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.)

Review: The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby

Title: The Shadow Cipher
Author: Laura Ruby
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: The Morningstarr twins arrived in New York with a vision for a magnificent city––towering skyscrapers, dazzling machines, and winding train lines all running on technology no one had ever seen before––but by 1855, they’d disappeared, leaving behind everything except a vast treasure hidden at the end of a puzzle laid into the city itself. In the present day, however, the Old York Cipher has never been solved, and the greatest mystery of the modern world is little more than a tourist attraction. But Tess and Theo Biedermann believe, and when a real estate developer announces that the city has agreed to sell him the five remaining Morningstarr buildings, their likely destruction means the end of a dream long-held by the people of New York. If Tess, Theo, and their neighbor Jaime want to save their home, they have to prove that the Old York Cipher is real. Which means they have to solve it.


I’ve been thinking about Laura Ruby’s The Shadow Cipher a lot since I read it almost a year ago. It’s a thick middle-grade book that I would have absolutely devoured as a tween but also hooked me as an adult who favors grown-up fiction. The cover and plot are intriguing until you start reading and realize it’s also a solidly written and smartly plotted novel. (I know I get to read it now but seriously where was this book when I was twelve.) Yet I made no notes while reading and gave it three stars once I finished. Still, The Shadow Cipher demands my attention. Why?

The plot is propelled into action when a smarmy real estate tycoon buys up the last remaining Morningstarr buildings and, given an eviction notice and the arrival of a mysterious (and conspicuously convenient) never-before-seen letter, two siblings and their neighbor decide to solve the Old York Cipher before it’s (definitely) too late to save both their home and a part of history. But the story itself is so much more than that. It’s a love letter to the very idea of New York City and how that idea can both excite and inspire people who’ve never been there (and also remind natives why they stay). It’s an attempt to make history breathlessly fun and edge-of-your-seat exciting. It’s an empowering tale of family and perseverance and how listening to young people is important; they may think differently than adults, but sometimes that stubbornness and focus is worth exploring.

Perhaps part of my enjoyment of The Shadow Cipher was the low expectations I had to begin with: I started a book with no knowledge of the plot and no commitment to sit down and review it. I could just read, urged solely by a recommendation by someone I knew. Maybe I kept reading because Ruby’s novel reminded me of both National Treasure and The Magicians: history nerds smarter than their peers following clues to a long-rumored treasure? Check. Hints of magic around the corner of a brick building, visible to only those who believe it exists? Also check. Or possibly it’s because its sequel, The Clockwork Ghostfinally has a synopsis and solid release date. (!!!)

Or maybe, simply, The Shadow Cipher was a good book, and I really liked it. Maybe you will, too.

Review: The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory

Title: The Proposal
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Rating: ★★★★½
Summary: When freelance writer Nikole goes to a Dodgers game with her actor boyfriend, his man bun, and his bros, the last thing she expects is a scoreboard proposal. Saying no isn’t the hard part, though – it’s having to face a stadium full of disappointed fans. When Carlos comes to Nik’s rescue and rushes her away from a camera crew, they form an easy camaraderie. Nik knows that in the wilds of LA, a handsome doctor like Carlos can’t be looking for anything serious, so she’s okay embarking on an epic rebound with him, filled with food, fun, and fantastic sex. But when their glorified hookups start breaking the rules, one of them has to be smart enough to put on the brakes.


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

Y’ALL.

Let me just preface this by saying that I absolutely adored The Proposal. Jasmine Guillory is a fantastic writer, full-stop, and her sophomore novel was a fun contemporary romance that treated its characters (and readers) like competent adults. There was dramatic tension, but it didn’t feel like the characters made stupid, dumb choices JUST to move the plot forward. They communicated with one another the way people do in real life and disagreements happened because of what each character SAID to one another, not because they didn’t talk to begin with. (Such gasp. Much shock. So horror.)

Both the two leads and everyone else were diverse in some way, but no one’s backstory or motivations felt contrived or there to only serve a narrative purpose. Like, this novel was just so refreshing and makes you question the romance genre as a whole. Why can’t other novels have functioning adults as their protagonists? Why can’t there be more than just straight white people falling in love?? Why can’t more intersectional stories cross over into the mainstream???

I was definitely aware of Guillory’s debut, The Wedding Date, earlier this year (an #OwnVoices contemporary romance raved by Roxane Gay!), so I really wanted to read The Proposal as soon as it was published. (Because duh that cover and that summary.) AND LET ME TELL YOU. It delivered. The Proposal could have been any other romance, but because Guillory is so precise in her characterizations, it made sense that THESE characters in THIS setting had THESE things happen to them. The sex scenes weren’t gratuitous but they didn’t feel safe for work, either. And I know the timeline in which her protagonists fall in love is, in theory, very short, but it’s also like why is this taking so long?? 👏HUR👏RY👏UP👏

Honestly, the only thing that I disliked was that the damn book ended. I could see that the pages left were getting smaller and smaller, but I was also like no??? maybe don’t?? And then when Nik and Carlos FINALLY get their Happily Ever After, I turned the page and there was a biography of Guillory instead of more story. (How dare she.)

I know that both The Wedding Date and next summer’s The Wedding Party take place in the same universe, but that’s kind of not the same thing and I am very, very sad I can no longer read this book for the first time.

