BOOK REVIEWS

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

“My mother had not believed in friendships among women. She said women weren’t to be trusted. Keep your arm out, she said. And keep women a whole other hand away from the farthest tips of your fingernails. She told me to keep my nails long.”

Another Brooklyn is short yet vibrant novella. August, a Black woman in her thirties, looks back to her girlhood in the 1970s. The memories are presented to us as fragmented snapshots that perfectly capture the atmosphere of growing up in Brooklyn. After her mother falls ill August, alongside her brother and father, moves to Brooklyn and is drawn to a trio of girls, Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi.

“How safe and strong they looked. How impenetrable.”

In Another Brooklyn Woodson explores the way in which a young girl struggles to understand her own grief, the feeling of belonging and community you feel among your friends, the highs and lows of growing up. Memory too plays a big role in these pages, as August remembers, sometimes with more clarity than other times, those years. This novella is lyrical, heady with nostalgia, and vividly renders a difficult yet unforgettable period of its main character’s life. The fragmented structure gives the novel a fast pace, a rhythm even, but it did sometimes prevent me from becoming fully immersed in a scene. Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi too blurred together and I could often only tell them apart by their hobbies (dance, theatre, and… modelling…?). Nevertheless, I did appreciate how once August becomes part of the group her voice is no longer singular but becomes plural (‘we did this/we were that’). It gave us an idea of how intense their bond was.

“And now the four of us were standing together for the first time. It must have felt like a beginning, an anchoring.”

While I wasn’t wholly enamored by this novella I would probably read more by Woodson.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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A Complicated Love Story Set in Space by Shaun David Hutchinson

Although I enjoyed the premise of this one, it kind of lost me halfway through. A Complicated Love Story Set in Space follows Noa, an American teenager, who one day just opens his eyes to find himself in space. On the spaceship, named Qriosity, with him are two other teens, DJ and Jenny. I thought that this would be more a mystery, possibly even a murder mystery, but the story is more intent on exploring Noa’s state of mind. Not knowing why they woke up in this empty spaceship and what will happen to them Noa, DJ, and Jenny all find different ways of occupying themselves. Noa himself understandably does not cope well with the situation. As he spirals into depression he finds comfort in the presence of DJ. Alas, DJ’s kindness and selflessness are also a source of discomfort to Noa who after a particularly bad relationship (his ex is a real piece of merda) does not trust others easily.
The action sort of picks up towards the end but prior to that there are many weird events that felt rather superficially explored. A few interesting threads (the murder, the alien) have little to no impact and a lot of the ‘action’ happens off-page.
The ‘truth’ behind the Qriosity and our characters’ circumstances left me a wee bit disappointed. While I do appreciate the author’s message it just didn’t work for me. The few answers we get are rushed and I was left wanting a more in-depth explanation. The story is, as the title suggests, a love story. The relationship between Noa and DJ, although certainly sweet, wasn’t particularlycomplex’. Perhaps this is because the characters themselves weren’t very layered. Noa is kind of typical. His angst and selfishness, however, understandable given the situation he was in and his past, were a source of frustration. While I recognize that DJ and Jenny call him out on his behavior, his actions and thoughts were still irritating. It would have been nice to have DJ’s or Jenny’s pov as they end up being very one-dimensional. Jenny is the classic female secondary character who appears in YA m/m romances. She’s strong-willed and a feminist…and that’s about it.
Still, why this novel did not hit me in ‘the feels’ like Hutchinson ‘s At the Edge of the Universe, I am sure that YA aficionados will find it more A Complicated Love Story Set in Space more rewarding than I did.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto

There is something idiosyncratic about Yoshimoto’s novels. Every time I read something of hers I feel almost comforted by how familiar it all is. Her narrators sound very much like the same person: they are young women prone to navel-gazing yet attuned to their environment (especially nature or their hometown). Moshi Moshi follows Yoshie after the death of her father, a musician and a bit of a free spirit. The way in which he died (he was involved in a suicide pact with a woman unknown to Yoshie or her mother) weighs on Yoshie. She dreams of the last night she saw him alive, imagining different outcomes that would have prevented him from leaving the house without his phone. Yoshie attempts to turn a new leaf by moving out to Shimokitazawa, a neighborhood in Tokyo, with which she fell in love. Her mother insists on staying with her, and the two women soon form a routine of sorts. One day, Yoshie, who works at a restaurant, meets a young man who knew of her father. In an effort to learn more about her father and ‘that woman’ Yoshie also reconnects with her father’s best friend.

