Final Girls – Riley Sager

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10/10. Love this cover!

“Each girl survived an unthinkable horror. Now someone wants them dead…

They were the victims of separate massacres. Grouped together by the press, and dubbed the Final Girls, they are treated like something fresh out of a slasher movie. When something terrible happens to Lisa, put-together Quincy and volatile Sam finally meet. Each one influences the other. Each one has dark secrets.

And after the bloodstained fingers of the past reach into the present, neither one will ever be the same…”

I downloaded Final Girls – and finished it – in one evening. After reading and loving In A Dark Dark Wood and Black-Eyed Susans, two of my favourite crime/thriller novels, I knew I’d love Riley Sager’s book, and it didn’t disappoint (even if it did leave me with very odd dreams).

Quincey Carpenter (slightly gimmicky name, but I’ll let it slide) became a ‘Final Girl’ when, during a weekend away with her friends in a remote house near a mental asylum, an escaped patient massacres them all – bar her. Constantly questioned over the years as to why she was the only one left alive, and nicknamed by the media along with two other sole survivors of mass murders, Quincey hates thinking about the past. She’s moved on, has a fun career and a steady partner – and is kept supported by Coop, the first police officer to find her at the scene of the crime all those years ago, and Xanax (washed down with grape soda). (Side note: I don’t know what grape soda is but it sounds DELICIOUS.)

That is, until, one of the other remaining Final Girls, Lisa, is found dead, having committed suicide, and the other, Samantha, shows up at Quincey’s house to talk to her. When it becomes clear that Sam has very little in her life, Quincey invites her in to her home and the two begin to grow closer – Sam encouraging the secret dark streak within Quincey that she’s never dared let out. But things take an even darker turn when Lisa’s death is ruled a murder, not a suicide, and Quincey embarks on an increasingly dangerous path to find the truth, which leads her back to the place that she nearly died and where she finally discovers all of that night’s grimacing truths…

Although I guessed the big twist of Final Girls from the get-go, it didn’t stop me enjoying this book immensely. Riley Sager is masterful at creating and keeping tension – hence why I raced through this book in a matter of hours. I know this is a novel that I’ll return to again and again – a compelling thriller full of nail-biting twists and turns. A must read!

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It Was You – Jo Platt

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9/10. Cute cover!

“Alice Waites has been happily single for almost two years. When her close friends in The Short Book Group gently question her current distinct lack of interest in men, she accepts that maybe it is time to deal with the past and open herself up to new possibilities. However, things soon unravel for Alice as she uncovers the secret heartache and hopes of those around her. And her most surprising discovery is the life-changing truth which she has kept hidden, even from herself…”

It Was You is a witty, warm, character-driven novel – a fun distraction, if slightly predictable (and a bit too heavy on the commas).

Platt brings us a cast of amusing, memorable characters. Centre stage is Alice, along with Miriam, a friend from university, her bubbly and forthcoming work friend Sophie, the sweet and sincere Abs and Connie (who I have to say we get to know the least). Notably absent is Lydia, who we meet at the beginning of the story – another university friend who sadly passed away years previously.

Others join the fray – Lydia’s widowed husband Jon, Connie’s husband Greg, Miriam’s husband Craig, her sister, Romy, and David, who Sophie and Alice work for. Single Alice, still somewhat recovering from an acrimonious split from Eddie years previously, contends good-naturedly with her friend’s matchmaking attempts. Abs’ friend Hugh turns out to not be a match made in heaven for her, but when Alice meets Greg’s friend Stephen, it seems like she may have hit gold…

Uncertainties linger, however, as Alice tries to deal with various things bubbling under the surface: her widowed father has a new girlfriend, Jon appears to have moved on with a new woman, and Eddie reappears on the scene with some unpleasant news… Will Stephen turn out to be The One or will an unexpected contender for Alice’s emotions prove more suitable?

It Was You is an enjoyable, sweet novel, driven along by a cast of relatable and witty characters. 

A Day at the Office – Matt Dunn

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9/10. Great cover – just not very Valentine’s themed!

