The Perfect Match by Dandy Smith

I have a complicated relationship with this book, which is fitting, because the author seems to love to write about complicated relationships. On the one hand, it was very much one of those books that had me saying “just one more chapter” because the story was told across lots of shorter chapters (ideal) and they always seemed to end on some kind of cliff hanger or revelation. On the other hand, every character was just so nasty and toxic, that I just found myself getting quite worked up about it sometimes.

The story follows two close friends named Ivy and Zara who are extremely close with one another. I liked this. I’m always pleased when stories show platonic relationships as just as deep and as meaningful and romantic ones – though at the same time, it’s just as toxic as a lot of romantic ones too. Ivy is often very mean and controlling with Zara, and at times I wondered why the two of them were even friends, but it seemed to be born out of Zara’s deep-rooted insecurity.

Something that was frustrating, but also very realistic, was the way that Zara seems convinced that just about everybody is against her. People say thing to her that seem perfectly normal and ordinary, and she’ll have an inner monologue about how it was a disguised slight, and how she’s really upset as a consequence. They’ll then inevitably end up falling out. I know there are a lot of people who do think like that, and it is sad, but it’s stressful to read and you just want to say to her “not everyone is out to get you!”

Then there’s Ivy who is just awful. She’s constantly making nasty comments about other people on all things from the way they look, to their choices in life. She’s so mean-spirited, and Zara always seems to go along with it, in a kind of “she’s saying what we’re all thinking” kind of way, but I think only mean people think the things that Ivy says and it made it very hard to warm to her – though I’ll admit that she has some more noble intensions later on that made me like her a bit more. I guess later it’s more that she looks better because she’s compared to an even worse person.

The third major player in it all is Henry, an arrogant CEO who starts dating Zara. The relationship between these two is just as central to the story as the relationship between Zara and Ivy. Right from the start, Henry is disrespecting boundaries and acting in a really controlling way, but Zara never sees it. This is likely intentional, but gosh, having known several people who have gotten involved with really toxic partners, it was hard to watch it happen here all while Zara is talking about how wonderful he is.

There’s a lot of very serious stuff in this book, and to be honest, I think it went a bit too far as it went on, and started to feel more like melodrama, rather than the more rooted story that it was at the start. It will be very raw for anyone who has experienced these things first or even second hand. It’s basically a book about horrible things happening to horrible people (similar to the author’s first book One Small Mistake – which, fun fact, is set in the same universe) and it makes for a very unique reading experience.

I’d definitely enjoy the book more if every single character wasn’t out to lift themselves up by pushing everybody else down. Or even if there was just one genuinely nice character in the mix, but all of them are just repugnant. I felt bad for them a lot of the time, and maybe that’s the point, to make you feel something for otherwise unsympathetic characters.

And so that’s the conundrum in me – the complicated relationship. I admire it for tackling certain aspects of sexism and misogyny, and I appreciate the realistic portrayal of really unhealthy relationships (even if it gets a little bit over the top towards the end)… but being inside the heads of these characters is genuinely a bit too stressful for me.

On another note, the author describes the ending as being a bit “marmite”. I’m not going to spoil anything, but it ends kind of abruptly. I can see why it was done that way and in my mind, what would have happened next was quite obvious, but leaving it open ended lets the reader decide, and I don’t mind that. As far as marmite goes, I guess I’m one of the people who likes it. It’s the kind of thing that would be fun to discuss with other people who have read it.

All in all, its a book that I do recommend – but only if you have a lot of patience for unkind people. I didn’t like it quite as much as One Small Mistake, which felt a bit more focused in its storyline, but while complicated, I ultimately think that I enjoyed reading it, and think it’s a good book to dissect and analyse with fellow readers.

Rating: 6.7/10

Buy it here.

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Becoming by Michelle Obama

This was a book that I’d heard was good, but I wasn’t too sure what to expect from it. I typically enjoy stories about ordinary people, rather than the lives of world leaders, so a part of me was worried that this wouldn’t be quite for me. However, I had no need to worry, because I loved this book – partially because, to my surprise, Michelle Obama’s life started out in much the same way as many ordinary people’s.

