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: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Title: Night Film
Author: Marisha Pessl
Rating: ★★★
Summary: When Ashley Cordova is found dead in an abandoned warehouse, her death is ruled a suicide, but investigative journalist Scott McGrath suspects otherwise. As he probes the strange circumstances surrounding Ashley’s life and death, McGrath comes face-to-face with the legacy of her father: the legendary, reclusive cult-horror film director Stanislas Cordova—a man who hasn’t been seen in public for more than thirty years. Driven by revenge, curiosity, and a need for the truth, McGrath and two strangers are drawn deeper and deeper into Cordova’s eerie, hypnotic world. The last time he got close to exposing the director, McGrath lost his marriage and his career. This time he might lose even more.


I’m not sure if I would have picked up Night Film had I not first read other Marisha Pessl novels—but I loved Special Topics in Calamity Physics and Neverworld Wake, and so perhaps went into Night Film expecting to love it just as much because Pessl wrote it. Her narrative tone is there, as well as her penchant for a plucky adolescent female protagonist, but in this one, Ashley doesn’t get to tell her own story. She dies at the beginning of the novel and so does her voice, her character only coming through via her relationships to other people. There’s the book’s narrator, Scott, who is investigating her death; Hopper, who knew Ashley as a teenager; and Stanislas Cordova, her father, who becomes almost more of an obsession to Scott than Ashley’s death. And on top of everything is the perception of Ashley, which morphs and twists depending on who’s talking and what they believe, but never really Ashley herself.

It’s not that I didn’t like Night Film, but perhaps that I was expecting one thing while it was another entirely. By the end of the novel, Pessl effectively wraps up the overarching mystery, but after finishing the book amidst a three-hour reading session, it didn’t sit right. I wanted her to continue making me feel physically uncomfortable, the way I felt while Scott was trapped in a seemingly endless maze of Cordova’s immaculate film sets, having to reconcile the vibrant movie scenes with their static physical counterparts. It’s the dissonance that I liked, the feeling like something is there, just out of reach, your eyes straining to make sense of shadow. Pessl wove this otherness so perfectly through Neverworld Wake, but it doesn’t quite work in Night Film because she doesn’t let us decide for ourselves what’s real. Instead of a definitive yes or no, I craved a maybe, that last lingering shot which reveals a sudden, subtle shift to everything that’s come before.

Would I recommend Night Film? Maybe. It’s just as lush and pleasantly overwhelming as her other work, the story sucking you in until you drop all other activities in favor of finishing, but I felt almost cheated by the end, all the hours I’d spent reading amounting to a that’s it? On one hand, Night Film works as a mystery novel; on the other, a meditation on obsession and celebrity and what an artistic creator owes to their fans. But Pessl’s attempts to imbue the novel with an eerie subtext, that hush of otherness, never quite took. Whenever she pulled back the curtain, I wanted to preserve the illusion.

Review: Mindhunter by John Douglas & Mark Olshaker

Title: Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit
Authors: John Douglas & Mark Olshaker
Rating: ★
Summary: Over 25 years, Special Agent John Douglas became a legendary figure in law enforcement, pursuing some of the most notorious and sadistic serial killers of the 20th century. Using his uncanny ability to become both predator and prey, Douglas examined each crime scene to create the killer’s profile, describing their habits in order to predict their next moves. Mindhunter is the classic, behind-the-scenes chronicle of Douglas’s tenure at the FBI, taking us through some of his most gruesome, fascinating, and challenging cases—and into the darkest recesses of our worst nightmares.


As a true crime fan, I really wanted to like Mindhunter. (Like, really.) It’s one of the more well-known titles of the genre and getting a chance to read about the man who helped solve some of the most recognized criminal cases was something I couldn’t pass up. (Like, John Douglas personally interviewed serial killers! He was the basis for the character of Jack Crawford in Silence of the Lambs!) Even though this book was originally published in the mid-nineties, I thought that I would still find it interesting.

Except that I didn’t.