This novel would perhaps have been better suited to the title of A Valentine’s Day at the Office, given that it revolves around one February 14th at a dot-com company. 10 of the company’s employees are looking for love – in various guises. 

The novel is character driven, featuring a cast of excellently-drawn office workers – even the women are authentically portrayed, which can be hard for male authors to achieve (and vice versa). Sophie, having broken up with Darren and moved to London from Eastbourne, worries that she’ll never find love again. Nathan, who got dumped three years ago to the day, whilst down on one knee with a ring in his hand, still hasn’t got over Ellie. Callum, a nervous singleton who is forever trying to make himself as appealing to the opposite sex as possible, has got a first date tonight – but he has no idea what his companion looks like. Judith and Mark shared a drunken kiss at the office party but haven’t discussed it since. The former has a somewhat unusual lovelife scenario, whereas the latter hasn’t managed to get the night out of his head since…

This Valentine’s Day, the entire cast embark on their own romantic journeys to find who they hope will be The One. Though the story follows fairly familiar rom-com-lit patterns, Dunn occasionally throws in a curveball or two to keep readers guessing. An entertaining read no matter your relationship status!

The Travel Auction – Mark Green

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8/10. A little busy, but sums up the book well.

After Jonathan Cork finds his girlfriend cheating on him, he realises that their plans for a three-month trip – all paid for upfront – are about to be wasted. Suffering from a severe nut allergy, Jonathan can’t travel alone – and he can’t change the name on his companion’s ticket. In a last-bid attempt to keep his plans – made as a promise to his mother before she passed away – he advertises on eBay for a travel companion with the same name as his ex-girlfriend: Kate Thornly. No-one seems to fit the bill, until the seemingly perfect woman comes along: she’s a nurse and can administer adrenaline should be accidentally ingest nuts. But there’s just one flaw; she’s blind.

Jonathan, who needs someone to look after him and not the other way around, nearly backs out at the last minute – as does Kate, offended by his reaction upon realising that she’s visually impaired. However, spurred on by the thought of keeping his plans, Jonathan and Kate (who eventually becomes nicknamed KT2, then Angel) decide to give it a go. Not all is fair in love and travel, however: from meddlesome ex-girlfriends and estranged husbands to paparazzi and Jeep crashes, Jonathan and Kate are about to have a much more exciting trip than they originally planned for…

The Travel Auction is a funny read, especially perfect for those travelling, that will keep you turning the page with its unexpected turns of events. It’s hampered in places by bad grammar and poor spacing, but all in all it’s a decent, funny read.

Thursdays in the Park – Hilary Boyd

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8/10. A friendly cover with nice, chirpy colours!

Fifty-nine-year-old Jeanie Lawson has a lot of decisions to make. She’s unhappy with her marriage – her husband, George, hasn’t shared her bed for a decade – and with her life: George and her daughter Chanty are both trying to encourage Jeanie to move to the countryside, away from her beloved granddaughter Ellie and her successful health-food shop, Pomegranate. And when Ellie decides to play with a boy called Dylan one day, and Jeanie gets talking to Dylan’s grandfather Ray – a kind, warm man with piercing blue eyes – Jeanie realises just how much she loves her life in Highgate. 

As she approaches her sixtieth birthday and tensions increase between her and George (who, to Jeanie’s irritation, insists on calling her ‘old girl’ and on railroading her more and more into the countryside move), her feelings increase for Ray. Calm and sincere, he’s miles away from the emotionally-distant and controlling  George. But when Jeanie’s selfish son-in-law concocts a story that stops her seeing Ray, and Chanty twigs as to Jeanie’s feelings, things get ever more complicated.

George further adds to the confusion by dropping a bombshell that explains his ten-year absence from Jeanie’s bed and tries to return to it, becoming more like the husband she’s always wanted. Aside from the controlling and making decisions for her, of course…

Jeanie is torn in two: between Ray, who she is growing sure that she loves, and George, her companion of thirty-two years, who she simply can’t contemplate leaving. Will she put her happiness first, or her family’s? 

Whilst I didn’t always agree with Jeanie’s decisions – and found the character of her friend Rita slightly overbearing at times – I enjoyed Thursdays in the Park. It’s an enjoyable, gently life-affirming novel ideal to while away a few hours with.

