SPAIN BOOK REVIEW – APRIL: ‘Albi’ by Hilary Shepherd

A poignant, compassionate glimpse into the life of a child caught in a country at war with itself

Albi is nine years old when Franco’s soldiers arrive in the village and his life begins to change in confusing ways. It’s not clear quite who should be trusted and who should not. Some neighbours disappear not to be seen again, others are hidden from view in cellars and stables – like his brother, Manolo, who left long ago to join the resistance. Albi is charged with shepherding not just his own sheep, but also those of El Ciego who sends him on errands requiring a good memory and the ability to keep his mouth shut at all times.

Alberto, at 88, is haunted by what he did and what he may or may not have said. And then the daughter of his old friend Carlos turns up wanting stories of old times. Albi’s day of reckoning may be at hand…

cover and blurb via Honno Press

~~

Here we are – yet another Spanish Civil War book, which alternates between present day and the 1930’s. All I can say is – yay! I’ve written three of these myself, so I’m always pleased to find another one, but this one is different to many I have stumbled across.

The book starts in present time, where Alberto has just been to a funeral, of his friend, Carlos, who grew up with Alberto in rural Aragon. The remembrance of his childhood friend takes Alberto back to the time where he was known as Albi, only aged nine, and the memories he still hasn’t managed to shake.

It’s September 1938, and Republican Aragon is being eaten up by Nationalist rule. Not a story about the frontline, but rather this book takes us into the lives of those who lived during the war under their new fascist rulers, and the reality that they faced in the uproar of the civil war. Poor Albi is only a boy, and his parents, three sisters and his senile grandmother are forced to live under the Guardia soldiers who have occupied their town. Albi’s bother Manolo was gone off with the Republican army and is already a ghost in Albi’s life. Things start hard and frightening for Alibi, adjusting to soldiers everywhere, curfews in place, and odd screaming echoing, but the adults in Albi’s life won’t share anything with him. Albi herds sheep for his disabled father, but whisperings in his house start leading to a slow demise for Albi as his family falls apart with illnesses, hushed up mysteries, secret weddings, and daring daybreak escapes.

Albi and Carlos are kids caught in a real disaster destroying their country. But Albi’s life takes a dangerous turn when he starts passing messages and spending time with Mena, a woman from Valencia who stands out, and  Mena is not one to sit back as war changes their country. The marquis are in the Aragonese hillside, rebel fighters prepared to take on Francoist soldiers, regardless of the cost.

Albi’s trips to see Mena lead him to a moment in the war he cannot forget, not even in 2017 when Alberto’s story has caught the attention of people making a show about the war. While Carlos’ granddaughter is telling the stories she was told, Albi is the one with the real truth, the truth Carlos didn’t know or share. Death came to Albi’s village and he is the only witness who knows the truth, which haunts his dreams nearly 80 years on. But is 80 years enough for Alberto to be ready to tell the whole truth?

Many thanks should be given to the author, as Shepherd has written a book about those who tend to get forgotten. While I write the weekly updates about the war and major battles, it is people in the cities and villages already ‘conquered’ who get forgotten about, who had to live under the cruel rule of their new leaders. Shepherd has told that story through the eyes of a child, who doesn’t take sides, as his innocence will be destroyed either way. The doesn’t dwell on detail and accurately gives the point of view of a child, a messy and confused state in a world which wouldn’t make sense to anyone.

Albi is available April 19.

 

Advertisements

DECEMBER SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘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.

Alberto is an old man. But he doesn’t know how old – he remembers nothing before his arrival at an orphanage during the Spanish civil war.

He rarely thinks about his missing childhood, but when seven-year-old Tino discovers his grandfather has never had a birthday party, never blown out candles on a birthday cake, never received a single birthday present, he’s determined things should change. And so the two set out to find Alberto’s birthday.

Their search for the old man’s memories takes them deep into the heart of Spain – a country that has pledged to forget its painful past. As stories of courage, cruelty and love unfold, Alberto realises that he has lost more than a birthday. He has lost a part of himself. But with his grandson’s help, he might just find it again.

cover and blurb via amazon

~~

I read this whole book in one sitting; that is a testament to how easy it is to read this sweet work of fiction. By the time I was two-thirds through, I was desperate to see how it all played out.

The book bounces around the trip of Alberto and his seven-year-old grandson, Tino. Tino’s father is in the hospital after a horrific burning accident, and Alberto tries to distract the child with the story of how, as an orphan, he doesn’t know his own age or birthday. They head off on a road trip to find out what happened to Alberto as a young boy.

Other chapters are peppered through the book from the point of view of other major players  in Alberto’s early life- the woman who cared for him at the orphanage, the girl who grew up with him, the angry fascist commander who was killing people during the Spanish Civil War, Alberto’s birth mother and father, a young priest and an English International Brigade fighter who finds young Alberto in the forest. Between these point of views and of elderly Alberto on his mission, the heartbreaking story all comes together.

