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: 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: 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.

Review: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Title: Dark Matter
Author: Blake Crouch
Rating: ★★½
Summary: After Jason Dessen is kidnapped and knocked unconscious, he wakes up strapped to a gurney and surrounded by strangers in hazmat suits. Everything is eerily familiar—except not. His wife is not his wife, his son was never born, and he’s a celebrated scientific genius instead of a college physics professor. The choices Jason’s forced to make stem from a single, seemingly unanswerable question—has he woken up from a dream or escaped into another?—and result in a journey more wondrous and horrifying than anything he could’ve imagined. Dark Matter is a brilliantly plotted tale that is at once sweeping and intimate, a relentlessly surprising science-fiction thriller about the choices and decisions we make, and how far we’ll go to accomplish our dreams.


If I weren’t a book blogger—who very much has to force herself to review the titles I’ve read—I would have given Dark Matter a star rating and moved on. Because unfortunately, the more time that passes since I finished it, the less and less I actually feel like I enjoyed the story. On one hand, yes, it was definitely engaging, and I might have spent one evening reading for two plus hours. But then, on the other, I feel overwhelmed by the many tiny annoyances I blocked out that only now, looking back, do I feel detracted from the novel as a whole.

Dark Matter bills itself as a science-fiction thriller, but it feels more like a fast-paced thriller with technological elements—which might seem like the same thing until the action and suspense become more important than the science (which, toward the end of the novel, happened a lot). Blake Crouch tried very hard to write a story that lulled you into a must-find-out-what-happens reading experience, but some of the narrative choices he made felt over-exaggerated, a quick satiety of sweetness overshadowed by a lingering gurgle of regret. He wants us to like the protagonist, Jason, to feel sorry for him, to hope that he makes it out of his situation—and we do, kind of. But we also grow weary of his circumstance and selfishness.

It’s not that I didn’t like Dark Matter and maybe that I didn’t like it enough. Almost every point in the novel reminded me of something else—the environment of Blade Runner, the plot of All Our Wrong Todays, the disappointment of Synchronicity, the smarmy almost-villain of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom—only those things had done it better (or else I’d just gotten to them first). I sincerely enjoyed not really knowing what was happening the first time Crouch throws in third-person narration—is this an alternate reality where Jason makes it home okay? Or merely the story he tells himself to feel better about being in a foreign environment?—but then it morphed into a crutch. We guess what’s happening much earlier than Jason does, and his slow crawl toward realization feels agonizing.

I stumbled upon a paperback copy of this book over the summer and, swayed by a sale (because, honestly, who isn’t), I convinced myself to buy it. Then it turned out to be the December pick for a local book club, and I bumped it up my TBR. But in deciding against going to the meeting, perhaps I missed out on some lively discussion, something which would have swayed my opinion. Maybe Dark Matter is just one of those books you can’t read alone; left stewing in your own thoughts, everything turns sour.

Review: Dead Girls by Alice Bolin

Title: Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession
Author: Alice Bolin
Rating: ★★
Summary: In this poignant collection, Alice Bolin examines the widespread obsession with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised, and whose bodies (dead or alive) are used as props to bolster men’s stories — investigating the implications of our cultural fixations and her own role as a consumer and creator. Reminiscent of the piercing insight of Rebecca Solnit and the critical skill of Hilton Als, Bolin constructs a sharp, incisive, and revelatory dialogue on the portrayal of women in media and their roles in our culture.


To me, the subtitle of Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession advertises itself as a cohesive essay collection emphasizing both dead girls and the men and women who obsess over them. But this kind of reflection only happens in the prologue and first section. Otherwise, the book focuses mainly on Bolin’s first few years in Los Angeles – the public transportation she takes to her job, the various (and often nightmarish) roommates she meets while subletting, her first real relationship with a man she later dumps – while peppering in numerous reflections on Joan Didion and her father’s own obsession with Swedish procedurals.

Which I suppose is all fine and good – except, this is not what I wanted out of an essay collected entitled Dead Girls.

