“What If It’s Us: A Truthful, Winning Testament to the Bounds Between Love and Friendship”

What If It’s Us, written by Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli, is the story of first love and the strange, match-making ways of the universe. 

Arthur is a believer in the universe. So is Ben, but for different reasons. When the two run into each other at the post office, it seems too good to be true. Especially since Ben’s holding a shipping box full of his ex’s stuff. Can the universe keep them together, once they find each other again, that is? (It wouldn’t be an epic love story without a little work.) Or are they meant for one New York summer and nothing more? 

It’s rare that I find a book that makes me laugh out loud. Yeah, I find an occasional chuckle every now and then, but this book was so different. What If It’s Us was charming and endearing and had so many good references that I was grinning and laughing almost every chapter. (Thank you thank you for the Waffle House shout out, Silvera and Albertalli. I nearly died with happiness reading it.) 

But the very first thing that completely hit me in the face about this book was that I found myself relating so strongly to both lead characters. 

Arthur is completely fascinated with New York. It’s so different from his hometown in Georgia. No matter how long he’s in the city, he finds himself gazing at it like it’s this strange, bustling, chaotic entity. (Which it is.) He’s amazed at the fact that New Yorkers don’t seem to notice what an absolute place their home is. But that’s a tourist for you. That dazed feeling – of living in New York – is so realistic and brilliantly depicted through Arthur’s eyes. I myself have lived in the city for about a year and I’m still struck with that same fascination.

When Arthur and Ben eventually clash, the reader gets a first look at just how insecure first love can be. (I’ve been there. We’ve all been there.) It really offers a better insight into both their characters. 

Arthur just can’t help but question exactly why Ben is with him. He can’t stop asking about the break up and Ben’s relationship with ex boyfriend Hudson. His jumpiness is so fucking relatable. There’s a part where Arthur checks his phone before their first date and doesn’t see any texts from Ben. His first emotion is relief, because no text means Ben hasn’t canceled. OOOF. That anxiety hits home something awful. Both authors paint this painfully real look into love’s raw, very intimate experience. At the end of the day that reality, that Arthur is not Ben’s first, is always gnawing at the back of his head. The whole novel is an amazing balance between a Hallmark-ish love story and the reality of one. 

 

“And of course there would be kissing. My first kiss. Followed by the loss of my virginity in some quiet, starlit field. 

But no. Not even close. Instead, it’s me bleeding out all my neuroses, looking for answers to questions I have no place asking. But I don’t know how to make myself stop asking them. People like me should come with a mute button.”                                                                                                                          – Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli

 

The anxiety of firsts goes both ways. Ben just broke up with Hudson, driving a wedge between their previous friendship and the friend group. And he still can’t bring himself to mail that damn box. Ben’s worried Arthur may be too good for him, that he’s just a dumb guy stuck in summer school. He’s awkward and guarded, constantly looking at things half-empty. Another big OOOF hitting me hard. The reader can tell that Ben doesn’t really love himself the way that he should. He is just so unsure

 

“No, you didn’t screw it up… I’m the one who messed up. I’m always ready to flip off anything good the universe throws my way since I swear the universe hates me. But maybe the universe is just playing a long game. Like everything that’s ever gone wrong was so it could be right later. I don’t know.”                                                                                                                                             – Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli                

 

That dialogue though… So down-to-earth and so very like Ben. That’s the other thing about What If It’s Us: it doesn’t throw together two faceless, virtually identical characters. It brings together two people. People who aren’t sure what the fuck they are doing. People who love Hamilton and people who think Skittles double as breath mints. Because that is what first love, and most other kinds of love, is. It’s a layered, messy, painful understanding. 

The true beauty that this book captures is what happens when love doesn’t work out. And it’s not solely talking about it in the traditional romantic sense. Silvera and Albertalli also explore the love behind a friendship too. First love may be breathtaking and scary, but so are navigating friendships, because they last a lot longer. Both authors truly show the reader that sometimes, when you let people go, they don’t have to be gone for good. Love can blossom into a friendship the same way it can the other way around. 

I think we all can learn a thing or two from that. 

Overall, this intimate, realistic love story gets a 10/10 in my book. I have literally nothing negative to say and I’m not sorry for it. I want the movie and I want it done well. 

