The Girls

TRIGGER WARNING: sexual assault/coercion

Evie Boyd is fourteen and desperate to be noticed. It’s the summer of 1969 and restless, empty days stretch ahead of her. Until she sees them. The girls. Hair long and uncombed, jewellery catching the sun. And at their centre, Suzanne, black-haired and beautiful.

If not for Suzanne, she might not have gone. But, intoxicated by her and the life she promises, Evie follows the girls back to the decaying ranch where they live.

Was there a warning? A sign of what was coming? Or did Evie know already that there was no way back?

I know I need to find another space to take a photo, but I’m short on options in my new house

I can tell you the exact moment I fell in love with The Girls by Emma Cline.

It was about 100 foreboding pages in. I was waiting for a late-running train back to Devon for the weekend. I had resentfully purchased a £5 pasty from Bristol Temple Meads train station because my just under two-hour journey had suddenly become much longer – so long that there wasn’t even a projected arrival time – and I was hungry. The signs read only: delayed.

But me and my pasty-greasy fingers were utterly absorbed in this creepy, gut-wrenching, cult-joining, sexuality-exploring, absolutely gripping read.

I wouldn’t recommend reading The Girls if you want to feel comfortable.

“’You ever hear anything about Russell?’
The question didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t understand that she was trying to gauge how many of the rumours I’d heard: about orgies, about frenzied acid trips and teen runaways forced to service older men. Dogs scarified on moonlit beaches, goat heads rotting in the sand. If I’d had friends besides Connie, I might’ve heard chatter of Russell at parties, some hushed gossip in the kitchen. Might’ve known to be wary.
But I shook my head. I hadn’t heard anything.”

The Girls is about bored teen Evie Boyd. Apathetic about her friends, her upcoming transfer to boarding school, her parents’ recent divorce and well… just about everything. She mostly hangs out by herself, masturbating and thinking about all of the sex and excitement – though to her those things are one and the same – that are yet to come into her life.

Despite the madness of the scenario – charismatic cult leader, Manson family-style murder – everything that happens in The Girls feels grounded in reality. For however crazy her situation becomes – and it really does – Evie’s experiences and her thoughts about them never felt anything short of authentic.

Cline takes a razor sharp (read: painful) look at emerging sexuality and how it is so often experienced by teenage girls. A whole mess of influences like patriarchy, gender roles, coercion and the drive to always be pleasing play out in upsetting ways as Evie begins her sexual life. There is a sense that she is passive in her sexual experiences, manipulated by older men and complicit women in ways she isn’t yet able to understand. Won’t understand, in fact, until years later, when she is in her middle age and forced see the toxic patterns playing out again for another young girl. A tale as old as time – and a super fucking depressing one.

As so many cult reads (by that I mean literal cult), The Girls is a book preoccupied with power. Who has it – but more, really, about who doesn’t. It looks at the way masculinity can be wielded like a weapon – men who want to take advantage, men who think they know best, men who just want you to feel uncomfortable in the world, for no reason other than it makes them feel good. Men who really don’t care whether you want to have sex with them or not, so long as they get to have sex.

Watching Evie navigate that, from her teen girl summer to the snatches of her life as an adult we’re offered hurt to read, because it felt so familiar.

But this book isn’t all about men – it’s called The Girls, after all. Ultimately, though he is the sun around which everyone else orbits, cult reader Russell doesn’t really do it for Evie. He never did. What brought Evie into the fold was the unreachable Suzanne, who Evie wants in complex and ever-changing ways. From the beginning where she wants to be her – or at least the thing that she appears to be – Evie falls hard for a woman so deep in the cult that she is unable to love her back. Suzanne is too far gone, and watching Evie come to terms with that is a heart-breaking tale of unrequited love as cringe-inducingly familiar as everything else Cline writes in this novel.

“I was happy to twist the meanings, wilfully misread the symbols. Doing what Suzanne asked seemed like the best gift I could give her, a way to unlock her own reciprocal feelings. And she was trapped, in her way, just like I was, but I never saw that, shifting easily in the directions she prompted me for.”

Evie enters a bad world from one where the word’s previous definition came with an air of unreality. She says it herself at various points in the book: nothing bad ever really happens. That’s why she waltzes oddly thoughtlessly on in this never-ending investigating-the-noise-in-the-cellar book. We spend the entire time waiting for a monster, as yet invisible, to appear – and consume her.

It’s hard to get this one out of your head.

