TBR Thursday 363 and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

I usually include a summary of how I’m progressing (or not) towards the targets I set myself for the year, but since I’ll be looking at my New Year’s Resolutions old and new tomorrow, I’ll leave that for then. So just a round-up of the books I’ve read and reviewed for my various ongoing challenges this time.

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The Classics Club

I’ve read another two from my list this quarter, but haven’t reviewed either of them yet. And I had three still to review from the quarter before and have reviewed just one of them! So four outstanding – must do better…

10. The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler – This ‘thriller’ completely failed to thrill, becoming bogged down in turgid descriptions of obscure Eastern European politics that may have interested a contemporary audience but didn’t interest me. I said “Have never been quite so bored in my entire life, except possibly during the whale classification sections of Moby Dick.” Abandoned at 30%. 1 star.

Oh dear! A pity, since I enjoyed all four of the ones I haven’t reviewed! 😉

10 down, 70 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve read four for this challenge this quarter and had another two left still to review from the quarter before, and have reviewed five, so just one left outstanding…

54. Calamity Town by Ellery Queen. A slightly weak plot, perhaps, and could have done with some trimming of the length. But the depiction of the town and the characterisation of the family and townspeople are excellently done and the writing is great. 5 stars.

55. Max Carrados by Ernest Bramah. A collection of short stories about blind amateur detective Max Carrados. The stories are well written and some of the plots are interesting, though others are pretty dull, but I tired very quickly of Carrados’ superhuman compensating sensory abilities. 3 stars.

56. Israel Rank by Roy Horniman. I could probably have tolerated the anti-Semitism as of its time, but I found the book dull and overlong, and eventually abandoned it halfway through. It’s the book that the film Kind Hearts and Coronets is based on, and my advice is forget the book and watch the film! 2 stars

57. The Nursing Home Murder by Ngaio Marsh. A revisit to an old favourite series, which happily I found has stood the test of time well despite some of the usual Golden Age snobbery. Alleyn is quite a cheerful detective, who enjoys his job and has a keen sense of justice, so the books fall neatly into that sweet spot that is neither too cosy nor too grim. 4 stars.

58. Death on the Down Beat by Sebastian Farr. The murder of a conductor mid-performance provides a unique little puzzle that’s told almost entirely through letters and documents related to the case, including newspaper clippings,  a chart of the orchestra and even four pages of the score of the relevant part of the music being played at the time of the victim’s demise! I loved the sheer fun and novelty of the musical clues, which allowed me to overlook the book’s other weaknesses. 5 stars.

As has been the case throughout this challenge, a mixed bunch, but more good than bad this time!

58 down, 44 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I read and reviewed the final two books for this challenge, and posted my wrap post yesterday…

12. The Gate of the Sun by Derek Lambert. This is a long book which covers the years from the early stages of the war, 1937, by which time the International Brigades were active, to 1975, the year of Franco’s death. Lambert’s desire to paint a panoramic picture of Spain’s development over forty years sometimes took him too far from the personal stories which turn history into novels. But for the most part I found the book absorbing, very well written and deeply insightful about the war-time conditions, its aftermath and the impact on some of the people caught up in events. 4 for the novel, 5 for the accuracy of and insight into the historical setting, so overall 4½ stars.

13. Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom. 1940, and four people, all British, play out their own drama in a Madrid still wrecked and reeling, its people starving and afraid. Well written as any book by Sansom is, grounded in accurate history but seen through an obvious left-wing lens, and more of a slow thoughtful look at the period than a fast-paced political or action thriller. 4 stars.

Two good books to finish off this challenge triumphantly!

13 down, 0 to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I read three this quarter and had two still to review form the quarter before. I’ve reviewed all five and am up-to-date! So did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

August – The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler. Sadly it fared no better as a People’s Choice than it did as a Classic! 😉 1 star.

September – Cloudstreet by Tim Winton. While willing to accept that this is probably a good depiction of a time and a place, I fear I never get along with plotless novels, and by 20% of this long book no plot had begun to emerge. Abandoned. 2 stars.

October – Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Probably best described as a literary science fiction set in a dystopian world but in our own recent past, this is not about a struggle against injustice, a battle for rights – it is a portrait of brainwashing, and of a society that has learned how to look the other way. I found it thought-provoking and quietly devastating, and sadly all too relevant to the world we live in. 5 stars.

NovemberThe Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson. A raid by Barbary pirates results in a group of Icelanders being taken to a life of slavery in Algiers. The historical aspects are interesting and, I assume, accurate. But I found the central romance between slave and slave-owner outdated and rather nauseating. 2 stars.

DecemberThe Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie. Poirot and Hastings on the trail of a murderer in France. An early one from when Christie was still developing her characters and her style, but already her trademark plotting skills are evident in this entertaining mystery. 4½ stars.

So a mixed bag to finish the year, but the couple of great books well outweighed the rather less stellar ones. Good work, People! Possibly my favourite challenge since I never know what You will choose! Let’s do it all again next year!

12 down, 0 to go!

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So a few duds this quarter, but many really excellent books too! I’m still a mile behind with reviews, especially of Classics, but hopefully I’ll get on top of the backlog in the New Year. Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

Reading the Spanish Civil War – Wrap!

¡No pasarán!
They Shall Not Pass!

It’s a full three years since I decided to a challenge myself to read my way into this piece of history which has always been a large gap in my knowledge. Little did I know that just a few weeks later Covid would hit the world, one of its less important effects being to drive me into a major reading slump that came and went for the best part of two years. So despite the time it’s taken, I’ve only read thirteen books, a mix of fact and fiction, which is quite a bit less than I originally planned, but feels like enough – for now, anyway. My main purpose was to give myself enough background knowledge to stop avoiding novels about the Spanish Civil War on the grounds that I wouldn’t be able to appreciate them properly, and happily I feel I’ve achieved that aim, so challenge met!

If you want to see the full list of the books I read, you’ll find it here. I abandoned two of the books on my initial list of eight as I went along. On the other hand, I added seven – a combination of books that were recommended to me and books to which some other part of my reading led me.

In total, then, thirteen books, of which six are factual (three history, one biography and two memoirs) and seven fiction. Although I had an ongoing issue throughout with the persistent left-wing bias of pretty much all of the British and American novels I read, and with much of the factual stuff too, in the end I enjoyed the vast majority of them, with only a couple being quite disappointing. And I felt I learned a lot!  So to celebrate the end of this challenge, I thought I’d pick out what were the highlights for me – all books that I unreservedly recommend.

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HISTORY

The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan

Brenan excels in his detailed breakdown of the background to the conflict, especially his explanation of why the various different regions in Spain developed differing political alignments dependant on local geographical, agricultural and industrial factors. While all were affected by the power plays amongst the monarchy, Church and military, he shows that the impact differed according to the economic and social history of each region. I found that I was gradually developing a map of the country in my mind, one that showed not simply where places were but what people did there – how they lived, were they wealthy or poor, who owned the land, was the land fertile, what were their local industries, and so on. I found this a fascinating and hugely informative read, that left me with a much better understanding of what led to the rise of the various factions, and why the drive towards war became seemingly unstoppable.

It is in the nature of revolutions to throw up moments when all the more brilliant dreams of the human race seem about to be realized, and the Catalans with their expansive and self-dramatizing character were not behind other peoples in this respect. Visitors to Barcelona in the autumn of 1936 will never forget the moving and uplifting experience and, as the resistance to the military rebellion stiffened, the impressions they brought back with them spread to wider and wider circles. Spain became the scene of a drama in which it seemed as if the fortunes of the civilized world were being played out in miniature. As in a crystal, those people who had eyes for the future looked, expecting to read there their own fate.

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MEMOIR

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

Orwell’s memoir of his time in Spain, fighting for the Republican side in the International Brigades, is obviously a heavily biased account, which adds colour but doesn’t replace reading an actual history. It does however give a lot of insight into how the fractures and in-fighting among the factions on the left weakened the Republicans, leaving the door open for the much better disciplined Nationalists, especially once Franco took command. Orwell sees the conflict in terms of good and evil, which I found rather too simplified, but his honesty gives a very clear picture of his growing disillusion, not with the theories and ideals underpinning the revolution, but with the realities of it. Despite its bias, I enjoyed this much more than I expected.

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FICTION

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

In the pine forests high in the Spanish Sierra, a small band of Republican guerrillas is holed up, waiting instructions. Robert Jordan, an American who has volunteered, is sent to lead them in the blowing up of a bridge to prevent Franco’s Nationalists from bringing up reinforcements during a Republican offensive scheduled to begin in a few days time. Over the next few days as they prepare for their mission, Robert will learn the stories of these people and we will learn his, seeing what drives a man to participate in a war in a country not his own, and the effect it has on him. As the group sit in the evenings in the cave where they are living, they tell each other stories they have told many times before – stories of the days before war, of atrocities they have seen and participated in, of bullfighting and politics and love. A book of this stature doesn’t require a recommendation from me but it has it anyway – my highest. A masterpiece.

Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.

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FICTION

In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda

This is the story of Natalia’s marriage and life in Barcelona, before, during and after the war. The war happens mostly off the page, referred to but not visited. When her husband gets swept up and goes off to fight on the Republican side along with his friends, Natalia must fend for herself in a city full of shortages and suspicion. How to work and care for her children at the same time, how to feed her family when both money and food are scarce, how to navigate a city where the political allegiances of her husband can open some doors and close others – these are the things Natalia must grapple with in a world that, as a young housewife, she has barely known before. It is a fascinating picture of someone who has no interest in or understanding of politics – who simply endures as other people destroy her world then put it back together in a different form. Natalia – Pidgey, as she is known – has taken up permanent residence in my heart.

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FICTION

Nada by Carmen Laforet

The Civil War is over but Spain is still suffering its after-effects when Andrea comes to Barcelona from her provincial home to study literature at the University. She is enthralled at the idea of Barcelona, having only childish memories of earlier visits to her then wealthy relatives. When she arrives at her grandmother’s house in the middle of the night, she discovers the family is no longer wealthy – quite the reverse. The house is old, run-down, dirty and over-stuffed with furniture and trinkets, relics of when the family owned the whole house, before they had to divide it into two and sell the other half. The family are as Gothic as the house, with a general air of insanity hovering over the household. The book is considered a classic of existential literature, and part of the Spanish tremendismo style, which apparently was characterized by a tendency to emphasise violence and grotesquery. This gives Andrea’s Barcelona a kind of nebulous, nightmarish quality that somehow paints a clearer picture of the social dislocation caused by civil war than a more direct depiction might have done.

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So it’s a wrap!

Thank you for joining me on my journey and I hope you enjoyed at least some parts of my obsession with the Spanish Civil War, which may continue although the challenge has ended. I shall give the last word to Orwell…

In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware of exactly the same things when you read any other book on this period of the Spanish war.

¡España una, grande, libre!
Spain, one, great and free!

Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom

After the conflict…

😀 😀 😀 😀

1940. The Spanish Civil War is over and Franco’s regime is in charge. What will later be known as the Second World War is underway – France has fallen, Britain has retreated from Dunkirk and is grimly facing daily aerial bombardment, and Franco is rumoured to be about to bring Spain into the war on the side of Germany and Hitler. Against this backdrop, four English people will play out their own drama in a Madrid still wrecked and reeling, its people starving and afraid.

Harry Brett has been invalided out of the army after Dunkirk, suffering from damaged hearing and shell shock. He has recovered well enough, though, to take on a job proposed to him by the Secret Service – to go out to Spain and try to win the confidence of Sandy Forsyth, once his old school friend and now involved in shady dealings in Madrid. When he gets there and makes contact with Sandy, he discovers Sandy is now living with another old acquaintance – Barbara Clare, once the lover of another school friend, Bernie Piper, who was declared missing, presumed dead, after the battle of Jarama. We follow these three as Harry tries to find out what Sandy is up to, and Barbara continues to hope against the odds that Bernie is not dead and to use whatever little influence and money she has to find him.

