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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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.

Five Favorite: Atmospheric Thrillers

It’s taken me a full month to digest the seemingly innocuous Top Ten Tuesday prompt villains. (Please don’t ask why because I just don’t know.) Very few books I read have capital-V Villains, and I became bored scrolling through Goodreads trying to think of more than a handful or any one type. Since it’s so chilly/borderline cold in New England now AND it gets pitch black by four-thirty, I thought I’d explore creepy, chills-down-your-spine atmospheric thrillers instead – because sometimes a place itself can be the scariest thing.

Do you have your own favorite atmospheric thrillers? Let me know! To see previous topics, click here.