Category Archives: Summer Reading

Review: I’ll Sell You a Dog by Juan Pablo Villalobos

I am so excited to be participating in Spanish Lit Month again this year hosted by Stu at Winston’s Dad and Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos.  My first contribution this year is a fantastic read from And Other Stories.

My Review:
I'll Sell You A DogThis book is set in an apartment building in Mexico City in which a group of elderly retirees live.  The residents of the building engage in various activities together in order to fend off boredom, including the most popular activity which is the daily gathering and discussion at the literary salon.  Francesca, the building president and leader, is also the head of this salon.  As each new member moves into the building, he or she is given a warm welcome and an invitation to the salon.  The only person who has ever dared to turn down an invitation to the salon is our witty, clever and crabby narrator, a man who goes by the name of Teo.

When Teo moves into the building hilarity ensues because he is not quite so willing to conform to all of the rules set forth by Francesca and her fellow tenants.  Teo also drinks too much and has some interesting visitors over to his apartment, including a Mormon missionary who is constantly trying to preach the Word of the Lord to Teo.  Teo’s days also include frequent visits to the local pub for several beers and visits to the greengrocer where he discusses life and politics over more beers with Juliet the proprietor.  He also spends quite a bit of time recording his thoughts in a notebook and because of this the salon thinks that he is writing a novel.  They seem to know everything that he writes in his journal and he can’t figure out how they are reading his personal thoughts.

The story also flashes back to Teo’s earlier days and we get some background on this roguish, alcoholic, funny old man.  Teo mostly grew up with his mother and his sister and lived with them until he was in his fifties.  Important events in his younger years were oftentimes brought about by the dog his mother happened to dragged home at the time.  The original family dog caused the unraveling of his parents’ marriage and his father moving out.  Like his father before him, Teo fancied himself an artist and when he was younger he attended art school for a year to try and cultivate his talents.  But this all came to an end when the family dog was diagnosed with marijuana poisoning which resulted in his mother finding out what he was really doing with his fellow students.

After his mother forces him to give up attending art school, Teo gets a job with his uncle at his local taco stand which is a very lucrative business.  It is also due to dogs that Teo becomes a local legend with his “Gringo Tacos.”  I did find the story lines with the family dogs rather funny but those who are sensitive might need a warning that the fate of dogs in this book is never good.  All sorts of local politicians and arts patronize his taco stand and have intriguing discussions about art with this astute taco seller.  Teo’s favorite book is Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory and later in the retirement home he uses his cherished copy of this book to fend off the cockroaches.

The fight between Teo and the members of the literary salon reach a fever pitch when they get their hands on and hide his cherished copy of Aesthetic Theory and he,  in turn, steals their copies of In Search of Lost Time.  This is no small feat for Teo because Proust’s masterpiece weighs a ton.  In the end Francesca has to blackmail Teo into returning the salon’s books and the scandalous information that she has on him involves, of course, a dog.

This is one of the funniest books I have read so far this year. It is cleverly written and has characters that manage to be silly but endearing at the same time.   I look forward to reading more of Villalobos’ books.  What is everyone else reading for Spanish Lit Month?

About the Author:
Juan-Pablo-Villalobos-and-pygmy-hippo-6-460x250Juan Pablo Villalobos was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1973. His first novel, Down the Rabbit Hole, was the first translation to be shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award (in 2011). He writes regularly for publications including Granta and translated Rodrigo de Souza Leão’s novel All Dogs are Blue (also published by And Other Stories) into Spanish. His work has been translated into fifteen languages. He lives in Barcelona and has two children.


Filed under Humor, Spanish Literature, Summer Reading

Review: What We Become by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Atria books via NetGalley.  The book was published in the original Spanish in 2010 and this English version has been translated by Nick Caistor and Lorena Garcia.

My Review:
What We BecomeMax Costa is a scoundrel and a thief but you wouldn’t know it from his refined manner and elegant clothes.  We first meet him in 1928 on board the Cap Polonio, a transatlantic luxury liner bound for Buenos Aires.  Max is a professional ballroom dancer on the ship and he entertains the unaccompanied young women with his tangos and fox trots.  But his work as a ballroom dancer is just a cover for his real profession which his stealing from his rich dance partners.  The narrative takes place between 1928 and 1966 and alternates between three distinct periods of time during which Max meets a woman whom he cannot forget.

On board the ship Max meets an intriguing Spanish couple; the husband is a world-famous composer, Armando de Troeye and his younger, gorgeous, and elegant wife Mecha Inzunza de Troeye.  What draws Max to the couple at first is a very expensive pair of pearls that the wife wears which Max believes he can easily steal and make a large profit for little effort.  Mecha is an excellent dancer and she is particularly skillful at the Tango, for which dance her husband has in mind to compose a new piece.  Armando likes to watch while Mecha dances often with Max and this builds up the sexual tension between the dance partners.

