Tag Archives: Melville House Publishing

The Train by Simenon

“It was the hour of my meeting with Fate, the hour of an appointment which I had had a long time, which I had always had, with Fate.”

The Train, an excellent roman durs (hard novel) from Simenon, is another fine example of one of this author’s most frequent themes: escape. Simenon has an incredible ability to show how his male characters lead average lives of bourgeois conformity until routines and habits are derailed by fate. Some of Simenon’s male characters, uncoupled from the engine of industry, sink into crime or are drawn to the sordid underbelly of life. The male protagonist of The Train, however, simply steps away from his family for a moment and is literally caught up in an entirely different life.  Simenon shows us ten, twenty or even thirty years of the same life, the same routine, the same habits, and it only takes a moment to turn a corner into an entirely new life–one that seems to have been waiting, patiently, there in the shadows.

The Train is told by its thirty-two-year old protagonist, Marcel, a married man with one small child and a wife, Jeanne who’s 7 1/2 months pregnant. When the story begins, Marcel is reasonably well-set in life and freely admits that he “had become a happy man” who loves the life he’s established. He owns a small home and a modest electronics repair business. There’s the sense–that’s often in the background of Simenon’s romans durs–that Marcel hasn’t actively chosen the life in which he now finds himself. It’s just somehow happened. The novel opens with the invasion of Holland by the German army, and here’s Marcel’s reaction:

Straightaway, that particular morning, I realized that something was happening at last. I had never known the air so crowded. Whatever wavelength I picked, broadcasts were overlapping, voices, whistles, phrases in German, Dutch, English, and you could feel a sort of dramatic throbbing in the air.

Does Marcel feel a sense of excitement? Then later:

A month earlier, at the beginning of April, the 8th or 9th, my hopes had risen when the Germans had invaded Denmark and Norway.

Yes, it’s safe to say that Marcel does feel excitement–or at least a sense that change is on its way. To Marcel, whose poor eyesight negates the possibility of conscription, impending war represents a designated meeting:

This war, which had suddenly broken out after a year of spurious calm, was a personal matter between Fate and me.

Life changes dramatically and within just a few short hours Marcel’s wife decides that they must flee the area before the Germans arrive, and so Marcel, his heavily-pregnant wife, and highly nervous child take a train….

Since Marcel’s wife and child are the physical embodiments of his life and responsibilities, it’s perhaps inevitable, since this is a Simenon novel, that they become separated. It only takes a moment, and Marcel is left behind on a different part of the train.

Why does Marcel feel a sense of excitement about an impending invasion? Given that he and his family are fleeing from the German army, his reaction is a little odd, but Marcel has some hidden memories of what happened to his mother in WWI, and feels that fate awaits him once more in the form of an invading army. In many ways, war costs Marcel not only security, but also much more interestingly, identity:

I had just lost my roots. I was no longer Marcel Feron, radio engineer in a newish district of Fumay, not far from the Meuse, but one man among millions whom superior forces were going to toss about at will.

Simenon’s romans durs explore the way we are defined by our lives, and how once separated from familiar social environments, we can easily become completely different human beings. Of course when Simenon’s characters become criminals as in the marvellous novel, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, there’s the underlying idea that a respectable bourgeois life isn’t as much a choice as much as it is a lack of opportunity. In this story, however, Marcel is not the only man to leave his old life behind, and for those who take the train, societal expectations and polite behaviour rapidly fall away.

Marcel writes the story of what happened when he fled his home town near the Belgium border, but since he quickly becomes separated from his family, this is essentially his private, secret story, and one that he hopes to leave to his son:

Perhaps Jean-François will go on behaving as his mother and his schoolmasters teach him to and as I do more or less sincerely myself.

It is also possible that one day he may rebel against our ideas, our way of life, and try to be himself.

If Marcel’s time without his family was an attempt to “be himself” was he successful? Marcel’s account, he argues, is written as a way of “leaving my son another picture” of himself. He doesn’t want his son to think of his father as only “the shopkeeper and timid husband he had known, with no ambition beyond that of bringing up his children to the best of his ability and helping them to climb a small rung of the social ladder.”