“All Out: A Beautiful Collection of Queer Fantasy and Fiction”

I have a confession to make. This is not my first time reading All Out. It was so delicious I just had to have a second go and write about it. Since it is a collection of multiple stories, I picked three of my favorites to discuss more in-depth. 

Roja, by Anna-Marie McLemore

This gorgeous, richly written story takes place in 1870s Mexico, with a French outlaw called Le Loup and the red-headed girl who loves him. Early on in the story you find out that Le Loup was christened with a girl’s name, but he chose his true name, Léon, joining the French army to finally be who he is. The girl, an outcast in her village, is called by no real name because of her family’s history. They are Las Rojas, marks of el Diablo himself. 

“They carried the whisper that the women in my family could murder with nothing but our rage.”                                                                                   – Anna-Marie McLemore 

The two fell in love when she found Léon left for the wolves – a bit of cruel irony since Le Loup literally means “the wolf.” When he is eventually captured by the village authorities, La Roja has to find a way to save him before she loses him for good. 

I loved everything about Roja. I loved that its queerness wasn’t this big deal. Like a lot of the stories in All Out, Léon’s gender identity was a prominent theme, but it didn’t take over the story and become so overly obvious, if you get what I mean. It wasn’t screaming at the reader: “Hey! Look! This is a QUEER story! Go us!” Instead, it nudged at you, firmly telling you to take notice but to also appreciate the rest. LGBTQ+ people are people. We have a million other things about us than just being gay or trans. And I have such an appreciation for writers who really get that. 

Léon and La Roja, while you don’t get a full shot of their love story, are endearing and true to behold. I especially loved the part where she tells us how he trusted her enough with his dead name – and how she knew she was never to speak it. Their bond is as strong as they are.

Now it is a short story, so there’s only so much about its characters and setting that you can pack in. But McLemore’s writing more than fills that space. Her style is brilliantly detailed and unique, both in its descriptions and in its way of dispersing information on characters and their pasts. The way she switches back and forth between present and passive tense really adds to that tactic. The reader really gets a sense of this place and these people, even though it’s through small, quick glimpses. 

Overall, Roja makes for an interesting read that guides the reader amidst different wavelengths in storytelling as a whole.  

And They Don’t Kiss at the End, by Nilah Magruder

This modernly-written story is set in 1976 Maryland and its popular roller skating scene. Dee, our teenage heroine, just broke up with friend-turned-boyfriend Vince and has been avoiding the rink – and him – ever since. See, Dee is different. She isn’t into the steamy novels that her friends read, or the pornos they’ve watched with the volume turned down low. She doesn’t imagine romance like that. So when Vince shows up when he’s no supposed to, how can she explain herself? Why had she let go of his hand? 

When I saw that there was a story in All Out about an asexual teen, I was thrilled. I think representation of everyone in the LGBTQ+ community is something to celebrate. Especially LGBTQ+ people of color. 

“Lori had suggested that maybe Dee wasn’t into guys. Lori wasn’t, and sometimes she linked fingers with other girls at the rink. Dee didn’t think it was about boys and girls. She didn’t know how to explain that she preferred to have no preference at all, and so she said nothing.”                                                                             – Nilah Magruder

Magruder’s writing mixes the old with the modern. She has this way of making her dialogue sound so authentic and her character interactions, especially between Dee and Vince, are nothing if not engaging. The reader does not want for much more, except for more. We need a whole goddamn novel. 

The element I love the most about this story is its realness. It’s a scenario I could envision happening now, though maybe without the American Bandstand references. Asexuality is still something that a lot of people don’t understand, but Magruder doesn’t waste her time trying to slap a definition on to it. Instead she focuses on Dee’s personal struggle with it and the way it has affected her life and her relationships. Is she a prude, as she’s been labelled as? Is she going to change the way she feels in the future? Dee’s confusion is understandable and so, so relatable. How many of us struggle with knowing who we truly are? How many of us never grew up knowing for sure if we were this or that? 

Magruder doesn’t end the story on a perfect, pretty-in-pink answer. The moral of this story is that nothing has to be “figured out.” Sometimes all that matters is the connection you have with a person and with yourself. So what if it’s not sexual? 