I read this book years ago when it came out (2006) and didn’t really connect with it. I wondered at the time if it was because I didn’t know enough about the Spanish Civil War – what the various factions were and what they were fighting for, and who was allied to whom, and so on. So when I started my Spanish Civil War challenge, I decided to make this the last book of the challenge, to see if all my new-found knowledge would make a difference to my reaction. And it did! I still didn’t wholeheartedly love it, largely because it’s very long and I didn’t feel the central stories were strong enough to carry it. However, I enjoyed it considerably more this time, both because I better understood the various tensions among the characters and because it was interesting to see Sansom’s take on the history.

Book 13

Sansom joins the long list of British and American authors who take the Republican side when writing about the conflict. In this version of history, Republicans are good people, and it was only the nasty Communists, whom real Republicans despise as much as they despise Fascists, who committed all the atrocities on the left, while real Republicans were decent souls defending a democratically elected government against a fascist insurgency. This means that the opposite must also be true – that everyone on the Nationalist side must be an evil Fascist or, perhaps worse, a monarchist. I guess this distortion or, at the least, over-simplification has been repeated so often now that many people accept it as truth, especially when it ties in with their existing political leanings, as it clearly does with Sansom.

The personal stories of the characters are done well, and Sansom uses them to show different aspects of the conflict and its aftermath. The three men, Harry, Sandy and Bernie, all attended an elite public school called Rookwood, and in the early part of the book there are many flashbacks to their time there, showing us how they developed into the men they became. Harry was always the neutral one, friend to both of the others and with no strong views on politics or anything else. Sandy was the bad boy, expelled from previous schools, and soon to be expelled from Rookwood too. Already arrogant, already cruel, naturally he would side with the Fascists in later life. Bernie was a scholarship boy from a humble background, and he already resented the inequalities in society, declaring himself a socialist, so it is no surprise when he later heads off to Spain to fight in the International Brigades. In political terms the characterisations are a little simplistic, but they work well in human terms, although I found Harry’s neutrality made him rather bland to be given the role of main character. The role of public schools in shaping the leaders of the future is portrayed well, though again clearly through the lens of Sansom’s left-wing bias.

Barbara is the outsider, brought into this group as the lover of first Bernie and later Sandy. She is, frankly, an unlikely heroine to have inspired so much passion – Sansom repeatedly tells us that she lacks beauty, mainly because she wears glasses and frumpy clothes, and I couldn’t see much that was outstanding in her personality to overcome these dreadful flaws. We know Sandy is a bad man because he hates her wearing glasses, while Bernie is good and pure because he loves her even with her glasses on. Am I sounding sarcastic? Good, I intend to. However, her role in the Red Cross first as a nurse and later in helping to reunite refugee children with their families gives insight into another aspect of civil war, and makes her the most likeable of the main characters, despite her glasses.

The twin stories – Harry’s spying on Sandy and Barbara’s search for Bernie – come together eventually in a thriller-ish ending, but a rather muted one, which perhaps suits the post-war tone better than a more heroic event would have done. Sansom resists the temptation to make everything happy ever after, which adds credibility, but leaves a rather depressing after-taste.

Overall then, well written as any book by Sansom is, grounded in accurate history but seen through a left-wing lens, and more of a slow thoughtful look at the period than a fast-paced political or action thriller. My own reading experience suggests it works better if the reader is reasonably well versed in this period of history beforehand, in which case it’s well worth reading.

Amazon UK Link

The Gate of the Sun by Derek Lambert

Surviving Franco…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

As Spain erupts into Civil War, people well beyond its borders align themselves with one side or the other, and soon some of those people will make their way to Spain to join the fighting. Two of these men are Tom Canfield and Adam Fleming, who will find their fates linked and the courses of their lives altered forever by the time the guns are silenced. But the fight belongs to the Spaniards themselves, and inspired by the example of the great Republican and communist leader, la Pasionaria, many women join the men at the barricades. One such is Ana Gomez, whose exploits will earn her fame or notoriety, depending on which side is judging her, and the soubriquet of the Black Widow. The book follows these three characters and their families through the war years and beyond, as Spain survives through the Franco years, remaking itself as a modern nation and slowly coming to terms with its past.

This is a long book which covers the years from the early stages of the war, 1937, by which time the International Brigades were active, to 1975, the year of Franco’s death. Lambert has chosen his characters to give an idea of the different factions and what they believed they were fighting for. The political situation, especially on the Republican side, was so full of factions that it would have been unreasonable to try to represent each one, but he’s done an excellent job of using the three to provide him, as it were, with an entrée into each side from which he can then show how the disunity of the Republicans greatly weakened their ability to prevail over the much more united and disciplined forces of the Nationalists, especially once Franco took full control. After the war, the same characters show us how people changed, or didn’t, some victorious, some defeated but accepting their defeat, some fighting on for years as guerrillas or agitators or separatists. And they show us how life slowly changed and improved, even under Franco, as Spain began to resume its place in international organisations and developed a modern economy.

Tom is an American, son of a once rich man who lost everything in the Crash, and loves to fly. So he leaves his life of nouveau-poverty and joins the International Brigade, fighting, he claims, not for communism but against fascism. Adam is English, also from a rather privileged background, and he is horrified about the atrocities being carried out against the Church which, along with a general spirit of contrariness, leads him to go out to fight for Franco. He claims he is fighting not for fascism, but against communism. Lambert shows the mix of idealism and youthful spirit of adventure of the young men who went to fight in a foreign war, and while he is kind to his characters, he is quite clear about the muddiness of some of their reasoning, and in later years he shows us how easily they moved on, these foreigners, adapting themselves to the new regime and adopting pretty much the same middle-class values they would doubtless both have had even if they’d stayed at home. It’s very believable, and he shows how the much bigger conflict of WW2 affected their thinking, making both question what they were fighting for. In time, like the rest of the world, they will come to wonder if there was ever much to choose between communism and fascism, in Spain as elsewhere, when both ideologies lead to war and atrocities.

Book 12

I was pleased that Lambert chose to include a character who fought for Franco and did so without demonising him. The horrors of WW2 have made us all like to think that we’d all have been anti-fascist in the ‘30s, but of course that wasn’t the case at all. While the Republican cause had all the best publicists in the UK and the US, the Fascists had plenty of supporters, not least in government circles. Lambert also shows that Franco, while designated as a fascist and guilty of his share of the atrocities carried out in Spain in this period, wasn’t in the same league as Hitler or even Mussolini, and indeed became increasingly popular as his regime went on, the economy improved and society became somewhat more liberal. Lambert’s depiction of the history throughout felt completely accurate to me, tying in with everything I’ve been reading in history books about the war and Franco’s long reign.

I struggled a little more with Ana’s character, and that of her daughter who is a child at the start but a middle-aged woman by the end. I couldn’t decide if this was because their attitudes were more foreign to me, or to Lambert, but I felt they were somehow portrayed with less depth and complexity. They seemed to exist to show the distinctively Spanish viewpoint, and there Lambert’s even-handedness fell away considerably. Republicans good, Nationalists bad, with none of the excuses that he allowed for his international men. Ana is a Republican but not a communist, and a ferocious warrior driven to fight by the poverty and brutality she sees all around her. I don’t want to get too deeply into spoilers, but she has a personal loss in the war that leaves her embittered and vengeful, so that, unlike the men, she finds it impossible to move on. It’s an interesting portrayal and takes us into the ongoing violent struggle that continued as first guerrilla war and later terrorism and political assassination long after the country was outwardly at peace. I found the history convincing, while not believing in her as a character to quite the same extent as I did the men.

Derek Lambert

There are sections that feel too much like a history lesson, and in general I feel Lambert perhaps tried to include too much. His desire to paint a panoramic picture of Spain’s development over forty years sometimes took him too far from the personal stories which turn history into novels. But for the most part I found the book absorbing, very well written and deeply insightful about the war-time conditions, its aftermath and the impact on some of the people caught up in events. And I grew to care about all of the characters, even the ones I didn’t much like. I wondered how it would have worked for me if I’d read it knowing nothing about the history, and for the most part I think he explained everything clearly enough, with the possible exception of not getting into what caused the war in the first place and what all the different factions’ objectives were – perhaps he assumed his readers would already have that knowledge, or perhaps he was more interested in the era of Franco’s Spain than in what brought it about.

Overall, then, an ambitious novel that covers a complicated and emotive period of history and manages to humanise it through a group of well-drawn, complex characters. If you want to know more about this period of Spain’s history but can’t face a history book, then this would be a great alternative. I’m struggling with rating it – probably four for enjoyment as a novel, but definitely five for its breadth and depth, historical accuracy and the insight it provides into Franco’s era.

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday (on a Wednesday) 351 and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. I’ve been reading up a storm over the summer months but my reviewing is woefully behind, Maybe I need to start having reviewing targets as well as reading ones! Aarghh!! Anyway…

Here goes, then – the third check-in of the year…

Well, I’m beginning to fall behind on a couple, especially the Reginald Hill books and books I already owned at the start of the year, but overall I’m doing pretty well this year. I might miss several of the targets by a book or two, but it all looks as if it’s heading in the right direction for once!

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The Classics Club

I’m still racing through my new Classics Club list, though that will slow down a lot in the last quarter as I try to catch up with review books, not to mention reviews! I’ve read five this quarter but so far have only reviewed two of them…

8. Silas Marner by George Eliot – This tale, of a man who adopts a young child and through her finds a kind of redemption, has what, for me, Middlemarch lacked – a strong plot. Its brevity is undoubtedly another point in its favour! 5 stars.

9. Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith – Set during the Highland Clearances, the glaring historical inaccuracies in this prevented me from being fully won over by what was otherwise an interesting and well written story of an elderly woman faced with eviction. 3½ stars.

One unexpectedly great, one unexpectedly disappointing – story of my reading life and what makes it so much fun!

9 down, 71 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve only read two for this challenge this quarter and had another two left still to review from the quarter before, but I’ve only reviewed two. Two reviews outstanding – one of them dating back to January – hope I took extensive notes… 😉

52. The Mystery of the Skeleton Key by Bernard Capes. I couldn’t decide which was worse in this one – the writing or the plotting. Together they made for a painfully bad read. 1 generous star.

53. Background for Murder by Shelley Smith. Dull and pedestrian, shallow and cheap, shabby, and justifiably forgotten are just some of the words I used in my review of this one. Another disappointment in this increasingly disappointing challenge. 2 stars.

Fortunately one of the unreviewed books was very good, so maybe things will get better.

53 down, 49 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I’ve read just one for this challenge this quarter…

11. Homage to Caledonia by Daniel Gray. And another disappointment! Interesting enough if what you want are anecdotes about the Scots who went to war, but not a serious contribution to the history of the period, and not in any way comparable to the Orwell book it homages in its title. Just 2 stars.

Surely one of the last two books for the challenge will be good. Surely…

11 down, 2 to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I’m falling behind a bit on this challenge at the moment. I’ve read three and but have only reviewed one – told you I was in a reviewing crisis! I promise I’ll catch up with these ones very soon! So did You, The People, pick me a good one…?

July – Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton. A “locked room” mystery set in a carriage of a moving train. Though well written and with likeable lead characters, impossible crimes are never my favourite style of mystery. One for the puzzle-solvers, though! 3½ stars.

Hopefully five reviews next time, so plenty of chances for you to find me some good ones, People! Keep up the good work! 😉

7 down, 5 to go!

