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?

Book Reviews, Flamenco, Spain, Travel

Book Review: Duende, a Journey in Search of Flamenco

This is my first review of books set in Spain: Duende, a journey in search of flamenco by Jason Webster. For me, reading a book is not only about being entertained, or inspired, but also about the memories around the book itself.

Not the official cover, but a damn good photo.
By alfanui

I first came across this excellent travelogue biography when I entered a second-hand book shop in Vejer de la Frontera while on a short holiday with my wife. It was a cosy little shop, full of books stacked in handmade pine bookcases and scattered over various tables. The red cover with a drawing of a flamenco dancer stuck out, so I picked it up and scanned the back.

“I found his descriptions of the flamenco underworld irresistible…I couldn’t put it down” Chris Stewart, author of Driving Over Lemons.

As a fan of Chris, I was drawn in immediately.

“A great account of a man’s attempt to learn flamenco,” said the bookshop owner. I turned and smiled as he peered down his nose over his glasses.

“Yeah? I’m looking for some books about flamenco, I’m thinking of writing a novel,” I replied.

“Well, that’s as good as any. I’m not entirely sure that everything happened, but it’s a great story and full of information about flamenco, if that’s what you’re after.”

I didn’t actually buy the book that day, but I kept a mental note of it and put it at the top of my Christmas book list.

What’s the book about?

Duende is about Jason’s mental adventure in Spain to discover the world of flamenco. He originally sets off to learn the flamenco guitar but gets a whole lot more than he bargained for (I know the feeling, my plan was to come to Seville for a year, that was nine years ago).

Jason admits in his prologue that for years he lived in Italy because he wanted to be in Spain. After his Italian girlfriend dumps him, a drunken busker makes him see the uselessness of his degree, and his university lecturer suggests looking into a life as an academic, he realises he should follow his dream, head to Spain and learn the flamenco guitar.

I was surprised that his adventure starts in Alicante, not the most popular destination for flamenco, but he knows Pedro, a friend of a friend, who takes him out for his first live flamenco performance where he first feels duende. That’s when he sees Lola, a flamenco dancer, who he bumps into again once he gets a job teaching English. Through Lola he meets various musicians and also finds Juan, who becomes his first flamenco guitar teacher. Over time his relationship with Lola becomes passionate and they have a steamy affair. The problem is that Lola’s husband, Vincente, is Jason’s boss. When Jason feels that Vincente might have a sneaky suspicion about the affair he escapes to Madrid, where he meets Jesús, a crazy gypsy, and the real flamenco adventure begins. I’ll let you find out what happens next.

Duende in Madrid
Duende in Madrid.
Photo by nclawler

Apart from the fact that Jason is a witty and descriptive writer, I love his enthusiasm for life. The way he takes risks by going abroad on his own in search of a better life and curiosity for learning about the flamenco world is inspiring. I can relate to his desire to explore and learn about Spain and respect the way he manages to emerge himself deep into the world of flamenco. His passion for learning a difficult instrument is also uplifting. One of the reasons I came to Spain was to learn the guitar, but I never really had the skill, so his passion impressed me.

I also like the characters he meets, especially Pedro, his witty first friend, and the mental Jesús who gets up to all sorts of madness. Lola is just how I imagine passionate flamenco dancers to be as well.

I also learnt a lot about flamenco. The different types of palos guitarist’s play, interesting historical facts about the origins of flamenco, lots of references to the big names in flamenco, and also how difficult it is to become a half-decent flamenco guitarist.

Would I recommend it?

Definitely! If you have a slight interest in flamenco, or even in what it’s like to live in Spain, then this is a great choice. Jason adds interesting snippets of history and facts about flamenco and Spain. His descriptions of the people he meets along the way are excellent and you really feel as if you are on the adventure with him.

Jason has also written AndalusGuerra, and Sacred Sierra, which are all on my to-read-list.

If you want to buy the book then you can get a hard copy here, or download it on your kindle here.

Have you read Duende, by Jason Webster? What did you think? Do you know any other decent books about flamenco?