SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: July – The Spanish Civil War 80th Anniversary – Part 2: Fiction

Following on from yesterday’s post –SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: July – The Spanish Civil War 80th Anniversary – Part 1: Non-fiction, here is part two, novels based around the Spanish Civil War. It is a particularly difficult task to pluck suggestions from so many books on offer, so I stuck to just a few of the books I have read, and only ones in English. I included my own book because… well, I can! Great to have a selection of female writers, as part one was sorely lacking. If you have an suggestions, let me know.

All cover art and blurbs are via their amazon links

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BLOOD IN THE VALENCIAN SOIL: LOVE AND HATE HIDDEN IN THE LEGACY OF THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR by Caroline Angus Baker

Pleasure is as fragile as glass… Spain, March 1939 – the Spanish Civil War is coming to an end. Five young Republicans in the small town of Cuenca know they are on the losing side of the war. History only recognises the winners, and the group know they could die, all destined to become faceless statistics. They concoct a plan to go to Valencia in search of safety, but not all of these young men and women are going to survive? Seventy years later, bicycle mechanic Luna Montgomery, the granddaughter of a New Zealand nurse who served during the Spanish Civil War, has made Spain her home. A young widow and mother of two little boys, Luna wants to know what became of her Spanish grandfather. He is one of the ‘disappeared’, one of the hundreds of thousands of Spaniards who were murdered and hidden away during and after the war. On a quick trip to Madrid, Luna forms an unlikely friendship with an intelligent and popular bullfighter, Cayetano Beltran, but as Luna presses on to delve into Spain’s history for answers, Cayetano struggles with truths he wished he had never found out. In an ever-changing society that respects and upholds family ties, betrayal by the people who Luna and Cayetano hold dear will hurt them more than they could have realised. There are old wounds that have yet to heal underneath Spain’s ‘pact of forgetting’.

This is my first book series based entirely in Spain, and this is the first book in a three part series. The first book is based during the war, the others during and at the end of Franco’s reign. See my Secrets of Spain category for all the details. 

51acqUu++xL._SY346_WINTER IN MADRID by C J Sansom

1940: The Spanish Civil War is over, and Madrid lies ruined, its people starving, while the Germans continue their relentless march through Europe. Britain now stands alone while General Franco considers whether to abandon neutrality and enter the war.

Into this uncertain world comes Harry Brett: a traumatised veteran of Dunkirk turned reluctant spy for the British Secret Service. Sent to gain the confidence of old schoolfriend Sandy Forsyth, now a shady Madrid businessman, Harry finds himself involved in a dangerous game – and surrounded by memories. Meanwhile Sandy’s girlfriend, ex-Red Cross nurse Barbara Clare, is engaged on a secret mission of her own – to find her former lover Bernie Piper, a passionate Communist in the International Brigades, who vanished on the bloody battlefields of the Jarama.

In a vivid and haunting depiction of wartime Spain, Winter in Madrid is an intimate and compelling tale which offers a remarkable sense of history unfolding, and the profound impact of impossible choices.

Winter in Madrid is one of the most popular civil war novels available. I found some of the characters annoying, but I suppose that’s proof the author can make people authentic. Read my review here

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FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS by Ernest Hemingway

The story of Robert Jordan, a young American in the International Brigades attached to an antifascist guerilla unit in the mountains of Spain, it tells of loyalty and courage, love and defeat, and the tragic death of an ideal. In his portrayal of Jordan’s love for the beautiful Maria and his superb account of El Sordo’s last stand, in his brilliant travesty of La Pasionaria and his unwillingness to believe in blind faith, Hemingway surpasses his achievement in The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms to create a work at once rare and beautiful, strong and brutal, compassionate, moving, and wise. “If the function of a writer is to reveal reality,” Maxwell Perkins wrote Hemingway after reading the manuscript, “no one ever so completely performed it.” Greater in power, broader in scope, and more intensely emotional than any of the author’s previous works, it stands as one of the best war novels of all time.

THE Hemingway war novel. Just read it – why haven’t you already? Read my review here

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ALBERTO’S LOST BIRTHDAY by Diana Rosie

A little boy and his grandfather embark on a quest to find the old man’s missing birthday in Diana Rosie’s debut novel, Alberto’s Lost Birthday.

As a child, Alberto lost his birthday in the Spanish civil war. Now an old man living a simple life, he rarely thinks about his disappeared past.

But when his grandson discovers his Apu has never had a birthday party, never blown out candles on a birthday cake, and never received a single card or present, he’s determined to do something about it.

As the two set off to find Alberto’s birthday, they have no idea it will be a journey that takes them through Spain’s troubled past, to places – and people – that Alberto once knew.

But in a country that has vowed to move forward, looking back can be difficult. Will they be able to find the memories they’re searching for?

A sweet and interesting take on historical memory in Spain.