The novel, overall, has a very ‘slice of life’ feel to it. Yoshimoto captures Yoshie’s daily life, the thoughts that pass through her head as she goes about on her day, the lingering grief caused by her father’s tragic death, the desire to understand how it could have happened. As much as I enjoyed the atmosphere and writing the romance aspect of this novel left a sour taste in my mouth. There are a few questionable remarks (for instance on sexual assault) that did not really fit with the narrative’s one. These kinds of comments were more suited to a dark comedy. The whole romance also gave me some incest-y vibes which I could have done without.
Not Yoshimoto’s best but a lot more enjoyable than her worst.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Quicksand by Nella Larsen

“As the days multiplied, her need of something, something vaguely familiar, but which she could not put a name to and hold for definite examination, became almost intolerable.”

Similarly to Passing, Quicksand is a study of ambivalence. But whereas Passing centered on the complex dynamic—which ranges from enmity to a kinship of sorts—between two light-skinned Black women in 1920s New York, Quicksand follows the experiences of one woman, Helga Crane, whose restlessness sees her moving from Chicago to Harlems before venturing out to Copenhagen. Helga, daughter to a white Danish mother and an African-American father, has always felt like an outsider. By the time the narrative begins, Helga’s mother is long dead and her father is MIA. Helga’s white relations refuse or are unwilling to acknowledge her existence. Her lack of ‘people’ leads her to feel a degree of alienation, even resentment, towards the Black community.

“She could neither conform, nor be happy in her unconformity.”

At the beginning of Quicksand Helga is a schoolteacher in Naxos but feels increasingly dissatisfied by her environment. She makes the impulsive decision to break things off with her beau, who also teaches at her school, and quit her job in pursuit of a more fulfilling life and perhaps a place in which she could ‘belong’ (“No family. That was the crux of the whole matter. […] If you couldn’t prove your ancestry and connections, you were tolerated, but you didn’t ‘belong’.”) Although in Harlem she makes new acquaintances and friends, Helga’s loneliness and restlessness do not dissipate. She decides to once again leave her life behind by traveling to Copenhagen to live with an Aunt.
This is more of a slow-burner than Passing. Helga is a very inward-looking character, and her narrative is light on dialogue or action. Her reflections on her identity, race, America, her unshakable unhappiness will definitely resonate with contemporary readers. Yet, Helga herself remains in many ways a bit of a cipher. This is undoubtedly intentional, as the narrative underlines other characters’ impression of her (that she is elusive, frigid, standoffish). The story perhaps would have benefited from less telling and more showing (there were quite a few scenes that are summarized in a rather speedy fashion and I wish we had gotten to read witness them ‘first hand’).
Still, I love the way Nella Larsen writes. Her writing is phenomenal, her prose ranging from being elegantly perceptive (a la Edith Wharton) to searingly direct (a la Toni Morrison). The longing and ennui experienced by Helga also brought to mind the titular heroine in Madame Bovary (even in the desire they both feel towards material goods).
It is saddening that Larsen published only these two novels. Quicksand is a fascinating character study, one that manages to capture the time and places in which Helga lives. The narrative is at once opaque, never quite revealing Helga’s true feelings, and startlingly lucid, especially when it comes to conveying Helga’s self-divide.

“Life became for her only a hateful place where one lived in intimacy with people one would not have chosen had one been given choice. It was, too, an excruciating agony.”

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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New People by Danzy Senna

“When she was just a kid, Gloria told her never to trust a group of happy, smiling multiracial people. Never trust races when they get along, she said. If you see different races of people just standing around, smiling at one another, run for the hills, kid. Take cover. They’ll break your heart.”

