The Raven King

For years, Gansey has been on a quest to find a lost king. One by one, he’s drawn others into his mission: Ronan, who steals from dreams; Adam, whose life is no longer his own; Noah, whose life is no longer a life; and Blue, who loves Gansey… and is certain she is destined to kill him.

Nothing dead is to be trusted. Now the endgame has begun. Nothing living is safe.

Dreams and nightmares are converging. Love and loss are inseparable. And the quest refuses to be pinned to a path.

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For some reason I left it over a year between reading Blue Lily, Lily Blue and The Raven King.

I am bad at finishing series. There are several reasons for this, I think. Endings are disappointing in the majority of cases, and I prefer living in a world where what ultimately happens to the characters I’ve spent 2+ books getting to know is as yet undefined. If I don’t know how they end up, then I don’t have to live with that nagging sense of dissatisfaction that comes with finishing most book series. I also didn’t want anyone to die, and was almost certain that someone was going to, so put off reading for that reason as well. Kind of stupid – the character is no less dead for me not having read about it yet, but it makes me feel better somehow. I stopped watching Jane the Virgin a few episodes before Michael died. I just didn’t want to see it. I know they told us he was going to die very early on in the first season, but it went so long with him not dying I sort of stopped believing it.

You see why I took me so long to get to The Raven King.

Leaving it so long was a mistake. It’s a plot heavy series and it took me half the book to reacquaint myself with Henrietta and its various magical complications. This might be why, despite my love for this series, I didn’t enjoy its finale as much as I’d hoped I would.

Overall (though, sadly, for me, it did not escape the end-of-the-series-disappointment syndrome) I really enjoyed The Raven Cycle. In a market where a lot of the bestselling series lack originality, it carved a space for itself where it examined class, gender, sexuality, family and grief against a backdrop of a magical world so atmospheric that whatever train or bus I was on at the time of reading fell away. There was only Henrietta, 300 Fox Way and Cabeswater and I was wandering through them in real time.

I adore the way Stiefvater uses language. While reading these books I could really feel how much she enjoyed writing them. As each larger than life new character arrived (Laumonier? Really? Because Piper just wasn’t enough?) I felt like I could see her at her keyboard, cackling to herself, just revelling in the enjoyment of her own imagination. The way she plays with words and phrases appealed to me, and I loved the repetitive, ‘depending on where you began the story, it was about…’ that peppered the chapters as the heroes and villains of Stiefvater’s world finally converged on the same spot for the novel’s climax.

I loved her characters, and I think that’s where this final instalment disappointed me the most. While we got plenty of face time with the main gang (my ships sailed, I was very pleased), I was saddened by how little time we spent at 300 Fox Way and the almost complete lack of Calla was very upsetting to me. After they spent so much of the previous book trying to find her, I also would have liked to have seen more of Maura and The Gray Man. I just felt that after building a series with such a wonderful array of side characters with their own complicated lives and personalities it was a real shame that they fell somewhat by the wayside in this last one.

Speaking of characters, I was also disappointed in the villain of this book, which was much more a demon without personality than it was Piper, who I really enjoyed in Blue Lily, Lily Blue. Every book in the series has had a very compelling Big Bad, and although the demon in The Raven King was in many ways the most destructive baddie so far, it was also the least engaging, and it’s defeat, despite it all, not that dramatic really.

Though The Raven King ultimately fell a little flat for me, I’ve loved reading this series. Maggie Stiefvater’s unique writing style, funny, weird and complicated characters and stellar magical world building created a saga I know I’ll return to one day. 300 Fox Way is up there with The Burrow in the leagues of favourite fictional family homes.

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Welcome to Lagos

TW: sexual assault

Five runaways ride the bus from Bayelsa to a better life in a megacity. They are unlikely allies – a private, a housewife, an officer, a militant and a young girl. They share a need for escape and a dream for the future. Soon, they will also share a burden none could have expected, but for now, the five sit quietly with their hopes, as the billboards fly past and shout: Welcome to Lagos.

