#Bookreview: Zahara and the Lost Books of Light

Joyce Yarrow, Author of Zahara and the Lost Books of Light

My Review

Click cover to purchase from Amazon.

Zahara and the Lost Books of Light opens with a gripping scene from the Spanish Inquisition. In a moonlit plaza in Granada, “The smell of incipient violence taints the air.” Although a dozen severed earlobes hanging from the Arc of the Ears bear witness to the loss of human life that day, the incipient violence in the air is not directed toward heretics. It is directed toward heretical works: books.

The plaza is piled high with books of poetry and all manner of scholarship that have been ripped from library shelves and “thrown together like corpses in a heap.” The crime? The books were written by Muslim and Jewish poets, philosophers, and scholars. The punishment? The books are to be burned.

I was immediately reminded of the Library at Alexandria, its apocryphal destruction by fire, and the centuries of questioning what ancient wisdom had been lost forever and what we could have gained from it. Similarly, in 1499, book-burning was not a symbolic act. Once those those texts went up in flames, the knowledge they contained would be gone forever. There would be no retrieving it from a backup in the Cloud.

Enter two ethereal forms, who direct a workman to save as many of the books as he can, to be hidden in a safe location, which comes to be known as Zahara. Before the two forms disappear through a time portal as beams of light, one intimates that someone from the future will be needed to keep the treasures of Zahara safe.

That someone is Alienor Crespo, a Seattle journalist of Spanish Sephardic heritage. She will travel to Spain ostensibly to do a news story on the repatriation of people whose Sephardic ancestors were banished from Spain in 1492. In reality, she is in search of her own heritage, driven in part by her gift of Vijitas Lokas, by which she is transported through time as various female ancestors to experience important moments in their lives. Ultimately, to fully understand her own identity, she must learn how her ancestors, particularly a great-aunt in an interfaith marriage, had to deny theirs.

While in Spain, Alienor meets her second cousin Celia, whose house is directly above Zahara, an underground library that Alienor first accesses through a trapdoor in Celia’s bedroom closet. The world-building for Zahara was one of my favorite aspects of the novel. Alienor discovers a muraled passageway, a ventilation system, security cameras, intercoms, and locks activated by thumbprints. There are various rooms dedicated to the different types of books, with a separate librarian responsible for each room.

In addition to Alienor’s search for her heritage, the plot is propelled by a nefarious political organization that seeks to destroy Zahara to maintain Spain’s cultural purity. There are plenty of twists and turns along the way, as well as a love interest for Alienor.

In the end, what impressed me most about Zahara and the Lost Books of Light was that I believed it–libraries of irreplaceable books rescued from the flames of the Spanish Inquisition, ethereal forms who turn into beams of light, Alienor’s travels through time as other people–I believed it all. Now, that’s great story-telling!

The Inspiration

Thanks so much for hosting me and ZAHARA AND THE LOST BOOKS OF LIGHT on your blog, Liz!

ZAHARA was inspired by a song, Cuando el Rey Nimrod –a joyous retelling of the birth of Abraham, with lyrics composed in Ladino—a mixture of Judeo-Spanish and Hebrew originally devised to confuse the ears of the Inquisition. When my vocal-with-percussion group Abráce performed Cuando we would begin with a wish that someday Muslims, Jews and Christians would come to honor Abraham as their common ancestor—and as another song lyric says, “turn their swords into plowshares.”

As part of my research for writing ZAHARA, I traveled to Spain and spent time in the villages of La Alpujarra in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas.

On my first night, I climbed a hillside and photographed this plaque inscribed with the legend of two star-crossed lovers – Muslim and Christian — whose spirits are said to meet whenever water flows down into the fountain. A metaphor for the many complex relationships that have shaped Spain and would eventually shape my book.

115 thoughts on “#Bookreview: Zahara and the Lost Books of Light

  1. This book sounds amazing and just up my alley. One of my favourite books is The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron in which there is a Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention, Liz.

    Liked by 8 people

  2. Joyce Yarrow’s novel sounds incredible, Liz, and your summary/review of it did it justice! “Sahara…” of course evokes thoughts of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” while sounding highly original.

    Liked by 5 people

        1. Thanks, Dave! It seems that historical fantasy and science fiction are beginning to merge these days! I’m reading the Hyperion trilogy for the first time and am spellbound.

          Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Roberta – Thanks for your interest! I interviewed a history teacher when I was in Spain and learned that until very recently it was forbidden to teach about the Inquisition or the Civil War. Sending you my best wishes for Through the Nethergate – great title!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Liz – I cannot thank you enough for this marvelous spread! I appreciate the opportunity to meet your blog followers and will try my best to respond to comments.
    Warmest wishes for your continuing success with Telling Sonny – one of my favorite books!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Hi Joyce, We share the first name but everyone now calls me Joy. Your book sounds fascinating for a few reasons. Coincidentally – Darlene is a friend – and we share a love of the Shadow of the Wind, and author Carlos Ruiz Zafron. What a book…Being married to a Jewish man for many… years, anything Jewish grabs me (he’s a gem!) We are now Humanists but the fascination remains. I look forward to reading your book! I have just finished writing one called The Dombrowski Portrait. about a Jewish family in WW2 and – guess what? – a portrait. The very best of Muzel with your book.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Hello Joy – thanks for your interest in Zahara! Wishing you all the best for The Dombrowki Portrait! There are some scenes from WWII in Zahara in which Alienor’s Great Aunt Luzi takes refugees over the Freedom Trail from occupied France into Spain 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Thank you very much Liz, for having presented in such a challenging way the book by Joyce, which seems to be highly interesting and brings back to me my trip to Andalusia and Granada and where we got close to the history and war between the catholic Monarchs and the Nasrids and the end of Granada.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thanks for your comments, Martina. When in Granada, I visited the Palacio de Dar-Al-Horra – home to Aixa La Horra, the mother of the last Moorish Sultan Boabdill of Granada. A fascinating woman!

