The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, was chosen because it takes place in Barcelona. And it comes with a walking tour of Barcelona that takes you through important locations in the book. So I made sure to read it first. The Shadow of the Wind has a great hook: a young boy, Daniel Sempere, is introduced to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his father. Here he chooses The Shadow of the Wind, by Julián Carax, to keep and protect and remember. He devours the book and wants to read more by Carax...but he discovers that someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book by Carax. Who? Why? How? Daniel's curiosity sets into motion a chain of events that will unearth the past and change his future.
Although it may seem like it on the surface, this book is not actually about some secret book-burning conspiracy. It's much more personal than that. It's a Gothic novel by way of Dickens, with startling coincidences and unexpected relationships. Daniel attemps to track down any information he can about Carax, trying to piece together his family history from the accounts of those still living, from letters, from mysterious photographs. This is not an easy task. Some people lie to him outright. Some people tell half-truths. And some people tell the only truth they know, even if it happens to be incorrect. In this sense, it reminded me of The Egyptologist: Daniel is not an unreliable narrator, but every single person he talks to sure is.
It's a great book that draws you in with lively, intriguing characters, including a villainous police inspector (Dickensian, like I said). There are many surprising twists along the way, even though when the final truth is revealed, you feel like you should have known all along. And it was the perfect book to read (in Budapest) before visiting Barcelona since it really captures the twisty-turny alleyways of the Gothic Quarter. I'm looking forward to reading The Angel's Game and any future books set in this same world.
I followed it up with some lighter fare, Blameless, by Gail Carriger, which sees Alexia tromping off to Italy, which is neither Hungary nor Spain, but is kind of close. I read it in both Budapest AND Barcelona! I enjoyed it, and it made me laugh out loud at points, of course, but it felt...like not as much was at stake as usual. I never felt a real sense of danger, perhaps because Alexia is so gosh-darn unflappable. That's part of the lighthearted, romp-y tone of the books, I suppose, which has its charm, but it seems like very little HAPPENS in each book. There are basically one or two revelations or developments that move the plot forward (and I do like that Carriger is moving a continuing plot, of sorts, regarding Alexia's preternatural nature through the books and like the references to past books), but otherwise it's just silly fun, which is fine.
I did like that secondary characters like Lyall and Floote got a chance to shine. I got unexpectedly teary at one scene!
I'm interested to see what Carriger is planning for the next two books, which I believe are supposed to close out the series.
I picked up If on a winter's night a traveller, by Italo Calvino, at the Red Bus Bookstore in Budapest, which was appropriate because I was a traveler! Except it's not actually about traveling. It's one of the strangest books I've ever read, actually. It begins by informing you, the reader, that you have purchased Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler, and are about to begin reading it.
That's right, it's a book about reading a book. But wait, it gets weirder! Because it turns out the book you're reading isn't even the right book. OR SOMETHING. Basically, the whole book is a bunch of first chapters (and not even the whole chapters) that end right as they get interesting. Meanwhile, you, the Reader, are trying to find some way to continue the stories you actually like, and you have a meet-cute with Other Reader. I was almost disappointed when Calvino attempted to actually give the book a semblance of a plot, as it kind of goes off the rails and becomes a bizarre Helleresque farce.
It's a strange postmodern metanarrative about reading and storytelling, fiction and truth, and the inherent lie in a translation (and of course, a layer of that winky-wink is added since I was reading a translation from the Italian). Also, it's funny!