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Death and the Penguin

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Overview

Viktor is lonely, having only Misha, his penguin, for company. He is also desperate, trying to earn a living as a writer. Until one day he gets his long-awaited break: the editor-in-chief of a major newspaper commissions Viktor to write obituaries of Kiev's VIPs - to be kept on file. The job pays well and Viktor's luck seems complete when the editor-in-chief sends along a friend who needs Viktor to compose an obituary of one of his associates. This friend, also called Misha, turns out to be a Mafia operative with...
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Death and the Penguin

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Overview

Viktor is lonely, having only Misha, his penguin, for company. He is also desperate, trying to earn a living as a writer. Until one day he gets his long-awaited break: the editor-in-chief of a major newspaper commissions Viktor to write obituaries of Kiev's VIPs - to be kept on file. The job pays well and Viktor's luck seems complete when the editor-in-chief sends along a friend who needs Viktor to compose an obituary of one of his associates. This friend, also called Misha, turns out to be a Mafia operative with a big heart. Viktor confides to Misha-non-penguin that he longs to see his work published, even if under a pseudonym, but the subjects of his obituaries cling to life. A few days later he opens the newspaper to find his work in print for the first time. His pride swiftly turns to terror as he and his penguin are drawn into a trap from which there appears to be no escape.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Death and The Penguin

"Death and the Penguin
 comes across as an almost perfect little novel ... fast-paced and witty and on the side of the angels." —John Powers, NPR's Fresh Air

“Pathos and humor shine through to make this a black comedy of rare distinction, and the penguin is an invention of genius.”—The Spectator

“A striking portrait of post-Soviet isolation. . . . In this bleak moral landscape Kurkov manages to find ample refuge for his dark humor.”—The New York Times
 

“Delicious... when Viktor finally finds Misha it is as if Woody Allen had gone to meet Kurtz.”—The Spectator

“The deadpan tone works perfectly, and it will be a hard-hearted reader who is not touched by Viktor’s relationship with his unusual pet.”—The Times (London)

"Misha, the most memorable character of his thriller Death and the Penguin, left web-footed prints all over my imagination" NPR

“I loved the f*ck out of it.” —Paul Constant, The Stranger

Death and the Penguin successfully balances the social awkwardness of Woody Allen, the absurd clashes of Jean-Luc Godard and the escalating paranoia of Franz Kafka.”
Vikas Turakias, The Cleveland Plain Dealer

Thomas Grob
Kurkov demonstrates that nowadays one is allowed to tell fresh new stories in Russia again: intelligent and funny.
The Barnes & Noble Review

A familiar melancholy pervades Andrey Kurkov's astonishing novel Death and the Penguin. It is the ingrained sadness of the alienated, powerless man, the perennial hero of so much Russian and Eastern European fiction. We meet Vicktor Zolotaryov, an unemployed writer living in Kiev, as he scuttles home, taunted by a couple of stone-throwing louts. "They found life dull, ordinary people, now that entertainment was beyond their means, " Vicktor reflects, "So they bowled cobbles." Winter is approaching, and Kurkov's depiction of Vicktor's daily life is as bare and evocative as the silhouette of Kiev's leafless trees. "As he turned on the kitchen light, it went off again?. Unearthing a candle, he lit it and stood it on the table in an empty mayonnaise pot."

Vicktor is not entirely alone. He lives with Misha, a king penguin he acquired "when the zoo was giving hungry animals away to anyone able to feed them." Instead of adopting a pet, however, Vicktor has landed himself with a soul mate, for Misha too seems lonely and both creatures are displaced, the penguin from the Antarctic and Vicktor from a past that disintegrated along with the Soviet Union. Vicktor's depression lifts, however, when a newspaper editor commissions him to write obituaries of living local dignitaries. Then he notices that as soon as he finishes an "obelisk, " the subject tends to die. "The less you know, the longer you live!" the editor tells him, although Vicktor hardly needs the advice. In a society where organized crime and old-style corruption rule in tandem, not knowing is an essential survival skill.

Kiev's oddly scheduled deaths—part of a mysterious campaign to "clean up the country"—bring strangers to Vicktor's door and strange gifts too: money, cryptic messages, a gun. Increasingly bewildered, Vicktor is also given a child, the daughter of a friend who must flee town. "He's gone, " Vicktor tells four-year-old Sonya, "You're to live here, " an explanation that she, already wise, accepts. "The seeming reality of everything was only a relic of childhood, " Vicktor realizes, and Kurkov persuades us of this even as he creates a world so tangibly real that its atmosphere of mild delirium infects our own.

