SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Waiting for Columbus’ by Thomas Trofimuk

He appears out of the sea, washed up naked, in the treacherous Straits of Gibraltar. Seemingly delirious, and claiming to be Christopher Columbus, he is taken to an insane asylum in Seville, where astonishingly he starts to reveal the true story of how he set sail on behalf of the Spanish queen five hundred years ago.Consuela, a nurse at the Institute, is charged with helping him back to reality. She listens to his fantastic tales in the hope of discovering the truth. But as his story unfolds, she finds herself falling for her patient – no longer able to tell where truth ends and fantasy begins.Meanwhile, across the continent, Emile Germain is involved in a different search. He’s an Interpol officer on the hunt for a missing person, presumed dangerous. He’s a determined man, and when his investigation leads to Spain these two stories collide.Part romance, part mysterious thriller, this is a rich and emotional novel about love, loss, and the fragile beauty of our own life stories.

cover and blurb via amazon

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‘Columbus’, a man who stumbles from the ocean and says he is THE Christopher Columbus. But it’s the 21st century so how can that be true? Columbus is sent to an institute where mental illness staff can treat him. There, Consuela is the nurse on a mission to find this man’s real identity. The trouble is, when talking to Columbus, he seems to know so much, it’s as if he was just washed up from 500 years ago. But the stories have their troubles – Columbus meets his girlfriend at Starbucks and the Queen’s staff have cellphones and carry guns. But sometimes Columbus is so precise and detailed that he must have come from back in time. Consuela is left with such a bizarre puzzle to solve.

Columbus just wants to tell the story of his life, in painstaking detail with little speed, to the impatience of Consuela. She has been told maybe Queen Isabella sent Columbus off to sea because of a love quarrel, and Columbus’ friend is called Juan, a famous long-dead explorer. Columbus has a story to tell, and he isn’t sparing any flourishes of his mind.

The trouble is, someone else is looking for Columbus – a man from Interpol, Emil. Something ugly and messy has happened, and Columbus could be victim, a target,  or a criminal. But Consuela, a single woman with a mind for stories, has been sucked into Columbus and his tale. Between the drama a love, stories, wine and chess, Columbus, Consuela and Dr. Balderas are having quite the time at the mental institution. It is Interpol that would have the truth, if only they could fit all the pieces together.

This is a hard book to review without giving away the end, though sit down and enjoy a twisted world, mashed between the 15th and 21 century, with adventure, love, changes, plots and everything in between. You just need to try to keep up with the crazy Columbus!

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘A Body in Barcelona’ by Jason Webster

Tensions in Spain are rising: political violence and social unrest have suddenly re-emerged. Madrid is trying to keep a tight leash on Catalonia, where the call for independence is getting louder by the day. The last time Barcelona moved to break away, in the 1930s, Spain quickly descended into civil war.

Down in Valencia, a shallow grave is found among abandoned orange groves just outside the city. Chief Inspector Max Cámara, now heading up the new Special Crime Unit, is put on the case. But this is no ordinary murder. Behind it, Max uncovers a tangled web that could awaken ghosts from the past, decimate Barcelona and destabilise the whole country

It’s all down to Max, but the stakes are higher than anything he’s ever known.

cover and blurb via amazon

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I love a huge lover of the Max Cámara, though after the last installment, I wondered how this book would be able to top its predecessor. Turns out that the book had no interest in doing that, rather swinging in an all-new direction. If any book could be listed under #topical, this book would be it.

Max and Alicia are in trouble, and that is no surprise after the ending of Blood Med. I like that the author did not gloss over the effects of Max and Alicia’s last dramatic case, which could have been easy. Rather, realism is put into the relationship between these two.

As ever, Max is jaded and the police headquarters where he world seems to be some type of stagnant, stuffy atmosphere. But up in Barcelona, death and revolution is rumbling. Catalonia wants independence from Spain, and this issue is well addressed in this book (and no, it’s not boring!), so you get a dose of politics with your murder mystery.

Max has to investigate the murder of a child, son of a very wealthy and powerful man. But as Max tries to bring a child killer to justice, he finds himself being dragged toward Barcelona and the boiling state of the people. People are lying, and a mysterious man seems to have plenty of answers, but doesn’t seem to help.

