Author: Shay Shortt

Canada Reads Along: By Chance Alone

Cover image for By Chance Alone by Max Eisen by Max Eisen

ISBN 9781443448550

 “After many visits back to Auschwitz, I can also see that the physical remnants of the Holocaust continue to deteriorate, and that the first-hand witnesses, like me, are moving on in years.”

In the spring of 1944, Max Eisen and his family were rounded up from their home in a Hungarian-controlled region of the former Czechoslovakia, and deported to Auschwitz. This was the final step after five slow years of increasing hate towards Jews, and restriction of their rights and freedoms. Max’s entire family would perish in the camps, lost to the gas chambers, and to medical experimentation. But a lucky chance, resulting in a position as an assistant at the prisoner’s infirmary, would allow Max to survive, and bear witness, fulfilling his final promise to his father by becoming a dedicated Holocaust educator, and now memoirist. By Chance Alone recounts his childhood, time at Auschwitz, and his path to Canada.

Max was fifteen when he entered the camps as slave labourer for the Nazis. As he would discover later, his mother and younger siblings, including his infant sister, were sent directly to the gas chambers. Revisiting these events more than seventy years later, he brings an unusual perspective, simultaneously capturing his youthful naïveté about what was going on around him, and the later knowledge he would gain about the depth and scope of the atrocities. For the most part, he remains in the moment, recalling the events as they occurred, though occasionally he provides information he would not have access to until later. For example, when his father and uncle were selected, he had no idea what their fate would be, only that he would never see them again. Decades later would he learn that they had been chosen to be subjects in the Nazi’s twisted medical experiments.

While Mengele’s experiments are relatively well known, Max’s account takes the reader inside a different part of the medical establishment at Auschwitz, where imprisoned doctors cared for fellow prisoners with limited equipment and resources. Max worked under Polish dissident Dr. Tadeusz Orzeszko, who he believes to have been a member of the resistance, working to that end even while he was imprisoned. The additional comfort and resources Max was able to access as a medical assistant built up his strength, and were likely crucial to his survival of the death marches the Nazis took their Jewish prisoners on during the final days of the war. However, the end of the war did not mark the end of his ordeal as a refugee; a return to his home town did not yield a warm welcome. He recounts all of this in a straightforward prose style, bearing witness to what was done to his people, as he promised his father he would.

By Chance Alone was defended on Canada Reads 2019 by science broadcaster Ziya Tong, who mounted a thorough and impassioned defence that emphasized the importance of Holocaust education in inoculating Canadians against hatred of all types. Tong cited a study that found one in five young Canadians are not sure what the Holocaust was. She felt that it was urgently important to for Canadians to read a book that would take the Holocaust from distant, colourless historical event to a living, breathing person who experiences those events. Armed with a variety of statistics, as well as enthusiasm for her subject, she urged Canadians to read By Chance Alone and remain vigilant against the rise of hate crimes in our country, and around the world.

By Chance Alone faced a few crucial moments throughout the week, including comparison of its writing to style to more lyrical works such as Brother. Tong made a persuasive case for Eisen’s narrative style, however, arguing that he was writing the voice of a child, but with the wisdom of a ninety-year-old. Other panelists praised Eisen’s attention to detail, and the hypnotic nature of his simple prose style. Tong also made a strong demonstration for the book’s contemporary relevance, bringing to the table a recent photo of Max outside a synagogue, which had been defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti only last year.

On Day Two, panelist Lisa Ray raised the question of what By Chance Alone adds to the body of Holocaust literature that is not already there, contrasting Eisen’s style to that of Elie Wiesel. In her initial rebuttal, Tong pointed to the infirmary as an entirely unique contribution that provided information about the camp that even other internees did not necessarily have. The subject was raised again on Day Three, where panelist and free agent Joe Zee argued that each perspective on the Holocaust was unique and new, and that it is history told in a way that cannot be learned from a textbook. It came down to a close call that day, with Ray and Yanic Truesdale voting against By Chance Alone, while Tong, Zee, and Chuck Comeau voted against Brother. However, the book carried on to the finale.

