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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Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin

Pretend I’m Dead was 50 shades of fucked up but boy was it funny.

“When he went to order their drinks, he asked, “What’s your poison?”
“Oven cleaner,” she’d said with a straight face.
Her sense of humor sometimes made people—herself, included—uncomfortable.”

This novel is divided in four chapters, each one focusing on a particular relationship of our protagonist. In the first chapter, ‘Hole’, we are introduced to Mona, our main character, a twenty-something who works as a cleaning lady in Massachusetts and volunteers at a clean-needle exchange. Mona doesn’t have any particular aspirations and she is fine with her job. At the clean-needle exchange she meets a man she nicknames ‘Mr. Disgusting’, “on account of his looks and dirty clothes”. Mr. Disgusting is in his forties and has clearly been through the wringer. The two get involved, and things get weird and messy fast. In the following chapter, ‘Yoko and Yoko’, Mona moves to Taos where she lives in an adobe house. In spite of her reservations, she gets close to her neighbours, Nigel and Shiori, a couple that gives some strong ‘cult’ vibes. Mona understandably ends up nicknaming them Yoko and Yoko. Mona misreads the situation and things also get weird between the three of them. In ‘Henry and Zoe’ Mona becomes convinced that her newest client, Henry, a seemingly nice guy, is a less than decent person. This chapter crosses quite a few lines, and it is bound to make readers’ queasy. The last chapter, ‘Betty’, sees Mona becoming close to another client who happens to be a psychic.
Given that each chapter is more or less self-contained, these end up reading a lot like vignettes, each centring on a different period of Mona’s life. However, is only by reading all of them that we begin to understand Mona and her past. Her fraught relationship with her father is of particular importance in the overall narrative. Mona’s mind often turns to Mr. Disgusting, so that he also becomes a perpetual presence in her story. Through Mona’s ‘misadventures’ the story examines themes of loneliness, connection and belonging.

In spite of its offbeat main character Pretend I’m Dead made for a morbid, grotesque, and occasionally obscene reading experience. Yet, it was also undoubtedly one of the funniest books I have ever read. Mona’s wry sense of humor, her deadpan replies, and her mental meanderings (which lead to some freaky fantasies) were thoroughly entertaining. While none of the characters are strictly likeable, they were certainly fleshed out. With a few selected words Beagin brings her characters to life, rendering the way they look and behave with clearcut precision.
As funny and absurd as Pretend I’m Dead was, the novel touches on quite a lot of serious issues (sexual abuse, drug addiction, depression, suicidal ideation, trauma, incest). It is remarkable that Beagin manages to explore these through Mona’s lenses. Dark humor indeed!
I really liked the way the story was written, which is saying something as I usually don’t care particularly for 3rd person narrations that refer to the main character as ‘she’ (as opposed to her name, in this case Mona). Beagin has an ear for dialogue and a talent for portraying those thornier feelings and emotions.
If you are a fan of Ottessa Moshfegh, Melissa Broder, Raven Leilani, or Jean Kyoung Frazier chances are Pretend I’m Dead will be up your street. Those who aren’t keen on books that examine challenging, if not controversial, topics or cannot stand vulgar or non-PC content might want to give this book a wide breadth.

my rating: ★★★★

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Her Royal Highness by Rachel Hawkins

Her Royal Highness is the book equivalent of cotton candy: fluffy and sweet. This was an exceedingly cute, occasionally silly, and thoroughly enjoyable f/f romance. Her Royal Highness is escapist fiction at its finest.

Her Royal Highness is an easy read that delivers a sweet romance between two very different girls: we have Millie, an aspiring geologist who is rather down-to-earth, and Flora, an actual princess. The two end up being roommates at an exclusive school in Scotland…and well, their first impression of each other isn’t great. But as they spend more time together sparks begin to fly…Their relationship is a light take on the enemies to lovers trope. The story mostly focuses on their romance, so readers who were hoping to see more of the school might find this a bit lacking on that front. But if you are looking for to read a fun f/f romance (with ‘royal’ drama) look no further!
PS: I didn’t read the previous book and that didn’t really hinder my overall enjoyment.


my rating: ★★★½

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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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A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion

“That summer when I so desperately tried to reel us all in, I didn’t understand the forces spinning us apart.”

The opening of A Crooked Tree is certainly chilling. Libby, our fifteen-year old narrator, is in the car with her siblings. When their squabbling gets too much their mother dumps twelve-year old Ellen on the side of the road. Hours pass, and to Libby’s increasing concern Ellen has yet to arrive. When Ellen finally makes an appearance, something has clearly happened to her.

Sadly, the suspenseful atmosphere that is so palpable at the start of this novel gives way to a slightly more predictable coming-of-age. The premise made me think that A Crooked Tree would be something in the realms of Winter’s Bone (we have the rural setting, the dysfunctional family, the bond between the siblings). But A Crooked Tree tells a far more conventional story: a summer of revelations (from the realisations that the adults around you have their own secrets to the having to say goodbye to the innocence of childhood). While what happened to Ellen certainly has an impact on the storyline, A Crooked Tree is not a mystery or thriller. We follow Libby as she fights and makes peace with her best friend and siblings, we learn of her less than stellar home-life, and, most of all, of her dislike of the neighbourhood’s bad boy (this last tread was pretty annoying). I did appreciate how vivid the setting was, from the references to 80s culture to Libby’s environment (she is particularly attuned to nature). I also really enjoyed the family dynamics and the unease that permeated many of the scenes. The author succeeds particularly in capturing that period of transition, from childhood to adolescence, without being sentimental.