In this book, we see more than just Max’s perspective, as a right-wing nutball Legionarios soldier wants to stop Catalonia from regaining its independence (yes, regaining, do some homework if you are new). Added to that a father and son duo from Valencia who Max sees at their soup kitchen have also gone to Barcelona. Under the spectacular backdrop of the La Sagrada Familia, Max and all the others will come together for an explosive showdown in a city trying to be reborn.

Did I enjoy this book? Yes, and I read it quite quickly too. For me, there was no confusing information, but I think readers unaware of Spain’s political state should be fine. Sometimes I want to shake Max, sometimes hug him, and the fact he isn’t perfect makes for a great main character. I will keep my Catalonian independence opinion to myself, but I do hope that if and when Barcelona becomes free of Spain, it happens with far less bloodshed than the 1930’s.

You could read this book on its own, but treat yourself and start at the beginning of the series. Bring on Max Cámara book 6!

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Spanish Bow’ by Andromeda Romano-Lax

The Spanish Bow
“I was almost born Happy.” So begins The Spanish Bow and the remarkable history of Feliu Delargo, who just misses being “Feliz” by a misunderstanding at his birth, which he barely survives.
The accidental bequest of a cello bow from his dead father sets Feliu on the course of becoming a musician, unlikely given his beginnings in a dusty village in Catalonia. When he is compelled to flee to anarchist Barcelona, his education in music, life, and politics begins. But it isn’t until he arrives at the court of the embattled monarchy in Madrid that passion enters the composition with Aviva, a virtuoso violinist with a haunted past. As Feliu embarks on affairs, friendships, and rivalries, forces propelling the world toward a catastrophic crescendo sweep Feliu along in their wake.The Spanish Bow is a haunting fugue of music, politics, and passion set against half a century of Spanish history, from the tail end of the nineteenth century up through the Spanish Civil War and World War II.
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When a book is labelled ‘ambitious’, it mean two things – either a new author has blown away the competition, or someone has over-reached and written a lemon. The Spanish Bow is definitely the former. This book may be a work of fiction, but the real life characters, sometimes obvious, sometimes less so, show Spain’s history in a brave way. Knowing this, I felt certain to enjoy this book.
The book starts off with the birth of the main character, Feliu Delargo, mistakenly labelled stillborn and with a misspelled surname. From his start in poor country Catalonia, he grows up, through time in Barcelona and Madrid, to become a European star as a cellist. It is easy to see real-life cellist, Pablo Casals, in the main character, along with Issac Albeniz, who is fictionalised as piano player Justo Al-Cerraz. Some characters are real-real, such as King Alfonso and his Queen Ena. There is also a young man named Paquito, a lowly ranked young military man from Galicia, subject to bullies. We all know where that is going. There is no mistaking it; the author has researched the 20th century in Spain in much detail, in order to show a fictional life within the real fate of Spain (where have I seen that before? Oh wait – me lol).

Spain is a great mess through its first half of the 20th century (and the rest!). Delargo become famous, and finds that is art can make changes, can have a political voice. Delargo and Al-Cerrez meet Aviva, a Jewish violinist, who is in need of rescue as fascism folds over Europe. The life of Spaniards swallowed by fascism and dictators, as well as the over-reaching pain of fascism through Europe is examined, all through the eyes of fictional characters.  Both music and art history are explored, as well as those rich patrons to whom Delargo plays. How Madrid and Barcelona are considered ‘backward’, how politics stifles so much, and how, in the end, silence is the winner when fascism takes hold, is the focus.

