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In this enchanting true story, Tom Michell relates how in the 1970s, when he was in his early 20s and teaching in an Agentinian boys boarding school, he encountered a penguin who became his best friend. He saw the penguin on a beach covered in oil and near death as the result of a recent oil slick and on an impulse decided to rescue him and clean him up, with the intention of then releasing him back into the wild. However, the penguin refused to leave his side, and so after naming him Juan Salvador, Michell became the proud adopter (or adoptee?) of his new feathered friend.

Juan Salvador soon becomes a favourite among staff and students alike at the boarding school and brings a little magic into all of their lives. Through his and Tom Michell’s story, the reader also learns a little about the Argentinian political situation at the time, and how badly inflation was affecting the poorest in the country, and there is also some insight into life in the boarding school.

Mostly though, this is Juan Salvador’s story; it is he who is the true focus of the book, and what a delight he is. Michell describes the penguin’s own little personality and quirks and really brings him to life on the page.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book – it’s a quick read, both because it is only just over 200 pages, and also because I didn’t want to put it down. Highly recommended.

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William Heaney is a forger of antiquarian books – together with his friends Stinx and Jaz, he produces fake first edition novels by such authors as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, which he sells to greedy collectors.  He makes no money out of this scam, and gives all his proceeds to charity – namely GoPoint, a centre for the homeless run by his friend Antonia.

William is a man haunted by events in his past, for which he still feels guilty.  As a result, he refuses to allow himself to grow too close to people or to fall in love.  He can also see the demons that haunt people – not metaphorical demons such as drink or drugs, but actually living breathing demons.  Not everyone can see them, but William can – and he has a few of his own to deal with as well.

There are two timelines in this book – the story of what happened in William’s past to make him so closed off; and current events in his life – a growing friendship with a mysterious girl called Yasmin, which frightens him as much as it fascinates him; an encounter with a homeless ex-soldier; and his often troubled relationship with his ex-wife and their children.

I thought the book was a terrific read.  Although we learn right from the outset that William is a con-artist, it is hard not to feel something for his character – he seems to be a man searching for the way to right a wrong, and perhaps find a way out of his trapped existence.  He drinks far too much red wine and is probably bordering on alcoholism.  But he has a heart and feels compassion for others.

The story from William’s past was interesting (I’m not giving away any spoilers) and it was easy to see how such events could have a long lasting effect.  However, I preferred the narrative of the current day.

The characters were, in the main, well drawn especially William himself, his daughter Sarah, and Yasmin.  I was eager to find out if he would eventually find a way of conquering his demons, and had no idea how the story was going to end up.  Without giving anything away, I found the ending to be extremely satisfying with many of the threads throughout the book coming together.

The writing flowed very well and I found myself engrossed in the story.  I will certainly be looking out for more work by this author.  (It should be noted that William Heaney is a pseudonym for the author Graham Joyce.)  I’m uncertain as to exactly what genre I would put this book in – however, I would certainly recommend it as an absorbing read.

(Author’s website can be found here.  Author’s additional blog can be found here.)

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