Between Two Kingdoms, by Suleika Jaouad

Between Two Kingdoms tells two stories. The first is Suleika Jaouad’s story of getting sick with a particularly nasty form of cancer when she was in her early 20s — so early, in fact, that she had not launched on a career or a relationship or really figured out anything about her life at all, before she was hit with the possibility of that life ending.

She didn’t die, but the life she expected to life in her 20s was taken from her almost as effectively as if she had died. The years she expected to spend travelling, establishing a career, having fun with friends, falling in love, were replaced by lengthy hospital stays, brutal rounds of treatment, a bone marrow transplant, cycles of remission and relapse, bonds formed with fellow young cancer patients who, one by one, died.

Throughout these years, in addition to the support of her parents (and her brother, who provided the bone marrow transplant), Jaouad had one unwavering constant: her boyfriend Will. (That’s the name she gives him in the book; ten seconds of googling will tell you his real name, because Jaouad wrote and was interviewed about her cancer experience a lot while it was happening). She and Will had a whirlwind romance and had barely even cemented their status as a couple when she got her diagnosis, so his role as caregiver and hers as patient were baked into their pairing from the beginning. Throughout this first part of the story, people are amazed at how devoted, how loving, how dedicated Will is to Suleika throughout all her suffering.

Anyone who knows a little about human beings should not be surprised at the twist in the story where the relationship falls apart just as Suleika is finally starting to get a bit better: these are two young people in their 20s who have been together for several years, but have never been together as a healthy pair of equals, only as a caregiver and a sick person. Suleika’s recovery, her breakup with Will, and her discovery that living as a person without cancer is not as simple as flicking a switch back to the person she used to be, all set the stage for the second part of the book, in which this young woman who has never learned to drive and barely ever lived indepedently sets off on a cross-country odyssey with a van, a dog, and a list of strangers she’s corresponded with but never met.

I found this book to be a thoughtful and insightful exploration of what it’s like to be a young cancer patient and how hard it is to move on from that trauma.

The House of the Wolf, by Alison Baird

The House of the Wolf is pretty clearly going to be about werewolves; the cover art would tell you that even if the back cover blurb didn’t tip you off. But it’s a werewolf novel so solidly rooted in the real lives of both humans and wolves that it almost doesn’t feel like the fantasy novel it is.

The novel introduces us to two characters: a young wolf, outcast from his pack, who finds himself strangely drawn to humans, and a young woman, Chantal Boisvert, who is also outcast from her “pack” in a way. An orphan, she has never fit in well with her mother’s family in Vermont, and knows nothing of her Quebecois father’s family. A trip to Quebec to reconnect with her roots uncovers far more than Chantal had imagined.

The werewolf lore here is well-thought-out and developed in a way that draws on the traditions of the French-Canadians loups-garous and Metis rougarou, as well as on the behavior of actual wolves in the wild. It’s inevitable that the two main characters, woman and wolf, will eventually meet up in a form that allows them to get to know each other, but the path taken to get there is full of surprising twists and turns. And who knew Quebecois society was absolutely rife with werewolves? (And yet, it makes a kind of sense…)

Uprooted and Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik

I put these two books together even though, despite the similar cover design as you see above, one is not a sequel to the other nor are they even specifically set in the same universe. Rather, I’d say they have the same flavour — fantasies very loosely based on fairy tales, deeply rooted in Eastern European culture and folktales (and, in the case of Spinning Silver, specifically Eastern European Jewish culture).

Uprooted is a Beauty-and-the-Beast style tale of Agnieska, a young village girl who is chosen by “the Dragon” — not an actual dragon, but a wizard who lives in a tower and, once every ten years, chooses a young girl to come live with him and serve him. Agnieska and everyone else in town has always assumed her beautiful friend Kasia will be the one chosen for those unwelcome honour, but instead it’s Agnieska who gets plucked out of her life and put in the tower, only to learn that she has unsuspected magical powers of her own.

Spinning Silver is the story of three young women — a Jewish moneylender’s daughter named Miryem, a poor peasant girl named Wanda, and a noblewoman named Irina — whose fates come together to defeat both a powerful ice-spirit that’s holding their land captive to winter, and a vicious fire-demon that has possessed the most powerful person in the land. I liked both these books a lot, but Spinning Silver was my favourite of the two — I loved the way the three characters’ stories wove together, and I loved the emphasis on the importance of kinship and community as the powerful bonds that people need in order to fight evil. Each of these three women is powerful and yet believable in her own way, and each has a key role to play in defeating evil forces and saving their community. While the Rumplestiltskin legend about spinning straw into gold is the inspiration that sparks this story, this is a much bigger and more interesting story than that one fairy tale, and I found it an intriguing read from start to finish.

