannery and the seven other friends in the Basic Eight have suffered through it all. But now, on tabloid television, they're calling Flannery a murderer, which is a total lie.


Flannery Culp wants you to know the whole story of her spectacularly awful senior year. Tyrants, perverts, tragic crushes, gossip, cruel jokes, and the hallucinatory effects of absinthe -- Flannery and the seven other friends in the Basic Eight have suffered through it all. But now, on tabloid television, they're calling Flannery a murderer, which is a total lie. It's true that high school can be so stressful sometimes. And it's true that sometimes a girl just has to kill someone. But Flannery wants you to know that she's not a murderer at all -- she's a murderess.

Editorial Reviews

Time Out New York
A delicious entertainment and an unsettling statement on the irrationality of adolescence.
Max Winter
The Basic Eight is both a delicious entertainment and an unsettling statement on the irrationality of adolescence.
Time Out New York
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Flannery Culp is 19, precocious, pretentious--and incarcerated. Accused of Satanism and convicted of murder, she and her seven friends (the "Basic Eight") have been reviled and misunderstood on the Winnie Moprah Show and similar tabloid venues. So Flannery has typed up and annotated the journals of her high school years in order to tell her real story: "Perhaps they'll look at my name under the introduction with disdain, expecting apologies or pleas for pity. I have none here." Handler's sharply observed, mischievous first novel consists of Flannery's diaries from the beginning of her senior year to the Halloween murder of Adam State and its aftermath. The journals detail Flan's life in her clique of upper-middle-class San Francisco school friends, who desperately emulate adulthood by throwing dinner parties and carrying liquor flasks. Kate ("the Queen Bee"), Natasha ("less like a high school student and more like an actress playing a high school student on TV"), Gabriel ("the kindest boy in the world" and in love with Flan) and the rest begin experimenting with the hallucinogen absinthe. Squabbles once easily resolved grow deeper and darker when Natasha poisons the biology teacher who has been tormenting Flan. Should the Basic Eight turn on, and turn in, one of their own? Handler deftly keeps the mood light even as the plot careens forward, and as Flan--never a reliable narrator--becomes increasingly unhinged. The links between teen social life, tabloid culture and serious violence have been explored and exploited before, but Handler, and Flannery, know that. If they're not the first to use such material, they may well be the coolest. Handler's confident satire is not only cheeky but packed with downright lovable characters whose youthful misadventures keep the novel neatly balanced between absurdity and poignancy.
Library Journal
First novelist Handler has all the teenage issues down pat--belonging, power, loyalty, drugs, and body image--as he sets about proving just how dangerous high school can be. As Flannery Culp edits her journal of the previous year in prison, we follow Flan and her friends (the Basic Eight) through the fall of their senior year. Adults are generally absent, except for a few teachers who matter. Flan's beautiful friend, Natasha, is worth close attention. Handler's writing is witty and perceptive, especially as schools and society are parodied, and he makes clever use of vocabulary and study questions. But as a brutal murder unfolds and lives are ruined, the "wonderful, wicked fun" promised by the book jacket faded for this reviewer. The novel has been optioned for film, so expect to see it on the screen, a tragedy larger than the Othello Flan's drama club is staging. Recommended with reservations.--Rebecca Kelm, Northern Kentucky Univ. Lib., Highland Heights

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

One of the reasons the teenage years are so agonizing is that in most societies, particularly ours, the adolescent is emotionally neither fish nor fowl.

—Dr. Herbert Strean and Lucy Freeman,
Our Wish to Kill: The Murder in All Our Hearts

One may as well begin with my letters to one Adam State.

August 25, Verona

    Dear Adam,

Well, you were right—the only way to really look at Italy is to stop gaping at all the Catholicism and just sit down and have some coffee. For the past couple of hours I've just been sitting and sipping. It's our last day in Verona, and my parents of course want to visit one hundred thousand more art galleries so they can come home with a painting to point at, but I'm content to just sit in a square and watch people in gorgeous shoes walk by. It's an outdoor café, of course.

