Review: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Title: Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
Author: Margot Lee Shetterly
Rating: ★★★
Summary: Before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as ‘Human Computers’, calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts, these ‘coloured computers’ used pencil and paper to write the equations that would launch rockets and astronauts into space. Moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the women’s rights movement, Hidden Figures interweaves a rich history of mankind’s greatest adventure with the intimate stories of five courageous women whose work forever changed the world.


Published only months prior to its theatrical film release, Hidden Figures is pretty much what its subtitle implies: a heretofore unexplored look at the numerous black female mathematicians and engineers who worked at NASA during the Space Race and beyond. I may have been spoiled from watching the movie first, but the book ends up falling flat, stretched too thin in Margot Lee Shetterly’s attempt to reference twenty years worth of history in under 300 pages. The film has a much better structure, so just knowing that a coherent story featuring three protagonists who only briefly intersect is possible makes Lee Shetterly’s narrative jumbled in comparison. There’s simply too much information and too many players at work to try and remember all of it. (And Lee Shetterly does try to reference all of it.)

I may also be judging Hidden Figures too critically. For example, Lee Shetterly writes in the the book’s epilogue:

That even Katherine Johnson’s remarkable achievements can’t quite match some of the myths that have grown up around her is a sign of the strength of the vacuum caused by the long absence of African Americans from mainstream history. For too long, history has imposed a binary condition on black citizens: either nameless or renowned, menial or exceptional, passive recipients of the forces of history or superheroes who acquire mythic status not just because of their deeds but because of their scarcity. The power of the history of NASA’s black computers is that even the Firsts weren’t the Onlies.

Maybe this book doesn’t live up to my expectations, though, because there has been nothing like it. Could Lee Shetterly have expanded her narrative in some places rather than in others? Yes—but in providing a macro focus, she allows her protagonists to become more multi-faceted; they weren’t just but also. I mean, there were numerous threads Lee Shetterly could have tugged on to satisfy my desire for a more nuanced social critique as it related to gender roles and skin color. She also could have whittled down her protagonists to the three highlighted in the film, or maybe even two or just one. (But, then again, would I have even read that book? Picked up a biography of a women I didn’t recognize?)

Part of the problem I had with Hidden Figures is that there was too much information—but this isn’t a problem Lee Shetterly should have to fix alone. The mere existence of the book is a testament to the fact that different stories need to be told by diverse authors. A different author’s take on Lee Shetterly’s subject would have been a different reading experience, but it probably wouldn’t have had the same pathos or narrative urgency. In her hands, this story becomes her story, and in telling her story, she makes us care about something no one seemed to care about before.

So here’s to more of those stories. Thanks, Margot, for being the First. (Hopefully you won’t stay the Only.)

Review: My Favorite Half-Night Stand by Christina Lauren

Title: My Favorite Half-Night Stand
Author: Christina Lauren
Rating: ★★★
Summary: Millie Morris may have four guys as best friends, but she’s still perma-single. When a routine university function turns into a black-tie gala, Mille and her circle make a pact to find plus-ones for the event via online dating. There’s only one hitch, though: after making the pact, Millie and one of the guys, Reid, secretly hook up—only to mutually decide the friendship would be better off strictly platonic. But online dating isn’t for the faint of heart, and Millie’s first profile attempt garners nothing but dick pics and creepers. Enter “Catherine”: Millie’s fictional profile persona, in whose make-believe shoes she can be more vulnerable than she’s ever been in person. Soon “Cat” and Reid strike up a digital pen-pal-ship…while Millie struggles to resist temptation in real life. She’ll either have to concur intimacy or risk losing her best friend, forever.


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

Like Millie, I have had the Talk with myself: do I stay friends with this person or do I try to be more than friends? Is this regular “I’ve made a new acquaintance” excitement or more “I want to see you without your clothes” anticipation? Do I want this person to like me or do I want them to like me? As Millie asks, “are these spasms in my stomach what most normal people describe as love”—or are they simply just spasms?

