Parallel Lives

Two books which look in different ways at alternative timelines of history, both of them fascinating.

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New and Upcoming Releases

The Bookbinder of Jericho by Pip Williams

In this beautiful companion to the international bestseller The Dictionary of Lost Words, Pip Williams explores another little-known slice of history seen through women’s eyes. Evocative, subversive and rich with unforgettable characters, The Bookbinder of Jericho is a story about knowledge who gets to make it, who gets to access it, and what is lost when it is withheld.

My wife recommended The Dictionary of Lost Words to me some time ago. I really must read that and then follow up with this one.

Buy it at Readings

Anaximander by Carlo Rovelli

Over two millennia ago, a Greek philosopher had a number of wondrous insights that paved the way to cosmology, physics, geography, meteorology and biology, setting in motion a new way of seeing the world. Anaximander's legacy includes the revolutionary idea that the earth floats in a void, that the world can be understood in natural rather than supernatural terms, that animals evolved, and that universal laws govern all phenomena. He introduced a new mode of rational thinking with an openness to uncertainty and to the progress of knowledge.

I’m always interested in the history of science, and Rovelli is an excellent science writer and educator, so I’ll definitely try to track this down. Probably unlikely that my library will get it in, but I guess I could request it.

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My Reading

My reading has slowed down greatly recently for various reasons. I don’t think there’s any hope of me meeting my target of 80 books this year. Maybe 60? We’ll see. I’m not feeling any pressure to get through a certain number of books, which I rather did feel last year. This year, I just want to read as and when I feel like it, which is the way it should be.

Completed Since Last Issue

Civilisations by Laurent Binet

Translated from the French by Sam Taylor.

This is a very clever piece of alternate history, completely and yet plausibly inverting Jared Diamond’s classic Guns, Germs and Steel about why the European nations so swiftly overcame the long-established civilisations in the Americas.

In this novel, the Inca and then the Aztecs conquer most of Western Europe in the 1500s. Sounds crazy? Perhaps. But then how crazy is it that Francisco Pizarro and his group of only 168 men overcame the long-established and mighty Inca Empire in our own timeline? Pretty crazy, that’s for sure.

With any alternate history it’s always interesting to look for the breaking point, the one incident which shifts the story into a different trouser-leg of time, as Terry Pratchett so memorably called it.

Here, it’s what happens to Freydris, the daughter of Eric the Red, who with a large group of Vikings sail west from Greenland to Vinland, where Leif Erikson established a short-lived colony in North America in about the year 1000 CE. For various reasons, Freydris Eriksdottir is expelled from the newly-established settlement there and with a group of followers and supplies including horses and cattle, set off to make their own settlement. Storms drive them south along the North American coast. The Vikings try to settle down and develop good relationships with the local inhabitants, but various things go wrong, including the fact that the Vikings bring with them serious illnesses from the Old World, which devastate the local populations, only sparing a few. So Freydris and her crew are expelled time and time again, moving further and further south before finally finding a resting place in South America, where they are able to establish a permanent colony and interbreed with the locals, to whom they teach the techniques of iron-working and other arts. And of course, the locals who survive have largely become immune to the European diseases the Vikings brought.

The centuries pass until a Spanish-funded adventurer called Christopher Columbus arrives in what we now know as Cuba. We get a long section purporting to be extracts from his journal. In this new timeline, however, the natives are no push-over for the Spaniards. They have iron-tipped arrows and spears and horses, and it’s not long before Columbus and his crew are overpowered and captured. Columbus himself dies years later in captivity, nursed in his decline by the Cuban princess Higuénamota, then only a child. She however is adept at learning Columbus’ language of Castilian in order to talk to him (he is never able to learn her tongue). Columbus leaves behind his journals, his maps, and the wrecks of his ships. In Europe, no one ever hears from Columbus or his men again, and so no new expeditions are despatched west.

We move forward again in time, but only a few decades. In what is now Peru, a civil war is raging between the brothers Huáscar and Atahualpa. Atahualpa loses this war and is forced north and eventually onto the island of Cuba. Here he meets the beautiful Higuénamota, now the queen. She tells him of the arrival of strange people from the east when she was a child.

You get the idea, I’m sure. Atahualpa and his band are able to rebuild Columbus’s ships and (rather improbably) learn how to sail them. He takes a few hundred of his people east and arrive in Lisbon just after it has suffered a major earthquake.

I won’t go into much more detail, you should read the book. One thing leads to another and eventually the Inca group take power in Spain, capturing the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and holding him ransom. Ultimately, after Charles’s death in a botched rescue attempt, Atahualpa is declared Emperor and for a while peace reigns. And then the Aztecs arrive, having followed the trail the Incas have already blazed…

It’s a wonderful concept and very cleverly done.

My criticism is that the book is very uneven. The early parts with Freydris, and particularly Columbus’ journal, are well-paced and very interesting. There is some very amusing correspondence between Sir Thomas More and Erasmus about the new religion of the Sun being spread by the Inca (gleefully seized upon by Henry VIII because it permits men to have as many wives as they like). But other parts read rather like a school history textbook and can be rather tedious, particularly if you’re not all that familiar with the true history being subverted. And at the end of the book, rather tacked on, is the story of what happens to one Miguel de Cervantes in this new timeline.

Still, all in all a very entertaining read.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I first read this book when it came out in 2014. I just finished re-reading it because Perry Middlemiss and I are going to be talking on our podcast about both this novel, and the excellent BBC television series based on it. That episode will be out later this week. So I’m not going to do a long review here, though the book certainly deserves it.

For now, let me just say that this is a really excellent read—I rated it five stars on Goodreads, a rare accolade from me.

The book has a fascinating premise: the protagonist, Ursula Todd, lives her life over and over again. Each time she dies, she is reborn as a baby at the exact same date and time, in 1910. Ursula dies many times, for many different reasons. When she is reborn, she doesn’t remember her previous life, but she does have vague premonitions and feelings which allow her sometimes to avoid whatever went wrong in her previous life.

We follow Ursula, episodically, through the first half of the twentieth century with a major focus on the Second World War. This is the best depiction I’ve yet read of what the London Blitz must really have been like to live through—devastatingly awful. And we also get a deep insight into the lives of a middle-class family between the two World Wars. All of the characters are really interesting, and the writing is superb. Highly recommended.

Life After Life won the 2013 Costa Award for best novel and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize and a bunch of other awards.

I’m a very keen fan of Kate Atkinson’s work. I’ve read every novel she’s published, and there’s a collection of her shorter fiction, Not the End of the World which I must get hold of. A few issues of Through the Biblioscope ago I reviewed her most recent release, Shrines of Gaiety, also very good, though not quite as good at this, which is her masterpiece.

Atkinson is almost exactly my own age—so she’s now 71 years old—but I really hope she keeps on writing. The good news is that, looking at her Wikipedia entry it looks as though there is another novel in the works, titled The Line of Sight. That will be another “must buy” for me.

Currently Reading

Cold Water by Dave Hutchinson

I really liked Hutchinson’s earlier books in his Fractured Europe series. This is a stand-alone based on the same premises. I’m only a little way into it and I don’t really know where it’s going yet.

Waiting on the Shelf

I’m not sure what I’ll pick up next. Probably one of the many books I have on hold at the library, it just depends on what turns up first. For your interest, here’s my library on-hold list (which regularly gets pruned down):

Of course, if I were rich, I would just buy all these, but I’m not. Nor do I have infinite space for bookshelves!

And that’s your lot. See you next time!

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