The sun is just radiant. If it weren't for my sunglasses I'd be squinting. I tried to write a poem the other day called "Italian Light" but it wasn't turning out so well and I wrote it on the hotel stationery so the maid threw it out by mistake. I wonder if Dante was ever suppressed by his cleaning lady. So in any case after much argument with my parents over whether I appreciated them and Italy and all my opportunities or not, I was granted permission—thank you, O Mighty Exalted Ones—to sit in a café while they chased down various objets d'art. I was just reading and people-watching for a while, buteventually I figured I'd better catch up on my correspondence. With all the caffeine in me it was either that or jump in the fountain like a Fellini movie I saw with Natasha once. You know Natasha, right, Natasha Hyatt? Long hair, dyed jet-black, sort of vampy-looking?

I stumbled upon an appropriate metaphor as I looked for reading material in the hotel bookstore. Scarcely more than a magazine stand, actually—as always, I brought a generous handful of books with me to Italy thinking it would be more than enough to read, and as always, I finished two of them on the plane and the rest of them within the first week. So there I was looking through the bare assortment of English-language paperback pulp for anything of value. I was just about to add, if you can believe it, a Stephen Queen horror novel to my meager stack of mysteries, when it hit me: Is this what next year will be like? Do I have enough around me of interest, or will I find myself with nothing to do in a country that doesn't speak my language? I don't mean to sound like Salinger's phony-hating phony or anything, but at times at Roewer it seems that everybody's phony and brain-dead and that if it weren't for my friends and the few other interesting people I'd go crazy for nothing to do. To me, you're one of the "few other interesting people." I know we don't know each other very well and that you probably find it strange that I'm writing to you, if you're even reading this, but I really enjoyed the conversations we had toward the end of the year—you know, about how stupid school was, and about some books, and about your own trip to Italy. You were one of the non-brain-dead non-phonies around that place. I felt—I don't know—a connection or something. Well, luckily I'm running out of room on this aerogram, which is probably a good thing, but I'll seal this before I change my mind.

Flannery Culp

P.S. Sorry about the espresso stain. All the waiters here are gorgeous, but clumsy and probably gay.

September 1, Florence

    Dear Adam,

If writing one letter to you was presumptuous, what is two letters? It's just that I feel you'd be the only one who'd understand what I'm thinking right now, and besides I've already written everybody else too many letters and I have all this caffeinated energy on my hands, as I said last time.

But in any case, the only person who'd really get what I want to say is you, because this relates to the hotel bookstore metaphor I told you about before. Yesterday, when viewing Michelangelo's David I had the exact opposite metaphorical experience. I mean, I had of course seen the image of David 18 million times, so I wasn't expecting much—sort of like when I saw the Mona Lisa last summer. I stood in line, took a look, and thought, Yep, that's the Mona Lisa all right.

It was huge. From head to toe he was simply enormous, and I don't just mean statuesque (rim shot!) but enormous like a sunset, or like an idea you can at best only half comprehend. It simply took my breath away. I walked around and around it, not because I felt I had to, but because I felt like it deserved that much attention from me. I found myself looking at each individual part closely, rather than the entire thing, because if I looked at the entire thing it would be like staring at the sun. It was such an unblinking portrayal of a person that it rose above any hackneyed hype about it. It flicked away all my cynicism about Seeing Art without flinching and just made me look. I walked out of there thinking, Now I am older.

But it wasn't until I finished one of my hotel-lobby mysteries that night that I thought of my experience metaphorically. Unlike bringing books to Italy, I went to see David anticipating an empty, manufactured experience; instead I found a real experience, and a new one. I didn't think I'd have any new experiences left, once sobriety and virginity took flight. Perhaps that is what next year will hold for me. Not sobriety and virginity, but real new experiences. Maybe in writing to you, a new person in my life, I will embark on something new, as well. David has filled me with hope. And another biblical name fills me with hope as well: yours. Out of room again.


And a postcard, written September 3rd, postmarked September 4th.

On the back:

Listen what my letters have been trying to tell you is that I love you and I mean real love that can surpass all the dreariness of high school we both hate, I get back from Italy late on the night of Saturday the 4th call me Sunday. This isn't just the wine talking.