Mindhunter isn’t that long, but it still took me over two weeks to finish, as I often put off reading because it just wasn’t compelling enough for me to pick up. Filled with extraneous personal details and a convoluted timeline, the point of John Douglas’s narrative—that he pioneered the FBI’s criminal profiling department!—gets lost. The chapters loosely feature a particular case to further explain the different ways in which Douglas and other criminal profilers work, but they also spend a lot of time not focused on crimes, too. And it’s not just the lack of murder that annoyed me: it’s that the summary hypes this particular type of crime and then veers away from it at multiple points. (Also, who even is Mark Olshaker? Because he did not come up in this book.)

I also found Douglas to be a bit, shall we say, over-enthusiastic to avoid mentioning how incredibly lucky he was to be an FBI agent during the 1970s and 80s, coming into a new department that he ultimately had a hand in shaping. Like, does the fact that Douglas (1) had the ability to tailor a federal program to his specifications, (2) use well-known individuals for his case studies, and (3) the chance to personally interview them really not warrant a mention? If any one of those hadn’t been true, would Douglas have succeeded to the degree he did? Would criminal profiling be what it is today? 🤷‍♀️

I’m not saying that Douglas doesn’t deserve credit for all of the work he pioneered and skill he brought to his job, but Mindhunter doesn’t really adequately express any humility, to the point where I just got annoyed with him for being a blowhard. Like, he very casually throws this into the mix (bolded for emphasis):

Eventually, I would come up with the term signature to describe this unique element and personal compulsion, which remained static. And I would use it as distinguishable from the traditional concept of modus operandi, which is fluid and can change. This became the core of what we do in the Investigative Support Unit… I had come up with an insight that was to become critical in my law enforcement career, simply by betting on raindrops.

🙄

Would I have enjoyed this book if I’d read it when it was first published? Maybe. I found the introduction, written in 2017, the most interesting section, but was this because it was the most current or because it acknowledges that the world has changed in the intervening 22 years? I can no longer read a book without interpreting it through a 2019 gaze—and that’s great! It means that my reading life is more diverse and more enriching than it’s ever been. But it also means that I couldn’t read Mindhunter and forget it’s pub date or ignore the privileges of its author—something the book really needed me to do.

Review: What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli & Adam Silvera

Title: What If It’s Us
Author: Becky Albertalli & Adam Silvera
Rating: ★★½
Summary: Arthur is in New York for the summer, hoping that the universe will deliver a show-stopping romance worthy of a Broadway play. Ben, on the other hand, just wants the universe to mind its business; being witness to a proposal while in line to ship a box of his ex-boyfriend’s things? Not cool, universe. But what happens when Arthur and Ben meet-cute at the post office? What if they get separated – is it nothing? What if they get reunited – does that make it something? What if they can’t quite nail a first date… or a second first date… or a third? What if Arthur tries too hard to make it work… and Ben doesn’t try hard enough? What if life really isn’t like a Broadway play? But what if it is?


FYI: this review contains spoilers.

There were many reasons why I picked up What If It’s Us: (1) I fell in love with Love, Simon 1000% and needed more Becky Albertalli-written soft queer boys from Georgia in my life to distract me from a Check, Please! withdrawal. (Soft queer boys from Georgia are apparently my nemeses???) (2) I saw that gorgeously illustrated cover on display at my library and literally could not help myself the day before a week-long vacation. (This is, and continues to be, A Problem. Pls send help.) (3) It’s a young adult teenage love story that includes a Post Office flash mob meet-cute and just so happens to be about two boys falling in love. (4) Sara absolutely adored it.

But there were also two big reasons why it just didn’t do anything for me: (1) it featured my all-time most loathed narration technique of dual first-person POV with the extra-special added bonus of one character starting a thought… and then the other ending it. (UGH NO JUST STOP) I find this technique so incredibly lazy, and I had trouble every single chapter trying to figure out through whose POV I was reading. On the one hand, yes, having the chapter title be the POV character is great! BUT my brain literally does not pay attention to chapter titles. So until someone mentioned a name, it was basically a toss-up as to who was narrating. 🤷‍♀️ (2) I thought Arthur was a little bit Too Much in the way he reacted to events in the story, such as Ben still talking to his ex, the Hamilton Ticket Fiasco, or his two best friends dating and not telling him. It seemed like his frustration and anger was inappropriate to the circumstances (or else I have completely blacked out how it feels to be a teenager), and I found him too self-absorbed and privileged to really enjoy his parts of the story.