51rvAH5wS2L._SY346_GUERNICA by Dave Boling

n 1935, Miguel Navarro finds himself on the wrong side of the Spanish Nationalists, so he flees to Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basque region. In the midst of this idyllic, isolated bastion of democratic values, Miguel finds more than a new life-he finds a love that not even war, tragedy or death can destroy.

The bombing of Guernica was a devastating experiment in total warfare by the German Luftwaffe in the run-up to World War II . For the Basques, it was an attack on the soul of their ancient nation. History and fiction merge seamlessly in this beautiful novel about the resilience of family, love, and tradition in the face of hardship.

Guernica is a widely loved novel based in the Basque region and its unimaginable destruction in the late 30’s. A place mostly untouched by the world became the testing ground for misery.
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SOLDIERS OF SALAMIS by Javier Cercas

In the final moments of the Spanish Civil War, fifty prominent Nationalist prisoners are executed by firing squad. Among them is the writer and fascist Rafael Sanchez Mazas.   As the guns fire, he escapes into the forest, and can hear a search party and their dogs hunting him down.

The branches move and he finds himself looking into the eyes of a militiaman, and faces death for the second time that day. But the unknown soldier simply turns and walks away.

Sanchez Mazas becomes a national hero and the soldier disappears into history.  As Cercas sifts the evidence to establish what happened, he realises that the true hero may not be Sanchez Mazas at all, but the soldier who chose not to shoot him.  Who was he?  Why did he spare him?  And might he still be alive?

Another hugely popular book translated into English, and well worth the read. Read my review here

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DEATH OF A NATIONALIST by Rebecca Pawel

Madrid 1939. Carlos Tejada Alonso y León is a Sergeant in the Guardia Civil, a rank rare for a man not yet thirty, but Tejada is an unusual recruit. The bitter civil war between the Nationalists and the Republicans has interrupted his legal studies in Salamanca. Second son of a conservative Southern family of landowners, he is an enthusiast for the Catholic Franquista cause, a dedicated, and now triumphant, Nationalist.

This war has drawn international attention. In a dress rehearsal for World War II, fascists support the Nationalists, while communists have come to the aid of the Republicans. Atrocities have devastated both sides. It is at this moment, when the Republicans have surrendered, and the Guardia Civil has begun to impose order in the ruins of Madrid, that Tejada finds the body of his best friend, a hero of the siege of Toledo, shot to death on a street named Amor de Dios. Naturally, a Red is suspected. And it is easy for Tejada to assume that the woman caught kneeling over the body is the killer. But when his doubts are aroused, he cannot help seeking justice.

This is the first book in a series featuring the same characters. Great to see an author taking this line of fiction.

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THE CARPENTER’S PENCIL by Manuel Rivas

Manuel Rivas has been heralded as one of the brightest in a new wave of Spanish writers influenced by Spanish and European traditions, as well as by the history of Spain over the past seventy years.

A bestseller in Spain, The Carpenter’s Pencil has been published in nine countries.

Set in the dark days of the Spanish Civil War, The Carpenter’s Pencil charts the linked destinies of a remarkable cast of unique characters. All are bound by the events of the Civil War-the artists and the peasants alike-and all are brought to life, in Rivas’s skillful hand, with the power of the carpenter’s pencil, a pencil that draws both the measured line and the artist’s dazzling vision.

Originally written in Galician, this is another great opportunity for readers to enjoy Spanish (Galician) authors on the subject.

51s-joC4ONL._SL500_SX331_BO1,204,203,200_THE STUFF OF HEROES by Miguel Delibes

Set in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War, Delibes’s ( The Hedge ) plot chronicles the shifting fortunes of the De la Lastra family, which finds itself divided by politics. Much of the story is seen through the eyes of young Gervasio, who dreams of becoming a military hero. While Gervasio enlists in the Navy in order to fight the Communists, his father, a naturopathic doctor, is imprisoned for more liberal beliefs. The surrealistic horror of war, which directly touches every member of the family, is lightened by farcical domestic dramas. Gervasio’s haughty sister has her marriage to a homosexual annulled, only to find herself involved with a Fascist. Gervasio’s nurse, who tries to turn him against his family, outsmarts herself and is dismissed. As Gervasio daily comes closer and closer to battle, he faces his own conservatism, and finally must answer the question posed by Delibes: Which side of this bloody confrontation is indeed just?

This book can be hard to find, but worth it, being a little complex and quirky. Proof the war had few winners.

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IN THE NIGHT OF TIME by Antonio Muñoz Molina

October 1936. Spanish architect Ignacio Abel arrives at Penn Station, the final stop on his journey from war-torn Madrid, where he has left behind his wife and children, abandoning them to uncertainty. Crossing the fragile borders of Europe, he reflects on months of fratricidal conflict in his embattled country, his own transformation from a bricklayer’s son to a respected bourgeois husband and professional, and the all-consuming love affair with an American woman that forever alters his life.

