Review: Technically, You Started It by Lana Wood Johnson

Title: Technically, You Started It
Author: Lana Wood Johnson
Rating: ★★★★★
Summary: When a guy named Martin Nathaniel Munroe II texts you, it should be obvious who you’re talking to. Except there’s two of them (it’s a long story), and Haley thinks she’s talking to the one she doesn’t hate. A question about a class project rapidly evolves into an all-consuming conversation. Haley finds that Martin is actually willing to listen to her weird facts and unusual obsessions, and Martin feels like Haley is the first person to really see who he is. Haley and Martin might be too awkward to hang out in real life, but over text, they’re becoming addicted to each other. There’s just one problem: Haley doesn’t know who Martin is. And Martin doesn’t know that Haley doesn’t know. But they better figure it out fast before their meet-cute becomes an epic meet-disaster…


I had high hopes for Technically, You Started It: an adorable pseudo meet-cute with mistaken identity? In a young adult novel told exclusively through text messages? Yes, please! I feel very, very lucky to have (literally) stumbled onto an arc, because it was the perfect backdrop to my train ride down to New York City. (The return-trip book, not so much.) It was so easy to fall into Haley and Martin’s developing relationship: to laugh at their jokes, smile at their obliviousness, cheer when they both finally admitted that what they were doing actually meant something—that the book fulfilled all of my expectations.

I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy reading a book of nothing but texts, if it would feel like something was missing, but the only real difference is how quickly I got through the book. Lana Wood Johnson does such a good job at developing the world in which Haley and Martin exist that I quickly grew accustomed to the format. I felt like I knew the two of them—their friends, their families, how they were spending their summers—that it was if I’d grabbed one of their phones and scrolled through their entire text history and not that Johnson had made the whole thing up.

While Martin initially texts Haley to ask a question about school, and Haley accidentally restarts their conversation a few days later, their infrequent and short threads quickly morph into daily, in-depth conversations. It’s so easy (for so many reasons) to be more open online, and Johnson takes advantage of this, allowing both Haley and Martin to connect without having to deal with the anxiety of an in-person meeting. (And even when Haley brings up that Martin is only continuing their correspondence because it’s just texting, he’s quick to shoot her down—because that isn’t the only reason, at least not for Martin, and at least not at that point in the story.)

The majority of the plot revolves around Haley thinking that she’s texting one Martin (“the good one”) while she’s really texting the other one (“the burrito clown”), and the fun is in how Haley’s torn between the connection she feels with Text Martin and the growing attraction she has to IRL Martin—who she doesn’t know are the same person. Martin figures this out pretty quickly, but Haley remains in the dark for the bulk of the novel, and it’s this in-between space where Johnson lets us live. Haley’s reluctance to ever meet Martin irl heightens the dramatic tension, but it also makes sense for her, and the text format never feels like a crutch Johnson uses just to keep her protagonists apart.

I’m sure that readers will judge Technically, You Started It by its cover, or its summary, or even its format, but they shouldn’t. The book is such a refreshing (and modern) look into how humans connect with one another, how much easier it is to talk to a screen but how gratifying it becomes when you let yourself truly be vulnerable with another person. This book made my soul happy, and it’s something I know I’ll return to when I need a pick-me-up.

Review: Fake It Till You Break It by Jenn P. Nguyen

Title: Fake It Till You Break It
Author: Jenn P. Nguyen
Rating: ★
Summary: Mia and Jake have known each other their whole lives, and their mothers are convinced that they’d be the perfect couple—if only they could stand to be in the same room. After yet another attempt to push them together, Jake and Mia decide they’ve had enough, hatching a plan to get their moms off their backs—permanently. All they have to do is pretend to date and then stage the worst breakup of all time. The only problem? Maybe they don’t hate each other as much as they once thought...


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

So, here’s the thing: I didn’t enjoy Fake It Till You Break It. Like, at all. Since signing up for the Year of the Asian reading challenge, finding books written by Asian or Asian-American authors is always at the back of my mind. To see that there was a young adult contemporary romance featuring a Korean-American main character and written by (to the best of my knowledge) an Asian-American author seemed like a double-score. That bright pink cover? Gimme. Fake dating? Absolutely.

Unfortunately, Jenn P. Nguyen’s story was just very meh the whole way through. It wasn’t so much poorly written as juvenile and in need of some solid editing. I found myself rolling my eyes through most of the book, wishing for substance amid the paper-thin character-building and barely-there plot. On top of the “twelve-year-old’s idea of what it must be like to be a high-school junior and in love” vibe, the story felt very much like a connect-the-dots attempt to include as many tropes and caricatures as possible.