Descended from somebody who was enslaved, Michelle Obama grew up with her working place family in a place called Euclid Avenue in Chicago. I didn’t expect her to have had such humble beginnings, and it certainly helped endear me to her. As she talks about the days of her youth, you get a sense of her values and where they came from, and why she’s passionate about looking out for ordinary people.

It’s really emotional at times, especially when she writes about the death of her father. Even if she weren’t somebody who would eventually become First Lady of America, I’d have enjoyed it as a story of just one woman’s relationship with her family. Though of course, what comes later helps make it even more interesting.

I am very guilty of not thinking of world leaders as regular people sometimes. I know that they hold human flaws, but I don’t think of them leading everyday lives, and the way in which being a major public figure plays into that. The stories about how she and her family had to adapt to the changes that came when Barrack became president are really insightful, and cover many things I’d never considered before – especially the dilemmas she faced as a mother.

Meanwhile, the story of her relationship with Barrack is also fascinating to me. Again, I would never really think about the romantic lives of world leaders, so it was really interesting to me to read about Michelle Obama meeting her future husband, not initially being hugely impressed by him, and then slowly building a relationship, a life, and a family with him.

I also felt for her as she described the way in which the opposition party, and various publications, would do everything they could to try and make her and her family look bad at every turn. It highlights some of the real ugliness of the political world, and how ridiculous (and insincere) some people are when criticising those they disagree with politically.

As much as Michelle Obama will forever be associated with politics, this isn’t book about politics, or even a book with a political message (other than certain basic levels of respect which are sometimes considered political). Rather, it’s a human story about the emotions involved with being a regular person cast onto to world stage, and that was really interesting to me.

Rating: 8/10

Buy it here.

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Restaurant Review: Bath RUH A&E Department

The Bath RUH A&E Department is a restaurant that I’ve eaten at quite a few times recently. I know some people are probably going to say to me “Listen up you rubbish bin, A&E isn’t a restaurant, I ought to break your neck for that mistake”. However, the definition of restaurant is “A place where people sit and eat meals” and I’ve done that there, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s a restaurant.

So what’s it like there? Well, have you ever gone to a restaurant and then thought “Gosh, I am so emotionally exhausted, I don’t want to have to speak to any members of staff before I order my food” Well, one thing you’re going to love about having dinner at A&E is that instead of the traditional menu and order system, all the food is already pre-made and stored inside a self-service machine. All you have to do is wander over and press the buttons which correspond to the food you’re after.

It’s really impressive. There are three of these machines too. One contains both main courses and desserts, while the other two contain hot and cold beverages respectively. No alcohol in any of the machines, but, hey, I don’t like alcohol anyway. Having said that, the hot drinks machine is quite often out of order, so you might be a bit disappointed if you want a hot chocolate with your dinner, as I sometimes do when I eat out.

Now, I know what you’re all wondering: what food have they got? Well, I’ve sampled quite a few delicious things there. One of their meals were these things called “Quavers” which come in a convenient yellow packet. These are deep-fried pieces of potato with a cheesy taste, and, by golly, they are absolutely delicious. A little too light for dinner, but I’m not complaining because they taste so good. They have a very similar dish called “Wotsits” too, which also comes in a handy bag. They’re essentially the same as Quavers, but with a slightly different cheesy taste, and a different shape and consistency. There’s also the classic cheese and onion sandwich. I’ll admit, it was a little dry, but actually it’s very important for some sandwiches to be a little dry, because without them, we wouldn’t be able to truly appreciate the perfectly prepared sandwiches of the world, so with that perspective, it’s easy to see these sandwiches as very noble and selfless.

While dinners themselves are great, anyone who knows me will know that I am much fonder of desserts. They’ve got quite a few of them there, including an absolutely lovely flapjack. It was oat-believably good, you could say. They also have some hardened bars of chocolate, one, called a “Twirl” had an amazing minty variation that’s so good I’ve actually had it more than once. There’s loads of chocolate based puddings there, and honestly, it’s hard to imagine anybody being disappointed by the array.

