A novel comes alive when you recognise a detail, either directly from your own experience, or from the vicarious recollections of others. So it was thanks to uitlander and her travels in southern Africa that I connected with The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency when Mma Ramotswe went shopping at OK Bazaars. More directly, when the characters in The Shadow of the Wind go for a bite to eat at Els Quatre Gats I have an immediate sense of the place (and I highly recommend Duck with Pears if you are ever passing).
The book is set in Barcelona and begins in 1945, when ten-year old Daniel Sempere, the son of a bookseller, is introduced to The Cemetery of Forgotten Books and picks up a book, The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. In this sense, it feels a little Harry Potter-ish (though I've never read any of them), but Daniel grows up quickly over the next ten years, and the dialogue and wordplay becomes more like Umberto Eco. Zafón cleverly and convincingly establishes the unreal normality of life in Franco's dictatorship. In the sort of coincidence that only occurs in novels, through Daniel's obsessive investigations, his circle of acquaintances slowly reveal to him their connections with the mysterious Carax and his dark legacy.
Some books draw out their conclusions; others rush them. In this one, it's paced about right. There are some twists that one can guess; some that one can speculate over; and others that spring out without warning. There are enough characters to keep the plot afloat, without there being so many that one can't remember who on earth they are when they reappear. It's variously humorous, dramatic, tragic and human. Like A Very Long Engagement, the book is somewhat cross-genre, and like Foucault's Pendulum, though it paints superb word-pictures, it would seem impossible to turn it into a film. Also like Eco, the translation is excellent, so credit to Lucia Graves too.