Elsewhere In the Land of Parrots

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Reclusive David Huntington writes rigorously meaningless poetry to great acclaim. But he lives fearfully, sleeping and working with earplugs, rarely going outside, drawing his life more closely around him every day.
A wild parrot, a gift from his father, becomes the breach in the dike: Little Wittgenstein has a jungle shriek, fierce eyes, and a beak that wreaks havoc. David finally throws the bird out the window—and follows it into the world. His guilty search for the parrot ...

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Reclusive David Huntington writes rigorously meaningless poetry to great acclaim. But he lives fearfully, sleeping and working with earplugs, rarely going outside, drawing his life more closely around him every day.
A wild parrot, a gift from his father, becomes the breach in the dike: Little Wittgenstein has a jungle shriek, fierce eyes, and a beak that wreaks havoc. David finally throws the bird out the window—and follows it into the world. His guilty search for the parrot takes him first to Telegraph Hill, where the parrot may have found others of its kind. Inexorably David is drawn even farther, lured to South America by rumors of an ancient flock in the wild mangrove swamps. There he meets the lovely level-headed Fern, an American scientist who has her own reasons for searching for the birds. Will he retreat, or follow the parrots' call?
Jim Paul has created a tender, whimsical romance, told with wit and subtlety, about having the courage to heed the messages the world sends you, and to welcome unexpected love.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Each sentence in this genial novel bursts with information, gorgeously put."
The New Yorker


"Delightfully whimsical . . . sneakily profound."—The New York Times

"A roller-coaster ride through the intellect and imagination of a poet in the thrall of a grand obsession . . . So funny that I could not put it down."—Los Angeles Times