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Once again I have the fantastic Belletrist book club to thank for Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo. This was an absolutely delightful take on moving to the city/coming of age story set in the city of Lagos, Nigeria. Two military deserters, one former militant with aspirations to be a radio star (and a fake American accent), a student and a homemaker on the run from her violent husband come together as an dysfunctional family during their escape from the violence ridden Niger Delta. War wounds (from spouses, militants and corrupt military generals) weighing heavy on them all, they follow their (somewhat) reluctant leader Chike into their new fast paced, mystifying, occasionally beautiful (but mostly nonsensical) Lagos life.

In addition to our core runaway family, the novel also tells the story of Ahmed, upper middle class UK educated editor of the anti-government (and anti-money. It is totally failing and only allowed to continue because Ahmed’s father used to be pretty high up in the (corrupt) government he is so against) newspaper the Nigerian Journal, and Chief Sandayọ, the (not so) Honourable Minster of Education for the Federal Republic of Nigeria, recently vanished with most of the Ministry’s money.

Realities come crashing together when Chike and co. move into an apparently deserted basement apartment that just so happens to be the secret hideaway of that (not so) Honourable Minister. And the stolen money.

Welcome to Lagos an excellent portrait of survival in a city that wants to eat you alive. In equal parts funny and tragic, we see Onuzo’s complexly realised characters fight to be better in an environment that really only calls for them to be worse. Chike, who, after deserting the army that was his purpose for so long (until his superiors starting ordering kills of anyone who dared disagree with them) is searching for a new cause, anything he can cling to to make it all worth it; Isoken, the student searches for some means of survival after a violent sexual assault; Fineboy the wannabe DJ and the only male member of his family not to have committed suicide fights to see a different end to his story; and Ahmed, so determined to see an end to corruption in his country yet a beneficiary of his father’s corrupt money when he needs it. It’s a novel heavy on irony, with every character swimming the wrong way in a strong current but refusing to be swept away – it’s about the belief that the world can be better despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

“Then Funkẹ had had her religious experience and all that suffering had been put in an unsettling perspective. The sooner the world unravelled, the sooner the second coming of her saviour. Earthquakes, famine, war: all signs and precursors to glorious rapture. It was a rationale to explain a world that never got better. Despite one’s best efforts, despite one’s highest hopes: the world did not change.”

Despite it all it’s not a pessimistic book. It’s a book about trying, even when trying is stupid, even when trying seems to make the situation worse. It’s a book about redemption, and it how it can be found in unexpected places. Most of all it’s a book about not allowing yourself to be lost in the rush of a system or a city much bigger than you, a ‘how to’ guide for keeping your head above water.

“Most likely his doubts would return, with activity, with employment, but he would not regret these days of belief, these moments of faith when all seemed plausible and the world was made in seven days.”

THINGS TO NOTE

If you don’t know anything of Nigeria’s political history (I did not) it is easy to feel disorientated in this story. Fortunately for us, we live in the age of Google so things like this are pretty easy to rectify. You are not going to understand the entire complicated political history of Nigeria since its independence in an afternoon, but you can certainly learn a few things. Here are a few sources I found helpful:

A timeline of key events in Nigeria (starts in 800BC, which is a little early for our purposes but it interesting nonetheless)

This 2011 piece by Remi Adekoya is a good whistle-stop tour of the origins of Nigeria’s problems, particularly with regards to the effects of colonialism and the country’s crude oil, which is mentioned in Welcome to Lagos a few times

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an amazing book you should read anyway, but also paints a picture of Nigeria in its infancy as an independent country. Obviously I’m not saying read this one first, but having read it it gave me a bit more context for the history of Nigeria that was helpful while reading

As with any analysis of a country, all should be read with a critical mindset and an awareness of the authors’ biases, but the above helped give a bit of context when, during my reading, I would find myself feeling like I was misunderstanding vital bits of plot because of a lack of basic knowledge about the country I was reading about. Yay Google!

May favourites

Hey June! Nice to see ya.

I am very excited by the prospect of summer. Every year I have this whole list in my head of things I want to do that I inevitably fail to achieve. I feel good about summer 2018 though. I’ve made a solid start. Tomorrow I’m going for a walk with some llamas (for an article I’m writing for work, but I’m very much looking forward to it anyway) and I’m also looking into renting a kayak.