On the front:

    A picture of the statue of David. Cancellation ink from a winking postmarker across the groin.






Study Questions:

1. A Chinese proverb reads: "Never write a letter when you are angry." Are there other states of mind in which one should not write letters?

2. Most postal laws state that after one has given one's letters to the post office to mail one cannot retrieve them. Do you think this is a fair law? Think before answering.

3. Taking jet lag into account, how long would you wait to call someone who had just gotten back from another continent? If you had just gotten back from another continent yourself and were expecting a phone call, what would be the appropriate amount of time to wait before you could assume the phone call wasn't coming? Assume that you kept the line available as much as possible by keeping all other phone calls short.

Monday September 6th

Jet lag finally wore off today, so it seemed time to start my brand-new- expensive-black-Italian-leather-bound journal. Historians will note that my bargaining skills were not yet sharpened when I made this purchase, which is why I'm trying to write costly sentences to justify my expenditure (i.e., "Historians will note ..."). For the past couple of days since I got back I haven't been doing anything much, anyway; only sitting around my room trying to call my friends. My bedroom became a perfect decompression chamber between the European and American civilizations: I spent all my time talking to machines and was thus soon acclimated back to my motherland.

    No one was home. I was sorry to miss them but glad to keep my phone time brief. I'm keeping the line open for Adam. He hasn't called. I'd like to think that he's on vacation, but school starts tomorrow so his parents must have brought him home by now to give him time to shop for new khakis.

    Just when I was going over each of my letters in my head, Natasha called. "You know Natasha, right, Natasha Hyatt? Long hair, dyed jet-black, sort of vampy-looking?" What stupid things to write! I picked up on the third ring, but before I could speak I heard her breathy voice.

    "Flan, are you waiting for some guy to call?" Reader, note here that she pronounces my nickname not as the first syllable in my name is regularly pronounced, but as "a pastry or tart made with a filling of sweet rennet cheese, or, usually, custard."

    I put down The Salem Slot, the last of my hotel bookstore acquisitions. Once I've started something, I have to finish it, no matter how bad it is. "Hi, Natasha. How did you know?"

    Natasha sighed, reluctant to explain the obvious. "You just got back from your European jaunt. You've left `Hi-I'm-home' messages on everybody's machines, so you haven't gone out. You are therefore sitting on your bed reading or writing something. You can reach the phone without moving, but you waited until the third ring. Now, Watson, we need school supplies, ja? Let's meet for coffee and go buy cute notebooks."

    "Cute notebooks?" I said. "I don't know. I sort of have to—"

    "Yes, cute notebooks. We're going to be seniors, Flan. We have to play it to the hilt. If we can find pencils with our school colors on them, we're buying them. But of course we'll need coffee first. I'll meet you at Well-Kept Grounds, OK?"

    She started to hang up. "Wait! When?"

    "Whenever we get there, dearest. While on the Continent, did you forget how we operate? Did you forget us entirely? Nobody got even a postcard."


    "Yes, yes, yes. Leave the machine on in case he calls. And I'll want to hear all about it. The more you talk with machines and the more they talk with you, the more acclimated you'll get to American civilization. Ciao." The phone clattered as she hung up.

    Only Natasha can make me move as fast as I did. I left the machine on, ran out the door, turned back, got my coat, ran out the door, turned back, got change for the bus and ran out the door. I forgot that San Francisco September can be chilly and that my July bus pass wasn't going to work two months later. Once on the bus I adopted the Blank Face Public Transportation Dress Code but by the time I got off I couldn't help beaming. I was happy to see Natasha again. It's often difficult to keep up with her Bette Davis-meets-Dorothy Parker act but underneath that she'd do anything for me.

    Well-Kept Grounds is tucked into a neighborhood full of hippie preteens and bookstores dedicated to the legalization of marijuana, but the surroundings are a small price to pay for the café's collection of fabulous fifties furniture and for not charging extra if you want almond extract in your latte, which I always do. Natasha was there already. I saw her lipstick first, though her forest green rayon dress was a strong second. "Flan!" she called, sounding like she was ordering dessert. Men in their midtwenties looked up from their used paperbacks and alternative newspapers and followed her with their eyes as she cantered across the Grounds. She gave me a hug and for a second I was embraced by a body that makes me want to go home and never eat again. Natasha is one of those high school students who looks less like a high school student and more like an actress playing a high school student on TV.