With one vote each from the remaining defenders on the last day, it was up to the free agents to determine the final result. Lisa Ray voted against By Chance Alone for the second day in a row. However, both Joe Zee and Yanic Truesdale voted against Homes. After much discussion on the final day of debates about the voice of the youth, and the wisdom of the elderly, both panelists were compelled by the argument that Holocaust voices are fading, and soon there will be no more living witnesses to tell their stories. Soon the books will be all we have left to ensure that we never forget. And so By Chance Alone became the winner of Canada Reads 2019.

That’s it for Canada Reads 2019! Thanks for reading along. Past winners:

Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis

The Illegal by Lawrence Hill

Ru by Kim Thuy

Canada Reads Along: Homes

Cover image for Homes by Winnie Yeung and Abu Bakr al Rabeeah by Winnie Yeung and Abu Bakr al Rabeeah

ISBN 978-1-988298-29-0

 “As much as father wanted us to believe we could keep living our lives, it wasn’t true. He was wrong. We couldn’t pretend this war wasn’t happening.”

In 2010, Abu Bakr al Rabeeah fled increasing Sunni/Shi’a tensions in his native Iraq, along with his parents, siblings, and members of his extended family. They sought refuge in Homs, Syria, where some relatives already lived. Unfortunately, they had fled right into the teeth of the Arab Spring, and the Assad regime’s crackdown on the uprisings inspired by the movement. The streets of Syria became war zones, as the state military fought with anti-government militias for control. Mosques were shot up, businesses were bombed, and schools exploded. Homes is the story of the al Rabeeah family’s journey from Iraq to Syria and Syria to Canada, as told to Bakr’s English teacher, Winnie Yeung.

Despite being a true story, Homes is written in the style of a novel, a work of creative non-fiction recounting the memories of Bakr and his family, based on interviews given to Winnie Yeung. It is both simply written, and yet striking. Little details, such as the word “first,” become particularly poignant, as Bakr describes his “first car bomb” or his “first massacre,” things you hope to live a lifetime without seeing, let alone more than once while still in elementary school. Bakr’s childhood is full of such events, so common they become almost mundane, even as the trauma continues to mount.

Juxtaposed against the horrors of the civil war are the ordinary rhythms of the family’s daily life in Syria. Bakr and his sibling must still go to school when it is open. He plays soccer with his friends and cousins. Not really knowing any better, he and one of his cousins amuse themselves by collecting spent bullet casings, without considering the lives those bullets may have taken. The families celebrate Ramadan, and continue to attend mosque, despite the risk of another shooting. His father and older brother run a bakery, selling his mother’s recipe for soft, chewy Iraqi bread, a contrast to the dryer pita-style bread more commonly found in Homs. Life goes on with the illusion of normalcy, until it is shattered again by the next attack.

As the story moves to Canada, Homes also conveys the profound loneliness of leaving everyone you know, and everything you love, behind for a new country where you do not even speak the language. From business owner of a bakery, Bakr’s father is reduced to taking English classes, unable to care for his family in the manner to which he is accustomed. A better life has been promised, but when will it materialize? It is a blessing to be safe, but into the void of fearing for one’s life, new anxieties gather to take its place. Homes ends here, but in many ways, the al Rabeeah family’s journey has only just begun its next chapter.

Homes was defended on Canada Reads 2019 by musician Chuck Comeau, whose quiet debate style emphasized love, family, and hope. He particularly highlighted the father-son relationship, as well as the partnership between Bakr and his teacher that brought the book into being, first as an after school project, and then as a published work. He also emphasized that fact that it is essential for Western culture to have more positive portrayals of Muslim people, rather than only seeing them as stock character terrorists in film and television.

Homes received one strike on Day Two from Lisa Ray, and one vote against it from Ziya Tong on Day One, who said it was too much like her own book, but otherwise it moved through the week unscathed. Indeed, Homes slid quietly into the finale to go head to head with By Chance Alone, which Tong was defending. Discussion on the final day of Canada Reads 2019 ranged over several questions, including what each of the remaining books helped panelists to understand, why the free agents should vote against their opponents’ books, and whether or not the books could move Canadians to action. Many of the panelists brought up the relative ages of the two authors. While both were writing about their youth, one is still a teen, and the other is a nonagenarian, representing both ends of the life spectrum. It was pointed out that the voices of both the youth and the elderly can be discounted by society at large.

