“The Big Four” by Agatha Christie (1927)

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“I have met people who enjoy a channel crossing; men who can sit calmly in their deckchairs and, on arrival, wait until the boat is moored, then gather their belongings together without fuss and disembark.”

Famed for her murder mysteries, it’s not so well known that Agatha Christie also penned a few thrillers. Some of them I’ve covered before, and rarely are they among my favourites, but they’re generally still entertaining. They’re also important because Christie wrote some of them after a belief was shared in society that only men could write thrillers. She set out to prove them wrong and, as usual, did it with aplomb.

The Big Four opens with Captain Hastings returning from Argentina only to find that Poirot is on his way out to South America. However, when a man covered in dust and dirt appears at the door of Poirot’s apartment and falls down dead, Poirot decides he has to stay and is soon learning all about a shady cabal of criminal masterminds known as the Big Four. Everywhere he turns, he sees their handiwork and a number of supposedly unconnected cases begin to tie up together as he gets closer to unmasking the four.

What he, or indeed anyone, knows about them is very little. Number One is a brilliant Chinese man who is said to have the world’s greatest brain. Number Two is a very wealthy American with a stack of investments and an almost limitless supply of cash. Number Three is France’s most skilled scientist, a woman who makes Marie Curie look like an amateur. And no one seems to know anything at all about Number Four. Poirot and Hastings find themselves drawn deeper and deeper into a world of espionage, lies and disguises, and they soon learn that the Big Four will stop at nothing to get their nemeses out of the way so they can fulfil their plans.

Although Christie edited some of her earlier works to reflect changing times as the century drew on (see the original title of And Then There Were None, and her characters attitudes towards the Jews), it appears that The Big Four got missed out, or else progress didn’t come to quickly to racism against the Chinese. True, there’s nothing that declares them evil as a whole or anything like that, but the dialogue of her Chinese characters and their heavily cliched appearances, not to mention Hastings asserting that he could never tell any of them apart and Japp using an outdated racial slur about them, has definitely not aged well. It was the time, of course, but it’s damn jarring to read suddenly now.

Fortunately, aside from that, the book holds up. In other places it’s curiously modern and is perhaps the “biggest” story Christie ever told, being the novel that comes closest to an apocalyptic scenario. We’re far removed from a body in the parlour, as here we deal with potential atomic weapons (almost twenty years before they became a reality), international surveillance and an evil troupe controlling the planet from the shadows. Whether she can do these big blockbuster type stories remains up in the air, and personally I think she’s better when she’s dealing with the little people, but it’s still a fascinating tale that also plays fast and loose with the ten commandments of writing detective fiction.

Because it isn’t a traditional murder mystery, we also get to see a different side of Poirot. He seems a touch more emotional than usual here, and shows signs of a man who, despite constantly being surrounded by people who need him, has been lonely and feeling detached. The return of Hastings into his life, and later Japp, gives him a new sense of vitality and urgency, and despite his age, he is soon whizzing around the place once more, outsmarting everyone else. Although it isn’t my favourite Christie, it’s one for the completists and for anyone who tires of a necklace stolen from the drawing room and wants to see the world burn.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Scythe” by Neal Shusterman (2016)

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“The scythe arrived late on a cold November afternoon.”

Death is the ultimate certainty. While some scientists believe that the first person who will live to be over 150 is already alive right now, the time will come eventually. Many books, especially novels, have been written on the subject and I think despite many of us having a primal fear of death, we also have a curious fascination with it. But what if there was no more death? What would happen to the world? In this novel, Neal Shusterman explores the concept.

Once upon a time on Earth, people got sick or injured and died. But that hasn’t happened for hundreds of years, now. When the Cloud evolved into the hyper-intelligent Thunderhead, it learnt what was best for humanity and took over the running of the planet, dismantling governments and corporations and leaving people with equality, health, happiness and eternal life. For once in fiction, its motives were genuine. But there were a group of humans who decided that there still needed to be a small measure of population control in place, thus the scythes were born.