It loses a few points when it comes to the atmosphere. You want a restaurant to be a calm, relaxing place, and A&E is typically filled with people writhing in pain and stressed out medical professionals rushing about. The thing is though, that’s because they treat the sick there for free – that’s a truly wonderful and incredible thing. I can’t think of any other restaurants that do that. You’ll be lucky to get a free after-dinner mint, let alone free life-saving procedures, at any other restaurants. As for staff being stressed, I heard a rumour that they are paid with rounds of applause rather than money, and I think I’d be pretty stressed if that happened to me too.

Also, you know how a lot of restaurants try and usher you out after you’ve eaten your food? Well, one of the many good things about A&E is that they happily let you stay there for ages and ages. I’d say the average visit lasts somewhere between six and eight hours. Admittedly, this is because you’re only really supposed to go there to get the medical care services I mentioned (rather than just coming for dinner) and that’s quite slow because we live in a country ruled by a political party that is ideologically opposed to the idea of people having free access to healthcare, so, again, I’m not going to dock points for that. (I’ll dock points from the government though, but at this point we all know it’s a 0/10).

Overall, while there are other restaurants that I’d rather eat at, I have a soft spot for A&E. The fact that the staff there treat the sick for free makes it an immediate 11/10. Even Nando’s doesn’t do that, so it’s earned its spot as one of Bath’s best restaurants and I hope you’ll do everything you can to support it so it can keep running smoothly as long as possible. I wish it had comfier chairs though.

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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

This was the first novel I ever read by Anne, the lesser known of the three Brontë sisters. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I’d really enjoyed the other Brontë novels that I’d read. Now that I’ve finished The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I actually think that Anne might be my favourite of the three – compared to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (the other Brontë novels I’ve read), I think this one has a storyline much more grounded in reality, and with a better message to it.

The story is told through a series of letters, in which a man named Gilbert Markham writes to a friend to tell him about the goings on in the small countryside town where he lives. Markham is particularly intrigued by an enigmatic woman who moves into a dilapidated old building in the area (Wildfell Hall) along with her young son. Though she tries to lead a very solitary existence, Markham and his friends and family begin to absorb her into their social circles, and Markham strikes up a bond with she and her son. Little by little, clues about her past are revealed, and eventually the perspective shifts and you read her diary and find out what circumstances brought her to the hall.

I don’t want to spoilt too much about her history, but the titular Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Helen Graham, is by far the coolest character in the book, and, in my opinion, one of the best female characters in all nineteenth century literature. She is a flawed character who has made some mistakes, but somebody who has learned from those mistakes and grown as a person. Without going into too much detail, she takes a stand against misogyny and does things which would make her a social outcast, but everything she does is done in the name of fairness, and she remains a person of strong moral convictions throughout. She’s so cool.

I’ll admit that the ending was slightly too cliché for me (and that Markham isn’t really the ‘nice guy’ he thinks he is), but it’s fairly standard for its time, and overall I was very impressed with it. It’s a book which takes a stand against domestic abuse and which highlights the injustices faced by women at the time and which, sadly, will still be faced by women today. A progressive novel with a powerful message of kindness and compassion that I strongly reccommend.

Rating: 8.9/10

Buy it here.

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The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan

I really quite enjoyed the fifth book in The Wheel of Time series, which was something of a relief for me, because the fourth one felt like a significant step down in quality. Though there were still little bits here and there that made me role my eyes, overall, it was a much more engaging read.

One of my favourite things about it was how it explored the breaking of the White Tower as seen in the end of the last book. The newly stilled Siuan Sanche essentially becomes one of the new main characters, and the idea of this formerly extremely powerful figure (both magically, and politically) having to go on the run after being deposed is very cool, and her perspective is so different to that of Rand or any of the main characters, so I always enjoyed the chapters about her.

Of course, Siuan is just part of it. This novel also gives us a look at the Aes Sedai who refused to accept their new Amyrlin. They’re based within a obscure and quiet little village where they are trying to figure out exactly what they should do next. As the Aes Sedai had seemed to be an almost unstoppable force in earlier novels, I enjoyed seeing them in a completely new light. Seeing them broken into different factions like this helps make the world feel a lot more three dimensional.

