Kaikeyi, by Vaishnavi Patel

In trying to categorize this book for this blog, I marked it as both “historical fiction” and “fantasy” because it has elements of both. The novel tells the story, not exactly of the Hindu epic Ramayana but rather of the backstory leading up to it. More specifically, as the title indicates, it is the story of Kaikeyi, who in most tellings of the saga gets the godlike Prince Rama exiled to the forest out of her jealousy because she wants her own son to succeed to the throne instead of his half-brother Rama.

As with the last book I just read about Freydis Eriksdottir, this novel takes a woman maligned in legend and tells the story from her point of view. While I don’t know the Hindu epics very well, my point of entry to the Ramayana is the movie Sita Sings the Blues, so I’m already predisposed to think of Rama as less than perfect (even if he was an avatar of Vishnu) and to see the story through the eyes of the women characters.

Kaikeyi is a compelling, fascinating woman, one who believes herself from childhood to be forsaken by the gods, their ears deaf to her pleas. She is not, however, jealous of Rama; she loves him and all the other sons of her husband’s other wives equally; the picture here is of a large, loving family in which three sister-wives all get along and share in raising each other’s children. Kaikeyi’s concerns about Rama spring from a different place altogether: as the young man becomes more convinced of his divine origin and destiny, he comes into conflict with all three of his mothers, particular Kaikeyi, in their attempts to improve women’s lot in the kingdom. A rigid, “fundamentalist” approach to the wishes of the gods clashes with a more progressive view, and Kaikeyi begins to see Rama as more of a danger than a savior.

While the story is clearly set in a past India, it’s a mythic one rather than one tied to a particular historical era. The gods and their interventions in human life are very real, as is Kaikeyi’s mystical power to see connections between herself and other people as visible lines, like auras, and influence those connections to become stronger or weaker. The story is rich, vivid, and compelling, and feels like being immersed in a myth.

The Voyage of Freydis, by Tamara Goranson

The Voyage of Freydis takes the tale of Freydis Eriksdottir, a minor character who is mentioned in a brief but enignmatic fragment of the sagas about Greenlanders making their way to the place they called Vinland — now presumed to be the Norse settlement site at L’anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland — in the 11th century. Because women are so often nameless and absent in these types of historical accounts, it’s almost irresistible for historical fiction writers to try to build a story around the rare woman who does have a name and is depicted as doing something. Tamara Goranson is not the first writer to take on Freydis’s story; in fact, I read Joan Clark’s novel Eriksdottir, also about Freydis. However, that book came out in 1994 and I probably read it then or within a few years afterwards, so I sadly can’t remember anything about Clark’s take on the story.

The details that are captured about Freydis (a sister of the famous explorer Leif “the Lucky” Erikson) in the sagas are hard to make a sympathetic story out of, as she is depicted as ruthlessly murdering a bunch of fellow explorers. A good novelist will tell the story so that her actions makes sense in context; a good novelist will also be aware that what comes down to us in sagas and historical records is not always an accurate reflection of how real people might have behaved.

In this novel, Goranson has given us a believable and sympathetic Freydis trapped in an abusive marriage to a brutal man. The lengths she goes to to get free and stay free from her husband are what drive the novel’s action. There were times when the language, especially in dialogue, did not draw me into the story as much as I’d hoped, and a few possible anachronisms that pulled me out of the story. But as a reader and writers who is always interested in the erased or mistold stories of women in history, I was very interested in this take on the Viking story.

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, by Becky Chambers

I don’t want to spend too much time here re-capping what this book is about: if you’re unfamiliar with this series, read my review of the first book in this series, A Psalm for the Wild-Built. Discovering it last year, I fell in love with the gentle post-apocalyptic near-utopia that Chambers has created, and with Sibling Dex and their robot companion Mosscap, whose story picks up in this volume immediately after the end of the previous book.

Mosscap, the first robot to re-engage with humanity after centuries of the two species living separately, is about to meet humans other than Dex, and it’s exciting for everyone concerned — but also confusing. The various encounters Mosscap and Dex have with people along their journey to the big city — including Dex’s large, lovely, complicated family — are described with lovely, often humourous insight. But when we reach what we expect to be the climax of the story — Mosscap’s presentation to the people of the city – the story takes an unexpected turn.

I loved reading this short book just as much as its prequel, and read it very quickly. If I have a criticism it’s only to say that I hope there is a third book coming, because this book is great on atmosphere and character development but a little light on plot, and there are things I would like to see developed and resolved further. But I can never get enough of the world Chambers has created in these novels.

What Souls Are Made Of, by Tasha Suri

What Souls Are Made Of is the second book I’ve read in the series of “remixed classics” in which writers of colour or writers otherwise marginalized reimagine classics of the Western canon. The first one of these I read was Bethany C. Morrow’s So Many Beginnings, a Little Women remix which I enjoyed although I felt some storylines needed to be developed more. What Souls Are Made Of is a Wuthering Heights remix, and even without the twist of it being imagined by a writer of South Asian heritage, any retelling of WH that can make Heathcliff anything other than an absolutely repugnant villain deserves big props right from the get go.

Tasha Suri, who I’ve known best up till now as a fantasy writer, re-imagines Emily Bronte’s classic story of doomed, self-destructive love through the lens of British colonialism in the Indian subcontinent. The main characters Cathy, her brother Hindley, and the orphan child Heathcliff who comes to live with them, are all of mixed Indian and English ancestry; Cathy and Hindley are the children of an Indian mistress their father lived with while working overseas with the British East Indian Company. Heathcliff is the child of an Indian sailor and an Englishwoman; the elder Mr. Earnshaw’s strange act of adopting this orphan makes sense in the context of his guilt over abandoning his Indian mistress and another child there, and in the larger picture of his guilt over the impact of colonialism on the people he knew in that country.

Cathy and Heathcliff’s love seems as doomed and fated as in the original novel, but unlike Bronte, Suri devotes a good portion of the book to what Heathcliff does when he leaves Wuthering Heights as a young man. She follows him to Liverpool, where he becomes part of a group of marginalized, poor, mixed-race people in that port city, and confronts both his own past and an uncertain future. In WH, Heathcliff returns from his time away having mysteriously become wealthy, and uses that newfound wealth and power to exact brutal revenge on everyone who was ever cruel to him. What Souls Are Made Of shows a plausible path to how Heathcliff might have amassed wealth and power, and how he might have desired revenge — but this version of Heathcliff may be capable of making different choices than Bronte’s Heathcliff, and may even be able to change the end of his story.

You’ll have to read it to find out.

Constant Nobody, by Michelle Butler Hallett

It’s hard to believe I haven’t already posted a review of this wonderful novel, which recently won Atlantic Canada’s most prestigious literary prize: the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. I had already read it, but, as is often the case with those of us who live in a small and close-knit literary community, I read it in manuscript form and offered some critique to the author, who is a friend. However, reading the finished book was such a completely different and much more overwhelming experience.

At its most basic level, Constant Nobody is a literary spy story that begins against the background of the Spanish Civil War, when British spy Temerity West has a chance encounter with Russian spy Kostya Nikto. Months later, when Kostya is back home in Moscow, they meet again. Temerity is now living the exceptionally dangerous life of a British agent undercover in Stalin’s USSR when Kostya finds her and (maybe) saves her life. For long, agonizing weeks, as Temerity hides out in Kostya’s apartment, the two are bound together by secrets, lies, intrigue, attraction, and danger.

It’s a love story, of course, but it’s so much more than that: these two people are drawn together, and owe much to each other, but can never come close to trusting each other. In fact, they can trust nobody: one of the things this novel does most strikingly is recreate the claustrophobic atmosphere of Moscow under Stalin’s purges. Kostya is a respected KGB officer, yet neither he nor any of his fellow officers can feel any sense of security, nor can any of them trust each other. Kostya’s privileged life is almost as precarious as Temerity’s illicit presence in the city; the dreaded knock could come on anyone’s door, at any moment.

This is a beautifully-written and tightly constructed novel of intrigue, suspense, and thoughtful reflection all interwoven into the story of two unforgettable characters.

Unmask Alice, by Rick Emerson

Right after racing through the audiobook of Tim Miller’s Why We Did It, I started listening to the very different, but equally compelling Unmask Alice, which I came to by way of the podcast You’re Wrong About, which did a three-part series on Go Ask Alice, part 3 of which featured Rick Emerson with an interview and a recommendation to read his book for the rest of the story.

I’m not sure why I found this so compelling, apart from the usual reason with great non-fiction: I didn’t know I was interested in the subject until someone wrote about it in such an engaging way that I couldn’t put it down (or turn it off, in the case of an audiobook).

I’ve never actually read Go Ask Alice, though the book has been around almost my entire life (published in 1971). I was always aware of it in a vague way as part of the culture: the anonymous diary of a teenager who died as a result of drug use (mostly LSD). I also had a sense that it might be a fake diary, and learned a bit more about it from episodes of the podcasts Worst Bestsellers and the above-mentioned You’re Wrong About. But with Unmask Alice I took a very, very deep dive into the world of author Beatrice Sparks and her best-known books, Go Ask Alice and Jay’s Journal (about a teenaged boy who dies by suicide after becoming involved with satanism and the occult).

Long story short: after some incredibly exhaustive and detailed research, Emerson concludes that Beatrice Sparks was pretty much a fraud through and through. She didn’t have the psychology degree (much less the PhD) that she claimed to have; she may have done some volunteer work in hospitals or programs that worked with troubled youth but she certainly was not a therapist or counsellor, which she represented herself as being. What, then, of her claims that Alice’s, Jay’s, and other diaries came her way as part of her work as a youth counsellor, or that other books were based on her case notes? Sketchy at best — especially in the case of Jay’s Journal, which was very loosely based on the real diary of a sixteen-year-old boy who died by suicide and whose mother gave the diary to Sparks, only to feel horribly betrayed by what she made of it. The true story that may have provided the germ of the original Alice book is not explored in nearly as much detail here as the “Jay” story is, because the author had permission to speak to and write about “Jay”‘s family and friends, whereas the people involved in “Alice”‘s story wished to have their privacy protected. But the broad outlines of that story are sketched here too, and it is indeed a very different story than the one that became famous and is still selling millions of copies today.

This is a great, well researched and engagingly written story of an author who pulled off an amazing scam — but what adds a layer of interest is how Sparks’s two most famous books tie into the political and social story of America during the years they were published. The timing of Alice was fortuitous — the book got a big bump in visibility from Art Linkletter, who Sparks already knew from some previous writing gigs, during the time that Linkletter was grieving the death of his daughter from a possibly drug-related suicide. The book became part of the hysteria that led to Nixon’s “War on Drugs,” and, well, we all know how well that worked out.

As for Jay’s Journal, the parts that were complete made up and unconnected to the real story of the boy behind the diary – the occult explorations, the bizarre satanic rituals — proved to be the most interesting to readers, and fed into (possibly even helped kick-start) the 1980s “Satanic panic.” So Beatrice Sparks was far more than just an unsuccessful writer who conned her way into becoming a successful one — she was an influencer whose contributions to American society led to untold harm to a lot of innocent people. Which makes Unmask Alice not only an incredibly interesting and engaging book, but maybe an important one too.

Why We Did It, by Tim Miller

Opinions will be divided on this book, but I found it fascinating. Tim Miller is a moderately well-known “Never Trumper” who used to work in communications for several Republican politicians prior to the 2016 election. Miller was working for Jeb Bush when Trump won the primary, and his subsequent disgust with Trump and all that Trump represented, led Miller not only (eventually) away from the party altogether, but to a re-examination of how the party he had once supported and worked for led to the outcomes of 2016 and beyond.

