The Other Half of Augusta Hope by Joanna Glen

Just as this book is divided into two narratives (that aren’t quite halves), so too I felt divided when I first started reading it. On the one hand, I could appreciate the quality of the writing, but on the other, I didn’t think I liked the precocious protagonist, Augusta, nor the way nothing much seemed to happen. In many ways, I wondered where the story was going to go, if anywhere. How wrong I was. For, at some point, the story grabbed me by the head and heart and I was taken on an interior journey like no other and utterly captivated.

This is a tale of a twin, Augusta, and her fierce intelligence and desire to understand everything, break it down into components she can grasp and link, despite living in a small English village and despite her parents and twin’s contentment with their home and village. Fascinated by words and the world around her, at a very young age, Augusta, the bane of the parents and teachers’ lives, picks the small African country of Burundi, just because of the sound the word makes, and decides to learn everything she can about this strife-torn place. But her increasing knowledge of Burundi, other places, words, and later languages, people and cultures, just increases her desire to escape her roots and discover where and if there is somewhere else she belongs.

The novel doesn’t belong to Augusta alone, sharing it is young African, Parfait, who happens to live in Burundi but, like Augusta, feels a longing to shake off his origins and explore, find out if there is somewhere else he can feel truly at home.

When terrible tragedy shakes both Parfait and Augusta’s lives, they’re forced to take stock and step out of their uncomfortable existence and set off into unchartered territory – not necessarily of the geographical kind, but of the emotional. It is through their disparate journeys that they come to understand themselves and those around them and realise their place once and for all.

This book was a slow but beautiful build that at brief times moved swiftly, and other times lingered on something small, but nevertheless significant before creating a huge impact – often later in the tale. The twin narratives, much like Augusta and her twin, Julia, are complimentary and diverge, but never at the expense of plot. The language is lyrical and the play on words (including those in the title), which I confess at first grated upon me, became a magical component of the story – for after all, how to do we express, understand and communicate with others, if not mainly through words? Do we not seek, as Socrates’ Symposium posits, our “other half” in various ways? Augusta’s delight in language and wordplay becomes infectious and imparts layers of meaning that often only become apparent after the fact.

Like Augusta and Parfait, this lovely book lingers in the imagination and heart long after the last page.

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The Atlantis Gene by A.G. Riddle

Having enjoyed The Long Winter series by A.G. Riddle, I went back to his earlier works, starting with his very first book, The Atlantis Gene. What is it about the very idea of “Atlantis” that it still manages to capture our imaginations? And how is that so many creative artists have positively exploited our fascination with a lost city, drawing upon it in a range of ways that are sometimes mind-boggling?

Riddle joins a plethora of other writers who have also used the idea of Atlantis, this time using it to explore the idea of human evolution. The book opens with a young geneticist, Kate Warner, working with autistic children in Indonesia. When her co-workers are killed and two of the children kidnapped, and Kate herself is placed in grave danger, she is very confused. Why is her research, let alone her young, vulnerable subjects, of such interest to a covert group? A covert group who, it seems, not only employs a beloved guardian, but has a wide, global network that stretches back in time to the Nazis and into the future as well.

Concurrent with Kate’s dilemma is that facing counter-terrorism agent, David Vale. A survivor of 9/11 and member of a top-secret anti-espionage group, David is shocked to learn that the people he’s working for are not what they seem. Flung together with Kate, David must uncover not only who’s behind the terrible destruction being wreaked upon his organisation but try and stop them doing the same to the world… before it’s too late.

While I enjoyed this book, I didn’t like it nearly as much as I wanted to. I found it so implausible and a bit silly at times. The “science”, while trying to be grounded, stretched even this reader’s ability to suspend her disbelief. I also found the continuous deadly scrapes that Kate and David found themselves in repetitious and, after a while, predictably dull. Likewise, the people that refused to die, but were conveniently resurrected to drag a tiring plot to the next chapter, were both exhausting and incredulous.