What ultimately did not work for me was Libby herself. She’s hella bland. Love for trees aside there was little to her character. While her siblings, bff, and adults around her were fully fleshed out, Libby’s personality remains largely unexplored. Her obsession with the ‘bad boy’ was also really grating and her refusal to see him as anything but bad news didn’t ring entirely true. A lot of the observations she makes about the people around her seemed to originate from someone far more mature and insightful that she was (as in, they did not really seem to stem from the mind of a particularly naive 15-year old girl). Elle, although younger, would have made for a more convincing and interesting narrator. Libby…is painfully vanilla.

Still, Libby aside, I did find this novel to be engaging, occasionally unsettling, and exceedingly nostalgic.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★ ¼

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My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

“Sleep felt productive. Something was getting sorted out. I knew in my heart—this was, perhaps, the only thing my heart knew back then—that when I’d slept enough, I’d be okay. I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories. My past life would be but a dream, and I could start over without regrets, bolstered by the bliss and serenity that I would have accumulated in my year of rest and relaxation.”

I listened to the audiobook of My Year of Rest and Relaxation over the course of 4 days. During this period of time I was sleeping very little (the joys of work and uni assessment). And maybe that’s why I really felt this book. That and the fact that 2021 is proving to be just as delirious a year as 2020. Although My Year of Rest and Relaxation was by no means a breezy read (or listen) it was funny in the most fucked up kind of way. It made me laugh and cringe, it disgusted me and amused me.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a novel that has been in my periphery ever since its publication back in 2018. I even picked it up at one point, but didn’t get past the 10% mark. I have noticed that lately there have been quite a few publications narrated by ‘perplexingly alienated’ young American women (here you can read an excellent article on this trend) and I these tend to be very hit or miss for me (I loved Luster, enjoyed Severance and Pizza Girl, did not think very highly of Exciting Times, Milk Fed, or The New Me). Finally, nearly three years after its release, I thought why not give My Year of Rest and Relaxation another chance? And this time around, once I started reading (listening) I did not want to stop. As I said above, this novel is by no means ‘light’, but boy was it entertaining (and it took my mind off my own need for sleep).

Set in 2000s New York This novel is narrated by a nameless narrator (because duh, narrators with names are passé) a woman in her twenties. She’s attractive, skinny, and blonde. She can even afford not to work and has her own flat in New York. Aaaaand she is an orphan, having lost both parents in quick succession. Still, she has plenty of reasons to be happy…right? Except she isn’t. This girl is pretty fucking miserable. She’s extremely self-centred, extremely misanthropic, cruel, delusional…the list goes on. But our narrator has a plan. As she finds her life unbearable she decides—you guessed it—to have a year of rest and relaxation. In other words, she is going to be eating sleeping tables and other medications as if they were tic tacs (or smarties or popcorn…take your pick). She wants to sleep life away, believing that by the end of the year she will be ‘restored’ to health. Once a month she sees a psychiatrist, Dr. Tuttle, someone who is very much a menace to society let alone her patients. Our protagonist’s sleep schedule is also interrupted by her best friend, Reva, who she can hardly stand: “I loved Reva, but I didn’t like her anymore”. To our narrator’s annoyance Reva seems to revel in her own victimhood. Reva is also painfully insecure, bulimic, possibly alcoholic, and her mother terminally ill. Our narrator has little time for Reva, ignoring her pleas for help or affection, and tries to remain focused on her ‘rest & relaxation’. As the narrative progresses we learn more about her family life, her tense relationship with her mother (a real piece of work) and her on again off again boyfriend (a massive bellend). Some of the medications our protagonist begin to influence her state of mind during her waking hours, so she often seems to operate under a trance.

In spite of its relatively short length Moshfegh achieves so much within this novel. This is a brilliant work of satire. The narrator’s inner-monologue is as fascinating as it is repulsive (the girl has a sick sense of humour). And while I found most of the characters horrible, and at times intentionally absurd, this novel is disconcertingly realistic (especially in the portrayal of the relationship between the mc and her best friend….which was a weird flavour of codependency). Alienation is at the root of this story and Moshfegh demonstrates a cunning understanding of this subject.
Subversive, grotesque, surreal, shockingly funny, and surprisingly insightful My Year of Rest and Relaxation is fucked up in the best way possible.

my rating: ★★★★½

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Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Ninth House can be best described as: “talented, brilliant, incredible, amazing, show stopping, spectacular, never the same, totally unique, completely not ever been done before…”

Leigh Bardugo sure showed me. I went in to this expecting the worst (most of my GR friends panned this book, and their less-than-impressed reviews are hilarious) and soon found myself amazed by how much I was vibing with it.
Ninth House‘s campus setting brought to mind urban fantasy series such as Richelle Mead’s Bloodlines and Rachel Caine’s The Morganville Vampires but with the kind of magical elements and aesthetics from The Raven Cycle, or even Holly Black ‘s Modern Faerie Tales, and the dark tone of Vita Nostra. In brief, Ninth House was 100% up my lane.