This Is How It Always Is – Laurie Frankel

10/10. Gorgeous cover – spot on use of imagery and colour.

Claude is five years old, the youngest of five brothers, and loves peanut butter sandwiches. He also loves wearing a dress, and dreams of being a princess. When he grows up, Claude says, he wants to be a girl. Rosie and Penn want Claude to be whoever Claude wants to be. They’re just not sure they’re ready to share that with the world. Soon the entire family is keeping Claude’s secret. Until one day it explodes. This Is How It Always Is is a novel about revelations, transformations, fairy tales, and family. And it’s about the ways this is how it always is: Change is always hard and miraculous and hard again, parenting is always a leap into the unknown with crossed fingers and full hearts, children grow but not always according to plan. And families with secrets don’t get to keep them forever.”

When a proof copy of This Is How It Always Is popped through my doorbox, I was intrigued by its gorgeous, minimalist production values (cream cover with gold foil; bare blurb). I opened it up and read the first few pages – and soon I had put aside all of my plans for that evening and just kept on reading.

Laurie Frankel’s book is a gorgeous, life-affirming novel about a set of parents, Rosie and Penn, with a large family (Orion and Regel, Claude, Roo and Ben) and an ever-evolving array of methods to bring them up with. As with all siblings (and people), each son has their own distinctive and different set of personality traits, quirks, and flaws. Claude is a little more different. He is three when he announces that he wants to be a girl: five when he decides that he’s going to be called Poppy and start dressing like a girl.

Accepting, tolerant, patient and loving parents, Rosie and Penn, still aren’t quite sure when them batting away the inevitable childish questions (why is the sky blue? what do turtles eat? when I grow up and become a girl, will I start over?) and quirks became Claude/Poppy’s new way of life. All they know is that they want to accept and nurture Claude’s flourishing personality. It’s a mixed blessing for Rosie, who desperately yearned for her fifth child to be a girl – and a great source of confusion for Claude’s siblings, until, with trademark childlike equanimity, they accept his new identity without any qualms. But when a couple of occurrences make it apparent to Rosie and Penn that where they currently live in Wisconsin isn’t the best place to encourage a gender-dysphoric child’s growth, they decide to relocate to Seattle, a much more welcoming environment for their rambunctious family – despite the family fractures that they are unknowingly causing in the process.

Though their new neighbourhood is much more welcoming, they decide to keep Poppy’s ‘true’ gender a secret, and thus the biggest secret that the Walsh-Adams will ever have to keep is born – and carried, throughout the years, as the children grow, develop, make friends, start to date, and, eventually, fall in love. As Poppy struggles to accept the black-and-white gender-role obsessed society that, for her, raises more questions than it answers, Penn’s bedtime stories, featuring Grumwald and Princess Stephanie, shows art imitating life as he uses his stories to help guide his children – mostly Poppy – through the rocky terrain of child- and kidulthood.

But then Poppy’s secret is revealed, and everything the family has built together starts to collapse. Old fractures come to the surface; new ones start to develop. As the Walsh-Adams family struggle to deal with the fallout, Poppy – who is now Claude again – experiences a total identity crisis. Will she find courage to accept the identity she’s been sure of since she was three years old, or will the struggle she now faces leave her confused and alone? Rather than try and answer all of the difficult questions that the book raises, Frankel leaves the ending in an open-ended but optimistic manner, letting readers draw their own interpretations and conclusions.

Simply put, This Is How It Always Is is a stunning novel, and one that our ever-evolving society desperately needs. Laurie Frankel shows razor-sharp insight with her depiction of Rosie and Penn’s parenting skills, Poppy’s struggles and how they all fit into the wider context of modern society. This is not only an essential book for anyone who wants to understand more about the transgender experience, but also for anyone who enjoys a heart-warming and thought-provoking read.

