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.)

Review: Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen

Title: Here and Now and Then
Author: Mike Chen
Rating: ★½
Summary: Kin Stewart is an everyday family man trying to keep the spark in his marriage and struggling to connect with his teenage daughter. But his current life is a far cry from his previous career as a time-traveling secret agent. Stranded in suburban San Francisco since the 1990s, Kin has kept his past hidden until the afternoon his “rescue” team arrives—eighteen years too late. Their mission is to return Kin to his proper timeline in 2142: where he’s only been gone weeks, not years, and a family he can’t remember is waiting for him. Torn between two lives, Kin is desperate for a way to stay connected to both. But when his best efforts threaten his daughter’s very existence, it’ll take one final trip across time to save her—even if it means breaking all the rules of time travel in the process.


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

I’ve been sitting on this review for a week or so, but I cannot figure out what to write. Like, Here and Now and Then was a book? And I read it?? Time travel stories are some of my absolute favorites to experience, but after I finished this one, I realized that there were a lot of things that happened but nothing that really grabbed me or made me feel truly invested in the narrative. Everyone feels like silhouettes of themselves, reduced to fictional stereotypes in a paint-by-numbers sci-fi romp.

I can tell that Mike Chen spent a lot of time thinking about the story—especially how time travel would work—but the prologue introducing Kin was too brief for me to really empathize with him getting stranded in 1996. And then the next time we meet him, in 2014, feels like another blip on the way to the real story: Kin being forced to return to 2142 and subsequently trying to figure out a way “back to his daughter”. (I won’t write how he accomplishes this, but I literally said out loud “Oh, that’s not what I thought would happen but okay sure” after reading it.) But once he’s back in his proper timeline, Kin is able to “process both eras clearly and cleanly,” the huge barrier providing tension to the previous chapters magically removed. Kin also talks a big game of having to choose between Heather, his wife in 2014, and Penny, his fiancee in 2142—but he never has to, not really. The choice ultimately becomes Penny or his daughter, but he doesn’t have to choose between them, either, getting to have both with little conflict. Everything just kind of… works out.

It’s not that Here and Now and Then wasn’t good, it’s that it wasn’t for me (even though I really wanted it to be). Chen’s characters are stilted outlines without much filler, the plot moves forward but doesn’t feel like it goes anywhere, and every scene is so full of extraneous stuff that you don’t notice how ultimately bland and empty the book is until you finish. With too much focus on the how instead of the why, the story, unfortunately, becomes forgettable, one of those books you’ll close with a “hmm” and then never open again.

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: You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian

Title: You Know You Want This: “Cat Person” and Other Stories
Author: Kristen Roupenian
Rating: ★★
Summary: You Know You Want This brilliantly explores the ways in which women are horrifying as much as it captures the horrors that are done to them. Spanning a range of genres and topics from the mundane to the murderous and supernatural, these are stories about sex and punishment, guilt and anger, the pleasure and terror of inflicting and experiencing pain. They fascinate and repel, revolt and arouse, scare and delight in equal measure. And, as a collection, they point a finger at you, daring you to feel uncomfortable—or worse, understood.


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

Most of the stories in Kristen Roupenian’s You Know You Want This were… not good, trailing behind the much-hyped “Cat Person” in substance and quality. Of the twelve included, I only really enjoyed four—”Cat Person,” “The Boy in the Pool,” “Biter,” and “The Good Guy”—but these were also the longest, had named characters, and included motivation and consequence which felt earned. (But really “Cat Person” most of all.) The rest read like first drafts, perhaps written by an ~edgy college-aged woman who read American Psycho and Tropic of Cancer “for fun” and wanted to push her readers toward discomfort for the chance to seem holier-than-thou when they (inevitably) “didn’t get it.” (Or perhaps I am merely projecting; I was that woman and saw a lot of my writing in Roupenian’s.) There was no real perversion within the book’s pages, only a facsimile of an attempt to tip-toe the line of grotesquerie. (I also can’t even remember what two of the stories were about.)

After finally reading “Cat Person,” I can understand why it went viral. Roupenian very clearly and cogently expresses an average first “date” of a 21st-century young, single woman who falls into a sexual encounter and then finds it’s simply too much effort to extricate herself before copulation. Instead of getting to enjoy the experience, Margot must distract herself until Robert finishes, becoming emotional support to his ego until it’s socially acceptable to leave. That he completely misreads her subsequent silence, that he sends a barrage of texts—at first pleasant then not—that he behaves in the exact way Margot hopes he won’t is the beautiful irony of the whole reading experience.

Unfortunately, none of Roupenian’s other stories are “Cat Person,” and I found myself powering through like Margot, hoping each new story would be better than it was, wishing, at times, that I’d never picked up You Know You Want This in the first place.

Trigger warning: the first story, “Bad Boy,” includes a rape scene. Idk either.