Xalaila's book diary

I mostly post reviews of the books I'm reading lately.

The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer


Mortimer has a radical idea: history can be looked at from a different perspective; “it is not just about the analysis of evidence, unrolling vellum documents or answering exam papers. It is not about judging the dead. It is about understanding the meaning of the past - to realise the whole evolving human story over centuries, not just our own lifetimes.”

He tried to write a travel guide about XIV century England and he manages to put the reader right in the middle of it. You visit the houses of lords and peasants, dress like them, look into their kitchens and solars, study the law very briefly, travel around and look for signs of the plague. Hopefully, you survive. 


It’s not just about facts and figures. The descriptions are vivid, there are some images in case you have trouble imagining something, and he covers a wide range of subjects. He does make clear that things might be different whether you arrive at the beginning or at the end of the century, but he tries to include information even on these changes. 


And you’ll laugh. It’s impossible not to, when you read things like “Images of extreme cruelty provide an opportunity to study men’s underwear” (right under a picture of the Templars’ burning), or “Thomas Brinton, bishop of Rochester, puts wrestling matches in the same category as gluttony, chatting idly in the market, and anything else which distracts the populace from listening to his sermons.”


Despite getting a tinsy bit boring in the middle, it’s a great read, funny, well-documented, accessible even to those who don’t care about a history. A great complement to all the historical novels I’ve  been reading lately.

The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory



"Mary Boleyn catches the eye of Henry VIII when she is a girl of just fourteen. But her joy is cut short when she discovers that she is a pawn in her family's plots. When the capricious king's interest wanes, Mary is ordered to pass on her knowledge of how to please him to her friend and rival: her sister, Anne."

Philippa Gregory gets better with every new book from her I read. This one was much longer and packed with details than the other three or four I've read from her, and I enjoyed it a lot more as well. The writing could have been improved (there's only so many times I can read "she raised an arched eyebrow", or "I said flatly", or any other qualifier for "said" when one can infer the tone from the dialogue), but I felt it was more fluid than in the previous books.


It's impossible to not hate Anne Boleyn throughout most of the book, but by the end Gregory makes the reader feel compassion towards her, whatever her faults, because there is a larger understanding not just of her own motives and goals, but of the general situation of women. In fact, the whole book is an open criticism on women's subordination in everything to men. It seems a constant theme with Gregory, but for the first time she makes her characters realize their position in society.

It was an interesting experience reading about the Boleyns because I kept imagining the whole cast with the members of The Tudors TV show (that is, the book's Henry VIII was Jonathan Rhys-Mayers in my head, Queen Katherine was Maria Doyle-Kennedy, and so on).

I really loved the descriptions of country life, and the characters' awareness of things being much larger than they ever thought.



Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman


"Under the streets of London there's a place most people could never even dream of. A city of monsters and saints, murderers and angels, knights in armour and pale girls in black velvet. This is the city of the people who have fallen between the cracks."

The premise is simple: Richard Mayhew, normal person, helps a girl on the street and suddently finds himself sucked into London Below, fighting monsters, visiting Floating Markets, consorting with Hunters and angels.

Having listened to the BBC radio play a month or so ago, I thought I would enjoy this book a lot more than I actually did. Perhaps it was because I already knew the story that I didn't quite like it, but there was something about certain sentences and paragraphs that didn't quite convince me. The story flows but the writing... at times not so much.

That said, I read all of Islington's lines in Benedict Cumberbatch's voice, and Door was most definitely Natalie Dormer. Maybe I should have read it before listening to the play. Too late for that now.

Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Adichie


"In 1960s Nigeria, a country blighted by civil war, three lives inersect. Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, works as a houseboy for a university lecturer. Olanna, a young woman, has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos to live with her charismatic new lover, the professor. The third is Richard, a shy Englishman in thrall to Olanna's enigmatic twin sister. When the shocking horror of the war engulfs them, their loyalties are severly tested as they are pulled apart and thrown together in ways that none of them imagined."


Switching between the early and the late 60s, and set in the context of the Biafran war, Adichie narrates the lives of three Nigerians with grace and beauty. She doesn't shy away from the horrors of war, including the starvation that brought Biafra international attention, but she doesn't dwell on the gory parts, focusing more on the feelings and thoughts of the different characters, on how they struggle to survive.


Half of a Yellow Sun is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. There are just as many moments of hope as there are of grief, but there is no real conclusion because war is ugly.