Frankel’s relatable, likeable writing style delivers the novel’s key messages in a subtle yet poignant way, showing how no-one – least of all parents – is completely infallible, and right all the time. It also reinforces how, more importantly, a lot of us are muddling through life, following our hearts and trying to forge a path through an often uncertain world according to our hopes, dreams and desires – something that the novel’s message encourages us to do, rather than conforming to life’s ideals and standards. An intelligently written, evocative, important read – I cannot praise this book highly enough.

Many thanks to Headline for the review copy.

Seven Steps to Happiness – Stella Newman

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9/10. Great use of colour, and I love the illustration.

“Is there a formula for happiness? If it’s Netflix, two-for-one Malbec and the perfect toasted-cheese sandwich, Lenny has it covered. But when her friend Juliet finds herself at rock bottom, Lenny realises it’s going to take more than that to fix her. Luckily help is at hand in the form of HappyGuru: a plan which promises happiness in seven easy steps. So when Lenny is asked to research it, she puts scepticism aside and persuades Juliet they should give it a go. The friends quickly find themselves immersed in mindfulness, juice cleanses and death-defying circus stunts. Yet as Juliet becomes increasingly buoyant, things only get more complicated for Lenny. Can it be that happiness is only seven steps away?”

Here on the KCARAB blog I’m very open about how much of a Stella Newman fan I am. From Pear Shaped to Leftovers The Dish, as soon as I saw that she was publishing a new novel (I’m not ashamed to admit that I sporadically search her publisher’s page to check) it was my next purchase.

I will admit, however, that it didn’t seem like a classic Stella read upon starting – this novel has a new writing style, with the story split between two protagonists, Lenny and Julia, and the starting protagonist isn’t a talented cook/all-round foodie (see: Pear Shaped‘s Sophie, Leftovers‘ Susie and The Dish‘s Laura) – Seven Steps to Happiness immediately showed a new writing side of Newman. However, there was certainly enough mention of food to keep me happy – not to mention that Julia is a ghost recipe writer-turned-artisan bread maker.

However, Julia’s new bread empire doesn’t come easy – a married mother and talented chef, her world is turned upside down when she realises that her seemingly perfect husband, Matt, is a serial cheater. Her best friend, perpetual singleton and unfulfilled tech worker, Lenny, takes it upon herself to bring her back to life – with regular visits, emotional support, and the use of a new app she’s trialling – HappyGuru. Julia starts off at a happy level of four, but as she takes the advice that the app offers her – taking up exercise, new hobbies and challenging herself creatively, that level starts to creep up as she embraces life and sloughs off her broken relationship. Meanwhile, Lenny is going the wrong way – moving from having a stable job to being unemployed, wearing inside-out clothes and wasting time with Ellis, a man who has refused to commit to her for years and who can’t even carry out a simple instruction right.

Julia’s new endeavours start to help Lenny too, as her business starts to expand and she needs Lenny’s help to turn her business into a success story, rather than simply keeping her afloat. As the two pair up to take Julia’s company to the next level, navigating friendship bumps, love life issues and the mission to find the perfect toastie combination, they both find happiness – all without the use of the HappyGuru app.

As always, there’s a link to Stella’s other novels – something I’ve always loved about her books. Seven Steps to Happiness is a classic serving of literary comfort food, penned by the eternally talented Stella Newman – who always serves up the perfect blend of friendship, romance and cuisine. The only thing missing from this book was toastie recommendations – though that’s perhaps no bad thing, when I already learned how to make the Compost Cookies from her first novel and I’m trying to avoid having a classic ‘winter body’ this year…

Truly Madly Guilty – Liane Moriarty

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9/10. A very clever and perfectly suited cover image!

“Despite their differences, Erika and Clementine have been best friends since they were children. So when Erika needs help, Clementine should be the obvious person to turn to. Or so you’d think. For Clementine, as a mother of a two desperately trying to practise for the audition of a lifetime, the last thing she needs is Erika asking for something, again. But the barbecue should be the perfect way to forget their problems for a while. Especially when their hosts, Vid and Tiffany, are only too happy to distract them. Which is how it all spirals out of control…”

I’ve read most of Liane’s Moriarty’s books – I reviewed The Last AnniversaryWhat Alice Forgot and The Husband’s Secret on KCARAB – so when I saw Truly Madly Guilty on NetGalley I was quick to snap it up and delve into Liane Moriarty’s new cleverly-drawn intricate cast of characters. The strength of her novels has always lain in her protagonists and their interweaving stories, and her latest book is no different.

