Chika Gujarathi

To understand the brilliance of Vaishnavi Patel’s debut novel, Kaikeyi, we must step back—way back, to ancient India, when humans walked a strict line of tradition, sacrifice and devotion to Hindu gods in exchange for a life free of curses and other bad surprises. Questioning authority was not part of the human agenda.

The ancient Indian epic Ramayana is one of South Asia’s most famous and important religious texts. It tells of King Rama, the human incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who is banished to the forest by his stepmother, Kaikeyi. Full of miracles, virtues and vices, the epic has been passed down for generations, making it an indispensable part of the cultural consciousness and, more importantly, providing a clear distinction between good and evil.

Into this long history comes Patel with her bold reimagining. A student of constitutional law and civil rights, Patel grew up hearing stories from the Ramayana from her grandmother, and during one of these storytelling sessions, Patel’s mother planted a seed of doubt regarding Kaikeyi’s characterization. Patel now recasts Kaikeyi, who has always occupied the role of wicked stepmother, a source of doom and the cause of unimaginable suffering for an entire kingdom and beyond. In Kaikeyi, she becomes the protagonist, the feminist, the godforsaken underdog.

Born on a full moon as a princess to the kingdom of Kekaya, Kaikeyi grows up knowing that her destiny is to be powerless and ornamental, yet she is resolute in her determination to change the world. With her twin brother’s help, she secretly learns how to ride horses and fight like a warrior. At 16, she is married off as the third wife of a king, and she gives birth to Bharat, who is promised to succeed his father, even though he is not the firstborn son.

For better or worse, the events of Ramayana unfold no differently with the reinvention of Kaikeyi’s character, but Patel’s changes certainly make the story much more engaging. Even readers unfamiliar with the ancient Indian epic will find a lot to love in Patel’s spellbinding details of mythological characters and ancient times.

In Vaishnavi Patel’s bold reimagining, Kaikeyi of the Ramayana has been recast as protagonist, feminist and godforsaken underdog.

In the tightknit community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Poughkeepsie, New York, 23-year-old Arlo Dilly’s life is dictated by his ultraconversative uncle, Brother Birch, and an equally religious American Sign Language interpreter named Molly. Arlo is deafblind, and his sheltered upbringing and sensory limitations mean that his life has been highly controlled by those around him—until a 40-something interpreter named Cyril Brewster changes all of that quite unintentionally.

When Arlo decides to take a writing course at a local community college, Cyril accepts the job as his summer interpreter. Cyril isn’t an expert in the form of ASL that Arlo uses, referred to as Tactile or TSL, but he’s hoping to make some extra money and, concerned as he is about “beelining for homosexual obscurity,” escape Poughkeepsie for good. It isn’t long before Cyril begins to appreciate Arlo for who he is: a determined young man who is smart, funny and full of curiosity.

With Cyril as his champion, Arlo begins to ask questions about things as small as his bowl haircut and daily bologna sandwich, and as big as the truth about his boarding school sweetheart, S. At its heart, The Sign for Home is about a young man doing everything he can to be with the love of his life.

Chapters alternate between Arlo’s and Cyril’s narration. Passages that depict how Arlo experiences touch, smell and ASL are especially well done; his sections unfold in the second-person singular, so his lessons and revelations feel all the more intimate, revealing a layer of emotional intelligence and humor that would be lost if the story were told only from Cyril’s first-person perspective.

Debut novelist Blair Fell has worked as an ASL interpreter for more than 25 years, and also has been an actor, producer and director. The Sign for Home draws on all these experiences to tell a story that is tender, hilarious and decidedly uplifting.

The love story of Blair Fell’s deafblind hero is tender, hilarious and decidedly uplifting.

Climate change takes center stage in three-time Pushcart Prize-winning author Allegra Hyde’s debut novel. Set in a future world of toxic air, food shortages and deadly weather, Eleutheria is the story of 22-year-old Willa Marks, who refuses to give up hope for a sustainable planet and a better life for all.

Raised by survivalist parents on canned foods in the woods of New Hampshire, Willa has lived a lonely life—until a bad turn of events thrusts her into the arms of her cousins Victoria and Jeanette in the metropolis of Boston. The two sisters are the antithesis of everything Willa has known, their entire life revolving around posting fashionable pictures online.

Willa goes with the flow until a photoshoot gone wrong brings her to Sylvia Gill, a famous sociologist and professor at Harvard University. Sylvia and Willa fall in love despite their stark differences. It’s a comfort and love that Willa has never experienced before. But being with Sylvia also means living among the privileged and wealthy, who still hold onto their vanity amid a dying planet.

Willa doesn’t understand this obliviousness. She eventually stumbles upon a group of Freegans, dumpster divers who are committed to saving the planet, come hell or high water. They inspire Willa, who wants Sylvia to use her celebrity to tout Freeganism as the answer to the climate crisis. This eventually causes a rift between the two as Willa struggles to stay in a relationship with someone who doesn’t support her cause for a better tomorrow.