It’s weird, but as an adult I have become somewhat outdoorsy.

In terms of media I consumed in May, I wasn’t overly thrilled by anything. I finished Scandal just because I felt I needed to but wasn’t impressed, as I haven’t been for many seasons now. I keep watching iZombie even though it’s just so bad. What is with that ‘french’ guy? And more importantly, why? I was so excited when Agents of Shield finally started back up again in the UK, but some Instagram spoilers of the season finale have made me lose enthusiasm because I know all I’m heading toward is pain.

But that said, there were a few gems in the slush pile.

TV: Barry

Barry

I love everything about this show. I have long-held affection for the comedy hitman (really ever since I first saw Gross Pointe Blank when I was like 12) and Barry is a truly impressive take on this well-trodden ground with one of the strongest casts I have seen in a while. Everyone is so. Fucking. Good.

Podcasts: Sandra

sandra

I devoured this fictional series in only a couple of days. Voiced primarily by Alia Shawkat, who continues to be one of my favourite actors at the moment (with the exception of new Arrested Development, which I don’t wish to discuss) it establishes a world in which every household has a Sandra, an Amazon Alexa-like device that is powered by real people rather than the internet. Desperate to change her life, Helen (Shawkat) gets way too involved with a Sandra user, with menacing consequences. It’s the exact mix of weird, funny and sad that I enjoy so much.

Other things: Neal Brennan: 3 Mics

neal brennan

I have mixed feelings about having this in my favourites, but it’s probably the most impactful thing I’ve watched this month so here we are. What is so remarkable about this stand up special is the format. Brennan uses, as the name implies, 3 mics: one for one liners, one for stand up and one for ‘emotion’. He would cycle between jokes (some of which I liked, some of which I was less crazy about. As soon as a guy starts on ‘women do [insert stereotype here]’ my eyes immediately roll, but a lot of his jokes were funny) then the lights would go down and he would move to the ‘emotion’ mic. He told stories about failed relationships, his depression and his family sparing no painful detail – he’d get a couple laughs while doing it, but it wasn’t about that. I don’t know about anyone else, but to me at least, there is something deeply comforting about people who have the ability to hold their pain in their hands and offer it out to everybody so we all feel a little bit less alone. And to do that and then seamlessly step into making jokes about doing the reverse cowgirl? That’s impressive.

Instagram: @bookishbronte

“But Hagrid, there must be a mistake. This says Platform 9 3/4, there’s no such thing. Is there?” . Which book captured your imagination the most? I’ve always completely lost myself in the world of Harry Potter. I grew up with Harry, Ron and Hermione. I sorted myself into Hufflepuff and found my Patronus and read the books so many times that the Hogwarts became real, it’s amazing what the imagination can do, isn’t it? #WHPimagination . . #harrypotter #hogwarts #hufflepuff #bookart #bookworm #booknerd #hurrayforplay #bookish #bookgram #alittlebeautyeveryday #nostalgicmoments #justalittlewhimsey #thisjoyfulmoment #ofsimpledays #ourplayfulstyle #visualcollective #livecreatively #myhappycapture #inspiremyinstagram #booksofinstagram #nostalgicmemories #creativityfound #bookartwork #shared_joy #thingsilove #harrypottertrain #harrypotterinspired #ourplayfulstyle #thevisualcollective#bookish_nio

A post shared by Bronte Huskinson (@bookishbronte) on

I’ve recently discovered the wealth of beautifully artistic Instagram accounts that exist. This is one of my current favourites.

How was your June? Any favourites you think I should check out?

 

The Immortalists

It’s 1989, and holed up in a grimy tenement building in New York’s Lower East Side is a travelling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the date they will die. The four Gold children, too young for what they’re about to hear, sneak out to learn their fortunes.

Over the years that follow, the siblings must choose how to live with the prophecies the fortune-teller gave them that day. Will they accept, ignore, cheat or defy them? Golden-boy Simon escapes to San Francisco, searching for love; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician; eldest son Daniel tries to control fate as an army doctor after 9/11; and bookish Varya looks to science for the answers she craves.

