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: 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: Renegades by Marissa Meyer

RenegadesTitle: Renegades
Author: Marissa Meyer
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: The Renegades are a syndicate of prodigies — humans with extraordinary abilities — who emerged from the ruins of a crumbled society and established peace and order where chaos reigned. As champions of justice, they remain a symbol of hope and courage to everyone… except the villains they once overthrew. Nova has a reason to hate the Renegades, and she is on a mission for vengeance. As she gets closer to her target, she meets Adrian, a Renegade boy who believes in justice — and in Nova. But Nova’s allegiance is to a villain who has the power to end them both.


I have to be honest: I 100% picked up Renegades because of its cover. That muted blue and gray color palette, the minimalist character drawings, the unrecognizable cityscape… I just had to know more. The plot which is your standard good vs. evil revenge tale featuring super-powered individuals feels like it’s been done before, but in Marissa Meyer’s hands, the characters jump off the page and creep into your subconscious and you find yourself reading late into the night because you need answers. Some of the twists were softball throws, detected chapters in advance, but then others were a fastpitch to the stomach, leaving me capslocks-rage-tweeting an hour after I should have been in bed. (It was so good, y’all; I gobbled down 500+ pages in under a week.) Perhaps if I had known that Renegades was merely the first in a planned trilogy, I wouldn’t have read the book so soon after it was published, but now I have not one but TWO sequels to look forward to. (The second book, Archenemies, drops in November.) Meyer is perhaps best known for her young-adult cyborg series the Lunar Chronicles, but even if you’ve never heard of that, Renegades deserves to be read on its own merits.

Review: Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl

Title: Neverworld Wake
Author: Marisha Pessl
Rating: ★★★★½
Summary: Once upon a time, Beatrice and her five best friends were the cool kids, the beautiful ones. Then the shocking death of Jim changed everything. One year after graduation, Beatrice is returning to Wincroft hoping she’ll get to the bottom of Jim’s death. But as the night plays out in a haze of stilted jokes and awkward silence, Beatrice senses she’s never going to know what really happened. Then a mysterious man knocks on the door and announces the impossible: time for them has become stuck, snagged on a splinter that can only be removed if the former friends make the harshest of decisions. Now Beatrice has one last shot at answers . . . and at life. And so begins the Neverworld Wake.


The Prestige is one of my favorite, favorite films: a knot of a cipher that explicitly asks its audience to pay attention. Are you watching closely? a character asks. Because here are all the answers. But no one does the first time around; whether it’s the magic of the movies or the pull of a story, we want to be deceived.  It’s only looking back that we see all the clues laid bare. (Please go watch this film, y’all; it is so, so good.) For me, the beauty of Marisha Pessl’s latest, Neverworld Wake, is not the driving force of its protagonist, Beatrice, who wants to figure out what really happened to her late boyfriend, Jim. And it isn’t found in the novel’s core plot, either, when the main characters do everything (and then do it twice) to decipher and beat the Neverworld. It’s folded around the monotony of repetition. When faced with only hours and also eternity, how do individuals occupy their time? Whom or what do they prioritize? It’s tucked into memory and choice and the things we tell ourselves after the fact. What makes something real? Is it the act? What about the feeling of the act? Or the memory of the feeling of the act? Or the memory of the memory of the feeling of the act?

When Pessl finally explains what happened to Jim, it almost doesn’t even matter anymore. Both we and her characters have gone through so much that the act of uncovering has become more insightful than what we were waiting to uncover. In such a short book, she manages to beautifully flip everything around, recenter reality to explain how we weren’t watching closely at all. We wanted to be fooled and so we were. Neverworld Wake is so good at hiding things in plain sight that I want to read it again just to figure out how much I missed.

Review: Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld

Title: Spill Zone
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Rating: ★★★★★
Summary: Nobody’s ever really explained the Spill. Was it an angelic visitation? A nanotech accident? A porthole opening from another world? Whatever it was, no one’s allowed in the Spill Zone these days except government scientists and hazmat teams. But a few intrepid explorers know how to sneak through the patrols and steer clear of the dangers inside the Zone. Addison Merrick is one such explorer, dedicated to finding out what happened that night and to unraveling the events that took her parents and left her little sister mute and disconnected from the world.


A mind-bendy, trippy exploration of an unexplainable (and unnatural?) phenomenon and its physical and emotional aftermath,Spill Zone is a truly wtf-is-going-on-here start to a fantastic series. Although it measures over 200 pages, this graphic novel feels like nothing short of a whirlwind introduction to main character Addison’s life post-Spill — sneaking into the containment zone and navigating the physical realities of the Spill to take pictures of who-knows-what and providing for her (probably traumatized) sister. I literally had to force myself to slow down and admire the gorgeous illustrations by Alex Puvilland and coloring by Hilary Sycamore because all I really wanted to do was speed-read fast enough through Westerfeld’s narrative.

And then I got to the end of the book and blinked a lot and thought, “Well, that sucks” because it just ends and I NEED MORE. Honestly, if I had known this was merely the start of a series, I would have waited to read the entire narrative arc — because right now I am itching for Westerfeld to finish this goddamn masterpiece and July can’t come soon enough for The Broken Vow.