As my first Christina Lauren novel, I went into My Favorite Half-Night Stand not knowing what to expect. The sexy times: great. The banter and accurate portrayal of friendship: awesome. The “I’m almost 30 and still don’t have my shit together”: I feel you 🙏. I legit read this in two sittings, desperate to figure out how Millie and Reid were going to get their HEA, both engrossed in the plot and amused by the antics.

But there were also a lot of “oh don’t do that” moments, too. Millie came off as emotionally stunted, her behavior more suited to someone who’s (maybe) in her early twenties instead of solid 29 with a super grown-up job. I’m sure that her duplicitousness was mostly manufactured for the plot, but it also went on longer than necessary. (Making a fake dating profile to ward off dick pics is one thing. Carrying on a correspondence with your best friend when a) he doesn’t know it’s you and b) you are both clearly developing feelings for each other’s online personas is another.) Then there’s Reid, who was guilty of one of my biggest pet peeves once he’d had his own Moment and then didn’t talk to Millie about it. (Yes I understand this is not always easy but most things aren’t and this is fiction and UGH JUST ACT LIKE ADULTS.)

Had I heard good things about other Christina Lauren books? Definitely. Did I enjoy the friends-to-lovers trope? Absolutely. Can I recommend a character who catfishes her best friend? Eh… maybe? My Favorite Half-Night Stand was one of those books that sucks you in and makes you desperate to keep reading. It’s only when you’ve finished do you realize, “oh, maybe I didn’t love it that much after all.” So enjoy the post-coital glow—but maybe don’t stay until morning.

Review: Notes from My Captivity by Kathy Parks

Title: Notes from My Captivity
Author: Kathy Parks
Rating: ★★★
Summary: Adrienne cares about three things: getting into a great college, becoming a revered journalist, and making her late father proud. So when she’s offered the chance to write an article that will get her into her dream school and debunk her stepfather’s belief in a legendary family of hermits, there’s no question that she’s going to fly across the world to investigate. But the Russian terrain is unforgiving and, when disaster strikes, none of the extensive preparations seem to matter. Now Adrienne’s being held captive by the family she was convinced didn’t exist, and her best hope for escape is to act like she cares about them, even if it means wooing the youngest son.


Notes from My Captivity is a strange novel, and flew way, way under the radar when it was published this past summer. (TBH, the only reason I read it was because a patron donated her ARC and I was like why not.) Kathy Parks divides her book into three-ish parts, but each one kind of blends together that the story moves forward before you stop to question whether any of it even makes sense. There’s a river-rafting adventure, then some conspiracy-theory fueled mystery, and then straight-up magical realism. (I mean, Parks includes these so-subtle-you-miss-them hints that not everything is as it seems, but they’re basically no less magical than a teenager stranded in Siberia so, you know, whatever.)

I didn’t not like the book, but rather felt like the supernatural elements weren’t introduced in such a way to satisfyingly get me to the ending that Parks wrote. (Like, does she classify this book as magical realism or just simply magical or as an allegory for faith?) I liked the mystery aspects (and their debunking) way more than the literal trek it took to get to that point in the story, and a part of me wishes Park could have written a little less literal action to more quickly focus on the emotional action.

With that said, however, Adrienne felt like an authentic teen completely thrown out of her element, written with pathos and an emotional arc that I could follow and root for. Her motivations were clear, her behavior genuine, and her grief palpable. And the book itself is filled with such great sarcasm and a swoon-worthy first-love that the good parts successfully tuck the bad ones out of sight.

Review: Call Them by Their True Names by Rebecca Solnit

Title: Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays)
Author: Rebecca Solnit
Rating: ★★★½
Summary: In this powerful and wide-ranging collection of essays, Solnit turns her attention to battles over meaning, place, language, and belonging at the heart of the defining crises of our time. She explores the way emotions shape political life, electoral politics, police shootings and gentrification, the life of an extraordinary man on death row, the pipeline protest at Standing Rock, and the existential threat posed by climate change. To get to the root of these American crises, she counters the despair of our age with a dose of solidarity, creativity, and hope.


I always go into Rebecca Solnit essays expecting so much, mostly because it takes all of my brain power to focus on both the subject of her words and the particular way she writes them. In the foreword to her newest collection, Solnit writes that “calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, [and] obliviousness.” Naming something means acknowledgment, and acknowledgment inspires action. This theme runs through each essay, and Solnit encourages us to explore with her. How do our reactions to events help define both them and ourselves? In what ways can we make connections between experiences and history?