Yet while the account of exactly what Marcel did in the war may shift his son’s perceptions of the life his father led, Marcel doesn’t seem to grasp–or at least acknowledge–that some of his behaviour–at the last–smacks of a failure of courage.

Simenon acknowledged that he used incidents from his real-life as creative springboards for his novels, so it should come as no surprise here that in WWI Simenon witnessed something that sounds rather similar to the incident involving Marcel’s mother. Also in WWII Simenon was living in La Rochelle when Belgium refugees began pouring over the border in May 1940, and the Belgium embassy asked Simenon to act as Commissioner for Belgian refugees. According to Patrick Marnham, Simenon’s biographer, Simenon claimed he was “responsible for 300,000 Belgian refugees,” so it’s easy to imagine that many of the scenes described by Marcel in The Train were witnessed by Simenon himself. 

Marnham goes on to say that many of the trains “had been moving for three weeks before reaching the city. Some had been machine-gunned or bombed  and were crowded with wounded or dying people.” Simenon set up a reception centre for the refugees–along with a camp where they could be fed, clothed and housed–and these details appear in The Train.

My copy of The Train (translated by Robert Baldick) came courtesy of netgalley and was read on my kindle. For this Simenon fan, it’s marvellous to see publishers taking interest in a writer who deserves much more critical acclaim than he’s received to date. But with Melville House Publishing and New York Review Classics reprinting Simenon, I can only think that new readers will discover this incredible author.

Max at Pechorin’s Journal also reviewed The Train, so for his review, go here. I liked it more than Max, but then I’m not rational about Simenon.

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Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi

Something didn’t add up-a beautiful blonde girl dead on the doorstep of an African professor. A suicide or an accidental overdose on a stranger’s front porch? No, it was too random to be random.”

If I’m going to read an international crime novel, I expect (or rather I hope), that the novel will take me outside of my environment. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I expect an international crime novel to show how crime and/or crime detection is different in that particular country.

With those ideas in mind, Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi delivers big-time.

The novel begins with Madison, Wisconsin police detective, Ishmael on a flight to Kenya. That’s a long way to solve a crime that happened in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is a predominantly white state with african-americans running at about 6% of the population. Detective Ishmael is one of the 6%, and he’s called out one night to a potentially politically explosive murder scene at Maple Bluff, the richest suburb in the state. A young white, blonde woman has been found dead from an apparent overdose, and her corpse is sprawled out on the steps of a home occupied by a university employee. But the employee isn’t just any employee–he’s Joshua Hakiziman–an international celebrity for his brave role in saving hundreds of people during the Rwandan genocide. Thanks to his fame, Hakiziman now teaches “genocide and testimony” at the university.

Hakiziman due to his humanitarian halo is, in some ways, untouchable. He claims he spent an evening enjoying cocktails with friends and came home to the body of an unknown woman on his doorstep. Detective Ishmael can’t discover any connection, but he’s troubled by the case and aware of its racial implications. Maple Bluff isn’t exactly a hotbed of crime:

On the face of it, it looked like an overdose or a suicide but not a murder. This was Maple Bluff after all–a cat up the tree, stolen stop signs, an occasional drunk and unruly grandmother visiting from upcountry perhaps, but not murder.

While Joshua appears to have nothing to hide, his calm detachment bothers Detective Ishmael:

But as I was typing little details began to bother me. The walls of the house, for example, had been empty–no paintings, no photographs. It had been like being in one huge hotel room, impersonal yet inhabited. How could he live in that house without leaving a trace of himself? But that wasn’t a crime.

Meanwhile the beautiful dead blonde goes unidentified, and pressure builds to solve the case. Then Ishmael receives an anonymous phone call urging him to come to Nairobi if he wants to discover the truth. He’s given two weeks by his police chief, and then flies to Kenya.

Nairobi is a culture shock for Ishmael. He’s teamed up with Nairobi detective David O, and Ishmael quickly learns that he’s viewed by locals (and insulted) as a white man–his ethnicity which separated him from the white detectives and the community back in Madison means nothing in Kenya. Here, life is cheap, and when it comes to ‘law enforcement,’ it’s a whole other game. Crimes take place in broad daylight with very few consequences, some areas are virtually impenetrable due to private mercenary armies or criminal gangs, and then if you’re backed into a corner and end up shooting a bunch of locals, there’s no inquiry, no investigation, and it’s back to business as usual.