I understand that not every YA rom-com novel has to have a happy ending. Two seventeen-year-old boys having the foresight and finesse to amicably break up at the end of the summer before their cozy new relationship goes down in flames could happen in theory – but it’s not the ending I wanted for this story in particular. Am I wrong for wanting Arthur and Ben to stay together through their senior year, missing one another over Skype and then being over-the-top with their PDA when they do get to see each other? What’s the problem with a chapter or two of their super cheesy text chains or sweet “I miss you” Instagram posts?

I know that having them break-up was the Adult Thing to Do and actually made them grow as people and blah blah blah, but I wanted romance, dammit! I didn’t want them maybe reconnecting as college freshman. I wanted Art and Dylan to plan an adorable surprise of “oh sorry sweetie I can’t make it to New York it’s too expensive” and so Ben has to third-wheel his own senior prom but then Oh My God there Art is in his tux with a single long-stem rose and they dance together and it’s beautiful. (But can you imagine this? Because I can and it’s making me tear up rn.)

Albertalli and Silvera had the best building blocks for a great love story – and I get why some people went gaga over it – but it wasn’t the right story for me.

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: On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

Title: On a Sunbeam
Author: Tillie Walden
Rating: ★★
Summary: Throughout the deepest reaches of space, a crew rebuilds beautiful and broken structures, painstakingly putting the past together. Two girls meet in boarding school and fall deeply in love, only to learn the pain of loss. With two interwoven timelines and stunning art, On a Sunbeam showcases an inventive world, breathtaking romance, and an epic quest for love.


On a Sunbeam was a fantastic coming-of-age lesbian romance sandwiched between stunning artwork, but I got so lost trying to figure out how things were happening that I couldn’t fully appreciate the story. The main character, Mia, has a soft and sweet relationship with Grace, a new student at her boarding school, but then, five years later, she’s part of an all-female crew planet-hopping through space to restore crumbling architecture. Cool! But like… where does this book take place? A teacher mentions interplanetary colonization (“there was a large movement of young people to the rural fields area around Jupiter in the early ’50s”) but is it our Jupiter? Which “50s”? Is this the future or an alternate timeline? Does Earth exist? Are they living on it right now?

One of the best parts of the book is how natural and easy the f/f pairings are. Practically everyone we meet is female, and any disparaging comments made about Mia and Grace’s relationship happen because of regular ‘ole teenage bullying instead of their gender. Feminine pronouns are explicitly used save for one character, Elliot, who is non-binary using they/them pronouns. So the gender binary exists… but not men? Like, do men just not exist in this story or do they not exist in this world? Characters use terms like girlfriend, mother, sister, and aunt but do they know that they’re using gendered pronouns? If yes, why enforce the dichotomy by having Elliot break it?

I know that most readers absolutely adored this story, but being thrown into a fantasy world with little to no explanation just didn’t do it for me. I couldn’t help but question everything–which I knew was taking away from my own enjoyment, but my mind wouldn’t quit. Like, why are the spaceships shaped like fish? How do the buildings float and keep their inhabitants alive? What the heck does Mia learn in her boarding school? Cellphones exist but I guess not email or the internet? Mia literally “want[s] to infiltrate one of the most deadly and secluded areas of space… to talk to” Grace but she can’t, I don’t know, look her up somewhere???

What I thought about doing once I’d finished.

Walden’s illustrations were seriously gorgeous, with even the coloring contributing to the narrative, but I didn’t even have the patience to stare at the background details because I remained confused for literally the entire novel. My focus drifted among characters who looked the same and gave important backstory through quick dialogue. By the end, though, I was quickly flipping pages, hoping that maybe the next one would give me some clarity. (Spoiler: it never did.)