The master of storytelling – Carlos Ruiz Zafon: A review of The Labyrinth of the Spirits

Blog book review The Labyrinth of the Spirits

The Shadow of the Wind left a lasting impression on me when I read it on publication 17 years ago (and on subsequent re-reads). The next novels in the sequence, The Angel’s Game and The Prisoner of Heaven, had the same effect. And now I can add The Labyrinth of the Spirits to that list. For those of you who have been holding out for this, the final novel in Zafon’s The Cemetery of Forgotten Books quartet, you’re in for a treat. And for those of you who haven’t been fortunate to read his novels yet, I strongly recommend you start. Right now.

Described as, “…an intricate and intensely imagined homage to books, the art of storytelling and that magical bridge between literature and our lives”, The Labyrinth of the Spirits combines the genres of fairy tale, thriller, romance and detective stories to provide an extraordinary reading experience.

It was a genuine treat to welcome my old friends, Daniel Sempere and Fermin Romero de Torres, back into my life, and have the opportunity to revisit the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, still one of my most favourite fictional places of all time. Even more delightful was meeting Zafon’s latest creation, Alicia Gris, one of the most extraordinary anti-heroes ever to be captured in the pages of a book. Seductive, tortured, sensitive and  cruel, Alicia is a tour de force.

In Labyrinth, Daniel is now a young man, running the Sempere & Sons bookshop in 1950s Barcelona, sharing this life with his loving wife and son. Yet he still frets over his mother’s death and feels the shadows from his past, and hers, threatening his happiness. When Alicia enters his life, and re-enters Fermin’s, the stage is set for the final chapter in Daniel’s search for the truth about Isabella Sempere.

Dazzled, obsessed, haunted… this could describe many of the characters in The Labyrinth of the Spirits, but  definitely describes me while reading it; I could not put this book down! 

 

Advertisements

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas

blog book review of The Psychology of Time Travel

A thought-provoking, page-turning, complexly plotted, fabulous read!

Imagine that time travel was actually possible – what would that be like?  Who would own the ‘rights’? What would the ramifications to history be? What would the constant changes in time do to a time traveller’s circadian rhythm? And what would you do if you knew a crime had been committed in another time?

All of these questions, and more, are answered imaginatively and creatively by Kate Mascarenhas; she even includes a time travel glossary at the back of the book to help the reader understand the time travellers’ jargon as they flash backwards and forwards in time, intersecting with their ‘green’ selves and their ‘silver’ selves, as well as their fathers, granddaughters and friends.

Focusing on four female time travel pioneers, The Psychology of Time Travel is a dazzling debut novel from Kate Mascarenhas. For anyone who loved The Time Traveller’s Wife or Arcadia, this is for you.

The Last, Hanna Jameson

blog book review of The Last

Dystopian present/future? Check.
Modern take on the ‘country house murder mystery’ genre? Check.
Conflicted narrator? Check.

The Last by Hanna Jameson is a fast-moving, yet thought-provoking, exploration of what happens when a set of strangers thrown together by chance have to cope with a catastrophic world event. Far from family and friends, with no access to the internet or any form of news, limited supplies, and the constant threat of looters and raiders, the guests at L’Hotel Sixieme support each other, turn on each other, prey on each other but ultimately come to rely on each other in their new post-nuclear world.

The restricted setting of the hotel and grounds for the majority of the novel creates a suffocating, sometimes threatening environment, and cranks up the tension as Jon Keller, the main protagonist, insists on investigating the murder of the dead child found on the premises in the days after the nuclear bombs hit the US and Europe. Any more detail will entail spoilers so I won’t say any more except that I really enjoyed this novel and would definitely recommend.

“There is no friend as loyal as a book” (Hemingway) – a review of Bookworm by Lucy Mangan

blog book review of Bookworm

Never has the old adage, you can’t judge a book by its cover been proved more wrong. You can and you should. Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading is beautiful inside and out. A tribute to the extraordinary importance that books have in childhood. I laughed, nodded my head vigorously, and even shed a tear as I read this wonderful memoir.

childrens-stories.jpgIn one of those coincidences that life throws at you, I visited my parents while reading Bookworm. My dad casually mentioned that there were a couple of boxes of mine still up in the loft and I should go through them as he was planning a clear out. And oh, how glad I am that I did. I opened up the boxes and there were some of my old childhood friends. The rush of nostalgia when I saw the covers overwhelmed me. Many of my favourites have sadly been lost, or donated, over the years so it was a very eclectic mix that remained. But every book had a history for me. And I spent a couple of hours exclaiming happily over each and every book in those boxes.