When it came time to vote, Ziya Tong of course voted against Homes, and Chuck Comeau against By Chance Alone. The three free agents cast their ballots, with Joe Zee voting against Homes, saying that he was persuaded by the argument that Holocaust voices are fading. Lisa Ray voted against By Chance Alone, saying that Homes was the book she wanted all of Canada to read. This put the final vote in the hands of Yanic Truesdale, who had previously voted twice against By Chance Alone. In a surprise change of heart, Truesdale cast his final ballot against Homes, also citing the argument that the voices of Holocaust survivors will soon be gone. Thus, By Chance Alone by Max Eisen was crowned the winner of Canada Reads 2019.

Catch up on Days One, Two, and Three of the debates, and check back tomorrow for my review of the winner!

Canada Reads Along: Brother

Cover image for Brother by David Chariandyby David Chariandy

ISBN 978-1-63557-204-9

 “Had I recognized it only then? We were losers and neighbourhood schemers. We were the children of the help, without futures. We were, none of us, what our parents wanted us to be. We were not what any other adults wanted us to be. We were nobodies, or else, somehow, a city.”

Francis and Michael are brothers, though they could not be more different. Shy and nervous, Francis takes his refuge in the neighbourhood library, never quite able to muster the swagger of his confident older brother, Michael. But Michael’s hard shell hides a core of vulnerability that he knows he must protect at all costs, and as they grow, he garners a violent reputation, of someone who can snap at a moment’s notice. The inevitable result will be tragedy, and a decade later, Francis will still be trying to put his life back together when Aisha, his childhood crush, and local success story of neighbourhood girl made good, returns to town in the wake of her father’s death.

Brother is a short, tightly written story of two brothers, sons of Trinidadian immigrants, who grow up in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. However, David Chariandy chooses to begin at the end, a decade after the events that will shape Francis’ life forever. Francis is scraping by working in a grocery store close to home, and taking care of his mentally fragile mother, who has never quite recovered from the tragedy. Aisha’s return to Scarborough upsets the delicate balance they have struck in the intervening years, breaking open old wounds that have been festering for too long.

Brother quietly exposes a dark underbelly of racism and homophobia that many Canadians would probably like to dismiss as an American phenomena. Michael and Francis’s neighbourhood is heavily policed, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time can have serious consequences, even just walking down the street: “We had been stopped by the cops before. There was a routine to it all: we knew that if you carefully played along you’d eventually be released, if not with your dignity, then at least with your skin. But that night we sensed and urgency we hadn’t experienced before.” Anti-black prejudice is entirely clear in this environment they must navigate in order to grow up and make good on their parents’ immigrant dreams. Yet somehow the promise of Canada never quite materializes.

The tough outer shell that Michael has cultivated to protect his weak flank proves to be only a new kind of vulnerability to authority. Having shown the neighbourhood that being gay does not make him prey, he instead becomes regarded as a dangerous threat by the police. The city has a thousand subtle ways of showing these boys that they mean nothing. Michael’s boyfriend, Jelly, is a talented DJ, who enters a competition sponsored by a record company. In an underdog story, this would be where they triumph. Instead it is yet another reminder that they can be twice as good, and still get nothing but a beating for their trouble. The refusal to deal in platitudes or false hope is part of the poignancy of this story.

Brother was defended in the 2019 Canada Reads debates by actor Lisa Ray. It has been an unusual year for Canada Reads in that three of the five titles are non-fiction, and one of the two novels is based on true events. Ray has focused throughout the week on differentiating the book she is defending as a work of fiction that shines a light on a reality that is underrepresented in Canadian literature. Her emphasis on beautiful, lyrical prose and has sometimes seemed to come at the expense of non-fiction as a mode of writing. In the Q&A after the show, she shared that she is a dedicated fiction reader because she values emotion, and doesn’t believe that data can tell the whole story.