Once they land in Buenos Aires Max, who lived in that city until he was fourteen, serves as their tour guides to all of the local dance pubs.  Armando wants to know the origins of the Tango, which is not the same Tango that is performed among the European gentry.  Their time in Buenos Aires is fraught with danger and tension as they go to some of the seediest places in the city.  Max and Mecha also begin a passionate love affair, but their relationship, if one can call it that, is not at all what I expected.  This is not a clandestine affair that is hidden from Mecha’s husband but, on the contrary, he encourages her to seduce Max and he even watches them while they make love.

Max gets his hands on Mecha’s pearls and disappears.  When he next meets up with Mecha it is almost ten years later in Nice, where he has lived comfortably as a gentleman off of his ill-gotten earnings.  This is one of the most exciting parts of the book because Max is asked by spies for both the Italian and Spanish governments to steal some sensitive documents from the home of a rich, society woman.  Max fits in perfectly with the European gentry so he has the perfect cover to case the house and come up with a plan that involves breaking into a house and safe cracking.

During his stint as a secret agent he, once again, runs into Mecha who is living in Nice alone because her husband has been arrested among the chaos of the Spanish Civil War.  The theft of the pearl necklace is all but forgotten as Mecha and Max rekindle their sexual relationship.  They are drawn to each other and their physical relationship is intense, passionate and sometimes even boarders on the violent.

After Max completes his mission he must flee Nice for fear of being arrested and his farewell to Mecha this time is emotionally difficult for both of them.  It is evident that the have deep feelings for each other and saying goodbye is difficult not something that they want to do.  When Max meets Mecha, almost thirty years later in Sorrento, he can’t stay away from her this time either.  Max is now sixty-four years old and has retired from his dangerous career as a thief.  He lives a quiet life as a chauffeur for a Swiss doctor.  Mecha is in town because her son, Jorge Keller, is competing in a national chess competition and Max decides to check into her hotel so he can reminisce about his younger, more exciting days.

The last part of the book also has a bit of a mystery which involves Jorge’s Russian chess opponent.  There is cheating and spying going on and Mecha asks Max to help her son plot against the Russians.  Max is very reluctant to get involved in international affairs, even if it is just chess, because he doesn’t want to jeopardize his now stable and quiet life.  But Mecha has a secret weapon that convinces Max to come out of retirement and use his thieving skills against the Russians.

This book is full of mystery and suspense with multiple plot lines woven throughout.  My problem with the book is that some scenes were so suspenseful and interesting and then others were boring and superfluous to the plot.  A few scenes could have been edited to make the plot even stronger.  Also, the relationship of Max and Mecha isn’t fully developed until about two-thirds of the way into the story.  At first their relationship is purely physical and I would have been more interested to see the emotional side of these two characters laid out much earlier on in the plot.

Overall this was an interesting read full of mystery, passion, tango and chess.  If you enjoy a good historical fiction set in the 20th century then I recommend giving this book a chance.

About the Author:
A ReverteSpanish novelist and ex-journalist. He worked as a war reporter for twenty-one years (1973 – 1994). He started his journalistic career writing for the now-defunct newspaper Pueblo. Then, he jumped to news reporter for TVE, Spanish national channel. As a war journalist he traveled to several countries, covering many conflicts. He put this experience into his book ‘Territorio Comanche’, focusing on the years of Bosnian massacres. That was in 1994, but his debut as a fiction writer started in 1983, with ‘El húsar’, a historical novella inspired in the Napoleonic era.

Although his debut was not quite successful, in 1988, with ‘The fencer master’, he put his name as a serious writer of historic novels. That was confirmed in 1996, when was published the first book of his Captain Alatriste saga, which has been his trademark. After this book, he could leave definitely journalism for focusing on his career as a fiction writer. This saga, that happens in the years of the Spanish golden age, has seen, for now, seven volumes, where Pérez-Reverte shows, from his particular point of view, historical events from Spanish history in the 16th century.

Apart from these, he also penned another successful works like Dumas Club and Flandes Panel, titles that, among others, made Pérez-Reverte one of the most famous and bestseller authors of Spanish fiction of our era.


Filed under Historical Fiction, Spanish Literature, Summer Reading

Review: Clinch by Martin Holmén

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Pushkin Press.  This was published in 2015 in the original Swedish and this English version has been translated by Henning Koch.

