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!

My Best Spanish Reads in 2014

 

As 2014 shuffles off, the list of books I have read has piled high yet again. I lost count once I passed 100 books back in August or so. I’m always reading, though I only review books on this site I think are worthy of addition. Books I dislike get tossed and forgotten; I don’t ‘do’ bad reviews here. I also read plenty of books which are not based in Spain, written in Spanish (or translated) or created by Spanish authors, but I review those in different places. This site is purely for my Spanish reads. Here is the list of the books I deemed worthy of adding to my site this year. These are books brand new, yet some are 70+ years old; some are new to me, some I have read five or more times. I haven’t had to time to load all my reviews (I’m attempting to publish my next book in April 2015), but these reviews make the 2014 list anyway.

‘The Forge’, ‘The Track’ and ‘The Clash’ by Auturo Barea. I may review at some stage, maybe not. So much brilliance, how can it be reviewed? My favourite reads of the year, and I managed to get first editions of all three books.

Winter in Madrid’ by C J Sansom Some really unlikable characters here

‘Spanish Cooking Uncovered: Farmhouse Favourites’ by Paco de Lara and Debbie Jenkins Yum! And there is now a sequel too

‘Adventures of a Doctor’ by E. Martínez Alonso HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

‘War is Beautiful’ by James Neugass (review pending early 2015)

‘100 years of Spanish Cinema’ by Tatjana Pavlović (review pending early 2015)

‘The Angel’s Game’ (El juego del ángel) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón How many times can someone read this? Dozens

‘Images of the Spanish Civil War’ by Raymond Carr Sad yet powerful

‘Surrealism and the Spanish Civil War’ by Robin Adèle Greeley (review pending early 2015)

‘The New Spaniards’ by John Hooper A classic, stands the test of time

They Shall Not Pass’ by Ben Hughes (review pending early 2015)

‘The Spy with 29 Names’ by Jason Webster A forgotten Spaniard with engaging skills

‘Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War’ by Amanda Vaill A whole lot of history and ideas crammed into one novel

‘Unlikely Warriors’ by Richard Baxell Well researched, well written

‘The Spanish Civil War’ by Stanley G. Payne (review pending early 2015)

‘Soldados de Salamina (Soldiers of Salamis)’ by Javier Cercas A moral tale anyone can understand

‘Blood Med (Max Cámara 4)’ by Jason Webster This series keeps improving with age

‘The Shallow Grave’ by Walter Gregory (review pending early 2015)

‘Sketches of Spain (Impresiones y Paisajes)’ by Federico García Lorca Read with a glass of wine

‘As I Walked Out Through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee’ by P D Murphy A genre I don’t usually read, but it is excellent

‘The Triumph of Democracy in Spain’ by Paul Preston My go-to while writing ‘Death in the Valencian Dust’

‘Nada’ by Carmen Laforet A truly beautiful novel in 1940’s Barcelona

‘Outlaws’ by Javier Cercas Fast-paced with moral consequences

‘Into the Arena’ by Alexander Fiske-Harrison A truly excellent bullfighting book, well thought out and researched

‘Heart of Spain’ Photographs by Robert Capa A beautiful collection of Capa’s work

‘The Ambulance Man and the Spanish Civil War’ by Paul Read A revival of a forgotten man

‘1984 and the Spanish Civil War’ by Paul Read A short story filled with thought-provoking comments

Juan Carlos: A People’s King’ by Paul Preston Essential studying while writing my newest book

‘Death And The Sun: A Matador’s Season In The Heart Of Spain’ by Edward Lewine  A bullfighting icon

‘Moving to Spain with Children’ by Lisa Sadleir The book I wish existed ten years ago!