When not pitting fiction against non-fiction, Ray has been an eloquent defender for Brother. In addition to highly praising the lyrical writing—which David Chariandy spent ten years on—she has spoken powerfully to the themes, including racism, police brutality, and the cycle of poverty. She has also highlighted some of the quieter elements, such as the portrayal of mental illness in the mother. She pointed out that Brother is the one story at the table that looks at what happens when we open our borders to immigrants, but then fail to fully welcome them into our society and support them as they settle in. We do not always make good on our promises, and Brother invites us to look to our own backyard and question whether or not our society is as fair and as just as it could be.

The Day Three discussions focused on questions of emotion, the portrayal of loss, magic, and the panelists’ personal connections to their chosen books. The discussion of hope in the books became a key point, with both Chuck Comeau and Ziya Tong highlighting the resilient hopefulness of Abu Bakr al-Rabeeah and Max Eisen, despite having faced incredible adversity. Ray took the counterpoint, arguing that the loss of hope was one of the tragedies of Brother, an ugly truth that Canadians need to confront.

When the ballots were counted, Lisa Ray voted against By Chance Alone, saying that her choice was based on literary grounds. By Chance Alone’s defender, Ziya Tong, cast her ballot against Brother, as did Chuck Comeau, who was persuaded by Tong’s arguments, specifically a current photo she shared of author Max Eisen, which had been vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti. Free agent Yanic Truesdale also voted against By Chance Alone, leaving Joe Zee to break the tie. Citing the need for hope, Zee voted against Brother, making it the third book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2019.

Catch up with Day One and Day Two of Canada Reads 2019!

Canada Reads Along: Suzanne

Cover image for Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette Translated by Rhonda Mullins by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette

Translated by Rhonda Mullins
ISBN 978-1-55245-347-6

“You made a hole in my mother, and I am the one who will fill it.”

Fleeing the rural life of her traditional French Catholic family, Suzanne Meloche heads for Montréal, and falls into company with the Automatists, a group of avante-garde artists and activists centred on Paul-Émile Borduas. She writes poetry, and she paints, and she will marry one of Borduas’ disciples, the painter Marcel Barbeau, and have two children by him. But motherhood and marriage will weigh her down, until she runs away once again, leaving her children behind. In Suzanne, Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette attempts to make sense of the life of her grandmother, a woman she never really knew, but whose choices sent profound ripples down through the generations of her descendants. To her, she was simply the woman who abandoned her mother, but in writing the biographical novel of her life, she reveals her grandmother to be that, and so much more.

 Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s biographical novel of her grandmother’s life was published in French in 2015 as La femme qui fuit, or The woman who flees, it has been translated into English by Rhonda Mullins, who was also the translator of 2015 Canada Reads contender And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucier.  Suzanne is, rather unusually, largely told in the second person, the author dictating her grandmother’s actions back to her, a mode that feels simultaneously interrogative and perhaps somewhat impertinent. A quick look at the original French confirmed my suspicion that Barbeau-Lavalette writes of her grandmother using the more informal, less respectful “tu” rather than the more formal, or respectful “vous” pronoun. She is at once trying to get closer to her, and denying her the deference usually conveyed upon an elder. She approaches the woman and her legacy defensively, still nursing the hurt done to her own beloved mother.

On the other side, Barbeau-Lavallette seems to have little curiosity or attention for her grandfather, Marcel, who agreed to terminate his parental rights so that Suzanne could place the children for adoption. Prior to the termination, he had left Suzanne alone in a farmhouse with two young children, while he travelled to New York to pursue his artistic career. Perhaps somewhat unfairly, it is Suzanne who, as a mother and a woman, bears the brunt of judgement for this abandonment. Barbeau-Lavallette’s mother, Manon, would be raised by her paternal aunts, but her uncle was adopted out and raised by strangers. Marcel largely disappears from the pages when he and Suzanne go their separate ways, but he was still alive when La femme qui fuit was published, and Barbeau-Lavallette thanks him in the acknowledgements.