A disquieting yet hypnotic novel New People makes for a quick but far from forgettable read. Set in the 1990s in New York the story follows Maria, a twenty-something woman who, alongside her fiancee Khalil, will star in a documentary called ‘New People’ which focuses on biracial and multiracial young people in NY. Maria’s pale skin often leads other to assume that she is white or Mexican, a fact that has always made her feel on the outskirts of her Black community (even if her adoptive mother was Black). Maria and Khalil met in college and everyone seems to think that they are perfect for each other: “Their skin is the same shade of beige. Together, they look like the end of a story”. Maria, however, grows infatuated with a Black poet (we never learn his name, he is referred to as ‘the poet’) and seems to believe that he reciprocates her feelings. Believing that they share a connection Maria engages in some creepy and stalkerish behaviour that sees her crossing all sorts of lines. As the narrative progresses we learn more of Maria’s past, and what we learn is not particularly pretty (that ‘prank’ she pulls on Khalil…yeah). We also see her previous relationship, many with white boys, the latest of whom reinvented himself as Chicano. Maria’s uneasy feelings towards racial identity is rendered in stark detail. Senna touches upon the ‘tragic mulatto’ trope by providing a far more modern and relevant commentary on multiracial identity. Senna also captures with uncomfortable clarity Maria’s frame of minds: obsession, delusion, anger, repulsion, despair. While readers are not meant to like her they will feel some degree of sympathy towards her (no doubt to Maria’s own discontent). The narrative has a feverish quality to it, one that really emphasises Maria’s downwards spiral. Shrewd and occasionally scathing the novel explores subjects such as race, identity, belonging, hatred, obsession and alienation without providing easy answers. The questions and discussions that emerge in New People brought to mind the ones in Nella Larsen’s work, particularly Quicksand.
I do wish some things had been handled differently. I would have liked more of Khalil and his sisters and less of Greg. And, although I did appreciate the narrative’s foray into hysterical realism I did find some of the guys to be too cartoonish (such as Khalil’s friend who apparently speaks in clichés :“I love Khalil like a brother. Okay? So if you hurt him, you are going to have to contend with me.”).

I wouldn’t recommend this book to a lot of readers. Maria is a character who exhibits some perturbing behaviour and the narrative doesn’t paint anyone in a good light. The story seems in fact intent on showing how hypocritical and performative people are (and in making you freak out about what Maria is getting up to). The ending lessened also my overall appreciation as it felt both weak and predictable. Yet, I do think that the author told, for the most part, a unique story with a real edge to it. If you are into novels about self-destructive and alienated young women such as My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Luster, and Pizza Girl you should give New People a try.

PS: The book has no quotation marks which is why I opted for the audiobook.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

“Your eyes meet in the silence. The gaze requires no words at all. It is an honest meeting.”

Open Water is an exceedingly lyrical debut. The story, narrated through a second-person perspective (ie ‘you’) is centred on the relationship between two Black British artists (he is a photographer, she is a dancer). Although their relationship is portrayed through a linear timeline, the narrative lingers only on some key scenes/periods between this will-they-won’t-they couple. From their first meeting the photographer (‘you’) is struck by the dancer who at time is going out with a friend of his. The two become friends but their closeness is complicated by their more than platonic feeling for each other.
Caleb Azumah Nelson renders with poignancy their bond. I loved the way he articulates his main character’s vulnerabilities and the role that language itself plays in his narrative. To articulate one’s feelings, desires, and fears is no easy feat. Language, as the author reminds us time and again, fails us. There is an emphasis on this, that is on the difficulty of articulating your thoughts or truths. ‘You’ seems in a perpetual struggle with himself. He’s in love with the dancer but there are things that keep him from expressing himself to her. The narrative also touches upon on the idea of being ‘seen but not seen’. The photographer, a young Black man in London, has experienced time and again the scrutiny of the white gaze. It is because he is viewed as a danger and a threat that he remains in fact unseen. So, when the dancer sees him, as in truly sees him, he feels understood like never before. But it is this bond that complicates their love story.