One thing I didn’t like so much was how Aviendha was written in this one. With so many other female characters seemingly getting caught up in how much they love Rand, it was nice to have one who seems to regard him as an irritation that she’s been thrown together with by circumstance. Unfortunately, it seems that once again Robert Jordan was doing the “they seem to hate each other because they secretly love each other” trope, just like he did with Perrin and Faile (neither of whom are in this one). For me, this kind of thing is quite tiresome, and not good romance writing at all, but there’s not enough of it to spoil things this time.

Something else that I actually did like was the plot thread about Nynaeve and Elayne. As they make a long journey to try and return to the White Tower (having completed their mission) they end up joining a travelling circus, which I found very entertaining. The legendary hero Birigitte also plays a pretty important role in their part of the story, and I really enjoyed her becoming more of a main character.

All thing considered, I think anybody who has gotten this far in the series will be quite pleased with this book. While some of the novels can feel a bit meandering at times, this one was well paced and had a pretty explosive finale too (literally), even if part of it was a little too convenient.

Rating: 8.2/10

Buy it here.

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Assassination Classroom, Volume 14 by Yusei Matsui

The fourteenth volume of Assassination Classroom picks up where the previous one ended – with Class-E holding a festival and selling food in competition against Class-A. This is a fairly fun, light-hearted storyline, with the most appealing part of it being that it brings back a number of characters from previous volumes. It’s a nice little treat for fans, and helps make things feel more closely tied together.

While that is an enjoyable storyline, the most interesting part about this volume is it’s focus on Principle Asano. Until now, he’s just been a fairly shady side character who doesn’t do a huge amount (other than be a pretty abusive father). In this one, he throws his hat in the ring and decides to try his own assassination attempt on Koro-sensei.

For the first time, the status quo for Class-E feels at stake. Koro-sensei is even given his walking papers. To me, this was the most tense the story had become since they went to the island, and it’s really cool to see Asano as a really competent foe for Koro-sensei. This volume even made me feel something for him, so it was good to see Asano used in an interesting way, at last.

Though it was a slightly more easygoing instalment compared to the previous volume on the whole, I think I enjoyed it just as much. There’s some good character development and the feeling that things are coming towards an ending continues to forebode.

Rating: 9.3/10

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Anti-Racist Ally by Sophie Williams

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If you’re someone who wants to learn more about racism and social justice, then this is the book for you. It provides a fantastic introduction to the subject, and offers advice on how to live as an ally, rather than simply just not being a racist person.

The author very rightly points out that not being racist is the least someone can do, and that there are too many people who feel that they deserve some kind of recognition for it, even though this is just a base level of morality. Being an ‘ally’ meanwhile, means taking the time to get to understand the issues caused by racism, learning about how it manifests in very subtle ways, then challenging it however you can.

She points out that the expression “people of colour” is a slightly problematic one for grouping so many people together due the simple fact that they are not white, and says that she doesn’t like using it. This was an interesting stance, and one I’d never even stopped to think of before – to be perfectly honest, I just found it being used by progressive people and ignorantly assumed it was a welcome new expression. I didn’t apply critical thinking there.

However, that’s kind of the only thing that I learned here. The rest, while useful and important information, isn’t going to be that insightful to anyone who is already quite conscious of racism – it is very much an introduction; designed for those who haven’t really looked into the subject before.

It talks about how white privilege helps white people to avoid problems faced by other ethnicities. It talks about the importance of listening to a diverse range of voices, explaining how social media can be an excellent tool for this. How you should challenge racism wherever you see it, rather than remaining silent and tacitly approving it. How racism isn’t just a thing of the past, and continues to effect people in insidious ways. Like I said, it’s all good stuff, just kind of base level.

If you don’t know much about the evils racism and want to learn more, this is a great book to start with. If you know someone who would benefit from broadening their perspectives and learning about racism-related problems, this is a great book to buy them. If you’re passionate about challenging racism and read up on the subject, you’ll find this an agreeable read, but one that doesn’t go into a huge amount of depth.

Rating: 7.6/10

Buy it here.