Selected at a young age for training, you can only become an apprentice scythe if you have absolutely no desire to kill, or “glean” as it’s now known. When Citra and Rowan both independently stand up to Scythe Faraday and question his methods, they are both employed as his assistants and begin to learn the art of killcraft, as well as the ins and outs of the Scythedom, the one group of people that the Thunderhead has no jurisdiction over as they act above the law. Bound to their studies, the two of them begin to learn the ways of the scythe, despite their own protests. Choosing who to glean is just the start.

But then, at a conclave of all the MidMerican scythes, attention is thrust upon them and there is some debate as to whether a scythe can take on two assistants. The choice is made – Faraday can have two assistants, but only one will gain the robe and ring of a scythe … and their first task will be to glean the other…

I was obviously curious enough about this book to make the purchase, but as someone who is somewhat wary of Young Adult fiction, I wasn’t sure whether it would turn out well or be disappointing. On the sliding scale, however, I’d pop this higher than The Hunger Games (to which is appears to be frequently compared) but maybe not quite as good as the Chaos Walking trilogy. The world is richly developed and the lore and history behind it is explained to us by the use of diary entries from various scythes, it being one of their rules that they must keep a journal. This is a world where death still happens regularly from accidents, but unless you’ve been gleaned officially by a scythe, you are taken to a reanimation centre and brought back to life. Death here is merely a hassle, not an ending, but people still fear it and crave the blessing of the scythes for immunity. The Thunderhead may have done away with politicians and crime, but corruption still exists here, as it seems to wherever there are humans. The scythes are treated as above the law, and the Thunderhead cannot interfere with them.

The concepts here are great fun, despite the darkness at the heart of the novel, and I enjoy a future where no one knows what murder is as death isn’t seen as a crime, and that because people are broadly speaking on an equal footing, there’s no need for theft and so on. Even religion has faded away in a world not obsessed with the afterlife, and instead been replaced by tonal cults, who worship sounds and smells.

The characters that inhabit this story are intriguing too, and while it’s quite obvious from the outset which way it’s going to go, there are a number of surprises along the way that kept me hooked. As I said, one of the first rules of becoming a scythe is that you must have absolutely no desire to do it, as anyone who enjoys killing would be wrong for the role. Scythes are respected and admired, as well as feared, and each has their own methods by which they glean. Interestingly, gleanings are not always bloodless and kind – you are just as likely to be beheaded, stabbed or shot than you are poisoned or drowned. Scythes must work to a quota that vaguely relates to the death rates in the Age of Mortality.

Really, I’m a sucker for great worldbuilding and Shusterman has that here in spades. The ending sets up for the rest of the series, and I’ve already put the sequel in my basket on Amazon. I look forward to returning to these characters.

Looking for something different to read in the new year? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available to pre-order at Amazon and Waterstones now, ready for launch on January 17th. If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and failed relationships, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood (1986)

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“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”

Three dystopian books in a row are enough for anyone, it seems, especially when I was meant to be cutting back on the genre. Nonetheless, some books just have to be read. This one has been bouncing around my consciousness for the best part of a decade, dating back to when I was working at a bookshop and my colleague was a huge fan of it. Somehow in the interim I only managed to read one other Margaret Atwood book – Oryx & Crake – but have long had an affection for her and her ability. Anyway, I got here in the end.

In a not-too-distant future a deeply religious sect took over the running of the American government and thus was born the country of Gilead. Following on from a declining birthrate, and massive environmental damage, the population is in crisis and so people turn to religion to find the right way to repopulate. Fertile women are sent to live with married couples who cannot have their own children and must live a life of servitude with no freedoms or rights. Their only purpose is to have a baby.

Offred is one of these Handmaids, retrained and condemned to a life of purely functional sex with a man she hardly knows, her only chance at any sort of better life would be to get pregnant and help continue humanity. But Offred has not fully adjusted to this new world and still has hopes and dreams of an earlier time. No matter what the governments of the world do, you cannot suppress desire, and Offred soon finds her whole future resting in the hands of two men who could destroy her in a heartbeat, or provide some kind of salvation.