A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists is a story about how we live, how we die, ad what we do with the time we have.

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My god. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin is not a novel to be entered into lightly. I say this as someone who did – grabbing it because it was a Belletrist book club pick I couldn’t afford at the time they were reading it, without really considering what the summary actually meant. Prepare to come face to face with all your existential anxiety because this is a book about death.

But I still think that you should read it.

To be overly honest and unnecessarily grim, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, life is really defined by its finiteness. That fact, and the crippling panic that comes along with it is something that the majority of us are able to ignore most of the time, but in her clever, tragic, depressing, ironic and at times highly frustrating novel, Benjamin tackles a version of life with that deliberate ignorance removed. Bored one day during the summer, the Gold siblings make a decision that will define the rest of their lives: they find out (or think they find out) exactly when they will die, and in doing so, lose the ability to think about almost anything else.

After our introduction to the Gold family, the book is separated into five sections; the beginning, and then four periods of time, each following a Gold sibling through the final years of their lives (or are they?) as predicted by the fortune-teller. How they each respond so differently to the fortune-teller’s prophecy is a credit to Benjamin’s story telling: Simon’s panicked rush to the finish line, determined to get everything he can out of life before his time runs out; Klara’s fatalism, brought about by her undiagnosed mental health problems; Daniel’s aggressive denial; and Varya’s career, built around a desperate search for a way to extend human life – ironic, as she is the only sibling prophesied to grow old.*

*not a spoiler. You find out in the first couple pages.

There are so many interesting things in The Immortalists, but perhaps one of my favourite elements was the way in which Benjamin, no matter how tragic the family become, never once let the Golds off the hook. As they turned inward, able to experience only their own grief and suffering, Benjamin, as if from a great distance, shouts to them about the other pain that exists in the world. I’m not convinced they ever heard her, and the truth and the frustration in this felt very authentic. As Simon navigated the world as a gay man in the seventies he is unable to see – though repeatedly told – that The Castro in San Francisco, the place where he has finally found his home, excludes Robert, his black boyfriend. Klara is unable to look past her own personal tragedies to see those of her partner, Raj. Born in the slums of Bombay, his father gave everything he had to send him to the US and then died before he could follow. Though he tries to make the point to Klara, and to other members of the Gold family, they never quite grasp that there is pain in the world that is structurally built into it, and just as valid as their own.

The Immortalists is a difficult, upsetting, but ultimately beautiful read. Benjamin doesn’t shy away from her subject matter, whether it’s the reality of death and our relationship to it, or the nails-down-a-chalkboard, walking-on-egg-shells, call-screening aspects of being in a difficult family.

It will totally mess you up though, so do read something fun after. I recommend either light fantasy or a YA contemporary romance.

I Was Born for This

For Angel, life is about one thing: The Ark – a pop-rock trio of teenage boys taking the world by storm. Being part of The Ark’s fandom has given her everything she loves – her friend Juliet, her dreams, her place in the world.

Jimmy owes everything to The Ark. He’s their frontman – and playing in a band with his mates is all he ever dreamed of doing.

But dreams don’t always turn out the way you think, and when Jimmy and Angel are unexpectedly thrust together they find out how strange and surprising facing up to reality can be.

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Because I am hopelessly out of the loop, I was perhaps the last person to find out that Alice Oseman had a new book coming out, but when the news finally reached me, I was thrilled. After avoiding her work for a long time because her age-to-success ratio made me feel like a failure (if you don’t know, the woman got a book deal when she was seventeen. SEVENTEEN. When I was seventeen I got turned down for a job at the zoo because I didn’t have any retail experience), I finally picked up Radio Silence (which she wrote at university. When I was at university I got turned down for every internship I ever applied for) and I fell in LOVE. In a similar style to my eventual acceptance of Tavi Gevinson into my life, Alice Oseman’s talent overrode my own sense of personal failure. (Also, I got a job, which I’m not going to lie, helped a great deal.)