In Truly Madly Guilty, a raft of apposite characters and couples – cellist Clementine and laid-back Sam, neat-freak Erica and buttoned-up Oliver, former lap-dancer Tiffany and gregarious Vid – all come together for a barbecue one day, which turns out to be a fateful event. Moriarty teases out the details of the catastrophe bit by bit, switching between the hours leading up to and at the barbecue and the weeks following it. As she cleverly builds up the characters’ back stories and details from the days events, we’re led to question both exactly what happened and who was to blame for it.

What starts out as a summer event between friends leads to rifts in relationships, reveals hidden feelings and leaves everyone present feeling guilty and adrift. Will they be able to find their way back to their partners and friends – or will that one terrible day change everything forever?

Moriarty masterfully builds suspense and tension, drawing out the denouement expertly and revealing each character in rich detail. Even the characters on the edge’s of the story’s periphery – parents, grandparents and neighbours – are drawn in to this complex, dramatic and powerful novel.

Many thanks to Penguin and NetGalley for the review copy.

Watching Edie – Camilla Way

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9/10. Love the use of paper dolls and creates just the right sense of drama and genre,

BEFORE: Edie is the friend that Heather has always craved. But one night, it goes terrifyingly wrong. And what started as an innocent friendship ends in two lives being destroyed. AFTER: Sixteen years later, Edie is still rebuilding her life. But Heather isn’t ready to let her forget so easily. It’s no coincidence that she shows up when Edie needs her most. NOW: Edie or Heather? Heather or Edie?

Psychological thrillers are just up my street, so Watching Edie was an instant hit from the first page. Like many novels of its ilk, it splits between present-day events and flashes back to earlier ones to tease out the story’s climax out.

Single-mum-to-be Edie has a lot on her mind. Knocked up by a married man who isn’t aware of her situation, she’s alone and terrified. When the doorbell rings one day, she opens the door to find someone she never would have expected – her old friend Heather, who always had a somewhat star-struck attitude when it came to popular girl Edie. But a traumatic event ripped them apart when they were children – and for Heather to come back into Edie’s life now both unsettles and worries her.

Right now, however, Edie has a lot more to worry about – the baby growing inside her. And when she finally gives birth and becomes a new mother, she doesn’t exactly take to it. Slumping into a post-natal depression and helplessness slump, she’s almost grateful when Heather turns back up at the small council flat she’s living in to help her. Without many people to turn to – Edie’s neighbours are unfriendly and unwelcoming, and she hasn’t got a boyfriend – she lets Heather take over, bathing and bottle-feeding the baby, Maya, whilst she is unable to take on her maternal responsibilities.

As we watch Heather start to develop an almost unhealthy relationship with Edie’s baby, we see how she did exactly the same thing with Edie when they first met as children. Suffering from an oppressive childhood, enforced by her strict parents, Heather is obsessed with cool-girl Edie. The pair become close, but when Edie gets a new boyfriend, their friendship begins to go downhill, and a horrible event one day makes them both grow up far too fast.

Back in the present day, their new friendship is going downhill all over again. As Edie starts to recover from her post-natal depression, she realises how much of a hold Heather has on her life again – and Maya. Feeling claustrophobic from Heather’s things left all around their flat and unable to find her phone to get in contact with anyone else, Evie begins to feel more and more shut off from the outside world. Even her once-unfriendly neighbour has started to notice how much Heather has been around. As the warning signs become stronger and stronger, Edie wonders how she can regain control and force Heather out of her life again.

But things aren’t always as they seem – and as Edie attempts to extricate herself from Heather’s grip, a horrible truth from their friendship starts to emerge – and forces Edie to re-examine what happened all those years ago…

A brilliantly plotted, sublimely written and haunting read, Watching Edie will send chills down your spine.

Many thanks to HarperCollins and NetGalley for the review copy.