I should have probably DNF’d once I realized that I didn’t care at all about either Jake or Mia, the book’s main characters, or buy into their reasons for fake dating. I should have definitely DNF’d when I realized their chemistry was lacking that certain je ne sais quoi every romance needs. Nguyen was never successful in selling Mia and Jake as “enemies,” Mia’s crush on a fellow drama-geek was clearly there to add unnecessary romantic strife, and Jake’s “fued” (hated? apathy?) toward his brother didn’t fit well, either. On top of it all, Jake and Mia’s mothers were pushy as hell, and their behavior toward their children was borderline problematic; for them to literally say—after the two plus hours I spent reading—”Get together. Don’t get together. To be honest, we don’t really care anymore” just made me want to throw my iPad in frustration.

I’m happy that other readers enjoyed Fake It Till You Break It, but to me, the book was a complete dud. I probably should have just read To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.

Review: This Is Not a Love Scene by S.C. Megale

Title: This Is Not a Love Scene
Author: S.C. Megale
Rating: ★
Summary: Lights, camera—all Maeve needs is action. At eighteen, a rare form of muscular dystrophy stands in the way of romance, but she’s got her friends, her humor, and a passion for film-making to keep her occupied… until a hot older guy literally walks into her life. Tall and bearded, Cole is everything Maeve can’t be, and between takes, their chemistry is shockingly electric. But girls in wheelchairs don’t get the hot guy—right? Cole’s attention challenges everything Maeve once believed about her self-image and hopes for love. But figuring this out, both emotionally and physically, won’t be easy for either of them. Maeve must choose between what she needs and what she wants. And her failing lungs might not wait for either.


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

What to say about This Is Not a Love Scene that isn’t completely negative? I mean, yes, this book is #OwnVoices and, yes, it contains physical disability rep… but not much else. Even though the main character Maeve has moments of self-confidence where she stands up for herself and her worth, she’s still kind of an asshole, the book was super problematic, and I was happy to leave them both behind. (Like, the biggest thing I took away from the story is that I shouldn’t have even finished it.)

First of all, Maeve is self-absorbed. We know hardly anything about her friends (like their interests, their home lives, or even their last names), she eye-rolls anything her parents suggest that will legitimately keep her alive, and S.C. Megale introduces a far-fetched sub-plot because Maeve can’t believe that anyone would actually want to help children with disabilities (that basically resolves with an “oops my bad” from Maeve). She also whines for half the book that no one could even like her like that but is completely oblivious to the feelings a friend has for her. I neither understand how she has one friend—let alone three—nor do I get why they continue to friends with her.

Second, Maeve’s mean. She refers to a character in the book as “Mags’ asshole boyfriend” and then is surprised when her friend gets upset. She gets angry when other characters make light of or otherwise acknowledge how her disability makes her different… but then is also upset when those same people fail to relate to or understand how she encounters the world. (Like, they’re just supposed to know? Tell them!!!) She hates when her physical appearance is used as a qualifier but feels just fine describing side characters by theirs. 🙄

And third, the romance is just all kinds of no thank you. We’re supposed to feel as hot and bothered for Maeve’s love interest, Cole, as much as she does, but he’s not even that great of a guy. He doesn’t really acknowledge Maeve outside of the late-night texts they share, he sends her dick pics and then ghosts for about a week, and he strings her along and then is like “I can’t do this” after weeks of maybe-kind-of-but-not-really seeing one another… and Maeve continues to lust after him. Cole is obviously using Maeve’s desire to his advantage, but I also didn’t really like Maeve all that much either so… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I just… I wanted to like this book so much, and instead I got a mish-mash of nope with ew why and please don’t. (I want y’all to know that there is even more problematic bullshit I didn’t mention.)

PS. what is with the goddamn emoticons?! Does anyone still even use :) or :P in texts anymore??

Review: If I’m Being Honest by Emily Wibberley & Austin Siegemund-Broka

Title: If I’m Being Honest
Authors: Emily Wibberley & Austin Siegemund-Broka
Rating: ★★★★★
Summary: High school senior Cameron Bright’s reputation can be summed up by one word: bitch. When she puts her foot in her mouth in front of her crush, she fears she’s lost the one person who actually liked her for good. In an attempt to win him back, Cameron resolves to prove her worth by making amends with those she’s wronged. First on the list? Brendan, the guy to whom she gave an unfortunate nickname in middle school and who’s now the school loser. But the longer Cameron spends repairing Brendan’s reputation, the closer she gets to him—and the more she realizes that he appreciates her personality, brutal honesty and all. It makes her wonder: what if she’s compromising herself for a guy she doesn’t even want?