This is another of those novels that I thought I knew all about because of cultural osmosis. As it turned out, all that had really penetrated was the the vague setting, the repression and the outfits. I knew absolutely nothing of the plot and it was nothing quite like I had expected, although that’s not a complaint. I think the biggest shock was how far into this new world the novel was set. I had assumed that this was deep into a dystopia and focused on its dismantling when actually it turns out this new world order has only been in place for a matter of years, maybe seven at most, it’s not quite clear. This makes the whole thing much, much more terrifying, as the Handmaids – and indeed everyone else – all remember what life was like before and what freedoms they had. Freedom plays a huge part of the story’s themes, as any story about slavery does. The women, it is said, used to have “freedom to” and now they have “freedom from”. It’s such a small change, but an incredibly notable one. Consider the difference between women being free to date openly and with whomever they choose and being free from having to go on dates with unpleasant men and risk abuse or assault.

Many people may read the book and have thoughts along the lines of “Well, this couldn’t happen here”, yet the core of the book is based on the true events that befell Iran in the 1970s. Until then, it had been quite a modern, Westernised country, but then a very religious party got into power and women lost many of their rights and were told how to behave, right down to what clothes they should wear. I can’t profess to know very much about Iran, so I assume that Atwood is dialling everything up to extreme levels to make a point.

While the world and the unseen governmental body are scary, the real fear comes from those characters who have totally bought into the new setting. Like Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter series, true terror comes from those who are doing their job without questioning whether it is right or wrong to do it. Here, many of the women seem to have settled into the new regime and appear happy. I can’t understand these women, just as I can’t understand women who claim not to be feminists. Or any person of colour or homosexual that votes Conservative. There’s an irony present when Atwood discusses radical feminism and the women in her timeline who previously wanted a world for women – be careful what you wish for, indeed.

Surprisingly, the book also features a fascinating epilogue that takes the form of a lecture at some future point of the timeline in which Offred’s account has been discovered and studied as a historical text, which adds a whole new layer to the story and, in fact, can change how you view a few of the events. This is an excellent and unique take, but I won’t say anything else about its contents so as not to ruin some of the things it reveals.

Overall, I think the story is summed up by the line that Offred uses occasionally while narrating: “I don’t want to be telling this story”. In the current climate of #metoo and Weinstein culture, there are many stories that people don’t want to tell, and yet there are many that need to be told. There’s a firm difference between a want and a need, but one trumps the other – sometimes we need to do things we don’t want to do. It’s important to share our experiences and help other people going through the same things. This story is one that needed to be told, and as Atwood herself says, perhaps a world that can be described thoroughly like this can never come to fruition. I, like her, trust that it will not.

It’s a chilling but fascinating look at a world gone mad, showing that humans will always be our own worst enemy, and that it’s far easier to launch a despotic regime than it is to maintain it.

“Wake Up, Sir!” by Jonathan Ames (2005)

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“‘Wake up, sir. Wake up,’ said Jeeves.”

Despite, according to some, giving off the air of a man who appears to have fallen out of a Jeeves & Wooster novel, I have very little experience with P. G. Wodehouse. I’ve only read one of the novels, and just haven’t got round to getting anymore done. I’ll count this as an attempt though. Set in nineties New Jersey, this novel takes the concept and updates it, turning Bertie Wooster from a British aristocrat to Alan Blair, a Jewish American alcoholic novelist.

Alan Blair is, at novel’s opening, living with his aunt and uncle due to money issues and the fact his parents are long dead. However, they are tiring of his antics and wish him to go to rehab. Instead, Blair decides to head off to New York state to find a Jewish community to spend his time with. He is accompanied by his valet, Jeeves, who is detached enough from Blair’s mistakes to serve as the perfect butler. Intelligent, capable and just like his Wodehouse counterpart, the most competent man alive.