Although Solnit included essays written years ago, they still feel pertinent, book-ended by injustices that happened only months prior. And I think that’s why I enjoy her writing so much: she’s able to react to something in the moment as well as from a historical perspective. She’s published collections consistently every few years, and her commentary always brings a breath of fresh air to what otherwise is a shitty situation.

(Solnit is a regular contributor to Lit Hub should you desire more of her writing.)

Review: The Dazzling Heights by Katharine McGee

Title: The Dazzling Heights (The Thousandth Floor #2)
Author: Katharine McGee
Rating: ★★★
Summary: New York City, 2118. Leda is haunted by memories of what happened on the worst night of her life. Watt just wants to put everything behind him…until Leda forces him to start hacking again. Rylin wins a scholarship to an upper-floor school, but being there also means seeing the boy whose heart she broke – and who broke hers in return. Avery is tormented by her love for the one person in the world she can never have. And then there’s Calliope, the mysterious, bohemian beauty who arrives in New York determined to cause a stir. And she knows exactly where to begin.


After feeling kind of so-so about The Thousandth Floor, I still put this book immediately on my TBR list once I realized it was being published. (Because apparently I have a weakness for rich teens getting in trouble? Idk.) The Dazzling Heights is a solid expansion of McGee’s series and just as engrossing as its predecessor – we get to follow the same set of characters but there’s even more drama and heartbreak in a gorgeous, lush setting. (And, let me tell you, I am here. for. it. I didn’t so much as read this book as inhale it.) While not everything gets wrapped up from the first book, enough does to leave readers satisfied – while also leaving room for new plots and characters to have you biting your nails in anticipation.

Can The Towering Sky come out now please??

Review: The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales

RegionalOfficeIsUnderAttackTitle: The Regional Office Is Under Attack!
Author: Manuel Gonzales
Rating: ★★★½
Summary: In a world beset by amassing forces of darkness, one organization—the Regional Office—and its coterie of super-powered female assassins protects the globe from annihilation. At its helm, the mysterious Oyemi and her oracles seek out new recruits and root out evil plots. Then a prophecy suggests that someone from inside might bring about its downfall. And now, the Regional Office is under attack. Recruited by a defector from within, Rose is a young assassin leading the attack, eager to stretch into her powers and prove herself on her first mission. Defending the Regional Office is Sarah—who may or may not have a mechanical arm—fiercely devoted to the organization that took her in as a young woman in the wake of her mother’s sudden disappearance. On the day that the Regional Office is attacked, Rose’s and Sarah’s stories will overlap, their lives will collide, and the world as they know it just might end.


The Regional Office Is Under Attack! is a weird little book that isn’t really like anything else and takes a bit of time to get into but is otherwise laugh-out-loud funny and wholly original. (A.k.a., I very much enjoyed it.) Manuel Gonzales throws you into the plot and expects you to keep up – which would be a turn-off in any other book – but after a couple of chapters, you’re, like, “okay, I got this.” The three stories, which interweave and overlap until you can finally parse out how everything fits, start to feel normal as head-scratching confusion turns into heart-racing anticipation.

Story one is the titular attack on the Regional Office, which is “an army of superwomen” who have been recruited and trained by the Office’s founding members, Mr. Niles and Oyemi, “to fight the evil forces of darkness” and who have already, in the book’s diegetic past, “saved the world from destruction, from self-annihilation, from the evil forces of darkness, from inter-dimensional war strikes, [and] from alien forces… like the retrieval of the Tremont Hotel from inter-dimensional, time-traveling assassins who intended to murder a future madame president by kidnapping and murdering her great-grandmother.” There are a lot of players in the first few chapters, and maybe a little too much going on, but someone named Rose is, like, doing parkour in a magic ventilation shaft and some woman named Sarah has a mechanical arm that looks like any other arm and you’re kind of okay with all of it. (Like I said, it’s a weird little book.)