‘Franco’ by Paul Preston I’ve lost count how many times I’ve turned to this book

‘Franco: Biography of the Myth’ by Antonio Cazorla Sánchez Almost felt as if I had jumped down Alice’s rabbit hole while reading

‘Defence of Madrid’ by Geoffrey Cox So grateful I stumbled upon this book, never recommended to me

‘The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction’ by Helen Graham The whole war read in a day

‘The Anatomy of a Moment (Anatomía de un instante)’ by Javier Cercas History at its finest

If I read your book (or your suggestion) and you don’t see it here, let me know. The review may be lost in my archive of posts. If the book in question was one I hated, you will have already known that from my honest twitter feed! If you have any suggestions, or would like to request your own book to be added to the list for 2015, please let me know.

 

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Blood Med (Max Cámara 4)’ by Jason Webster

Blood Med jasonwebster.net

Spain is corrupt and on the brink of collapse. The king is ill, banks are closing, hospitals are in chaos, homes are lost, demonstrators riot and rightwing thugs patrol the street. The tunnels beneath the streets are at once a refuge and a source of anger. And as the blood flows Cámara roars in on his motorbike…

 Cámara is back in Valencia, with his partner Alicia and his anarchist, marijuana-growing grandfather Hilario. In the old police headquarters, the mood is tense, as the chief hunts for cuts – who will go, Cámara or his friend Torres? The two men are flung into action investigating the suicide of an ex- bank clerk and the brutal murder of a young American woman. As the city erupts around them, their case takes them into the heart of the trouble.

Photo and blurb from jasonwebster.net

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Blood Med is the fourth in the Max Cámara series by Jason Webster, following on from Or the Bull Kills You, A Death in Valencia and The Anarchist Detective. The story starts in early summer Valencia, where Cámara is back at work as the Chief Inspector at the Policía Nacional, after extended leave. Living with his now-unemployed girlfriend Alicia and his grandfather Hilario, readers are instantly given an insight into Valencia and its current state.

The King of Spain is close to death, throwing a huge cloud of uncertainty over the country already on the brink of collapse. As pro-Republican supporters hit the streets, ready to reclaim the nation from its monarchy and right-wing government, Cámara is assigned the murder of a young American blogger named Amy. Thanks to cutbacks in the Jefatura, the decrepit boss, Maldonado, has pitted Cámara against his friend Torres, each given separate cases to solve. In previous times, the pair have been found working together to solve cases and eat paella, but now their separate performances will decide who keeps his job, and who loses everything.

Enter a new character, Laura Martín, the only member of the sexual violence team. The differences between Laura and Cámara are apparent; she is blunt and a stickler for rules, and for some reason Cámara continues to call her by her first name, unlike other female members in the squad. As they search for Amy’s killer, Laura is convinced Amy’s Valencian husband is the culprit, while Cámara feels there are other avenues to explore. While the unlikely pair work together to find out why an everyday girl was murdered execution-style, they quickly find there is nobody they can trust.

It is not only Cámara’s professional life that highlights the corruption and despair of living in present day Valencia. Uneasiness hangs over Cámara’s happy home with the prospect of lay-offs, Alicia has no work, and they are helping Hilario, a golden character if ever there was one. Cámara’s grandfather had a stroke (in the previous book) and has relocated from Albacete. The trio work with the homeless living in underground tunnels abandoned after money to complete the metro lines (the same which destroyed Cámara’s home in book two) dried up. People are broke and desperate. Jobs are nowhere to be found and suicide is on the rise as people are forced from their homes by the banks. The streets are filled with protesters, labelled terrorists by the ridiculous and inept regional government. The striking misery of the city attacks Cámara personally, when he is forced to hunt down medication he needs for his grandfather, as pharmacies are no longer paid by the government, leaving people powerless to care for themselves. Immigrants are being harassed, the poor have nowhere to turn, and banks are being shut corralito style so the city doesn’t go bankrupt.

Cámara’s life falls in a deep pit of anguish and torment (have tissues handy) when the realities of the cutbacks to essential services touch him in such a way that it’s hard to believe Valencian’s live such difficult lives. Despite the immense pain of living in Valencia’s dark and brutal reality, there are still deaths to be solved. As Cámara tries to find Amy’s killer and help Torres with his similar killing, a storm of evil rears its ugly head in the crevices of the city, bringing the murders and corrupt bastards which have destroyed Valencia into daylight.