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Wanderlust Bingo

I’ve read the last three books for this challenge this quarter but have only reviewed two. The review of the final one and a challenge round-up will appear soon! Or possibly soon-ish!! The blue boxes are books from previous quarters, and the orange are the ones I’m adding this quarter. If you click on the bingo card you should get a larger version.

Vietnam – The Quiet American by Graham Greene – 5 stars. Greene’s second appearance in this challenge with this wonderful critique of old and new style colonialism written just a year or two before the Vietnam War got properly underway. A perfect fit for the Southeast Asia slot.

An unnamed country that is probably Peru – At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón – 5 stars.  A wonderful book about a touring company putting on a revival of a play that had marked them as dissidents during the recent civil war. Loved every word of this one! It fills the South America box.

Two brilliant books this quarter which have reinspired me to keep travelling – have I the strength of will to do this challenge all over again? Maybe…

24 down, 1 to go!

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A very mixed quarter this time, which surprised me since I feel I’ve been reading loads of great books recently – must just not have been challenge books! But overall there were enough wonderful ones to outshine the dismal failures, and I’m continuing to make progress. Just need to catch up with reviews! Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

Homage to Caledonia by Daniel Gray

Scots Wha Hae…

😐 😐

Through interviews and extracts from letters, Daniel Gray sets out to pay homage to the Scots who went to fight for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, as part of the International Brigades. Gray claims, and I have no reason to doubt him, that more Scots per head of population went than from any other country and sets out to show the strength of the Scottish reaction against Franco and fascism.

As a Scot, there are many things about the Scottish psyche that annoy me, but two stand out. The first is the habit of too many Scots to always boast about how we’re the best at whatever we do, and especially that we’re “better than England”. (This always seems like such a pathetic boast to me, even assuming it were true, since it comes inevitably from people who despise England – is it such a great boast to be better than a thing you despise? “I smell better than a skunk.” Wouldn’t it be better to be better than something you admire? “I smell better than a rose.” Anyway…) The second is the habit of many Scots to pretend that Scots are homogeneous in their views and, of course, always in agreement with the view of the person making the claim. So you will hear people say things like “Scotland rejects the Union” when in fact 55% of Scots voted to stay in the Union. Or “Scotland is being dragged out of the EU against our will” when in fact 38% of Scots voted to leave the EU. Daniel Gray commits both of these Scottishisms, repeatedly.

Book 11

There is, I think, no doubt that proportionally more Scots went to Spain than from the other countries in the UK. However, as Gray tells us, the total figure was in fact 549. Not an insignificant number, but hardly a mass movement either. He goes on at length about how “Scotland” was totally behind these men and the Republicans generally, while simultaneously admitting to all the individuals and groups who were pro-Franco or neutral, including not only the UK government and the Tory Party, which at that time was the most popular party in Scotland (with 48.9% of the vote in the general election of 1935), but also the Catholic church and, not least, the Labour Party. He makes it clear that most of the men who went were members of or affiliated with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), an organisation that never rose to being anything more than a small minority group, even in its stronghold of Red Clydeside (simplistically, industrial Glasgow and its surrounds). He constantly goes on about the men going from “Scotland” while simultaneously showing by his own account that most of them went from the areas of Glasgow where the CPGB had most influence. He talks repeatedly about the German and Italian support of Franco, while doing his best to pretend that the CPGB and the Republicans were mostly independent of influence from the Soviet Union.

It’s not that there’s no truth in his account. From what I could tell the facts he gives are evidence-based. It’s that there’s far too much skewing of the narrative for this to count as history. It is hagiography, written by a man who clearly shares the political slant of the men and women who supported the Republicans. I would agree that majority opinion in Scotland would probably have been anti-fascist, and certainly it appears there was a lot of fund-raising for the Republican side as well as the people who actually went to fight. But then as now, Scots were not a homogeneous group, being divided between urban and rural, well-off and poor, Catholic and Protestant, Labour and Tory, etc., etc. Had he written a book about Glasgow’s support for the Republicans it might have felt more accurate, since Glasgow, although also not homogeneous, has for over a century been the major centre of left-wing support in Scotland.

Despite this, there is some interest in reading the accounts of the men who fought and the women who fund-raised, nursed, campaigned, etc. The book is not particularly well written and some of the chapters are shaky in their focus, often because Gray is distorting the narrative to suit his bias. But I found I learned quite a lot, though often by reading between the lines and resorting to Google to fact-check. I was hoping for a serious history book that would have done more than tell the individual stories of some of the men who went; that would delve into the rise of Communism in some areas of Scotland and would look in an objective way at how wide-spread this was, and equally how wide-spread or otherwise the support for Franco was. This book makes claims about the near-universality of Scottish support for the Republicans, and that may be true, but it doesn’t provide the evidence needed to back up the claim.

One last criticism, of the publisher, Luath Press. This is without exception the worst formatted purchased book I have ever read on Kindle. The font size changes randomly from paragraph to paragraph, the captions of pictures are inserted randomly within surrounding text, there are typos and formatting issues throughout. To actually sell a book in this condition is disgraceful and I’d think long and hard before ever buying another book from this publisher.

So overall, interesting enough if what you want are anecdotes about the Scots who went to war, but not a serious contribution to the history of the period, and not in any way comparable to the Orwell book it homages in its title.

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday (on a Tuesday) 338 and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. I’ve been reading up a storm recently (Editor’s note: I wrote this before Wimbledon crashed my reading to zero) and have banned myself from acquiring books from NetGalley for a few months (Editor’s note: I wrote this before acquiring two books from NetGalley this week) to catch up with all my other reading. Has it worked?

Here goes, then – the second check-in of the year…

Woohoo! I don’t think I’ve ever been this much on target halfway through the year! I have reduced the target for the Spanish Civil War challenge – see below – and the Wanderlust challenge is still wandering on, six months after the original deadline. But overall I’m happy with these figures.

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The Classics Club

I’ve been racing through my new Classics Club list so far, partly because a couple of the recent People’s Choices have been CC books. I’ve read five this quarter and had three left still to review at the end of last quarter, including the final two for my first list. I’m finally up to date with CC reviews, for the first time in ages…

First List

89. Children of the Dead End by Patrick MacGill – Ugh! I abandoned this misogynistic fictionalised memoir halfway through. Mr MacGill dislikes women nearly as much as I dislike him. 1 star.

90. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – I saved this re-read of a favourite as a treat for myself for finishing the first list, and a treat it certainly was! 5 stars.

90 down, 0 to go!

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Second List

2. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay – A deliciously ambiguous story of missing girls, that manages to be entertaining and unsettling in equal parts. 5 stars.

3. Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo – After way too much architectural detail in the first half, the thrilling story in the second half won me over! I also enjoyed reading this along with fellow bloggers in a Review-Along. 5 stars.

4. Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth – This satire on Anglo-Irish landowners is a rather slight novella, mildly entertaining, but I felt it didn’t live up to its reputation. 3 stars.

5. Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens – although this re-read was my annual Christmas Dickens, I didn’t get around to reviewing it until May! As always, a great read, even though it’s not quite in Dickens’ top rank. 4 Dickensian stars, which glow brighter than normal stars.

6. The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham –  Set in colonial Hong Kong, this tells the story of initially empty-headed Kitty Fane when her husband drags her into a cholera zone in China. Well-written and thought-provoking. 4½ stars.

7. Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar – dark but not quite noir, this is well written, and alongside the murder mystery element takes a thoughtful look at the shame of a respectable woman succumbing to alcoholism in her later life. 4 stars.

One or two duds, but mostly some great reading in this quarter’s classics reading!

7 down, 73 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve read three for this challenge this quarter and had two left still to review from the quarter before. I’ve reviewed three and still have another two not yet reviewed…

49. The Z Murders by J Jefferson Farjeon. More a thriller than a mystery, involving a chase across England in pursuit of a lurid serial killer. Fast-paced and entertaining. 4 stars.

50. The Grell Mystery by Frank Froest. Written by a genuine ex-top cop, this has too much of a feel of being a memoir for it to work well as a mystery novel. Interesting rather than entertaining. 3 stars.

51. The House by the River by AP Herbert. A great little story about the psychological effects of murder on the murderer and his loyal friend, unfortunately buried in a mass of description and digression. 2½ stars.

Still very much a mixed bag, this challenge, and I’m considering giving it up once I’ve read the remaining books I’ve already acquired for it.

51 down, 51 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I’ve started plenty of books for this challenge, but most of them have ended up on the abandoned heap pretty quickly. I finished just one…

10. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Zafón does a wonderful job of depicting a city in the aftermath of civil war, but first and foremost this is a great story, wonderfully told. 5 stars.

As a result of my increasing disappointment and irritation with many of my choices for this challenge, I’ve decided to read the remaining three books I already own, cancel the other ones from my wishlist, and then draw a line under it.

10 down, 3 to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I’ve read three and reviewed three – hurrah, I’m still on track with this challenge! So did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

April – Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay. Plenty of layers in this ambiguous tale – mild horror, some humour, and a true mystery at its heart. 5 stars.

May – The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton – A book that follows the plot of Vanity Fair remarkably closely – very remarkably closely – and yet fails to duplicate any of the humour or insightful satire of the original. A generous 2 stars.

JuneThe Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham. An excellent character study combined with a colonial setting in this tale of a woman who traps herself in marriage to a man she doesn’t love. 4½ stars.

Two out of three ain’t bad! Well done, People – you did great! Keep up the good work! 😉

6 down, 6 to go!

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Wanderlust Bingo

I’ve read three books for this challenge this quarter and had one still to review from the previous quarter. I’ve reviewed three, with one still to come. The blue boxes are books from previous quarters, and the orange are the ones I’m adding this quarter. If you click on the bingo card you should get a larger version.

GibraltarKilling Rock by Robert Daws – 5 stars. The unique setting of this last outpost of Empire provides an added level of interest to this police procedural series. I’ve slotted it into the Free Square.

Sahara/North Africa – Biggles Defends the Desert by Capt WE Johns – 5 stars.  A WW2 adventure for flying ace Biggles and his squadron, as they fight to ensure the safety of Allied planes crossing the desert. Unsurprisingly, I’m slotting it into the Desert box!

Hong Kong/China – The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham – 4½ stars. The colonial backdrop of Hong Kong provides the initial setting while the meat of the story takes place in the Chinese interior, so a perfect fit for the Far East box.

Three excellent books this quarter but this challenge is cursed! I keep picking interesting looking books that turn out to be duds. So I’m dropping my initial plan to fill all the boxes only with books I recommend or I could still be trying to fill the last three boxes sometime in the next millennium!

22 down, 3 to go!

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Overall, a great quarter and I’ve made some progress on all my challenges – hurrah! Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Lost in a labyrinth…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Barcelona, 1945. Young Daniel Sempere is the son of an antiquarian book dealer, struggling to scrape a living in a city not yet recovered from the ravages of civil war. Daniel’s mother died when he was very young, and on the day that he suddenly discovers he can no longer remember her face, his father, as a kind of distraction, takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books – a mysterious place full of labyrinthine corridors where rare and banned books are piled randomly on shelves. There, Daniel is told he should select a book and it will then be his responsibility to ensure that his chosen book survives. Daniel selects a book called The Shadow of the Wind by a forgotten author called Julián Carax. That night he reads the book…

Under the warm light cast by the reading lamp, I was plunged into a new world of images and sensations peopled by characters who seemed as real to me as my surroundings. Page after page I let the spell of the story and its world take me over, until the breath of dawn touched my window and my tired eyes slid over the last page. I lay in the bluish half-light with the book on my chest and listened to the murmur of the sleeping city. My eyes began to close, but I resisted. I did not want to lose the story’s spell or bid farewell to its characters just yet.

And that almost precisely describes my reaction to this book, with the one proviso that it took me considerably longer than one night to read! It crept up on me gradually and for a while I wasn’t sure whether I was going to love it, but right from the beginning I found the writing compelling and intensely more-ish. And then the story began to darken and deepen, and I found myself lost, wandering the gloomy streets of Barcelona, past the decaying old houses deserted by those who had lost their wealth in the war, past the walls still pock-marked by bullets, searching with Daniel for the truth about what had happened to Julián Carax…

Book 10

It transpires that there is a man – no one knows who he is – who is bent on destroying all remaining copies of Carax’s books – no one knows why. When Daniel is threatened by this man, he decides he must find out what happened to Carax, who fled Barcelona for Paris and subsequently disappeared. It is said that he returned during the confusion of the war and, like so many others, met a violent death on the streets of Barcelona. But was this random chance? Or was Carax’s death deliberate, and if so, what was the motive? As Daniel searches, he finds that his own life seems to have many parallels to Julián’s – will Julián’s tragedy become his too?

There’s a whole bunch of great characters – Daniel himself, whom we see grow from boy to man over the course of the story; his best friend, Fermín Romero de Torres, a beggar whom Daniel and his father befriend, giving him a job in the bookshop, and who provides a good deal of humour along the way; the evil Fumero, now a police inspector, a man who used the war as an excuse to practice his sadism, and is still corrupt and still feared by the people of the city. There’s the mysterious man who wants to burn all Carax’s books – a man so strange and frightening that Daniel is not sure if he is human or devil. And then there’s the story within the story – Julián’s story – where we meet his friends and family, all of whom play a role in the mystery of his life. Two parallel love stories run through the book – Julián’s long-ago, passionate, forbidden love for Penélope, which is at the heart of the mystery; and Daniel’s new, equally passionate, forbidden love for Beatriz. In both cases, the girls’ families see the men as beneath their class, unsuitable for their daughters. (The female characters are not nearly as well drawn as the men, but I’m not in the mood to criticise!)

Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The whole tone is Gothic, full of crumbling buildings, labyrinths, exalted love and melodramatic tragedy. And it’s wonderfully done. This is not a sunny fiesta city – this Barcelona is a place where it rains endlessly, where people are poor and afraid, where the scars of war show on the buildings, and on the bodies and in the souls of the inhabitants. Zafón does a wonderful job of depicting a city in the aftermath of civil war, where so many small and large tragedies have happened, and where now people must put old enmities away and find some way to live together again. Fear and death stalk the streets, with the authorities and some individuals still taking revenge against those they see as enemies. And the people who should be symbols of safety – the police – are the most vengeful and vicious of all, led by Fumero, a man who uses torture and death to further his own aims.

But in reality the war aftermath is all an aside – an interesting setting to set up the Gothic tone. First and foremost, this is simply a great story, wonderfully told. And as it slowly, very slowly, unfolds, it becomes mesmeric – every word seems perfectly designed to lead us to the next. By the halfway point I was completely absorbed in the labyrinthine plot – lost, at that stage, but with total confidence that I was in the hands of a master who would lead me eventually to the centre where the truth would be revealed. And when it was, I found it completely satisfying – both stories brought to wonderfully believable, emotive conclusions.

I avoided this book for years because it received so much hype, but for once this is one that fully deserves all the praise lavished on it. If you are one of the two remaining people in the world who haven’t read it, then I highly recommend you do! Marvellous!

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 324 and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. My reading dipped for a few weeks this quarter when the news took on such a grim aspect but I’ve now reached a point where I just can’t watch it any more, so my reading has returned more or less to normal, though with quite a few books finding themselves on the abandoned heap, as seems to happen in times of stress!

Here goes, then – the first check-in of the year…

Hmm, overperforming on some targets and underperforming on others, but overall that looks pretty good to me. But then the first quarter usually does when I haven’t yet had time to be diverted by new acquisitions! It will all go horribly wrong soon, I expect, but hey! Who’s counting? 😉

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The Classics Club

I’ve had a flurry of classics reading as I finished my first list and started my second. I’ve read seven this quarter and had three left still to review at the end of last quarter. I’m still miles behind with reviews, though, so again have three still to come next quarter…

First List

83. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – Gosh, I hated this bad taste pulp science fiction from the 1950s – a vile book about a vile man doing vile things in a vile society. 1 star.

84. Rabbit, Run by John Updike – Gosh, I hated this misogynistic pile of drivel, an early example of the sex-obsessed, narcissistic bilge that too often passes for literature in these degenerate days! 👵 1 star.

85. The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham – A wonderfully atmospheric thriller making great use of the London fog, although let down a little by the ending. 4 stars.

86. The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr – I could see why this is so popular among “impossible crime” enthusiasts but that’s not my favourite sub-genre so for me it was a mediocre read. 3 stars.

87. Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin – Gosh, I hated this tedious book, filled with the mumboing and jumboing of religious maniacs. I enjoyed seeing all the contrasting views from my Review-Along buddies though! 1 star.

88. No Mean City by A McArthur and H Kingsley Long – Not a great novel, perhaps, but of interest for its look at the Glasgow slums of the era, and as the book that gave the city the hardman reputation that has inspired so much gang-obsessed fiction since. 4 stars.

88 down, 2 to go!

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Second List

1. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – A thought-provoking meditation on post-apocalyptic societies and how we humans treat those we see as different, while also managing to be a tense thriller. Again I enjoyed reading this as a Review-Along. 4½ stars.

I also attempted to read On the Road by Jack Kerouac but quickly abandoned it – I’m too old for the dreary drink and drug fuelled “adventures” of overgrown adolescents, I fear. I’ve replaced it on my list with The Walls of Jericho by Rudolph Fisher.

1 down, 79 to go!

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I think “mixed bag” is the only way to describe this batch of classics! That’s what happens when you get to the last books on your list and find you’ve lost all enthusiasm for them… 😉

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve read two for this challenge this quarter but haven’t reviewed either of them yet…

46 down, 56 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I’ve read precisely none for this challenge this quarter, but reviewed one left over from the quarter before…

9. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee – Despite many beautifully written passages, I felt that the whole memoir had been so embellished it was difficult to see what was true and what was fictional. Plus I hated the way he talked about women and young girls. 3 stars.

I have lots of books lined up for this challenge – it’s just a matter of fitting them in!

9 down, indefinite number to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I’ve read three and reviewed three – hurrah, I’m on track with this challenge! So did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

January – The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell – I was conflicted as to how I felt about this colonial satire, a fictionalised version of the real Siege of Lucknow of 1857. But my appreciation grew in the later stages, so in the end I was glad to have read it. 4 stars.

February – The Chink in the Armour by Marie Belloc Lowndes – An entertaining vintage crime novel, set in a gambling town just outside Paris. Far too long for its content, but fun overall, with a likeable, if frustratingly naive, heroine and a sexy French Count. 3½ stars.

MarchThe Chrysalids by John Wyndham – Set in a world devastated by nuclear war, this excellent novel provides much food for thought on the subjects of evolution and humanity’s tendency to fear and persecute difference. 4½ stars.

Three interesting, varied and enjoyable choices, People – you did great! Keep up the good work! 😉

3 down, 9 to go!

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Wanderlust Bingo

I’ve read three books for this challenge this quarter and had two still to review from the previous quarter. I’ve reviewed four, with one still to come. I’ve also abandoned one or two that I had planned would fill boxes, but I’ve tentatively selected others to replace them – fingers crossed! The dark blue boxes are books from previous quarters, and the orange are the ones I’m adding this quarter. I still might shuffle them again before the end if I have to, but I’m hoping not. (If you click on the bingo card you should get a larger version.)

CanadaStill Life by Louise Penny – 3 stars. The setting is one of the main strengths of the book, so I’ve slotted it into the North America box.

Turkey – Stamboul Train by Graham Greene – 5 stars.  Really the book covers a journey right across Europe from Ostend to Istanbul on the Orient Express, so it’s a perfect fit for the Train box.

IndiaThe Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell – 4 stars. Krishnapur may be fictional, but the events are based on the real history of the Indian Rebellion, so this slots nicely into the Indian Sub-Continent box.

USAThe Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles – 4 stars. This wasn’t quite as much of a road trip novel as I expected, but spends enough time on the Lincoln Highway to justify slotting it into the Road box.

Still some way to go, but the end is nearly in sight…

19 down, 6 to go!

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Doing well on some challenges, falling behind on others – story of my life, really! 😉 Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee

Voluptuous…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Aged 19, Laurie Lee left his home in Gloucestershire to see something of the wider world. Travelling on foot and subsisting on the money he could earn by busking with his violin, he headed south, walking round the English coast till he arrived in London. There, he worked for a year on a building site, saving enough money so that when the job came to an end he could afford to buy a ticket on a ship to Spain. He would spend the next year tramping round Spain, earning enough to keep body and soul together from his violin, until his journey came to an abrupt end with the start of the Civil War. Returning to England and learning more about the wider ramifications of the war, he would then decide to return to Spain to fight for the Republican cause.

At least this is the story he tells us in the book. The truth would appear to be somewhat different. His travels were apparently funded at least in part by a wealthy older woman, a kind of patron who believed in him as a writer and poet. Lee doesn’t mention her, but her very existence makes the idea of this naive teenager setting off to see the world rather dubious, since clearly he must already have been mixing in artistic society. We do get occasional glimpses of him staying with some of the ex-pat writers living in Spain at that time, which rather throws into doubt the truth of the hand-to-mouth existence he describes. But more than that, the references to art and history which our young rural innocent throws casually into the narrative makes it clear he was either far more educated and cultured at this stage in his life than he wants us to believe, or else, as I suspect, that he was allowing his mature personality at the time of writing to intrude itself into the mind of the youthful adventurer he is trying to show himself as. For example, he compares Spanish peasants to Goya’s paintings, leaving me wondering where he had seen these paintings. If he spent time in either London or Spain visiting art galleries, he fails to mention it, and I doubt there were many Goyas hanging on the wall of the local museum in his Gloucestershire village.

Book 9

These points may appear to be nit-picking, but I mention them because all the time I was reading, these and other similar oddities left me with a strong feeling that the whole story had been so embellished it was difficult to see what was true and what was fictional – a problem when a book is presented as a memoir. It also meant that I never felt I got to know the Lee of this period – his itinerant existence, hard-drinking and living in squalid conditions alongside the local Spaniards doesn’t gel with the fact that his patron was trying to get TS Eliot interested in the poetry he was writing, since he never mentions writing poems or even a journal as he travels. I felt that older Lee (the book was published in 1969, more than thirty years later) was trying to create a character of this naive boy busking his way round Spain, rather than revealing himself as he really was. There are all kinds of serendipitous moments that simply didn’t ring true to me – like when his violin fell apart, and a complete stranger just happened to offer him another one for free. Again, this made me assume he was neither as alone or as without means as he is projecting.

Some of the descriptive stuff is beautifully written, which makes the book worth reading despite these problems, (although he often stretches too far for an original simile – “a hand was raised in salute, showing among its sun-black fingers the glittering sickle like a curved sixth nail”. Huge hands, then, or a very small sickle?). The scorching heat and the changing landscape of Spain come to life in a way that the people he meets rarely do. Having recently read Hemingway, Orwell and Brennan on the Spain of this period, I’m afraid I found Lee to be quite unperceptive about the people or the political situation. He describes the poverty, often extreme, of the places he travels through, but he doesn’t show much of the contrasting wealth – the inequality that is at the root of the Civil War. He talks about the rising anti-clericalism, but in a way that left me feeling he hadn’t really understood it. In a sense, this lack of perception ties in more with the naivety I’ve questioned, and I’m sure it wouldn’t have bothered me if I hadn’t read so much recently about the causes of the war.