A rich, panoramic portrait of Spain on the brink of civil war, In the Night of Time details the passions and tragedies of a country tearing itself apart. Compared in scope and importance to War and Peace, Muñoz Molina’s masterpiece is the great epic of the Spanish Civil War written by one of Spain’s most important contemporary novelists.

This book is quite a read, it took me months to get through it all. Epic is the only word I would use to describe the novel.

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SEVEN RED SUNDAYS by Ramón J Sender

The time is 1935. The place is Madrid, a city beset by labor unrest which has raised fears―and among some, hopes―of revolution. At an overflow meeting of workingmen, the military intervenes and three of the workers’ leaders and a member of the socialist party are killed. A public funeral ends in street fighting, sabotage, and the prospect of a general strike throughout Spain. From these events Ramón Sender has fashioned a novel of terror and beauty―one of the great unsung works of the 20th century. Behind the confused and conflicting theories of the revolutionaries who are the central characters of Seven Red Sundays, Mr. Sender discovers a sublime faith and a spirit of self-sacrifice. But whether these idealists with guns represent hope or despair is a haunting question which the reader must decide.

Another book that can be hard to track down. The books focus on the lives of ordinary people in the lead up to the outbreak of war.

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SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

It is 1945 and Barcelona is enduring the long aftermath of civil war when Daniel Sempere’s bookseller father decides his son is old enough to visit the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books. There Daniel must ‘adopt’ a single book, promising to care for it and keep it alive always. His choice falls on The Shadow of the Wind.

Bewitched, he embarks on an epic quest to find the truth about Julian Carax, the book’s mysterious author. Soon Daniel is consumed by strange discoveries about love and obsession, art and life, and how they become entangled within the shadow world of books.

The Shadow of the Wind is a mesmerising love story and literary thriller, which twists and turns and enthralls with its cast of vengeful souls, threatening spectres and innocent hearts.

The Shadow of the Wind series is not to be missed. About more than just the war, its aftermath and a gothic mystery feel are added. While the second book in the series, The Angels’ Game, is less war related (but incredible), the third in the series is about prisoners during the civil war. Stop reading this and go and get these books. Now.

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THUS BAD BEGINS by Javier Marías

As a young man, Juan de Vere takes a job that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Eduardo Muriel is a famous film director – urbane, discreet, irreproachable – an irresistible idol to a young man. Muriel’s wife Beatriz is a soft, ripe woman who slips through her husband’s home like an unwanted ghost, finding solace in other beds. And on the periphery of all their lives stands Dr Jorge Van Vechten, a shadowy family friend implicated in unsavoury rumours that Muriel cannot bear to pursue himself – rumours he asks Juan to investigate instead. But as Juan draws closer to the truth, he uncovers more questions, ones his employer has not asked and would rather not answer. Why does Muriel hate Beatriz? How did Beatriz meet Van Vechten? And what happened during the war?

As Juan learns more about his employers, he begins to understand the conflicting pulls of desire, power and guilt that govern their lives – and his own. Marias presents a study of the infinitely permeable boundaries between private and public selves, between observer and participant, between the deceptions we suffer from others and those we enact upon ourselves.

This book, again in Marías’ flowing prose, is the author’ latest work, about a man digging in the his bosses war past and a bit of a journey into voyeurism. Read my review here

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NADA by Carmen Laforet

One of the most important literary works of post-Civil War Spain, Nada is the semiautobiographical story of an orphaned young woman who leaves her small town to attend university in war-ravaged Barcelona. Edith Grossman’s vital new translation captures Carmen Laforet’s feverish energy, powerful imagery, and subtle humor. Nada, which includes an illuminating Introduction by Mario Vargas Llosa, is one of the great novels of twentieth-century Europe.

“Laforet vividly conveys the strangeness of Barcelona in the 1940s, a city that has survived civil war only to find itself muted by Franco’s dictatorship…The spirit of sly resistance that Laforet’s novel expresses, its heroine’s determination to escape provincial poverty and to immerse herself in ‘lights, noises, the entire tide of life,’ has lost none of its power of persuasion.”

This book is based in the aftermath of the war and one I couldn’t put down. Read my review here

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MAZURKA FOR TWO DEAD MEN by Camilo José Cela

The Spanish Civil War intrudes almost casually on the characters’ picaresque doings in Cela’s amorphous, bawdy novel, first published in Spain in 1983. Set in the mountainous region of Galicia and redolent with the Spanish countryside’s wild beauty and its inhabitants’ folkways, the work depicts a gallery of sinners, fools and misfits in overlapping yarns that span several generations. The plot involves Lionheart Gamuzo, who was shot in the back in 1936, and his brother Tanis, who in 1940 avenges the death with trained killer dogs. The blind Gaudencio, who works as an accordionist in a whorehouse, plays the same mazurka to commemorate these deaths, framing a sprawling canvas peopled with an enormous Rabelaisian cast, including jazz musician Uncle Cleto, who vomits whenever he’s bored; the widow Fina, who is fond of bedding priests; and Roque Gamuzo, who is famed for his colossal member. Winner of the 1989 Nobel Prize for literature, Cela ( The Family of Pascual Duarte ) garrulously conveys the impression that “mankind is a hairy, gregarious beast, wearisome and devoted to miracles and happenings.” The musical translation captures his lyricism and colloquial flavor.