The Spanish Bow is not some happy ending book – how could it be? Delargo only receives praise posthumously. At least, in the epilogue, you can see how Spain managed to pull itself out of fascism. All this in a book that far easier to read than it sounds. Bravo.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Frozen Heart’ by Almudena Grandes

The Frozen Heart

In a small town on the outskirts of Madrid, a funeral is taking place. Julio Carrion Gonzalez, a man of tremendous wealth and influence in Madrid, has come home to be buried. But as the family stand by the graveside, his son Alvaro notices the arrival of an attractive stranger—no one appears to know who she is, or why she is there. Alvaro’s questions deepen when the family inherits an enormous amount of money, a surprise even to them. In his father’s study Alvaro discovers an old folder with letters sent to his father in Russia between 1941 and 1943, faded photos of people he never met, and a locked grey metal box. The woman is Raquel Fernandez Perea, the daughter of Spaniards who fled during the Civil War. From the provincial heartlands of Spain to the battlefields of Russia, this is a mesmerizing journey through a war that tore families apart, pitting fathers against sons, brothers against brothers, and wives against husbands. Against such a past, where do faith and loyalty lie?

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The Frozen Heart really is THE Spanish novel. As soon as I wrote my review, I found I was not the only one to say so. Two families, from the Spanish civil war until 2005, and how Spain and a family is the sum of the past. Here we have two families – the Fernandez Munoz family, Republican, rich and holidaying in Torrelodones (just north-west of Madrid) up until the war. The other side shows the Carrion Gonzalez family, with a conservative patriarch who supports the fascist regime, married to a woman who is part of the Socialist party (kaboom!), who live in Torrelodones.

Come to 2005 and Julio Carrion Gonzalez, a millionaire and a charismatic magician, has died. No one knows where he made his money or what happened during the war. Enter Alvaro Carrion Otero, his son, who is about to learn a whole lot more. Alvaro meets a woman (of course, beautiful) at his father’s funeral, who was an advisor for his father and his fortune. Despite being married, Alvaro falls for Raquel Fernandez Perea. For the delight of readers, Raquel has secrets and the scene is set for explosion.

The author of The Frozen Heart has written an incredible story (one that makes an author jealous, I tell you), which brings together love and greed, respect and heartache. Spain’s national identity is so complex that so many cannot understand. Should people reject their past, hold onto it? The book states the ever-present theme – One of the two Spains will freeze your heart – a line which has not yet become outdated, as wounds do not heal. This book is modern and tells of history in one. What is so great is that the main character’s dilemmas are not unique – so many people in Spain are suffering the same serious demons.

I suppose it as natural that I, being my own history, and my writing, would love this book. But anyone can love this book. Enjoy a grand-sized read and be educated without noticing. I cannot think of a book to top this story, not because of a unique story, but because of the realness exhibited.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: A Englishman in Madrid by Eduardo Mendoza

An Englishman in Madrid

Anthony Whitelands, an English art historian, is invited to Madrid to value an aristocrat’s collection. At a welcome lunch he encounters José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder and leader of the Falange, a nationalist party whose antics are bringing the country ever closer to civil war.

The paintings turn out to be worthless, but before Whitelands can leave for London the duque’s daughter Paquita reveals a secret and genuine treasure, held for years in the cellars of her ancestral home. Afraid that the duque will cash in his wealth to finance the Falange, the Spanish authorities resolve to keep a close eye on the Englishman, who is also being watched by his own embassy.

As Whitelands – ever the fool for a pretty face – vies with Primo de Rivera for Paquita’s affections, he learns of a final interested party: Madrid is crawling with Soviet spies, and Moscow will stop at nothing to secure the hidden prize.

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An Englishman in Madrid has been in my reading pile since it was released two years ago. When I posted on Twitter last week about starting to read, I expected (at least those interested in Spain) to scoff that I was last to read it. But it seems not. Perhaps they had the same hesitations that I did – an ageing academic goes abroad and bound to have an unlikely affair with some girl a third of his age. We’ve read that before, more times than we care to remember. Was this book the same? Actually, it was combo I have never read before.

Anthony Whitelands, the ‘hero’ of the story, is fresh from Cambridge university, an art nerd of undetermined age, but with the usual male middle-aged thoughts of life and his career. An ex-wife in the distance, Anthony is busy dispatching with his married lover, Catherine. Perhaps she has made a lucky escape. From the beginning, the police are tracking him, only he is too thick to notice.