At times the story resembled a series of snapshots or impressions: these had a moody often cinematic-feel to them that resulted in some great atmosphere (I can definitely see this being adapted to the screen). Nelson’s prose brims with lyricism. With staccato-like sentences he captures those ephemeral feelings which are often so hard to express or pin down. His poetic writing style lends beautifully to the themes he goes on to explore (young love, masculinity and vulnerability, race, creativity).
What didn’t quite work for me was the 2nd pov. I’m just not the biggest fan of this perspective. I also had a hard time familiarising myself with our main characters. Their personalities felt almost lost in the midst of the author’s lyrical language.
Open Water nonetheless struck me as a confident and deeply felt debut.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue

Caroline O’Donoghue’s foray into YA will definitely appeal to fans of the genre. Although I do have a few criticisms I can safely say that I found All Our Hidden Gifts to be an entertaining read.

Set in Ireland, our narrator and protagonist is sixteen-year old Maeve Chambers, the youngest in a big family. She has quite a chip on her shoulder when it comes to her ‘brilliant’ sisters and brothers. Unlike them she isn’t academically gifted and for a period of time she was put in a slow-learning class. Maeve now attends an all-girls Catholic school and in trying to impress her peers lands herself in trouble. It just so happens that her detention includes cleaning out a cupboard know as the ‘Chokey’ where she finds a set of tarot cards…and it turns out that she has a skill when it comes to reading the cards.

The story takes a Labyrinth turn when Maeve’s new talent results in the disappearance of her former best friend, Lily, who she’d ditched in order to climb the social ladder. Was I expected the Goblin King to be responsible for Lily’s disappearance? Maybe…
Anyhow, when the police gets involved and things get serious Maeve’s life becomes quite messy. Maeve believes that a mysterious card from her deck may have stolen Lily away so she decides to deepen her knowledge of magic. Along the way she becomes close with another girl from her school and with Lily’s older brother, Roe.
As the kids investigate Lily’s disappearance they become increasingly suspicious of a cult-like Christian group that is very vocal in opposing LGBTQ+ rights.
I appreciated the issues O’Donoghue incorporates throughout her narrative. We have characters who are discriminated against for not being white or for not conforming to one gender. Lily wears a hearing aid, which is probably another reason why her classmates bully or exclude her, Maeve’s sister is gay, Roe is exploring his gender identity. As inclusivity goes, this novel is beautifully inclusive. Maeve, who is white, cis, straight, and from a possibly middle-class family, is called out for being insensitive or naive when it comes to discrimination. She’s also somewhat self-centred, in an angsty sort of way, and this too is pointed out by other characters. Fiona also makes a point of reminding Maeve not to make other people’s oppression all about herself.

While I appreciated her growth, I still struggled to sympathise or like her. I found Roe and Fiona to be much more likeable and interesting characters. Maeve was the classic ‘I’m not beautiful like x or intelligent like y’ self-pitying kind of gall. She was boring and sounded much younger than her allegedly sixteen years of life. Which brings to my next ‘criticism’: there is a discrepancy between the tone and content of this novel. The tone, which is mainly created by Maeve’s direct narration, would have been more suited to a middle-grade book while her narrative’s content—the issues and discussions that came up in the story—are more tailored towards a YA audience. Both Maeve and the other sixteen-year olds sounded like they were twelve a lot of the time. Which made it weird when things like sex came up.
The bad American dude was somewhat cartoonish, and that whole side-plot felt rather undeveloped.
Lily was a promising character who might have been more fleshed out with some more flashbacks. And, to be honest, I would preferred this to be a friendship-focused kind of story. The romance between Maeve and Roe did not convince me, at all. She crushes on him from the get-go of the novel, but I could not for the life of me understand or see why he reciprocated her feelings. She says some pretty shitty things now and again to him and acts in a possessive way which irked me. I get she’s insecure but still….she knows she may have been responsible for his sister’s disappearance…and all she can think about are his lips?