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Star Wars: Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn

Before Disney bought the Star Wars franchise, Heir to the Empire was the original continuation from the end of the original trilogy of movies. For whatever reason, I put off reading this – part of me worried that it was going to be a pulpy cash-in, but when I finally read it, I thought it was pretty darn fantastic.

One of the biggest appeals of this novel is that it featured the debut of the iconic character, Grand Admiral Thrawn. He is fantastically written here, and it’s easy to see why fans took to him so much. He’s a cold, calculating villain who’s scheming away in the shadows, but who remains perfectly calm, even polite, throughout the whole thing. He comes across as a very threatening foe, and the insights into his mind help flesh him out in a way that Palpatine or Darth Vader never really get in the films.

The story is really all about Thrawn. A few years after the fall of the Empire, he’s flying around with the few remaining forces and making steps to regain power, but exactly how he plans to do so is unclear – but it involves collaborating with Joruus C’baoth, a mysterious dark Jedi Master. Luke, Han, Leia , and Chewbacca work in different ways to investigate this emerging threat, and end up visiting various planets in the process, including the Wookie home world.

Star Wars is typically a series that uses lots of big battles to keep things interesting. While I do enjoy the movies, I am someone who prefers more thoughtful storylines and that’s exactly what you get here. It looks at how the New Republic is struggling to solidify its power after the fall of the Empire, and how destroying the old regime was only really a small part of solving the problems of the galaxy. Of course, it also shows that one big defeat didn’t completely wipe out the imperials. These are all things which help make the setting feel a little more three dimensional.

I also appreciated the deeper level of development each of the characters had – most notably, I thought Luke was pretty interesting here, in a way that he never really was in the films. Controversially, I have always thought Luke Skywalker was too much of a generic hero without much substance (outside of The Last Jedi), but here you get a look into his mind, and how he’s feeling a bit listless with the Empire now defeated, even becoming kind of depressed and later, when he ends up working with a smuggler named Mara Jade, his positivity contrasted against her more aggressive demeanour is actually very endearing. It’s a really good story for him.

But, really, it’s a good story for all of the characters. The original ‘Episode VII’ is a really fun read and, in my mind, a much more interesting storyline than that of The Force Awakens (but each to their own). If you’re a Star Wars fan, I strongly recommend that you give this a read – it continues the story while helping to make you feel deeply immersed in its setting. I loved it.

Rating: 8.3/10

Buy it here.

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I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya

Though a very short book, I’m Afraid of Men gives a very personal account of the author’s fear of men. She talks about a long string of distressing encounters with strangers who have gone out of their way to try and make her uncomfortable, either as a result of transphobia (as the other is a transwoman) or plain old fashioned misogyny.

Having lived and presented as a gay man for a large portion of her life, she shares insights from that period too. She talks about how many communities of gay men are hyper sexual and pay little regard for boundaries or consent, perhaps based on the perception that men are always interested in sexual activity. Though obviously not universal, she talks about how this problem fed into her fears and how there are many gay communities who need to address the issue. She does a fantastic job of highlighting the ways in which the casual of behaviour of men can make people feel unsafe without them having any idea they’re doing it.

What I liked the most about this book was that it gives an insight into the anxiety that women face every day – with the author facing extra prejudice because of the fact that she is trans and because she is not white. It’s important that everybody read accounts like this, because we all have a responsibility to understand these points of view so that we can do everything we can to ensure that they feel comfortable.

There were two bits I didn’t like so much though. At one point, the author talks about a man (a taxi driver, I believe) who told her something extremely sexual out of the blue and how it made her really uncomfortable. That’s a perfectly valid thing to call out and a reasonable response. However, at one point the author also shares the fact that, to this day, they masturbate over a man who was nasty to them years ago, in a fair amount of detail. It’s obviously not exactly the same, but it felt like an instance of needless over-sharing that was a little uncomfortable. I’m not against people talking about masturbation because it’s a healthy and normal part of life, but it was very unexpected to find that here and I’m not really sure why it was included.