I love this author and all his works are worth taking the time to find and read. This book is a bit all-over-the-place but still worthy of attention.

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THE SENTINEL by Mark Oldfield

You can’t escape the past.

He was the cold steel behind Franco’s regime. The fear behind Franco’s power.

57 years ago, Comandante Leopoldo Guzmán disappeared without a trace. They know what he did, but they don’t know where he’s gone.

Madrid, winter 1953: the snow lies thick on the ground and Comandante Guzmán of the Brigada Especial is preparing a dawn raid. His job is to hunt down opponents of Franco’s regime and destroy them. Feared by all in Franco’s Spain, Guzmán takes what he wants: food, drink, women.

That is about to change. Guzmán is going to find himself on the wrong side of Franco, and on the wrong side of history. It’s not the first time Guzmán has been on the wrong side. But there’s no one left alive who knows about that… until he gets a message from a dead man…

Madrid, 2009: Ana María Galindez is a forensic scientist investigating a mass grave from the Franco era. Now she is hunting for the hidden ledger of secret policeman Leopoldo Guzmán – a man who disappeared without trace in 1953. But there are those who would rather the secrets of Guzmán’s ledger stay buried. Galindez’ pursuit of the past has revealed a battle for the present…

This is the first in a three part series, and a long read worth your time.  Read my review here. Book two, The Exile is also available. Read my review here

PART 2: ‘Luminous Colours of Dusk’ Author Q+A

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Hello, welcome to part two of my author Q&A, home to all the more unusual questions I was asked via social media. Today is all about… me! We shall be doing this section rapid-fire style. Where do you peeps get your questions?

Click here for Part 1, all about the upcoming Luminous Colours of Dusk

1) What is the weirdest thing you have Googled?

Tough choice – What does a mercenary cost? How long does it take to strangle someone? How long does a severed hand stay warm? Which switchblade fits in a bra? You know, standard fare.

2) Name something you learned at school

When you’re 17 and your math teacher is 24, and he wants to hang out with you in the photocopy room, it’s not to help out with your recipe book pages.

3) What will your cemetery headstone say? 

I REGRET NOTHING! (Just kidding, I don’t want a headstone – scatter me!)

4) How do you react to a bad review of one of your books?

Sulking, pyjamas, The Borgias and hot chocolate.

5) Do you make your bed?

Pfft… nope.

6) Do you get road rage?

Oh God, yes. Five minutes in the car and I’m flipping someone off.

7) What is the toughest thing to write?

Um… I don’t know if anything has been tough, but I remember reading back chapter 14 of Vengeance in the Valencian Water, and thinking, ‘no one should have ideas like this’. It is outside the boundaries of normal, healthy thoughts.

8) Is there something you would refuse to write about?

I have yet to come across an issue I can’t broach, but obviously rape and murder of children will never be a subject of mine.

9) What is the strangest thing that has been said to you by a reader?

I know what flavour of ice cream you would be. (He confessed to being naked when he messaged me)

10) What is the biggest lie you have told?

Sure, I can speak Portuguese!

11) Do you have a special skill?

I have an excellent memory. It irritates the crap out of my husband.

12) Do you dream?

I dream very, very vividly, which I have been able to use in writing. Just last night, I was trapped as a victim of human trafficking in the desert.

13) Have you ever gotten into a fight?

Ahhh… verbally – yes, that happens very regularly, online and in real life. Physically, I have only ever slugged a few people, the last time was when I punched a guy in the supermarket car-park when he tried to force me into his car.

14) Do you drink or smoke?

Drinking – only in Spain. At home I am a teetotal. Smoking – gross!

15) How do you come up with book titles?

They come to me at random. All of the Canna series’ titles are from one piece in Violent Daylight – “Night wants to forget the sun, but is defeated every morning. It’s violent, the way daylight overpowers the night. But at least we get the luminous colours of dusk each evening.” If you read the books they would make more sense. As for my Spain series, I wanted to make sure Valencia was in each title, since I love the city so much.

16) What holiday location would you most like to visit?

The Alps in southern France and the Pyrenees, I have never been and want to visit all the best mountain climbs for cycling.

17) What has been the toughest criticism and best compliment given to your writing?

Someone said that the Canna series brought them back to reading again. Someone else said my characters are boring and unlikable. Each is only an opinion, sometimes compliments can sound fake, sometimes criticism sounds like trolling. It can be hard to decide on what to believe.

18) Do you get twitter trolls?