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

If you’re lucky, sometimes you stumble onto a good book at exactly the right time; even if its not perfect, it’s perfect for you, and you’ll fight anyone who says otherwise. If I’m Being Honest was that book for me.

Taking cues from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, If I’m Being Honest follows Cameron through the first few months of her senior year at an uber posh Los Angeles prep school. With no patience for anything less than transparent honesty, authors Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka write Cameron as an over-achieving mean girl—she’s selfish, self-absorbed, and mean. Even though we understand that she doesn’t have the best relationship with either one of her parents, we don’t feel bad for her, either. Cameron is completely oblivious to how her words hurt, and the first few chapters set up a very compelling story arc for redemption.

I stayed up until 12:30am on a work night to finish the second half of this book because I couldn’t put it down. Wibberley and Siegemund-Broka made me need to know what happened to Cameron. Would her (delicious) slow-burn romance with Brendan go anywhere? What would happen to her new friendship with Brendan’s sister, Paige? Parts of the book made me literally curl my toes and squee they were so freaking cute while others made my heart sigh happily. Having an accurate portrayal of anxiety? Validating. Seeing an authentic portrayal of female friendship? Down-right refreshing.

The summary makes If I’m Being Honest seem like your run-of-the-mill young adult novel, but it’s so much more than that. Wibberley and Siegemund-Broka imbued all of their characters with messy personalities and true-to-life emotions so that nothing feels cheap or out-of-place. You knew that you could be happy when something good happened to a character because you’d already spent the last few chapters being angry with them for doing something stupid. There was fandom and creative passion projects and mental health rep and I may have cried just a bit toward the end.

Please read this book, y’all. It is so, so good.

Review: Internment by Samira Ahmed

Title: Internment
Author: Samira Ahmed
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: Set in a horrifying near-future United States, seventeen-year-old Layla Amin and her parents are forced into an internment camp for Muslim American citizens. With the help of newly made friends, her boyfriend on the outside, and an unexpected alliance within, Layla begins a journey to fight for freedom, leading a revolution against the camp’s Director and his guards. Heart-racing and emotional, Internment challenges readers to fight complicit silence that exists in our society today.


When fascism comes to America, it will come draped in the flag. You don’t need to be a student of history to see how nationalism, disguised as patriotism, can take hold of a country, justifying terrible and cruel acts. You only need to turn on the news.

I don’t know that I really enjoyed Internment—more that I experienced it. On one hand, the plot feels like true dystopic fiction, a horrendous what if? spiraling out of a real-world event. But on the other, it reads like an inevitability, the disastrous result of one too many bad choices, the culmination of a timeline from which we can no longer turn back.

We’re introduced to main character Layla after a Muslim registry and Exclusion Laws have already taken effect, but the action quickly accelerates as her family is forcibly removed from their home, tattooed with an ID number, and transported to a “rehabilitation” camp across the desert. The allusions to Japanese internment are frank and unsettling, Samira Ahmed forcing her readers to truly look at all the horrible shit America has done to its citizens in the name of nationalism. It should come as no surprise, then, that Internment was very hard to read, but it is important that I did, and that you do, too. “What’s that thing people always say about history?” Layla asks. “Unless we know our history, we’re doomed to repeat it? Never forget? Isn’t that the lesson? But we always forget,” she reminds us. “Forgetting is in the American grain.”

One of the first things that Layla mentions is how her life is broken up into “Then and Now,” but most of the Thens—the election, the Nazi march on DC, and the Muslim ban—mirror real-world events, so what’s to say that my reaction to those wouldn’t also mirror my reactions to the other Thens—the registry, book burnings, and Exclusion Laws— that ultimately led to Layla’s internment? One of the reasons why this book was so difficult to read was because Ahmed held up a mirror and made me look at myself, forced me to question how I would react to similar circumstances. I kept asking, would I be able to endure like Layla? Protest like her? Resist?

The short answer? No, I don’t think so.

Layla shows extreme fortitude in Internment, and I don’t know that I could do it as well as her, or even at all. About halfway through the book, Layla’s dad tells her, “don’t attract attention. Fade into the crowd. Stay as anonymous as possible. That’s how we’ll survive.” But Layla doesn’t want survival—she wants life. In acknowledging that “there’s no limit to the horrible things we do to one another,” she still understands that “human beings are capable of so many wondrous things.” It’s that hope, that ability to see beauty in the most brutal circumstances, that I admire most of all.

In her author’s note, Ahmed mentions, “I feel a lot of anger. But I believe in hope. I believe that the things that are wrong with America can be fixed by Americans. I believe that being good is what can make us great.” Reading Internment made me feel a lot of anger, but it also gave me hope. What more could I ask of a novel?

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 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.'” ✊