Pan’s Labyrinth (2019): Guillermo del Toro & Cornelia Funke

★★★★

Once upon a time, a little girl called Ofelia was born to a beautiful mother and a caring father, who were very much in love. Unfortunately, by the time this story starts, that happy time is long gone. Now Ofelia’s father is dead and, in the volatile Spain of 1944, a young widow and a little girl need protection. Ofelia’s mother has made a dangerous gamble and chosen to marry again, to the brutal Capitán Vidal. She is already heavy with his child and now, like a monster in a fable, he’s waiting for them in the old house he uses as his base, deep in the middle of a forest. Ofelia can’t resist drawing comparisons with fairy tales. She loves them. They help her make sense of the world around her, and now, as Spanish men kill other Spanish men, and evil digs its tendrils into her life, Ofelia will need her imagination more than ever. Darkness awaits her at Capitán Vidal’s farmhouse, but something else awaits her too. An extraordinary discovery: a labyrinth, a faun, and a promise – and a quest, which Ofelia must undertake to prove her worth. Based on the 2006 film, this is a deliciously dark homage to the magic of books and fairy tales, emphatically not for children (except grown-up ones). 

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The Living Infinite (2017): Chantel Acevedo

★★★½

The Infanta Eulalia of Spain is a disappointment: another girl to add to the royal nursery, rather than the longed-for second son to secure the family line. But she is, nevertheless, a princess and such a child must be raised in state. Officials searching for a wet nurse find and hire Amalia, a woman from Burgos with a bouncing, healthy baby boy of her own, christened Tomás. Amalia is offered a small fortune to come to Madrid to serve at the palace, with one free day each month to meet her husband. Her decision to accept is the point from which several different stories spiral outward, affecting the lives of those involved far into the future. Chantel Acevedo’s novel resurrects, on captivating form, a very real Spanish princess (1864-1958) who questioned convention, who loved and lost and travelled, who wrote with a fierceness and freedom that none of her predecessors had dared, and who sought to broaden the boundaries of her own stifling world.

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The Bird King (2019): G. Willow Wilson

★★★½

By 1492, the great empire of Al-Andalus has shrunk to a thin strip of land along the bottom of the Iberian peninsula, harried by the forces of the Christian kings Ferdinand and Isabella. Yet, within the harem of the palace in Granada, life keeps its languid pace. While siege closes in on the city outside, the women continue their petty rivalries, their music and their poetry, under the sharp eye of the Lady Aisha, the Sultan’s mother. The concubine Fatima – sharp, irreverent, and beautiful – diverts herself with secret visits to her childhood friend Hassan, the Sultan’s mapmaker, who is gifted with an extraordinary ability to invent doors where there were none before. As their world crumbles, these two dreamers realise that the only life they’ve known is on the verge of becoming a nightmare; and that sometimes safety lies beyond the reach of any map.

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The Infatuations (2011): Javier Marías

★★★

I’ve wanted to read one of Javier Marías’s novels for ages and this has been quietly sitting on my shelf, waiting. It’s a story I heard about years ago and which captured my attention: a young woman, breakfasting every morning in the same Madrid café, has become accustomed to seeing a married couple there every day at the same time. They are so much in love, so deeply connected and content, that she shyly adopts them as an ideal. But then, one day, they fail to appear and our narrator María reads with a shock, in the papers, that the man has been murdered in a senseless attack. Due to her fondness for them – her infatuation, perhaps, with the idea of them – she can’t leave it there. Now, given my high expectations for the book, I was a little disappointed. It wasn’t quite what I expected: more detached, more intellectual; a philosophical analysis more than a mystery. And the story’s several infatuations manifest themselves not as glorious passions, but as states of mind that can drive us to accept terrible situations as the norm.

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Fever Dream (2014): Samanta Schweblin

★★★

Sometimes you feel you’ve completely missed something. You end up suspecting there was a big revelation in the final pages that you completely overlooked and which would have made everything make sense. I feel that may have been the case here, so I’m hoping we can get into a discussion in the comments about exactly what was going on. Schweblin’s novella unfolds in the course of a single unbroken, breathless dialogue. Here is Amanda, lying in the dark in a hospital bed, running out of time. Here, at her side, is David, a young boy who keeps probing her with ruthless questions. They have to find something among the confused tangle of Amanda’s memories: a clue; a moment that will bring everything into focus. But what has happened to Amanda? And who is David?

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The Samurai of Seville (2016): John J. Healey

★★★½

Until I read this book, I’d never heard of the extraordinary Japanese embassy that arrived at the court of King Philip III of Spain in 1615. Its members had come halfway round the world, encouraged by the need to seek new trading markets and made curious by the stories of Christian missionaries. Led by the ambassador Hasekura Tsunenaga and escorted by a party of samurai, this remarkable entourage arrived in Europe to be feted and gawped at by peasants and nobles alike. Healey’s readable novel spins a tale around this encounter between two great empires and, even if the writing isn’t always the most gripping, it’s well worth seeking out for its fascinating and very unusual subject.

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Four Princes (2017): John Julius Norwich

★★★★

Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Obsessions that Forged Modern Europe

Over the years I’ve assembled a variety of John Julius Norwich’s history books, because he conveniently writes on precisely the topics that fascinate me: Byzantium; Sicily; the Normans in Italy; and so forth. However, although I’ve dipped into all of these books, I’ve rather shamefully never finished any of them, having been distracted for various reasons from savouring Norwich’s sublimely elegant prose. This new history, shorter than the others and full of a delightful liveliness, has the honour of being the first Norwich that I’ve read cover to cover. Taking the unusual format of a group biography, it focuses on the dazzling first half of the 16th century, when four men between them bestrode Europe like colossi. It’s an extremely accessible introduction to the period and the men in question.

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Goya: The Portraits

Goya: Self Portrait

(National Gallery, London, until 10 January 2016)

As someone who focuses on drawings and prints, I’m most familiar with Goya as a dark satirist, haunted by nightmarish images of witches and tumbling figures, like those in the recent show at the Courtauld. It’s easy to forget that his contemporaries knew him best for another very different aspect of his art, which forms the focus of this brand new exhibition at the National Gallery: his portraits.

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Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album

Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album

(Courtauld Gallery, London, until 25 May 2015)

A man slumps at a table, his head buried in his arms. As he dreams, the dark creatures of his imagination rise out of the shadows behind him: a lynx, which looks up with wide eyes; bats, flocking in the darkness, and owls which mob the sleeping figure with their wings and steal his artist’s tools. This etching, made in 1799, forms part of Goya’s print series Los Caprichos and was originally conceived as an allegorical self-portrait. Its title is The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. For all of mankind’s pretensions to reason and rationality in this Enlightened age, Goya seems to say, we only have to sleep for our primal nightmares to come crawling out of the woodwork.

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