Hell yes! Mostly guys who take offence to my feminist posts (Seriously? You hate equality?) In saying that, there’s plenty of vicious/jealous/stupid women out there too. A few months ago, a friend (real life) had a problem with her husband and strippers (won’t go into details for privacy), and I tweeted that I don’t think strippers are acceptable ever, regardless of other’s opinions. Some woman tweeted that her celebrity crush doesn’t like strippers and I need to shut the fuck up. How the hell she came to that conclusion…. talk about lala land. On the upside, a few of my followers agreed with her, so hello, block function! That cleared out some tripe. There are always trolls about, and it doesn’t annoy me much. Block, block, block.

19) Which is harder to write – sex or violence?

Neither. Give me a wedding or heartfelt romantic plea and I’m stumped. I’ll take a murder or secret affair any day.

20) Do you believe in God?

Nope.

21) Do you still think you’re a Spain fraud?

Not so much anymore. After I wrote Why Spain? many people denied my fraudster claim. I haven’t been writing about Spain much this year, which probably helps my fraudster feelings. I start a new Spain novel in two weeks; that might change my feelings again.

22) Have you ever done anything you are ashamed of?

I damaged a friend’s car in Buñol, outside Valencia, and lied about it.

23) Are you a good holiday companion?

Ask my husband about the time we were in Seville, it was 46 degrees and we were lost.

24) Do you have a day job as well?

Yes, though the summer is much busier than the winter. Sailing classes, swimming lessons, sports, field trips, reading, spelling, whatever my children’s school needs.

25) Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I have no idea, and I love that fact. I don’t know who I will be in 10 years.

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Phew! The next post is back to my writing, all about the books I have written (besides Luminous Colours of Dusk), and what is coming next.

Click here for PART 1: ‘Luminous Colours of Dusk’ Author Q+A and look out for an upcoming free book offer coming soon!

Costa Women meets Caroline Angus Baker

Here is the link to the Google Hangouts interview I did with Fiona Catchpowle for Costa Women, all about books, sails, murder and joining the circus. A big thank you to Ali Meehan for arranging the interview.

Happy Birthday To (Writing) Me!

Hold the candles – it’s not my actual birthday (that’s November 5, you still have time to lovingly wrap my gifts).  Today is a birthday of another kind. Backtrack four years, and I was completing my Diploma of Business, which bored me to the back teeth. As much as I enjoy the aspect of running a business, a job most likely in an office was never going to make me happy. Ever. Everyone thought me mad to want to work in a sail loft, but the practical element spoke to me.

Four years ago, I met a Spanish man here in Auckland, and naturally the subject turned to his country that I love so much. I had already learned much about Spain’s 20th century (and earlier) history, and his story inspired me. I logged the info away, along with the info of my missing great-grandfather, and the story of a New Zealand nurse I had been reading up on around the same time. Then I discovered the ultimate time-suck for any woman at home with babies – online fiction. A few reads and I thought (in a fit of self-righteousness) ‘I could do a better job than this. Writing is a piece of cake. I’ll just write a story about Spanish Civil War graves.’ And ta-da, on October 25, 2009, I started posting online fiction. Luna Montgomery was born.

Oh, it’s that easy to be a writer? Yes and no. Any hack can write. Anyone can post online. Boom – writer. Doing it well is another story. I started writing creatively twenty years ago, but with teen years filled with dreams of sailing and then fending for myself at 17 trying to make it as a sailmaker, writing never got much of a chance. Enter adulthood, marriage, children – the storylines were still going around, but no outlet until late 2009. 

While I plodded along with blog posting for several years, it wasn’t until October 2012 that the book inspired by a kiwi nurse, my missing great-grandfather, a civil war grave and the story of a random Spanish guy was published, Blood in the Valencian Soil. Until then, around 4,000 people followed my In the Hands of Love blog (the prelude to the books) and I love each and every one of you for all the support. My three-part Secrets of Spain book series Blood in the Valencian Soil, Vengeance in the Valencian Water, and Death in the Valencian Dust was made easier with your support.

In 2010 I started on a different project, to encapsulate and destroy all the things about storylines that I don’t like. Females characters so often get a bad run in books and films. They are often (but not always!) the victims, sidekicks, sex objects, weaklings, gold-diggers. There aren’t many good quality female villains, and too many stories end with everyone happy and evil defeated. So I set out to online post Canna Medici in Nights Wants to Forget, which got 100,000 reads in 10 months. Nothing angers people faster than drugs, abortion and euthanasia. I quickly adapted it and published the book in late 2011 and is still my best selling book of my published works. With the sequel Violent Daylight out a few months ago, things are looking better than ever. I wrote that book in record time, and the Canna series has no weight of expectation on me. My Secrets of Spain has a huge weight of expectation on it. No one has tried to point out anything in terms of historical accuracy yet, so I’m taking that as a sign Blood in the Valencian Soil is all it needs to be.