While seeking out like-minded company, however, Blair gets drunk again and ends up insulting a local woman, resulting in two black eyes and a broken nose. He also learns that he has been accepted to the Rose Colony, an artists’ retreat where he can work on his novel in peace with fellow creatives around him. Arriving, he finds that drinking is all but encouraged, so his plans to stay on the wagon are quickly dashed, and things become even more complicated when he falls in love with a sculptor called Ava, and determines that she is the woman of his dreams – all because she has the most incredible nose.

Blair is fundamentally an unreliable narrator, thanks mostly to his alcoholism. Indeed, it takes many pages before we even learn that he is an alcoholic, as he manages to omit the fact he drinks until it’s absolutely necessary to bring up in the plot. He’s a foolish man who doesn’t know when to stop drinking, meaning every so often he entirely blacks out and has no memory of events. He obviously thinks very highly of himself and regards himself as a cut above most other people – he insists on wearing a shirt and tie every day – but, like most writers, he’s also barking mad and wouldn’t be able to cut his toenails without the assistance of Jeeves.

However, it actually took me an absurdly long time to come to the conclusion that everyone else had probably reached a hundred pages before. I suddenly noted that Jeeves has absolutely no interaction with anyone other than Blair, and suddenly the scales fell from my eyes and I decided that Jeeves didn’t exist. There’s actually no confirmation either way to his existence or lack thereof, so I think it’s up for grabs as to the truth. Personally I’ve settled on the side of thinking that Jeeves is an imaginative construct, used by Blair to try and get himself sorted and sober – but with very little success.

The novel’s biggest coup, however, is that despite the change in location, time and content, it still sounds remarkably like Wodehouse, which is impressive because even that man could occasionally sound like a parody of himself, and the conventions of his novels are easy targets for satire and pastiche. It’s much more graphic than Wodehouse, with a couple of very vivid sex scenes, and the language is often coarser, but on the whole you could mistake it for an alternate-universe Bertie Wooster adventure.  The metaphors and tricks with words themselves are pure Wodehouse though, and Ames has done a remarkable job. They’re funny and sharp, for example, a woman is described as having “copper, wiry hair that had a life of its own and not a very pleasant life at that”. Five times the book cover announces via reviews that it’s hilarious, and while maybe that’s a couple too many, it is funny.

In terms of plot though, very little actually happens. Blair likes to use thirty words when three will do, and his internal monologue is the key thing here. The events of the story take place over the course of a week, but quite how Blair ended up in his situation we can’t be totally sure, and the ending is just ambiguous enough for us to wonder exactly what will happen next. Interesting and engaging, and a nice update on a genre that could be mishandled.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis (1991)

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american-psycho“Abandon all hope ye who enter here…”

So, first up, let’s just say that anyone who has come here to see a list of the crimes and depraved acts committed by Patrick Bateman in his book can stop reading now, as I’m not going to go into details about any of them. Partly because it would ruin the impact should you read this book, and partly because I don’t think I can bring myself to type the words. However, if you do plan on reading this book, I should let you know that I’m also going to spoil the crap out of this one and discuss a later plot point that I want to talk about. So, continue at your own risk.

This modern classic tells the story of Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street businessman in his late twenties who on the surface has the perfect life – good friends, a pretty girlfriend, huge amounts of money, a luxury apartment, intelligence, wit and charm – but hides a much darker secret. He is a psychopathic monster who has killed many people in cold blood, subjecting them to the most grostesque tortures before they die. No one else seems to suspect this about him though, and even when he admits it over dinner to people, they don’t listen or don’t believe him.

When he kills a coworker, Paul Owen, he commandeers the man’s apartment to kill more people, mostly women, and slowly becomes more and more deranged, suffering from hallucinations, all the while trying to maintain his appearance as a decent, functional human being. The story is occasionally ambiguous, and appears sometimes more as a series of vignettes, and there is little in the way of a continuing plot.

