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hux

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  1. This is a genre book (which I generally avoid). I'm not sure what the genre is but I suppose gothic suspense mystery might adequately describe it. The story takes place in a castle in a forest during the 1940s, but it feels a lot more like the 1840s (at one point the lightening knocks out the electricity and the castle is kept alight by candles). An elderly general named Henrik has received news that an old friend (Konrad) is to visit him at the castle that evening, a friend that he has not seen in 41 years. The staff are given instructions to tidy the place up and prepare a meal. In the meantime we get some backstory about how these two friends met as young boys, became best friends in military school, and spent the next twenty years of their lives entwined as brothers. But then something happened causing them to part and this is what is to be discussed once his friend arrives. I enjoyed this a lot and found it very easy to read. The first half of the book is a third person narration but the second half is almost entirely dialogue (and almost exclusively from the general). Each chapter goes by very quickly as the mystery element builds. It doesn't take long to figure out what's going on though. The enjoyment is less about the mystery and more the writing combined with the atmosphere it generates (the empty castle alight with candles as a storm thunders in the background is always fun). I immediately thought this would make an excellent play and (having googled it) have discovered that it was indeed turned into one. Given that it's essentially two characters (with a few background servants) I think it would suit that medium perfectly. It won't necessarily live long in the memory (plot driven genre books rarely do with me) but if that's your cup of tea, you should like this a lot. 7/10
  2. Riccardo and Emilia Molteni have been married for two years. They were very much in love to begin with but now, with a new home to pay for, and a job he doesn't enjoy (working for a film producer named Battista), in order to pay for it, he finds that she is becoming quite distant from him. At first he doesn't think much of it but gradually comes to believe that she no longer loves him. Initially, she denies this but then, after a heated argument, confesses that it's true but more than that -- she not only doesn't love him but in fact despises him. Understandably, Riccardo demands an explanation for her contempt but she doesn't have one or refuses to give it. Then Battista suggests a trip to his villa in Capri to prepare for a movie of the Odyssey and things come to a head. As with 'Boredom' the writing is wonderful and Moravia speaks to me in a way that few other writers do; there's just something about his style that I find immensely easy to read and so fluid that each page melts away. Even when the subject matter is ultimately quite mundane (the breakdown of a marriage) it is utterly compelling, and dare I say it, even nourishing. The whole narrative is fresh and flowing like a cool breeze by the sea, never jarring or stunted, always lyrical and clear (and least to me). *spoilers* The story is straight-forward but for one aspect that confused me; namely, the reason why Emilia has suddenly stopped loving her husband and claims to despise him. Moravia leaves confusing clues regarding her affair with Battista such as when Riccardo encourages Emilia and Battista to share a car and she shows obvious discomfort at this, almost as if she is trying to tell her husband that Battista is sexually harassing her. Then later, in a similar fashion, Battista suggests that she come in his car while Riccardo goes with the German director, and once again she is hesitant, clearly demonstrating that she does not want to be left alone with Battista. All of this suggests she is an unwilling (even potentially coerced) participant but at the end of the book, she decides to leave with him (admitting that she may even become his mistress claiming she is "not made of iron"). I'm not entirely sure if it was Moravia's intention, but I was as bewildered as Riccardo. It didn't fascinate me quite as much as 'Boredom' but it came very close. I've already ordered 'The Conformist.' 9/10
  3. A boy discovers that Christianity doesn't have all the answers and that there is a duality in the world of light and dark. He meets a young man named Demian who appears to encapsulate these transgressive thoughts and becomes enchanted by him and everyone else who has opened their eyes to the truth. The writing is fine and goes along nicely (especially the last few chapters) but I couldn't help but feel that I was being lectured at by Hesse about his hippy spirituality. And this is the third time he's done this to me. In Steppenwolf (also about the two sides of humanity) it was forgivable because that book was so engaging, with a narrative which meant the magical stuff felt earned. Then he did it again in Siddhartha but that was entirely about spiritual enlightenment so fair enough. Knowing that he does this a lot has, however, slightly tarnished my memory of Steppenwolf and made Hesse seem like a rather one-note bore (I hope that isn't the case). As much I enjoy being told about the magical ideas of the ancient world, there does seem to be a mild fetish going on here with him. And hiding it behind ethereal notions of vague telepathy and obscure Hindu myths doesn't do much for me either. At one point, Hesse even talked about the herd (like some teenager in his basement calling other people on the internet 'sheeple'), and I frankly wasn't very impressed by that whole... we see things differently. In all honesty, Hesse and his wooly spiritualism are the least interesting things about him for me. By the end, Demian's mother simply came across as a cult leader with an unhealthy interest in younger men. I guess you have buy into that spiritual stuff to find such things profound or intriguing. With Steppenwolf, it worked, but not here. The book is short, though and, like most of Hesse's work, well written. I would still recommend it. 6/10