Review: The Witch of Willow Hall by Hester Fox

Title: The Witch of Willow Hall
Author: Hester Fox
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: In the wake of a scandal, the Montrose family and their three daughters—Catherine, Lydia, and Emeline—flee Boston for their new country home, Willow Hall. The estate seems sleepy and idyllic, but a subtle menace creeps into the atmosphere, remnants of a dark history that call to both Lydia and Emeline. All three daughters will be irrevocably changed by what follows, but none more than Lydia, who must draw on a power she never knew she possessed if she wants to protect those she loves. For Willow Hall’s secrets will rise, in the end.


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

Do you ever read the summary of a book and think, “yeah, that sounds like something I would like”? That’s how I felt about The Witch of Willow Hall. Normally, though, books like this languish on my TBR list, something I can never quite find the time (or interest) to read once it’s been published. Months pass. Newer, more interesting books take precedence. I might eventually forget what the book was even about, only to re-read the summary years down the road and think, “meh.” And maybe (just maybe), I’ll take it off my TBR altogether.

Do not make this mistake. This book cleared my skin. It watered my crops. It set up a 401K and then invested in a robust stock portfolio.

I mean, yes, Hester Fox’s novel has its faults. Her characters can come off as overwrought and trope-y as hell: Catherine, the eldest sister, is not merely looking for marriage but scheming, using her hyper-sexuality to ‘trap’ an eligible bachelor. And Lydia – poor, good Lydia – is the naïve ingenue who is ‘blinded’ to reality and compares their sororal relationship as a catty no-holds-barred competition for the affections of the mysterious and dashing John Barrett. Then there’s the plot, which falls somewhere between historical romance and gothic horror but doesn’t convincingly meld the two until more than half-way through. We think Lydia is the witch referenced in the title but is there someone else? Does Willow Hall itself hold supernatural power? (So ~spooky, y’all.)

But listen. I started this book not expecting much, and I was so thoroughly surprised and delighted at the end result. Read during a week when the turning weather felt especially serendipitous, I felt literally and figuratively cozy – surrounded by the whistling wind and dreams of a crackling fire as Lydia and John got swept up in their own romance. At first pass, Fox writes everything so harshly that part of me wondered why a character’s behavior had to be taken to such extremes, why there was no gray between the black and white. But then, chapters later, an impulsive action would be re-evaluated or a character’s motivations would be explained and I would think, “oh, that’s why.” (Some readers will probably love the way the plot trundles forward but then others may roll their eyes at the heavy-handed foreshadowing. To each their own.)

I don’t think I can fully explain why I enjoyed The Witch of Willow Hall so much, not even to myself. Maybe it was the way the plot seduced me and I could think of no better activity than to keep reading. Or maybe that the stakes felt real, or that the characters were given agency, or simply that Willow Hall was so vividly realized I felt like I could drive there and visit. Maybe it was the tense, gothic elements or the acute remembrance of being eighteen and feeling everything so forcefully: the lows abysmal but the highs astronomical. Perhaps it was everything together, the sum greater than its parts.

Early in the novel, Lydia tries to articulate her feelings for John Barrett. “Suddenly sitting here beside him is not enough,” she narrates. “The empty place that I didn’t even know I contained is aching with want, trembling with fear that it may never be filled.” Same, sis. Same.

Review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

Title: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer
Author: Michelle McNamara
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area. Three decades later, true crime journalist Michelle McNamara was determined to find the violent psychopath by poring over police reports, interviewing victims, and embedding herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. It is also a portrait of a woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth.


I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer is one of only a handful of true-crime books to pop into the public consciousness*: perhaps because its author, Michelle McNamara, passed away while writing it, but also because a task force arrested their Golden State Killer suspect in April 2018 and now, four months later, he still seems like The One. The book is, on one hand, a straight-forward work of true crime, detailing the then-distinct crime sprees of the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker, and, on the other, McNamara’s five-year journey to uncover the man she renames the Golden State Killer.

Although McNamara’s skill at writing shines through her facts thoroughly researched, her transitions and anecdotes and compassion there among the heinous crimes referenced throughout I found myself reading in fits and starts. The book engrossing one afternoon and then forgotten for the next several. Only on the third week of reading did I settle on some kind of answer: once I finished I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, my journey with Michelle would be over. Realizing in hindsight how close she came to answers, noticing how similar her methods of discovery were to what actually happened… the expectation of failure was almost worse than the actual crimes.

Knowing that Michelle would ultimately fail, that she would get so close and still come up short… that’s what hit me most after reading. Not the ten plus people the Golden State Killer murdered. Not the fifty-plus rapes or sexual assaults he perpetrated. Not the almost forty years of silence. It’s the irony of the thing; that McNamara almost became a victim of the Golden State Killer herself.

Note: McNamara’s website, True Crime Diary, is still available for perusal, as is her article for Los Angeles Magazine, “In the Footsteps of a Killer.” The New York Times also wrote an op-ed prior to the book’s release that’s worth a read.

* Others include The Devil in the White City (Erik Larson), Helter Skelter (Vincent Buglilosi),  In Cold Blood (Truman Capote), Killers of the Flower Moon (David Grann), and The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule.