Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s 2001 novel La Sombra del Viento, or The Shadow of the Wind in English, was love at first sight for me. Zafón tells the story of a boy who finds a rare work of an obscure writer and becomes obsessed with it. The story mixes elements of thriller and mystery with real-life Spain during the Civil War and doses of melodrama–like family secrets and forbidden love affairs.
If you loved Zafón’s book, take a look at this list with 10 titles as incredible as The Shadow of the Wind. They tell stories of mysteries and adventures involving the world of old books and libraries, and will make you even more passionate about your own bookshelf!
1. The Club Dumas, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
This 1993 novel by another Spanish author places the reader in the universe of rare books and their (valuable) parallel market. Lucas Corso is a veteran book dealer hired by a mysterious millionaire. His mission: to assess the authenticity of a very rare volume that, according to legend, was written by the Devil. There are only three surviving copies, but the customer claims two of them are fakes. Corso needs to analyze all the copies to find out which is the original. His bizarre adventure will take the reader to libraries, book restorers, and private collections across Europe. The Club Dumas is a thriller with horror elements that throw you into the investigation. Pérez-Reverte even invites the reader to compare drawings to try to discover the real book Corso is trying to find.
2. S., by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst
Specially dedicated to book collectors, S. is a reading that needs to be done in physical format. For starters, this is not an ordinary book: the edition is presented in a beautiful package that includes two dozen items. There are handwritten notes, photographs, and maps that will only make sense later. Upon opening the package, the reader is faced with what looks like a stolen library volume. It’s an old fictional book called “Ship of Theseus,” the final novel by an enigmatic fictional writer named V. M. Straka. The fake book has a beginning, middle, and end. It can be read independently, but it is in its yellowed pages that the true narrative of S. takes place. Two Straka fans “talk” to each other through handwritten notes on the edges of the pages, analyzing excerpts from “Ship of Theseus” to try to unravel the mystery of its author. In addition to an engaging and interactive experience, S. does not deliver answers to its puzzles, inviting readers to return several times. Not surprisingly, there are dozens of websites where fans of S. exchange their discoveries and theories.
3. The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield
We all have an idealized version of our lives, the one we’d like to see printed in our obituaries. Vida Winter, the mysterious protagonist of this 2007 thriller, has several. She is England’s most beloved novelist, but has spent her life as a recluse. She always preferred to spread lies by telling different versions of her life story to journalists. But now Vida is about to die and decides to call Margaret, an amateur biographer with a passion for books, to finally reveal the whole truth about her tragic past. The title refers to the great mystery that Margaret will have to decipher: a supposed thirteenth tale that Vida wrote and never published. Full of atmosphere, riddles, and plot twists, The Thirteenth Tale is an irresistible page-turner that will make you lose track of time.
4. Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr
Whenever you read an old book, it’s inevitable to feel connected to generations of readers who lived centuries ago and did the same. American writer Anthony Doerr saw a beautiful argument there and wrote this original 2021 novel. Cloud Cuckoo Land is about how the same narrative–the story of Aethon and his dream of becoming a bird–connects readers in different eras of civilization. It begins with an orphan girl in Ancient Constantinople, who draws inspiration from Aethon’s tale to resist in times of war. Five hundred years later, in the present-day United States, the same narrative is being transformed into a play. Finally, in the future, the story is told again in space, onboard an interstellar ship. Beautifully written, Doerr’s narrative interweaves its different timelines and characters to show the unifying and immortal power of storytelling.
5. The Paris Library, by Janet Skeslien Charles
While The Shadow of the Wind used the Spanish Civil War as the backdrop, this 2020 novel is set in Nazi-occupied France. Young librarian Odile Souchet lives in Paris and decides to fight the regime with a different weapon: books. She risks her life to save the titles banned by the Nazis and also to keep the books circulating among Jewish subscribers (who are no longer allowed to enter libraries). Author Janet Skeslien Charles stitches together the courageous librarian’s past adventures in 1939 with a parallel plot that takes place in the United States of the 1980s. In this timeline, we follow a teenager who also loves books and begins to bond with a lonely old lady–none other than Odile herself! The Paris Library evades the clichés of World War II dramas, showing how books can be powerful weapons.
6. The Book of Hidden Wonders, by Polly Crosby
This 2020 debut novel was called “a dark fairy tale.” The plot follows the complicated relationship between Tobias and Romilly, father and daughter. Tobias achieved fame and fortune with a series of children’s books starring his own daughter, inspired by Romilly’s real childhood. However, as she matures, Romilly begins to interpret the drawings in her father’s books from a new angle. Perhaps there’s a hidden message containing answers to some shocking family secrets. The Book of Hidden Wonders is an intriguing literary mystery. But be warned that this is not a funny story at all. Extremely sad and depressing, it deals with complex themes like child abuse and animal cruelty.
7. The Library of Lost and Found, by Phaedra Patrick
Another story about clues hidden in books. Have you ever opened an old book on your shelf and were thrilled to come across a beautiful but forgotten dedication on the first page? This is exactly how this 2019 novel begins. Librarian Martha finds an old book of fairytales, along with a dedication written by her late grandmother Zelda. The two were close friends before Zelda died under mysterious circumstances years earlier. Martha begins to investigate clues left in the book, suspecting they are hiding the truth about what happened to her grandmother. The Library of Lost and Found is a beautiful adventure for the book-obsessed, with lots of smart dialogue and passionate characters.
8. The Bookshop of Yesterdays, by Amy Meyerson
Part of the charm of The Shadow of the Wind is the fact that protagonist Daniel Sempere is the son of a bookshop owner and a lover of books. Likewise, this 2018 debut novel features a voracious reader named Miranda who inherits Prospero Books, a small Los Angeles bookstore. As a child, she used to get lost among the shelves participating in scavenger hunts organized by her uncle, the previous owner. Years later, her uncle dies and leaves her the business. But soon Miranda discovers that the deceased hid clues to one last big game that she now needs to decipher. The Bookshop of Yesterdays is full of literary references (such as Miranda and Prospero, names taken from Shakespeare’s oeuvre) and clues involving books and authors. The result is an amazing adventure with an irresistible literary mystery.
9. The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern
Don’t miss The Starless Sea. Published in 2019, it’s at the same time a fable and a love letter to the magic of literature. Erin Morgenstern’s second novel chronicles the adventures of Zachary, a student who finds a mysterious, unidentified book. In its pages, an episode from Zachary’s own childhood is narrated. The investigation into the origin of the book, and how such an intimate memory ended up there, leads the stunned reader on an enchanting adventure involving the New York Public Library, magical portals, lost kingdoms, and lots of fantasy. Those who love to wander through libraries will identify with the protagonist and even share his journey through the world of imagination.
10. The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
To end this list, there is nothing better than the definitive piece on the importance of reading, books, and libraries. Published in 1980, it’s the debut novel of Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco, known for the richness of historical detail in his work. The Name of the Rose takes place in the 14th century, when Franciscan Friar William of Baskerville and his novice arrive at an isolated monastery in Italy to attend a theological conclave. The heated atmosphere of religious and political discussion is broken by mysterious murders, which may be linked to a banned book and the monastery’s secret library. The Name of the Rose is set in a time when reading and libraries were the privilege of few, when monks made manual copies of books and knowledge meant power. As well as being an intellectual murder mystery, this brilliant bestseller is full of real historical details about that period.