The Spanish Civil War rears its ugly head, showing the misery of growing up a orphan in war-time, the realities for Alberto’s birth parents, the sins of the 1930’s, all mixed with a few moments of bad luck, PTSD and beautiful family ties torn to shreds, comes together to find the true date of Alberto’s birth written in a rather unusual place.

.Alberto’s first ever party is laced with a pain I could see coming but didn’t want to acknowledge, but his search also healed pains for many people left scarred by the battles of the late 1930’s. The book is simple and no fuss, has its quiet moments, but tells a painful tale in a gentle way. I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to everyone.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Jane the Quene’ by Janet Wertman

All Jane Seymour wants is a husband; but when she catches the eye of a volatile king, she is pulled deep into the Tudor court’s realm of plot and intrigue….

England. 1535. Jane Seymour is 27 years old and increasingly desperate for the marriage that will provide her a real place in the world. She gets the perfect opportunity to shine when the court visits Wolf Hall, the Seymour ancestral manor. With new poise born from this event, it seems certain that her efficiency and diligence will shine through and finally attract a suitor.

Meanwhile, King Henry VIII is 45 and increasingly desperate for a son to secure his legacy. He left his first wife, a princess of Spain, changing his country’s religion in the process, to marry Anne Boleyn — but she too has failed to deliver the promised heir. As Henry begins to fear he is cursed, Jane Seymour’s honesty and innocence conjure redemption. Thomas Cromwell, an ambitious clerk who has built a career on strategically satisfying the King’s desires, sees in Jane the perfect vehicle to calm the political unrest that threatens the country: he engineers the plot that ends with Jane becoming the King’s third wife.Jane believes herself virtuous and her actions justified, but early miscarriages shake her confidence and hopes.

How can a woman who has done nothing wrong herself deal with the guilt of how she unseated her predecessor?

~~

Jane’s story begins in 1525, where at age 18 is still unmarried and becomes a maid of honour for mighty Katherine of Aragon. Jane is a quiet girl, keen to be part of the court instead of being a lowly spinster at home. But Jane’s tuition at court is placed in the hands of two other maids to the queen – Anne and Mary Boleyn. They are distant cousins to Jane, but quiet Jane finds the pair to be disingenuous – Mary is already the king’s mistress, and rumours swirl of Anne’s virtue also. Jane, who sees herself as fair and perfect, considers her cousins to be intimidating and foolish, and they care not for the company of boring Jane. Years pass and Jane works in the court, slowly rising in favour until poor Katherine is ousted.
 .
 But then Jane’s cousin Anne Boleyn is finally elevated from mistress to Henry’s side as queen. Jane is still unwed, a seemingly boring woman in the company of Queen Anne, who sees nothing in her lady. But trouble soon comes when Anne gives birth to a daughter for Henry.
 .
Jane isn’t the only Seymour at court; her young sister Elizabeth found a husband quickly and the Seymours decide to swap out Jane for another sister, Dorothy. Quiet Jane needs a plan; she goes home to Wolf Hall, where the king plans to stay on summer progress, to host the royal party, and in return her brother will find her a decent husband.
 But while everyone thinks they know Jane Seymour, quiet Jane is a totally new woman. Only she can interest Henry; not brash like Anne Boleyn, but no weakling as her family assumes. Jane has a plan all of her own. Jane goes into training; she will be no whore, and she will be no Anne Boleyn either. Jane wants better for herself and she is no pawn any longer. Jane is ready to stand up, and play her part at court, all to claim what she wants – the crown itself.
 .
Jane is always written as the boring queen and I enjoyed reading a book where she was anything but. Jane plays the games at court well, ready to scheme her way onto the throne, rather than being shoved on by her brother. Her brother Edward is a likable man, a product of his time, and young brother Thomas is a cad, as history suggests. Everyone knows of Edward’s second wife Anne, the bitchy sidekick of her husband. This time, Anne is a kinder woman, while my book-husband Thomas Cromwell is a man who can work with anyone, always ready to come out on top. Cromwell’s POV is used a little too, which was a bonus for me.
 .
 It was fun to read Jane’s perspective, who is sometimes seen as appearing from nowhere to take a king, when she was instead in the background, understanding court politics. And this book is the first in a series, so make room on your shelf!

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Sentinel’ by Mark Oldfield

the sentinel

Madrid 13 January, 1953:  The Spanish Civil War has been over for 13 years, but Franco swore he would never forgive or forget his opponents. And he hasn’t.  At dawn tomorrow, 15 enemies of the state will be rounded up and executed. Shot in the head if they are lucky, garrotted if they aren’t.  Their bodies wont be found for 57 years, tangled bones in a disused mine. For Ana María Galindez a forensic investigator with the Guardia Civil, it will be her first encounter with the work of Comandante Guzmán. But not her last.
~~

As soon as I heard about Mark Oldfield’s ‘The Sentinel’, I was desperate to get my hands on a copy. The subject is a personal favourite, 1950’s Spain and life under Franco – I could hardly wait. What makes the story special is that it is spread over two time periods, 1953 and present day, and a third small period set in Civil War Spain, which gave a smattering of clues along the way.