And funnily enough, as it turns out, I think it is Oseman’s age that plays in a big part in what makes her books such a joy to read. No shade to older YA authors, but there’s really no one who can write about the experience of being a teen growing up on the internet better than…. you know, an adult woman who spent her teen years on the internet. In I Was Born For This, much like Radio Silence (and, I assume, Solitaire though I haven’t read it yet) Oseman crafts an authentic story of coming of age online, this time through the intensity, joy and misery that comes with being part of a fandom.

She writes about The Ark fandom, in which Angel, one of the two narrators of the story is heavily involved, with authenticity and compassion, easily incorporating the positive and negative sides of online infatuation. Oseman made clear that the obsession with these three boys wasn’t so much rooted in sex for Angel, but the need to escape from her day to day. Her involvement in the fandom wasn’t  a sign of having ‘no life’, but of having one that she didn’t want to deal with. Thinking about The Ark was a means of avoiding herself, something I think a lot of us bookworms can probably relate to (I certainly could – I think it’s how a lot of unhappy kids who aren’t so much into drugs or drink tend to deal with their feelings).

Oseman’s use of dual point of view, something I usually don’t like at all, worked perfectly in I Was Born for This. Chapters alternating between Angel, the fangirl and Jimmy, member of The Ark and object of Angel’s obsession came together to show two people in radically different situations dealing with the same issue: desperately avoiding confronting their problems, often in ways that meant being wilfully – and hurtfully – ignorant of the people closest to them. It’s really mature subject matter for a YA book – the consequences of avoiding problems/feelings isn’t something I really confronted until I was well into my twenties.

As in Radio Silence, I Was Born for This is a space of complete acceptance of all people – no matter race, sexual orientation or gender identity. I have slightly complicated feelings about this. On the one hand, I love it, because it’s fun to live in such a safe space for a couple hundred pages, but on the other, having a book in which one lead protagonist was a Muslim girl and the other a transgender boy that is pretty much apolitical felt, frankly… unrealistic.

That said, though there was a serious lack of politics, something that did feature was characters’ religions. Which I loved. Angel, as I mentioned, is a Muslim and Jimmy is a Christian and for both of them their religion plays an active and positive role in their lives. Religion is seen by a lot of people as a profoundly negative influence on the world*, but the truth is, though the voices of crazies are loudest, most religious people are just getting on with their lives, following their religion and trying to be the best people that they can. I Was Born for This reflected that in a way you don’t often see and it made me very happy.

I Was Born for This is a delightful read. Oseman builds characters you can’t help but root for, despite their flaws, perfectly nails the fandom experience and leaves you feeling all warm and squishy on the inside. Her writing is YA at its best.

*My feelings about religion that no one asked for: Sometimes scientists build weapons that are used to kill and maim thousands of people while others are out there finding a cure for polio. Religion, like most things, really depends on the person practising it.

Thoughts on finishing the WTF podcast book

I have always been obsessed with the notion of ‘storifying’ life. The inevitable result of a childhood spent reading and a young adulthood on Netflix, I’m drawn to a tight narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. You can imagine my delight when I hit my early twenties and discovered memoir. I collected the works of Cheryl Strayed, Roxane Gay, Mindy Kaling and Amy Poehler and assembled them on my bookshelves like a treasure map.

Too bad my own life didn’t make any kind of narrative sense. I felt like a mixed bag of interconnected feelings and anxieties and good and bad experiences that I couldn’t assemble into any kind of cohesive structure.

Podcasts made their way into my life. I started listening to Marc Maron’s WTF – required listening for any podcast enthusiast – and the stories his guests told were illuminating and brilliant and showed lives with that thing I so desperately wanted: a narrative arc. The discovery was bittersweet. It was like whatever the thing I sort of suspected might be wrong with me was, it was compounded by all these people who had managed to make sense out of their lives in a way I wasn’t able to.

Then I graduated university, and a combination of not knowing what I wanted to do and not really wanting to try at anything – hey, at least I’m honest – led me to spend the next two years in the call centre-retail-waitressing rat race. I got bored and restless in the first year, and even more bored and even more restless in the second. And at some point, the flood gates simply opened. I reached that point of absolute boredom where I had no choice but to delve into the thoughts I usually avoided. I was suddenly reflecting on my life so far, critically studying it and making those connections between past and present that had evaded me for so long.