  4. A man is stuck in traffic and suddenly goes blind (a milky white blindness as opposed to darkness). A good Samaritan takes him home only to later steal his car. The next day he sees the doctor who is baffled. The day after that, the doctor discovers that he is now blind. And on it goes, with more an more people discovering that they are blind until the government starts rounding them up and placing them in an asylum. To begin with there are forty to fifty but gradually the numbers drastically increase. The doctor's wife also claims to be blind to stay with her husband despite this not being true. The army are positioned outside with strict instructions to shoot anyone who tries to leave. Soon the place is overpopulated with excrement everywhere and dead bodies. Then a group in a separate wing decides to keep all the food for themselves and demand money and jewels for food. Soon, they switch and demand that females from each ward be sent as payment. Eventually, the army abandon post as the blindness epidemic continues and the small group leaves and roams the apocalyptic streets in search of food and shelter. The allegory here is fairly obvious, concerning the true nature of humanity and how civilisation has a tendency to ignore what's in front of their eyes. But I found that fairly simplistic and predictable with little originality. Most of us know exactly what humanity is. Most of us keep that truth close to the front of our minds on a daily basis. There is nothing especially groundbreaking here and in truth the high praise this book receives is slightly bewildering to me. I get the impression that it's a lot of people who want to read Stephen King but also want to seem more intellectual (Saramago won a Nobel prize after all). That being said, I enjoyed the book and was swept along at a decent pace; the story is very engaging and though the writing style is often chaotic (very few full stops), it's actually quite an easy to read. My only criticisms would be the oppressively long chapters which, more than once, had me craving that they would end (never a good sign). And I also disliked the doctor and the girl with glasses having sex; it seemed absurd and pointless, and strangely presumptuous of a male writer. Overall, very good though. 7/10
  5. There's a modern term that's used to describe men who pander and flatter women in the hopes that they'll be rewarded with love, sex, attention. Simp! And this book is about the king of the Simps -- George Harvey Bone. He is in love with the beautiful Netta and hangs around with her and her set, drinking at all hours and avoiding employment of any kind. He confesses his love for her but she continues to use him for his money and, later, for his connections. One of her hangers-on is Peter, a spiv character who is just as keen to take advantage of George as she is. I honestly found myself despising Netta quite viscerally but also George too, his unwillingness to grown a spine despite being treated like a doormat something that infuriated me. The book reminded of the Tunnel by Sabato but whereas the paranoia of that book's male protagonist could be interpreted as self-inflicted, there is no ambiguity about George's feeling of humiliation and poor treatment. Netta is, quite explicitly, a bitch. She has a past working as an actress and has aspirations to get back into that world but otherwise she is, like the men she consorts with, a self-interested alcoholic. And George is nothing more than a means to an end for her. And here's where things get complicated because George, also a big drinker, suffers from a unique mental illness. I would describe it as a dissociative personality disorder but it's all a little vague. Essentially, it involves George going into a kind of dream state where an alternative version of himself is in control of his thoughts and actions. When George clicks in and out of these personalities, he remembers very little of what has happened. The whole thing is very effectively done by Hamilton and you get the impression that George is just one person but has two states of being. The book also takes place just as the 2nd World War is about to begin and I found it fascinating seeing these young people presented in a manner that was very familiar to me. When I think of that period, I think of straight-laced individuals wearing starched clothing and doing their bit for the war effort. But obviously, young people were just the same as they've always been; keen to get drunk, have fun, and avoid work. That the book was published in 1941 at the height of the war is also interesting as Hamilton essentially takes it for granted that fascism will lose. This was a great book. And very uniquely British. 8/10