I sound so critical and I am being (sorry), but despite these reservations, the writing was good, the pace mostly fine and it turned out to be a nice holiday read, but not quite the breathless escapism the blurb promised and that I was hoping for. I am not sure I will read the rest in this series, as much as I am drawn to Atlantis as both a premise and a mystery, but there are plenty of others who have and will and that’s testimony to the magic the lost city still possesses and the imagination of Riddle.

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The Ties That Bound by Barbara A Hanawalt

I read this book a few years ago when I was undertaking research for an earlier novel, The Brewer’s Tale and remember being so impressed with it. Returning to it again (as I am also returning to the Middle Ages with my next book – only a slightly earlier period), I was once more struck not only by the lucidity and depth and breadth of research, but by the astute observations Hanawalt makes, observations always backed by evidence. Where there is little or none, Hanawalt also points this out and alerts her reader to the fact. But what makes this book so exceptional is its accessibility and readability. It is a joy to read and lose oneself in.

Instead of focussing, as so much history has, on the nobility or royalty or even religious bodies and thus power-brokers of a particular country or culture (mainly because that’s about and for whom records were kept), The Ties That Bound chooses instead, as Hanawalt puts it, to “enter the doors of the peasant’s house” and give voice to those who didn’t have one. Choosing the family and its material environment as her foundation, Hanawalt investigates how, why and when families survived in the Middle Ages (she uses the fourteenth century as a rough framework), focussing on their working patterns (and so the medieval economy as centred around family, landholdings, agriculture and industry), marriage, childbirth, childhood, adolescence, godparents, household sizes, their structures – in terms of people as well as houses and land worked – sickness, death, neigbourhoods, manorial allegiance, gilds, village life, festivals, weather, war, and conflict and examines the impact all of these had on the day to day living of the average person in England over this period.  She also addresses the dramatic changes that occurred following the Black Death in 1348-49.

Image result for medieval peasant images

Using coroners’ rolls (among other and local records) to examine patterns of accidental death as well as homicides etc. she is able to cleverly contest and even overturn earlier findings and sentimental assumptions about those who lived in the Middle Ages. Whereas other historians have often sought to demonstrate the differences to as well as distance from medieval family life and the modern one, Hanawalt is able to show that while there were, of course, differences, they were not as great as previously thought. After all, when all is said and done, we’re basically human whether we lived in the 1300s or now in the 21st century.

Barbara Tuchman notes in her wonderful book, A Distant Mirror, quoting Voltaire, “history doesn’t repeat itself, man [sic] does,” and this is something Hanawalt proves over and over  – our capacity for great kindness, cruelty, generosity, greediness, violence, selfishness and love – towards each other whether family, kin or stranger, no matter what our class, education or earning power.

This is a terrific book for scholars, students and anyone with a passion for history and a readiness to know how the “other three-quarters” lived.

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The Book of Dreams by Nina George.

This was a haunting and quite lovely book that, despite its strong focus on loss and healing, blends realism with the fantastical, creating a wonderful and poignant atmosphere that allows for sorrow but also great joy.

The story starts when Henri, a middle-aged Frenchman, sets out to meet his estranged young son in London. On the way, he is involved in an accident, an accident made all the more shocking because of its context. Believing his father doesn’t care, Henri’s son, Sam, only learns the truth about his father’s failure to keep their meeting in the newspaper. Thus, his first encounter with his father occurs in a hospital where Sam is forced to share this man he doesn’t remember, with a variety of medical professionals and other people who meant something to Henri. Confused, and determined not to show how his father’s accident is impacting upon him, Sam tries to keep his hospital visits a secret from his mother and step-father, all while trying to overcome the visiting restrictions. Clever and sensitive, Sam also has a condition called synaesthesia, which means he sees emotions as colours. To call them auras is only partly right. While others believe Henri is in a deep coma and unable to communicate, Sam knows different. Before long, he finds himself unable to keep away and not just from his father. He may not be able to communicate with Henri in the usual fashion, but through his unusual insight, he is able to build a relationship with the man wandering in a dream-realm and help others to grow theirs and not only with Henri…

A moving read that examines father-son relationships as well as a variety of others, including those between medical professionals and their patients. It also explores the impact injury and loss has on the loved ones of those in care. It’s also about the choices we make in the past and how they not only impact the future, but those we love and in ways never intended. It’s about communication and the different forms it can take and why, sometimes, words really are not enough.