Film review – Me Before You (Jojo Moyes, Thea Sharrock)

In conjunction with my review of After You – call it a Moyes-a-thon – I’m publishing my first ever film review, of books that have been turned into films, of Me Before You, directed by Thea Sharrock. I loved the book and I was hopeful that with the much-loved Emilia Clarke, Matthew Lewis and Sam Claflin, it would be a film to remember. I made sure I packed plenty of tissues, however – I won’t forget finishing the book on a train and trying to avoid utter humiliation by stifling my sobs (sadly I failed).

Filmed mostly in Pembroke, the film stays true to the book’s English roots (I can’t stand it when they move films to different countries – usually America), and Emilia’s range of bright-coloured, quirky outfits certainly ring true with the paper version of Lou, as does her on- (and off-) screen sunny personality and cheery disposition.

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The scenes between Will and Louise are filmed in a spacious annex to a huge, beautiful mansion – the physical distance between carer and patient echoes the emotional disconnect between the two. The gaping space between them hammers Lou’s discomfort home, contrasted to the small, suffocating nature of her family house. She’s often clock watching on her own, as Will makes his preference to be alone abundantly clear, before going home to her big, noisy family.

The film follows the book truly, though my one MAJOR disagreement was the casting of Patrick. Though Matthew Lewis’ toned physique makes him perfect for Lou’s marathon-loving, ill-suited boyfriend, Patrick is not a likeable character – whereas the loveable Neville-Longbottom-stereotyped Matthew Lewis is. I just couldn’t hate him – despite his attitudes in the film; dismissive towards Lou’s feelings, jealous of Will, overbearing and protective when he senses that their relationship has transgressed from carer and patient into something new. I had cast him in my head as Nathan, who I’m still convinced he would have been perfect as (I would have even forgiven the lack of Australian accent).

I, along with a hundred other people, enjoyed watching as Will’s isolating depression and Lou’s nervous eggshell-treading develops into a relationship of sorts; fragile and tense at first, then comfortable and easy as Will starts to let Lou in and Lou stops being scared of him. The iconic wedding dance scene is beautifully filmed, down to the gorgeous dress and spray of flowers in Lou’s hair – though by this point the contrast between Will’s former life and his current one is painfully ingrained into our consciousness, more so than with the book – as I, like a lot of people who read the book, simply couldn’t grasp the depth of it from the mere words on the page.

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As the film moves to Majorca, where Will and Lou’s relationship finally takes off, we’re hopeful, despite knowing the ending, as the pair enjoy cocktails by the poolside, glorious sunshine and even gorgeous thunderstorms. But here again the film aligns with the book when Will admits to Lou that he’s still intent on ending his life.

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Heartbroken, Lou hands in her notice and seeks comfort home – until she’s called to his side for one last time for him to say his last goodbye. Ignoring the Traynors at first and struggling to cope with the tense atmosphere in the household, Lou finally goes against her mother’s wishes and leaves to be by his side, in the nick of time. The closing scene between the two lovers is poignant and emotional, leaving no dry eyes in the cinema with its simplicity, beauty and Will’s last words to Lou.

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The film had a few bits missing – the absence of Will’s sister Georgia and Steven Traynor’s affair (although it’s implied) and no reveal of Lou’s traumatic experience when she was younger – though this didn’t really harm it; there simply wasn’t enough time to include it all. There were also, for me, a few mis-casts – I’ve already mentioned Matthew Lewis, but I also felt that Camilla and Steven were cast slightly too old to be Will’s parents.

Despite that, Me Before You was well-worth watching, faithful to the book and hitting its contentious message home. Will’s right to choose – the underlying message of the film for me, despite how other people have chosen to interpret it – is keenly, uncomfortably highlighted as we see his constant health struggles with day-to-day life, the huge amount of difficulties added to each simple task, and his clear unwillingness to accept his new circumstances, illustrated admirably by Sam Claflin’s excellent acting.

Whatever your feelings on the book and film, the story raises essential questions about disabilities and our perceptions of them, given its lack of coverage in mainstream entertainment. What we only tend to see in newspaper articles and in online forums is brought to screen for everyone to consider, no matter their abilities. A must-see for sure.