Tag Archives: Spain

Review: Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (Man Booker Longlist)

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Bloomsbury Publishing via Netgalley.  This title has just made the Man Booker Prize longlist for 2016.

My Review:
hot milkThe setting of this book, on the southern coast of Spain, is the perfect backdrop for a summer book.  Sofia has taken her mother, Rose,  to a clinic in Spain in order to treat her intermittent walking problems.  Sophia and Rose rent an apartment that overlooks the beach but Sofia’s mother doesn’t appreciate the beautiful setting because the only thing she can focus on is her poor health.

The main theme of the book is Sofia’s failure at life; she hasn’t finished her Ph.D. in Anthropology, she has a menial job in England as a coffee barista, and doesn’t even have her own home or apartment.  She is at the constant beck and call of her mother whose health issues have been the centerpiece of both of their lives.  Sophia’s mother has mortgaged her home in England in order to pay for this expensive clinic and it is their last ditch effort to get to the bottom of Rose’s health issues.  But it is evident from the beginning of the story that Rose is a hypochondriac and that many of her health problems are psychosomatic.  Have Rose’s health problems held Sophia back from having her own adult life or is Sophia just using her mother’s health problems as an excuse?  Sophia spends their time in Spain mulling over these issues and more.

Levy’s writing style is what I would describe as sparse.  We get the bare minimum as far as the plot is concerned.  For example, Sophia’s father walked out when she was a child and she hasn’t spoken to him in over ten years.  She thinks a lot about him and his new wife and daughter while she is in Spain.  All of a sudden towards the end of the book Sophia is on a plane to Athens to try and reconnect with her father but there is not much of an explanation as to the process of how she decides to get on that plane.  I can appreciate the fact that Levy chooses to spend her words on setting a scene or the inner dialogue of the characters, but as someone who enjoys the details of a plot I would have appreciated more of a back story.

Readers will either love or hate Sophia who seems numb and awash in what is happening around her.  It is perfectly clear that her mother’s illnesses are not serious but she lets her mother take advantage of her good nature as she waits on her hand and foot.  Sophia also has two sexual relationships with both a man and a woman while she is in Spain.  She doesn’t seem especially attached to either of her partners and her sexual preferences for male or female are ambiguous as well.  Sophia’s sexuality is another issue in her life about which she cannot come to a decision.  The most shocking example of her indifference towards her life is her constant encounters on the Spanish beach with medusa jellyfish.  She doesn’t heed the warnings posted on the beaches and swims through these creatures and suffers painful stings.  We wonder if these wounds are self-inflicted just so that she can prove to herself that she is still alive and can feel something.

Finally, I have to say a word about Dr. Gomez who runs the clinic where Rose becomes a patient.  He is well-dressed, well-spoken and since his wife has died, his greatest love is the cat who serves as the mascot for his clinic.  It is evident that Dr. Gomez sees Rose’s health issues for what they really are and Levy’s sense of humor come out through the battle of wills between Rose and Dr. Gomez.  One of the funniest scenes in the book is a luncheon arranged by Dr. Gomez at which he entices a stray cat to scratch Rose’s foot by dropping calamari onto the floor of the restuarant.  His clever little plot reveals that Rose’s feet can’t possibly be numb if she can feel a cat scratch.

This is an interesting books as far as the setting and the character study.  I am curious to see what others think about Levy’s latest novel.  Does anyone think it will make the Man Booker shortlist?

About the Author:
D LevyDeborah Levy trained at Dartington College of Arts leaving in 1981 to write a number of plays, highly acclaimed for their “intellectual rigour, poetic fantasy and visual imagination”, including PAX, HERESIES for the Royal Shakespeare Company, CLAM, CALL BLUE JANE, SHINY NYLON, HONEY BABY MIDDLE ENGLAND, PUSHING THE PRINCE INTO DENMARK and MACBETH-FALSE MEMORIES, some of which are published in LEVY: PLAYS 1 (Methuen)

Deborah wrote and published her first novel BEAUTIFUL MUTANTS (Vintage), when she was 27 years old. The experience of not having to give her words to a director, actors and designer to interpret, was so exhilarating, she wrote a few more. These include, SWALLOWING GEOGRAPHY, THE UNLOVED (Vintage) and BILLY and GIRL (Bloomsbury). She has always written across a number of art forms (see Bookworks and Collaborations with visual artists) and was Fellow in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1989-1991.


Filed under British Literature, Literary Fiction

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

Review: None So Blind by José Ángel González Sainz

I received a review copy of this title from Hispabooks via Edelweiss.  The original book was published in Spanish and this translation has been done by Harold Augenbraum.