My Review:
ClinchHarry Kvist is an former boxer who lives in the decrepit, dirty and seedy city of Stockholm in the 1930’s.  The city is full of tramps, prostitutes, and bootleggers as well as poor and destitute citizens who have been affected by the economic collapse of this decade.  Kvist himself leads a hard life by serving as a collector of debts to those who have defaulted on payments.  His specialty is repossessing bicycles which is easy money for him.  When the novel begins Kvist is collecting on a debt from a man named Zetterberg who owes a few thousand kronor.  Kvist scares Zetterberg by giving him a good beating that is not enough to kill him, but enough to leave him with a few scars as a “reminder” to pay the money he owes.  When Zetterberg is found dead the next day, Kvist is the prime suspect and he is immediately picked up by the police.

Kvist spends a few rough nights in a disgusting jail cell covered in urine and lice.  He is given a working over by the detectives and after they don’t get any information out of him he is released.  He spends the next few days hunting downs leads about Zetterberg’s murder and trying to find a prostitute named Sonja who is the only person who can provide him with an alibi for the time of the murder.  Kvist’s detective work takes him to bars, gangster hideouts, slums and brothels.  The best part of the book is the author’s ability to fully capture the squalid, dingy and oftentimes dangerous city.  The streets are an interesting mix of pre-industrial Europe and the slow progress towards modernization.  Horse carts still plow the streets and deliver coal, but cars are also driven through the crowded and dirty city.

The plot about the murder is slow to advance throughout the course of the book.  However, Kvist’s contact with the seedy underbelly of the city make for some thrilling scenes.  His always has a desire to use his boxing skills and he gets into several fist fights with other gritty characters.  He is also shot at and chased after and there is rarely a dull moment in Kvist’s life.  But even though there is an undercurrent of violence throughout the book, Kvist is not a murderer or a psychopath.  He can be sensitive to the needs of others, especially women who are in a tough spot or emotionally distraught.  He is even nice to animals and feeds the starving strays on the streets of Stockholm.  All of these details give us a multi-dimensional character with whom, even when he is violent, we can sympathize.

Kvist’s sexuality and his experimentation with both males and females gives the book an added layer of interest and sophistication.  Kvist has several encounters with different men at the beginning of the book which is very dangerous for him since any type of homosexual act is illegal at the time.  But Kvist’s sexual preferences are not an “either, or” choice.  He also hints at the fact that he has a daughter and makes comments about the type of woman that attracts him.  He spends quite a bit of time in the second part of the book sleeping with an actress who was trying to contract him for his collection serves.  The exploration of his sexuality, which is not usually done in Noir fiction,  adds another brilliant dimension to his character.

I am excited that this is supposed to be the first book in a trilogy about Harry Kvist and I am eager to read the next two installments which are coming out in the next year.  This is noir writing as its best and you won’t want to give this book a miss if you are a fan of this genre.

About the Author:
M HolmenMartin Holmén is a Swedish writer based in Stockholm. He was orn in 1974. He teaches History, Swedish and History of Culture and Ideas at an upper secondary school in Stockholm two days a week. He is the author of the Harry Kvist trilogy.




Filed under Historical Fiction, Literature in Translation, Mystery/Thriller, Scandanavian Literature, Summer Reading

Review: Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum

I received a review copy of this title from the New York Review of Books.  The original book was published in 1929 in German and this English version has been translated by Basil Creighton.

My Review:
Grand HotelThe Grand Hotel is the place to stay for anyone who wishes to be surrounded by luxury and high society in 1920’s Berlin.  The guests that have all checked into the hotel in March of 1929 are an interesting mix of misfits whose stories all collide in a cleverly intertwined plot.

The first character to whom we are introduced is Dr. Otternschlag.  He sits for hours each day reading the paper and watching people go in and out of the revolving doors of the hotel.  He asks the porter several times if a letter has come for him and it is sad that no letters ever arrive for this lonely man.  He suffered a horrible injury during World War I which has left his face horribly scared.  He is utterly lonely, sad and has no zest for life.  He is the absolute opposite of Baron Gaigern who is also a guest at the hotel.

The Baron wears the finest clothes, has impeccable manners, is charming and extremely handsome.  He enjoys life to its fullest with gambling, fast cars, and lots of women.  But little does everyone know that the Baron is actually a petty thief and has no money other than that which he steals from his unsuspecting victims.  He latest mark is an aging ballerina named Grusinskaya whose famous string of pearls are said to be worth over 500,000 marks.  He has been secretly following the dancer around so that he can best ascertain how to get his hands on those pearls without being caught.  His plan for the heist is one of the most amusing and thrilling parts of the plot.  In the course of carrying out his carefully laid out plan, the unexpected happens to the normally cool and collected Baron–he falls in love with the woman who is supposed to be his victim.