So, after four years of full-time dedication and three, soon to be four, books released, I finally feel like I can legitimately say I’m an author for the first time. I wrote it on my departure card at an Australian airport last week and the guy asked ‘what do you write?’ ‘I write historical fiction based on the Spanish civil war and following Spanish dictatorship.’ The guy went a bit bug-eyed for a moment. Let’s just say I have a niche going in this part of the world.

What am I doing to celebrate?

Excellent question – by giving more to you out there. I have not posted any online fiction in a year, and I miss it. Giving out work in that form gives me instant feedback from readers in the comments section/twitter. Plus, it gives me time to flex my writing muscle (as it were) when I want to write but feel a bit stuck. Rather than my In the Hands of Love style of writing (which ended up at 300 chapters!), I will write stand-alone short pieces of fiction to enjoy. There will be a theme that runs through them, but you can stop by and read any time without getting lost.

More?

Indeed there is. Each week I will be reviewing one Hemingway book of my choosing. Many people know the man but not the work and I will be digging in and giving you a review of his writing. We will start the next week with one of my personal favourites Death in the Afternoon. The fact I fell asleep while re-reading it on a train from Barcelona to Valencia was not the book’s fault, I swear. It was the porrón from the night before that did it.

I also have some other book reviews to post – Jeremy Treglown’s Franco’s Crypt, and Henry Buckley’s The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic (which took me forever to finish). I have read a lot of books on Spain, fiction and non-fiction. I assumed many people interested in the subject have also read them (think Paul Preston or Gerald Brenan’s backlist for example), but I am beginning to find I am ahead of others. If there is a book you are interested in reading, or don’t have time for and want a synopsis posted, let me know I will add it to my book review posts. My bookshelf crying under its own weight will be happy to share.

One more thing, purely out of interest, I would like to know what (if any) of my writing that you read. Multiple answers are an option. Help out your Spain obsessed blogger and leave your feedback.

Thanks to everyone who takes the time to read my work in any form

(and thanks random Spanish guy, you know who you are)

If you haven’t already, here is an interview with me talking about coming up with Luna Montgomery on Talk Radio Europe. (I’m surprised how many people have listened to be honest!)

A LITTLE JAUNT TO SPAIN – REVIEW PART 9: Thunderstorms, Jesus and Ghosts in Cuenca

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You will long know by now that Cuenca is one of the central locations on my novel, Blood in the Valencian Soil. What you may not know is that when I wrote the novel, I worked purely on information given to me when researching the real characters that inspired their fictional counterparts in the book. While I know the outlying areas around the town, I never made it to the small hilltop town the entire time I lived in Spain. So, once the book was finished, I decided that while on my trip to gain information for my second Spanish novel, it was time to visit Cuenca in the flesh.

Name a town anywhere in Valencia province and I can almost certainly say I’ve been there. The mountainous region north of Valencia city is one of my favorite places. I have also spread out north-west of the city into the Aragon region many times, but Cuenca was last on the list of places to visit.

Whilst the town of Uclés was the ‘real-life’ town that my 1939 book characters worked in during the war, I moved the story to Cuenca for the later war storyline, and the town did not disappoint. The views of Cuenca are well-known, the cliffs, the hanging houses, the parador, but the place largely gets ignored during the lists of places to visit in Spain. Personally, the (albeit oddly shaped) triangle that runs from Valencia to Barcelona to Madrid is my favourite part of Spain, and it lies mostly untouched by tourism.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to launch into a high-and-mighty speech about the ‘real Spain’. What Cuenca does offer is an opportunity to have a day trip to a town where there are no set rules on what you should experience.

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The trip started well enough, out of Valencia. I was torn by leaving my  favourite city; while I could easily stay in the place forever, heading for Cuenca was 200 kms closer to getting back to Madrid and on a flight home, which I am not ashamed to say I was missing. The A-3, while a quick route inland, does mean you miss little opportunities to explore the Valencia region more, but I was not the driver (I hate driving); instead I settled for a familiar sights along a familiar road (my ill-fated trip to Teruel had the exact same problem).

We headed up the N-320, and Spain’s quiet interior peace settled in. It doesn’t take long to leave the world behind and head through small villages. For me, just seeing little places and knowing their wartime history was a great experience, though I had no one to share any of the information with. To be honest, I did wish I had taken the train, which I had in my original plans, but never mind.

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We arrived in Cuenca at about 2pm, and quickly bypassed the new town, filled with your standard Spanish locales, since obviously the locals require these businesses for work and life’s daily needs. My car-ride companion had a desire to get through the area as fast as possible, complaining of its ugliness. We arrived at the parador, the former Convento de San Pablo, one of Cuenca’s most enduring sights. As it is a location in my novel, I was determined to stay there, despite the fact a single night cost me more than three nights in a classy Madrid hotel on the same trip.

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View of the parador

I applaud anyone who has the desire to take care of a historic building and those at the parador have done just that. With a quiet, well maintained yet basic courtyard in the building, and hallways that give you the chance to feel the soul of the place. With a room on the second floor, I felt lazy taking the elevator, despite carrying my bag, and opted for the stairs for the rest of the stay, since the elevator is slow and filled with tourists not quite as agile as me.