Entertainment Weekly
"Endearingly hapless lovebirds. [T]heir foibles are as colorful as the plumage of the creatures that bring them together."
Miami Herald
"A spritely romantic travelogue."
"Parrots aren't common in fiction, but Paul infuses them with symbolism and romance enough to make you wonder why not."
author of ALMANAC OF THE DEAD - Leslie Marmon Silko
"Great fun! The parrots are the heroes, while the humans are adrift. A gentle, luminous tale, beautifully told."
author of Ship Fever - Andrea Barrett
"...an engaging, witty, and surprisingly touching narrative, which lures us into dreaming the dreams ... of a flock of parrots."
The Los Angeles Times
Nightingales, doves, cuckoos — the list of birds that inspire human love is a long one, but it usually doesn't include parrots, those bright-colored rascals we imagine perched on pirates' shoulders, rasping profanity. Jim Paul, however, shrugs off this stereotype in his latest novel, Elsewhere in the Land of Parrots. The author of Medieval in LA and Catapult gives parrots — to be precise, rare cherry-headed conures — the power to lure an isolated San Francisco poet into romantic conjunction with a biologist studying the mangrove swamps of Ecuador. — Michael Harris
Publishers Weekly
A love story with an ornithological spin, this latest novel by poet, novelist and translator Paul (Medieval in L.A., etc.) leads its two protagonists deep into the hinterlands of South America. Fern Melartin is a naturalist interested in the aratinga erythrogenys, a species of parrot. It inhabits the mangrove swamps below Guayaquil, Ecuador, which is why Fern incautiously accepts a job at an animal reserve in that area offered by the reserve director, Leonard Qualles, leaving her fiance, Geoffrey, back in Arizona. Soon she discovers that the reserve is more like a zoo, and Qualles is a rat whose louche mannerisms conceal murky business. Fern is fired on drubbed up charges (Qualles doesn't want observers around for long), but finds refuge in Puerto Alegre, a coastal village in which two American Peace Corps volunteers are living. She is happy until she receives word that another supposed researcher into aratinga erythrogenys wants to meet her. David Huntington is in Ecuador on a fluke. He is a San Francisco poet, the opposite of a life-affirming Whitman type. A major fellowship has recently allowed him to quit teaching pick-up classes at Mills College. However, the real changes in David's life occur after his father gives him a parrot-an aratinga erythrogenys that he names Little Wittgenstein. The parrot runs wild in his apartment, so he lets it out the window; then he feels so guilty he looks for it, researches parrot life and generally begins to encounter the real, physical world he has spent his lifetime sedulously avoiding. Finally, after discovering a flock of feral aratinga erythrogenys, David decides to take a boat to Ecuador to see the birds in their native habitat. Paul's story successfully weds an odd theme-the ethology of parrots-to the perennial fascinations of human courtship behavior. (July) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Andrea Barrett
"...an engaging, witty, and surprisingly touching narrative, which lures us intto dreaming the dreams ... of a flock of parrots."
"Engaging, lyrical, and funny."
Library Journal
Reclusive David Huntington prides himself on composing the most intentionally impenetrable poetry possible-and as Paul's novel opens, he's actually rewarded for his efforts with a large fellowship. However, when David receives an exotic parrot from his father, his preferred life of airless solitude is turned upside down, and in frustration David soon tosses it out his apartment window. Little does he know that through that open window his carefully controlled and spiritless existence has begun its exit as well. David's guilty search for the bird serendipitously leads him into an adventure outside his quiet apartment and all the way to the swamplands of Ecuador, where a young researcher named Fern happens to be studying the same type of parrot in its native habitat. As might be expected, love ensues, though this is the coda to the novel. The real victory for David is having his life opened to new possibilities. There are really no surprises here (and not much plot), just a sweet and whimsical novel featuring characters the author clearly loves dearly. Readers searching for that warm and fuzzy feeling in their fiction will find it here in spades. Recommended for public libraries.-Marc Kloszewski, Indiana Free Lib., PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Poet and second-novelist Paul (Medieval in L.A., 1996) depicts two intellectuals who are drawn to Ecuador to discover themselves, each other, and parrots. David Huntington is an X Poet (read Language Poetry, which Paul generously mocks) who has garnished, after a failed marriage, bouts of deconstructionist ennui, and excessive hermitage, the coveted Wadsworth Prize (read MacArthur "genius" award). The problem is, he has no life. He lives with a nefarious parrot his father gave him named Little Wittgenstein, who attacks fellow X Poets and romantic candidates alike, so that David finally shoos him out the window. The bird, though, however unnerving, was his metaphorical Other, and soon David longs for him. Scouring San Francisco, he learns of a flock of parrots congregating near Telegraph Hill. He meets Mike, a bird-lackey of sorts, who convinces David the birds have a purpose for him. Putting poetry on the back burner, he obsessively researches parrots--an indulgent but interesting aside. Meanwhile, Fern, a more fully realized character, has traveled to Ecuador for dissertation research on the habits and evolution of the Aratinga erythrogenys, mangrove swamp parrots known to be "indicators of the state of the earth." The Aratinga happens to be the same variety fascinating David. Fern takes a job with the local wildlife reservation, a place that has two problems: one, it’s more a zoo than a reservation, and two, it’s pretty much a holding house for exotic animals sold on the black market by el director Qualles. Fern’s fiancé drops her a few days before she locates the elusive parrots, gets fired by Qualles, and is taken in by Peace Corps friends in a nearby fishing village. A few unlikelyevents leave David homeless and ship-bound for Ecuador, where a mutual acquaintance sets up a meeting between him and Fern. Despite territorial bitterness, the two can’t dismiss the spark between them. Joining forces with two government officers (seriously?), they go after Qualles. Engaging, lyrical, and funny, but raced to a Book-of-the-Week ending. Agent: Nina Ryan
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780151004959
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 6/23/2003
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.58 (w) x 8.70 (h) x 1.08 (d)

Meet the Author

Jim Paul is a poet, a translator, and the author of three books. A recipient of a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship, he has also served on the faculty at Bread Loaf. He lives in the Rincon Mountains in southern Arizona.

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Read an Excerpt

David didn't go out much. Hadn't for years. Even though he lived in a beautiful city, San Francisco, and had lived there since his birth, the outside world had not really existed for him. His bookcase blocked the window in the bedroom of the third-floor apartment where he lived. Out there, out in the larger world, was trouble, difficulty at best and bad trouble at worst. People were a problem, but it wasn't just people. The elements of nature were to be avoided. The earth itself bore explosive forces that might shatter whole apartment buildings. The sea was frigid and murderous. Animals had teeth and were not to be trusted. The seemingly innocent sky harbored huge destructive forces, or at least rain, a watery nuisance.