I’ll restrict myself to a mini-rant about his attitude to women, who are all either voluptuous, if he fancies them, or buxom, if he doesn’t. (Everything is voluptuous though – the heat, the sky, exhaustion, hunger, war. It’s the most over-used word in the book and made me wish he’d packed a thesaurus.) On one occasion when a drunken father attempts to rape his young daughter, Lee steps in to protect the father from the irate mother. Just as ickily, at another point he describes a girl as “black-eyed Patsy, a sexily confident child of eight” and goes on to say of her…

She’d pay another brief visit before going to bed. ‘Ma says anything else you want?’ Squirming, coy, a strip of striped pyjamas, Miss Sweater Girl of ten years later – already she knew how to stand, how to snuggle against the doorpost, how to frame her flannel-dressed limbs in the lamplight.

Times change, but was it ever acceptable to write of a child so young in such explicitly sexualised terms?

I was going to rate this as four stars, but honestly I’ve talked myself out of it as I’ve written this review. Like cheap wine, the aftertaste it has left feels synthetic and a little unpleasant, so despite the many beautifully written passages I can only bring myself to give it three.

Amazon UK Link

TBR Thursday 312 and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

I usually include a summary of how I’m progressing (or not) towards the targets I set myself for the year, but since I’ll be looking at my New Year’s Resolutions old and new tomorrow, I’ll leave that for then. So just a round-up of the books I’ve read and reviewed for my various ongoing challenges this time.

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The Classics Club

I’ve read four from my Classics Club list this quarter, but have only reviewed one so far…

81. The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw – This story of three young men and their experiences serving in the Second World War is wonderful – harrowing, thought-provoking, emotional and beautifully written. 5 stars.

I abandoned The Drowned World by JG Ballard, since death by drowning began to seem preferable to death by boredom. Rather than search out yet another SF “classic”, I’ve decided to swap in a book I’d already read and enjoyed…

82. The Society of Time by John Brunner – A trilogy of stories set in an alternative history where the Spanish Armada won and Britain became a colony of the Spanish Empire, this provides an interesting look at how our present is very much determined by our past. 4 stars.

Only a couple of reviews then, but The Young Lions by itself made it a great quarter for classics!

82 down, 8 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve read two from this challenge this quarter and reviewed them both…

47. Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare – Hare takes us into the even then rather archaic and now defunct world of the Assizes – a system of travelling justice – for this very enjoyable mystery. 5 stars.

48. Tracks in the Snow by Godfrey R Benson – Dull, plodding, repetitive and riddled with plot holes, apparently this was the only mystery novel Benson wrote, and I can only say that I am heartily glad of that. 2 stars.

48 down, 54 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I’ve only read one for this challenge this quarter, which I haven’t yet reviewed. However I had two still to review from the quarter before…

7.  Franco: A Personal and Political Biography by Stanley G Payne and Jesús Palacios – All-in-all, I learned a lot from this about Franco’s life, personality, politics and the powerful people in his court, but rather less about Spain under his rule than I had expected to. Although I felt sure the book was factually accurate, I found it hard to discount the obvious pro-Franco bias and this made me dubious about some of the authors’ interpretations. 3½ stars.

8. Nada by Carmen Laforet – In this story set in Barcelona under Franco’s post-war dictatorship, Laforet creates an atmosphere of almost hallucinatory, slightly nightmarish unreality which I felt was very effective in symbolising a city coming to terms with the after-effects of a war where the citizens had fought and killed each other in the streets only a few years earlier.

Hoping to pick up the pace on this challenge next year with lots of fiction to come.

8 down, indefinite number to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I’m up to date with this challenge! I read three this month and still had one to review from last quarter. Did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

September – Knock, Murderer, Knock by Harriet Rutland – Set in a Hydro hotel, this is quite a fun mystery in the typical Golden Age style. The setting means there is a small circle of suspects, each with secrets and possible motives, while the police detective soon has to give way to a talented amateur. 4 stars.

October – Blackout by Ragnar Jónasson – Set in Iceland, the basic plot of the book is quite interesting and the last third is comparatively fast-paced as all the different strands finally come together. But oh dear, it’s hopelessly repetitive and it took all my willpower to stick it out to the end. 2½ (generous) stars.

NovemberGorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith – By 19%, three unidentified corpses, no suspects, no plot, two beatings, one naked woman, and endless lectures about Soviet history and how awful life is under Soviet rule. Abandoned because they still haven’t invented a vaccine for boredom. 1 star.

DecemberWe Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. When you start fantasising about the main character being murdered, then it’s probably time to stop reading. Abandoned at 35%. 1 star.

Well, okay, from one perspective Your Choices may not have been hugely successful. But on the other hand, look at all the awful books You’ve helped get off my TBR! Way to go, People!

12 down, 0 to go!

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Wanderlust Bingo

I’ve read several books for this challenge this quarter, some of which didn’t quite fit the boxes as I’d hoped and a couple of which I didn’t enjoy and abandoned. But with a bit of juggling I’ve still managed to fill five boxes and have another two reviews to come. So much better, but still way behind, and in conjunction with Margaret at BooksPlease, who’s also doing this challenge, we’ve agreed to forget the official end date of the end of 2021 and simply leave it open – we’ll finish when we finish! I have books lined up for every missing box, so fingers crossed for no more abandonments! The dark blue boxes are books from previous quarters, and the orange are the ones I’m adding this quarter. I still might shuffle them again before the end so this is all quite tentative at this stage. (If you click on the bingo card you should get a larger version.)

New Zealand – Pūrakāu edited by Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka – 3 stars. What could be more appropriate for the Oceania slot than this collection of updated Māori myths?

Universe – Spaceworlds edited by Mike Ashley – 4½ stars. A collection of vintage science fiction stories based on the theme of living in space, either on space stations or ships, neatly fills the Space slot.

AustriaSnow Country by Sebastian Faulks – 5 stars. The main setting of this novel is the Schloss Seeblick, a kind of mental health sanatorium in a mountain valley in Carinthia, so perfect for the Mountain slot.

GreenlandSeven Graves, One Winter by Christoffer Petersen – 4½ stars. A murder mystery set partly in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, and partly in a small village in the very north of the island ticks off the Polar Regions slot.

IsraelThe Twisted Wire by Richard Falkirk – 4 stars.  This is an action thriller set in Israel at the height of the Middle East conflict of the late 60s/early 70s, so a nice fit for the Middle East slot.

Still a long, long way to go, but still travelling hopefully…

15 down, 10 to go!

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A better quarter, making progress on all my challenges for once! Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

Nada by Carmen Laforet

After the war is over…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The Civil War is over but Spain is still suffering its after-effects when Andrea comes to Barcelona from her provincial home to study literature at the University. She is enthralled at the idea of Barcelona, having only childish memories of earlier visits to her then wealthy relatives. Now she is an orphan, existing on a tiny stipend granted to her by the state to enable her to study. When she arrives at her grandmother’s house in the middle of the night, she discovers the family is no longer wealthy – quite the reverse. The house is old, run-down, dirty and over-stuffed with furniture and trinkets, relics of when the family owned the whole house, before they had to divide it into two and sell the other half. The family are as Gothic as the house. Grandmother is very old and frail, and her mind is beginning to fail. Aunt Angustias is sternly religious, determined to maintain the standards of the past, and insists that Andrea must obey her in all things. Grandmother’s two sons, Juan and Ramon, seem to be in a perpetual fight which often results in fairly extreme violence, not towards each other so much, but because Juan takes out his anger and frustration on his wife, Gloria, whom the family consider socially beneath them. There is a general air of insanity in the family – only Gloria, the outsider, seems to have her feet firmly on the ground. Over the next year or so, Andrea will gradually learn the secrets of each of the family, and come to understand what has brought them to their present state of decay and mutual antagonism.

Written under the constraints of the still new Franco dictatorship, Laforet avoids overt discussion of the politics of the Civil War or of the current regime, but she shows clearly the deprivation and poverty many Spaniards are facing at this time. However, she also shows that this isn’t universal by any means – plenty of people are managing to get along just fine. She hints that perhaps Ramon and Juan picked the wrong side, although Juan had tried to remedy that by switching sides when it became clear who was going to win. She doesn’t, as far as I could tell anyway, pass her own judgement on who was right and wrong, but it’s intriguing that she takes such a negative view of a family that was rich and pampered before the war, and is considerably less cynical about the people who are doing quite well under Franco. Whether any more can be read into this than that she was keen to get the book past the censors, I am unable to judge.

Book 8

The book is considered a classic of existential literature, and part of the Spanish tremendismo style, which apparently was characterized by a tendency to emphasise violence and grotesquery. I only found this out when googling after reading, and I rather wished I’d known in advance, since certainly the grotesquery and violence in the book makes more sense when placed in the context of a literary school. In terms of existentialism, there is undoubtedly existential angst for many of the characters, but Andrea herself seems to be curiously untouched – she feels like an observer more than a participant most of the time, and despite her youth often seems more adult than the adults around her. There is also a sense of the absurd which somehow makes the violence seem almost cartoonish, so that it’s not nearly as grim in tone as the content suggests it should be. In fact there’s quite a strong vein of black humour running through it for much of the time.

I’m not sure that I really fully got the book – my lack of familiarity with the conventions of both existentialism and tremendismo means that I suspect I missed a lot of nuance that would be clearer to people steeped in those schools, and Laforet’s necessary circumspection around the politics of the day made it difficult for me to place her on the political spectrum, which meant that I couldn’t quite tell how biased were her depictions of the various parts of the society she shows us.

Carmen Laforet

None of that prevented me from appreciating it though. I enjoyed the grotesque family and their fights and rivalries, and while I thought that Laforet didn’t give much of a picture of the day-to-day life of Barcelona, she instead invoked an atmosphere of almost hallucinatory, slightly nightmarish unreality which I felt was very effective in symbolising a city coming to terms with the after-effects of a war where the citizens had fought and killed each other in the streets only a few years earlier. There is no sense of a return to the status quo before the war – instead Andrea seems to epitomise a new generation looking with interest at the past, but with no desire to relive it. The book was written in 1945, still too soon for anyone to know how post-war Spain would develop, and that feeling of uncertainty seems to be captured in Andrea’s lack of vision about her own future.

There is an underlying plot of sorts, relating to the brothers and their past, and it is also a kind of coming of age story for Andrea. But both of those things are secondary to the overall feel of the book – a kind of nebulous quality that somehow in the end gives a clearer picture of the social dislocation caused by civil war than a more direct depiction might have done. I read it quite some time ago now, and it has lingered in my mind, growing in stature the more I think about it, so that although I can’t say I wholeheartedly loved it while reading, I have gradually come to appreciate it more and to recognise why it’s considered a classic.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Franco: A Personal and Political Biography by Stanley G Payne and Jesús Palacios

The pragmatic dictator…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

In their preface, the authors discuss the bias inherent in most biographies and histories of the Franco period and state that they are trying to give a more balanced account, avoiding both hagiography and denunciation. Stanley G Payne is an American historian of modern Spain and European Fascism and I thoroughly enjoyed his Spanish Civil War which did seem reasonably balanced, although tending slightly to the right. Jesús Palacios, a Spanish essayist and historian, was at one time a member of the Spanish neo-Nazi group CEDADE, which I didn’t know when I acquired the book and which obviously set all kinds of alarm bells ringing over his likely bias. (I think this is the first time I’ve ever put money in the pocket of a neo-Nazi, however unconsciously, and it has made me far more scrupulous about googling living people before buying their books.)

The book follows a linear path through Franco’s long life, starting with his childhood as a member of a family with long ties to the armed services, although usually the Navy. Franco was an unremarkable child and a very youthful entrant to the military academy where he showed no particular outstanding talent. However, once he became an officer in Spanish Morocco he soon showed the organisational and leadership skills that would take him through a series of earned promotions until he became one of the top generals in the army. The authors suggest that he gained the respect of the men with whom he served rather than their affection – he seems to have held himself aloof from much of the social life partly because he was not wealthy at this time, but mainly because he had strong views on morality, inculcated in him by his devout Catholic mother, and which would influence him all his life.

