Review: Star-Crossed by Minnie Darke

Title: Star-Crossed
Author: Minnie Darke
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: When childhood sweethearts Justine (Sagittarius and serious skeptic) and Nick (Aquarius and true believer) bump into each other as adults, a life-changing love affair seems inevitable—to Justine, anyway. When she learns that Nick bases his decisions on the horoscopes in his favorite magazine—the same magazine for which Justine happens to write—she decides to take Fate into her own hands. But as Nick continues to not fall headlong in love with her, other Aquarians are making important life choices according to those same horoscopes. Charting the ripple effects of Justine’s astrological meddling, Star-Crossed is a delicious, intelligent, and affecting love story about friendship, chance, and how we all navigate the kinds of choices that are hard to face alone.


Note: an eARC of this title was acquired via NetGalley.

“Only by luck, though,” Justine said. “Only by… lucky, random chaos…. There are choices within choices within chances. It’s all so complicated and tangled. How does anything ever go the way it’s supposed to?”

Star-Crossed will probably fall under the radar among all the other new May releases, but I really hope more people read it. The book is a cute romance that focuses just as much on our protagonist’s professional life as it does on her personal one. The leads are well-matched, and their rekindled friendship feels authentic. As the plot moseys along, Minnie Darke weaves B- and C-plots into main character Justine’s and love interest Nick’s will-they-or-won’t-they (or perhaps how-they-or-when-they?) back-and-forth. Although it wasn’t until a reviewer on Goodreads pointed out that the plot reminded her of Love Actually and Valentine’s Day that I finally had my own aha moment—because this comparison is just perfect—I still found the book charming and enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

This book is a bit longer than most contemporary romance, but I never felt like the plot dragged on needlessly. I can see how readers might find the “cusp”s in-between chapters as mere filler, but I found them to be a unique and fun way to further flesh out the world that Darke created. I certainly enjoyed Valentine’s Day, but Star-Crossed is a better-written version of that kind of film; with an expanded timeline, the characters are allowed to breathe. Although we primarily follow Justine, we also get to spend time with Nick as well as all of the side characters with which they interact. We might not know why Darke includes something or how it connects until the end of the novel, but once we figure out the reason, it feels so satisfying, narrative threads finally pulled taut to reveal a clean stitch.

Reviews for Star-Crossed on Goodreads are mixed, but for me, a chance request on Netgalley for an unknown author definitely paid out. I wanted to read this book, planned my nights around how much time I could give to it around other obligations. And once I’d finished, I actually said out loud, “I liked that” as if it were some sort of surprise, like I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed the book along the way.

Review: The Fact of a Body by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich

Title: The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir
Author: Alex Marzano-Lesnevich
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: Before Alex Marzano-Lesnevich began working at a law firm, they thought they were staunchly anti-death penalty. But once they heard convicted murderer Ricky Langley speak on his crimes, they realized they wanted him to die. Shocked by the reaction, they dug into the case, finding Langley’s story unsettlingly and uncannily familiar. An intellectual and emotional thriller as well as a murder mystery, The Fact of a Body explores the intersection of violent crime with personal history. It tackles the nature of forgiveness and if a single narrative can ever really contain the truth. It shows how the law is more personal than we like to believe—and the truth more complicated and powerful than we can imagine.


Note: Alex Marzano-Lesnevich identifies as genderqueer and goes by they-them pronouns but didn’t when the book was published.

I thought I knew the plot of this book before I read it. From the summary, I guessed that the murder in question was of Alex Marzano-Lesnevich’s relative—an aunt, perhaps—referenced in passing enough that they knew she had died but not really how. And so when they hear the “unsettingly, uncannily familiar” confession of Ricky Langley, it sparks a memory which they follow, learning more about the crime from both the murderer’s perspective as well as their family’s.

But that’s not what happens. Uncovered slowly through dual perspective, The Fact of a Body unfurls both Marzano-Lesnevich’s childhood as a sexual abuse survivor with that of Langley, a sexual abuser. For obvious reasons, it’s a hard story to read, but Marzano-Lesnevich is a brilliant writer, and the story flows easily from the murder and its aftermath to their adolescence, from before Langley was born through his childhood to the internship they accept which ultimately introduces them to Langley’s case.