OK, so where to begin? Bateman is a reprehensible character with apparently no redeeming features but, then again, so is everyone else. Surrounded by wealthy, yuppie friends, his social behaviour is normalised. Every introduction is filled with a complete list of what everyone is wearing and where it’s from, there are pages-long discussions on which fur looks the best, or which brand of bottled water is the nicest. It can come as no surprise to anyone that Bateman seems to worship Donald Trump and longs to be his friend. Brand names fill the pages, and everyone is so obsessed with themselves that no one really pays any attention to anyone else. (In one instance when he admits to a woman he’s into “murders and executions”, she asks if he finds it boring and that she has a friend in “mergers and acquisitions” too.) Frequently people are introduced with the wrong names and never corrected; no one seems to know what any of their friends or colleagues really look like. This is an entirely superficial world.

The acts that Bateman performs on his victims are … well, let’s just say I worry for the mental health of Bret Easton Ellis. As I said, I’m not going into any detail on the foul things he does, but broadly speaking we have torture, rape, mutilation, cannibalism, necrophilia and animal abuse. This is not a book for the faint of heart. You need a strong stomach to get through this stuff, and while I think I’m pretty robust when it comes to the abuses humans perform on one another, I found this a struggle. I’ve not been very happy for much of this week and while there are various reasons for that, this book has certainly done nothing to help matters.

So now to come to what I loathed. Quite late into the book, it becomes ambiguous when it seems that one of the people that Bateman killed is still alive, and merely living in London now. When Bateman goes to the apartment he’s been using that belonged to this man, he finds it tidy and for sale, with an estate agent inside who tells him to leave. This throws up a horrible question – did the murder actually take place? This then sends you spiralling down and down. If this one didn’t happen, did any of them? It would explain why Bateman never gets caught, or why none of his friends believe him. Are they all just the fantasies of a diseased mind? More than anything, I loathe a story that ends “it was all a dream” and while it’s not confirmed that that’s what happened here, it’s suggested. I feel cheated, frustrated and like I just wasted a week of my life on something that built itself up to false promise. I know that, logically, the whole thing is fictional, but if it’s to turn out that these are just the thoughts of a man who wouldn’t act on these desires, it feels like a waste of time. How dare a book subject me to imagining such horrors to then go, “Only joking. Actually, he just thought all this while sitting on his sofa.”

Should you read it? As mentioned above, have a strong stomach. It’s clever, sharp, bitingly satirical and totally scathing about the wealthy. It’s also interesting due to the overlap with his other books. All his stories take place in the same universe, which in some respects adds to the ambiguity, and here we get a scene where Bateman has dinner with his younger brother Sean, who is in turn the main character in The Rules of Attraction. Despite my own personal feelings about the novel’s “twist”, it’s an incredibly interesting read. You just need to be pretty secure and well-balanced to get through it, I think. Good luck.

“Crooked” by Austin Grossman (2015)

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crooked“The Oval Office always smelled of cigarette smoke, of medical disinfectant and a faint undercurrent of sage.”

Assuming you haven’t been living under a rock for the last year, emerging only to get snacks and read my blog (and if my assumption is incorrect, then thanks!) you will undoubtedly have noticed that the Americans are having an election next month. The options are the Least Popular Candidate In Forty Years up against the Second Least Popular Candidate In Forty Years. Evidently, it’s all been going swimmingly. I’ve always been a bit vacant about the specifics of American politics, but this time round we’re all having to pay a bit of attention. Last time there was a president this unpopular, well, that brings us on neatly to the book my searchlight* has fallen upon this week.

(* If you get this reference without looking it up, award yourself a hundred jelly beans.)

Richard Nixon is often considered the worst president the USA ever elected, and yet they still elected him twice. Now most famous for being President when we landed on the moon, the Watergate scandal, his missing tapes, being the only President to resign from office, his rubbery face and insistence that he was not a crook, he has become a cartoon character. In this novel, narrated by Tricky Dick himself, we discover the truth behind his political career; a truth that stretches back to the arrival of the first pilgrim settlers.

Because it turns out that there are bigger threats than communism on the other side of the Cold War. There are monsters, far older than the country they inhabit, and there are wizards, dark magic users, zombies, ghosts and things that Nixon couldn’t even have imagined. This is the story of how Richard Nixon worked as a spy for the Russians before he became President, why Eisenhower chose him as his running mate, and what really happened when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong got to the moon.

