On the Come Up

“When I was little I used to stand in front of mirrors with hairbrushes and imagine crowds chanting my name. But I don’t think I could have ever imagined this feeling.”

On the Come Up follows sixteen-year-old Bri, who wants to be one of the Greatest Rappers of All Time, as she navigates a lot of tough issues in her own life and fights to follow her dreams.

Her late father, who was an underground rap sensation, left big shoes to fill and Bri isn’t sure that they fit her. Her mother, who tries so hard, just lost her job and can’t get food stamps without dropping out of school. Bri dreams of not only being able to make it big, but also to provide for her family.

After she’s persecuted at school by a security guard, Bri turns her fury into a song and gets the chance to put her truth into the world. What she finds is that not everyone in the world likes what you have to say, or that she’s the one saying it, and that they make decisions about who she is because of it. Between trying to battle the stereotypes being placed on her, the pressure to embrace a new image that doesn’t fit, and navigating her way through both good and horrible advice, Bri manages to still create something astounding: herself. (And some badass music.)

I already loved Angie Thomas from her debut novel THUG (The Hate You Give) and I only love her writing more now than I did before. On the Come Up is a new book, a different book, from its predecessor but a hit all the same. I loved so many things about On the Come Up that it’s hard to name them all.

Bri was such a relatable character and I loved her voice! She’s not the easiest to love, and I think that’s why I liked her so much. She’s human and authentic, especially for a teen. She’s moody, angry, and impulsive sometimes, but also loving, protective, and strong. She expresses herself without any apology and I both enjoyed reading her character and aspire to be more like that some days.

Another aspect of this book that I loved was how Thomas portrayed Bri’s family life. Her brother is an interesting and strong character for her to lean on, and Bri’s mother was an entirely empathetic character to me. I wanted her, and her family, to succeed so badly! Bri learns a lot about her mom throughout the book which I enjoyed watching unfold, especially with how human and real her discoveries were. She’s always known that her mom is a recovered addict and yet she starts to see that its a struggle her mother has to fight daily. She sees her mother give up her school when its the only way to qualify for food stamps and realizes just how many sacrifices she has made to take care of them. At the end they both see each other in a new and different light, and I loved watching that transformation through Bri’s eyes.

Like THUG, her debut novel, Thomas is able to speak to a lot of important truths in this book. I felt Bri’s pain and anger every time her family had to scrape for bills or her school security guards targeted black and latinx students or her aunt got arrested. But then again— Bri would probably hate that I just said all that. She suffers no pity or sympathy. She takes all of her fear and fury and love and channels into her music, which was a phenomenal piece of this beautiful story. I love how she turned to her music every time she needed to be heard. Bri’s rhymes are poetry and truth, and unapologetically herself.

Thomas’ examination of the double standards and various pitfalls for women, especially a young black woman, in the rap industry (and the world) also felt vital to this story. After Bri releases her song, she quickly finds out that people who don’t know her are making assumptions about her being dangerous and irreverent because of her age, lyrics, and skin color. She’s targeted by the Crowns (a local gang) and by the media who vilify her and her song. She goes on to release a video for the song, demonstrating that her lyrics about guns and rage against authority are in response to a personal persecution in a trend of persecution among people like her. She tries to make her message clear, but it only brings her more hate from outside. Thomas does a wonderful job of examining the hypocrisy of a white journalist arguing against rap being “unsafe for kids” because of lyrics about guns and violence, without trying to understand or support the communities in which there are actual children who need that safety. It felt important that Thomas wrote about Bri’s struggles to say certain things in her lyrics that are never questioned when men are rapping, but questioned for her all the time. It felt important that Thomas, and Bri, used this platform to not just talk about important issues but to express how these struggles made them feel and celebrate the people who fight them every day.

On the Come Up was insightful, full of heart, and unafraid. It’s a wonderful story about a girl so many of us can relate to fighting hard to follow her dreams even when the odds are against her. It’s a story about how freedom of speech is not always free, depending on who you are. It’s a story about music and how it can connect us to new and deeper parts of ourselves. It’s a story about family and love and community. And most of all it is an ode, a love letter, to hip hop. I enjoyed every word.

Gift. One word, one syllable. I don’t know if it rhymes with anything because it’s a word I never thought could be used when it comes to me.


The Bride Test

“You can kiss me,” she said, her voice half whisper, half husky rasp. “Anytime you want, you can kiss me.”

Damn it, Helen Hoang. This was so good. Reading this stole a perfectly good day from me! I mean it was worth it, but I couldn’t put this book down.

The Bride Test, like its predecessor (not prequel) The Kiss Quotient, is probably one of my favorite books that I’ve read this year.

Hoang’s second novel follows Vietnam-native Esme Tran on a journey across the world to meet Khai Diep, who she may very well decide to marry, if all goes well.

Khai has no interest in marriage though, whatsoever. He is reserved, exacting, and convinced he can never actually love someone else. Khai feels that his autism means that his heart is cold and made of stone, and incapable of love or grief or a number of other emotions. However, his family knows otherwise. His mother, in fact, is all the way in Vietnam looking for a bride for him, convinced that her son can be happy too.

Esme Tran, a mixed-race Vietnam native, works cleaning rooms at a hotel and lives her life to support her family and her young daughter, Jade. On an auspicious day at work, she meets a woman with an intriguing proposal: Come to America, meet her son and potential husband, and see if love blooms. Wondering if this could be the opportunity that she, her daughter, and her family need, Esme can’t turn down the offer.

Meeting Khai, let alone getting inside that quiet exterior, is more work than she expected it to be, but there’s something about him that makes her want to know him more deeply. And there’s something about her that might just make Khai finally realize that he can love in his own way, and that he can love with all of his heart.

The Bride Test was an absolute delight to read. 

The story is charming, relatable, romantic, and the perfect amount of sexy. From beginning to end, the characters draw you toward them like a moth, and the pacing sets a smooth, easy rhythm that I couldn’t break out of.

A few of our favorites, from The Kiss Quotient, make an appearance (Stella and Michael are getting married!!), but mostly we are treated to an introduction to the other side of the family we were only given a glimpse into before. The characters that make up Khai and Esme’s families are every bit as special, wonderful, and real as I expected them to be, coming from Hoang. Each character, even side characters, sounded and felt like a whole being, and by the end of the book I was heartbroken to part with any of them.

I also love to see a story that encompasses so many voices that we don’t hear often enough, from the immigrant and neurodivergent communities in particular. Hoang’s personal experience gives her an innate and spectacular talent of letting her readers peek inside the mind of someone who’s different from themselves, and this book was no exception. Understanding Khai was Esme’s goal in this book, but it also becomes the reader’s reward; every piece of information we glean from him, every moment inside his thoughts and feelings, is precious and paints a new world for her readers. For Khai and Esme too, as they fumble and trip over themselves to know one another. 

I personally love how Hoang can take a character who lives in their own world and introduce them to a new one, while never compromising who they are. Her books make me want to be more honest and accepting of myself, look for the good in people and, yes, have some steamy moments too!

This sweet strangers-to-love tale will take you through a spectrum of emotions throughout its rollercoaster of a ride, and will leave you incredibly satisfied at the end. Hoang delivers exactly what she promises in The Bride Test, a beautiful and romantic story about love, the importance of family, and the value of each of our unique perspectives.

“Everyone deserves to love and to be loved back. Everyone.