I had the same feeling reading Bookworm.  Reading as a child, I would frequently emerge dazed and blinking, hours after first picking up the book, confused as to why I wasn’t in Narnia, fleeing from a laboratory with my fellow rats, ice skating with Hatty in the moonlight, or making a shelter from willow branches on a secret island.

My parents supported, but were slightly baffled by, my constant urge to read. Breakfast (“put that book down and eat your toast!”), still breakfast (“are you reading the cereal box?! just finish your breakfast!”), post school/pre-tea time (“why don’t you go and run around outside?”), bedtime (“alright, one more chapter”), still bedtime (“lights off now”), still bedtime (give me that torch), still bedtime (“you’ll ruin your eyes sitting in the windowsill using light from streetlamp, for the last time, stop reading and go to sleep”)…you get the idea.

The only way to keep me in books was our local library. Without fail, every week my dad would take me to there (and in school holidays, twice a week, such a treat that was!) where he would patiently wait as I agonised over which five books to check out. And every birthday and Christmas, my mum would make sure that all the relatives knew which books I did(n’t) own or hadn’t read, in a vain attempt to ensure that I received books I hadn’t already read.

owl afraid of the darkAs adults we forget that intense love and passion we had for our books as children. How we could read and reread the same book over and over again. Every now and then I still have a flash of that childhood passion, like when I come across a particular  edition of the The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark. [He was an owl. He had issues. He was called Plop. He was perfect in my eyes.] I read and reread Plop’s story so many times. And every time I finished the story, I felt the same sense of satisfaction that Plop had managed to overcome his fears.  Another children’s book that I reread obsessively was The Secret Garden. It was a revelation to me; the main character was a girl, but not a sweet ‘setting an example’ kind of girl, but a grumpy one. A girl who gave as good as she got, who could scream louder than a boy, a girl who had an adventurous spirit and who wasn’t afraid. Mary Lennox, I salute you.

Reading this memoir, it felt as if Mangan was telling the story of MY childhood reading; every chapter of her book journey reflects a step I took on my reading journey (I suspect we are a similar age!). The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The Garden Gang (The Garden Gang!!). Enid Blyton. Roald Dahl. Tom’s Midnight Garden. The horsey books. Narnia. The boarding school stories (Ah, Chalet School!). The dystopian future books (Z for Zachariah, Changes). Judy Blume who gave me the courage that I would survive my teenage angst. And last, but certainly not least, I Capture the Castle.

This is a memoir for anyone who loved books as a child, who saw them as friends, who could quote whole chunks from them. And for anyone who still loves reading as an adult.

 

I am, I am, I am by Maggie O’Farrell

blog book review of I am I am I am

I read this in hardback when it was first released (as I do all of Maggie O’Farrell’s books) but the recent release of the paperback prompted me to go back and reread it.

And thank goodness I did. Once again I got to marvel at the perfect tone of her stories and her lyricism. What struck me, as I read her stories, is her sense of optimism and above all her will. Her will to survive. Her will to succeed. Her will to carry on carrying on. There is not a single self-pitying sentence in the entire book. Her wit and her wisdom shine through every page, but not in a saintly way – she is matter of fact and tells her tales warts and all.

You would be forgiven for thinking that 17 brushes with death (well 16, those who have read it will understand my caveat) would make O’Farrell maudlin, fearful, or see herself as ‘unlucky’. But, as she tells an ex-boyfriend, she sees herself as lucky.

I read this book in a single sitting the first time, and again this time round. And I suspect I will, the third and fourth time (ad infinitum) that I read this. And you should to.

Pretty iconic? Pretty great!

Pretty iconic blog banner

Hands up, I don’t tend to read beauty books, beauty blog posts, in fact anything about beauty (although I am a fan of India Knight’s beauty articles for The Sunday Times’ Style magazine). However, this book was recommended to me and, as I am a sucker for a good-looking book (pun intended), I thought I would indulge myself.

