Book Reviews, Spain

Book Review: Winter in Madrid, C.J. Sansom

Every now and then I read a book about Spain which helps make understanding this country a little easier. Winter in Madrid, by C.J. Sansom, is one of those books.

Winter in Madrid... Photo by Sergio Moratilla
Winter in Madrid…
Photo by Sergio Moratilla

This thriller is set mainly in Madrid just after the Spanish Civil War in 1940. I know what you’re thinking, not another blooming book about the Spanish Civil War, but this one is so much more. It’s not only an education read, helping you clarify exactly what went on back in those miserable days in Spain, but the detailed, colourful images paint superb images in your mind and the gripping plot and variety of characters keep you entertained.

The Plot

The main character is Harry Brett, a World War veteran who reluctantly becomes a spy for the British Secret Service. Harry is sent to Madrid to check up on an old school colleague Sandy Forsyth, a dodgy business man. The main problem is that Harry is not really up for being a spy and dislikes having to lie. He soon becomes a professional though and works his way into Sandy’s corrupt life.

Barbara Clare, Sandy’s girlfriend, is desperately trying to discover whether her real love Bernie Piper, a Communist in the International Brigades – thought missing in action, is alive, or not.

It’s a bit slow to start with, but once Harry gets involved in Sandy’s crooked business, and also meets Sofia, a Spanish lady, the story becomes enticing. Not to mention the scenes in Bernie’s mind while he’s in prison.

The fact that Harry, Sandy, and Bernie all went to the same public school together adds to the storyline and creates an intense build up.

Why would I recommend it?

If you have a passion for Spain and an interest in finding out more about what really happened back around the Spanish Civil War then this is a great book.

I felt sorry for Harry from the start. He’s a bit of a clumsy old fool and is thrown in the deep end by being told he needs to become a spy. The job obviously isn’t for him but he is passionate about his feelings and wants to give it his best shot; jolly good show.

I also sympathised with Barbara. I’m sure a lot of people have lost their soul mates during wars and it must be a dreadful feeling not knowing whether the person of your life is alive, in a prisoner of war camp, or dead.

It shows you exactly what was happening in Spain around the Second World War as well, which is bizarrely interesting, as is the relationship between Franco and Hitler. I found out the other day that the car that drives around the King of Spain, now Felipe VI, was actually a present from Hitler to Franco.

It also makes you realise how far Spain has come since then. Fair enough, times are tough at the moment, there is a lot of hardship, people unemployed and losing their houses on a regular basis, but at least people aren’t killing each other, well, not yet anyway.

I always find Civil Wars the hardest to contemplate. How can people with the same blood feel that strongly about something that they would grass on their own brother or father and send them to their death? I find it incredible that this happened in Spain all those years ago, but it does explain sometimes the passionate personalities of people I have met over the years, and also why there is often still a lot of tension between people here.

The Author

Christopher John Sansom, born in Edinburgh, is the man responsible for this marvellous novel. I love the way he brings old Spain to life, develops the characters, and drip feeds details of the story to keep you intrigued.

Sansom is a writer of crime novels, which explains how he was able to devise such a thrilling plot. You can check out his website here.

Have you read Winter in Madrid? What did you think? Do you know any other excellent books about the Spanish Civil War?

Blogs about Spain

Most Versatile Blogs!

It’s always a pleasure to be nominated for something. My last nomination was to be class prefect at primary school. I bloody hated it though because I had to grass up people for running down the corridor or trying to sneak under the outside railings so they could run on to the field without having to walk all the way round. I soon learnt that snitching on the hard kids at school didn’t lead to the most fun break times or leisurely walks (sprints more like) home, so my life as a prefect was kept quiet short, luckily.

It's damn dry in Andalucia, but magical. Photo by Vfersal
It’s damn dry in Andalucia, but magical.
Photo by Vfersal

So a massive thanks to Sandra Danby, owner of Notes on a Spanish Valley, who has nominated me for the ‘Versatile Blogger Award.’ Sandra has been following my blog for some time now so cheers. If you are interested in knowing more about life in the Spanish countryside and have a love for rural Andalucía then be sure to check out her excellent blog here.

This nomination has no negative catch though. Hopefully I won’t be beaten up and asked to give over my last penny sweets or have my ice-pop knocked out my hand from any of the fine people I’m nominating for the ‘Versatile Blogger Award’.

As a nominee, all I have to do is:

Include a link to the blog of the person who nominated me.