In this highly emotional state of mind, Willa comes across a book in Sylvia’s library titled Living the Solution by Roy Adams. It seems to provide the salvation Willa is looking for by way of a sustainable community run by the author: Camp Hope, located on the island of Eleutheria near the Bahamas. Willa gives up everything, including Sylvia, to be part of the community—until even this Utopia starts showing imperfections.

Fast-paced and dramatic, Eleutheria is a love story that plays out against the backdrop of a planet in trouble. Hyde, author of the award-winning story collection Of This New World, offers many twists and shocks throughout her first novel, delivering an eerie prophecy of a not-so-distant future if we continue our inaction toward climate change.

Fast-paced and dramatic, Eleutheria is a love story that plays out against the backdrop of a planet in trouble.

There is no shortage of parenting books about how to be a good mother. Jessamine Chan’s first novel, The School for Good Mothers, will make you want to throw them all out the window.

Chan’s protagonist, 39-year-old Frida Liu, is kind, smart, hardworking and beautiful. She is also divorced from a cheating husband and the mother of 1-year-old Harriet, who is her world. Overworked, overwhelmed and unsupported, Frida has a very bad day that changes the course of her entire life.

This single moment of poor parenting lands Frida in a type of detention center, housed on a former university campus. Imagine The Breakfast Club, only it’s 365 days long, cut off from the rest of the world and filled with mothers who have been penalized by the government for making questionable choices. Right away, we wonder if the punishment fits the crime.

The plot thickens when the reform school starts seeming more and more like a prison. The guards, the uniforms, the rigorous daily classes on mothering, the therapy sessions, the robots (yes, robots)—it all seems so preposterous, so over-the-top. Maybe even humorous. That is, until you realize that it’s all grounded in our culture’s absurd expectations that mothers should be superheroes.

Throughout Frida’s story, Chan intertwines supporting characters who are just as interesting, thrilling and desperate as she is. You will catch yourself laughing one minute and shaking your fist the next, demanding that we change the narrative of contemporary motherhood.

If good writing, gripping plot and provocative questions about the world we live in are your priorities, then The School for Good Mothers needs to be on your reading list, whether or not you are a parent, or someday want to be.

There is no shortage of parenting books on how to be a good mother. Jessamine Chan’s first novel will make you want to throw them all out the window.

The first thing you’ll notice about award-winning Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s The Morning Star is how big it is. At almost 700 pages, it’s a book that takes up considerable real estate not just on the nightstand or in a bag but also within the mind, demanding a particular kind of mental stamina.

It’s August on the southern coast of Norway, and a big, bright celestial object has appeared in the sky. No one knows what to make of this new star. There are speculations from scholars and experts on its sudden presence, but could there be more to this phenomenon than just science?

The title’s biblical innuendo is on point. Knausgaard not only directly and indirectly philosophizes about Jesus, Satan, purgatory, sin and resurrection but also uses these touchstones to inspire the characters whose various points of view fill these pages. There isn’t just one story to follow in The Morning Star but several, as the narrative bounces from one captivating, relatable, likable character to another.

Amid these characters’ experiences in love, marriage, teenage angst, career disappointments, mental health and global warming, the novel progresses with an unflagging consideration of the roles and significance of living and dying. In this way, The Morning Star feels at once about nothing and everything. 

Knausgaard is more interested in using the novel's considerable length to introduce loose ends instead of neatly tying them up. Then again, for those who have read Knausgaard’s previous work (such as his six-volume My Struggle series), this probably doesn’t come as a surprise. 

The Morning Star is dark, eerie, mesmerizing and, yes, totally worth its size.

The Morning Star is dark, eerie, mesmerizing and, yes, totally worth the mental stamina required to get through it.

Let’s cut to the chase: Louise Nealon’s Snowflake is one of the most heartwarming, honest and brilliant coming-of-age novels you will read this year.

Nealon’s debut is set on a dairy farm in rural Ireland, and this idyllic setting is a fitting backdrop for the quirky yet endearing White family. Eighteen-year-old Debbie, the protagonist and narrator, has lived on the farm all her life with her mother, Maeve, and uncle Billy. A self-described country bumpkin, Debbie is a bit lost, a bit sad and rather reluctant to be a freshman at Trinity College in the big city of Dublin. 

Maeve, beatnik and beautiful, believes that her dreams are prophecies and therefore spends a lot of time sleeping, or when not asleep, writing about her dreams. Billy, disheveled but brilliant, takes care of the dairy farm, drinks a bit too much and prefers to live in a caravan behind their home. Debbie may not completely understand Maeve’s and Billy’s lifestyle choices, but in their chaos and flaws, she finds comfort, love and the freedom to be herself.

This novel is a true gift from Nealon, who has embraced wholeheartedly the writer’s credo to write what you know. She grew up in County Kildare, Ireland, on her family’s dairy farm before attending Trinity College, and she still lives on the farm where she was raised. Snowflake is about growing up detached from the rest of the world and then learning to assimilate, while also trying to figure out who you are and what your purpose is. Reading it is to lose yourself in reveries about the imperfections of life, the people we love and care for, self-doubt and the pursuit of joy. 

Louise Nealon’s Snowflake is one of the most heartwarming, honest and brilliant coming-of-age novels you will read this year.

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