Powerful and affecting.

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Where the Forest Meets the Stars Glendy Vanderah

It was the title that initially captivated me with this absolutely sublime novel of wonder, love, loss, grief, trust and the power of relationships to heal. I started reading it and, before I’d reached the end of the second page, I turned to a friend who was lost in her own book and declared, “I love this book already.” The love never died but, with each page, increased.

This is the story of a young ornithologist, Joanna Teale who, recovering from more than her fair share of the kind of blows that life can throw, is conducting graduate research in a remote area, living alone, checking her bird nests and trying not to think too hard about her future apart from her recently neglected study. But when a young girl stumbles into the light of her campfire one night, dirty, poorly dressed and declaring she’s not of this world, Joanna is both captivated and alarmed. Calling herself Ursa, after the constellation, the girl is wondrous and clever but also clearly in need of help. Refusing to either seek aid from the authorities or “go home” until she has seen five miracles, Ursa soon becomes part of Joanna’s life in ways no-one could have foreseen, including bringing some interesting and broken people, counting the enigmatic Gabe from the property next door, into Joanna’s orbit. But as the summer draws to a close, Joanna understands she must make some difficult decisions about her future, those she’s met and, most importantly, the strange young girl for whom she’s come to care deeply. 

I don’t want to say too much more except that this is such a magical, heart-swelling tale that’s written in beautiful and often aching prose. I stayed up far too late, smiling through tears and nods, clutching the book to my chest, to finish this emotionally fulfilling and lovely story. It will stay with me for a long, long time. I almost wish I hadn’t finished it so I could enjoy the range of emotions I felt while reading it all over again – despite being bleary-eyed and soul-sore, I was also nourished. I cannot recommend it highly enough. 

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The Solar War (The Long Winter #2) A.G. Riddle

If anyone knows how to write a page-turner, it’s A.G. Riddle. The second book, The Solar War, in what’s turned out (frustratingly, as I thought I was coming to the end of the story at 2am only to discover that wasn’t the case!) to be a three-book series (there’s a third book, a novella, coming out in November which should conclude the tale), is thrilling, gripping and a very satisfying follow-up to the first book, Winter World.

Commencing a short time after Winter World finished, The Solar War opens with our erstwhile heroes, James and Emma now parents, and while the earth they fought to save has gone, its geo-political boundaries and the power bases forever altered, and the decimated population packed into camps in order to survive, the war with the Grid isn’t over.

Struggling with their altered reality and what it signifies for the future, the survivors search for others. But, it’s not until the discovery of three huge asteroids on a collision course for earth, that James, Emma and the team at Camp Seven understand that they’ll never be safe. The Grid and the entity draining power from the solar system won’t stop until humanity is utterly annihilated.

Just when it looks as though they might have a chance for a different kind of future, an old threat returns which may yet prove greater than anything an alien species can throw at them.

Once again, the writing in this eschatological narrative is taut and paced tightly. The themes of catastrophic climate change (even if induced by an outside force) resonate, as does the “enemy within” trope – how humanity can be its own worst enemy – and that there’s no accounting for what people will do to ensure their own survival, as well as love, loyalty and the strong bonds of friendship and family. The characters, while sometimes bordering on cartoon-eseque in their villainy (I’m thinking of James’ nemesis) or superhero-ish in their valour (the appropriately named “James” who is Dr Marvel, James Bond and Iron Man rolled into one borders on impossibly amazing), they also manage to be relatable most of the time. As a consequence, you root for them and their worries or despair, as well as their joy when things turn out right. You ache for their grief and their growing awareness of how fast the solar clock is ticking. The book is a terrific escapist read and yes, you have to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the ride, but isn’t that the point of this type of fiction, if not all?

For anyone who enjoys science fiction, thrillers, escapism and end-of-the-world narratives, this is series is for you.

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