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All The Light We Cannot See

TW: rape

For Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, the world is full of mazes. The miniature of a Paris neighbourhood, made by her father to teach her the way home. The microscopic layers within the invaluable diamond that her father guards in the Museum of Natural History. The walled city by the sea, where father and daughter take refuge when the Nazis invade Paris. And a future which draws her ever closer to Werner, a German orphan, destined to labour in the mines until a broken radio fills his life with possibility and brings him to the notice of the Hitler Youth.

In this magnificent, deeply moving novel, the stories of Marie-Laure illuminate the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.

I’m going to be honest up front, All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is not a book for the faint of heart. It’s long, it’s brutal and it will hit you hard.

It’s a story uniquely told, with Doerr using concurrent timelines and perspectives with a deftness I haven’t experienced in a long time. The narrative moves between Werner and Marie-Laure in August 1944, a little over a year before the end of the Second World War, and their lives in the years leading up to that day – which, it isn’t a spoiler to say, is something of a fateful one. While the format has of course been done before, the way Doerr masterfully handled the many – many – different strands of this story kept me on absolute tenterhooks, even when I couldn’t be sure where it was all going.

In many ways, Marie-Laure and Werner are two sides of the same coin. They both grow up curious, clever children dealing with some adverse circumstances – Werner, being in an orphanage and destined for the mines where his father lost his life, and Marie-Laure with the loss of her sight when she is six years old. But Werner lives in Germany during the rise of Nazism, and his talent with radios soon means he’s swept into the brutality, abuse and horrors of training with the Nazi Youth, and subsequently serving in the German army.

But does hating the horrors in which you are a participant make you a good person?

Of course it doesn’t.

While Werner does what he must to survive with the Hitler Youth, Marie-Laure and her great-uncle Etienne, a mentally ill veteran of the First World War, dive head first into the resistance movement. From their little French town of Saint Malo they send and receive covert messages for the resistance that would see them killed by the Nazis should they ever be discovered.

In addition to his use of time and perspective, Doerr also weaves magical elements into the novel in a way that felt seamless. The entire story is haunted by a cursed diamond known as the Sea of Flames, placed in the care of Marie-Laure’s father by the museum he works at when the war breaks out. The stone makes its owner impossible to kill – but at a cost. The holder is safe, but around them their loved ones drop like flies.

At least that’s how the legend goes.

It doesn’t help that the damned rock is being chased by a dying Nazi general, determined to track the thing down before his rapidly spreading cancer finally kills him. I suppose it’s hardly surprising a Nazi wouldn’t mind the caveats that come with possession of the cursed diamond.

The story moves constantly between these flights of whimsy – a cursed diamond, the to-scale model cities Marie-Laure’s father builds for her to help her navigate without her sight – and the grim realities of Nazi life. The shocking acts of violence perpetrated by German soldiers are detailed with a blunt detachedness that demonstrate Werner’s attempts at disassociation from the war crimes he is complicit in perpetrating, regardless of whether or not he pulled the trigger.

I think What All The Light We Cannot See does better than I’ve ever read before is narration of the everyday of a country at war. The peculiar mundanity in the descriptions of violence, paired with the endless boredom (because you can be bored even as you are terrified) Marie-Laure experiences, confined in her great-uncle’s house so she doesn’t cross paths with any German soldiers, show the absolutely relentlessness of it.

It’s not hard to see why people break.

As the story progresses and I finally found myself hurtling toward 1944, all the disparate elements of the novel came together in a horrifying, utterly absorbing crescendo.

There are moments while reading that you do start to wonder where it’s all going. At 530 pages, it’s a pretty hefty read, and there are times where it seems as if the plot is meandering.

It’s not. Keep reading. If there’s one thing I knew by the end of this book it’s that Anthony Doerr knows exactly what he’s doing.

The Incendiaries

Trigger warning: sexual assault

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet during their first month at a prestigious university. Phoebe doesn’t tell anyone that she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy transferring in from Bible college, waiting tables to make ends meet. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.

Haunted by her loss, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group – a secretive cult tied to North Korea – founded by a charismatic former student with an enigmatic past involving Phoebe’s Korean American family. Will struggles to confront the obsession consuming the one he loves and the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape. When the extremist group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears. Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.

The Incendiaries is a powerful love story and a brilliant examination of what can happen to people when they lose what they love most.

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The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon is a vivid and deeply unsettling novel about loss. I enjoyed it in the way you enjoy every story you know will end badly – through half-closed eyes, ready to look away at any moment but never quite able to.

Kwon’s writing is gorgeous, at once poetic and deeply specific as her characters spiral slowly further out of reach. Though the novel is theoretically split into three perspectives: Will’s, Phoebe’s and cult leader John Leal’s, all commentary really comes from Will as he tries to get into the minds of his girlfriend and the cult leader he believes took her from him. This leant the entire novel a layer of unreliability that really spoke to the subject matter – ultimately sometimes we will never understand the events that lead people we love to leave us. Often we are left with only theories and that’s what The Incendiaries feels like – Will’s theory.