Nominate 15 bloggers to receive the award, with links to their blogs.

Share seven things about myself.

So my 15 nominations go to…

The Life and Time of Nathan Badley, who is an awesome human being worth reading about.

The Ramblings, written by Tori for her inspiring outlook on life.

Those Who Wander for the helpful blogs about student life and inspiring photos, which often take me back to my travelling days.

East of Malaga because Marianne really knows how to write about life on the Costa Del Sol, and beyond.

A Lot of Wind for another interesting and witty outlook on life in Spain.

Christine in Spain for her informative and useful blogs on Spain.

Scribbler in Seville for Fiona’s deep knowledge and interesting views on Sevilla.

A Writer’s Life for Mary Beth Lee’s useful and uplifting articles about life as a writer.

This is Why I’m Drunk written by Bryan Roth for his interesting thoughts on the world of beer.

Don Charisma because anything is possible with his blog.

Bryan Hemming for his humorous outlook on life in Spain.

On the Luce for an all round amazing travel blog written by Lucy.

Spanish Scribbles for some stunning drawings by Wendy.

Oh God, My Wife Is German because of the funny shenanigans that this expat couple get up to.

What an Amazing World for the outstanding photos.

Now the seven things I need to share about myself:

1- I once ran away from home when my mother caught me and a friend peeing in the front garden. The journey didn’t last long though because all I packed were my scout socks.

2- I like to think of myself as a writer. I write, so I guess I must be.

3- Once I had a dream that I died in my sleep. I was hanging off the edge of a cliff. Then I flipped backwards and crashed into the sea. As I entered the sea I felt the impact of the waves smashing against my body. Then stars began to appear, shooting at me from all angles. Then in big red letters ‘The End’ appeared. I woke up in a pool of sweat and now have a fear of cliffs, and big red letters.

4- I actually get a buzz from running in 40 degree heat.

5- Recently I’ve taken to reading while walking to work because I have less time to read in the house. I get a lot of funny looks, especially because Spanish people don’t even read much when they are sitting down. The other day a bloke said to me ‘That’s gotta be some book,’ but I ignored him because I was at the end of a chapter.

6- I hate people who walk on the bike lanes in Seville.

7- I used to have an imaginary friend called John, who helped me win the football league in my garden on many occasions.

In Search of a Better Spain, Travel

In Search of a Better Spain: Santander, a perfect place to live?

“So are you going to el Palacio de Magdalena today?” the hostel owner asked as I went to sneak out the front door; I was still half asleep and not quiet in the mood for a morning chat. He was shaking his head in excitement, as if he’d designed the palace himself.

“I’m not sure.”

He stopped still, frowned and scrunched his eyes slightly. “But why? You must, it is the most prolific attraction in Santander.”

“I don’t know, it sounds a bit boring, any way it can’t be anything like Buckingham Palace.” I tried to keep a straight face, but he’d already cottoned on.

“I see, that is a British joke again, very funny,” he said, wagging his finger at me.

Sunset from Palacio de la Magdalena. Photo by Jose Miguel Martinez
Sunset from Palacio de la Magdalena.
Photo by Jose Miguel Martinez

Of course I was going to see el Palacio de Magdalena. Any place where Spanish Royalty stayed had to be worth a ganders. Besides, I’m a ‘view man’ and the palace was situated on a hill right on the edge of the city and the views across the Bay of Biscay had to be amazing.

I went on a wander round the centre first though. The sun was shining and the weather was perfect for a stroll. I popped into the Modern art museum, which was a mistake because I’m not a fan of modern art, nor museums really. Continue reading “In Search of a Better Spain: Santander, a perfect place to live?”

Culture Shock, Humour, Seville, Spain, Uncategorized

Can Spain win the World Cup in Brazil?

Can Spain win the World Cup in Brazil? Could they pull off the unthinkable and become Champions of Euro 2008, World Cup 2010, Euro 2012, and now World Cup 2014? I’d be bloody impressed if they do, and if England don’t win (you have to be optimistic in life) then I will be rooting for La Roja as always.

Can they win the World Cup in Brazil? Photo by S. Yodo
Can they win the World Cup in Brazil?
Photo by S. Yodo

I’m not so sure they can become World Cup champions again though. I had my doubts that they were going to win any of the previous three competitions, especially Euro 2008, but that was mainly because of the low expectations the locals had.