On the way to uncovering the truth, Ishmael finds himself in a complex web of corruption and lies. While he’s shocked by the day-to-day lawlessness of Kenya, oddly he begins to feel that he fits in. He makes fast friends with David O and his wife and even picks up a love interest along the way to solving the Wisconsin murder. Clearly this is the beginning of a series character, and for those who like their crime set in foreign locales, Nairobi Heat is an excellent read. While Kenya’s apparent lawlessness seems to blur the lines of good and evil, in reality, Ishmael discovers that the distinction is sharp and clear.

My copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley and read on my Kindle.

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The Duel by Joseph Conrad

“To the surprise and admiration of their fellows, two officers, like insane artists trying to gild refined gold or paint the lily, pursued a private contest through the years of universal carnage.”

5 novellas all called The Duel? What a brilliant idea from Melville House Publishing to reprint these classic titles with special features. The five novellas are:

Casanova’s The Duel

Chekhov’s The Duel

Conrad’s The Duel

Kleist’s The Duel

Kuprin’s The Duel

Melville House offered a free e-copy of Conrad’s novella, so I grabbed the chance to read it. Conrad’s The Duel was made into a marvellous film directed by Ridley Scott, called The Duellists. Regular readers of this blog know that I am fascinated by the film-book connection, and I am also fascinated by duelling, so this novella appealed for dual reasons….

The novella begins during the Napoleonic wars and concludes with the restoration of the Bourbons in a post-Napoleonic France. Tumultuous years indeed for men who fought for the emperor, but also some rather dodgy times when Napoleon was exiled, returned to fight again, and then was finally defeated at Waterloo. A disaster, of course, to bet on the wrong pony, but then again some people go with the flow, and that brings me back to The Duel.

The Duel charts the relationship between two officers in Napoleon’s army. These men are cavalry officers and complete opposites in temperament, appearance and background. The two officers are Feraud and D’Hubert–both lieutenants in the Hussars when the story begins in Strasbourg. D’Hubert, a dashing, tall, lithe young man from a wealthy prominent family has already been selected from the herd for special attention. He’s “attached” to the general in command and serves as an officier d’ordonnance.  Even at this early stage of his career, it’s easy to see that D’Hubert will be successful–if he survives–his selection denotes the recognition of his talents with the Hussars. He’s a trusted aristocrat and he’s given duties that require a touch of diplomacy.

The trouble begins when Lieut. D’Hubert is sent to talk to Feraud regarding a rumour afoot that Feraud dueled with a civilian and “ran that civilian through this morning. Clean through, as you spit a hare.” The civilian is from a prominent family, and Feraud, whose conduct is considered “positively indecent” has angered the general. D’Hubert has been sent to place Feraud under house arrest–partly for his own safety and partly to let the situation cool down, but he finds Feraud already gone from his lodgings. He’s off flirting at the home of a home of a notorious young matron. Astonished at Feraud’s cheek, D’Hubert hustles off to the home of Madame de Lionne to place Feraud under house arrest.

D’Hubert finds Feraud, and he explains that Feraud must lay low for a while. Feraud finds such a command ridiculous and protests while defending the duel:

Was I to let that sauerkraut-eating civilian wipe his boots on the uniform of the 7th Hussars?

This first meeting sets the tone for the relationship between the two men and also outlines their basic personalities. D’Hubert obeys the orders handed down from the general without question, and Feraud, who’s impulsive and hot-tempered, inherently listens to other ‘codes’–other rules that are deeply ingrained in his nature. Feraud’s loyalties run deep and political expediency is an anathema as he operates on passion rather than logic. It’s fairly easy to predict that D’Hubert, the recipient of gilded patronage will go far while Feraud, a Gascon commoner will ultimately sacrifice career to his notions of loyalty and honour.

When Feraud is told he’s under house arrest, things between D’Hubert and Feraud go from bad to worse.  Emotions explode and Feraud goes berserk:

“I am reasonable! I am perfectly reasonable!” retorted the other with ominous restraint. “I can’t call the general at account for his behaviour, but you are going to answer me for yours.”