      Liked by 4 people

  6. Thank you for the introduction to Joyce and her book. Book burning is something that makes me shiver, as it is almost always associated with violence and repression against people, as well. But books about saving books–and history–appeals to me.
    One of my older daughter’s friends discovered only a couple of years ago that her ancestors were Conversos. I think there’s a new interest in Ladino, like Yiddish, I guess. Trying to keep the languages from dying.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Hi Merril – what an interesting story about your daughter’s friend. Because they had to change their names, many Conversos chose everyday objects — such as ‘Rueda” which means ‘wheel’ — as their surnames. I met such a person while in Spain. I also took some classes in Ladino, here in Seattle, and yes – there is a new interest in keeping this language alive.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Interesting. I don’t know her last name. I’ll have to ask my daughter. I know there are also food traditions–where they made fake pork dishes and such that just became traditional dishes.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. Great review Liz! It is always interesting to learn the inspiration behind a book…indeed, what motivates a person to actually write the book in the first place. Although there are many facets to an understanding of this book’s premise, you weave the details wonderfully!

    Liked by 3 people

      1. You have a gift with writing these reviews! It is not an easy thing…you can’t say too much about any given book so as to give the whole thing away, and you can’t say too little either. You have a way with dropping the breadcrumbs, and letting us peak in the gingerbread house…but, you don’t let someone in the house to tour the place. (You don’t mind if they get a good whiff of that gingerbread while they are waiting outside on a cold, snowy day.)

        Liked by 2 people

  8. Liz, thank you for another review that demonstrates your exemplary literary citizenship and support of other authors. Your generosity is a model for all who publish.

    And this book sounds exceptional. You had me at library of irreplaceable books, and that combined with the history and sense of place makes this a must-read for me. Thank you, also, Joyce!

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Liz – as always, you take my breath away by your brilliant book reviews. Joyce – have already downloaded the book and looking forward to reading it. I know it will be a page turner.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Hi Liz! I’ve been to the library at Alexandria and that you drew a parallel immediately pulled me into reading about Zahara… Is there a possibility of such a fiasco in today’s world? Absolutely and for similar reasons. Such a fantastically believable plot.

    Liked by 5 people

        1. Liz – As you say, these modern day book burning are largely symbolic since the books are replaceable. However there are many schoolboard officials being elected who are banning books from curriculums and libraries — denying students the irreplaceable experience of reading them at a young age when their mindsets are formed.

          Liked by 3 people

          1. Back in the 1980s, when I took a graduate course in the history of education, I did my term paper on book censorship in the public schools. I was appalled by what I learned from my research. People with no conception of what literature is wielding the power to deny children the chance to read it–for their own political and/or financial gain, of course.

            Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi, Sonia! How exciting that you’ve actually been to the library at Alexandria! The thought of irreplacable texts being lost to fire or flood is sobering. The world can’t afford to lose the thoughts of the great thinkers, poets, and other writers.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. Oh Liz, Joyce’s book sounds wonderful. Every element you mention in your review tells me it’s a book I’m sure to enjoy. I’m going to put it on my TBR list for next month’s book-buying frenzy 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  12. This book sounds wonderful, Liz. The burning of books (pre-mass printed) seems like such a horrifying crime to me. All that history and beauty lost forever. I don’t doubt that there were secret libraries either. I’m intrigued by the world-building as well. Thanks for the review and for introducing me to Joyce and her book.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Wow! Liz, a breathtaking post! Your review is incredible and intense – I’m hooked and this is one I must read! Joyce, it’s fascinating how you came to be inspired to write the book and learn a little about your research. I can’t wait to read you book!

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Well, Liz Gauffreau, reviewer and Joyce Yarrow, Author of Zahara and your Lost Books of Light, to use a rather sadly lacking response, better now tho late, than not ever to say that this is my kind of preferred reading penchant. This is indeed confirmed by Liz’s intriguing and convincingly descriptive review, thus so as to order a copy now of this most tempting read. Thank you Liz, for the introduction to Joyce Yarrow and her new book.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Wow, Liz. Thank you for this fascinating introduction to Joyce and her work. I love this title. I appreciate your mindful review, because it sounds much more serious than I expected. As I said fascinating though. I enjoyed this story behind the story. Hugs to you both.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. What a fascinating book on a subject I know so little about. I’ve got to add this to my book pile. Excellent review of a challenging topic with a mixture, it seems, of several genres in one book (which I LOVE).

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Hi Liz, Have just read your fascinating piece for Joyce Yarrow and her book Zahara and the Lost Books of Light. It sounds made for me!! I really must check it out. I am retired in Spain and married to a Jew….I was a Catholic but am now a Humanist. Methinks there will be much within the book`s pages to entertain me! Many thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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