I wanted a book-length exploration of the Dead Girl Trope, not Bolin’s singular cultural awakening to her own obsession. The summary even states that the book “begins by exploring the trope of dead women in fiction and ends by interrogating…the persistent injustices [living women] suffer.” But only a couple of essays “explore the trope of dead women in fiction” while none even touch on the Dead Girl Trope in real life. (Because here’s a handful of women off the top of my head that weren’t mentioned once: Kitty Genovese, Natalie Holloway, Jon-Benet Ramsey, Nicole Brown Simpson.) Then the whole middle is a forgettable ride through LA before Bolin and her summary cross paths again, and she “ends” on the “persistent injustices” advertised. (I mean… a book explicitly about dead girls needs more dead girls, right?)

And it’s not that Bolin doesn’t touch on Dead Girls elsewhere; she’s actually written some really great pieces about the trope, listed on her website, as well as a piece for Vulture regarding the ethical dilemma true crime fans (should) face as they consume their obsession. She even mentions this absence in the final essay of Dead Girls, writing, “That day was when I slowly began to realize that my book was maybe not about the noir but about those forces of which the noir was a symptom.”

Cool?

I enjoyed Bolin’s writing, but her essay collection ultimately failed in its intended purpose. If only the rest of the book had lived up to this one particular quote from the prologue: “Violent men’s grievances are born out of a conviction of their personal righteousness and innocence: they are never the instigators; they are only righting what has been done to them.” That is what I’d hoped for; instead, I read about a twenty-something moving to LA and “finding herself.”

Review: Feminism Unfinished by Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry

Title: Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements
Authors: Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, & Astrid Henry
Rating: ★★
Summary: Eschewing the conventional wisdom that the American women’s movement began in the nostalgic glow of the late 1960s, Feminism Unfinished traces the beginnings of this seminal American social movement to the 1920s, creating an expanded, historical narrative that dramatically rewrites a century of American women’s history. The authors carefully revise our “wave” vision of feminism, challenge the contemporary trickle-down feminist philosophy, and show how history books have obscured the notable activism by working-class and minority women – providing a much-needed corrective.


Feminism Unfinished knows its history, but the book – split into three sections, each written by a different author – is nonetheless a dry, textbook history of, as the title suggests, American women’s movements from 1920. I think that, in trying to cover everything, the authors left a lot out, and what was covered was just not that interesting. (Is it an age thing? Maybe it’s an age thing.) This is recommended for readers who don’t have the time to sit through a semester-long course on women’s studies and just want the quick and dirty lowdown of capital-F Feminism.

This book really left me wanting a bit more. Below are other feminist titles I have on my TBR I think might fill that gap.

Review: Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi

Title: Emergency Contact
Author: Mary H.K. Choi
Rating: ★★
Summary: Penny’s heading to college to learn how to become a writer, seventy-nine miles and a zillion light years away from everything she can’t wait to leave behind. Sam’s stuck – working at a café and sleeping on a mattress on the floor upstairs – but knows that this is the god-awful chapter of his life that will serve as inspiration for when he’s a famous movie director. When Sam and Penny cross paths, it’s less meet-cute and more a collision of unbearable awkwardness. Still, they swap numbers and soon become digitally inseparable, sharing their deepest anxieties and secret dreams without the humiliating weirdness of having to see each other.


Emergency Contact is a mess of a meet-cute: there are eye-rolling tropes atop eye-rolling tropes, everyone gets their own version of a tragic backstory, and the phrase “sci-fi classic” describes Ready Player One. I gave Emergency Contact much more time than I normally would something so cringe-worthy – mostly because of that gorgeous cover – and it did get slightly better as time wore on… but still, it was only just okay. Choi’s protagonists, Penny and Sam, trade off narrating the story, but the voice sounds too familiar to be anything other than a nuisance. (Can we all just agree that third-person omniscient is a perfectly acceptable choice for dual narration??) Penny is self-absorbed and unnecessarily cruel to everyone except Sam because ::hearteyes::. (I guess??) I’m sure that Choi wanted us to understand deep in our bones how awkward and out-of-place Penny feels in her small Texas hometown, but Penny instead comes off as grating and inconsiderate – a Cool Girl™ rather than a misplaced outsider. Nobody really seems to care that Sam is homeless and either needs to be medicated or in therapy or both. Penny belatedly realizes that her mother is a human being with faults and feelings and that maybe it’s not cool to slut shame people who don’t dress the same way as her. Perhaps I’m just too old to “get” eighteen-year-olds, but there were too many scoffs and eye rolls while I was reading this that I just get annoyed when I think too hard about it.