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With the return of school comes heavy books, dense nonfiction and endless essays. To balance the hefty academic reading, the Daily’s Book Review writers have compiled a list of six must-reads for the back-to-school season. Some are summer releases that might’ve slipped under your radar, while others have been on your to-read list for years. These books are exciting, sharp and fast-paced: From celebrity memoirs to gruesome thrillers, the recommendations are perfect to combat the incoming fall semester fatigue and keep you reading for pleasure. 

— Lilly Pearce, Daily Book Review Editor

‘A Deadly Education’ by Naomi Novik

Wonderfully funny and sharp, Novik’s novel is a post-Harry Potter fantasy response to “what if (insert all-powerful, big bad villain type here) grew up in a loving hippie household” and then went to a dangerous wizard school. The concept is ridiculous, but the novel works because it doesn’t take itself too seriously; at the same time, Novik’s novel is more than an experimental Harry Potter clone. “A Deadly Education” boasts a compelling cast of characters and brilliant world-building, and reveals Novik’s deep understanding of fantasy conventions. Some pop culture familiarity will help readers catch some of the more tongue-in-cheek references, but the novel’s charm holds even without it.

— Elizabeth Yoon, Managing Arts Editor

‘Interior Chinatown’ by Charles Yu

An intellectual successor to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer,” “Interior Chinatown” prods at what it means to pass through life unseen, reduced to tropes and epitaphs. Yu’s main character is an actor playing “Generic Asian Man,” but he aspires to be “Kung-Fu Guy.” Each epitaph and character comes with a predetermined plot and role. Primarily dialogue and formatted as a script, the novel delves into all the hot topics in Asian-American discourse: marginalization, the perpetual foreigner syndrome, the fetishization of Asian women. However, what sets the novel apart is its keen understanding of internalized racism and the bounds of self-rationalization.

— Elizabeth Yoon, Managing Arts Editor

‘Greenlights’ by Matthew McConaughey

Matthew McConaughey’s “Greenlights” captures both the dramatic exhilaration of a celebrity memoir and the sincerity of a philosophical work of nonfiction. He reflects on his 50 years of life, starting with the tale of his family and his boyhood growing up in Texas. It’s fast-paced, hilarious and authentic all at once. McConaughey’s humor is perhaps the book’s greatest captivator — the audiobook does the book greater justice with McConaughey’s spontaneous laughter and gasps, making the book an experience rather than a simple read. His easy Southern accent provides an additional layer of warmth to his genuineness which wraps the reader in an intimate recollection of his past: memories from his first gigs, travels to rivers he swam in, dreams and rites of passages he failed and fulfilled. It’s the kind of book you read twice: First, to laugh and listen; second, to learn.  

— Lilly Pearce, Daily Book Review Editor

‘One Last Stop’ by Casey McQuiston

The New York Times best-selling author Casey McQuiston’s “One Last Stop” is a contemporary queer romance set in New York with an interesting twist. It begins with August, a 20-something transfer student, fleeing her mother and her obsession with her brother’s cold case. August is a self-proclaimed loner but finds it difficult to fight her solitary tendencies when she starts to fall for the girl on the train, Jane Su. The problem is that Jane can’t get off the subway, nor can she remember how long she’s been on it. With the help of her roommates, August tries to solve the mystery and help Jane — but it might mean that saving her means they’ll never see each other again. McQuiston does a wonderful job balancing the fantastical elements of unsolved mysteries with the realistic sentiments of romance and friendship, making “One Last Stop” a must-read. 

— Lilly Pearce, Daily Book Review Editor

‘Goodbye, Again: Essays, Reflections, and Illustrations’ by Jonny Sun

Throughout Sun’s debut essay collection, plants pop up repeatedly: Their resilience is described in “Cactus,” their struggle for stimulation is detailed in “Pothos” and their sensitive nature is profiled in “Air Plant.” In “Succulent,” Sun writes, “Never water a succulent to try to get it to grow faster. It will not grow faster. You will drown its roots and the roots will rot and then the plant will die.” It’s a line I’ve been thinking of often. Plants often represent the self, and this essay collection is no exception. Sun describes his previous struggles with self-preservation while describing plants with care. Ultimately, “Goodbye, Again” sneaks up on you. It doesn’t make any large promises, and maybe that’s part of its charm. Sun reflects on the mundane, offering up a carefully-guarded piece of himself. Don’t tear through the book like I did (the first time); Sun’s labor of love deserves to be savored in tender, comforting chunks. In “Peperomia,” Sun writes of a rebirth: “Over time, with a little bit of watering a few times a week, a tiny sprout grew, with two tiny, fragile leaves reaching up. And now something else is growing, a new plant, in the same spot as my first plant. Like some sort of rebirth.” “Goodbye, Again” is Sun’s unmissable transition into an essayist. 

— Meera Kumar, Daily Arts Writer

‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn

I’m not sure if I read Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” the way it was intended to be read. Don’t get me wrong, I love the concept of the death of the author — in fact, one of my favorite aspects of literature is its allowance for observers to take away meanings that are radically different from the author’s intentions. But I’ve read some interviews by Flynn, and the themes I pulled from the novel were clearly not intentional on her part. Yet that’s what makes “Gone Girl” so exhilarating for me. This psychological thriller follows Nick Dunne, a suspect in the disappearance and presumed murder of his wife, Amy. Without spoiling anything, there comes a point in the novel when you’re clearly supposed to feel bad for Nick — many people I’ve talked to can vouch for this — but I never did. But, in all honesty, this made the novel all the more captivating, because it was so fleshed out that it took on a life of its own, independent of Flynn’s imagination. Flynn’s ability to write complex and morally dubious characters and build tension by contrasting Nick and Amy’s perspectives resulted in an explosive novel I finished in one sitting. And, in spite of how delightfully tangled the characters’ schemes and webs become, Flynn manages to craft the perfect ending, so uniquely hopeless yet appropriate that it reminds me of masterpieces such as Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit.” Needless to say, my experience reading this novel will stay with me for a long time.

— Tate LaFrenier, Daily Arts Writer