Suzanne is defended on the Canada Reads 2019 debates by actor Yanic Truesdale. The questions on Day Two focused on the quality of the writing and the immersiveness of setting in the remaining four books. Lisa Ray lauded Suzanne’s lyrical writing, and said that it was the only book besides her own that moved her to tears. Perhaps surprisingly, none of the panelists seemed to take issue with the choice of a second person narrator, a traditionally unpopular form. However, Chuck Comeau expressed that as a parent, he had a hard time connecting with the emotion of the character, even though he understood that the context of Suzanne’s life was very different from his own.

In the discussion of setting, Ziya Tong mounted the most direct attack on Suzanne, arguing that much of the setting was irrelevant, because Suzanne was a marginal character in her own story. She was simply swept into events such as the Civil Rights movement and the Freedom Rides, but these backdrops were not the result of some deep conviction on her part. When Truesdale countered that the core of the story was about forgiveness, she also suggested that since Forgiveness won last year’s Canada Reads debates, it was not the appropriate theme for this year’s discussion. (Last year’s theme was actually “One book to open your eyes.”)

Truesdale mounted a valiant defence of his book’s unlikeable protagonist, despite the fact that his own father abandoned him at the age of two. Truesdale argued that Suzanne is not about excusing her actions, but about contextualizing her decisions, and Barbeau-Lavalette’s journey of understanding and forgiveness. It is a deeply humanizing act of artistic transformation. He found an ally in Lisa Ray, who suggested that as actors, the two were able to embrace Suzanne’s character and find a way into her pain without judging her. She also argued that no one would judge a male artist, such as Picasso, so harshly for making a similar choice, and Truesdale pointed to the father, Marcel Barbeau, as just such an example.

When the ballots were cast, Truesdale voted against By Chance Alone, arguing that it was less powerful than some of the others. Brother received one strike from Joe Zee, who said he changed his vote from Suzanne because he was persuaded by Lisa Ray’s argument that we would not judge a man the same way. Ray cast her own vote against Homes, while Chuck Comeau called out Suzanne, again saying that her actions were inconceivable to him. This put the deciding vote in Ziya Tong’s hands, and she made Suzanne the second book to be voted off of Canada Reads 2019.

Catch up with Canada Reads 2019 starting here!

Canada Reads Along: The Woo-Woo

Cover image for The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong by Lindsay Wong

ISBN 978-1-55152-736-9

“In our family, people did idiotic and medium-evil things to one another because they were possessed and not in control, so it was best not to think too much about the horrors of whatever had been said and done, because there was often no answer. We excused our behaviour by blaming the ghosts.”

Lindsay Wong grew up in a beautiful house in a wealthy suburb of Vancouver, in a neighbourhood whose moneyed façade belied the many grow ops and meth labs that dotted the mountainous foothills northeast of the city. It also did much to hide the fact that Wong’s apparently successful immigrant family, which contained engineers, and entrepreneurs, had a deep history of mental illness and abusive behaviour which they coped with in unusual ways. Displaying weakness or emotion, or being alone for too long, was a sure way to be possessed by an angry ghost or demon, and go “woo-woo,” the family euphemism for mental illness caused by possession. The Woo-Woo describes Wong’s unconventional and deeply disturbing childhood coping with her mother’s mental breakdowns, her father’s emotional distance and abusive verbal tirades, and her extended family’s general denial of healthy emotional expression or the existence of mental illness.

Wong has a rather lurid talent for description, which she applies liberally to herself and her relatives. Trying to explain the supernatural beliefs that were used to dismiss the family history of mental illness, she writes, “Our family insisted that supernatural outcasts chartered our bodies because we were born with watery minds and squishy hearts, which meant that anything dead could rent us for free.” Rarely content with a simple account, many of her descriptions are viscerally grotesque in this way. Because a history of mental illness is prevalent on the maternal side of the family, she writes that her mother’s “DNA was made from small and faulty atomic bombs,” and many other evocative ways of describing just how wrong things were in her childhood home.