I remember that tournament in Austria and Switzerland clearly. Part of me was gutted that England wasn’t there, but another part was relieved that I didn’t have to suffer the usual torture of watching us getting smashed out on penalties again. I could support another team though, Spain. I respect Spain and have always liked the way they play. I sort of felt sorry for them too, just like England they had a half decent team, but never got past the quarter finals.

I was surprised by the attitude of my students back in 2008. I was teaching a bunch of adults and they all laughed when I asked if they thought Spain could win the Euros.

“Spain? Nah, we always lose in los cuartos.”

“Spain? But we are rubbish; the manager doesn’t know what he is doing.”

“Spain? I think England have more of a chance.”

“Well, I doubt that somehow,” I said.

You get the picture.

Even with the mighty Luis Aragonés as a manager, the expectations were generally low. I say generally but my brother-in-law was convinced Spain was going to make history.

“Look at the team we have: Casillas, Ramos, Puyol, Iniesta, Xavi, Alonso, Fabregas, Torres, and Villa Maravilla.”

Once the campaign started and Spain smashed through the group stages by beating Russia, Sweden and Greece the atmosphere began to change. The fans really believed there was hope.

“I told you,” said my cuñao, “this is the year!”

As an Englishman my main fears were that Spain was going to get knocked out on penalties. When it was still 0 v 0 against Italy after extra time, I was convinced they were doomed. But luckily I was wrong. When Fabregas poked in the last penalty, suddenly my devotion for La Roja began to grow. I loved the way they played and respected their determination and will to win. I joined the rest of Spain in the celebrations and took on the new belief that Luis Aragonés could lead his men to victory.

Watching them do Russia, and of course the Germans in the final, was absolute magic. It was lucky because normally I go home to England in July, but that year I decided to stay. It was great to see the city of Seville partying that night, although the celebrations weren’t as intense as when Sevilla F.C. won the Uefa Cup.

I must say I was expecting the celebrations to continue though. The next day was as if nothing had happened. There were hardly any flags hanging out the windows and only a few people were wearing Spain shirts. Perhaps in other parts of Spain the celebrations were more intense.

Celebrations outside Seville. Photo by Ghawi dxb
Celebrations outside Seville.
Photo by Ghawi dxb

I think the main reason why Spain won that year was because of Luis Aragonés. After his sad death on the 1st of February this year, they showed a documentary on his powerful impact on the Spanish team. A lot of people believe he inspired the players to victory that year and started this positive feeling in the Spanish side. You only have to watch the way he shouted and motivated his players to realise what a powerful man he was and how much he helped Spain. A lot of the main players; Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta all said in interviews how much of a leader he was. He will be sadly missed this year. Even Torres pointed to the sky in his honour when he scored against Bolivia the other night.

The World Cup 2010 in South Africa was equally as enjoyable. My Spanish students finally had some confidence about themselves and the general vibe in the air was positive. This time it was Vincente Del Bosque who led the team to victory. He kept the same tiki taka – passing football, strategy, which allowed Spain to beat Portugal, Paraguay, Germany and Holland to win the World Cup for the first time in history. Again it was a magical tournament, and as soon as England got knocked out I was rooting for them to win.

No one thought they were going to win the Euros again though. I certainly didn’t. But they only bloody did it. They smashed their group and then beat France, Portugal, and Italy (4 v 0 in the final) and went on do something that no one had ever done before, and probably never will again, by winning three in a row.

The big question is; can they make it four? They have a tough group this year with games against Holland (13th June – 17.00 Spanish time), Chile (18th June – 17.00), and Australia (23rd June – 14.00). Also they have the possibility of meeting Brazil or Croatia in the next round. I’m hoping to see them play Brazil, not only so one has to get knocked out (Come on, I’m English at heart), but also to see an amazing game where Diego Costa has to face his own country.

Hats off to Spain Photo by piceyebone
Hats off to Spain
Photo by piceyebone

I’m not so sure they will make it this year, but I did say that at the start of Euro 2012. How can one team win four major international trophies in a row? Despite losing a few key players like Puyol, Navas, and Negredo, they still have the main bulk and experience of winning. The spirit must still be alive. Surely they will be playing with Luis Aragonés in their hearts.

I’d be absolutely amazed if they win it again. If they do, then it will have to be a massive chapò – hats off! I’m just hoping we manage to steer clear of them so there isn’t war at home.

What do you think? Do you want to see Spain win again? Or have you had enough of La Roja and want to see someone else win this year’s World Cup in Brazil?