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Main hallway

The room – I paid for a view, hence the slight increase in price and the view did not disappoint for a moment. Located above the main entrance, the room gave an instant view across the bridge over the gorge and over the old town dangling over the precipice of silent cliffs. A huge thunderstorm hung over the town, reminding me to stay inside for a little while. After an irritating car trip, I didn’t particularly want to hang out in a dated and poorly decorated room with terrible wifi, but the pouring squall slashing its way over the town was best viewed from the behind the windows.

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I left my dark depressing room and headed down the hallway to a charming area where seating was laid out, with a view over the interior courtyard of the building. I met a charming man named Jesús, on holiday with his parents from Madrid. He said the town has become a popular place for visitors from the capital over the past few years, but as we sat together, all that passed us was a Japanese family eager to do some sightseeing. The silence of the building made us wonder if the nuns were still running the place! Jesús was the only person my age (ie. 30’s) I saw there. Maybe the price puts younger travelers off; Jesús had just got a new job and wanted to treat his parents because he hadn’t had a job for over a year.

I bid farewell to the flirty Jesús and headed outside into the frail sunshine, amazed (though not surprised) by the cool temperatures of the mountainous area. Still free of my car-ride buddy, I started a walk down to the base of the Huécar gorge, and I was entirely alone the whole time. Not a soul walked by and as I wandered around the base of the town, and back up, popping out on the side of the old town, skipping the gorge walk bridge entirely.

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San Pablo bridge all to myself

After the frenetic tourist-ridden locations like Barcelona, to stand alone in this picturesque area is a real chance to breathe. I took about 1001 photos of the area, which could easy take up your whole day. With my handy copy of BITVS in tow, I got to see the areas that has been so accurately described through photos and friends while working on the book.

Past the Casas Colgadas, the Hanging Houses (which houses the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art), I wandered in the Barrio San Martín, a labyrinth series of streets, portrayed regularly in my book. More photos and some glorious time to be alone, something I wanted more of, I got to see the places in my book, which made me immensely happy. I didn’t pass a soul in the area, and walking along the steep and easily confusing area, it would be easy to think you have gone back in time. The silence is stunning and the town speaks to you instead.

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Legit street in Barrio San Martín

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House used as inspiration in BITVS

Onwards to Plaza Mayor, the heart of the old town. After popping out onto the square by luck rather than planning, it was interesting to see a main plaza with almost no people. For all the talk of the place being a tourist area these days, there wasn’t a tourist to be seen, and not many locals either.  I went straight in the direction of the cathedral, another pivotal location in my novel, and will also feature in subsequent books.

The interior of the church doesn’t disappoint. The solemn religious works sit in an air of silent and cold (almost as cold as Segovia’s frigid cathedral) peace. I sat at the altar for a while, the first time I had taken a break on my whole trip (or so it felt), to soak in the moment. It may sound crazy, or juvenile even, but being in Cuenca made my own book come to life for me, more so than Valencia and Madrid. I could imagine Cayetano Beltrán praying in the same seat, with Luna Montgomery watching in silence, wondering what the hell she was doing there with the bullfighter.

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Cuenca cathedral 

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With the intention of walking up Calle San Pedro, the ‘main’ road leaving up out of Plaza Mayor (try watching a bus go up there with a car coming down the other side – impressive skills and nerves), I instead peeled off along tiny and intriguing little alleyways, in search of my Cuenca (mine, as in ‘in the book’ Cuenca). The lack of people and noise makes it easy to develop your own opinion of the town and indeed imagine yourself in a novel.

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I reached the 18th century San Pedro church. Though basic, it’s home to a bell tower,  is a must-climb. The few hundred stairs are an easy climb and the views once up there are amazing. The climb is a real highlight (see what I did there?)

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Parador view from bell tower

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View of Júcar gorge from bell tower

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odd bit of artwork looking to old town from Júcar gorge

For me, I felt exceedingly lonely in Cuenca. I missed my family, who weren’t on this research trip with me. Without them, the majority of sights seemed hollow. Cuenca is a sight best seen with someone you love (or at least like!). I wandered back to Plaza Mayor, and grabbed a map from a nice young guy named Carlos at visitor information. I prided my lack of maps on my trip, but it was quite handy for a quick walk up and down stairs on the hillside to view the Júcar gorge on the other side of the old town, and then I was officially tired of the whole area. My enthusiasm had gone. I went back to the parador, this time over the San Pablo bridge, and took a break.

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Creepy homage to Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, see the little Falangist symbols beneath? I nearly fell over when I saw this on the cathedral wall near the entrance to the Archbishop’s palace. Odd in 2013.