The book is far removed from the previous in the series. The first two almost seem light-hearted in comparison, such is the decay of Valencia, and the third gave readers an imperative insight to Cámara’s life and family. The book needs no stretches of the imagination – it shows what a blight corruption has made on Valencia. The lack of medical supplies, the rising factions – left and right, the violent divide between the rich and poor are laid bare, in a way no other writer has even attempted to portray. Max Cámara is the one of the few characters I look forward to reading, and along with the others around him. Cámara’s girlfriend, his grandfather, those whom he works with, or meets under the city, all have strong characteristics that make you love or loathe them. Driving on Cámara’s motorbike through the streets, the feelings of both the characters and the once-noble city can easily be felt. So many books talk of sunshine, the food, the beaches, but here is a book that takes on another reality, along with the serious issues which face the region of Valencia, distinct from the rest of Spain. This book was released the same week as the abdication of King Juan Carlos, followed by the streets filled with people, calling for freedom, an eerie coincidence indeed.

There are parts of this book I didn’t enjoy, though this is no disrespect to the author. The fact that women are treated as disposable, cheap fuck-toys to hurt and kill with indifference is hard to read, but is a part of how men from certain lifestyles and values see women. The evil, vulgar and sickening behaviour of the cretins in this book could well use a trigger warning for readers who feel uncomfortable with such sexual violence, something that won’t leave my mind in a hurry. That said, the book should not be dismissed as something using sexual violence for entertainment, rather the author has wandered into territory which is reality in a world gone mad.  The book is credible in its portrayal of Valencia and its current state, as is the feeling of those who are faced with having to struggle in this environment. Readers will be desperate for the vicious thugs, from the violent right-wing Franco lovers on the street, to the other super-scum, those in Valencian power, to be brought to their knees (and worse!). Sadly, whether everyone gets what they deserve in their interlinked web of corruption, either in real life or the Cámara series, will remain to be seen.

Five stars to Blood Med. May the Max Cámara series have a long and illustrious life. I don’t read crime books very often; this is a series worth an exception. Cámara may be king, but Valencia has become a dark queen thanks to Jason Webster.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Spy with 29 Names’ by Jason Webster


thespy

The Spy with 29 Names is a gripping account of the exploits of Juan Pujol, the most extraordinary double agent of the Second World War, who was awarded both an Iron Cross by Germany and an MBE by Britain.
 
After the Spanish Civil War, determined to fight the spread of totalitarianism, Pujol moved to Lisbon with his wife, persuading the German intelligence services to take him on. But in fact, he was determined all along to work for the British, whom he saw as the exemplar of democracy and freedom. Seeing the impact of the disinformation this Quixotic freelance agent was feeding to the Germans, MI5 brought him to London, where he created a bizarre fictional network of spies – 29 of them – that misled the entire German high command, including Hitler himself. Above all, in Operation Fortitude he diverted German Panzer divisions away from Normandy, playing a crucial role in safeguarding D-Day and ending the war, and securing his reputation as the greatest double agent in history.
Cover artwork and blurb from jasonwebster.net
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The Spy with 29 Names is the story of a man who was almost lucky that the Second World War was raging. Had it not, his behaviour and attitude probably would have gotten him into trouble. A master of disguise, a man who had charming down to a fine art, a deceiver who could tell any lie. The spy known as ‘Garbo’ set up another, almost implausible, 28 spies from all walks of life and locales, and tricked the Germans into things no other spy managed during the war effort.

The book covers Juan Pujol Garcia’s early life from his birth in 1912 and the effects the Spanish Civil War had on his family in Barcelona. Pujol tried to fight for the Nationalists after his family got imprisoned by the Republicans, but he ended up with hate for the ideals of both sides of the conflict. Pujol harboured desires of being a WWII spy for the British but got rejected early on by the Embassy in Madrid, so he set out to work alone. Living in Lisbon, he started feeding downright false information to the Germans. The lies seemed to be trusted with impunity, so was Pujol’s ability to deceive.