The summary describes the book as a “powerful love story” but I wouldn’t call it that so much as a searing break up novel. Will is not a good boyfriend. He arrives at the university having recently transferred from bible college after losing his faith, and, thus unmoored, attaches himself to Phoebe like she’s his new religion. He’s grieving the loss of the God who kept him going through poverty and an unstable childhood – until one day, He didn’t – and deeply inadequate, a scholarship student in a school full of rich legacy kids. He hides his part time job and his proselytising past and revels in his own shame even as he lies to Phoebe about it. In the end it makes sense that Will would recognise John Leal as a fraud – it takes one to know one, I guess.

Ironic then, that the ex-born again would fall in love with a girl about to fall herself into the clutches of another fundamentalist belief system. Phoebe is also grieving and unmoored by the loss of her mother. She clings to partying, then Will and finally, newfound religion. She comes off so desperate to belong again to something that she’ll give herself to anything, which mostly means men who manipulate and abuse her trust in a range of violent and upsetting ways. Perhaps worst of all is that she isn’t even allowed to tell her story herself – we get it second hand, half imagined by the ex-boyfriend she clearly wanted nothing more than to escape.

Which isn’t to say she is not responsible for her actions, as much as Will tries to push that narrative after the devastating bombings Phoebe is implicated in hit the news, but that ultimately Phoebe remains to us throughout what she is to Will: mysterious, hard to reach. Probably dead.

The Incendiaries is a novel of dark foreboding perfect for fans of The Secret History. Kwon’s beautiful writing hooks you in and demands your attention if not your sympathy as she explores the disturbing tale of that which inspires people to acts of evil.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Trigger warning: sexual violence, child abuse

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.

Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled existence. Except, sometimes, everything…

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I know there are still three months of it left, but I think I can say now with some confidence that Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is going to be my favourite book of 2018. It’s not entirely surprising. Since it was published last year, Eleanor Oliphant has been a pretty Big Deal – number one Sunday Times bestseller, Costa Book Award-winner, Reese Witherspoon movie option. But, weirdly, none of that prepared me for quite how wonderful this tragic, strange, horrifying, funny and hopeful little book turned out to be.

You know that kid you went to school with that everyone bullied? The one nobody wanted to sit with at lunch, not even the nice kids? I’m talking about the kind of kid who, even when as a nice kid yourself, you tried to connect with them, made it really, really difficult for you? That’s Eleanor Oliphant. The perpetual outsider – sad to be alone but equally combative, to say the least, toward any potential friends.

I think that’s what made me like her so much.

Eleanor, at least before you get to know her a little, is not a likeable lady. Her co-workers are morons, her doctor inept and her social worker a complete waste of space – according to her. On the rare occasion she finds herself at the pub if she buys you a drink she expects her money back, in full, by the next morning at the latest. When she and her new co-worker, Raymond, see an elderly man collapse in the street, Eleanor is not particularly inclined to help him – though they do, an action that turns out to be the right decision for so many reasons.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is the story of a traumatised and disconnected person gradually finding her way out of the darkness. You know from very early on in the novel – the first few pages, so no spoilers I promise – that something truly terrible happened to Eleanor Oliphant when she was a child, so terrible that she has erased it from her memory. So terrible that during every annual visit, when her social worker offers her the opportunity to read her own file, she declines.

But Eleanor Oliphant is no victim. Her story is of the life-changing impact small acts of kindness can have on a person. Eleanor has been so closed off from the world, when people successfully connect with her and treat her with compassion, it shows her that connection and compassion are possibilities. Shen she comes to face her trauma – as she, and we all, must – she finds strength in her own survival of the kind of horror most people will, thankfully, never experience.

Eleanor is not the most likeable lady. She doesn’t read social cues well, she can be judgemental and even ungrateful at times. But she’s also very funny, utterly vulnerable and doing the hard work of piecing herself back together – which doesn’t feel adequate to describe the way she really creates herself, building a woman from the ground up.

Rising from the ashes.

Life is hard. The news is relentless. Personal lives are complicated. Sometimes you need a boost, and in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman created a story of hope that brought me so much joy. I can’t recommend it enough.

The Accidental

Arresting and wonderful, The Accidental pans in on the Norfolk holiday home of the Smart family one hot summer. There, a beguiling stranger called Amber appears at the door bearing all sorts of unexpected gifts, trampling over family boundaries and sending each of the Smarts scurrying from the dark into the light.