D’Hubert finds himself fighting Feraud in the garden of Feraud’s lodgings where the ‘seconds’ are a deaf gardener and a horrified old lady who watches from an upstairs window. These absurd circumstances strip the duel of its ceremony and its notions of honour. For D’Hubert, the duel is reduced to little more than a brawl. It’s an ignoble position but one D’Hubert can’t avoid:

This was most unsuitable ground, he thought, keeping a watchful, narrowed gaze, shaded by long eyelashes, upon the fiery stare of his thickset adversary. This absurd affair would ruin his reputation of a sensible, well-behaved, promising young officer. It would damage, at any rate, his immediate prospects, and lose him the goodwill of his general. These worldly preoccupations were no doubt misplaced in view of the solemnity of the moment. A duel, whether regarded as a ceremony in the cult of honour, or even when reduced to its moral essence to a form of manly sport, demands a perfect singleness of intention, a homicidal austerity of mood.

 And so begins the long-drawn out conflict between D’Hubert and Feraud. The two officers fight in Napoleon’s campaigns, and in between campaigns they meet and conduct a series of duels. Distance, war and even rank intervenes–duels are only to be held between those of equal rank, so when D’Hubert is promoted, he cannot be challenged by Feraud.

While this is essentially a story of two men who battle out their differences using a variety of weapons, this is also a story of two men cast together by circumstance. Feraud appears to take umbrage at D’Hubert’s existence, and part of this must certainly lie in the fact that D’Hubert, one of “these generals’ pets” leads a life of privilege. This is noted by Fearud immediately through the general’s preference for D’Hubert, and this privilege continues to emerge as France’s rulers shift. D’Hubert’s armour of privilege, sensed by Feraud, comes to full bloom with the defeat of Napoleon.

Underneath the quarrels, the bravado, the duels, and the misplaced sense of honour, Conrad seems to broach the question: who is the better man? D’Hubert whose cool head and privileged position allows him to remain in favour even as the tide turns? Or is Feraud, the hot head, the better man for his placement of insane loyalty over his own hide?

This edition at 112 pages comes loaded with extras–a cornucopia of articles (including an extract from Napoleon’s memoirs), illustrations, the entire French Code Duello (French code of conduct concerning duels and duellists) and various background materials. Of particular note is The History of Conrad’s Duel: Dupont vs. Fournier. This details the true story of a series of duels that were held between 1794-1813 between Dupont and Fournier, two officers in Napoleon’s army. This short piece ends with a dig at the French:

And thus ended this long-protracted affair. Surely none but Frenchman would have carried on such a tragicomedy for so long a time.  

On a final note, the coterie of disappointed, bitter Napoleonic soldiers surrounding Feraud reminded of Philippe  Bridau in  Balzac’s The Black Sheep. Although the latter really is a much nastier piece of work.

(Kuprin’s The Duel, Chekhov’s The Duel, and Casanova’s The Duel are all reviewed on this blog)

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More Beer by Jakob Arjouni

“The most revealing thing about a murder is its motive. And the most revealing thing about a motive is the victim. It’s as simple as that.”

I have read a number of books that indicate a surprising lack of basic knowledge when it comes to writing about so-called eco-terrorists. These ‘thrillers’ include fictional characters who are activists engaged in acts of sabotage against, let’s say, laboratories that conduct experiments on animal subjects, urban sprawl, or slaughter houses. The authors of such books frequently choose to ignore the basic tenet of Ecotage and the direct action performed by environmental groups such as ALF and ELF–that is destruction to property and not to human life. So with those reading experiences in mind, it was simply refreshing to come across More Beer, a German crime novel written by Jakob Arjouni.

More Beer is the tale of a German/Turk PI named Kemal Kayankaya who’s roped into a very messy case. This is an ecotage case in which four young activists from the Ecological Front raided a chemical plant and blew up a waste pipe. Chemicals from the Bollig plant had been discharged into a nearby lake for some time, and several children in the area “developed strange skin problems” as a result. In spite of the fact that the Bollig plant could be forced to pay damages to the families of these children, no substantial change had been made to the chemical plant procedures. It is business as usual for the Bollig plant, and the ecological activists decided to raid the plant and blow up the waste pipe “to get the debate going again.” But something went wrong, and the owner of the plant, Friedrich Bollig was shot dead with “four bullets in his chest and head.”