British Intelligence crossed paths with Pujol first in 1941 when the code-breakers at Bletchley Park started finding messages to ‘Arabel’, a German agent who appeared to be in Britain. The messages started capturing their attention when they could see the information was blatantly false, but still seemed to be believed by the Germans. Kim Philby, the famous British spy, decided they needed to recruit ‘Arabel’ to help their own efforts and keep the British spy operations a secret. MI5 discovered the identity of ‘Arabel’ and Pujol went to Britain and worked with Tomás Harris to help with the effort and increase his false intelligence operation. While the information that Pujol spun to Germany was a pack of lies, he peppered it with a few genuine facts, only increasing his believability. The deeper Pujol went with Germany, the more elaborate he became, eventually having both male and female ‘spies’ on his side, reporting from the UK and abroad.

MI5 gave Pujol the code name ‘Garbo’ because he was a top-quality actor. Pujol went on to name his spy aliases with simple names, such as Rags the Indian poet, Mrs Gerbers the Widow, the Treasurer, the aptly named Con, and my personal favourite the Mistress, whom the Germans knew as Amy. Pujol’s ability to play the role of 29 different people would sound preposterous if it hadn’t been a real man who made such a massive contribution to the Allied endeavours. Pujol then become the main agent in ‘Operation Fortitude’, and his main objective was to tell the Germans that the proposed Allied invasion of Europe would happen anywhere other than Normandy.

As Pujol increased his involvement, even Hitler himself believed that Normandy would be not the D-Day location. For weeks leading up to the D-Day invasions, the Germans were diverting men and supplies away from Normandy. Pujol planned to tell the Germans a location and time of an invasion, only an hour before it happened. He then banked on them missing the transmission so his lying operation wouldn’t be blamed when the Allies stormed Normandy rather than up the coast, and ‘Garbo’ changed the war forever.

Two months after D-Day, the Germans awarded Pujol with the prestigious Iron Cross and a whopping payout for all his work. Even after the pivotal point in the war had damaged their operations, the Germans still believed all Pujol told them. Did anyone ever truly suspect Pujol? We will never know. Pujol moved to South America for his own safety after the war, and didn’t return until 1984 when he received his belated MBE and got the chance to visit the site of the D-Day landings. He passed away in 1988.

The story of Juan Pujol could have been lost to history while the stories of Kim Philby and other British spies were shared. Spain’s contribution to the Allied effort with one man’s charisma, lying and genius ideas is a story that needed to be told. Webster has woven a tale so astounding that it could be mistaken for a work of fiction and lets the light of day shine on the network of deception which saved countless lives. With meticulous planning and a clear, easy to read style, Webster has made an espionage tale that can appeal to those who enjoy war history and those who don’t. From the offices of the code-breakers to the complex conversations with the Germans and everyone in between, both the real-life and entirely fictional characters of the most fascinating spy are brought to life. Webster has written a book where everyone feels so authentic that a reader could be forgiven for falling for Pujol’s lies 70 years later.

Thanks to my father being a WWII buff, I grew up with a good knowledge of the war from the British point of view, but that level of knowledge isn’t required to enjoy this book. Webster also supplied a marvellous collection of photographs to feed the imagination of the reader. The book can sit proudly among all the fabulous works of fiction and non-fiction by this author. The Spy with 29 Names is an extraordinary account for all to enjoy as they recall how one of the most powerful weapons that saved the lives of our own relatives wasn’t a bomb – but a concoction of fiction.

Check out The Spy with 29 Names at jasonwebster.net and thespywith29names.com, and purchase on Amazon UK. Plus here is a video with the author about the locations where Pujol and Harris ran their operations.

Video: VALENCIA Waterfront Cities of the World (Discovery Channel)

Here is an amazing documentary (in English) on the city of Valencia. Many of the places described in both Blood in the Valencian Soil and Vengeance in the Valencian Water, including the 1957 flood, the beauty of the old town, the Turia and the Arts and Sciences complex and the Cabanyal district. As a special treat, the doco interviews author Jason Webster who talks about the history of the city. I think I spotted just about every single major location in my books in this video! This video is definitely worth your time.