But while I was willing to grant Wong license to describe herself and her family however she liked as she worked through her traumatic childhood, I recoiled in horror at the way she applied this talent others, such as a disabled high school classmate with whom she is forced to form a sort of parasitic friendship. She describes the classmate as follows: “If Wobin’s boxy torso was a tree trunk, her arms were branches. And her poor fingers were practically lobster claws, clenched together in fleshy baseball mitts—she was a cruel caricature of Frosty the Snowwoman.” This entire section churned my stomach, and I was practically incandescent with rage when I learned that after assigning Wong to accompany this classmate as an exercise in empathy building, her school also gave her the duty of changing the girl’s sanitary pads. The whole premise of using a person with a disability as an object lesson was bad enough, but then to have her privacy so intimately violated by a classmate who had shown little capacity for empathy? I honestly wanted to quit right there and throw this book out the window. Dark humour is a coping mechanism that in some cases allows Wong to side step a deeper examination of her history, and her own behaviour.

I read most of this book over the course of two days, covering Wong’s childhood and into her university years. It is a childhood of abuse, emotional repression, and social isolation. Wong is heavily invested in seeing herself as one of the mentally stable ones in her family, but what she describes of her own behaviour is redolent of social anxiety, disordered eating, and post-traumatic stress. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that around the part of the book where she finally recounts her aunt’s famous suicide attempt, which occurred when she was twenty, I realized that the crush of family conflict and abuse was actually making me feel anxious and upset, and I had to put the book aside for a few days before finishing it more slowly. The theme of this year’s Canada Reads is “one book to move you,” and Wong was certainly successful in eliciting a powerful reaction. The lurid descriptions and dark humour belie the fact that she seems to be trying to maintain a certain emotional distance from the material just to get through it. Undoubtedly, this is a necessary survival technique when you come from a family that habitually refers to you as “the Retarded One.”

The Woo-Woo was defended on Canada Reads 2019 by fashion stylist Joe Zee, whose opening arguments focused on the necessity of talking openly about the things that make us uncomfortable, and combating mental health stigma. He championed author Lindsay Wong as an intersectional voice—a young Asian woman from a difficult background. Several of his fellow panelists admitted to finding The Woo-Woo a hard read, for many of the reasons I described above. Zee made eloquent rebuttals, arguing that Wong’s narrative choices allowed the reader to feel some small measure of the horror she was living every day.

Each book received one question on the fast first day of the debates, and the discussion of The Woo-Woo was based on a question about the book’s effectiveness in opening the reader’s eyes to cultures and experiences unlike their own. Yanic Truesdale—defender of Suzanne—spoke to the difficulty he had connecting with the people portrayed in the book, and finding his way into the narrative. Ziya Tong—defender of By Chance Alone—voiced concerns as a half-Asian woman herself that the book would reinforce some negative stereotypes that already exist about Chinese-Canadians. Joe Zee countered that while stereotypes are simplistic, the people portrayed in The Woo-Woo are nuanced and complex. Chuck Comeau—defender of Homes—described the book as being a tough read, but also an eye opener that effectively engendered sympathy. Lisa Ray—defender of Brother—did not have a chance to speak to this question, but in the Q&A after the debates, she expressed that she didn’t see an arc of growth or development, but rather a series of anecdotes.

When it came time to vote, Joe Zee cast his ballot against Suzanne, while Ziya Tong voted against Homes. Lisa Ray, Yanic Truesdale, and Chuck Comeau voted together, making The Woo-Woo the first book eliminated from Canada Reads 2019. The first day of debates always goes by extremely quickly, with each book only being briefly touched on, and one of Zee’s best moments as a defender actually came in the Q&A after the show, when he spoke powerfully about the language we use to discuss mental illness. While “that’s so gay” has been widely recognized as a harmful turn of phrase that stigmatizes a minority group, “that’s so crazy” is still a common colloquial fixture of our language. Indeed the word had been used quite casually by the other panelists during the debate. Despite the early elimination, Zee was an eloquent defender, and could prove to be a persuasive force as this year’s first free agent in the ongoing debates.

The Deepest Blue

Cover image for The Deepest Blue by Sarah Beth Durstby Sarah Beth Durst

ISBN 978-0-06-269084-5

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“Clinging to her best friend, and the love of her life, Mayara knew she’d made the right decision leaving everything and everyone behind but bringing her heart and soul with her.”