  6. I've been hearing a lot of hype about this book for some time. The copy I bought even had the words 'the greatest novel you've never read' on the front cover. I think those days are over. This book is now a hipster's wet dream. Firstly, it's beautifully written with some exquisite turns of phrase. Secondly, it's a story that will utterly pull you in. A story about a man's life passing him by (because that's what most lives do). He leaves his farming parents behind, goes to university, marries, becomes a teacher, has a daughter, has an academic rivalry, watches two world wars come and go, has an affair, becomes middle-aged, gets cancer. All the while, you feel as though Williams is trying to say something about passion, about the ability to communicate your feelings. This is presumably why the book is written in third person (when such a narrative suggests a first person perspective would make far more sense). He wants Stoner to be a little detached from us, to be cold, stoic, unemotional. But he also wants us to know that Stoner wishes he could overcome that flaw, could demonstrate love for his wife and daughter, for his work. Stoner tells us (more than once) that he can't quite adequately communicate the passion he has for English literature to his students (but it seems evident that he doesn't entirely try either). Perhaps Williams is saying something about the times. It would seem clear that he's criticising it (and yet, paradoxically, I long for the culture he laments and find the endless sharing of feelings we have in the modern world to be thoroughly repugnant). His wife, Edith, also suffers from this same malady, perhaps more so. She is even more emotionally closed off and seemingly struggles to share any moments of sincere joy, an affliction which their daughter begrudgingly inherits. It's only Katherine who provides Stoner with any such fleeting possibility of fulfillment. It's all dreadfully sad. Stoner is no-one important and yet his life still matters. It is still worth knowing about. As the book tells us on the opening page: 'Stoner's colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now.' One can't help but feel that this probably applies to his family and friends too. In truth, this might be the best novel I've ever read about life being both pointless and meaningful all at once. I would give it a higher rating but for the fact that it occasionally manipulates the reader, utilising techniques which are nonetheless subtle and enormously entertaining to read (like when Spielberg wants to make the audience feel something, he'll use music to provoke an emotional response). That aside, I thought the book was wonderful. 9/10
  7. This is the story of a mentally challenged man named Mattis who lives with his sister, Hege, in a small cottage by a lake in a rural part of Norway. She is 40, acquiring grey hairs as she makes a living knitting jumpers, while he is three years younger and tries to find work on the local farms. Sadly, the local community knows of Mattis (many refer to him as simple Simon) and they know he isn't very good at doing the work required. But occasionally, he might still get some work. His sister has spent most of her life looking after him and while that has been frustrating, nothing has yet come between them. Until Jørgen arrives. The story is very basic, matter-of-fact, and the prose reflects this, it also being very terse and to the point. It reminded me of Hemingway a little. It's actually enormously engaging. And the narration is third person but we also hear what Mattis is thinking (as well as what he isn't thinking), so it often feels more like a first person story. That element is important because it shows us how Mattis thinks. Or rather how he can't seem to fully express his thoughts or feelings. It's extremely well done. You can feel the frustration that Mattis feels, can understand how his inability to communicate is causing him problems (it brought to mind Lenny from Of Mice and Men). I found it very enjoyable, especially the world it evoked. One of those very simple human stories that just has a very concise and beautiful charm. You're dropped into a small community, in a simple time (almost medieval but for the reference to cars), and you follow this character for a brief period of his life with the assistance of some very gentle and authentic prose. 8/10
  8. Very engaging. I'm not sure how to describe this book. The writing feels very stream-of-consciousness without actually being stream-of-consciousness. I think this is due to the vague narrative, the way it's always on the cusp of describing reality but holds off, almost keeping the reader at a distance so that the story has a foggy, unclear quality which borders on something magical and obscure. It actually reminded me of The Blind Owl but with a stronger framework and a more concise method of story telling. There are cities that are simply referred to as South City and North City; there are blurred lines regarding where we are, and at what time. Plus, there are characters who are detached and ill-formed, almost ghosts or memories. But, despite all this, it's still very accessible (and immensely easy to read). The basic premise is that a young man (a doctor) is at home one stormy night when a woman appears at his door. He doesn't know who she is but let's her in. This woman is then followed by his ex girlfriend and the two women come to live at his house where they speak a private language he doesn't understand. The stranger is called Amparo Davila (a real writer) and she claims to know the protagonist's secret. That he is actually a woman. The book explores notions of gender and reality, of insanity and language, and of the means of trying to know the difference between these things. I didn't fully connect with a lot of those themes (women might better enjoy that aspect) but I enjoyed the book overall (which was pleasingly short). 7/10