What I eventually came to realise in fits and starts, in epiphany-like a-ha moments and in meandering thoughts while assembling pizza boxes – yes, really – is that actually, I do have a story. I can make connections out of my life and draw lines between point A and point B.

Like most things, finding my story didn’t turn out like I thought it would. In one way it’s liberating to acknowledge the wrongs done to you in the past, and the part they might play in the challenges you experience now. It feels good to identify a source of blame. On the other hand, it’s disconcerting to realise that the past can so deeply affect your present, often in ways you haven’t even noticed. The initial liberation I had felt turned into a sense of impending doom, like I was only the sum of my worst experiences.

In dealing with this evolving identity crisis I found myself again turning to those a lot further down the path of telling their own stories than me. My answers came from the world of WTF again, though in book form, this time. In 2017 Marc Maron and Brendan McDonald released Waiting for the Punch: Words to Live By from the WTF Podcast. It’s a doorstop of a book, filled with the stories of many of Marc’s guests over the years. There is a lot to discover in Waiting for the Punch – Marc has never been afraid to go deep with people, and there has always been something about him that makes people feel like they can open up. The words that stuck out to me most though, came from RuPaul Charles. He and Marc were talking about childhood, and the narratives we learn from our parents that we carry into our adult lives, regardless of whether they are true or not. He said:

I have this scene in my head that, with my father, where actually on weekends he was supposed to come pick me up, and I would sit on that porch and he would never show up. Well, let me tell you this. That scenario in my head is a benchmark. I had inevitably looked for situations to strengthen my identity as the little boy who was left behind, because on some level, that identity is what drove my buggy.

Once I’m able to let go of that identity and say, “That’s not me, and I don’t get off on that,” then the party can begin.”

We all have a narrative, whether we have found the tools to tell it to ourselves or not. That narrative might include abandoning or it might include something else awful altogether. It’s important to know the narrative, I think. It has a purpose for a while – after all, you can’t change a story until you recognise that you’re telling one.

But there comes a point when you have to let that narrative go.

Then the party can begin.

The Secret History

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last – inexorably – into evil.

Summary from Goodreads

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“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

The first sentence of The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s debut novel of 1992, might be superior to at least 90% of the first sentences of all of the books I’ve ever read. I mean, how can you put down a book after a first sentence like that?

You can’t.

The Secret History is narrated by Richard Papen, a Gatsby-esque, Californian 19-year-old who after a year of medical school (mistake) and basically estrangement from his (mostly indifferent) parents, travels to New England to attend Hampden College, where he plans to study English Literature. Quickly, however, he falls under the spell of a group of Classics students who study with one very particular, ever-so-exclusive professor, separate to the rest of the students at the university. He talks his way into the class, and into the lives of the rich and enigmatic group.

It turns out to be the worst decision he’s ever made.

The novel is, at its heart, a thriller, but it’s a thriller that instead of asking the usual ‘who dunnit’, instead leaves us asking – how? How does it come to be that this group of – admittedly eccentric but not overtly unusual – students murder one of their classmates?

It’s remarkable that in this 600-some page tome, Tartt manages not to let up on the sense of foreboding disaster for even a second. If the group aren’t threatened with exposure from outside sources, they are crumbling from within. It’s quite a situation when you discover that the murder you committed together really only scratches the surface of the mess.

It’s funny – there were many elements in this novel that were familiar. From the group of classmates reading way too much into their school work, to the group themselves; bookish Henry, hot but creepy twins Charles and Camilla and poor half closeted Frances, all felt somewhat archetypal. Richard, even, the working class boy who invents himself a new history to fit in with his rich friends, didn’t feel new as such. And yet, in Tartt’s hands the story felt completely unique.

The richness of her language and the perfect balance between plot and character – what I loved so much about this and The Goldfinch was the way that Tartt establishes an expansive and complicated situation and then delves deep into how her characters respond to it – create a disturbing, hedonistic, shocking and anxious world that I couldn’t help but get lost in.

There is a reason so many people recommend this one.