The Fact of a Body flew under the radar when it was published, most likely because neither Ricky Langley nor his crime is well-known, but I hope more people read it. It reminded me very much of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark in that each book focuses on both a crime and the person pursuing that crime and, for both, I wanted to know just as much about the criminal act as I did the person trying to understand the criminal. Marzano-Lesnevich so plainly lays bare their pain and anger that you feel it, too. But they also make room for Langley, for the messy “un-neatness of everything that happened” to him and because of him.

Marzano-Lesnevich opens the book with “a note on source material,” in which they state that The Fact of a Body is “my interpretation of the facts, my rendering, my attempt to piece together this story. As such, this is a book about what happened, yes, but it is also about what we do with what happened.” In an attempt to ask what, the book gives space to both why and how, and we come away better for it.

Review: Internment by Samira Ahmed

Title: Internment
Author: Samira Ahmed
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: Set in a horrifying near-future United States, seventeen-year-old Layla Amin and her parents are forced into an internment camp for Muslim American citizens. With the help of newly made friends, her boyfriend on the outside, and an unexpected alliance within, Layla begins a journey to fight for freedom, leading a revolution against the camp’s Director and his guards. Heart-racing and emotional, Internment challenges readers to fight complicit silence that exists in our society today.


When fascism comes to America, it will come draped in the flag. You don’t need to be a student of history to see how nationalism, disguised as patriotism, can take hold of a country, justifying terrible and cruel acts. You only need to turn on the news.

I don’t know that I really enjoyed Internment—more that I experienced it. On one hand, the plot feels like true dystopic fiction, a horrendous what if? spiraling out of a real-world event. But on the other, it reads like an inevitability, the disastrous result of one too many bad choices, the culmination of a timeline from which we can no longer turn back.

We’re introduced to main character Layla after a Muslim registry and Exclusion Laws have already taken effect, but the action quickly accelerates as her family is forcibly removed from their home, tattooed with an ID number, and transported to a “rehabilitation” camp across the desert. The allusions to Japanese internment are frank and unsettling, Samira Ahmed forcing her readers to truly look at all the horrible shit America has done to its citizens in the name of nationalism. It should come as no surprise, then, that Internment was very hard to read, but it is important that I did, and that you do, too. “What’s that thing people always say about history?” Layla asks. “Unless we know our history, we’re doomed to repeat it? Never forget? Isn’t that the lesson? But we always forget,” she reminds us. “Forgetting is in the American grain.”

One of the first things that Layla mentions is how her life is broken up into “Then and Now,” but most of the Thens—the election, the Nazi march on DC, and the Muslim ban—mirror real-world events, so what’s to say that my reaction to those wouldn’t also mirror my reactions to the other Thens—the registry, book burnings, and Exclusion Laws— that ultimately led to Layla’s internment? One of the reasons why this book was so difficult to read was because Ahmed held up a mirror and made me look at myself, forced me to question how I would react to similar circumstances. I kept asking, would I be able to endure like Layla? Protest like her? Resist?

The short answer? No, I don’t think so.

Layla shows extreme fortitude in Internment, and I don’t know that I could do it as well as her, or even at all. About halfway through the book, Layla’s dad tells her, “don’t attract attention. Fade into the crowd. Stay as anonymous as possible. That’s how we’ll survive.” But Layla doesn’t want survival—she wants life. In acknowledging that “there’s no limit to the horrible things we do to one another,” she still understands that “human beings are capable of so many wondrous things.” It’s that hope, that ability to see beauty in the most brutal circumstances, that I admire most of all.

In her author’s note, Ahmed mentions, “I feel a lot of anger. But I believe in hope. I believe that the things that are wrong with America can be fixed by Americans. I believe that being good is what can make us great.” Reading Internment made me feel a lot of anger, but it also gave me hope. What more could I ask of a novel?

Review: Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal

Title: Woman World
Author: Aminder Dhaliwal
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: When a birth defect wipes out the planet’s entire population of men, Woman World rises out of society’s ashes. This infectiously funny comic follows the rebuilding process, tracking a group of women who have rallied together under the flag of “Beyonce’s Thighs.” Only Grandma remembers the distant past, a civilization of segway-riding mall cops, Blockbuster movie rental shops, and “That’s What She Said” jokes. Incorporating feminist philosophical concerns into a series of perfectly-paced strips, Woman World skewers perceived notions of femininity and contemporary cultural icons into a meditation on unrequited love, anxiety, and that whole “survival of humanity” thing.