Nevertheless, this was far from a bad or mediocre book. I like the way O’Donoghue writes and I appreciate her story’s themes and imagery so I would probably still recommend this. I, however, might stick to her adult fiction from now on.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The New Me by Halle Butler

The New Me is a book that has been on my periphery since it first came out. The cover, title, and summary were relatively intriguing as they gave me some very strong Ottessa Moshfegh/The Bell Jar vibes. Still, it wasn’t anywhere close the top of my TBR until I saw that Halle Butler is going to introduce a new edition of The Yellow Paper.

The New Me shares much in common with My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Pizza Girl, Luster, Severance (and many others): we a rather nondescript main character, thirty-year-old Millie, who is leading an unfulfilling and rather meandering existence. She is a temp worker who doesn’t really know what she wants to do or what she likes. Her latest assignment finds her working as a receptionist. The job is boring and Millie spends most of her shifts screening calls. Her mostly female colleagues are depicted as gossipy and self-centred. Karen, her sort of superior, hates Millie and decides that she wants her out. Millie’s first person narration is often interrupted with short snippets following Karen, other female colleagues, and at one point her downstairs neighbours. These segments detract from Millie’s narration as they don’t really add a lot to her story. They simply portrayed people being or acting in horrible way all the while believing they are right or good.
I did find Millie’s dark, and occasionally caustic, humour to be fairly entertaining. Yet, while Butler succeeds in satirising the modern work place and female friendships, her novel did feel a bit basic. It doesn’t take much to poke fun at women like Karen or Millie’s other colleagues. And part of me wishes that there had been some variations in the female dynamics (all female friendships in this book are the same: one of them whinges about life/work/whatever being unfair, the other one listens while internally whinging about having to put with her ‘friend’s’ whinging).
At the end of the day I probably wouldn’t recommend this book to a lot of readers (this type of story has been already been told…and dare I say better?). Still, it definitely had its moments now and again and I do think that Butler is a writer to watch out for.
Hilary Leichter’s Temporary is not only a far more entertaining novel (in my personal opinion) but it manages to capture the gig economy in a way that The New Me doesn’t.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

Three years after I purchased my copy of The Stone Sky I finally got round to reading it. I’m not sure why it took me so long but I thought it best to re-read the first two instalments before approaching its final chapter. As I loved re-reading The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate I was ready to fall just as hard for The Stone Sky…but I didn’t.
The thing is, the pacing and direction of the story closely resemble those of The Obelisk Gate which I probably wouldn’t have minded if Nassun had actually developed as a character. Essun has very few chapters compared to the first two volumes and I missed her. I would have loved to read more of her and Tonkee or her and Ykka but their scenes make up very little of the overall narrative. While Jemisin tries to give Schaffa a sort of redemption arc I could not bring myself to like or sympathise with him. Nassun got on my nerves, especially when it comes to how obstinate she becomes towards the end. While she seems capable of caring for murderous men her resentment towards her mother struck me as unfair and childish (especially if we consider some of what her mother has gone through). While I was interested in Hoa’s chapters, especially since they give us a lot of information regarding the Stillness prior the seasons. I am not sure whether I always understood what was going in his chapter, especially given the nature of his narrative voice.
As finales go The Stone Sky suffers from anticlimax. The pace is slow, the characters don’t develop all that much, and the storyline needed more cathartic scenes. Still, Jemisin sure can write, and her style always manages to capture my attention (even when her story doesn’t).
While I am not sure whether I would re-read the whole trilogy I still consider The Fifth Season to be one of the best fantasy/spec fiction novels of all time and I will probably never tire of re-reading it.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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An Ordinary Wonder by Buki Papillon

“With no words, Yeyemi says, I am the strength and fire in you, I am everything that is and was and every will be. You are the stuff my stars are made of. I am you and you are me.”