  9. I adored this. I'm not sure if it was the writing, the subject matter, the characters, or even just the feel of the book in my hand (heavy, with a smooth surface and crisp pages). Hell, even the yellow cover was hugely appealing to me. All I know is that I haven't enjoyed reading a book as much as this for a very long time. The words almost seemed to melt from the pages as I read them. It begins with our narrator (Dino), the wealthy son of a rich mother, telling us that from a very young age he has always suffered from boredom. Not the regular variety that accompanies a lack of activity or engagement, but a version which is probably better described as ennui. He finds that once he is bored of a particular thing (inanimate object, person, lifestyle) he no longer feels connected to it, no longer feels that it exists for him as part of realty. Reality itself is taken away from him. He is a painter who, ten years after taking up the vocation, can no longer do so. This too has left him bored and detached. Across from his studio is another painter named Balestrieri, older, in his sixties, who paints beautiful young models and often has sexual relations with them. These women come and go but one day, a young 17-year-old girl becomes Balestrieri's muse and he is apparently besotted with her, in a way that has evidently never happened before. Then, not long after this, Balestrieri dies (perhaps during love-making). Dino finds himself almost instantly beginning a relationship with this young woman, Cecilia, and he seems to slot into the same role as Balestrieri just as quickly. They regularly meet for sex, until Dino decides that in order to end the relationship with her he must become bored of her, so that she is no longer a part of his reality. But there is something unique about this girl, something which, despite her vast sexual appetite, almost suggests the same illness of ennui. She is very matter-of-fact, passive, unemotional, and sees the world only in terms of today and now. Dino finds himself struggling to escape from her as a result, believing that only by possessing her can he become free of her. I must say, I think Cecilia might be my favourite ever female literary character. She is everything which Dino claims to be and more. She is utterly uncompromising. You keep thinking there might be a twist, but there isn't. This is just who she is. And the fact that she (painfully) reminded me of an ex-girlfriend might admittedly have played a part in my fascination with her too. This book was an absolute joy. I only discovered Moravia a few months ago and will definitely be reading more of his work. 10/10
  10. I know a lot of people rave about this book so my expectations were high. But I found it utterly mundane and devoid of emotion. In theory, it ought to appeal to me; an opium fueled fever dream of repetition and prose, a swirling descent into madness and surrealism. And as much I loved the idea of his perspective being lost in a haze of vague interpretation and illusion, the murder of his wife, his whore, set to a backdrop of obscured memory, unreliable narration, and confusion, the fact remains... I was so thoroughly bored by its sheer banality. There's something interesting here to be sure, something unique and worth exploring, but it simply drags on in a monotonous tone of drab half-formed stream of consciousness. If you're going to do that then the writing needs to be significantly better than this (I will assume the translation was an additional hurdle). Even the fact that it's short doesn't help. It only adds to the sense that something meaningful needs to arrive sooner rather than later. But it never does. The whole book felt like a slog to me, only a brief moment towards the end possessing a lyrical fluidity which is lacking everywhere else. But even that doesn't last. As much as I like the themes of the book (as well as the subverted narrative style), the fact remains I need to be engaged and I just wasn't. I might go back to it in the future (an alternative translation perhaps) but it's not a priority. 4/10
  11. The book is about four boys in a boarding school. One of them (Basini) is caught stealing by the other three and they decide to spare him from being reported to the school authorities, agreeing, instead, to punish him themselves. At first, it's basic humiliation and violence, but gradually it descends into severe beatings, disturbing sexual humiliation, and eventually sexual abuse. Meanwhile, Torless finds himself attracted to the boy and Basini reciprocates, leading to a series of sexual encounters which border on tenderness and love. But Torless is ashamed of this and finds himself growing ever more appalled by Basini. I thought this book was fascinating. Partly, because it was published in 1906 and yet deals (very openly) with homosexuality, but mostly because it explores the human instinct for cruelty, shame, and horror. Musil