The only book by Naomi Novik I’d read before was the first book in the Temeraire series, which my husband loved and still counts among his favourite fantasy series, but which didn’t really grab me or draw me in. However, I found these absoutely fascinating and loved Novik’s writing in both Uprooted and Spinning Silver.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

See my previous review about Becky Chambers’ novels — after I read and loved A Psalm for the Wild-Built, I had to go back and read her earlier Wayfarers series, beginning with the first volume, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. It’s set in a different future world from the world of A Psalm for the Wild-Built, but it has a similar sensibility — a belief that while human society can’t go on as it’s currently going, what comes afterwards, while different, might be better.

In this version of Chambers’ future, humanity is one among many species out exploring the galaxy, under the watchful eye of a Galactic Confederacy. If that sounds a bit Star Trekky to you, it’s worth noting that this is no human-dominated United Federation of Planets; in these novels, humanity is a recent addition to the spacefaring races, and is looked on by the others as possibly a bit too primitive and dangerous to be trusted (actually this was also canonically true originally in the Star Trek universe, but it’s somewhat obscured by the fact that the Federation is so human-centric in the time period of the TV series and movies).

The titualar Wayfarer of this series is a small spacecraft with a tight-knit crew of various species. Where Chambers really shines here is in creating different species that don’t just feel like “humans with one or two different physical/cultural features,” as is the case in a lot of sci-fi, but alien species that actually feel like fully thought-out and fleshed-out different kinds of beings, where different physiology leads to cultural differences that make sense. As a result, the book’s reflections on what it means to be human — or rather, to be a sentient being — take on an additional richess and variety. I really enjoyed this book and look forward to reading the others set in the same universe.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers is a sci-fi author I’ve just discovered after hearing some buzz about her online, and I really love her books and I think I’m going to end up reading everything she’s written and waiting eagerly for her next book.

I’m iffy on sci-fi. I like my Star Treks,, all of them (and I used to read a lot of Star Trek novels back in the day, though I haven’t for a long time), but there aren’t a ton of actual sci-fi novels that I’ve really loved — I can’t think of many, other than Hank Green’s books and Andy Weir’s The Martian that have been true favourites. I especially can’t be at it with dystopian fiction — it just hits me too hard and depresses me too much.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is futuristic. It’s set either on Earth or on a very Earth-like, human-inhabited planet with a history similar to Earth’s, after the collapse of the planet’s highly technological society. So you’d think it was going to be dystopian fiction, but it’s not. It’s about a human society that has rebuilt itself after collapse, in a way that’s not like the pre-collapse world, but is functional and interesting and enjoyable. It’s not dystopian but neither is it utopian — can a book just be topian? Or perhaps it is utopian, because A Psalm for the Wild-Built posits a world in which humanity has learned from its mistakes and tried to “build back better” — which, in 2021, honestly does seem like a pretty idealistic concept.

One of the key things we know about the past of this novel’s world is that the human society of the past relied very heavily on robots to do their work — and one day, just as so much of our science fiction predicts, the robots became sentient. But instead of robots rising up to destroy their human masters, or humans brutally enslaving the robots, humans and robots just — agreed to go their separate ways. They live in separate territories and have had no contact with each other for hundreds of years.

In this post-apocalyptc human world we meet Dex, a twenty-something, non-binary monk in a religious order dedicated to worshiping the six gods humanity seems to have settled on. Dex likes being a monk, but they’re also restless, leaving the comfort of the monastery to head out on the road serving people in a travelling tea ministry (part tea-house, part counselling service) — yet even that leaves Dex wanting more. Which leaves Dex curious about the wilderness beyond human civilization, and in a perfect position to be the first human in centuries to encounter a robot.

Not only is this world brilliantly and beautifully drawn, but Dex and Mosscap, the robot he meets, are delightful, interesting characters. I’m so glad this book appears to be the first of a series so that I will have more to look forward to. This was an absolutely pleasure to read.

The Henna Artist, by Alka Joshi

I’m always a sucker for a novel set in India. This one is set in 1950s Jaipur. where Lakshmi, who ran away from her abusive husband as a teenager, has reinvented herself as a woman of many talents — the henna artist of the title, but also a purveyor of herbal remedies, including those which will induce an abortion for women pregnant out of wedlock. Both Lakshmi’s public and under-the-table trades earn her a good living from the wealthy women of Jaipur, and she is close to achieving her greatest dream — a house of her own, where she can finally live independently.