Story two follows Rose and Sarah as they are recruited into and then eventually join Assassin Training Camp and the Regional Office, respectively. Except that Gonzales introduces them to you in the heat of the moment and then backtracks in such an apologetic and explanatory way that you don’t really mind knowing point D before points C and E before you’re also led to realize points B and A.

Then, interspersed with all of that, is story three, an in-universe biography of the attack on the Regional Office, appropriately titled The Regional Office Is Under Attack: Tracking the Rise and Fall of an American Institution. We are never told who is writing this book, or how they got all this informational on a super secret spy ring operating out of a travel agency, but it’s another one of those ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ moments that you just kind of roll with.

My main question throughout the whole novel – which I will say gets answered by the book’s close – was, What is the difference between Assassin Training Camp and the Regional Office? Gonzales keeps you guessing, all the way up to the final, final twist, but you kind of don’t mind – because, well, you’re reading about coteries of super-powered female assassins who know martial arts and have literal super powers. I mean, I can’t even really describe this book. Is it a revenge story? A heist? Die Hard meets Mission Impossible? I don’t know!!! I was just genuinely invested – in how Rose’s story fit in with Sarah’s, and how both women were going to survive the Regional Office being under attack, and maybe what the heck was going on – that learning the identity of the “defector from within” almost (kind of) felt like an after-thought.

Buy Borrow Bypass: Kickass Ladies Edition

Book Riot does this great feature called “Buy, Borrow, Bypass” and I like it, so I’m going to do that here.

YoureNeverWeirdOnTheInternetYou’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day

Don’t recognize the name Felicia Day? Don’t worry – you’re not alone. You might be familiar with her face from such Joss Whedon-helmed projects like Buffy, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, or Dollhouse, though. Or maybe you remember her red hair in seasons seven, eight, and nine of Supernatural? Or somehow you’re really into MMORPG and watched The Guild??? (Didn’t think so.) If Day’s name or face doesn’t ring any bells, it’s safe to assume you probably won’t be into her debut, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), either. The book functions as a timeline of Day’s life, but feels less autobiographical and more like a play-by-play of her spectacularly odd adolescence, amounting to the origin story for the mythos that’s sprouted up around her. Is this because pop culture looks at Day as some kind of online creation and not as an actress who just happened to make it big by becoming Internet Famous™? Or maybe because it’s easy to get confused between real-life Day as Codex playing World of Warcraft and The Guild Day as… Codex… playing a fictional World of Warcraft??? I didn’t go into the book expecting much, but it was still kind of disappointing.

Verdict: BYPASS

IsEveryoneHangingOutWhyNotMeIs Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) / Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

I’m smooshing Mindy Kaling’s two biographies – 2011’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) and 2015’s Why Not Me? – into one review because I have the same feelings about both of them, i.e., they’re awesome. Kaling is someone about whom I’ve learned great things via GIFs on Tumblr, and her memoirs (basically Parts I and II) really only exaggerate her cool factor. (Is that still a thing? Let’s make it a thing.) Instead of writing about her life linearly from point A to B, she structures both books as a collection of essays and anecdotes about making a living as a female comedian in Hollywood, first as a writer on The Office and then as showrunner for The Mindy Project. Through her writing, Kaling comes off as a person who knows how to 1) successfully navigate the male-dominated film industry, 2) do so with both grace and humility, and 3) be funny as hell in the process. She’s definitely worth a read if, like me, you haven’t had the chance to officially meet via a television screen.

Verdict: BORROW unless you’re already a fan and then BUY

WeShouldAllBeFeministsWe Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

If you aren’t already feminist-leaning, Adichie’s print adaptation of her 2013 TEDx Talk might not convince you why you should be – but you should read it anyway. In 52 pages, Adichie succinctly explains what the word feminist means to her and why she considers herself one. Although her speech’s title definitely comes off as click-bait (if you’re feeling brave, just scroll through the video’s comments), the words themselves don’t. Adichie makes it easy to nod along and feel empowered to create change, just by acknowledging one’s own privilege in gender, race, or economic class. At its core, feminism isn’t a complex theory that one needs an advanced degree to understand; hopefully, if enough people read We Should All Be Feminists, maybe it won’t feel like one.

Verdict: BUY