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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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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Falling into Place by Amy Zhang

Falling into Place is a small, unassuming book with a rather normal cover. When it came out September 2014, it wasn’t a bestseller. Nothing about it seems particularly extraordinary. But yet, somehow, everything is. Written by teen author (no- Maya Van Wagenen isn’t the only one out there!), Amy Zhang’s Falling into Place is the story of Liz Emerson’s attempted suicide, told from everyone else’s perspective. 

There’s Julia, beautiful, smart, confident, and always stoned. There’s Kennie, vibrant, loud, charismatic, and struggling to recover from her abortion. There’s even Liam, quiet, musical, sweet, and in love with her for as long as he’s known her. And so many more people, from her mother to her physics professor.

And, of course, there’s Liz. Liz, the unofficial queen of Meridian High, who had planned her suicide for months, down to the second, to make sure it seemed like an accident. Liz, who decided the world would be better off without her.

With an atmospheric style reminiscent of E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars, Amy Zhang manages to perfectly capture heartache, grief, and utter loneliness so perfectly it aches. Falling into Place is an absolute must read for anyone who enjoyed Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why or Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall.

Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

For a while, I’ve wanted to know more about Pakistan’s culture. Granted, it’s pretty hard to find a YA book with a Pakistani protagonist or even set in Pakistan. So when I found Written in the Stars, I was very excited. Lucky for me, Aisha Saeed’s Young Adult debut was exactly what I needed.

Written in the Stars is the story of Pakistani-American teen, Naila. You could say Naila’s parents aren’t all that strict. She can dress however she wants, wear her hair however she chooses, go to whatever college she desires. There’s just one itsy-bitsy thing; Naila may not ever date, become friends with, or even socialize with boys. Her parents get to choose her husband. This isn’t an uncommon fate for Pakistani women. In fact, the author’s  marriage was arranged. Naila didn’t mind; until she met Saif. A year later, and Naila and Saif are in a serious, yet completely forbidden, relationship. Naila has no idea how to tell her parents, so when they find out on their own, they’re understandably livid. Naila’s punishment is a month long summer trip with her family to visit their relatives in Pakistan. In this month, Naila’s parents hope she can rediscover her true path. Naila’s happy for this punishment, she’s excited to finally meet her extended family! And maybe, just maybe, she can show her parents Saif isn’t that bad. But when the very future Naila’s been fighting against finally happens, she’s devastated and completely trapped. Is her relationship with Saif really written in the stars?

Now, I’ll admit, although arranged marriage is a loaded topic, I was expecting a lighter book. Written in the Stars is quite the opposite. It deals with the realities of life, so expect hardship, joy, and everything in between. Written in the Stars is short, smart, and a must read.

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes

Spoiler Alert: I have quite a contrary opinion about this book.

Several popular reviewers have showered The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly with praise. While I respect their opinions, I am not about to do the same. I know  Stephanie Oakes has drawn from her well of inspiration to bring this book to readers all over. I appreciate that. However, I found The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly lacking originality. The prison setting in the book? Just like Orange is the New Black. The cult described in the book? Clearly it parallels Mormonism. HBO’s Big Love broke that ground (not to mention Broadway’s The Book of Mormon). So does YA really need a (controversial) Mormon treatment? I don’t think so.

Undeniably, The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly holds its readers fascinated because of the description of the Kevinian cult and its activities. However, the prison scenes are less than captivating. On the upside, the book was suspenseful and was great at keeping me guessing. Unfortunately the “lyrical” prose is spotty, which makes it quite painful. You read great sentences and then must wander through deserts of words. If you’re interested in the milieu of prison without reading an OiTNB redux, I suggest Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us.

Finally, for a book so explicitly detailed throughout, I find the vague ending quite disappointing. The secondary characters wrap up quite neatly. But the main character (Minnow)? Not so much.

I didn’t really hate The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly. The books I dislike I can hardly ever finish. I just wish Stephanie Oakes would have gave it more originality and a clearer ending. I will however read her next and next novel and hope for the best.

99 Days by Katie Cotugno

I went into 99 Days expecting nothing, thanks to the dust jacket summary. A summer where a girl must confront her past with two brothers? No thanks. What
I got from 99 Days was so much more.

99 Days has everything that makes a good summer
novel: realistic characters, a unique and compelling storyline, friendship (although it was more like sisterhood) and an
unpredictable ending (a near impossible feat in YA contemporary). My favorite part was the great characters; all multidimensional and completely relatable. Even the love interests, Patrick and Gabe Donnelly, were interesting, and even I couldn’t pick a side in the love triangle! Katie Cotugno also explores the double standards girls face when it comes to dating, which I’m sure feminists (like me) will enjoy.

99 Days centers around Molly Barlow, an utter social outcast, returning to her small Catskills town for the summer. Molly’s mother is the acclaimed author, Diane Barlow, whose latest bestseller just so happened to be about her daughter’s love life (read: her daughter’s cheating scandal). The tabloids were all over it. Molly’s then-boyfriend… not so much. So, with plans to live in her room watching Netflix documentaries until autumn when she starts college, Molly returns to the Catskills. No surprise – not a single person is happy to see her.

Skip the dust jacket, I promise you that you’ll love getting lost in Katie Cotugno’s second novel, 99 Days. Don’t miss it!