Family man – with his wife, Carmen Polo, and only child, Maria del Carmen.

He also seems to have remained aloof from politics in these early years, despite the turmoil in the country. Although a monarchist, a Catholic and a conservative, he saw it as his duty to support the democratic government and when the Republicans took power he held back from open opposition while he felt they were staying within the constitution. As one of the younger and more prominent Generals, the conservatives felt his support would be crucial to the success of any attempt to overthrow the Republican government. Franco insisted he would only agree to a military intervention if the government broke down completely or if a Communist revolution took place. But after the assassination of a prominent figure on the Right, in which the Republican security forces were involved, he finally committed and the insurrection began.

It’s in this section that the authors begin to show their support for the Right. They are excoriating about some of the atrocities carried out by the Left against innocent people on the Right. The problem is that their bias leaves me wondering about their analysis – were these people innocent? Was the Left behaving worse than the Right? This is the fundamental question about the causes and progress of the Spanish Civil War, and the more I read, the more I feel that a truly unbiased objective account remains to be written.

The coverage of the war is not in-depth – the authors’ focus remains exclusively on Franco, as is appropriate in a biography. They discuss briefly the involvement of foreign powers but mostly in terms of Franco’s relationships with Hitler and Mussolini. During the war Franco consolidated his power, thanks to the (lucky?) deaths of a couple of people who may have rivalled him for the top job. By the end he had morphed from being the leader of the military insurrection into full-scale dictatorship, with the consent of the broad spectrum of the victorious Right.

Franco and Hitler 1940

The bulk of the book then goes into considerable detail about Franco’s post-war dictatorship. It reminded me of old history books about the Tudors or Stuarts rather than the more modern style of social history – the focus is entirely on Franco and the powerful people in his court, and I got no feeling for what was happening to the people of Spain or how they felt about Franco’s regime. The authors touch on the fact that there was famine and poverty which gradually receded as the world economies recovered from WW2, and they mention occasional attempts by separatist groups or dissidents living abroad to revive the Civil War. But, in general, they don’t give a picture of how Franco resolved (if he did) the problems that led to the war in the first place, such as land ownership, or what happened to the factories that had been taken over by the syndicalists before the war, and so on. I was left with many unanswered questions.

What they do give a better picture of is the growing acceptance by the Western powers of Franco’s regime, largely because by that time the Cold War was fully iced and the main enemy was seen to be Communism rather than Fascism. They also suggest that Franco moved away from Fascism quite early in his dictatorship, towards what they call “Catholic corporatism”. Unfortunately, I never fully understood what they meant by this term, perhaps my fault but a clearer explanation would have been helpful.

In their conclusion, they suggest that Franco’s rule provided a break between traditional and modern Spain, a long period that allowed tempers to cool and many of the old civil war combatants to die. A growing economy with wealth more fairly spread and better education created a large middle-class, ready for liberal democracy – not Franco’s plan, but a by-product of his policies. They don’t play down the executions and repressions he carried out in the early days, but they suggest that had the Republicans been victorious they’d have been worse, and they point to many other dictatorships that indeed were worse. This seems like a hollow justification to me – if I only murder three people am I morally better than someone who murders four? However, there seems no doubt that Franco’s pragmatism led him to gradually allow a significant degree of liberalisation and, according to the authors, many Spaniards were genuinely sorry when he died.

Book 7

All-in-all, I learned a lot from this about Franco’s life, personality, politics and the powerful people in his court, but rather less about Spain under his rule than I had expected to. Although I felt sure the book was factually accurate, I found it hard to discount the obvious pro-Franco bias and this made me dubious about some of their interpretations. As I’m finding with everything I read about Spain in this period, I feel I now need to read an account with the opposite bias to rebalance the seesaw. It is interesting though that, nearly a century on, historians still appear unable to write objectively about this complex period – that in itself is one of the uniquenesses of Franco and the Spanish Civil War.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday (on a Friday) 297 and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. This has been a terrible quarter, reading-wise, with me taking a break of five or six full weeks from reading, so I’m expecting the worst for my poor targets!

Here goes, then – the third check-in of the year…

Aarghh! Well, it’s just as bad as I expected and there’s no way I’ll be able to retrieve the situation in the last quarter of the year. I might catch up with the People’s Choice and fit in a few more classics, but the rest are pretty hopeless. I needed that break though and hey! Who’s counting? 😉

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The Classics Club

I’ve read just one from my Classics Club list this quarter, and had another still to review from the previous quarter…

79. My Ántonia by Willa Cather – I enjoyed this excellently written novel telling of the coming-of-age of the title character and the narrator, Jim, together with the story of the pioneering days in the fledgling USA. 4 stars.

80. I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane – One from the pulpy end of hard-boiled crime, complete with every ‘ism of its time. Violence, sex and guns galore – and yet oddly I enjoyed it! 4 stars.

Two books from the US that couldn’t really be more different, but both enjoyable in their own way!

80 down, 10 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve managed to read precisely none from this challenge this quarter! However I had one left over to review from the previous quarter…

46. Darkness at Pemberley by TH White – White throws just about every mystery novel trope into this preposterous story, but manages to pull it off! Hugely entertaining, and not to be taken too seriously. 5 stars.

46 down, 56 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I’ve only read one for this challenge this quarter, and had another still to review from the quarter before. Unfortunately I haven’t reviewed either of them yet, so the sum total for this round-up is…

Reviews will follow soon though, I promise!

6 down, indefinite number to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I’ve only read two this quarter but hope to catch up before the end of the year. Did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

JulyHalf of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – I found this tale of privileged members of the Igbo caught up in the Biafran War surprisingly flat in tone despite the human tragedy it describes. However I learned a good deal about the culture of that time and place, and overall am glad to have read it. 4 stars.

AugustThe Black Cabinet by Patricia Wentworth – A highly entertaining mystery from the Golden Age, starring a charming heroine meeting peril after peril in her attempts to do the right thing. Just the right combination of mystery, humour and romance to make for perfect relaxation reading. 5 stars.

One I’m glad to have read and one I thoroughly enjoyed, so take a bow, People – you chose well! And they’re off my TBR at last – hurrah!

8 down, 4 to go!

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Wanderlust Bingo

I haven’t filled many boxes this quarter, and I’m kinda kicking myself because I’ve got great-looking books lined up for every space now – it’s just a matter of finding time to read them! I have a few coming up on my reading list soon, but this challenge is definitely going to drift into next year (unless I grow an extra head). The dark blue ones are from previous quarters, and the orange are the ones I’m adding this quarter. I might shuffle them all around at the end so this is all quite tentative at this stage. (If you click on the bingo card you should get a larger version.)

SwedenTo Cook a Bear by Mikael Niemi – 5 stars. I’ve slotted this into Village, since the village setting is an important factor in the story.

France – The Man from London by Georges Simenon – 4½ stars. Simenon’s settings are always one of his main strengths, and here he gives a great picture of the working life of Dieppe as the background to his story. I’m putting this in the Europe box.

Biafra/NigeriaHalf of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – 4 stars. I can’t imagine a more appropriate book to fill the Africa box than this story of the short-lived existence of the Biafran nation.

Still a long, long way to go, but ’tis better to travel hopefully than to arrive…

10 down, 15 to go!

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A slightly shorter post this time, for which I’m sure you’re all very thankful. 😉 Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

TBR Thursday 290 and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. I still seem to be storming through the books this year, which ought to mean I’ll be smashing all my targets. Ought to…

Here goes, then – the second check-in of the year…

TBR Quarterly Jun 2021

Well, I don’t think I’ve ever been on track with so many targets at this point of the year – it can’t last! Poor old Reginald Hill is falling behind – must make more effort. I should be able to catch up with the Classics Club and finish by my extended deadline of the end of the year – only a couple of chunksters left and all the rest should be fairly quick reads. The shortfall in new releases has reduced considerably this quarter and (theoretically) will be smashed by the time I’ve read all the review books on my 20 Books of Summer list. The fact that I’m abandoning lots of new fiction isn’t helping, though! The TBR Reduction is awful – I can’t see me meeting those targets without magical intervention. But hey! Who’s counting? 😉

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The Classics Club

I read three from my Classics Club list this quarter but have only reviewed two so far, and had another still to review from the previous quarter…

76. Way Station by Clifford D Simak – I loved this well written, thought-provoking science fiction novel, with shades of Cold War nuclear fear, lots of imaginative aliens and a kind of mystical, New Age-y touch. 5 stars.

77. The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher – This, the first mystery novel written by a black American and with an exclusively black cast of characters, delighted me with its vivid, joyous picture of life in Harlem. Lots of humour and a great plot. 5 stars.

78. The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn – A slow-going but interesting look at the beginnings of the Scottish herring industry, following on from the devastation of the Highland Clearances. I enjoyed this one, not least because several of my blog buddies read it with me. 4 stars.

Not good on the quantity, perhaps, but high on quality!

78 down, 12 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

Managing to keep on track with this challenge at the moment more or less – I’ve read three this quarter, but only reviewed two of them so far. However I had one left over to review from the previous quarter…

43. The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude – One in Bude’s long-running Inspector Meredith series, I find these a little too painstakingly procedural for my taste, although the plot and setting of this one are good. 3½ stars.

44. The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts – Talking of too procedural, I abandoned this one halfway through on the grounds of being determined not to die of boredom! Crofts’ first, and the best I can say about it is he improved in later books. 1 generous star.

45. The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey – Great writing and a perfectly delivered plot mean that this one’s reputation as a classic of the genre is fully deserved. More psychological than procedural, and with a wonderful depiction of an early version of “trial by media”. 5 stars

45 down, 57 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I only read two for this challenge this quarter but in my defence one of them was a massive biography of Franco, which I haven’t yet reviewed. However I had one left to review from last quarter…

5. In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda. The story of young wife and mother, Natalia, living in Barcelona while her husband is off fighting in the war. It’s a fascinating picture of someone who has no interest in or understanding of politics – who simply endures as other people destroy her world then put it back together in a different form. Packed full of power and emotion – a deserved classic. 4½ stars.

6. Last Days in Cleaver Square by Patrick McGrath. As Franco lies on his deathbed in Spain, Francis McNulty is convinced the dictator is haunting him, and his memories of his time in Spain as a volunteer medic on the Republican side and the horrors he witnessed there are brought back afresh to his mind. Beautifully written, entertaining, moving, full of emotional truth. 5 stars.

Two short books, two different squares, and two great reads, so hurrah for this challenge!

6 down, indefinite number to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

Unbelievably I’m still up-to-date with this challenge, so three reviews for this quarter plus one that was left over from the previous quarter. Did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

MarchThe Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves – The first of the Vera Stanhope series – the underlying plot is good and Vera is an interesting, if unbelievable, character. But oh dear, the book is massively over-padded and repetitive, and I found it a real struggle to wade through. 3 stars.

AprilCold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons – A parody of the rural rustic novel popular at the time, there’s a lot of humour in it with some very funny scenes, and it’s especially fun to try to spot which authors and books Gibbons had in mind. It outstayed its welcome just a little as the joke began to wear rather thin, but overall an entertaining read. 4 stars.

MayThe Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith – The first of the Cormoran Strike novels sees him investigating the death of a supermodel, with the help of his temporary secretary, Robin. I’m feeling repetitive myself now, but this is another with a good plot buried under far too much extraneous padding. Galbraith’s easy writing style carried me through, however. 4 stars.