Tim Miller never worked in the Trump administration, but for this book he tells the stories of lots of people who did — some who agreed to talk to him on record and some who did not. But he titles it Why We Did It rather than Why They Did It because Miller fully owns and admits to his own culpability in building the machine that courted the votes and empowered the voices of the same people who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 and who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

For some leftie readers, Miller’s self-examination won’t be enough to exonerate him (and I think he’d be OK with that). As a gay man working for an increasingly homophobic political party, the cognitive dissonance was already starting to get to him, but it’s valid to ask whether, if Jeb Bush had won the 2016 Republican primary, Tim Miller would still be a Republican operative. Did his growing questioning and discontent with much of his party’s direction require the catalyst of Trumpism to turn it into open rebellion, or would that have happened eventually anyway?

There’s no way to know for sure, obviously, and while Miller answers a lot of questions in this book, he doesn’t touch on that one directly. For me, as an interested Canadian who swore off my obsession with US politics after 2020 (and has mostly managed to keep distanced from it), Miller’s engaging voice, humour, and honesty were enough to draw me back in for as long as it took me to listen to this audiobook. (Worth noting that I’m using “voice” here in the metaphorical sense as this is one of those audiobooks that is narrated not by the author but by someone else. As Miller is a podcaster, his voice is quite listen-able and I don’t know why he didn’t narrate it himself as I would have enjoyed that even more, but that’s a very minor quibble).

Scratching River, by Michelle Porter

Scratching River is an appropriate follow-up to Porter’s Approaching Fire, though there is more prose than poetry in the current book. As with Approaching Fire, reflections on the natural landscape — in this case, the geography of rivers rather than fire — are interspersed with, and serve as metaphors for, a family memoir. The story centres around the narrator’s brother, who lives with both schizophrenia and autism, and the horrific abuse he suffered in a care facility. This intimate story is set against the broader background of a Metis community dealing with intergenerational trauma and connection to history and land. As always, Porter’s work is beautifully written and thought-provoking.

Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir

Like many, many people, I loved Andy Weir’s The Martian (even before the movie). I was more uncertain about his second book, Artemis. While I think there are authors who are brilliantly able to experiment, try new things, dip into different voices, different kinds of stories, and even different genres, there are other writers that (for me as a reader, at least), have a Thing They Do Well and are best when they stick to doing it. I like Project Hail Mary for all the same reasons I liked The Martian: the hard science (and, in this case, a possible end-of-life-on-Earth scenario) is delivered through the smart, slightly snarky voice of a male scientist who is not particular introspective, very practical and innovative, and is dealing with an impossible situation as best he can.

In this case, the narrator is Ryland Grace, and he’s actually a former scientist who has given up academia for teaching junior high science, a job he loves. But as the book opens, Ryland doesn’t remember that — he doesn’t remember anything, even his own name. He awakes from an induced coma to find himself on a spaceship with two dead crewmates and no idea who is he or what his mission is.

As his memories come back, they are horrifying — Ryland is the only survivor of a last-chance mission (hence the title) that was intended to save Earth from a terrible fate. And he has no idea how to do it.

Any normal person would just curl up in a corner and die, but if you’re an Andy Weir protagonist, you buckle down, get to work, make friends with an alien, solve problems, and do your best to salvage what you can on your way to a surprisingly poignant and bittersweet ending. I really loved this book.

The Wolf Den, by Elodie Harper

This is one of the best, if not the best, historical novel I’ve read so far this year. Set in a brothel in Pompeii (a few years before the volcano), the story centres around a small group of enslaved women trying to survive in that brutal and demeaning world. The characters and the world they live in feel at once both impossibly distant from our own, and so vividly real it’s as if the wolf den (the brothel of the title) is just around the corner. Anyone who loves historical fiction that immerses you in another place and time will likely enjoy this book (as long as you are OK with the fact that it’s set in a brothel and the characters are all enslaved sex workers so there are going to be frank descriptions of what goes on there). My only disappointment is that it’s the first of a trilogy and Book 2 is not being released till September … so it’ll be a short wait for that and then a long wait for Book 3!