    "Hi," I said sheepishly, wishing I had worn something more glamorous. Suddenly a summer of not seeing each other seemed like a long time. She stood in front of me and looked me over. She swallowed. We both waited.

    "I'll go get a drink," I said.

    Natasha looked relieved. "Do that."

    The men in their midtwenties slowly returned to their used paperbacks and alternative newspapers. What I would give to have someone in college look me over. I got my drink and went and sat down across from Natasha, who put down her book and looked at me. I looked at the spine of the book.

    "Erotica by Anaïs Nin? Does your mother know?"

    "Mother lent it to me," Natasha said, rolling her eyes. She always calls her mom "Mother" as if she's some society matron when in fact she teaches anthropology at City College. I thumbed through the book as Natasha took a sip of some bright green fizzy drink. I can see you biting and scratching. She learned to tease him, too. The moans were rhythmic, then at times like the cooing of doves. When people thumb through this book, those italics will catch their eyes and they'll spot a pornographic sentence before the page flaps by. A writer's got to sell herself.

    "Why no latte?" I asked, gesturing to the green potion. "I thought it was mother's milk to you."

    "After this summer it's begun to taste like some other bodily fluid," Natasha said, looking at me significantly. Her eyes were very carefully done; they always are.

    "Do tell," I said, happy to have arrived at a topic that didn't involve my confession of love, written in a hurried, Chianti-laced scrawl, on a postcard. Just thinking about it made me want to hide under the table, which was painted an unfortunate fiesta-ware pink.

    "All right, I'll talk about my love life, but then we'll talk about yours. But first, this Italian soda needs a little zip." Natasha found a flask in some secret pocket and added a clear liquid to the soda, watching me out of the corner of her eye. She's always taking out that flask and adding it to things. I often suspect that it's just water but I'm afraid to call her bluff. She went on to describe some guy she met at the Harvard Summer Program in Comparative Religion. Natasha's always had a fascination with what people worship. Kate says Natasha's actually fascinated that people aren't worshiping her instead. In any case, each summer Anthropologist Mom plunks down her hard-earned money for Natasha to fly across the country and make out with gorgeous men, all for the cause of higher learning. According to Natasha, this one was five years older than us and attended a prestigious liberal arts school, the name of which I'm not sure I can mention here lest its reputation become tainted due to its association, however brief, with the notorious Basic Eight.

    "He was said to be brilliant," Natasha said, "but to be honest we didn't have too many conversations. It was mostly sex. It will be a while before I order any drink with steamed milk again." She drained the rest of her soda in an extravagant gesture and I watched her throat as she swallowed, taking mental notes.

    I sighed. (How perfect my recall of these small details. I sighed, reader; I remember it as if it were yesterday.) "You go to the puritanical city of Boston and hook up with a genius who also happens to be an excellent lover—"

    Natasha used a blood-red nail to poke a hole in my sentence. "More accurately, he was an excellent lover who also happened to be a genius."

    "—and I go to Italy, the most romantic country in the world, and the only man who makes my heart beat faster is carved out of marble." I briefly described my experience with Michelangelo's David. She broke character for a full minute as she listened to me, shaking her head slightly. Her silver earrings waved and blinked. I was a little proud to have hushed her; even my best poems haven't done that. When I was done she remembered who she was.

    "So this is the guy you're waiting to hear from?" she asked. "Can I give you a piece of advice? Statues never call. You have to make the effort."

    "You have experience in this realm?" I said. "And here I thought you only slept with anything that moved." Natasha threw back her head and cackled. U.p. and a.n. went down again; the men all sat and wished they were the ones making her laugh like that. I jumped in while she was laughing.

    "It's Adam State. I'm waiting for Adam State to call." Once I finally told someone it seemed much smaller, a problem made not of earth-shattering natural forces but of proper nouns: first name Adam, last name State.

    Her cackling stopped like somebody pulled the plug. "Adam State?" she screeched. "How can you have a crush on anyone who has a name like a famous economist?"