According to eyewitnesses at the scene, there were five men running around that night, but only four were arrested. The men, who refuse to talk to the police and refuse to identify the fifth man, admit blowing up the pipe but deny that they had anything to do with Bollig’s death. According to their lawyer, Anastas, without the identity of the fifth man he finds it impossible to “mount a successful defense.” Anastas believes his clients are innocent of murder and admits that “these four are as far removed from killer commandos as a delegation of allotment holders would be.” 

In spite of some skepticism Kayankaya agrees to take the case. On the one hand, he finds it bizarre that ec0-saboteurs would end up killing someone, but then to say that these 4 men who were on site to blow up a waste pipe just happened to be there when Fredrich Bollig was murdered by someone else seems to be stretching any notion of coincidence. But there are some things that bother Kayankaya about the case. How did the police catch the saboteurs so quickly? Some eyewitnesses say that they heard shots prior to the explosion, but then supposedly Bollig went to investigate the explosion and was then shot. Kayankaya knows that he must investigate the conflicting eyewitness statements and establish the exact sequence of events and that he must also ascertain who would benefit from the death of Bollig.

While some people at the Bollig plant are very cooperative, others are hostile. As the investigation deepens, it also becomes increasingly dangerous for Kayankaya–especially since as a Turk he’s already subject to a large amount of prejudice from witnesses and from the police investigating the case.

More Beer includes some marvellous characterisations which raised the book above the norm for crime fiction. Here’s Hertha, the owner of Hertha’s Corner, a seedy 24-hour bar:

The proprietress pushed through the brown bead curtain, took my cup away and brought it back with a refill. Her ample bosom was swathed in a ball gown from which her arms, neck, and head protruded like sausages. Her rear was adorned with a purple satin bow, her wrists with fake gold bracelets. Her hair had been dipped in liquid silver. Hertha was the owner of Hertha’s Corner–open twenty-four hours. The place was large, dark, and empty. The dusty bottles behind the bar were lit up by fluorescence. Raindrops rattled against the dirty windowpanes. In one corner stood the table reserved for regulars, with its wrought-iron emblem, a wild sow waving a beer stein. Hertha was rinsing glasses. A fly landed on my mutilated sandwich. I lit a cigarette and blew smoke rings around the fly.

Kayankaya discovers more than one skeleton in the Bollig family closet, and it seems as though Bollig’s murder has managed to sway public opinion favorably towards the chemical waste company responsible for damaging the local children.  Kayankaya keeps digging and his investigation brings him to the attention of the sadistic Detective Superintendent Kessler–a man whose slight physical presence belies his nasty nature.

More Beer, part of a series of Kayankaya mysteries, is written with a light touch of humour with PI Kayankaya mainly amused by the bizarre characters he meets during the course of his investigation. These colourful locals include the heavily-tanned, merry widow Barbara Bollig,  and Nina Scheigel, the vodka-guzzling wife of the night watchman. Everyone, it seems, has something to hide. 

Translated by Anselm Hollo

Review copy courtesy of Melville House Publishing via netgalley.

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Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

“The less you know, the longer you live.”

Death and the Penguin by Russian author Andrey Kurkov reflects Russia’s tradition of Absurdist literature. It’s the story of a man, a would-be writer named Viktor Alekseyevich Zolotaryov who lives with a penguin named Misha in a Kiev apartment. Viktor and his penguin live in a post-Soviet society in which gangsters rule and run amuck fairly untouched by such trivialities and vague notions such as ‘the law.’ As readers we are supposed to accept the basic premise that it’s perfectly acceptable for Viktor to have an emotional penguin waddling around his apartment, and while this may seem absurd (back to that Russian tradition of Absurdist literature again), there is some truth to the story that the Kiev zoo did give away animals to anyone would feed them. The Kiev zoo emerges in the novel as a place that’s in a sad condition, and its economic trials are indicative of the sorry state of society. It’s worth noting that Viktor leads a simple, spartan life that becomes horribly complicated and compromised once he steps out the door and accepts employment.