Because Lakshmi has lost touch with family back home in her village — they are disgraced by her leaving her husband and want no further contact, even when she writes home — she doesn’t know that her parents are dead, nor that she has a 13-year-old sister, born after Lakshmi’s disappearance. When the orphaned sister, Radha, tracks Lakshmi down in Jaipur, Lakshmi’s hard-won success and independence suddenly becomes a lot more complicated.

I loved all the rich details of time and place in this story, as well as the characters who were vivid and intriguing. A sequel is already out and I’ll definitely be reading that as well!

The Missing Treasures of Amy Ashton, by Eleanor Ray

This was a light-feeling book about an actually very heavy subject. Amy Ashton, a woman in her early 30s who has a good job in London and apparently a fairly sensible life, is secretly a hoarder. Like, the really bad kind of hoarder where she can barely get around her own house for all the junk she has stashed in it. I actually found it stressful to read the descriptions of Amy’s house, but the author makes Amy’s descent into hoarding (which we see through flashbacks) believable in the context of her character and the past trauma she’s experienced. We also see how new relationships and discoveries about the past help to coax her a few steps along the path towards healing — but along the way she discovers that the loss she is grieving from a decade ago is both less painful, and far more painful, than she had imagined it was. I found this a quick page-turner that I didn’t want to put down.

The Chosen and the Beautiful, by Nghi Vo

It’s hard to know what, exactly, to say about The Chosen and the Beautiful. It’s a retelling of The Great Gatsby from the point of view of Jordan Baker, and I am HERE FOR THAT. Here for any retelling that de-centres the horrible Gatsby and Daisy, who are just awful people, and brings a fascinating minor character to the foreground. I’m also here for re-imagining Jordan as a bisexual Asian orphan adopted by a wealthy American family, with a complicated identity and backstory. And once I realized what was going on (I had to go back and reread the first few pages because I’d missed a vital piece of the book summary blurb), I am even here for this all taking place in a 1920s New York where magic is real, people make pacts with the Devil, and Gatsby might be a vampire.

All that sounds as intriguing as all get out, and the book is beautifully written — at least as beautiful as Gatsby, in my opinion. Yet despite the first person point of view, Jordan remained an elusive character for me, and the potential of the magical world the book inhabits never seemed fully realized — yes, people have magical powers and it’s interesting, but what does it add to the story? I never fully felt that the fantastical elements were essential to the story. So for me, this was — not a disappointment, exactly, because I definitely enjoyed the experience of reading it, but a novel that didn’t completely fulfill its potential promise.

The Final Revival of Opal and Nev, by Dawnie Walton

I absolutely loved this book, told in the style of an oral history, about a fictional short-lived rock duo from the early 1970s. Opal is an American Black woman with a powerful voice and an even more powerful presence. Nev is a British singer-songwriter hoping to get his big break in the US. When a producer teams them up, the result is a brief flare of musical magic, and then a decades-long estrangement.

The premise of the story is that in the present day, a musical journalist with a close family connection to Opal and Nev’s story begins researching the long-estranged duo for a biography, just as rumours are swirling that Opal and Nev are finally getting back together — maybe for a single reunion concert, but maybe for more. A tour? A new album? In the intervening decades, Nev has become a sort of Elton-John-level pop star, specializing in singable melodies that everyone adores. Opal, meanwhile, has moved out of the mainstream; she has been a performance artist, an activist, a sometime actor. Can these two reunite and rekindle the spark that once made them great?

This is a wonderful piece of fiction about the music world, but also about the forces of racism and sexism that drive much of that world. Opal, Nev, and the narrator/journalist Sunny, as well as the minor characters that Sunny interviews along the way, all come vividly to life. You have to keep reminding your self this is fiction and not the story of two real musicians.

Just a note that I read this as an e-book, but I almost wished afterwards that I’d gotten the audiobook. I never listen to novels on audio, only non-fiction, but this is apparently a full-cast audiobook with different actors reading the different roles, If you enjoy audiobooks this may be one that’s definitely worth getting in that format.

Into the Woods, by John Yorke

I saw a writer friend reading this book and ended up borrowing it from her. I don’t read a lot of books about writing, and when I do they’re usually more free-flowing memoir types of things with very general advice for the writing life, like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s unlikely that I’d pick up a book about plot structure, but since I’m thinking a lot about it lately in trying to plan the final volume of my trilogy, I decided to give this one a try.

John Yorke is a TV writer, and he approaches the topic of story structure largely from that perspective, with his examples drawn from a wide variety of TV and movies. What he says about structure doesn’t map directly on to novels, but there were some ideas that helped me trigger thoughts about the journeys my characters are on and how I need them to be changed by the end. Plus, it was just fun and interesting reading a knowledgeable scriptwriter and showrunner talk about how stories are structured and pull examples from popular culture, so I found this an enjoyable read.