The 1953 storyline is superb. The cold misery of Madrid is ever present – it is icy and dark; the scene set is a perfect companion to lives filled with fear and desperation. One could not imagine the sun shining on Comandante Guzmán, the head of the Brigada Especial, assigned with the task of rounding up the last of dictator Franco’s enemies. The man is an exceptional character. No matter how cruel or apathetic he is, every moment is enjoyable. A series of characters surrounds Guzmán – all stupid, greedy and egocentric, but he has no trouble with being one step ahead of the lot of them. Guzmán is, no doubt, involved in a violent responsibility but seems constantly at ease with his life in the Brigada Especial. It has been a long time since a male character has felt so honest, realistic or enjoyable to read. It doesn’t matter if Guzmán is shooting ‘rojos’ that he has rounded up, belittling his subordinates, or threatening every man, woman and child who stumbles across his path, the reader feels on his side. There are no excuses made for Guzmán’s behaviour, no ‘extenuating circumstances’; he continues down a violent path and seems proud of himself. Franco and his minions count on Guzmán, and Guzmán is determined not to fail, and determined not to be killed in the process. Watch out for a memorable meeting between Guzmán and his mother. It was a scene that certainly stood out.

The story gives itself a totally different pace with the chapters based in present day Spain. Ana Mariá Galindez is a guardia civil forensic scientist, who stumbles across Guzmán while investigating the discovery of 15 bodies, murdered and dumped back in 1953. At first, Ana comes across as jaded; a woman in a man’s world in every respect. She is intelligent and independent, and seems like a character that a reader could sit down and enjoy. Ana has a past, no fault of her own, but it has scarred her in a way that she seems permanently cynical. Ana’s romantic relationships with other women are all sustained by her professional life – these women are intertwined in her search for Guzmán and his 1953 disappearance. She has a penchant for picking terrible lovers; the women are annoying and weak at best. Ana’s redeeming feature is that she believes people like Guzmán are not a product of their situation, but rather that they have their own opinions, beliefs and evil machinations. She believes that Guzmán is merciless on his own, and not just a Franco puppet. Her chapters fly by at a rate that the reader can barely keep up with the timeline, with an ending that leaves the reader begging for the second instalment from the author.

At almost 600 pages, the book gives two thoughts: one that it is a book on Spain that could keep a reader going for weeks and another that they could face a wordy, overworked story packed with unnecessary fluff. Fears are unfounded. It is easy to sit down and read 100 pages without so much as glancing up from the pages. The swapping between the time periods could make a reader zip through Ana Mariá to get to more Guzmán. All the way through, the ending seems visible, and then more surprises rear their heads. The end can give a sense of feeling let down, but this was no fault of the author, but rather because it is easy to become invested in the outcomes for the characters, which rarely happens.

Ultimately, the story is different from expected. A fan of female lead characters could feel disappointed. Ana Mariá has all the attributes of a brilliant lead, but she seems stiff and cold to those around her. She lacks a soul, although the situations she finds herself in do not allow for sentiment. So much is at stake, even her life, but in the end, it may not be possible to worry about whether she lives or dies.  Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily.

The Civil War chapters seem to have no purpose in the story, until near the end where the puzzle comes together, and it feels like a slap in the face – they are, in fact, valuable and insightful. As a Spanish Civil War fan or not, a reader should welcome any chapters on the subject, and in the end prove their worth and light up Guzmán’s life even more. They are fantastic treats and an astute way of recalling how Guzmán became the ‘hero of Badajoz’.

Guzmán is the star. He is undoubtedly malicious, spiteful, selfish and calculating, but not heartless if it suits him. No need for knowledge on the history of Spain to enjoy this book, but if a reader is educated on the subject, they will be delighted at the accuracy and the detail thoughtfully put in by the author. There should be high anticipation for the second ‘Vengeance of Memory’ novel. Thank you, Mark Oldfield, for bringing Franco’s Spain back to life.

My score – 4 out of 5 stars. Definitely worth the read.

‘The Sentinel’ is available on Books4Spain and Amazon

Caroline Angus Baker on ‘Talk Radio Europe’

On Thursday 13 December, I was fortunate enough to do an interview on Talk Radio Europe’s ‘The Book Show’ with Hannah Murray. We spoke about my latest novel, Blood in the Valencian Soil, and a bit about me and my life. It is now on youtube, if you would like to listen again. The interview will be repeated on talkradioeurope.com on Sunday 16 December, at 10am, and is available on the On Demand section on their website for seven days.

A special thank you to Hannah Murray for taking time to call me, and to Rod Younger from Books4Spain for introducing me to Hannah 🙂

~~

Click here to purchase – Blood in the Valencian Soil – Paperback, Kindle and all E-readers

Click here to read more about BITVS – Blood in the Valencian Soil – Q&A with the author

Click here to read more about the author – Caroline Angus Baker

Click here to see Spain in photographs – scenes from ‘Blood in the Valencian Soil’

Click here to learn more about Night Wants to Forget 2012 edition