So when the novel begins, Viktor has written a short story which he submits to a newspaper in the hopes of getting it published. Viktor is  “trapped in a rut between journalism and meagre scraps of prose.” While the story is rejected, he’s offered a job by the editor of Capital News as the writer of obituaries. The editor explains that the paper wants obituaries for people who haven’t died yet:

“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.”

This seems a little odd, but the editor argues that the paper wants obituaries on hand and ready for print. Viktor swallows that story and deliberating that he’ll be creating something “new and unusual,” he takes the job. The pay isn’t overwhelming, but it’s enough for Viktor to begin being able to afford a few luxuries. The work isn’t demanding and life seems to improve a bit for Viktor and Misha. Viktor’s formerly narrow existence begins to expand—he makes friends with District Militiaman, Sergey, is saddled with the care of a small, precocious child whose father is in hiding, and he even gains a girlfriend of sorts.

Even as Viktor’s life becomes materially easier, his peace of mind is stripped away as it gradually dawns on him that the obituaries are basically a hitlist, and that he’s involved up to his neck with gangsters. Viktor doesn’t ask nearly enough questions as he finds it easier to bury his head in the sand when it comes to the true nature of his work. He notes, “it wasn’t easy to remain honest and upright.” Early on, after the first obituary death, celebrating over a glass of cognac, Viktor asks the editor:

“How did he die?” Viktor asked.

“Fell from a sixth-story window–was cleaning it for some reason, apparently, though it wasn’t his. And at night.”

Obviously this is a suspicious death, but Viktor chooses to ignore the alarm bells and he continues. After all, he’s well-paid and what’s more he’s finally getting published for his flowery obituaries. The plot places Viktor in various moral dilemmas, and through this the reader sees the complexity of one man’s moral make-up. Some things he doesn’t quibble about, but then other situations cause a great deal of strain. Here’s Viktor asking the editor, Igor, about the mysterious death of a fellow journalist:

“What did happen in Kharkov, Igor?” he asked.

Sighing, the Chief poured cognac and gave Viktor an inhibited, arrested sort of look.

“Bowed his head did our brave young Red,” he crooned softly:

“cruelly shot through his Komosol heart…

As a newspaper, we’ve had our losses. This one’s our seventh. Before long we’ll be unveiling a pantheon … Still, no skin off your nose!  The less you know, the longer you live!” said the Chief. Then, in quite a different, somehow weary voice, and looking hard at him, he added “And it’s not your business any longer. Just that you know a bit more than others do … OK….”

Viktor regretted his curiosity. The whole ambience of their little tete à tete celebration had been lost.

Misha is arguably the most charming character in the book. There are moments when Viktor sinks deeper into his dangerous relationship with the warring gangsters, and this seems to trouble Misha. It takes some time for Viktor to catch on to the real purpose of the obituaries, but Misha smells a rat right away. Consequently, Viktor sleeps well at night while Misha becomes an insomniac. We might expect the relationship between man and dog to be symbiotic, and this is exactly what occurs between Viktor and Misha:

Misha had appeared chez Viktor a year before, when the zoo was giving away hungry animals 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. 

The subject of moral corrosion is deadly serious, but Kurkov writes with a light, tragicomic touch. While Viktor remains ignorant of the true nature of his work (obviously a decision on his part, as he’s told on various occasions to go into hiding or to stay away from the office) the penguin injects an element of goodness into the plot. There’s a good deal of absurdity here thanks to Viktor’s obliviousness and then uncertainty when it comes to selecting a course of action, and in spite of the fact that people are blown up, disappear, and fall out of sixth story windows, the plot plays out with delightful black humour.  As the story continues The Death and the Penguin explores the moral dilemmas faced by Viktor, and how he either ignores the obvious signals, talks himself into continued involvement, or finds himself going along with morally questionable acts. In the morality department, oddly enough the penguin comes out on top. Originally published in 1996, this novella is about 150 pages, and there’s a sequel: Penguin Lost

My copy read on kindle courtesy of the publisher, Melville House Publishing via netgalley.

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