Normal People by Sally Rooney

Ok, yes, I finally caved to the hoards of Glossier-wearing, Man Repeller-obsessed NYC cool girls and picked up Sally Rooney’s sophomore novel, Normal People. Don’t worry, I didn’t buy it just for the gram (but I did post a picture of it, in case you’re curious), I bought it for “research,” which is code for “Dad, I really want to visit Ireland.” Plus, when an author is called “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” I feel an obligation, as a member of said generation, to give it a chance.

When Rooney’s editor called her “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” I think they were referring to the fact that reading Salinger feels like a status symbol. It says, “See? I’m cultured. I only checked SparkNotes once during 10th grade English.” I’ve only read Nine Stories and my biggest claim to fame is that he mentioned my school by name in Catcher in the Rye. I’m not any sort of literary expert, but I think calling people phonies and posting your vacation read on Instagram is pretty much the same thing.

Here’s the best part: Rooney’s characters mock this cultural charade in their very book. When discussing book readings, protagonist Connell says, “It was culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.” I have a feeling he and Holden would be two peas in a pod.

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Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

As soon as you pick up Why We Broke Up, you can tell it’s something special. Its thick pages that seem more suited to coffee table photography books make the book feel ridiculously heavy for only 350 pages. But, these pages are worth it: a quick flip through reveals beautiful illustrations by Maira Kalman before each chapter. Kalman also illustrated the dust jacket and the physical cover underneath it. Furthermore, instead of reviews on the back cover, there’s breakup stories from famous authors, such as Neil Gaiman, Brian Selznick, Sara Shepard, and more. This endearing quirkiness is essential to the atmosphere of the book, which at times feels uncomfortably authentic, like snooping through someone’s diary and discovering a bombshell.

This strangeness is best made sense of by considering author Daniel Handler, better known as Lemony Snicket. A Series of Unfortunate Events, his beloved children’s series is fantastically bizarre (as is its Netflix adaptation) and was one of my favorites in elementary school. After reading A Series of Unfortunate Events, I thought I was well prepared for his quirks when I began Why We Broke Up. I was sorely mistaken.

“The thing with your heart’s desire is that your heart doesn’t even know what it desires until it turns up. Like a tie at a tag sale, some perfect thing in a crate of nothing, you were just there, uninvited, and now suddenly the party was over and you were all I wanted. I hadn’t even been looking, not for you, and now you were my heart’s desire.” 

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The Power by Naomi Alderman

The first half of Naomi Alderman’s The Power reads like a feminist revenge fantasy. Teenage girls suddenly have the power to electrocute people through touch. Even better, they can transfer this power to older women. The societal tables have turned and women now hold power over men. This flip, especially in a reality where my fundamental rights, such as access to healthcare, are being stripped away by sexist politicians, feels scarily gratifying. Alderman leans into this feeling to weave a story about gender that, despite the wealth of great feminist novels, has never been told before.

“It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.” 

I am sixteen, the same age as one protagonist, Allie, at the start of the novel. I found myself salivating over descriptions of men being afraid to walk alone at night. I cheered when women took to the streets blowing up cars they were not allowed to drive. When women leered at men and men lamented this unfairness, I thought, it’s about time. The sane part of me knows that men do not deserve to be punished for society raising them to be assholes. But, the part of me that Alderman manages to catch in a rush of “equality” relished the flipped script. Maybe this is what makes The Power so captivating. Contrary to contemporary feminist novels where women are stripped of their voice or bodily autonomy, women gain power and use it to punish men.

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The Secret History by Donna Tartt

When I read for school, I annotate like crazy. My books are filled with underlines and highlights and circles and notes crammed into margins. However, I’ve never annotated a book that I’ve read for pleasure. It felt perverse, like I would tarnish the integrity of the story. But, when I read The Secret History, it felt criminal not to underline, at the very least. Some of Tartt’s sentences were too beautiful not to record. So, I treated her debut like a book I was reading in school, circling words I didn’t know and underlining important fragments. Now, my copy resembles a diary. I don’t know if I’ll keep annotating after The Secret History. Maybe I was just doing it because I finished school a week ago and hadn’t yet switched that part of my brain off. But, maybe Tartt changed how I read in a fundamental way. I hope it’s the latter.

The Secret History came out in 1992, so it’s not a new book. Furthermore, although I think it’s set in the 80’s, it has a timeless air to it. Despite this, I felt a deep connection to the story’s setting, a preppy liberal arts college, which felt eerily familiar to my equally preppy boarding school. Our dining halls are even both called Commons! I felt myself so unexpectedly nostalgic for my school that I looked it up on Google Maps street view and “walked” around campus after reading certain chapters. This quintessential New-England feeling is, in my opinion, the strongest aspect of the book.

“Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.” 

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Five Books to Get You into the “Game of Thrones” Spirit

Game of Thrones is back for its final season! I am so excited (and terrified) to see what’s in store for my favorite characters this season, but I know that once the show is over, I’ll be in serious withdrawal. To mitigate this feeling, here are some fantasy series that bring all of the magic, intrigue, and romance that Game of Thrones is known for to your very own hands. Hopefully, you can find a new favorite to binge between episodes or after the finale.

I am proud to say An Ember in the Ashes is one of the first fantasy series after Percy Jackson and Harry Potter that I truly fell in love with. Tahir’s world-building is truly incredible (and has only gotten better three books in) and her diverse ensemble of female characters is admirable. If you loved the family relationships in Game of Thrones, particularly female relationships, I promise you’ll devour Tahir’s debut fantasy series.