“There were always excuses for why girls died.”

It took me a few chapters to familiarise myself with the story and its protagonist as when we are first introduced to Yale student Galaxy “Alex” Stern its early spring and shit has already hit the fan (ie she has clearly been through a lot). Thankfully the narrative takes us back to the autumn and winter terms, and we get to read of the events that lead to that prologue.
Alex’s ability to see ghosts (called ‘grays’) has caught the attention of Lethe (aka the Ninth House) a secret society that keeps in check the occult activities of the Yale’s eight secret societies (if you are wondering, yes, they do exist in real-world Yale…). She’s offered a place at Yale, for a price: Alex is to be Lethe’s ‘Dante’, who under the guidance of ‘Virgil’, ensures that the eight houses are obeying Yale’s rules. Each house practices a different kind of ‘magic’, but, it becomes quite apparent that magic, of whatever form or type, in this novel is not an easy or strictly ethical endeavour.
Alex, is just trying to survive. She run away from home as a teenager, started using downers to suppress her ability, lived with a man who abused her, and was the sole survivor of a multiple homicide. The girl is dealing with a lot of trauma and she’s kind of mess. Her mentor, Darlington, comes from a drastically different background. He’s white, wealthy, educated. Yet, in a manner very reminiscent to Gansey from TRC, he feels mundane and wants more. The two had a great chemistry (not in the romantic sense, at least, not in this first novel) and I appreciated the way in which Bardugo doesn’t present any of them as being ‘good’ or ‘heroes’ of some sort. If it wasn’t hard enough to adapt to Yale and Lethe, the societies may have had something to do with the murder of a ‘townie’. While almost every person she encounters tries to wave away her suspicions, Alex knows that the societies had something to do with it.

“I’m in danger, she wanted to say. Someone hurt me and I don’t think they’re finished. Help me. But what good had that ever done?”

If you ever craved a dark academia novel with a paranormal twist, this is it. But, as pointed out in many other reviews, this novel is Dark with a capital D. There are explicit scenes depicting sexual assault, rape, abuse, death, and other unpleasant, if not downright gory, things. It never struck me as gratuitous, anymore than I would call a novel by Stephen King gratuitous. The mystery kept me on the edge of my seat, the different timelines piqued my interest, the setting—of New Haven and Yale—was vividly rendered, the tone was gritty and real, the atmosphere was ‘edgy’ (in the best possible way), and the paranormal elements were hella innovative. I loved the descriptions of Alex’s environment, the attention paid to the architecture, the tension between her and the other characters, the momentum of her investigation. Yale is a haunted place, in more than one way. Bardugo combines fantasy elements with a sharp commentary on privilege, corruption, accountability. The story’s is an indictment against abuse of power and against violence (towards women, minorities, those deemed ‘expandable’). Trauma is not pretty, and Bardugo does not romanticise it in Alex. Speaking of Alex, she was a memorable character. I loved her for her strength and her vulnerability. Her cutting humour provided a few moments of respite from the novel’s otherwise dark tone.

Prior reading this novel I wouldn’t have called myself a ‘fan’ of Bardugo. I liked her YA stuff but I was never ‘blown’ away by it. Her foray into adult fiction has changed that.

my rating: ★★★★★

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The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is a compelling fiction debut from a promising author. As the title suggests the stories in this collection are centred on Black women who have complex relationships to their church and to God. In a concise and stirring prose Deesha Philyaw explores the lives, desires, and fears of her characters, focusing on the friction between their beliefs—often instilled by their parents or communities—and their sense of self. Philyaw captures Black girlhood and womanhood, showing the importance of female solidarity and human connection. While not all of the stories have a contemporary setting, the topics Philyaw touches on are still relevant: race, faith, sexuality, sex, love, family, belonging. Fraught mother-daughter relationships appear in more than one story, and it is a sign of Philyaw’s writing skills that she is able to portray each woman (be it the daughter or the mother) with nuance. Philyaw, similarly to Danielle Evans, who simply excels at writing short stories, balances moments of poignancy with humour (I simply loved the grandmother in ‘Dear Sister’).
The dialogues, settings, and ideas depicted in these pages are vividly rendered. My favourite where ‘Dear Sister’, ‘Peach Cobbler’, ‘Snowfall’ (this one was a heartbreaker), and ‘How To Make Love To a Physicist’ (the style in this one is really fun). The other stories, although enjoyable and well-written, just didn’t affect me as much. I appreciated them but, unlike my favourite ones, they didn’t give me the so called ‘feels’.
I would definitely recommend this to fans of authors such as Danielle Evans and Zalika Reid-Benta and I am looking forward to Philyaw’s next book.

my rating: ★★★ ½

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