Mozart's Sister: A Novel

Mozart's Sister - Rita Charbonnier Super emotivo: lloré varias veces, me indigné, quería pelearme con los papás. Está muy bien investigado, la narrativa es vívida y uno puede simpatizar con Nannerl. Muy buena para ser primera novela de la autora. Recomendadísima, aunque también sugiero buscar la traducción al español, que ha de ser más cercana al original en italiano.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs


When Jacob's grandfather dies, Jacob is only left with memories of the stories he was told as a child, some photographs and his grandfather's mysterious last words. It seems the shock of what he saw is too great, so he is sent off to a pyschiatrist and then to a Welsh island, where his grandfather lived and where the photographs were taken. What he finds there surpasses even his wildest dreams.

The book was fantastic. It's a little bit too dark to be entirely YA, but it does center around teenagers. The images upset me, so that I couldn't read it by night (I'm easily scared), but when I picked it up in daylight I just couldn't put it down. It's creepy, just slightly on the verge of horror, and the end is action-packed. Definitely a change of pace from what I've been reading lately! Very enjoyable (though probably, for me, it would have been better without the pictures).

Review: The Constant Princess, Phillipa Gregory


Absolutely enjoyable. There’s so much I didn’t know about Katherine of Aragorn. The descriptions of Granada and the Alhambra were vivid and magical. It’s been a while since I actually wanted to travel somewhere instantly just to see it, and this book’s done it! 

Katherine’s life was a difficult one, but she managed to fulfill her destiny through sheer determinacy and patience. The book focuses more on the years from when she was a child until her daughter Mary’s birth, and I think it’s right. We know what came later, so it’s a lot more interesting and rewarding to know what came before.

It was also great to have in such clarity the relationships between different historical figures that sometimes seem hard to place: Juana la Loca of Spain, for instance, was Katherine’s sister. This puts the larger history of Spain, at least for me, in broader perspective.

Definitely a must read!

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide - Nicholas D. Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn I had nightmares halfway through this book, it is so vivid. But besides the despair it gives when it narrates all the atrocities committed against women all over the world, it also provides hope and ideas on how "normal" people can help change this situation and improve the situation of women, especially in impoverished countries.

Memoirs of Hadrian

Memoirs of Hadrian - Marguerite Yourcenar, Grace Frick Excelente libro. Muchas reflexiones sobre la vida, la guerra, la paz, la política. La prosa es inigualable, bellísima, muy fluida. A pesar de que Adriano, el narrador, está al borde de la muerte, la sensación es de paz y satisfacción, no de desesperación o tristeza.

Shalimar the Clown: A Novel

Shalimar the Clown - Salman Rushdie Como todo lo que escribe Rushdie, me encantó. Más contemporáneo que sus otras obras pero sin abandonar el realismo mágico, las descripciones de la India y especialmente de Kashmir. No es del nivel de Midnight's Children o The Satanic Verses, pero vale la pena.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - Seth Grahame-Smith Los zombies no son lo mío, pero si a ti te gustan y te gusta Austen, ésta es una buena opción: ligero, divertido, con pocos cambios al original, más allá de la inclusión de zombies.

The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey

The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey - Salman Rushdie No es una novela ni son cuentos cortos. Rushdie narra, en episodios breves, una visita que hizo a Nicaragua en 1979: reuniones que tuvo con sandinistas, con gente de a pie, sus viajes en el interior del país. Excelentes reflexiones sobre sus experiencias y quisiera que regresara para hacer una continuación.

The Satanic Verses: A Novel (Bestselling Backlist)

The Satanic Verses - Salman Rushdie Complicado, tanto por el estilo como por las historias entrelazadas. Deja mucho qué pensar, pues es una crítica a la creencia de que Mahoma recibió la revelación directamente de un ángel de Dios. Con razón lo condenaron a muerte. No dejen de leerlo.

Midnight's Children

Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie Mágico. Ve la historia de la independencia de la India desde la vida personal de una familia a lo largo de tres generaciones. Las descripciones son impresionantes, reales, vívidas. Si no quieres leer algo tan "elevado" como The Satanic Verses pero empezar a leer a Rushdie, ésta es la opción. Además, fue de sus primeros libros.

The Red Queen: A Novel (The Cousins' War)

The Red Queen - Philippa Gregory Absolutely hated the MC. She's spoiled, her "religious" streak drive me crazy. But there's no doubt she was well painted. I am really enjoying Gregory's books. This and The White Queen especially, in light of the Richard III's discovery last month.

The White Queen: A Novel (Cousins' War (Touchstone Hardcover))

The White Queen - Philippa Gregory Historically accurate. The descriptions of battles and court life -life in general- were the best parts of the book. I found it hard to relate to the MC, but grew to like her in the end.

Currently reading

Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, The
Florence A. Marshall
From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia
Pankaj Mishra
Le Morte d'Arthur, Vol. 1
Thomas Malory, Janet Cowen, John Lawlor