Burnt Umber, by Mackenzi Lee

It’s 1638. Amsterdam. Constantijin is the only boy in his painting apprenticeship who doesn’t drool over the women they draw. He does not “exaggerate the breasts,” like Braam and Johannes do. However, if it was Joost Hendrickszoon – the gorgeously handsome dockhand –  sitting naked in their circle, Constantijin would have a serious problem on his hands. His desires would ruin him if he was discovered. But he soon stumbles across someone else, a boy who he never would have noticed if not for a pair missing gloves.

What can I say? I adore a lavishly-written gay love story. They never get old. Burnt Umber is endearing and opulent, and Lee’s writing lends wonderfully to the establishment of such an antique, romantic city in the story’s background. 

Early on in the story, the reader can immediately see that Constantijin is isolated. There’s just something missing from him. Using first person narrative is a way that Lee implements that solitude, by giving us a peek into the way he looks at the world. His sexuality does seem to be the main backbone of the story, which isn’t a bad thing. I would have liked to see a bit more of his character, but again, by using that first person, Lee is giving Constantijin the reins and that allows for more details about the other characters to come into light. And we do get to see how adorably awkward he can be when it comes to Joost. 

“‘We were painting… We’ve been talking about the musculature of…’ I do a mime of something oblong shaped with the unfortunate placement of right in front of my crotch. ‘It was just for the painting. We didn’t do anything with them. Not the penises. The casts. The plasters.’”                                                                                   – Mackenzi Lee

That is what I liked most about Burnt Umber. I appreciated its simplicity and its little twist as to who Constantijin ended up falling for. I liked how the title tied nicely into the ending, and how lovely all the painting language was. It was a pretty, Hallmark-ish love story. The world always needs one of those. 

 

All Out: The No Longer Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages deserves an outstanding 9.5/10 for it’s careful, well-written representation of both the LGBTQ+ community and the writing community as a whole. While I only featured the work by three of its authors, the others stories in All Out are equally as engaging and are worthy of a good read. Let me know what you think down below!

 

“Game of Thrones: Blood, Blades, Beasts and Brandon Stark, Among Other Things”

I love lore. And battles. And swords. What better world to immerse myself in than the flash-fire sensation Game of Thrones. Yes, I finally did it. I read the bloody book.

First, before I dive into this thing: I read Game of Thrones with a grain of salt.

I have a hard time with the whole “women are lesser, weaker creatures” bullshit, because, as a woman, it pisses me off. Even if it happens to be a part of a novel’s society, I hate the “a woman’s highest honor is marrying and giving her husband sons.” And the way so many of the male characters completely objectify women, specifically in regards to the novel’s themes of violence, sex, and rape – it all made me grit my teeth and wish I could cut out their tongues and certain other body parts.

Also the child marriage crap. Was that truly, one-hundred percent necessary? Because I’m not so sure.

I understand that it all happens to be a part of George R.R. Martin’s world, but I am tired of those same narrative themes over and over and over. There’s a choice that an author makes when it comes to content and there could have been A LOT more creativity with female characters on Martin’s part.

HOWEVER. Female empowerment is not lost here. We get Arya Stark – who I love dearly and would die for – and we also get Daenerys Targaryen – who I like less, but I don’t deny her own strengths – and I’d hate to say it but there’s Cersei Lannister as well – who’s a bitch, but I respect her cunning. I’m sure there are a couple others that I’m forgetting, but the character list is so fucking long I forgot my own name by the end of the book. With all that in mind, I appreciate that female courage and tenacity is somewhat at work here, even if not all of them carry swords.

Foremost, I figure I should talk about the Starks, because the Lannisters can go and fuck themselves, although they clearly already do. Here’s the thing: I’m a little biased towards the Starks. Winter is my favorite season, I love wolves, and I like a bastard brother who drinks at least a little respect women juice. Winterfell itself spoke to me: the mysterious Wolfswood, the dark crypt deep beneath the castle, the godswood with its ivory heart tree. All of it was so ancient, thanks to George R.R. Martin’s lush details and plentiful writing.