Having successfully hidden her power to command the nature spirits that terrorize their islands, Mayara has just married the love of her life, Kelo. But when a spirit storm strikes their village on the day of their wedding, Mayara chooses to save her family and friends, even though it means discovery. Now she will be faced with a terrible choice between renouncing her life and joining the Silent Ones, the island’s police force, or facing the Trial on Akena Island, for a chance to become one of the heirs. Because the islands must always have a queen who can quiet The Deepest Blue, and only those who can survive Akena Island are worthy to take her place.

The Deepest Blue is fundamentally a novel about love and family, as well as tradition and change. Mayara is not the first in her family to face the choice. Her sister, Elorna, failed to hide her power, and died on Akena Island, trying to become an heir, shattering their mother’s heart. For this reason, Kelo begs Mayara to choose the Silent Ones, even though he knows this means he will never see her again. To incentivize women to face the trials, only heirs are allowed to have families and personal lives, while the Silent Ones live monastic lives of service to crown. But when Mayara faces her choice, she has no idea whether Kelo is dead or alive, for her to honour her promise. She is caught in a stultifying system of traditions which has ensured that the women who are ostensibly the most powerful in the kingdom must bind themselves into service, and then go on doing the same to their spirit sisters, generation upon generation.

Sarah Beth Durst has created an interesting symbiotic magic system, in which the queens and the spirits need one another. The spirits create the very lands which humans inhabit, and the plants that give them shelter and food, but left unchecked, they will create and create until it tips over into destruction and chaos. The queens rein in the spirits’ wilder impulses, limiting their creation, and curbing their destruction, and the world carries on. But just having that power comes at a social cost; Mayara must either give up her family, or risk her life. And when we meet Queen Asana, current ruler of the islands, the reader quickly sees that even rising to the top of the hierarchy of spirit sisters is not without sacrifices or difficult decisions. And even queens can be controlled.

The Deepest Blue is a standalone novel set in the world of Durst’s Queens of Renthia trilogy. Not having read that trilogy, I wasn’t sure how well I would pick up on this novel, but I found that I didn’t need to be familiar with The Queen of Blood or its sequels in order to follow Mayara’s adventures. No doubt there were some references that I missed out on, but I was never confused about what was going on. I did gather that one of my favourite characters, Lady Garnah—Queen’s advisor and chief poisoner—was a crossover from the original books, so I look forward to backtracking to read more about her exploits, as well as the world of Renthia.

You might also like The Impostor  Queen by Sarah Fine

Midnight

Cover image for Midnight by Victoria Shorrby Victoria Shorr

ISBN 978-0-393-65278-9

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“The passion that he’d pledged at St. Pancras, the pledge that she’d taken at sixteen as everlasting—there were still moments when she felt it. But trust in it, the way she did then? Maybe not. She might not then, by nineteen, have staked her whole life on that love, as she did that first summer. Because what if it wasn’t an entirely new kind of love the two of them had discovered? What if it was just another one of those great romances that flames high and then turns to ash?”

In every life there is a midnight, a dark moment, and a critical turning point. Victoria Shorr takes three women from history, and captures them on that threshold. Jane Austen accepts the proposal of a wealthy suitor, and then the next morning, reneges and says she cannot marry him. Still recovering from her most recent miscarriage, Mary Shelley waits on the shores of the Gulf of Spezia for word of her husband, who has been missing at sea for five days. Joan of Arc’s portrait is taken on the eve of her execution for heresy. Fearing the fire, she recants, only to recant the recantation upon further reflection. These are their darkest hours, their crucial decisions.

Shorr divides her work into three separate sections, beginning with Jane Austen, then Mary Shelley, and finally Joan of Arc. The chapters also grow progressively longer; only fifty pages for Jane Austen, then twice that for Mary Shelley, and a full one hundred and twenty pages for Joan of Arc. Austen’s section is short, and sticks closely by the facts, though Midnight is by its nature speculative, imagining what these women must have been thinking and feeling in such circumstances. But this style does not become fully realized until Shelley’s section, and takes its fullest form with Joan of Arc. When she recants, Joan of Arc is no more, and becomes simply Girl X, who knows nothing of saints and kings, and simply wants to live. Joan is the hero, the chosen, the Maid of Orléans. Girl X just wants to avoid being burned alive.