As a child, without ever mentioning it to anyone, David had begun fearing the world. If anyone had asked him just where this fear had begun, he might have said, facetiously, that as a child he had been bitten by a swan. This was true. In the park at the Palace of Fine Arts, he'd run toward the beautiful creature, his arms out, his four-year-old self ecstatic, and the big bird had let him have it, biting him on the hands and face and sending him screaming to his mother. It was more likely, though, he had derived his sense that the world was not safe from his father, who was himself not safe, subject to deep moodiness and sudden swings of temper.

But probably David would not have been able to completely justify his fearfulness, to himself or anyone else. Though he had heard of terrible things, nothing very awful had, in fact, ever happened to him. Occasionally the elements got in his way, a big storm soaked him on the street or an earthquake shut off his lights for a time. But that was all. So his fear had mellowed into what appeared to be a simple lack of interest. Mostly he managed to live inside, both inside his apartment and inside himself, writing his poetry. This was his main interest and his chosen work. David was a poet.

All his life he'd been a voracious reader-devouring a book or two a week. He had immense powers of recollection, practically memorizing all that he read. David could write before he went to school and had always written things down, making up little stories and poems, which, if they were very good, were posted by his mother on the back of the front door of the house. He'd grown up in the Sunset District, a protosuburb west of downtown. When he got out of high school, David stayed in San Francisco, going to State. He would have preferred to remain at home while at college, but his father, wanting to get him out of the house, rented him one of the apartments he owned in the Haight.

His father did not give him a break on the rent, however, and he was forced to take roommates. He chose two as mild and bookish as himself, boys who looked to him as the head of the household. This admiration, combined with the natural nonchalance of the eighteen-year-old and the peace of a house without his father in it, had brought David into the most outgoing time of his life. He liked the neighborhood. That it was not the wild Haight of the '60s, but the Haight of the '80s, a rather staid and funky place, suited him. David was staid and funky in his dress-usually a plain brown shirt and black pants hung on his tall and angular frame-and he wore his dark curly hair long in the style of the old neighborhood. He ventured out. The streets and restaurants of the Haight, the park, movies at the Old Vic, these became his haunts. The place grew tolerable, even comfortable to him after he'd lived there awhile.

At the height of this brief extraversion-because of it, actually-he met and married a young woman named Rosalind. Married life allowed him to return to the more inward existence he always preferred. He moved with his new bride to the Mission District, to the apartment where he still lived, though by himself at this point.

He never took up the Mission as he had the Haight. The Mission felt altogether more urban to him, and it brought his old fears back. When he went out, he moved in the circumspect way that he thought big cities required. He developed his mental corridors through the urban core, his ways and means. To go downtown or to the East Bay, he rode BART, San Francisco's squarish and limited subway, which he knew so intimately that the train had come to seem merely a mental conveyance, bringing the public library to him, rather than vice versa. He spent as little time on surface streets as he could. Up there he watched his back far more than he had to. He ducked into doorways a lot.

He did not travel far. Once friends from college had convinced him to go with them to Mexico, down to the Yucatán. The plane ride itself disturbed him. It wasn't just that the huge heavy mechanism did not belong off the ground. What bothered him most was the violent change of place it effected. The jet switched everything, one setting gone and the other there, like a conjuring act. This disorienting and instantaneous change of scene made places seem like channels on TV. Unsettled by the swift substitution of Mexico for his hometown, David had fallen ill a day after their arrival and had spent the week in a darkened motel room, miserably throwing up, while his friends ran around outside, happily throwing a Frisbee across the white sand.

He stayed home after that. And he did all right. Though his childish fear at times took possession of him, in general, David was not paralyzed. He had his defenses, and they worked. He didn't sleep well, but he got his rest. At night, he put on a blindfold to block out the light, that coppery glow that surrounds big cities. To ward off the traffic noise and the sound of the elevator, the shaft of which ran just past his bedroom wall, he wore earplugs.

Near his bed was his desk, at which he wrote in the mornings. On some morning in the now-distant past, he had simply left the earplugs in, and now this was his habit. So as David typed all morning-he wrote his poems with a computer-he heard only the wind of his own breath in the passages of his head.

