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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Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Only at Yale is it possible to ward off malevolent ghosts by reciting Horace. Such is the premise of Leigh Bardugo’s newest novel, her first foray away from Ravka, the fantasy world she created in 2012. I consider myself a Bardugo superfan. I’ve written rave reviews of everything she’s written. But, because Ninth House was such a radical departure from her norm, I was a little nervous to pick it up. Luckily, excitement overpowered me because Bardugo’s writing coincided with my life in a way that was previously impossible: I am doing college visits this summer and Yale is on my list. So, with mixed feelings, I picked Ninth House up.

If there’s one thing Bardugo has mastered it’s setting. She attended Yale in the 1990’s and her time at the school is reflected through loving descriptions of everything from the library to the cafeteria line. My favorite aspect was her biting descriptions of secret societies, which, as I discovered after a Wikipedia wormhole, are all totally real. It’s also notable that Bardugo manages to shy away from any type of “wealth porn” unlike similar novels set at other prestigious institutions. Sure, there are vibrant descriptions of the dining hall’s priceless stained glass windows, but the racist scenes of plantation life the depict is highlighted, too. This step away from glorification made Bardugo’s descriptions both more vivid and likable.

Darlington liked to say that dealing with ghosts was like riding the subway: Do not make eye contact. Do not smile. Do not engage. Otherwise, you never know what might follow you home.

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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 at school, I annotate like crazy. My books are filled with underlines and highlights and circles and notes. However, I have never annotated a book I have read for pleasure. It somehow feels perverse, like I am tarnishing the integrity of the novel. 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. 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.

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.

“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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Vox by Christina Dalcher

If I had to describe Vox in one word, I would choose the word “wobbly.” The concept behind Dalcher’s full-length debut is compelling, but her execution is shaky and, at times, sloppy. I wanted to love Vox because its premise seems so timely and unique, but the intriguing narrative suffered at the hands of writing that felt unskilled and confusing.

Vox, from the Latin “voice”, is the story of scientist-turned-housewife Dr. Jean McClellan. She lives a near-future United States, which has adopted radical Biblical ideas about women and family structure. Women no longer work, cannot own property or vote, must live with a male relative, and can only speak 100 words per day. Dalcher’s society feels extraordinarily timely after recent abortion bans in Alabama and “heartbeat bills” in states such as Georgia. As a young woman, these bills terrify me, and I can only imagine what future restrictions on my freedom may look like. For this reason, I was so excited to follow Jean’s story as she grapples with her new, restrained reality.

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A Room Away from the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma

araftwI am not the biggest fan of magical realism. I just don’t like wandering through hundreds of pages, completely confused. Now, don’t get me wrong, A Room Away from the Wolves is confusing. But, somehow, Nova Ren Suma makes it work.

Suma’s newest, released just two days ago, follows Sabina “Bina” as she ventures into New York City after being thrown out of the house by her mother. She winds up at Catherine House, a refuge for young women, home to strange residents and even stranger rules.

As Bina navigates through the novel, there is a sense of wrongness, as if she and the reader are missing something critical. But, even upon finishing the book, I still didn’t quite understand what I was missing. I didn’t even know what questions to ask in order to find out. Although this quality can be frustrating in some novels, it only gives A Room Away from the Wolves a more ethereal atmosphere.

“I’d never met a better liar, or a girl I admired more.”

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Vicious by V. E. Schwab

v.jpgAs soon as I saw Vicious, I knew I had to have it. See, I’ve reviewed books for eight years. But, never have I reviewed a book that started with V. It was the one of two letters (the other being J) missing from my review archive. For months, I had been trying to fill that tiny, infuriating gap, and in a second I had a solution.

I like V. E. Schwab. She consistently turns out fun, reliably predictable fantasy novels easy to read in one sitting, like This Savage SongVicious was no different.

Vicious alternates between two timelines: The first is the story of two college roommates working on their thesis projects. The second is told ten years later, one roommate in prison plotting his former friend’s death, the other roommate traveling throughout the country, doing what he thinks is good. The tension between the pair is electric as the story leads up to the question on the lips of everyone in the story: what really happened that night everything went wrong?

“The moments that define lives aren’t always obvious. They don’t scream LEDGE, and nine times out of ten there’s no rope to duck under, no line to cross, no blood pact, no official letter on fancy paper.

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Swing Time by Zadie Smith

st“Please,” my roommate begged as we packed our bags, “take it. I can’t even look at it. I want to love it. But I just- ugh!” She threw her hands up and collapsed onto her bed.

The “it” she was referring to is Swing Time by Zadie Smith. We were packing our carry on bags and she was desperately trying to make the 50 pound limit by  giving me books she had read (or in this case, attempted to read). I took the book, partly because I had heard that Zadie Smith was an incredible author, and partly because I had nothing to read on the immenent thirteen hour flight.

For the first half of the flight, I thought my roommate was right. Zadie Smith is an extremely talented writer. Every sentence, deliberately constructed, presents interesting ideas in beautiful ways. But every sentence. It was exhausting. Even selecting quotes for this review was difficult. So many amazing sentences! How could I chose?

“Sometimes I wonder if people don’t want freedom as much as they want meaning.”

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Lord of Shadows by Cassandra Clare

losMy least favorite part of Lady Midnight, the first novel in Cassandra Clare’s Dark Artifices trilogy, was how little the faerie world that was mentioned was explored. Luckily, that world was the center of Lord of Shadows, the second novel in the trilogy.

In Lord of Shadows, readers are immersed in the politics of the Faerie courts and the Clave, the Shadowhunter government. With murderous necromancy cult created by warlock Malcolm Fade in Lady Midnight fresh in the minds of Shadowhunters, a new bill  has been proposed that would create a warlock registry, camps for werewolves, and limited access to blood for vampires. If this imaginary bigotry seems like a familiar if not a little heavy handed metaphor, well, that seems to be the point.

With this bill in mind, the Blackthorn family, along with Emma Carstairs and Christina Rosales, race around the world(s), from London, the faerie courts, Idris, and beyond. Much more political than its predecessor, Lord of Shadows draws readers into worlds new and old.

“There is truth in stories…There is truth in one of your paintings, boy or in a sunset or a couplet from Homer. Fiction is truth, even if it is not a fact.”

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Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

ewThroughout the world, there are whispers of doors inexplicably changing- doors becoming portals to different places on Earth. This is the premise of Mohsin Hamid’s newest novel, Exit West, a finalist for the 2017 Man Booker Prize.

“Everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.”

These doors provide an escape opportunity for young couple Saeed and Nadia, who live in an unnamed city on the brink of war. For the first half of the novel, the couple fiercely tries to adapt to a rapidly changing city-turned-battleground. Eventually however, fate becomes unavoidable. The pair leave their home for a door that leads to a refugee camp in Mykonos. From there, the couple travels all around the world- from London to the Bay Area and beyond.

Michiko Kakutani, former New York Times chief book critic, described Hamid’s prose as “crystalline” and I could not agree more. Hamid’s sentences are long and winding- they feel like a fluid train of thought more than a concrete description. Every sentence has many facets- I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with as many commas) This only entrenches the feel of magical realism into the novel.

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