As a whole, these three sections cohere somewhat. While Austen’s section feels underdeveloped, it makes an interesting counterpoint to Shelley, since both women’s choices about marriage had profound impacts on them as writers. Could Austen have written and revised her novels married to a man who sired ten children on the woman he did eventually marry? Shelley is evidence of just what a toll childbearing could take on mind and body. Most of her writing career came after her husband’s death. Both Shelley and Joanne of Arc feel fully fleshed out in their adjacent chapters, but Joanne is not English, not a writer—not even literate—and while Shelley is awaiting news of the death of her husband, Joan is a maiden awaiting the knock that will bring her own death. In many respects, Joanne seems almost to belong to another book entirely.

There will no doubt be some debate over categorization of this book, which straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction. It is based in fact, and significantly researched, as the bibliography indicates, but it is also interpretive, verging on novelization, and this only becomes more the case as Midnight progresses. If the book’s feet are on the ground, its head is in the clouds, delighting in speculation. Despite being somewhat uneven, it makes for an interesting journey, chewing over that which we cannot know for sure, but can vividly imagine as we put ourselves into the shoes of these famous women.

Polaris Rising

Cover image for Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik by Jessie Mihalik

ISBN 978-0-06-280238-5

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“My reckless side, the side that had prompted me to run away from home rather than marry a practical stranger for political power, that side knew I would land on the planet. I had to know if my hunch was correct.”

For two years, Ada von Hasenberg has been on the run from her family, one of the three High Houses of the Royal Consortium that rules the universe. But her luck has finally run short, and when she is captured by bounty hunters, she knows that if she doesn’t escape, she will finally have to return home and make a political marriage of her parents’ choosing. As the fifth of six children, that is really all she is good for to House von Hasenberg. Then she is locked in a cell with Marcus Loch, the criminal better known as the Devil of Fornax Zero, an ex-soldier who reportedly slaughtered his own unit before going on the run. They are two of the most wanted people in the universe, with a fortune in bounties on their heads, but perhaps together they will have what it takes to escape.

The protagonist, Ada, was by far my favourite part of Polaris Rising. Despite her highly political upbringing, she is smart, but not cold, and tough but not bloodthirsty. She can fight, but it isn’t her preferred way of doing business. She takes everything her House taught her with the intention of using it to make her into a spy in a political marriage, and instead turns it towards pursuing her freedom. She did, however, read as somewhat older than the twenty-three the author pegs her at. She acknowledges her chemistry with Loch, but doesn’t fancy herself in love, though she is worried by the fact that she could be.

The love interest, Loch, on the other hand, I could take or leave. He is, in the romance parlance, an alpha, and I don’t tend to enjoy the jealousy and posturing that comes with that type. I found it pretty hard to warm to him any further after he called Ada a bitch in their first real argument. Jessie Mihalik softens him in other ways, such as repeated use of enthusiastic consent, but I was still fairly indifferent overall. Your mileage may vary!

Polaris Rising sits at the intersection of science fiction adventure and romance, and probably requires a reader who enjoys both of these genres. There is too much world-building and adventure for someone who is just in it for the romance, and too many romance tropes for someone who is just in it for the science fiction. This includes such contrivances as getting the hero and the heroine in bed together by the necessity of warming one another up after escaping across an icy planet. But the adventure includes a good mystery, as Ada tries to figure out why Richard Rockhurst, a younger son of one of the other High Houses, is suddenly so desperate to marry her, and get his hands on her dowry.

One of the aspects I enjoyed most about Polaris Rising was Ada’s relationship with her siblings, though we only see her substantially interact with her sister, Bianca, and in passing with Bianca’s twin brother. Instead of opting for a fierce or bitter sibling rivalry driven by the political maneuvering of the High Houses, Mihalik instead opts to depict a tight, supportive bond. When their parents try to pit them against one another the von Hasenberg siblings only draw closer, guarding one another’s backs. A second volume is due out later this year, which will follow the adventures of Ada’s widowed sister, Bianca, and House von Hasenberg’s mysterious head of security, Ian.