    "It's not because of his name. It's because of—"

    "That sine qua non," Natasha finished, batting her eyelashes. She stopped when she saw my face. "Don't get angry. You know how I am. Underneath all my Bette Davis-meets-Dorothy Parker act I try to be good, really. There's no accounting for taste. Do you think it will work out?"

    I bit my lip. "Honestly?"

    Natasha looked at me as if I suggested she keep her hair natural. "Of course not. Honestly. The very idea."

    "In that case, yes. It will definitely work out. I'm just worried about how `Flannery State' will look on my stationery."

    "You could do that hyphenated thing. Culp-State, say."

    "Sounds like a university. Where criminals go after high school."

    I finished my latte and paid careful attention to the taste of the milk. I didn't notice any real similarity, but my palate isn't as experienced. "This is a secret, Natasha."

    "Mum's the word," she said. Her hair looked gorgeous.

    "Don't say the word to me. My parents have vanished as far as I'm concerned."

    "You have to stop traveling with them," she said, smiling slightly as her eyes met one of her admirers'. "Get them to send you to summer school. You'd learn things."

    "Thanks, but there's enough steamed milk in my life."

    "Come on, you need to buy notebooks so you can write his name on them in flowery letters."

    I rolled my eyes and followed her across the street to a stationery store. We opened our purses and bought things: notebooks, pencils, paper with narrow, straight lines. Our school colors weren't available, which is a good thing: Roewer's colors are red and purple.

    She drove me home, which made me worry a little bit about the flask. I leaned back in the passenger seat and everything felt like a transatlantic flight again. I hoped I had enough interesting books, but for now I felt at ease, pampered even. It was almost dusk. I rolled down the window and felt air rush into my mouth. I stole a look at Natasha as she stole a look at me. Friends, we smiled and I closed my eyes again and let the sublime noise surround me.

    "The music is great. Who is this?"

    Natasha turned it up. "Darling Mud. They're all the rage in England."

    It sounded great. It was all thundering percussion and snarling guitars, and the chorus told us over and over that one thing led to another. "On and on and on and on," the singer wailed, on and on and on and on.

    As I opened the door to get out, Natasha touched my hand. "Listen, if you want Adam, you're going to have to move. I talked to Kate just the other day, and she had talked to Adam just the other day. He's apparently been getting crazy love letters from someone all summer. He wouldn't tell her who." Natasha's voice sounded too careless for these remarks to be well placed. I could have told her then that it was me, but I didn't. I could have told her I was in love, and didn't just have a crush, but I didn't. Maybe I would have saved us all the trouble in the next few months, but I didn't tell her. School starts tomorrow and with it the chattering network of friends telling friends telling friends secrets. On a postcard; I'm so stupid. I got out of the car and Natasha drove off. All I heard as she left was one thing leading to another.



Meet the Author

DANIEL HANDLER is the author of the novels The Basic Eight, Watch Your Mouth and, as Lemony Snicket, the bestselling collection of children’s novels entitled A Series of Unfortunate Events, which has sold more than sixty million copies worldwide, has been translated into thirty-nine languages and was adapted into a feature film starring Jim Carrey and Meryl Streep.