A novel about the ways that seemingly chance encounters irrevocably transform our understanding of ourselves, The Accidental explores the nature of truth, the role of fate and the power of storytelling.

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So, The Accidental by Ali Smith. This was a funny one – not necessarily in a good way.

I picked it up in a second hand bookshop while I was on holiday, recalling how much I loved There but for the (a story about a man who locks himself in a room inside someone else’s house during a terrible dinner party and doesn’t come out for months) ready for another whimsical, and, if the blurb was anything to go by, uplifting ride.

That is not what I got.

The Accidental is a book split into three parts – the beginning, the middle and the end. Each part is narrated in close third person in Smith’s typical stream-of-consciousness style by the Smart-Berenski family members; Eve, the mother and writer with a serious lack of inspiration; Michael, her cheating university professor husband; Magnus, Eve’s teenaged son; and Astrid, Eve’s 12-year-old daughter and by far the highlight of this book.

They are, as the blurb indicates, on holiday for the summer in Norfolk, ostensibly so Eve can get some writing done (she isn’t writing so much as napping in her ‘writing shed’ for eight hours before coming inside for dinner) and the family can have that specific sort of bonding needed when dealing with teenagers and stepparents – in other words, the kind of bonding that is largely unwanted by all parties (not speaking from experience or anything…).

The entire scenario is shrouded in a cloud of ennui. While the family aren’t exactly miserable (Eve has made her peace with Michael’s constant cheating), they are alienated from one another and themselves in a way that felt very realistic to me. Problems that persist (Michael’s cheating, Astrid and Magnus’s vanishing father) are never discussed. There is a sense that things could be better if any of the family members were willing to try, but as is the case in most families, nobody is. Then Amber, a stranger arrives. Michael assumes she has come to interview Eve about her writing, and Eve assumes she is one of Michael’s girlfriends/students and she ends up staying for several weeks (this is either Smith logic re. There but for the or a comment on Britishness in general – not sure). Amber supposedly blows the lid on the whole situation – I’ll get to my thoughts on that shortly.

First, because I don’t want to be a pessimist and out of a sense of loyalty to There but for the, which I genuinely really enjoyed, I would like focus on the positives. Primarily, Astrid. Her voice felt the most authentic in the whole novel – her meandering thoughts typical of an isolated 12 year old sore at spending her summer in a way she didn’t choose, stuck for companions apart from her brother (and who wants to hang out with their big brother?) and her video camera. Smith has a beautiful way of describing minute details of meandering thoughts that make them feel important and somehow make the reader feel seen in even in their most mundane moments. Astrid’s thoughts veer wildly between her dislike of Michael, resentment toward her mother, questions surrounding her father, the girls bullying her at school – to wondering about asteroids, terrorism (the novel is set in 2003), filming everything from dead animals to every sunrise and trying to figure out who put the racist graffiti on the Indian restaurant down the road. She feels young and petulant, unnecessarily difficult in all the ways you are when you feel like your family has become something you don’t entirely recognise. Reading her put me right back into being 12 and somewhere with my mother’s partner at the time and feeling dreadfully affronted when a stranger referred to him as my dad (cue petulant ‘ugh, he’s not my dad’ (don’t feel too bad for him. He was equally as keen to point out that I was not his daughter)).

My point is, I loved Astrid, and I was always sad when her sections ended – they were by far the most engaging of the book.

My main issue with the novel came with Amber. The Accidental, friends, is a classic example of a manic pixie dream girl story. And, as I have covered on various occasions before, I just can’t stand that particular trope. The way that Amber changes the lives of all these family members has really very little to do with her actions (apart from fucking Magnus, which she does wildly and with abandon), but more to do with the ideas and thoughts that are ascribed to her by Michael, Eve and, to a certain extent, Astrid. Amber has very little agency, almost no backstory, save a couple of chapters where Smith is at her most ‘experimental’ (read: incomprehensible. To me, anyway) that, regardless, don’t really tell you anything other than that Amber has some sort of spiritual connection to movies because she was conceived in a cinema. She is one dimensional, hyper sexual, aggressive and without any sort of personality that you can pin down – MPDG down to a T.

Ali, I expected better. I am tired of this trope. I am tired of women being seen as a service – to make people feel a certain way (sexually and in terms of ego), look a certain way and be, somehow The Answer (you are not the answer*). It exhausts me, and nothing turns me off a book faster.

*This is a reference to The Type, one of my all-time favourite poems by Sarah Kay (and in general). You should read it. It’s like the anti-manic pixie dream girl read. I’m going to go read it now.

In all, The Accidental was a disappointment – even more so because I was prepared for full on book love. Sigh.

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.

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.