His rejection of the larger world had its complement in his embrace of the inner one. He was a stubborn man, deeply attached to his attachments, and he had managed to turn poetry into a profession. He made a small living at it-at teaching it, anyway-and his work was known, as such things are, by a few people beyond his immediate friends. That is to say, he was a successful poet.

Could such an internal man write poems? True, certain kinds of poetry had eluded David, kinds that might have taken him out of doors. He was not a poet of sublime scapes, depicting lakes and meadows, still less a poet of outward wit and social chatter, a nabob of the salon. As he conceived of it now, David was a very late poet, writing when neither sublimity, nor wit, nor even simple description was possible. The poets of the past had used all that up.

As a poet, David felt that he lived at the end of history. Actually he took some pride in it. It was a special fate, to live at the end. But it limited things. By the time he had come along, he could find only a little rind left at the bottom of the big barrel of literary possibilities, this to scrape up and publish as he might. Hence David had become a deconstructionist, a practitioner of an art form that he and a few others called X poetry.

State was a hotbed of X poetry. David had met his compatriots there; others he knew through the obscure journals in which they published. Among these few, X poetry had arisen in the most painstaking manner possible, in conclaves where innocent-sounding terms were assigned the most arcane meanings, and with nobody in the larger world the wiser. A "book" was not a book, a "word" was not a word, a "letter" was not a letter. As an X poet, David wrote verse that avoided any conventional narrative or even conventional sentences, all of that rational structure deeply suspect to practitioners of his ilk. The result was as opaque as mud, and that was the way X poets liked it: a mire of words, available to any and to no interpretation. And at this David had become expert, had labored these long years. He had a dozen books to his credit, none of them with three words in a row that made any "sense." This is what he did all morning, his ears stuffed with plugs.

He'd been dedicated to this pursuit for fifteen years. In the thirteenth year, his wife, Rosalind, a sensible and patient woman who had loyally and strenuously attempted to comprehend what he was doing, finally gave up and left him. As a sophomore living in the Haight, he had wooed Rosalind with the most romantic verses possible. But by the time he had graduated college, the poetry had changed, and after that so had he. He found that opacity had its personal as well as its aesthetic virtues, as a kind of stuffing, and by the time he was thirty he was fully insulated by it. He had X-poeted himself.

Rosalind had thrown up her hands at last, having followed her husband into this rarefied existence and having eventually decided she didn't really like it. His already internal existence become more and more so, to the point that he rarely went outside unless coerced. She had proclaimed him at last "impossible," a term that might have been applied to his work. For her part Rosalind had exited the marriage after igniting an affair at the software company where she worked, a romance with her cubicle mate, a man called Mango. Mango liked the club life; he had a tag for a name.

David remained on regular speaking terms with his ex-wife. He was solid, even stolid, in his connections. He did not have that many, and he made few new ones. But after the divorce, he drew his life even more closely about him. He lived alone in his apartment on Guerrero Street, a literate fortification. He threw very little away, and the place was more and more jammed with his books and papers. Papers and texts covered his bed, and occasionally when he was very tired, he simply cleared a small space among this litter, where he lay and slept.

Of course David was still required to go outside. For a long time, he had worked in a copy shop, where he had risen to manager, his chief qualification being that he did not despise the job. He deemed it a proper occupation for an X poet, the reproduction of text as text. But then he attracted academic attention by managing to publish his poems. His literary career had been an odyssey, a wending from tiny press to tinier press, often just before they'd gone out of business. David's work had ushered more than one small publishing enterprise out of the world. Still, it was notice of a sort. His X poet colleagues who had been employed by colleges recommended him, and David found work teaching.

So by the time of this story, David taught a class here and a class there in the Bay Area. He commuted by bus and subway to San Francisco State and to Mills College, where he wrought great muddy depths of ennui upon hapless undergraduates. And really, that might have been that, for David. Whole lives are spent on less, after all. And David himself would not have said he was unhappy. He might have confessed, had he known you very well, that he wanted a female companion. Badly, profoundly, wanted one. Still, he would never have told you that his life was small, interior, utterly consumed, every day, with thoughts and things not a soul in the world but David cared about. If he yearned for more, for a life in the larger world-he did, and who wouldn't have?-you would never have heard this from him.