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The Basic Eight 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 39 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am a teenager which puts me in a difficult situation. I loved a Series of Unfortunate Events but wasn't sure whether to go onto The Basic Eight. Nevertheless I bought it and think it's one of the best books I've ever read. The only bad thing I could possibly say about this book is that some parts were too detailed (i.e. the sexual parts) which lead me to reconsider recommending it to my friends. These scenes were a bit too descriptive for my liking but other than that, an all-round fantastic book that you can read and re-read and never grow tired of.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the best books I have ever read! This is shown by be actually writing a review for it. I whipped through this book because it was so mind-boggling good. I would most definitely recomend this book to anyone who enjoys sarcasm, wit, a creative plot, and writing, and just and overall great story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved every minute of it. I felt like I was thrown back into high school all over again. I can honestly say at times though, I felt the teens in this book were much older than 17 or 18, But I guess kids are maturing much faster these days! A sinister comedy,I NEVER saw the end coming! I need to read it again...soon!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Daniel Handler is one of American Literature's shining stars. He bares his influences well, and creates such memorable literary characters. I am looking forward to what he has in store for the future.
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chocoluvazy More than 1 year ago
Definitely one I won't ever forget.
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bobbles918 More than 1 year ago
I just finished this book maybe 10 min ago-the feelings are fresh in my mind & stomach. I say stomach because towards the end of the book my stomach was constantly in knots! I did enjoy this book and never felt I knew what exactly was going on. Now with the book over I feel I have questions that will never be answered. I'm not sure how I feel about Flannery at this point through out the book I had a soft spot for her but now I don't know how to explian my feelings without giving the ending away. I do have to say that I was shocked & saddened by the mayjor twist in the book. But this really was a great book. The teens are witty & I couldnt even imagine me or my friends in our mid 20's saying anything like these kids but I don't know maybe that's how kids are these days.
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I read this book a long time ago and I recently bought a copy of it. It is one of my all-time favorite books simply because it's just over the top. I love the characters and I love that the reader never really has a clear grasp on what's going on. I think that it works very well in this book with Daniel Handler's writing style. There are a lot of books out there about high school but none are as entertaining as this one. The book has the feel of a cabaret or a circus, almost. It is definitely not a book for everyone though. The style of the book could potentially grate on your nerves. Daniel Handler tends to lay on the irony really thick towards the end of the book and it gets a little detailed during certain parts of the book like during the murder scene. Overall, I would recommend this book to people who like dark humor and are looking for a different kind of high school book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although I am a teenager and knew this novel is intended for adults rather than high school students, I had to read it due to my immense enjoyment of 'a Series of Unfortunate Events', wanting to move onto Handler's adult material. I enjoyed it quite a bit, mainly because it's so different from anything else I've ever read. When an author spins up a tale as original as this one, managing to combine many different elements and providing a story so satisfying yet with many unresolved issues left open for debate, it's important to take notice. Although it's known to the reader from the start that the narrator, Flannery Culp is going to commit a violent murder, the novel begins very light-hearted. Flannery is likable, has a good sense of humour and appears to be a typical teenage girl with typical teenage issues: unrequited love, distorted body image, academic struggles, etc. As the book progresses, the material gets darker, involving molestation, a potentially lethal drug overdose, and of course, murder. The novel is deliciously eerie and will haunt you for a few days, yet dark humour is present throughout the entire thing, an incredible talent of Handler's. He is skilled in being able to present a somewhat satirical story that is nevertheless quite engaging and realistic. I took off a star because I found the irony and foreshadowing was occasionally layered on a little too thick in this novel, and because personally I thought the amount of explict sexual content got to be a bit much - I didn't really find it offensive, just unnecessary. Anyone who enjoys a story that's zany, humourous and dark will enjoy this book. I would not recommend this book to anyone offended by sexual content or profanity. I also would not recommend it to anyone who dislikes dark humour, or anyone who dislikes confusing books as this novel requires patience on behalf of the reader and it's not a novel that finishes with every piece of the puzzle in place - the latter is intended by the author, and not a flaw. If you do read it, though, you should encourage a friend to read it also, it's a book that upon finishing it, you'll be desperate to discuss with someone! Anyway, if I haven't already made it clear I loved the book and I can't wait to get a start on 'Adverbs.'
Guest More than 1 year ago
A memoir written from jail about the adventure that landed her there, from an unapologetic brilliant and unbalanced character. That much reminded me a lot of Lolita, which is a compliment as it is one of my favorites. The lens is focused, in this case, on high school in all of its naivete and precociousness and swagger. Handler captures the mindset of the h.s. student so well, it brought me back to that time in my own life, and the fuzzy logic of the characters felt very true to the time. The ending was great, although I did see it coming for the last 100 pages or so, so more of a verification than a shocker for me, but a great great read nonetheless, and recommended. The clues are all there, if you read closely enough. Very well thought out, and well executed!
Guest More than 1 year ago
It was a great book. I also enjoy his books for children where he uses the pen name, Lemony Snicket.