June – Sweet Caress by William Boyd – In the early days of the twentieth century, young Amory Clay decides to become a professional photographer, and her elderly self looks back at where her career took her. Sadly this one didn’t work for me at all and I eventually abandoned it. 1 star.

Even if there were no five stars, there was only one complete dud, so I think you did pretty well, People! And they’re all off my TBR at last – hurrah!

6 down, 6 to go!

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Wanderlust Bingo

Wanderlust Bingo June 2021

I’ve done a little better this quarter and have also started looking ahead to try to make sure I have something for each box. I might shuffle them all around at the end so this is all quite tentative at this stage. The dark blue ones are from last quarter, and the orange ones are this quarter’s. (If you click on the bingo card you should get a larger version.)

EnglandThe Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey – 5 stars. I’ve slotted this into Small Town at the moment, since the setting plays an important part in the plot.

IcelandThe Chill Factor by Richard Falkirk – 4 stars. Another that could work for Small Town, or Europe, but I’ve slotted it into Island at present.

MalayaA Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute – 5 stars. Could be Australia as well, so Oceania, but I’ve gone with the Malayan section and put it into Walk.

AustraliaThe Survivors by Jane Harper – 4 stars. Another that would work for Oceania, but since the Beach plays a major part in the story that’s where I’ve put it.

ScotlandThe Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn – 4 stars. Since this is all about herring fishing, I don’t imagine I’ll find a better fit for the Sea box.

Still a long, long way to travel, but there are some interesting reads coming up for this one…

7 down, 18 to go!

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Whew! Apologies for the length of this post, but I guess that indicates a successful quarter. Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

Last Days in Cleaver Square by Patrick McGrath

The ghosts of war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Last Days in Cleaver SquareFrancis McNulty is an old man now, in 1975, but his younger self was one of the many men who had gone to aid the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, in his case as a medic. Now he is frail, although he hates the word, and showing signs of mental decline, perhaps even the beginnings of dementia. So when he starts seeing visions of General Franco at first in his garden and then later inside his house, his daughter puts it down to his mental state. Francis is convinced though that Franco, currently on his deathbed in Spain, is haunting him, and his memories of his time in Spain and the horrors he witnessed there are brought back afresh to his mind.

Told as Francis’ journal in a somewhat disjointed and rambling fashion as befits an elderly, possibly confused man, this is a wonderful picture of someone haunted by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. As part of my Spanish Civil War challenge I had just finished a biography of Franco (review to come), the last chapter of which detailed his long-drawn out and rather horrific final days as his body crumbled and haemorrhaged and his doctors refused to allow him to die. It is during those days that Francis, in his home in England, gradually reveals his experiences and finally the incident that has left him with a feeling of guilt all the years since. His hatred of Franco is visceral, his view entirely polarised by the atrocities he witnessed, although there are occasional hints that he is aware that there were atrocities on the Republican side too. We learn of Doc Roscoe, the doctor he worked alongside patching up the wounded under atrocious conditions. We hear the story of Dolores Lopez, now Francis’ middle-aged housekeeper, but back then a child caught up in the siege of Madrid. And we come to understand the haunting, literal and metaphorical, of Francis by his old nemesis, Franco.

Madrid, I murmured, the slurry way the madrileňos said it, the lispy first d and the fiercely clipped second one. I had once heard a flamenco guitar being so sweetly, so movingly played in Madrid, as bombs fell in the distant suburbs, then when the planes got closer the music abruptly ceased, and instead there was shouting. I saw a middle-aged man fall in the Gran Via and his wife sank to her knees beside him, weeping. He’d been shot dead. To see Madrid again before I died, this seemed suddenly of vital importance to me and I became elated and impatient and I didn’t properly understand why.

But this is not purely or even mostly a political novel. The story Francis reveals is a human one, of unexpected love and loyalty, of betrayal and the search for redemption and forgiveness. Did it make me cry? You betcha! But it also made me laugh, frequently, as Francis gives his often acerbic view of those around him, including his daughter and sister, both of whom he loves dearly but not uncritically. It’s also a wonderful depiction of ageing, with all the pathos of declining physical and mental faculties. There are many parallels between Franco and Francis, not least their names, of course, but their habit in their final days of finding themselves in tears. They each have only one daughter, caring for them at the end of their lives simply as fathers regardless of their past or politics. Francis’ daughter is as well portrayed as Francis himself, as she tries to deal with this difficult, contrary, opinionated man who refuses to accept his increasing limitations. She ranges through patience, worry, irritation, bossiness, and all the other emotions anyone who has cared for an elderly relative will recognise, but there is never any doubt in either the reader’s or Francis’ mind that her overriding emotion towards her father is love.

SCW LogoBook 6

It’s a short novel, but has so much in it – truly a case where every word counts. Francis, writing privately in his journal, reveals more to the reader than he ever has to those closest to him, especially of his feelings for Doc Roscoe and for other men he has known over the years. Again a beautiful depiction of closeted homosexuality – Francis has chosen the easier path at that period of outwardly leading a heterosexual life. Yet one feels his relationship with his daughter is a major compensation for his lifetime of self-denial. And he is self-aware enough to gently mock himself so that one feels his life has not been a wasteland, although it is only now, as he faces his last days and recognises that his eternal enemy Franco is facing his, that he can finally try to come to terms with his past.

Patrick McGrath
Patrick McGrath

Why have I never come across Patrick McGrath before? A serious omission which I will have to promptly put right. It’s certainly not necessary to know much about the Spanish Civil War or Franco’s dictatorship to appreciate this one, but recognising the accuracy of the depiction of Franco’s final days gave it an extra depth for me. Beautifully written, entertaining, moving, full of emotional truth – this gets my highest recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda

The civilian war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

In Diamond SquareOne evening in the early 1930s in Barcelona, young, motherless and naive Natalia dances with a young man at a fiesta in Diamond Square. They fall in love, though it seems an unequal love, more as if Natalia has fallen under Joe’s ultra-masculine power. They marry and have children, but the political situation is deteriorating and soon the nation will be plunged into civil war…

This is the story of Natalia’s marriage and life, before, during and after the war. It is a fascinating picture of someone who has no interest in or understanding of politics – who simply endures as other people destroy her world then put it back together in a different form. The war happens mostly off the page, referred to but not visited.

The first section shows us Natalia’s marriage before the war. Initially overwhelmed by her rather bullying husband, we see her grow until they gradually become a more equal partnership, although still in a society that is very much a patriarchal one. She becomes a mother, and we see the traditions of the women around the subject of childbirth. Joe, a carpenter, decides to build a pigeon loft on the roof, and Pidgey, as he calls Natalia, soon finds her home full of pigeons who, like her children, seem to become solely her responsibility. Then war comes, and Joe – partly because he believes in it and partly because his business is failing – gets swept up and goes off to fight on the Republican side along with his friends, leaving Natalia, the children and the pigeons to fend for themselves in a city full of shortages and suspicion. How to work and care for her children at the same time, how to feed her family when both money and food are scarce, how to navigate a city where the political allegiances of her husband can open some doors and close others – these are the things Natalia must grapple with in a world that, as a young housewife, she has barely known before.

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I don’t want to give too much of the story away, so I’ll leave you to find out what happens to Natalia and Joe for yourself (which reminds me, do NOT read the prologue before you read the book, since it’s really an introduction explaining why the author wrote it and reveals far too much about how Natalia’s story works out). The rather undramatic way the story is told works very well at allowing the tragedies inflicted on civilian populations during civil war to come through with a real feeling of truth and integrity. We see the random violence carried out by both sides, often on nothing more than suspicion – a man may have been thought to do business with the “other side” and this will be reason enough for him and his family to be terrorised and worse. We see how this gradually forces people on both sides more and more to the extremes, each seeing the other side as evil. And we see how impossible it is in this broken society for a woman to earn enough to keep her children above the starvation line. The tragedy is quiet here, but it is as devastating to the civilians as the guns and bombs are to the fighters.

We didn’t get up on Sundays so as not to be so hungry. And we took the kid to a [refugee] camp in a lorry Julie sent our way after I’d done a lot of persuading. But he knew he was being lied to. He knew better than I did that it was a lie and I was the liar. And we talked about sending him to a camp, before we actually did, and he’d look down and clam up, as if we grown-ups didn’t exist. Mrs Enriqueta promised she’d visit him. I told him I’d go every Sunday. The lorry left Barcelona with us in the back and a cardboard suitcase held together by a piece of string, and it turned down the white road that led to the lie.

And in the last section, we see the aftermath – the war over, but the impact on those involved reverberating through the following years. For some there is a future, but only when they can come to terms with what they had to do to survive.

Although, or perhaps because, Pidgey is an unremarkable woman who simply wants to be a wife and mother, I found myself fully absorbed in her story. Rodoreda shows how strong and resilient people have to be just to survive when society fractures and neighbour comes to mistrust neighbour. For little, ordinary, unheroic Pidgey, it may be too much to ask – as she nears the point of desperation, my heart broke for her and for all those civilians caught up in wars not of their own making.

Merce Rodoreda
Mercè Rodoreda

Well translated from the original Catalan by Peter Bush, the book is quite short but packed full of power and emotion. There is no need to know anything about the Spanish Civil War in order to appreciate the book. It could, in a sense, be any civil war. However, it gives a great insight into the lives of women in Barcelona at this point in time, and adds some real depth to an aspect that is often somewhat overlooked in formal histories of the period – the impact of the war on non-aligned non-participants. Natalia didn’t care whether the Communists or the Fascists won, so long as whoever did provided bread for her children.

The sections set before and during the war are excellent but for me the final section, after the war, is a little too dragged out. It is an interesting picture, though, of the world resettling like a shaken kaleidoscope into a new pattern, not entirely dissimilar to the old, leaving unspoken the question of what it was all for – did anyone win? I will remember Natalia’s story.

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TBR Thursday 278… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. Now that last year’s slump seems to be a thing of the past, I’m storming through the books this year, which ought to mean I’ll be smashing all my targets. Ought to…

Here goes, then – the first check-in of the year…

TBR Quarterly Mar 2021

On the whole, I’m pretty OK with these figures. The shortfall in new releases will be made up very quickly since I have tons on the TBR now, which also explains why the TBR total has gone up rather than down. Of course, that will make it harder to fit other challenge books in, but hey! Who’s counting? 😉

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The Classics Club

I read four from my Classics Club list this quarter, but have only reviewed three of them so far…

73. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens – The only Dickens novel I hadn’t read before, and happily I loved the story of Little Nell and her grandfather, evil Daniel Quilp, and the usual myriad of quirky characters Dickens has created to delight us. 5 stars

74. Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp – A rom-com that neither thrilled me with the rom nor amused me with the com. Cluny’s coming-of-age story meanders unrealistically through the social classes of pre-war Britain. Just 2 stars.

75. Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie – unfortunately the humour didn’t work for me in this cosy wartime tale of Hebridean highlanders and a shipwreck full of whisky. An excellent narration lifted it, though. 3 stars.

So a couple of disappointments this quarter, but Dickens more than compensated!

75 down, 15 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

Doing slightly better on this challenge this quarter – I’ve read three, though I’ve only reviewed 2 so far…

41. Crime at Diana’s Pool by Victor L Whitechurch – During a garden party, the host turns up dead, face down in a pond with a knife in his back. The local vicar quickly deduces it’s murder! Quite enjoyable, but with nothing to really make it stand out from the crowd. 3 stars.

42. At the Villa Rose by AEW Mason (link to be added) – When an elderly widow is murdered and her beautiful young companion goes missing, her lover (the companion’s, not the widow’s) begs Inspector Hanaud of the Sûreté to take on the investigation. Oddly structured, but I enjoyed it a lot. 4 stars.