Avoiding the doldrums of magic realism and sentiment (neither Sonya the child nor Misha the penguin is remotely cute, yet both are deeply affecting), Kurkov smoothly accelerates the novel's pace and heightens its tension as he allows Vicktor to apprehend larger pieces of the lethal puzzle surrounding him. Events follow an obscure logic. A militiaman friend moves to Moscow, and his niece becomes Sonya's nanny and then Vicktor's bedmate. Vicktor and Misha are the only mourners at the funeral of the city's penguin expert, and soon Vicktor is asked to rent Misha out as a novelty at Mafia-style funerals. When the penguin becomes ill, Vicktor devises a plan to return him to the Antarctic, one that seems both absurd and entirely reasonable, like so much else in this profound yet whimsical novel. Spring arrives, and in a suitably ironic twist the passive hero becomes a man of action heading south to the ice.

Anna Mundow writes "The Interview" and the "Historical Novels" columns for The Boston Globe and is a contributor to The Irish Times. Reviewer: Anna Mundow

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781935554554
  • Publisher: Melville House Publishing
  • Publication date: 6/7/2011
  • Series: Melville International Crime Series
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 283,948
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Read an Excerpt


Chapter One


1


First, a stone landed a metre from Viktor's foot. He glanced back. Two louts stood grinning, one of whom stooped, picked up another from a section of broken cobble, and bowled it at him skittler-fashion. Viktor made off at something approaching a racing walk and rounded the corner, telling himself the main thing was not to run. He paused outside his block, glancing up at the hanging clock: 9.00. Not a sound. No one about. He went in, now no longer afraid. They found life dull, ordinary people, now that entertainment was beyond their means. So they bowled cobbles.

    As he turned on the kitchen light, it went off again. They had cut the power, just like that. And in the darkness he became aware of the unhurried footfalls of Misha the penguin.

    Misha had appeared chez Viktor a year before, when the zoo was giving hungry animals away to anyone able to feed them. Viktor had gone along and returned with a King Penguin. Abandoned by his girlfriend the week before, he had been feeling lonely. But Misha had brought his own kind of loneliness, and the result was now two complementary lonelinesses, creating an impression more of interdependence than of amity.

    Unearthing a candle, he lit it and stood it on the table in an empty mayonnaise pot. The poetic insouciance of the tiny light sent him to look, in the semi-darkness, for pen and paper. He sat down at the table with the paper between him and the candle; paper asking to be written on. Had he been a poet, rhyme would have raced across the white. But he wasn't. He was trapped in a rut between journalism and meagre scraps of prose. Short stories were the best he could do. Very short, too short to make a living from, even if he got paid for them.

    A shot rang out.

    Darting to the window, Viktor pressed his face to the glass. Nothing. He returned to his sheet of paper. Already he had thought up a story around that shot. A single side was all it took; no more, no less. And as his latest short short story drew to its tragic close, the power came back on and the ceiling bulb blazed. Blowing out the candle, he fetched coley from the freezer for Misha's bowl.


2


Next morning, when he had typed his latest short short story and taken leave of Misha, Viktor set off for the offices of a new fat newspaper that generously published anything, from a cooking recipe to a review of post-Soviet theatre. He knew the Editor, having occasionally drunk with him, and been driven home by his driver afterwards.

    The Editor received him with a smile and a slap on the shoulder, told his secretary to make coffee, and there and then gave Viktor's offering a professional read.

    "No, old friend," he said eventually. "Don't take it amiss, but it's no go. Needs a spot more gore, or a kinky love angle. Get it into your head that sensation's the essence of a newspaper short story."

    Viktor left, without waiting for coffee.

    A short step away were the offices of Capital News, where, lacking editorial access, he looked in on the Arts section.

    "Literature's not actually what we publish," the elderly Assistant Editor informed him amiably. "But leave it with me. Anything's possible. It might get in on a Friday. You know — for balance. If there's a glut of bad news, readers look for something neutral. I'll read it."

    Ridding himself of Viktor by handing him his card, the little old man returned to his paper-piled desk. At which point it dawned on Viktor that he had not actually been asked in. The whole exchange had been conducted in the doorway.


3


Two days later the phone rang.

    "Capital News. Sorry to trouble you," said a crisp, clear female voice. "I have the Editor-in-Chief on the line."

    The receiver changed hands.

    "Viktor Alekseyevich?" a man's voice enquired. "Couldn't pop in today, could you? Or are you busy?"

    "No," said Viktor.

    "I'll send a car. Blue Zhiguli. Just let me have your address."

    Viktor did, and with a "Bye, then," the Editor-in-Chief rang off without giving his name.