is tapping into those human qualities which would inevitably lead to the rise of fascism, that human desire to have power over others combined with the need for social norms to be met (even in resistance to our own happiness). This urgent defence of normalcy is the driving force of western civilisation, and is so powerful that it fosters a kind of dull ignorance of our true selves and natures. Torless is clearly falling in love with Basini but knows that a heterosexual marriage to a woman is in his future -- this is the norm -- and so he hates himself for his feelings towards Basini but more explicitly, he hates Basini for having triggered them. It is this battle between rational and irrational which confuses him, though it also applies to his sexuality and his faltering grasp of morality. Reason fascinates him but there is a spiritual element -- an imaginary reality -- which always stands in the way of that reason. The book isn't as beautifully written as The Man Without Qualities but it is more accessible. Sadly, there aren't many more works by Musil to read beyond these two (some short stories, I believe) which is a tragedy because he is a superb writer. 8/10
  12. On a winter's evening in 1887, a man bursts into the Swan pub on the Thames with a dead girl in his arms. Half an hour later, the girl is alive again and several characters claim her. Robin Armstrong (more so his father, Robert) who believes she is his missing daughter, abandoned by his ex wife. The Vaughans who believe she is their kidnapped daughter returned to them. And Lily White, who claims to have a deceased sister. All of this is investigated by what I would describe as the protagonist, Rita Sunday, a nurse who knows all the players involved. The book is very engaging, easy to read, and has a touch of magical realism to it. It's not the kind of thing I normally read and I wasn't entirely blown away. But I could see that it was a fun and entertaining yarn. If you enjoy plot driven books with a style to them that has an element of mystery (like those programmes on Sunday evening about a vicar solving crime (or some other amateur sleuth... there's a million of them) then you'll probably enjoy this. It's not my cup of tea but I found it mostly enjoyable as a read, though I did spend a lot of my time thinking... I could be reading something far more substantial instead of this. Along with the much better Piranesi, it's probably the only other contemporary novel I'll read this year as I'm becoming increasingly unmoved by them. It felt much like all the other contemporary novels I read (and it annoyed me how easily everyone began weeping... at one point, a character wept so much, their sleeve became damp... how?) Anyway, like I said, if you like plot driven mysteries, you'll probably like this. 6/10
  13. That's half the problem. Even here, people don't really seem eager to discuss books or exchange ideas. It can feel confrontational for many. The other forum (https://www.bookclubforum.co.uk/community/) seems to encourage blogs rather than individual book reviews which, in my opinion, also doesn't lend itself to discussion. The internet might just have made us all a little insular, detached, and lazy.
  14. Was in town so popped into Waterstones and bought The Bell Jar and a cheap book mark (the one with the frilly end).
  15. Magnificent! An anti-social (and sexually impotent) man named Frederick Clegg who has no friends and collects butterflies becomes obsessed with an attractive young 20-year-old art student named Miranda. He has fantasies about kidnapping her, making her fall in love with him. One day, he wins the pools and suddenly has the money to make his fantasies come to life. Step by step he finds himself buying a van, a house in the countryside where he can keep her, but all the while he doesn't really believe it will ever come to anything beyond meaningless fantasies. Then, as if on auto-pilot, he actually does it. Miranda is kept in a basement where Fred takes care of her every need, buying her nice clothes, perfumes, her favourite food, whatever she wants. He provides her with records, books, and the materials she needs for her art (including a drawing pad). At first she is understandably belligerent, refusing to speak, refusing to eat. Then she adapts her technique to better her chances of escape, almost befriending him, wanting to get to know him. Finally, she succumbs to the inevitable and offers herself to him sexually, only to find that he is appalled by this. Nothing she does seems to get through to him. The book reminded me a lot of The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato. But while that book only gives us the man's perspective, this one gives us both. Part one is narrated by Fred, we see things from his point of view, see Miranda as he does, a kind of precious item placed on a pedestal. But then, in part two, we are given access to the diary Miranda has been writing during her captivity, and we not only get her perspective but we suddenly get a human being, one that is complex and flawed; she is no longer just that beautiful creature he is obsessed with but a person, with thoughts, ideas, and loves of her own (including an older man she is seemingly in love with referred to as G.P throughout the novel). Fowles isn't even afraid of making her a little unlikeable, because, in truth, all fully formed human beings are. The point is, she is more than just the idealised fantasy that Fred wants her to be. Given that this was published in 1963, I was amazed at how modern it feels. Fred is very much what we would call an incel today, low on confidence, self-pitying, while Miranda is opinionated, sure of herself, intellectually dominant. It was such a fantastic book to read, so easy to get lost in the stark prose, so nuanced in its portrayal of a madman and his victim who refuses to be a victim. And the ending has a sting. 10/10