Then, in the middle of a spell of that splendid weather, clear skies and bright air, that sometimes occurs in San Francisco in February-weather unnoticed by David himself, of course-things changed. A letter arrived in the mail from the Wadsworth Foundation. The procedures of the Wadsworth Foundation were secret; they took no applications and gave away big monetary awards to artists and writers. And they were giving him one of these big prizes-a thousand dollars times his age, which added up to $37,000, granted each year for five years, in recognition of his work and of his genius. "I am honored and delighted to inform you...," the letter began.

David read on, entranced, just then not hearing the parrot for the first time in a couple of weeks. His father had given him the parrot, and it had been noisy from the start. The bird said nothing in English and made just one main noise, a call, a loud two-part trumpeting that sounded like the bark of a long-frozen hinge. In spite of its sameness, the call seemed to vary in import and to be oddly, even unsettlingly, appropriate to whatever situation David found himself in.

David savored the letter. Though this reward had arrived while he was still relatively young, David himself felt that the prize had been a long time in coming. He was, in spite of his inwardness, an ambitious man as regards his work, all of which now seemed justified. The years at minimum wage seemed justified. Even his divorce-the biggest sacrifice to his work, he felt-enhanced the glory of the day. Somewhere a committee of scholars had decided that David Huntington should receive this honor. God knew how it had happened. But everything was changed by it. He'd have money. He'd get offers at the best schools. He'd be famous. He would be X poetry.

But he still had an immediate problem: whom to tell? Overjoyed, he had to tell someone. So he told the parrot.

"I got it!" he shouted at the bird, who just then was perching on the refrigerator. The bird squawked back. "The Wadsworth!" said David. Squawk. "I'm a genius!" Squawk.

Even for David, this dialogue was less than satisfactory. So he thought of calling a woman he was seeing. Actually "seeing" would be putting too fine a point on it. He'd been out with her twice, once on a date arranged by his friend Lyle, and once after that, when she'd told him that she needed to take some time out. David called Caroline anyway, not that it mattered much, as he got her answering machine, so he had to leave a message at the beep. With the parrot still screeching in the background, he had let himself go and had shouted into the machine, "I'm a Wadsworth. I'm a genius. It's happened." Then he stopped, not knowing what else to say, hearing the wheels grinding away in the tape machine, and just hung up without saying good-bye or even identifying himself.

This, too, was quite unsatisfactory. Even if he had reached her, she would not have been able to rejoice properly at his news. Caroline was a writer herself, with some jealousy and no patience for good news about other writers, especially David. David knew he wouldn't have wanted to hear this news from another writer, either. That was why he hadn't immediately called any of the writers he knew-Marilyn the chair at Mills, Renny the curator, or Lyle his fellow X poet. He felt that they would take the news badly.

Then he called his friend Peter, whom he'd known since college and who worked with the Longshoremen's Union on the docks. But he got no answer, not even an answering machine, as Peter didn't believe in them. David held on to the receiver, letting it ring. The trill on the line alternated with the parrot squawk, and was similarly unfulfilling.

So he called Rosalind, his ex-wife, but got only her boyfriend, Mango. Mango answered the phone saying "Yah mon," like a Rastafarian. The guy had long orange hair, which had probably given rise to his nickname. He was a talented bass player, Rosalind had claimed, and was only biding his time at the software company until he got his recording deal. David took a deep breath and tried to explain the Wadsworth to Mango. It was a fellowship, an honor for his work, his poetry. It was money, said David, finally. How much? Mango asked. A thousand dollars times his age for five years, said David. How much is that? said Mango, who was twenty-six. A lot, said David.

Mango said he'd tell Roz, a name David had never called Rosalind, and David got off the phone, feeling that this effort to celebrate his good news with anyone had been fruitless and sensing the painful irony that, having labored so long to not be understood, he would not be able to make people understand at this point. So in a sort of despair, he returned to the squawk of the parrot, who had been answering him the whole time, as if it had been the bird instead of these distant electronic significations of human beings to whom David had been speaking.