    Selecting a shirt from the wardrobe, Viktor wondered if it was to do with his story. Hardly ... What was his story to them? Still, what the hell!

    The driver of the blue Zhiguli parked at the entrance was deferential. He it was who conducted Viktor to the Editor-in-Chief.

    "I'm Igor Lvovich," he said, extending a hand. "Glad to meet you."

    He looked more like an aged athlete than a man of the Press. And maybe that's how it was, except that his eyes betrayed a hint of irony born more of intellect and education than lengthy sessions in a gym.

    "Have a seat. Spot of cognac?" He accompanied these words with a lordly wave of the hand.

    "I'd prefer coffee, if I may," said Viktor, settling into a leather armchair facing the vast executive desk.

    "Two coffees," the Editor-in-Chief said picking up the phone. "Do you know," he resumed amiably, "we'd only recently been talking about you, and yesterday in came our Assistant Arts Editor, Boris Leonardovich, with your little story. `Get an eyeful of this,' said he. I did, and it's good. And then it came to me why we'd been talking about you, and I thought we should meet."

    Viktor nodded politely. Igor Lvovich paused and smiled.

    "Viktor Alekseyevich," he resumed, "how about working for us?"

    "Writing what?" asked Viktor, secretly alarmed at the prospect of a fresh spell of journalistic hard labour.

    Igor Lvovich was on the point of explaining when the secretary came in with their coffee and a bowl of sugar on a tray, and he held his breath until she had gone.

    "This is highly confidential," he said. "What we're after is a gifted obituarist, master of the succinct. Snappy, pithy, way-out stuff's the idea. You with me?" He looked hopefully at Viktor.

    "Sit in an office, you mean, and wait for deaths?" Viktor asked warily, as if fearing to hear as much confirmed.

    "No, of course not! Far more interesting and responsible than that! What you'd have to do is create, from scratch, an index of obelisk jobs — as we call obituaries — to include deputies and gangsters, down to the cultural scene — that sort of person — while they're still alive. But what I want is the dead written about as they've never been written about before. And your story tells me you're the man."

    "What about payment?"

    "You'd start at $300. Hours up to you. But keeping me informed, of course, who we've got carded. So we don't get caught on the hop by some car crash out of the blue! Oh, and one other condition: you'll need a pseudonym. In your own interest as much as anything."

    "But what?" said Viktor, half to himself.

    "Think of one. But if you can't, make it A Group of Friends for the time being."

    Viktor nodded.


4


Before bed, he drank tea, and gave not over-serious thought to the subject of death. His mood was of the best, a mood more for vodka than tea. Except that there wasn't any vodka.

    What an offer! And though still in the dark concerning his new duties, he had a foretaste of something new and unusual. But roaming the dark corridor, banging every so often against the closed kitchen door, was Misha the penguin. Overcome at last with a feeling of guilt, Viktor let him in. Misha paused at the table, using his almost one metre of height to see what was on it. He looked at the cup of tea, then shifting his gaze to Viktor, considered him with the heartfelt sincerity of a worldly-wise Party functionary. Thinking he would like to give Misha a treat, Viktor went and turned on the cold tap in the bathroom. At the sound of running water Misha came plip-plopping and, without waiting for the bath to fill, leaned over and tumbled in.

    The next morning, Viktor looked in at Capital News for some practical tips from the Editor-in-Chief.

    "How," he asked, "do we select our notables?"

    "Nothing easier! See who the papers write about and take your pick. Not all our country's notables are known to it, you see. Many prefer it like that ..."

    That evening Viktor bought all the papers, went home and settled down at the kitchen table.

    The very first he looked at gave him food for thought, and the VIP names he underlined he then copied into a notebook for action. He would not be short of work — there were 60 or so names from the first few papers alone!

    Then tea, and fresh thought, this time concerning the obelisk proper. Already he thought he saw how it might be vitalized, and at the same time, sentimentalized, so that even the simple collective farmer, never having known the late whoever-it-was he was reading about, would brush away a tear. By next morning Viktor had earmarked a possible first obelisk. It only remained to get the Chief's blessing.


5


At 9.30 next morning, having got the Chief's blessing, drunk coffee, and been solemnly presented with his Press card, Viktor bought a bottle of Finlandia at a kiosk, and set off for the office of sometime author, now State Duma Deputy, Aleksandr Yakornitsky.

    Hearing that a correspondent of Capital News wished to see him, the State Deputy was delighted, and immediately told his secretary to cancel all his remaining appointments and admit no one else.

    Comfortably ensconced, Viktor put on the table the bottle of Finnish vodka and a dictaphone. Equally promptly, the State Deputy produced two small crystal glasses, placing one either side of the bottle.