Now I will say this: Martin is no Tolkien. While his writing style mimics the great author – whether that is intentional or not – he lacks a definite splendor or majesty when describing these grandiose locations. His writing really wants to fulfill places like the Wall and King’s Landing, but it often falls a little flat and doesn’t wield a specific grace to depict this world, to what I believe to be, the absolute fullest. That is not to say that Martin’s writing wants for an abundance of agility or dignity. He has weaved a complicated web here, through his own style nonetheless, and I give a nod to him in that regard.

What was I talking about? Oh shit. The Starks. Right.

Eddard Stark. Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North. His character was one that piqued my interest right from the off. He was drawn in such a way that I could imagine him as a real person, which I believe to be one of the marks of a true writer. I think it was Eddard’s internal struggle that really expressed that. I could see the battle being waged between his morals and his responsibilities, his duty to the throne and to his family. How that manifested itself throughout the story was fascinating. One of my favorite scenes, both as a reader and writer, was when Eddard executed the Night Watch deserter in the first chapter. The conversation he has with young Bran afterwards, pressing his son to understand why he had to be the one to do the killing, was beautifully done. It was so telling of Eddard’s nature and his integrity, his desire for Bran to grow up as someone honorable, someone not afraid to deliver justice so long as it was deserving. The conversation was also a rare moment of vulnerability for Eddard’s character. He wasn’t speaking as a lord then, he was speaking as a father.

Bran grabbed my attention too. His is a kind of innocent struggle, of life being interrupted and turned on its head. He is forced to grow up from a place on the sidelines, abruptly unable to fulfill the image of the knight he wanted to be. But anyone who survives a fall like that has their own vitality. Bran may be called the Broken, but his spirit remains wholly intact. His love for his family shines through the book, more than making up for his injury. Something that kept me restlessly waiting for his chapters to come up was his growing perspective on the world and on himself. I saw Bran challenge his childhood and question what he was capable of, which was a fresh, young thread to have through all of the death and fighting.

Arya Stark was the best part of reading Game of Thrones. I always become attached to characters like hers: headstrong girls stuck in society’s weaker expectations. I felt her frustration when she was forced into more “ladylike” activities, when she what she really longed for was to hold a sword and explore. Narratives like that never get old to me, because I feel like they are so important to represent. Arya was constantly fighting to break the mold that was being forced on her, something that nearly every woman can relate to. I loved seeing her strength and her raw tenacity interact with her childlike naivety, because she is quite young. I think the end of the book was an interesting climax to Arya’s character, when she escapes from the castle at King’s Landing. She’s on her own, trying to survive the slums and avoid the City Watch while she figures out what to do next. Her struggle to remain strong clashes with her innocence, because she is literally forced to grow up at this point. Arya’s family is scattered and her wolf is gone. It’s just her, like it’s sort of always been. I understand that solitude.

Sansa Stark is someone who I couldn’t be around in real life. I’m always turned off by characters like hers: vain, brainwashed girls who think their looks and getting married are their greatest achievement. However, as a writer myself, I give Martin a lot of credit. Sansa’s severe naivety is extremely well written. Her desires are all tightly wrapped around these valiant stories of princes and rescued damsels, tales and songs with happy endings. But throughout the book that framework unravels and you see the lasting effect it has on the way Sansa sees the world. Another one of my favorite scenes is when she and Joffrey stumble across Arya and her sister stands up against the prince’s cruelty. The way she screams for them to stop, because they are ruining it. She’s so deep in that pretty fantasy of hers that the realities of the world, of Joffrey, pierce her like knives. By the end of the book you see her start to question that fantasy and the world as she knows it, something that will likely change her for good.

Jon Snow is not a Stark. That’s something that is made very clear at the book’s beginning. Still, he’s not to be completely left out of the mix. He’s the classic loner. He’s the misunderstood, tortured soul in all black who spends his time with a wolf, always brooding and thinking about his bastard-ness. Normally, I love a good loner immediately. I’m a queer goth who has a wolf tattoo on her forearm, characters like Snow are automatically a part of my family.