Next, the author has a (completely understandable) pessimistic view on people and the world. They go on to talk about how we should stop expecting men to be “good men” because if you expect somebody to be “good” your expectations will be too high and you’ll generally end up disappointed in them. She tells the story of a “good man” that she once loved and how he betrayed her trust and she realised not to expect people to be “good men” because of that. To me, that’s just too pessimistic. There are good men, and to say that you shouldn’t expect anything better almost feels a little too much like a more negative way of saying “boys will be boys” – as if it’s in their nature to be bad and that’s that. Obviously, the author still thinks that men should be held to account for their bad behaviour, but still, I continue to believe in good men, despite the damage that misogyny does to the world. Maybe it’s easy for me to say that from a place of privilege, but nonetheless, I didn’t agree.

So all-in-all, while it was very short and there was a bit of (seemingly irrelevant) over-sharing, I think there’s a lot of value in this book and would recommending giving it a read.

Rating: 7/10

Buy it here.

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Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible by Matthew Perry

I can remember watching Friends back when it was new and airing on British television for the first time. Since then, I have always been fond of it and it’s one of my comfort shows. While I see its flaws more as I get older, I always enjoy watching it, and I’m sure I always will. For this reason, I was quite interested in reading Matthew Perry’s autobiography – partly because I was interested to learn more about one of the people who were responsible for bringing it to life, and get a glimpse into the creative process behind it.

On the one hand, I was pretty fascinated by the story of a person leading a moderately ordinary life who ended up being enormously famous. The transition in his life was really interesting to read about, and, of course, he does not hide the ugly realities of fame. Meanwhile, it was fun to hear about some of the shows and movies he was involved with in the early days of his career – and it was fascinating to think that he came very close to not being Chandler Bing, especially considering how closely he and the character are entwined.

He also talks in depth about how difficult it is to live with addiction. I have always had complete respect for those living with addiction, and regarded it as the illness it is. In this, Matthew Perry goes into full detail about how horrible and debilitating it is. It’s bleak, but I am glad that he speaks so frankly about his experiences, because it’s important for everyone to understand what it’s like.

On the other hand, as much as I enjoyed learning about his experiences with fame, Friends, and addiction (or Friends, lovers, and the big terrible thing), I did find him to be horribly bitter sometimes – and I get it, he’s had a hard life and he has every right to feel bitterness about what he has endured. What I didn’t like was how he talks about other people, or how he seems to have treated those in his life.

For example (and there will be other points that I’ve forgotten, but these ones stood out as particularly negative and unpleasant): he mentions multiple times that he wishes Keanu Reeves was dead for seemingly no reason, he talks about how he had an old girlfriend who essentially became his carer during a really rough point in his battle with addiction, and then he just left her to sleep with loads of other women once he was feeling better, he seems to feel some resentment (to this day) that Jennifer Anniston didn’t want to sleep with him, he generally doesn’t seem to be able to see women as anything other than potential girlfriends or people to sleep with, he mentions a ‘poor’ friend that he has and how he’d happily switch lives with him because, though he knows he’s poor, he doesn’t believe the guy’s struggles could ever come close to what he’s been through.

I get that he’s been through a lot, but it sometimes feels like he thinks he’s suffered more than any other person in world and that’s really unfair. Yes, he has had a horrible time and I feel bad for him – I wish science could find a more effective way of treating addiction. However, he’s an extremely rich person who has access to the best health services and can afford to not work while he makes attempts to recover. There are many other people who don’t have that luxury, and many other pains that a person can deal with besides addiction – indeed, there are sure to be many people dealing with struggles and anxieties as a direct consequence of him having treated them badly. He’ll call himself an idiot for how he treated people, but he never seems to properly reflect on how badly he could have hurt them by behaving like that.

He does, at least, seem to resolve to do better by the end, but I found myself getting frustrated with him quite often throughout the book – which is sad. He, self-awarely, notes that Chandler Bing surpassed him in terms of emotional growth by the time Friends came to an end, and it shows. He seems like the kind of person who might be hard to like, but I admire him for sharing such a deep and candid look into the realities of living with anxiety, and the ugly side of fame.

Rating: 6.8/10

Buy it here.

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