Woman World is a highly original tale of what happens after global catastrophe, wherein biological men don’t survive (for…reasons) and women band together and create the most utopic, inclusive post-apocalyptic vision I have ever read. (Aminder Dhaliwal makes it very clear that all genders, sizes, races, and abilities are welcome, both in Woman World the society and Woman World the book. One of the main characters has a leg prosthetic! Another has double-mastectomy scarring! There are trans individuals! A monochromatic rainbow of skin colors! Fat ladies! Thin ladies! Pubic hair!)

Although I sped through the book—and laughed out loud at jokes that only a critique on gender norms can bring to the surface—I still wanted more. I went into Woman World thinking it was going to be a narrative graphic novel, but it’s more of a vaguely linear collection of panels that very slowly move the story forward. (If I had known Dhaliwal originally posted this on Instagram, would that notion have changed?) Some of the panels more fully flesh out the broader world while others are individual character studies, but most of the book consists of humorous asides that serve to poke fun at the patriarchy with which readers (and Grandma) will most identify. (Like how bad-ass women are with respect to their own pain or a book-spanning joke on Paul Blart Mall Cop.)

Woman World is a very short read and, although almost every installment can stand on its own, the collection as a whole is just so darn cute and wonderfully refreshing that you’d be remiss to pass it over. 

Review: Not That Bad by Roxane Gay

Title: Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture
Author: Roxane Gay
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: Edited and with an introduction by Roxane Gay, this anthology of first-person essays tackles rape, assault, and harassment head-on to address what it means to live in a world where individuals have to measure the violence and aggression they face. Covering a wide range of topics and experiences, this collection is heartbreaking and searingly candid, reflecting the world we live in while offering a call to arms to insist that “not that bad” must no longer be good enough.


The essays in Not That Bad were difficult to read—mainly because I could do nothing but listen and stew and sigh in recognition—and I often found myself waiting days before picking back up. (Reading the book while also watching season one of 13 Reasons Why made that week… rough.) Twenty-nine writers are featured, and their stories feel both overwhelming and not enough. The pain and anger and sadness and shame and guilt and frustration contained is suffocating and endless… and then mere routine, just another example of why this book is needed in the first place. Almost everyone who contributed to the collection believes that whatever happened could have been worse, that their experience wasn’t that bad comparatively.

Because catcalling is not that bad when it could have been harassment.

Because harassment is not that bad when it could have been assault.

Because assault is not that bad when it could have been rape.

Because rape is not that bad when it could have been death.

But the onus of stopping this swift glide from words to action shouldn’t rest on those who experience the trauma that Not That Bad contains. If we—as both readers and potentially witnesses to such behavior—don’t allow victims to acknowledge that what happened to them was the worst that could, will we have to have this same conversation over and over again?

Maybe it’s good that I was forced to only listen, because it made me feel strongly that something can be that bad. There is no guide against which to measure; all grief is justified, all anger appropriate. I think it’s the very (very) least I can offer.

Review: On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

Title: On the Come Up
Author: Angie Thomas
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. As the daughter of an underground rap legend who died before he hit big, Bri’s got big shoes to fill. But now that her mom has unexpectedly lost her job, food banks and shutoff notices are as much a part of Bri’s life as beats and rhymes. With bills piling up and homelessness staring her family down, Bri no longer just wants to make it—she has to. On the Come Up is the story of fighting for your dreams even as the odds are stacked against you, of the struggle to become who you are and not who everyone expects you to be, and of the desperate realities of poor and working-class black families.


I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to On the Come Up, I can’t speak to how it compares to The Hate U Give (because I haven’t yet read that), and I don’t really know what I expected from an Angie Thomas book aside from being brilliant and heart-wrenching. But I work at a library and, when our copy came in two weeks before publication, I felt like it would be remiss if I didn’t at least attempt to read it given the opportunity. But y’all, On the Come Up was a nuanced, heartfelt portrait of a young woman desperate to achieve her dream, and all the ways in which she tries and fails and is tested in her attempt. And I am so, so glad I read it.

The plot cycles around main character Bri and her desire to “make it” as a rapper like her deceased father—but on her own terms and in her own way. She felt real to me, which I know is literally the most cliched thing you can say about a character, but it’s true. Maybe I’m not a Bri or count one in my circle of friends, but she’s out there, ducking and weaving against every obstacle thrown in her path. At points, Bri is asked to understand the world the way an adult does, her attention straying to how she can pay her family’s bills or persuade school administrators to change policies. And my heart ached for her being thrust into adulthood before she was ready, how I wanted her to be given the chance to just be a teenager and only care about inconsequential bullshit.

