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Fanciful Fauna: 3 Tall Tales Of Clever Critters

Some people suffer from recurring nightmares about being naked on stage, or not having revised for their exams. My bedtime terror is different — I'm gripped with fear that I haven't fed or watered my childhood budgie, with potentially devastating consequences. I loved that bird, Joey, so much, despite the fact that she unmasked herself as female after I'd named her, I still have a tiny box filled with her discarded green feathers. I've never owned a pet as an adult. I prefer animals in novels to avoid the horror of finding two cold, clutched feet in the air. Here are three whose company I enjoy. I think you will, too.

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Julia Stuart Headline

Death and the Penguin

by Andrey Kurkov and George Bird

I blame my obsession with literary animals on Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov. Misha, the most memorable character of his thriller Death and the Penguin, left web-footed prints all over my imagination. The creature lives with a young writer called Viktor, after the zoo gave away "hungry animals" to "anyone who was able to feed them."

Lonely Viktor crafts obituaries for a newspaper in readiness for his subjects' eventual demise, only to find them suddenly dying in mysterious circumstances. Meanwhile, Misha, a depressive who also suffers from a bad heart, emerges from his "hidey-hole" behind the "dark-green settee" to eat fish, swim in the bath or fix his "tiny sad eyes" on his owner. This creature is no dog: Only rarely does he look pleased when his master returns home. But no matter. As one decidedly human character, says of the silent bird: "Come, let's drink to him. People are legion, penguins are not — and ought to be cherished!"

The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe

by Andrew O'Hagan

If it's devotion and dialogue you want from your literary pet, look no further than Andrew O'Hagan's The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe. It's told from the perspective of Mafia Honey, the Maltese terrier Frank Sinatra gave the fated actress. But Maf is no ordinary furball: think philosopher with a tail. His hero is Trotsky, he quotes Euripides and Cicero, and bangs on about Plato and Proust, habits that would be insufferable in a human, but that are perfectly acceptable in a mutt. The love between Maf and Marilyn is mutual, and she takes him everywhere. As a result, the four-legged formidable name-dropper provides an insight (albeit from ground level) into Hollywood of the early 1960s, as well as glimpses of such intimacies as the star's sessions with her shrink. "The Marilyn I knew was smelly and fun and an artist to the very end of her fingertips," he concludes.

Boxer, Beetle

by Ned Beauman

But not all animals have to be lovable to make you yearn for their next appearance. Ned Beauman's amusing and rampageous thriller Boxer, Beetle tells the stories of a present day, dubious-smelling collector of Nazi memorabilia, a 1930s nine-toed gay Jewish boxer, and his aristocratic eugenicist lover who discovers a beetle bearing swastika markings in a cave. The scientist breeds it with jaw-dropping consequences and names the new specimen Anophthalmus hitleri.

Hints of what's to come begin with the beetles' ability to smash their way out of a glass case in order to get to a bag of live earthworms, and their subsequent need to be locked inside a heavy oak casket. It's not until the end that they reach their triumphant and ravenous climax. But the wait is definitely worth it. If nothing else, it makes us appreciate that we still have fingers left to drum ...

Julia Stuart