The next person to check into the Grand Hotel is Otto Kringelein who is a lowly and badly paid clerk from a small town.  He is very sick and has only been given a few weeks to live so he gathers up all of his life savings, leaves his miserable wife and books a room at the hotel where he intends to have an exciting adventure before he passes away.  When his boss, Mr. Preysing, also checks into the hotel, he won’t let this angry and horrible bully spoil his fun. Kringelein finds a companion in the doctor for a while and even goes to the ballet with him.  But it is not until Kringelein meets up with the Baron that he really starts to feel alive.  The adventures that the Baron takes this provincial and naïve man on, which include boxing, gambling and flying, are absolutely hilarious.

The final adventure that Kringelein takes is of his own making as he comes to the aid of a beautiful young woman.  The story ends well for Kringelein even though it is still likely that he doesn’t have long to live.  He, like many others, checked into the Grand Hotel, as a solitary misfit.  But his exploits with the other guests turn him into a more worldly and confidant man who yearns to experience all that life has to offer.  The New York Review of Books has managed to reissue another fantastic classic that I devoured in just a few sittings.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

About the Author:
Vicki BaumVicki Baum (penname of Hedwig Baum) was born in a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria. She moved to the United States in 1932 and when her books were banned in the Third Reich in 1938, she started publishing in English. She became an American citizen in 1938 and died in Los Angeles, in 1960.


Filed under Classics, German Literature, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Summer Reading

Review: This Too Shall Pass by Milena Busquets

I received an advanced review copy of this title from the publisher through Netgalley.

My Review:
This Too Shall PassThe blurb that describes this book on sites like Goodreads and Amazon really sells the book short.  One gets the impression that this is a light, summer beach read,  a book categorized as “chick-lit.”  This particular classification of genre, “chick-lit” has always made me uncomfortable.  It seems to imply, at least in my mind, that females read these lighter, less serious books, ones meant for the beach or for times when ones attention is not fully given because the children are running around.  This genre also seems to imply a certain amount of gratuitous sex.  But Blanca’s story about the death of her mother and her very complicated love life are much more complex than to be classified as “chick-lit.”

The entire book is written as a letter from the main character, Blanca, to her mother who has just passed away.  Blanca is forty years-old, twice divorced and has one son with each ex-husband.  The death of her mother has caused her to not only feel grief, but also to experience a deep sense of loneliness.  Even though Blanca is constantly surrounded by loved ones, her children, her friends, her ex-husbands, a sense of loneliness pervades every scene in the book.  We get the feeling that her relationship with her mother, right up to her dying days,  was very complicated.

Blanca decides to leave Barcelona for a summer seaside vacation to Cadaqués where her mother’s home is.  Even though she is consumed by sadness, the memories of childhood summers in Cadaqués and being surrounded by her mother’s things are a comfort to Blanca.  When she arrives at her mother’s house, the first item she encounters is a jacket that her mother always wore.  She is not sure what she should do with it, but by the end of the novel she brings it to the dry cleaners which act is symbolic of finally letting go of her grief.

Another theme that pervades the book is intimacy, both sexual and emotional. After her mother’s death,  Blanca craves physical affection and begins having sex with Oscar, one of her ex-husbands.  But she recognizes that this is a temporary situation to ease her sorrow.  Blanca is also having an illicit affair with a married man who also shows up in Cadaqués.  Her mother’s death makes her reevaluate all of the intimate relationships in her life and Blanca comes to the realization that this affair is not satisfying her emotional needs.  One of the best parts of the book is when she blurts out to the man with whom she is having the affair that they should break it off.  I saw this as Blanca finally coming out of her fog of grief, asserting her independence, and recognizing her self-worth.

In sum, this book brings up important issues about grief and how we deal with the loss of an important role-model in our lives.  Blanca comes to understand that her friends and her family are her true support system and these relationships will help her get over the loss of her mother.  As the plot of the book progressed, I became more invested not only in Blanca’s story, but also in the other lively characters in the book.  Her two best friends, her sons, and her ex-husbands, all of whom have very different personalities, made up a very amusing cast of characters.  I would recommend taking this book to the beach, but you will need to give it your undivided attention to fully appreciate the deeper messages about dealing with loss.

About the Author:
M BusquetsMilena Busquets was born in Barcelona in 1972. She attended the Lycée Français de Barcelone and obtained a degree in Archaeology from the Institute of Archaeology in University College London. She worked for many years at Editorial Lumen, the publishing house that her family had set up in the early 1960s and that was sold to Random House forty years later. She later founded her own publishing house, wrote a first novel, worked for a gossip magazine and in PR for a fashion brand and currently works as a journalist and as a translator.


Filed under Summer Reading