    He talked freely, without waiting for questions — of his work, his childhood, his time as Komsomol organizer of his university year. As they finished the bottle, he was boasting of his trips to Chernobyl. These, it appeared, had the added bonus of enhancing his potency — as, in case of any doubt, his private-school teacher wife and National Opera diva mistress would testify.

    Taking leave of each other, they embraced. Viktor was left with the impression of an author-State-Deputy of great and, for obituary purposes, perhaps undue, vitality. But that was it! Inasmuch as the departed had lately been alive, an obituary should retain their passing warmth — not be all hopeless gloom!

    Back at his flat, Viktor wrote the obituary, swiftly obelisking the State Deputy in a warm, two-page account of the vital and the sinful, and without recourse to the dictaphone, so fresh was his memory.

    "Wonderful job!" Igor Lvovich enthused the next morning. "Provided singer's hubby keeps his mouth shut ... Many women may be mourning him today, but with them in mind, it is to his wife that we shall extend our sympathy; and to one other lady, whose voice, heard by all soaring to the dome of the National Opera, was for him. Beautiful! Keep it up! On with the good work!"

    "Igor Lvovich," began Viktor, growing bolder, "I'm a bit short on facts, and to go interviewing everyone will take time. Have we no carded information?"

    The Chief smiled.

    "Of course, I was going to suggest it — in Crime. I'll tell Fyodor to give you access."


6


As he attuned himself to the task, Viktor's life regulated itself accordingly. He applied himself with a vengeance ... Fyodor from Crime proved a godsend, sharing all that he had, which was plenty — from VIPs' lovers, male and female, to VIPs' lapses from virtue and other life events. In short, from him Viktor gleaned precisely those extra-CV details which, like fine Indian spices, transform an obelisk of sad, established fact into a gourmet dish. And each new batch he put regularly before the Chief.

    Everything in the garden was lovely. He had money in his pocket — not a lot, but more than enough for his modest requirements. His one occasional anxiety was his lack of recognition, even under a pseudonym, so tenacious of life were his obelisked notables. Out of more than 100 written-up VIPs, not only had none of them died, but not one had so much as fallen ill. Such reflections, however, did not affect the rhythm of his work. Assiduously he leafed through the papers, noting names, worming his way into lives. Our country must know who its notables are, he kept telling himself.

    One rainy November evening, when Misha the penguin was taking a cold bath and Viktor was pondering his subjects' tenacity of life, the phone rang.

    "I was put onto you by Igor Lvovich," wheezed a man's voice. "Something I'd like a word about."

    At the name of the Editor-in-Chief, Viktor said he would be glad to see him, and half an hour later was welcoming a smartly-dressed man of about 45. He had brought a bottle of whisky, and they sat down straight away at the kitchen table.

    "I'm Misha," he said, to the amused embarrassment of Viktor.

    "Sorry," he explained, "but so's my penguin."

    "I've got an old friend who's seriously ill," began the visitor. "Same age as me. Known each other since we were kids. Sergey Chekalin. I'd like to order an obituary ... Will you do it?"

    "Of course," said Viktor. "But I'll need some facts, preferably personal ones."

    "No problem," said Misha. "I know all there is to know and can tell you."

    "Go ahead."

    "Son of a fitter and a nursery governess. His dream, as a child, was to have a motorbike, and when he left school, he bought himself a Minsk, though it meant a bit of thieving to do so ... Deeply ashamed now of his past. Not that his present's any better. We're colleagues, he and I. We set up and we wind-up trusts. I'm good at it, he isn't. Wife left him recently. Been alone since. Not even had a lover."

    "Wife's name?"

    "Lena ... All in all, he's had a rough time of it. Healthwise, too."

    "In what way?"

    "Suspected stomach cancer, chronic prostate."

    "What did he most want out of life?"

    "What he'll never have, now: a silver Lincoln."

    The effect of their cocktail of words and whisky was to render Sergey Chekalin — failure, deserted by wife, ailing, alone and in poor health, dreaming the unrealizable dream of a silver Lincoln — a real presence at the table with them.

    "When do I come for it?" asked Misha finally.

    "Tomorrow, if you like."

    He left, and hearing a car start, Viktor looked out and saw a long, pretentious silver Lincoln draw away.

    He fed Misha freshly frozen plaice, topped up his bath, then returned to the kitchen and set to work on the obituary order. Through the tiny window between bathroom and kitchen he could hear splashing, and as he drafted the obelisk, he smiled, thinking of his penguin's love of clean, cold water.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 36 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(10)

4 Star

(10)

3 Star

(8)

2 Star

(5)

1 Star

(3)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 36 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 3, 2011

    I Also Recommend:

    Charming and Bleak?