42 down, 60 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

Finally getting into this challenge properly and enjoying it greatly so far, and I’ve got some interesting fiction to come now that I’ve got a bit of an understanding of the factual history. I read two this quarter and had one still to review from last year. Only two reviews though – my reviewing is very behind at the moment.

3. The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan. Gerald Brenan explains in his introduction that, having been there at the start of the Spanish Civil War, he wanted to understand what led to it, and preoccupied himself with studying this during the war. This book, first published in 1943, is the result, and is now considered a classic history of the period. Deservedly so. 5 stars.

4. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. Orwell fought with the Trotskyite POUM faction against Franco’s Fascists, and later was involved in the left’s in-fighting during the Barcelona May Days. This is his personal memoir of his time in Spain. An excellent read, with the politics reserved for the appendices. 5 stars.

4 down, indefinite number to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I’m just finishing March’s pick so haven’t reviewed it yet, so just two reviews so far – did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

JanuaryThe Old Buzzard Had It Coming by Donis Casey – Harley Day beats his wife, terrorises his children, fights with his neighbours and has fallen out with his relations, so when he turns up dead the general feeling in the little town of Boynton and the surrounding farming community is that the old buzzard sure had it coming! I thoroughly enjoyed this cosy-ish murder mystery, set in the early 1900s in Oklahoma. 4½ stars.

FebruaryThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – The Price family arrive in a remote village in the Belgian Congo to take over the Baptist mission there. The four daughters of the family tell us of their time there and how it affected their future lives, and along the way show us the impacts of modern colonialism. A wonderful book, well deserving of all the praise and plaudits it has received. 5 stars.

Well done, People – you did great!

2 down, 10 to go!

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Wanderlust Bingo

Wanderlust Bingo March 2021

I haven’t stepped out of my usual UK beat much yet this year, and will probably juggle with this a lot as I go along to slot things into the various categories. I’ll be spoiled for choice for books set in Scotland and England so will leave them to the end and see which boxes I’m struggling to fill. Here’s what I’m considering so far…

CongoThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – 5 stars. I’ve slotted this into River at the moment, but it could also fit Africa or Forest.

SpainIn Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda (review to follow) – set in Barcelona, I’ve put this in City, but it could also fit Europe.

Hmm… lot’s of work to do on this one, but I have a few interesting locations coming up on the TBR.

2 down, 23 to go!

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A much better quarter, in terms of both quantity and quality, not to mention enjoyability. Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

PS I appear to have gone on an unintentional break by virtue of not having written any reviews! So I’m going to take that as a sign and have a couple of weeks off to get ahead of myself again. Be good, and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

One man’s war…

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Homage to CataloniaOrwell’s memoir of his time as a participant in the Spanish Civil War has the mix of romanticised idealism and hard-nosed realism that has become embedded as the received mythology of the war in the popular imagination – in Britain, at least. I assume that’s an indication of how influential this book was on forming British opinion at the time and in the years since. Orwell attached himself to POUM, one of the many factions on the left – a Trotskyite grouping opposed, not only to the right whom they were supposed to be fighting, but also to the USSR-backed Communist faction. This division led to fighting on the streets of Barcelona in May of 1937, as a result of which POUM were driven underground by the ascendant Communists.

Orwell was present first when POUM were part of the force fighting Franco’s Fascists, and later during the Barcelona May Days, and gives his personal account of both. In the bulk of the memoir there are surprisingly little polemics – he saves the political analysis for the appendices. This makes it a very readable account regardless of whether one agrees with Orwell’s political standpoint or not. In fact, the book is almost entirely about the left – the Fascists are there in the background as the enemy to be beaten, but the political foreground is taken up by the factional infighting on the Republican side.

He starts his account with his experiences as an international recruit, driven by his desire to defeat Fascism. He describes the conditions the recruits faced – ill-equipped, incomplete uniforms, a shortage of guns and ammunition. He suggests that his fellow Spanish recruits were motivated like him by an idealistic belief in their cause, and of course there is truth in that. But he’s also honest enough to recognise that the shortages of necessities, including bread, in civilian life drove many to join up simply as a way of getting food. Mothers, he tells us, sent their sons into the army so that they could smuggle bread out to their families. Orwell was horrified by the youth of many of the recruits – boys as young as fourteen or fifteen, with no real idea what they were fighting for. He describes the filth and squalor within the troop quarters, where there was a basic lack of sanitation and a permanent stench of human waste, and rats – lots of rats.

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Book 4

But he contrasts this with his enthusiasm for the principles of equality that pertained at this early stage of the war. There were no Sénors, only comrades. Orders, he suggests, were obeyed because the soldiers agreed to them rather than for fear of punishment. Not so on the Fascist side, he tells us, filled with forced conscripts rather than willing volunteers and desperate to desert given the slightest opportunity. I wonder. I am old and cynical and stopped believing long ago that good and evil are ever quite so clear cut, and I had to keep reminding myself that Orwell was just thirty-three when he arrived in Spain – still young enough for his cynicism to be held at bay by his idealism. He tries to defend the left against claims that their military indiscipline led to their repeated defeats, but he failed to convince me of that.

In reality, he saw very little fighting. He was positioned in trenches, facing Fascist forces in their own trenches, but neither advancing. He doesn’t make any effort to explain the military course of the war – that’s not his aim. Rather this is a personal description of what it was like to be there. As such, it adds colour, but doesn’t replace reading an actual history. On the one occasion when he is involved in more than a skirmish, he describes very well the mix of fear and bravery that he felt, although with a little of the gung-ho hubris that often pervades British war memoirs.

When his division is sent back to Barcelona, he describes the changes in the six months since he was last there. Then it seemed to him a truly socialist city, everyone equal. Now it is already reverting to normal – the rich able to get anything, the poor living with desperate shortages. He recognises himself as one of the wealthy, eating well, able to buy smuggled American cigarettes, etc.

Then the left factions start fighting each other, over nothing much, it seems. Orwell himself seems rather disillusioned by this stage, but still believes anything will be better for the workers than a Franco win, with a return to clericalism and a class-ridden society. He makes it clear that he didn’t really understand what was going on in Barcelona at the time – newspapers were either full of propaganda or heavily censored.

Barricade in Barcelona during the May Days

Back at the front, he is shot through the neck by a sniper. This allows him to see first hand and describe the medical treatment received by the injured – rather better than I’d have expected in truth, and happily he recovers well. Finally released from hospital, he discovers POUM have been suppressed, and some of his friends have been killed or imprisoned, so again this allows him to see the inhumane conditions of prisons, and the complete lack of any pretence of rule of law. He is forced into hiding until the British Consul can arrange for him and his wife to leave Spain. He writes very well about the atmosphere of suspicion, confusion and betrayal, and I found this account of the failure of his cause and his dreams beautifully and movingly written towards the end.

George Orwell
George Orwell

The first appendix gives a good summary of the politics on the left – the split between the anarchists, Trotskyists, Stalinists, et al. He is succinct and fairly clear-eyed about the chaotic nature of the left, and also about the journalistic propaganda being used by every faction. The second appendix is a lengthy discussion of what lay behind the factional infighting in Barcelona. His analysis obviously has to be treated with the caution that any participant account should receive, especially one written long before the fog of war had had time to clear. It’s interestingly done, though, with lots of references as to how it was being reported at the time in the leftist press, especially in England.

I enjoyed this much more than I expected. Splitting the politics off into the appendices works very well, preventing the human side of the story from getting bogged down in analysis. I was expecting it to be more propagandistic than it is – his honesty gives a very clear picture of his growing disillusion, not with the theories and ideals underpinning the revolution, but with the realities of it. Although I was glad I knew a bit of the background, I didn’t think it was necessary. It could easily be read on its own – it’s more about the experience of participating in a civil war than it is about the rights or wrongs of the cause. An excellent read.

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The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan

Subtitled: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil War

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Gerald Brenan explains in his introduction that, having been there at the start of the Spanish Civil War, he wanted to understand what led to it, and preoccupied himself with studying this during the war. This book, first published in 1943, is the result, and is now considered a classic history of the period.

My theory is that it takes at least fifty years before historians can tackle any period with the necessary objectivity to produce anything approaching “truth” – a term that will always be disputed in relation to history. Writers who lived through events are generally unable to avoid two flaws: firstly, they assume their readers are familiar with the people and events of the period and therefore often don’t explain them well enough for future generations; and, secondly, the closer to events a writer is, the harder it is to avoid personal bias and opinion from distorting the story. Having said that, Brenan does his best to avoid bias and for the most part does a good job, but sometimes it’s clear that, like most British intellectuals of the time, his sympathies were with the left, and he tends to forgive their excesses more easily than those from the right. A bigger problem for me, as a newcomer to the period, was that he often left me struggling to follow timelines, or to work out the political alignment or even nationality of a particular person – he obviously assumed his contemporary readership would know these things from reading the news.

Where Brenan excels is in his detailed breakdown of the background to the conflict, especially his explanation of why the various different regions in Spain developed differing political alignments dependant on local geographical, agricultural and industrial factors. While all were affected by the power plays amongst the monarchy, Church and military, he shows that the impact differed according to the economic and social history of each region. I found that I was gradually developing a map of the country in my mind, one that showed not simply where places were but what people did there – how they lived, were they wealthy or poor, who owned the land, was the land fertile, what were their local industries, and so on. He also shows how parts of Spain looked over the border towards Europe while other parts were still influenced by their Moorish past. This left me with a much better understanding not only of the drivers that led to the Civil War, but also, in fact, of the current demands for independence from some regions which are still part of Spanish politics today.

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He also delves into the rise of the various factions on the left, explaining why some turned to anarchism while others adopted socialism, etc., again showing how this arose out of local rather than national factors. Syndicalism, a form of trades unionism that was effective in industrialised centres, was less well-suited to rural areas, for example. He explains the Spanish form of anarchism well, making it seem like a reasonable idea rather than the kind of extreme bogeyman philosophy it tends to be seen as now. He does the same for the right, but it wasn’t so divided and so is easier on the whole to understand, and I suspect Brenan was more fascinated by the philosophies underpinning left than right, so he writes about them more deeply and interestingly. He also explains the rise of anti-clericalism, showing how over time the Church ceased to be seen as the champion of the poor and became instead the paid instrument of the rich and powerful, helping them to maintain social control, and thus leading to the hatred that would result in so many atrocities towards clerics.

On occasion, he has a tendency to state an opinion as fact without supporting evidence, or to generalise about the “Spanish temperament” or the “Spanish psyche”, as if they were uniform things, which is a bit odd since the whole book is proving that Spain was a deeply fractured society at the time, region against region, philosophy against philosophy. And it’s easy with hindsight to scoff a little at those things he got wrong, as, for instance, when he suggests that Spaniards would never accept a dictatorship and that Franco’s regime would therefore be short-lived. As a right-wing dictator, he seems to see Franco in the same terms as Mussolini or Hitler, but future history would show distinct differences in Franco’s approach, which is probably why he survived into old age. But predicting the future is always difficult, and he doesn’t go too far down that line.

In the epilogue, Brenan explains that he is writing too soon to give an account of the war itself. He mentions the atrocities and, while accepting that the left participated too, claims the number of executions carried out by the right were far greater – a claim that I believe is now considered less clear-cut.

Gerald Brenan

Despite the small flaws I’ve mentioned, I found this a fascinating and hugely informative read, that has left me with a much better understanding of what led to the rise of the various factions, and why the drive towards war became seemingly unstoppable. I highly recommend it – its classic status is well deserved. However, I was glad I had already read Stanley G Payne’s The Spanish Civil War first – because it is a more conventional history written much more recently, I had some prior understanding without which I may have found myself floundering too deeply at those points where Brenan assumed existing knowledge.

My thanks to José Ignacio from A Crime is Afoot, who suggested this one when I was looking for something to give me some background to the war – an excellent recommendation!

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