The bird was making its same noise-that rasping, two-toned call, its raucous iamb. Over the past two weeks the sound had sometimes seemed to be a cry for help, sometimes a scream of rage, sometimes a simple emotionless bleat like a homing beacon. But this time, there could be no mistaking it. As David had been speaking into the dumb electronic webwork of the phone system, as he had tried to relay his news, the bird had been calling back in mocking mimicry. The bird was squawking; David was squawking. There wasn't much difference.

Then a real mistake: David called his father, a childish, demanding man, whom his mother had long ago divorced. His mother had moved to San Diego and remarried, but his father lived on in the old house on Taraval, forever restless and disgruntled and resenting. When David was in third grade, Ben had changed the family name from Hirsch to Huntington. David remembered the difficulty at school, the questions the other kids asked about his new name. Maybe this was where the X poetry business had begun, in some defensive obfuscation about the essential names for things.

Ben was in real estate. He held properties, mostly light industrial lots south of Market, and sold them when the selling was good. Lately he had moved into converting and selling live/work studios for artists. Doing so he had taken up Bohemian airs. He wore a black racing cap on his bald pate, drove his black Porsche Carrera, took lunch at Postrio. Ben was rich, though he gave no money to anyone, including his son.

"Dad," said David, "I won the Wadsworth."

"You won the what?" said Ben.

"The Wadsworth, a fellowship, a big award for my writing."

"Does it come with money?" asked his father.

"Yeah, good money," said David, "Fifty thousand a year for five years." He was exaggerating slightly.

"Fifty thousand a year?" said Ben. "A good plumber makes more than that." Talking to his father was worse than talking to a machine, and just as predictable. The bird squawked again, mocking him for even trying.

"Is that my bird?" asked Ben. "How's he doing?"

"He screams," said David.

"Yeah, I hear him," said Ben. "He does that a lot. But you can keep the cover on. That shuts him up." David had already discovered this, but he hadn't the heart to keep the bird in the dark all the time. In truth, David hadn't even liked keeping the bird in the cage.

"Where'd you get this bird, anyway?" said David. He had already begun to suspect that his father's gift was not the big-hearted gesture he might have imagined.

"Bought him in Serramonte, at the mall," said Ben. "So cute I couldn't resist him." David doubted this. His father could resist anything.

The bird had come out of the blue. Ben had stopped by with it, without calling first. He'd buzzed and told David to come down, as he didn't want to park. "I have something for you," he said. Outside, Ben stood by his double-parked Porsche. A large domed object sat in the passenger seat.

"It's a parrot," Ben had said. "I brought you a parrot. You always wanted a parrot when you were a kid. It's a present."

What it was, was the larger world, coming into David's life through a minuscule crack, an odd circumstance. But David did not see it coming. He wanted to believe that his father had brought him a present. That maybe his dad was finally feeling fatherly, was relenting a little in his selfishness.

"Gee, thanks, Dad," was all David had said, as Ben had put the big covered cage in David's arms. He was glad to do it, Ben said.

Ben got back inside the low vehicle. "Enjoy," he called out. "His name's Pepito." He pulled his cap down on his head and gunned it, blasting down Guerrero Street. He left David struggling with the cage and the door to the apartment building.

David had taken the cage back upstairs, placed it on a stool in the corner of his kitchen, and pulled the cover off. There on the swinging perch, looking back at him with piercing dark eyes, was a small green parrot. His parrot, David thought. It had a splatter of red feathers across its forehead and a crook at the point of its beak, from biting down too hard on something. The bird's eyes were especially expressive. The parrot could dilate its black pupils at will. A white wrinkled membrane framed and emphasized them. The bird gazed at David for about three seconds, focusing and refocusing its eyes, and then let out its cry, which made David jump. It was a louder sound than you'd think could come from a smallish bird. And it was the first of thousands, tens of thousands, of such squawks.

Copyright © 2003 by Jim Paul

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 22, 2013

    I really liked reading this book. The romance story is a bit pr

    I really liked reading this book. The romance story is a bit predictable, so it's not a 5 star, but I enjoyed the emotional and literal journey of the two main characters. I will definitely be looking for more books by this author.

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