  16. Therese Raquin is married off to her aunt's son, Camille, an anemic hypochondriac endlessly spoiled by his doting mother. The marriage is thoroughly sexless and insipid. Camille's mother and Therese set up a shop in Paris while Camille gets a job at the rail company; there he meets an old friend, Laurent, an aspiring artists who paints Therese and pursues an affair with her. To continue their affair they must kill Camille and they drown him in the river (though he puts up a fight and bites Laurent on the neck). Here begins their spiraling into madness, the paranoia, the guilt, the torment. Laurent begins to convince himself that Camille might not actually be dead while the scar on his neck, throbbing and pulsing, is a continual reminder of the crime they have committed. It is almost eating into his flesh. To make matters worse, Laurent and Therese don't even like each other very much yet persist in wanting to marry as a kind of justification for their actions. She was simply an unhappy woman while he merely wanted some sex. But in 1860s France, the moral code dictated that you couldn't simply have those things, couldn't get divorced and pursue casual encounters. And so this is the mess they find themselves in. But soon, they do marry and continue to live with Camille's mother who, after several strokes, becomes paralyzed. They argue in front of her, confess their crimes safe in the knowledge that she can do nothing about it. The guilt torments them, sends them both into insanity and plotting. Therese begs at the feet of her dead husband's silent mother. Laurent sees no way out. Along with Crime & Punishment, this is one of the greatest literary explorations of guilt (and its capacity to torment individuals) I have ever read. These are two people who ostensibly just want to experience some pleasure and happiness but the chains of culture have stifled them into becoming self-hating monsters. Specifically Therese, a woman who, like her contemporaries, is doomed to experience the restrictions of social convention even more than men; which is presumably why the novel is named after her; she, more than anyone, is a victim of the age. 8/10
  17. Yes, forums are dying in general. It's all social media stuff now.
  18. The issue is finding a way to bring more people in. Otherwise it's the same problem. And I don't really see how or why new people would join (let alone be active on the board). One last push to increase traffic might be worthwhile but I wouldn't know where to start. Maybe send a private message to the people that follow my reviews on Goodreads but that would be a drop in the ocean.
  19. I think this book might qualify as a modern novel, not in the writing style (which is very much of its time) but in the utter lack of a plot. There is only one character (Des Esseintes) and he essentially spends the entirety of the book detailing his likes and dislikes in regards to the more creative and decadent human fields. There are chapters where he discusses his favourite paintings, their meaning and impact on him, as well as chapters covering scents and fragrances, jewels and furniture, music and food, wine and sex, literature and travel. The book is understandably classed as being part of the decadence movement. And it feels like it, as though you're enjoying a sumptuous meal of the senses, an opulent and nourishing exploration of luxury and excess. He is very much a privileged member of society (more so than Huysmans) and this allows him to explore his tastes as he pleases. Des Esseints is especially enamoured with he works of Baudelaire and Poe, delights in their writing. A lot of his praise can seem remote and out of context if you're not familiar with their work, but for the most part, you simply enjoy Des Esseintes' love for these writers. He also mentions the things he dislikes (women writers get a special mention) and laments, as many modern writers do, the era he is living though, his opinion being (as it is with contemporary writers) that we have lost something, moved into a new and less interesting period, certainly one which lacks greatness and wonder. The book ends with Des Esseintes concluding that the spiritual world of the past is gone, no longer lit by ancient hope. The book also includes a rather famous part where Des Esseintes plans a trip to London and while eating a meal in an English restaurant in Paris as he waits for the train, he observes the English patrons, pictures the trip ahead, the streets of London, the museums, the sights and sounds, before concluding that there is no longer any need to go -- he has already experienced it in his imagination as vividly as he would in the flesh. At which point he returns home. This is not a perfect novel by any stretch but it's very good, certainly unique, and the only book I can think of which includes a jewel encrusted turtle. 8/10
  20. Against Nature (A Rebours) by Huysmans
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