The Mapmaker’s Daughter (2014): Laurel Corona


Shortly after finishing In the Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali I was inspired to seek out other books about 15th-century Spain. I wanted to understand more about this period, in which the last shreds of the convivencia of Al-Andalus disappeared forever (if it had ever truly existed). In its place arose the orthodox Catholic Spanish state, with its Inquisition and its autos-da-fé. Laurel Corona’s novel offers a perspective which perfectly complements Ali’s: while he tells the story of Reconquista from a Muslim point of view, Corona looks at the experience of the Jewish people in Spain and Portugal at the same date. It was only at the end of the book that I came to realise how cleverly she has woven her protagonist into the history of two real and very distinguished Jewish families.

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Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree (1992): Tariq Ali


The Islam Quintet: Book I

It begins with an act of book-burning. In 1499, on the instructions of Archbishop Ximines de Cisneros, a troop of Christian soldiers storms the libraries and houses of Gharnata (Grenada), carrying off armfuls of precious theological, medical and scientific manuscripts. With only a handful of exceptions these are burned in front of the shocked Moorish citizens, who see the conflagration for what it is: a warning.

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The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995): Guy Gavriel Kay


There are some books which leave you sitting in silence after you’ve finished them, staring into space. This is one of them. You may remember that I’ve mentioned it before: it’s one of my favourites; and so, when I heard that Helen was planning to read it for the first time, I asked if she would mind me re-reading it along with her. It hasn’t lost any of its impact. Poignant and powerful, it’s a sweeping medieval epic, tempered with nostalgia for two lost worlds: a glorious civilisation already on its deathbed; and a utopia of religious tolerance, which perhaps only ever existed in the imagination.

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Cathedral of the Sea (2006): Ildefonso Falcones

Like Per Olov Enquist’s Visit of the Royal Physician, Ildefonso Falcones’s historical novel Cathedral of the Sea has won a veritable bouquet of prizes both in its native Spain, where it enjoyed immense success, and in other European countries. Like The Visit of the Royal Physician, however, it left me cold. In fact, I am willing to go further in this instance and to say that this is a very disappointing book. Had I not felt honour-bound to finish it, I would have put it aside after the first hundred pages. As it was, I forced myself through to the end. I’m going to try to keep this post brief because, while I’m more than happy to write long effusive reviews of books I like, I see no virtue in dwelling on negativity. Suffice it to say I won’t be recommending it to anyone.

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Purity of Blood (1997): Arturo Pérez-Reverte


The Adventures of Captain Alatriste: Book II

In the second book in Pérez-Reverte’s swashbuckling series, we rejoin the eponymous captain and his page Íñigo shortly after the adventure of the two Englishmen recounted in Captain Alatriste. Life has returned to its normal rhythm and the captain is contemplating a return to active service in Flanders; but an encounter with their old friend, the poet don Francisco de Quevedo, raises the prospect of work to be done in Madrid.

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Murillo at the Wallace Collection (2013)

Murillo: Adoration of the Shepherds

Painting of the Spanish Golden Age

(Wallace Collection, London, until 12 May 2013)

Fresh from Dulwich on Sunday afternoon, I headed up to the Wallace Collection for the second instalment of my Murillo adventure. Here the exhibition is very small and, as at Dulwich, precisely focused. With one exception, it contains only pictures that were bought by the 4th Marquess of Hertford (1800-1870) in the mid-19th century and form part of the Collection. It therefore acts not only as an introduction to Murillo, but it shows us Murillo through the eyes of the 19th century, when Lord Hertford was buying his pictures at auction.

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Murillo and Justino de Neve: The Art of Friendship (2013)

Murillo: Triumph of Faith

(Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, until 19 May 2013)

London is the place to be for Murillo at the moment. This exhibition at Dulwich is complemented and echoed by a similar small show at the Wallace Collection, both of which will be ending soon. Yesterday I took the chance to visit both in one day, an experience which forced me to think a little more deeply about Murillo as an artist and which offered two different, but complementary perspectives on his painting. While the Wallace Collection looks at how the Marquess of Hertford assembled his collection of Murillos in the 19th century, Dulwich goes further back in time and homes in on the artist’s relationship with his key patron in Seville, the cathedral canon Justino de Neve (1625-1685).

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Captain Alatriste (1996): Arturo Pérez-Reverte


For the elite, Spain in the 1620s is a world of stately protocol, fine poetry and all the trappings of a great empire: the sun may be setting on Spanish dominance in the New World, but there’s still enough light to enjoy it while it lasts. Outside the insulated world of the court, however, things are very different. For the man on the street, it’s a world of living hand-to-mouth, gossip on street corners and scurrilous sonnets, where every insult is met with steel and where the appearance of gentility (bearing arms, getting good seats at the theatre) is more important than the reality. Into this roistering world of old soldiers, literary priests and jobbing poets comes young, wide-eyed Íñigo, whose mother has sent him to live with his late father’s comrade-in-arms, Captain Alatriste.

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The Skin I Live In (2011)

The Skin I Live In


(directed by Pedro Almodóvar, 2011)

When my colleagues and I were discussing films, and I said I wanted to see The Skin I Live In, they said they thought it was a horror film.  That worried me: I couldn’t imagine Almodóvar making a horror film. What I found, as it unfolded, was that this was not a horror film (to my relief): it was a typical Almodóvar film wrapped in the guise of a melodramatic thriller.

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