Thomas expertly wove drug addiction, poverty, police violence, and race into the plot without it veering into a Saturday Morning Special territory, and you acutely feel for not just Bri but also her extended family. Her mother, who is raising two kids as a single parent and dealing with staying sober and being forced to choose between food or rent. Her brother, who graduated with honors from college but can only find a job that pays minimum wage. Her aunt, who inexpertly balances Bri’s adoration while also being a drug-dealing gang member. Her friends, who have to confront racial profiling and homophobia along with their extra-curricular activities.

I know that On the Come Up will be looked at as a spiritual sequel to The Hate U Give, but that’s a shame. It’s an engaging and well-written novel that just happens to also be about a black girl—but it’s so much more than that, too. Bri has wants and goals and makes mistakes and fails, but her story is also about hope and family and first love and pursuing one’s dreams. YA literature needs more diverse voices in its canon, and On the Come Up is just one of many books to showcase why; not everyone will relate to Bri, but that doesn’t mean we as readers shouldn’t try. I mean, Bri says it herself: “One day I want people to look at me and say, ‘Despite the fact this girl lost her father to gun violence, had a drug addict for a mom, and is technically a ghetto statistic, she’s Brianna Goddamn Jackson, and she’s done some amazing shit.'” ✊

Review: How the Internet Happened by Brian McCullough

Title: How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone
Author: Brian McCullough
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: In How the Internet Happened, Brian McCullough chronicles the birth of the internet era for the first time, beginning in a dusty Illinois basement in the early nineties and ending with the introduction of the iPhone fifteen years later. Depicting the lives of now-famous innovators like Netscape’s Marc Andreessen and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, McCullough reveals surprising quirks and unknown tales as he tracks both the technology and the culture around it. Cinematic in detail and unprecedented in scope, the result explores how the internet fostered disruption and innovation and helps redefine an era that changed every part of our lives.


In How the Internet Happened, author Brian McCullough covers “the Internet Era, that period of time from roughly 1993 through 2008 when computers and technology itself stopped being esoteric and started becoming vital and indispensable.” In choosing a very specific social moment (the Internet, capital I) and then narrowing it down even further (via a 15-year period), McCullough is able to craft a solidly-written micro-history which hasn’t yet been explored quite so succinctly. Each chapter is devoted to only a few years at a time, and McCullough further focuses and explains history through case-studies of well-known companies. (I’m sure you could just read select chapters, but the book is fun in its entirety.)

My favorite parts were those that focused on events of which I had no active memories; although I was alive in 1993 and got my first email in 1997/8, I don’t really remember anything pre-2000. Like, my family used AOL, but I had no idea that around 1995, ten dollars a month netted users only five hours of dial-up. Like, how do I even convert that into 2019 usage?? I probably spend five hours online a day. Also, learning that Netscape “pioneered…informal work culture” maybe only because its employees were men in their mid-twenties was fascinating. Like, do we as a culture associate a frat-house mentality with Silicon Valley start-ups because of Netscape or did HBO’s Silicon Valley take its aesthetic from Facebook… which took its own aesthetic from Netscape… whose employees were literally 23-year-old “post-college bros”?? McCullough’s chatty, accessible narration really only annoyed me in the book’s later chapters, possibly because I remembered exactly what he was writing about and thus didn’t need him to cover such minute details anymore. His use of “whore” as a verb was questionable, though. (As in “Today—however uneasily—it seems we’ve accepted the notion that “free” web services make their money by whoring out our personal information to marketers and advertisers.”) Like, dude, were their zero other options for the sentiment you wanted to convey??

Overall, though, How the Internet Happened was a veritable time machine back to my youth. It was my childhood, stationed in front of a tan HP desktop with a floppy disc drive and external speakers that attached to the side of the monitor (!!!), logging onto AOL and hoping nobody picked up the phone by accident. It was my lonely adolescence, holed up in my bedroom on DeadJournal and DiaryLand and LiveJournal writing god-knows-what into the ether. It was seeing people in my high school walking through the halls in-between classes listening to music on their iPod Photo and wanting one. It was being most excited for my college to hurry-up-already and send me my email credentials so that I could finally sign-up for Facebook after everyone in my high school had already done so.

It was the realization that I am who I am because of the internet, but that the internet is what it is because of users like me.

Further reading: McCullough references a lot of sources in his notes, but the Internet History Podcast and The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson sounded the most promising. (Also, Halt and Catch Fire because of feels.)