As the days grow colder, my appreciation for a hot cup of tea increases, and this morning is no exception. I don’t have a little treat today, since I went to two church craft and bake sales and one similar event at our local community centre yesterday. Of course delicious homemade baked goods were in abundance, and how can you not take advantage of such offerings, while also supporting worthy organizations?! (that’s how I was justifying it to myself all day yesterday as I ate cookie after cookie… “it’s for a good cause…”)
I met with my Friends book group on Monday to discuss a book I had read before, just over 10 years ago. I had forgotten about this book until a friend from the library recently mentioned that she just finished listening to this book and absolutely loved it, so I must have put it forth as a recommendation for our group sometime in the summer. The book is The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Luis Zafón, his first adult novel after writing several books for young adults. This book tells the story of Daniel Sempere, a young boy in post-war Barcelona who, upon realizing that he can no longer remember his deceased mother’s face, falls into despair. One day his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a huge hidden library of old books, watched over by the elderly caretaker, Isaac. Being a new initiate, Daniel is allowed to choose one book that he can take home with him, and he wanders the corridors perusing the stacks of books. He is drawn, finally, to one book, The Shadow of the Wind, by Julian Carax, which he ultimately chooses to take. The book he has chosen tells the story of a man who is searching for his father, and Daniel becomes completely engrossed in the novel. In his search to find other books by this author, he becomes involved in a complex plot that spans decades and involves a variety of characters. His first encounter is with a bookseller and friend of his father’s, Gustavo Barceló, who tries to convince Daniel to sell the book to him, offering huge sums of money for the item. Of course, Daniel refuses to sell, but during this visit he is introduced to Gustavo’s daughter, Clara, who is beautiful and also blind. Daniel is smitten with this older woman (he is 11 and she is 18), and he uses her blindness as an excuse to visit the Barceló home often, ostensibly to read to her. One day, his heart is broken when he discovers Clara and her music teacher intimately involved in her room. He storms out and refuses to see her again. Several years pass and Daniel, now a young man, increases his efforts to find out more about this mysterious writer, Carax, who supposedly died in Barcelona in the 1930’s, although there is also a story that he died in Paris in the 1920’s. It appears that a sinister man, claiming to be Lain Coubert, a character from Carax's book, is searching for and destroying all copies of the author's books. As Daniel gets more involved in the search for the truth, he enlists the help of Fermin Romero de Torres, a man Daniel found living on the street, in need of a good meal and a place to sleep. He and his father take care of Fermin and give him a job in their bookstore, but it is his friendship with Daniel that is most significant in the story. Fermin had been imprisoned during the war for espionage activities and has been blacklisted by the local police, headed by Francisco Javier Fumero, a former schoolmate of Carax’s, and an utterly nasty character. At this time, Daniel also renews his friendship with childhood friend Tomás Aguilar, with whom he once had a close friendship. He also rediscovers Tomás’ sister, Beatriz, with whom he slowly and secretly falls in love, secretly because she is engaged to an army officer. The plot thickens as Daniel uncovers more connections within and among various people in the city, publishers, booksellers, the hatter, the police chief, and the members of the wealthy family who once lived in the mansion at the top of the hill. As Daniel digs deeper and deeper, he uncovers family secrets and hidden connections, all the while falling in love and creating close relationships. This book has humour, intrigue, mystery, romance, melodrama and politics. It is about the loss of innocence and the discovery of one’s true identity; it is also a novel about books, an ode to reading and writing, and it offers a look at post-war Spain through the eyes of a young man. His descriptions were amazing, creating the atmosphere of the dark, shadowy streets of Barcelona as seen through Daniel’s eyes. These were my thoughts, but not everyone agreed. In fact, there were only two of us out of six who actually finished the book. Two others were running out of time and were planning to finish after the meeting, and the last two gave up about a third of the way into the book. They found it too long, too descriptive, and not really engaging. There were too many characters, and the plot was too far-fetched and unbelievable. I can see how people would feel this way, but those of us who stuck with it past the first 200 pages (it has about 500 pages) agreed that it gets more interesting and more engaging. Knowing that he wrote young adult novels before this one explains many aspects of the novel, such as the ages of the main characters and the style he used. It was not a totally successful choice, but I bet it would be more successful with my volunteer group, who I feel would better appreciate the style and the story. Maybe I will recommend it to them next time we meet. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes a good gothic mystery and doesn’t mind descriptive narrative (which I usually don’t like, but this book totally swept me along!). Note: this book was followed by a prequel, The Angel's Game and finally, The Prisoner of Heaven.
I also read the latest novel by Canadian author Simone St James, The Other Side of Midnight. Set in London in 1925, it tells the story of Ellie Winter, a young woman living alone in her mother’s house in St John’s Wood who becomes involved in the investigation into the murder of estranged friend Gloria Sutter. Gloria’s brother, George, arrives at Ellie’s door the day after his sister is murdered with a note Gloria delivered to his hotel the night before, “Ask Ellie Winter to find me”. Ellie and Gloria are mediums, able to contact the dead on the other side. After the Great War, their services were very much in demand by families wishing to contact their dead soldier sons and husbands. Ellie no longer contacts the dead, but only offers services to help people find lost things. Reluctantly she agrees to help in the investigation, feeling guilty because it was she who ended the close friendship the women enjoyed until a few years earlier, and she who ignored the peace offering Gloria made after the death of Ellie’s mother. Ellie is further convinced to help Sutter with the investigation because of the involvement of James Hawley, member of an organization tasked with debunking fraudulent psychics, a man for whom she has held strong feelings since their first meeting a few years earlier, also in the company of Gloria. Gloria was drowned in a pond while performing a seance for new clients, the Dubbses, but the whole thing seems out of character for Gloria, as she never offers her services at the homes of her clients and she always books her appointments through her assistant, Davies, a woman who knew nothing of this last engagement. As Ellie and James search for clues and try to uncover the truth about what really happened to Gloria, they find themselves in increasing danger, while also falling madly in love. I recently listened to an audio version of The Haunting of Maddy Clare, and so I was quite excited to get this book. St James is a master at creating atmosphere. You really feel as thought you are there, and I was reminded of one of my favourite books, Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, while reading this book. Both heroines were timid, both had to make a living somehow, as they had no living parents and no marriage prospects. They each entered into their situation rather reluctantly, not really knowing what to expect, and both turned out to be smarter and stronger than they believed they could be. And they both became close to and protective of their canine companions. It was a fun, light read, a ghost story with, of course, a strong romantic subplot. Another gothic mystery, I would recommend this book if you are in the mood for a quick read.
That’s all for today. Happy Reading!
Bye for now…