Crooked is hard to define with a through plot, as so much of what happens is very vague, but what does should be kept secret until read. It’s broadly a crossover between political satire and Lovecraftian horror, and the book is basically Nixon vs. Cthulhu, although that name is never explicitly given. Even when narrating, Nixon comes across as rather unpleasant. He is a man who will sacrifice everything and stop at nothing to achieve his goals, even if he doesn’t understand what he’s getting himself mixed up in along the way. His journey is littered with other historical figures – Eisenhower, JFK, Henry Kissinger, Alger Hiss – who show themselves to not necessarily be the people that history has left us believing they were. I particularly enjoyed Pat Nixon, Richard’s wife, who publicly stands by him throughout everything, while in private their relationship implodes.

The idea is a great one, and I always love the notion of hidden conspiracy theories, but I found the book rather slow going. It takes a long time to work itself up to anything, and then the references to what’s going on are somewhat oblique, which, true, adds to the chill and suspense of the novel, but I didn’t feel it paid off.

All I know is, that if even one iota of this hidden history turns out to be true, I’d rather have Hillary presiding over it than the other option, which is frankly more terrifying than the idea of Yog-Sothoth roaming the lower 48.

“The Rest Of Us Just Live Here” by Patrick Ness (2015)

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We can't all be the Chosen One.

We can’t all be the Chosen One.

“On the day we’re the last people to see indie kid Finn alive, we’re all sprawled together in the Field, talking about love and stomachs.”

Every good story needs a hero. The Buffy Summers, Harry Potter or Darren Shan of the piece who has to save the world (and often just the school) from imminent destruction from the Villain of the Week. But there are only so many zombies, ghosts or dark lords to defeat, so not everyone gets to do it. This is a story about those who aren’t chosen. These are the characters who, rather than wanting to save the world, just want to make it to graduation without the school blowing up or any of their friends being used for a sacrificial ritual. After all, what was Hogwarts like if you actually attended all your lessons and never had to smuggle dragons out the castle or do battle with giant snakes?

Our narrator is Mikey, a high school senior with OCD who is struggling with growing up, the friendships that may be about to end, and his unrequited feelings for his friend Henna. Along with his sister Mel, a recovering anorexic, and his best friend Jared, who happens to be a quarter God, he’s counting down the days until the school year ends and he has to leave his pathetic little town in the middle of nowhere.

He has problems, but they’re mostly ordinary. Jared is keeping a secret from him, Henna seems to have developed a crush on the new boy Nathan, Mikey’s mother’s political ambitions are perhaps getting in the way of letting them have a united family, and to cap it all, Mikey’s OCD is getting worse again. Still, at least he’s not one of the indie kids. They’re the kids who keep getting involved in the strange events around town. Years ago it was zombies, or vampires, but this time the town is at risk from Immortals who glow with a blue light and are killing anyone in their way. But that’s not Mikey’s story – he just hopes no one blows up the school before he can get his diploma.

This is such a cool concept for a story. Yes, there is a massive threat to the town, and possibly the world, but this time we’re not going to be part of it. Every chapter opens with a brief summary of, basically, what we would see in that chapter if we were following the hero indie kids, but then will cut to a very ordinary event with Mikey and his friends. They sometimes brush up against the fantasy story, but they’re not directly connected. This adds so much to the world of fiction, and brings home again the notion that we are all the heroes in our own stories, but every single one of those stories are connected. Some people have to save the world, and some just have to survive the consequences.

Both heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure, the story details much about the nature of family and friends, especially the family we construct from our friends and how that’s different for everyone. Patrick Ness writes with such warmth and sweetness that you can’t help feel for Mikey, Mel, Jared, Meredith, Henna, and the rest of them with their struggles. Jared is particularly interesting, as I love the idea of someone who just “happens to be a God”, but he doesn’t really let it affect him when he can help it.

A wonderful, funny and sweet novel about growing up, feeling unloved, struggling to move on, and why sometimes it’s best not to be at the heart of the action.

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