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Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

I’ve been meaning to read Fruit of the Drunken Tree since before it came out. It sounded like everything I would want in a novel: class struggles, complicated female narratives, captivating writing. But, I just never got around to it. Until, one fateful day halfway into spring break. I had binged all The Bachelor I could bear, and finally decided I needed to read something before my brain turned to mush. Luckily, Contreras’ debut, which was conveniently available at my local bookstore, does not disappoint.

Fruit of the Drunken Tree follows two girls whose paths briefly cross: Nine year old Chula, who spends her days daydreaming and terrorizing family and neighbors alike from her Bogotá townhouse, and thirteen year old Petrona, her nanny plucked from eternal poverty in the slums on the outskirts of the city. They meet at the height of coke-kingpin Pablo Escobar’s reign over Colombia. While the two girls are coming into their identities as women, they are also grappling with where those identities fit into their distinct socio-economic classes. But, although their identities are in constant conflict, the two girls seem to develop a strange kinship.

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The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

soaWhere do I even begin with Madeline Miller? I fell in love with Circe when I read it in January, and it seems The Song of Achilles, Miller’s 2011 debut, is just as fantastic. My one complaint is more out of sadness than disappointment. If it took Miller ten years to write this novel and seven to write Circe, will I really have to wait five or ten years to read another one of Miller’s retellings? It’s only been a few hours since I finished The Song of Achilles and the wait has already become nearly unbearable.

I think what makes Miller’s novels so incredible is her voice. Her sentences, short but heavy with imagery, give the book the same feel of classic mythology and retellings. Her descriptions are dreamy, forcing me reading slower than usual to make sure I didn’t miss a single word. And, although there are plenty of battle montages and war councils, Miller shines most when writing extremely emotional scenes, such as when Achilles kills Hector or when Patroclus confronts Thetis, Achilles’ mother, at Achilles’ grave.

“We were like gods at the dawning of the world, and our joy was so bright we could see nothing else but the other.”

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The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon

tiAlthough R. O. Kwon’s debut is a compact novel, clocking in at just under 200 pages, it packs a powerful punch. I read The Incendiaries in a morning, only putting it down to get breakfast and use the bathroom. Everything about it feels ephemeral, like it could vanish in a blink, so it felt imperative that I read it as quick as possible.

“I’ve wondered if I’ve stopped being able to want, but maybe it’s just that what I most wish to have again is not, at this point, available.”

The Incendiaries gives readers two familiar characters; an enigmatic, damaged girl in desperate need of a therapist, not a boyfriend, and her unfortunate boyfriend, someone who’s isn’t particularly unique, but is captivated with her to the point of obsession. These two characters are Phoebe and Will. They are both new to their prestigious college and both reeling from a formative event– Phoebe, the death of her mother, and Will, his rejection of the God he had cherished for so long. Will meets Phoebe just as she begins to attend Jejah, a group led by a Korean-American religious fanatic. And although Jejah at first seems just like a weekly dinner party, in the first chapter readers are armed with the knowledge that Jejah will evenutally become a cult known for bombing abortion clinics.

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King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo

kosMy first venture into Leigh Bardugo’s fantasy “Grishaverse” happened in 2013, when I was ten. Six years later, I’ve followed her protagonists through the rough waves of the Bone Sea, trekked through snowy forests of Fjerda, weathered the cobbled streets of Novyi Zem, and even ventured into a few sketchy casinos in Ketterdam. And still, I love returning to her ever-expanding, relentlessly vivid world just as I did the first time.

In King of Scars, Bardugo returns readers to Ravka, three years after the events in her debut Grisha trilogy. There, we are welcomed by old favorites such as King Nikolai, Genya Safin, twins Tolya and Tamar, and (my personal favorite) Zoya Nazyalensky. However, our characters spend little time in the throne room, instead opting to run around Ravka, chasing saints and subduing a growingly-powerful monster.

I know I am not alone when I say my favorite part of King of Scars was the constant banter between two of the protagonists, Zoya and Nikolai. Since she appeared smirking at Alina’s love interest in the second chapter of Shadow and Bone, Zoya’s reputation has seemed to be cemented as an icy seductress there only to give Alina boy trouble. But, although she was was not treated kindly in Bardugo’s first series, Zoya is certainly not in for a redemption arc in this one. Instead, readers get to peer inside her head, where she transforms from a sexist cliché to an empowered, three-dimensional character. But, make no mistake- Zoya has not gotten nicer. She’s just as witty, and even more ruthless, but now, she’s finally, rightfully, taking control of her narrative.

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On The Come Up by Angie Thomas

otcuIn On the Come Up, Angie Thomas builds upon the vivid world of Garden Heights that she introduced to readers in her #1 New York Times bestseller debut, The Hate U Give. But this time, instead of Starr Carter narrating this story, readers are introduced to sixteen year old Bri Jackson, daughter of underground rap legend Lawless. Like her father, who was killed in a gang-related shooting when she was little, Bri dreams of becoming a legendary rapper (that is when she’s not taking ACT prep courses or geeking out over tweety bird).

You’ll never silence me and you’ll never kill my dream/just recognize when you say brilliant that you’re also/ saying Bri

I found On the Come Up even more compelling than its blockbuster predecessor, perhaps because of Bri’s similarity to Thomas, who writes in her dust jacket biography that she was once a rapper. However, instead of Bri’s musical ambitions, what stuck out most to me was the conflict between Bri’s upper-middle class arts school and her working class roots.

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