Surely evening could be interesting. With exhaustion ruining the trip, my car-ride buddy suggested a drink at the restaurant in the parador. Before even poking my head in, she said that everyone looked too old and boring (note from me – if you are in your 50’s, I’ll happily share a drink with you). Instead, we headed over the gorge and into the old town, to a random little in Plaza Mayor bar where I spent my evening mulling over several white wines from Cuenca – all of which I would recommend. The barman brought so many tapas over that dinner wasn’t required!

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The walk home at about 1am was a highlight, I’m not one for heading out late at night, but walking the pitch dark and silent alleyways, suitably spirited with wine and relatively lost makes you feel like someone is creeping up behind you, or that you’ve stumbled into a Jason Webster novel. The cliffs lit up at night is a sight to behold, even if my iphone couldn’t capture them very well, as is crossing the bridge in the dark.

A rough attempt at sleep on a bed so hard I thought it had been built from nearby rock, I got up at 4am and went for a walk on my own, to the amusement of hotel staff. I did this on almost every night of my trip and it’s interesting what you can see and hear when out when no one else is stirring. I crossed the bridge in the freezing air, and heard what I think were owls, the sound echoing through the gorge like an eery cry. It took little imagination to feel like it was 1913 or even 1713. I sat between some trees on a lonely bench and felt very alone, which felt strangely liberating. The oddest thing, and I don’t believe in ghosts et al, but I felt very watched. I walked down under the bridge and walked the lonely road that arches through the waterless gorge. The sun had began to ease its way through the darkness as I headed back along the path to the hotel. A solitary figure stood on a driveway at one of the basic houses in the gorge, an old woman, who placed a hand on my shoulder as I passed her with a hello. ‘Women are always busy here, even when the men sleep’ she said and then simply turned away. I felt like I had found Spain, there that moment in the dark gorge, the wild Spain I had been looking for, one filled with a presence that was intangible.

After the fear of loneliness and darkness combined with bitter temperatures chased me back into the hard bed for an hour or so.  The creepy quiet night walk was worth staying in the town, otherwise I would recommend Cuenca as day trip rather than an overnight.

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one last look

I checked out of the parador as soon my car-ride buddy was ready to leave and we headed for Madrid, just 165 kms away. I felt great for having seen Cuenca, but more than ready to catch up with friends in Madrid.

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legit two-way street!

Must see and do –

Covento de San Pablo, even if only from the outside, just to see the view of the town staring back

The San Pablo bridge, were you must add your pledge of love to

Plaza Mayor, were tourists don’t exist

The bell tower at Iglesia San Pedro

The narrow streets of Barrio San Martín, and stop in any almost medieval-looking bar you can find

The view over Júcar gorge tends to get forgotten in postcard snaps but it just as beautiful and wild, and has a long nature walk in and around

The Cathedral, even if you just take in the facade

The alleys that lean against the edge of the Huécar gorge, try Ronda Julián Romero for a quiet alley walk

The wilds that surround the area. The landscape makes you want to cry, especially this civil war nerd

Drink the wine, eat the snacks. Nobody ever regretted that

The not-so great – 

Unless you are planning to take on the wilds around Cuenca, I would recommend taking the train. Cuenca is an easy place to get to by public transport and having a car was a pain in the ass, and I didn’t even drive it! Plus you meet fun people on trains, unlike in tedious car trips, especially if you can’t stop along the way. Plus I don’t like being yelled at for not knowing where to go/park in locations I’ve never been to, or haven’t been to in years

The parador – iconic, yes; but worth the costs? Neither Jesús or I were convinced of that. With other options available, do your homework first. If you’re determined to stay there (as was I), you should. I got the chance to visit the restaurant for breakfast (included in room cost) which served a buffet of both Spanish and English choices. Any day with churros is a good one. The rooms are not that nice or big, so be careful who you room with. Prince Felipe stayed there on his honeymoon, but I’m guessing he had more fun things to do and had well-chosen his companion! The cost of the bar/restaurant has been debated as over-priced, but I saw plenty of unusually pricey menus in windows while out on my walk. But, not every place is attempting you rip you off.

Spain is not hot all year around, despite what some think. Cuenca is located in a gorgeous but unforgiving landscape, so take a jacket unless its August.

Don’t expect Cuenca to be lively and exciting like a city. You might be disappointed. The place met all my expectations, but if you want to meet a sexy 19-year-old man-boy in an old town bar to engage in a fling with, you might be pushing your luck (What?! Some people like to judge people on looks and dream of Spanish interludes. Not me, but some people, it’s how romance novels are born). Likewise, if you’re not interested in war history, don’t travel with me!

The same generic Made in China souvenirs are available, like with anywhere. I did manage to buy a heavy stone model of the hanging houses, which was made locally.

Want to go but don’t know where to start? Take a look at the Spanish Thyme Traveller, who have just added Cuenca to their list of already well-planned holidays. Here is their latest blog post, all about a trip to Cuenca – A Visit to Cuenca Spain

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people declare their love on the San Pablo bridge so I did just that!