Anthony is an art specialist, who loves to compare literally anything – paintings, conversations, people, probably shrubs, to Velazquez (who was a painter in Spain in the 1600’s, if painting isn’t your thing). Anthony is no stranger to Madrid, but in the spring of 1936, shiz is going down all over the place, the prelude to the civil war, which broke out in July that same year. Our hapless character knows all is not well as soon as he arrives, but he is fairly dim, so it takes him a long time to figure out the realities of wandering into an-almost war zone.

The book covers everything, from toffs of the upper class, to the poverty of the times and the social and political realities everyone is facing. The prelude to war is described brilliantly by an author who has taken the time to get things right. Between protests, street killings and strikes, Spain is preparing for implosion and bumbling Anthony has wandered into the eye of the storm.

Our self-confessed art genius finds himself at the beck and call of the Duke of La Igualada, who wants to offload his Spanish art collection, to pay to get his family out of Spain. Selling off the family silver (literal and proverbial) isn’t something particularly legal, but the Duke is a chatty dude, and has Anthony dancing to his tune soon enough. If Anthony’s description is ever written, I have already forgotten it. But he must have been one hell of a looker, because the Duke’s teenage daughters are taken with him in a heartbeat, ready to profess their love before dinner’s first course is even served. Anthony wouldn’t win them over with charm, let’s just say. As an author, I realise how convenient ‘love at first sight’ is for moving a story along, but this group is a crazy set-up, with minimal interactions, yet pounding hearts (real or imagined, anyway). Between the charming Duke, his dim-witted duchess (sticking to stereotype here), the two daughters and the up-and-coming wannabe fascist son, and heir to the money, Anthony accidentally walks into the history books.

The Duke’s paintings are duds, and also a cover-up. Because Paquita, the eldest daughter (with wandering thoughts and as cold as a fish) lures Anthony to see the real treasure – an undiscovered Velazquez in the basement of the palace. Anthony sees his name in lights with the discovery, but knows he simply can’t steal a 300-year-old treasure. He is so blinded by the thought of fame and his never-that-apparent love for the girl he met five minutes ago, Anthony makes mistake after mistake.

The author of this book moves the story on Spain-time, but no matter what others think, this book blows away many similar books written by British authors. I would take on stories with this buffoon-style protagonist before many I’ve read before him. The author wanders into chit-chat about Velazquez so often he is almost holding an art class, and I admit to skipping pages because of it. This is not a criticism, because I admire the author’s research. When it comes to the realities of Spain, Madrid in particular, in that dangerous spring of 1936, the quality is excellent. It can’t be faulted. It is this setting that kept me going.

I like to think I’ve eaten pretty much anything Spain can throw at a stomach, but Anthony, our so-called gent, has weird things like beer and squid in the morning. Um, eww, bit early, my gentleman colleague. He is ethically clueless at times, like giving his passport and wallet to a stranger, who took him to an underage prostitute, whom he bones at her mother’s place. WTH, Anthony? You have no class sometimes. He parties with the hooker and her family, he parties with the Duke (snore-fest), his daughters, and also José Antonio Primo de Rivera, leader of the Falange fascist party, who will eventually align with Franco and be with the rebels (read: baddies of the civil war). The Duke won’t let all-talk, no-action José Antonio marry Paquita, but she loves him while dancing around Anthony (maybe, she doesn’t know herself half the time). She has as little sense as everyone else. Don’t get me started on the little sister, Lilí.

Running with the fascists, the elite, the working class, the police, and hanging with the Prime Minister himself, and pretty much everyone in the mess called Madrid, Anthony nearly gets his head blown off, sees others suffer the fate, and generally can’t figure out who the Communist Russian spy trying to kill him really is. But all because he wants to the art historian who found a Velazquez, he finds himself vying for an item that could invoke an entire civil war.

This book is part art history, part Madrid history teller, part war correspondent, all laced with fictional and not-so fictional characters who make you shake your head (or hope they get theirs blown off). I love the author’s use to detail to set the scene for war, and his use of French-farce type characters lost in world completely screwed in a mess of its own making, makes for something better than the usual old academic/hero and young duchess/whore/idiot that graces these types of books. Sometimes you want Anthony to escape, sometimes you wish someone would just pull the trigger. Will the end satisfy you? Is this book a thriller, a history lesson, or a comedy? The whole lot. Definitely recommended.