And I liked Jon, I did. I felt like some of his chapters were repetitive, but maybe that was just because a life at the Wall is pretty repetitive. I had a great appreciation for his constant kindness, his willingness to stick his own neck out for others. Jon’s brotherhood with Sam was a welcome warmth in the darkness of the rest of the plot. However, the thing that eventually sold me on his character was his relatability. Now obviously a lot of his problems are fantasy-related, but he has this thread that runs true throughout the book. Even when Jon’s starting to feel welcome, to feel like he may belong somewhere, he’s still alone. Something either happens to remind him or he reminds himself that he’s different, that he’s just other. That could be called angst. Or anxiety. Clearly it’s Martin milking that loner card, but either way it’s a feeling that I and a lot of others can recognize. I do think Jon’s character could use a lot more development and as of now I’m interested to see where he ends up.

As a reviewer I am obligated to now move on to the Lannisters even though I don’t have much to say.

We’ll make this a short one. I have very, very little to say about Jaime. He’s a mean pretty boy who is quite close with his sister and dates power like it’s nobody’s business. The end. He did not stand out to me in the slightest, from a reader or writer perspective.

The same goes for Joffrey. He’s a mean mama’s boy who cuts up animals – and people – in his spare time. I’m interested in where his cruelty will get him, because let’s face it, a novel could always use a twisted character like his, but when he dies I won’t be shedding a tear over what could have been.

As a reader, Cersei is a cunning, vain bitch who will meet her end soon enough. But as a writer, I love her. Not all powerful female characters have to fight on the “good” side. I adore a decently written evil queen who poisons her husband and make a play for power. We need more characters like hers. A vicious, sneaky, powerful woman is still a powerful woman, after all.

Tyrion. His is the one character that I really go back and forth with. On one hand and like most of the book’s male characters, respecting women is really not in his vocabulary. But on the other, he’s funny. I love a character who doesn’t really give a shit what other people think of them, who uses humor and wit as their first language. I think Tyrion’s perplexing nature and shady alliances are decently written and very direct, so in-tune with Martin’s writing style.

Last and almost the least for me: the Mother of Dragons. I’m going to be completely honest, I don’t really like Daenerys Targaryen that much. Saying that, she does still have an interesting presence and development through the course of the novel. She starts out in a very serious state of vulnerability and abuse, caught under her sick brother’s thumb. The physical and psychological pain Daenerys suffers is disgusting to read about, but the manipulation behind it is well executed on Martin’s part. He disperses these little pieces to really implement the idea of this violence against her, like her brother’s “don’t wake the dragon” routine. Immediately it made me think of the mental abuse one can suffer under an alcoholic parent, or anyone who manipulates someone in a similar, personality-splitting way.

Daenerys is then married to man against her wishes. A man three times her age, I might add. (Seriously Martin, the book would not have suffered if that sex scene was cut out. She’s thirteen for fucks sake, there’s no need for that shit.)

It’s after she “warms up” to her new life among the Dothraki that she starts to realize her power and strength. Daenerys is still a cautious person, you see her question her past and her future in a quiet, subtle way. I think that speaks to the fact that she’s so young. But she grows bolder and bolder in each chapter.

When she gets pregnant, because of course Martin just had to go there, you see that childhood suddenly leave her behind and – despite the fact that she’s still a child – she seems like much more of a woman. When she loses the baby and her husband, that womanhood is even more reinforced. There’s little harder or life-altering than losing a child and the person you love.

It’s like I said, I may not like her that much, or the groundwork that Martin laid her on, but I’ve got to admire her character’s abundance of determination. The book ends with the hatching of her dragons, which was a very cool scene, I must admit. Who doesn’t love baby dragons? The breastfeeding was a little weird, but more power to her I guess. I’m curious to see if her personality grows, but I’m not really holding my breath over it.

I’m giving Game of Thrones a solid 6/10. I think some of its basis is problematic and not in a good way. Its characters could have been given more to work with, even if it’s only the first in the series. If a character falls kind of flat in the first book, it doesn’t bode well for the rest. But the world itself is something to be admired, and the alliances and politics are woven together very tightly in Martin’s telling style. I may not be anxiously awaiting the rest of the series, but I’m glad I finally decided to read it.

 

Tell me what you think of Game of Thrones in the comments below, also let me know what you think I should add to my summer reading list!