    The first book in Kurkov's pair of penguin novels is one of the more difficult books to explain. How can a book be "noir" and "cute" at once? How can a literary novel involve a character who is a penguin living in an apartment building with a down-and-out writer and yet never become overly postmodern or surreal? Because sometimes a penguin is just a penguin, which is the case in these two wonderfully charming, yet bleak novels. There is a warning though, that comes with this sophisticated book. By the time you've finished it you will desperately want a pet penguin, which would be very expensive.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 15, 2005

    Penguin vs. The Mafia

    In one of his more recent books, Death and the Penguin, author Andrey Kurkov tells about an ordinary writer named Viktor Zolotaryov in post-soviet Ukraine who has a not-so-ordinary pet. This creature called Misha, is a penguin who fell into the hands of Viktor when the local zoo could not feed it and is, for the time being, Viktor¿s only companion. Soon enough Viktor¿s normal life is snatched away when he takes the job of writing obituaries for a local newspaper and works under the shady chief of the company. The strange thing about these obituaries though, is that he writes them before the subject has even died. Nevertheless, Viktor continues to write the obituaries and soon becomes entangled in a web of mystery when he finds himself writing about famous people who die soon after the obituary is completed. Along the way he takes on the responsibility of caring for a stranger¿s child and becomes involved in a relationship with her nanny. Viktor¿s life seems to being going well until he realizes the power of his obituaries. Eventually he and his penguin are ensnared in a conspiracy with hit men, in which there is no way out. At first this book seems like a good mystery about a man and his penguin, pitted against the bad guys. But half way through, the book loses its appeal. It even becomes bizarre, largely due to his relationship with Nina the nanny. The conclusion is very depressing and confusing and leaves you unsatisfied, wanting to know what happens next. I was also disappointed by the extreme personality change Viktor goes through at the very end of the book which does not match up with his character. Overall I would stay away from this book unless you are looking for a dark and sometimes confusing mystery that will leave you asking questions.

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 27, 2009

    Splish Splash, is there a penguin in my tub?

    This book is absolutely charming. It definitely made me laugh out loud in restaurants. There are moments when the reader is aware that it's a tranlation, but that only lends to it's charm. The plot was interesting enough to keep me reading and Kurkov's wit is balanced by the darkness of the subject matter. I've already bought it as a gift once and I'm here today to purchase it again. This book joins "Everything is Illuminated" as one of the most delightful books I've read.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 6, 2002

    Witty and Moving

    This book is one of the best I've read in years. The characters are extremely well developed and easy to relate to. The plot is full of twists and turns, which at first are so funny I laughed out loud, but later become so moving I wanted to cry. This book is great for anyone that loves animals, a good mystery, or knows what it's like to feel lonely.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2012

    Darkly funny

    In true Russian form, this novel is bleak in nearly every way. It has every element you would expect from a Russian novel, including isolation and a long winter. It also has a penguin, and that brings a levity which must be experienced. It also has one of the best endings I've ever read.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 27, 2012

    A quiet, dark comedy

    Death and the Penguin is perfect for a lazy, rainy day. Its not too long, and it keeps the pace moving along at a consistent rate. Misha, the penguin, is what makes the book simply because he's so unexpected. Kurkov's story is definitly dark in its setting, but his quiet, dry humor, while not evoking any belly-laughs, will sure to elicit some chortles for sure. Definitely worth a try.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2012

    Engaging and sad

    I found this tale of a lonely ukranian man engaging although a little sad. He semed to relate to everyone from a distance, except for the penguin he adopted when the zoo could no longer feed him.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2013

    Odd and Wonderful

    This books surprised me at every page. Dark, funny, wistful, and at times, very Russian. A completely great read. I gave it as a Christmas gift to five very different people.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2012

    Warriors den

    For warriors

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 30, 2012

    brilliant.

    you haven't ever read a noir like this before.

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 25, 2012

    Only so-so for me

    It started out promising but midway it began to drag. I kept waiting for it to pick up but it never did. There were some heartwarming moments, and the premise is quirky and interesting, but it never really came together. I won't be reading the sequel.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 15, 2012

    Sweetkit

    Wat?

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2012

    A very good read!

    You'll enjoy this book.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2012

    good -----but----

    I enjoyed the first half of the book, but then it got darker and darker and I was glad when it was over.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 7, 2012

    Terrible!!!

    This book was weird and sad. Don't listen to the other reviews because i did and i regret it. It began okay then i kept waiting for the funny parts to begin and they never did. Also the ending left you completely confused. Don't get this book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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