And I am so glad I did. I came to Pretty Iconic: A Personal Look at the Beauty Products That Changed the World with absolutely no expectations; I had not read any of Sali Hughes‘s writing before (apologies to all you beauty fans out there, I refer you to my previous comment about not reading beauty stuff), and wasn’t sure what I would find.

What I found was an absolute gem of a book. Not only is Hughes incredibly informed and passionate about beauty products and very good at explaining why they do what they do, she is also knowledgeable about the products’ history and what inspired them to be created in the first place. And I really like her writing style.

I didn’t think that I have a lot of make-up and unguents on my bathroom shelf, so I was surprised tofind that I did in fact own, or have used in the past, many of the products that Hughes recommends in her book. And it was interesting to get a better understanding of ‘why’ a particular product works so well for me.

Split into sections: The Icons; The Nostalgics; The Gamechangers; The Rites of Passage; The Future Icons, there is something for everyone here. Some of Hughes’ anecdotes within The Nostalgics section made me laugh out loud. I am the same age as Hughes and experienced a similar beauty rite of passage to hers so her mentions of LouLou and AnaisAnais perfume (who doesn’t remember that extraordinary turquoise and merlot angular bottle?) and banana clips and scrunchies made me smile and cringe in equal measure. I was also pleased to see that I am not the only one to remember the joy of the Cosmetics-To-Go catalogue (now Lush).

There are over 200 products featured in this book; it’s designed to be picked up and flicked through, but it is so well-written and so interesting that I read it straight through practically in one sitting.

Even if you have no interest in beauty products, I promise that you will enjoy dipping into this book. It is well-written, informative, interesting, and beautifully designed. And for any woman born in the UK in the mid to late ’70s, it is a wonderful trip down memory lane. In fact, I’m off to track down some Papier Poudre sheets right now…

 

The Loney: Andrew Michael Hurley

 

andrew-michael-hurleyAward-winning author, Andrew Michael Hurley, spoke with Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes, at the Gothic Manchester Festival 2016: The Gothic North, in the marvellously appropriate Historic Reading Room at The John Rylands Library to a full house yesterday evening.

This engaging conversation covered the landscape and writers that inspired Hurley when writing The Loney, Hurley’s approach to writing and some of the key themes that run through his novel. For those not lucky enough to attend, following are my notes on their conversation.

the-loneyIs there such a thing as ‘northern Gothic’ in literature? Well, if there is, The Loney is it.The Gothic enables a writer to approach the large existential questions such as faith and identity, in an interesting and different way and Hurley does this in The Loney. He explores the difficulties of those experiencing a crisis of faith, using a group of parishioners on their annual Easter pilgrimage to a lonely stretch of the northwest coast. Eerie, strange and haunting, the landscape is as much a character as the parishioners and their priest.  A deeply unsettling, haunting novel, The Loney has at its heart a tension, that between reason and unreason. There is an honesty in Gothic writing, specifically the honesty of arrogant narrators in Gothic; the narrators use their knowledge to combat the horror they are witnessing but there always comes a point when reason cannot comprehend what is happening, or explain it away, and they are overcome by the horror.

Hurley visited the Morecombe Bay area many times as a child, through all its seasons, and the loneliness of this area was one of his inspirations for The Loney. The northern landscape and the weather lends itself to the Gothic; its gloomy, glowering skies are quintessentially Gothic.

Hurley was brought up in the Catholic faith (although lost his faith some time ago); as a child he learnt from his religion that there is another world peopled with spirits, devils and angels. He found many of the tenets of his faith gory, such as transubstantiation, and consequently his novel is soaked in this religious imagery and fervour.

Writers that have inspired Hurley include Charles Maturin and Shirley Jackson. Hurley talked admiringly about the ‘elasticity’ in the worlds in Jackson’s novels; her realities are recognisable but she stretches that reality to something off kilter, not quite right, that acts to unsettle the reader.Some direct literary influences on The Loney include M R James’ Whistle and I’ll come to you, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (some of the novel is set in Whitby, another northern coastal area) and Daphne DuMaurier (Don’t Look Now, The Birds).

It’s very difficult to say any more about The Loney without spoiling it so all i will say is that you should read it! And good news, there is another novel on the way also set in rural Lancashire,in the Bowland Fells, focusing on a small farming community and its local folklore.