An Ordinary Wonder tells a moving coming of age, one that will definitely appeal to young adults (heads up: it does contain some potentially triggering content).
The novel is set mainly in the 90s in Ibadan, Nigeria. The story is divided in classic two timelines (NOW and BEFORE) and is narrated by Otolorin, focusing in particular on her younger teenage years. Oto is intersex and is forced by her family to live as a boy, even if from an early age Oto has clearly identified as a girl. Oto’s father, a wealthy business man, refuses to acknowledge her existence. Oto’s mother blames Oto for her broken marriage and treats Oto in an appalling manner. Wura is Oto’s only ‘beacon’, but even she’s uncomfortable with the idea that Oto could identify as female. The BEFORE sections give us a glimpse into Oto’s life before moving to ISS (International Secondary School) and it is far from pleasant. Oto’s mother abuses her, emotionally and physically, and forces her to undergo ‘cleansings’ and ‘treatments’ at the Seraphic Temple of Holy Fire. Oto spends her childhood believing that she is abnormal and abhorrent, and is to be blamed for her mother’s unhappiness. While Oto tries to live as a boy, she is not always willing to hide her true self (trying out her sister’s clothes etc.).
In the NOW sections we follow Oto, who is now 14, at the ISS. Here she once again tries to blend in with the boys but the appearance of an old bully threatens Oto’s newfound peace (away from her mother). She becomes fast friends with her roommate, Derin, who is ‘half-oyinbo’ (his mother is white). Not only does Oto excel at school but she is also able to learns more about what it means to be intersex.

I’m not sure whether the dual timeline added a lot to Oto’s overall story. I think that her childhood could have been summed up in just a few chapters here and there, rather than prolonging those BEFORE sections. The story too veers into the clichéd, especially the way the ‘bully’ storyline unfolds. I would have much preferred for that storyline to be a side-story instead of taking up most of the overall plot. The bully in question, Bayo, was beyond one dimensional. There is an attempt at giving him the usual ‘but he comes from a possibly abusive family’ sad backstory but this seems a bit like a cop out to excuse his most egregious behaviour.
I also wish that Oto’s friendship with Derin had not been so immediate. The two become BFF overnight. Other students, especially some of the girls, are not fleshed out at all and serve as mere plot devices (like someone’s GF…ahem). Wura too was a somewhat disappointing character. Her bond with Oto didn’t convince me all that much.
My biggest problem is that the first 70% of this novel is basically misery-porn in which we read scene after scene of Oto being bullied, emotionally and physically abused, sexually harassed, demonised, and ostracised. It wasn’t great. Oto is a sweet and somewhat naive narrator and to read of her being endlessly maltreated was kind of exhausting (I understand that a few scenes of this nature were needed in order to understand her circumstances and experiences but should those scenes make up 70% of the novel? I think not).
Thankfully the last 30% sees Oto finally receiving some validation. There is an unavoidable misunderstanding between Oto and the person she loves which I could have done without but for the most part this final section delivers. Oto’s relationship with Mr. Dickson, her art teacher who is originally from Ghana, was truly moving. Their moments together were powerful and heart-rendering.
Buki Papillon’s prose for the most part rendered Oto’s young perspective but there were a few phrases that were very, shall we say, ‘debut-like’, such as the overused “I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding”…surely there is another way to convey Oto’s anxiety or tension? I also thought that the “little/tiny/small” voice inside of Oto was unnecessary. This voice always voices her true feelings or fears…and it got kind of old. Why just not directly write what Oto fear or wants without resorting to that ‘little voice’?
Still, there were elements of Papillon’s writing that I really liked. Her descriptions for example were extremely be vivid, at times quietly beautiful, at times vibrant and full of life (someone is as still as an “Esie statue”, “jealousy pierces my heart, stinging like a vexed scorpion”, words “sting like pepper”, Oto observing her mother during her father’s rare visits “it was like watching plucked efo leaves left out in the sun. She’d wilt slowly till he left”).
Another aspect of this novel that really worked was Yeyemi, an entity that brings comfort and strength to Oto (often appearing in dream sequences). Oto’s book of proverbs also added a nice touch to her story as the proverbs she thinks of are quite apt.
This novel deals extensively with Oto’s exploration of her identity, the bullying and abuse she experiences along the way, and, at long last, her self-acceptance. Overall, I would probably recommend this to fans of coming of age stories or to those who enjoy the work of authors such as Akwaeke Emezi and, to a certain extent, Won-pyung Sohn.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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