My Review:
None So BlindThis is a difficult title to review because it is impossible to describe the beautiful and philosophical language which permeates the book.  When the narrative begins Felipe Díaz Carrión  is returning to his home in a small village in Spain, but returning from where we do not yet know.  When he reaches his native village he takes great comfort in the familiar surroundings in which he grew up; the trees, the road, the nest of Egyptian vultures, the bronze doorknocker on his house and a cross which is the grave marker for his own father are all soothing to him.  As a person who likes her routine and is comforted by old, familiar things, I was mezmorised by the first few pages of this story as Felipe slips back into his peaceful and calm surroundings.

We are told that Felipe not only grew up in this small village, but he also met his wife, married her and started a family here.  When his son is about ten years old Felipe loses his job as a typesetter and he decides to move his family to a city in order to find work.  While in the city Felipe takes a job at a chemical factory and he settles into a new pattern where he walks the same road every day to work.  But the road in the city is greatly contrasted to his favorite road in the small village.  Whereas the small village dirt road is full of nature, is serene and peaceful, his road to work in the city is crowded, polluted and noisy.  But Felipe happily makes this transition for the good of his family, or so he thinks.

While his family is living in the city, his wife Asuncion gives birth to their second son.  Felipe is thrilled to have another son and he is proud to give his second son his own name.  Felipe’s relationship with the younger Felipe is tender and one built on respect and mutual interests.  But during this time trouble with his firstborn son also arises.  His eldest son spends less and less time at home and develops an attitude of disdain for his father.  It appears that his son has become radicalized through contact with his friends and acquaintanes in the city.  Felipe’s wife also becomes distant from him and she develops a newfound confidence and outspokenness about her.  She starts to attend political meetings at her friends’ homes and she even arranges her hair and clothing differently.  For twenty years Felipe calmly watches as his wife and oldest son grow farther and farther apart from him and their comments about his pacifism become increasingly abusive.

The biggest question facing the reader in the book is why Felipe turns a blind eye to his son’s and his wife’s radicalization, even when it is apparent they are breaking the law.  There is a lot of imagery, as one can imagine from the title, that revolves around blindness.  Felipe is shunned by his neighbors and beaten badly; his youngest son comes home with a black eye and his eldest son disappears for months on end.  During all of this Felipe doesn’t see or even try to see what is going on.  There are clues that he has suspicions about his son’s behavior, but he never confesses that he truly sees what is going on.  The significance of eyesight and blindness is further enhanced by the prolonged descriptions of the Egyptian vultures who nest around his home village.  They eat the softer parts of their prey like the tongue and eyes.

When Felipe is given an early retirement package from the chemical plant he realizes that there is nothing left for him in the city and so he moves back to his beloved village by himself.  He lives there peacefully for about year when he younger son shows up to deliver the awful news that his oldest son is accused of some horrific crimes.  Felipe is devastated and keeps wondering how much he is to blame for his son’s actions.  Felipe then takes us on a journey through the memories of his own father’s murder which he witnessed as a young boy.  It is no wonder that Felipe has become passive and almost numb to the things around him.  But does the fact that Felipe  turned a blind eye to his son’s behavior mean that Felipe is partly responsible for his son’s horrible crimes?  At which point in his son’s upbringing should Felipe have intervened?  And, finally, if he did speak up and intervene, would his son have listened to his father’s advice?

This is my first experience with a publication from Hispabooks.  I am so impressed with the beauty of the language and philosophical questions this book raises.  I can’t wait to see what else is in the Hispabooks catalog.

About the Author:
J.Á. González Sainz is a Spanish fiction writer and translator and co-founder of the Centro Internacional Antonio Machado, a Spanish language learning center for foreign students based in Soria, his hometown in Spain. He won the Premio de las Letras de Castilla y León in 2006, a prestigious Spanish literary fiction award.


Filed under Literature in Translation, Spanish Literature

Review: The Exchange of Princesses by Chantal Thomas

I received an advanced review copy of this title from the publisher, Other Press.  This was originally written and published in French and this English translation is by John Cullen

My Review:
Exchange of PrincessesIn 1721, the regent of France, Philip D’Orleans, decides that the best alliance that the eleven-year-old King Louis XV can make with Spain is through marriage.  The regent proposes that Louis XV marry the princess of Spain, who is only four-years-old at the time of their betrothal.  The regent will also give his own daughter, Louise Elizabeth, a moody 11- year-old girl, to the Prince of Spain, also just a boy of 12,  as a show of good faith.  If you are already confused about names and ages then please don’t let that discourage from reading the book; I was confused in the beginning as well but the author does a good job of repeating the names and making the characters clear and distinct.  In 1722, both princesses set out on a long and arduous trek on the unpaved and rough roads between France and Spain.  The princesses are exchanged on the middle of the journey and each one proceeds to her new home and position.

My favorite part of the book is reading about the four-year-old Spanish princess;  like any little girl she loves her dolls, playing games, and being lavished with attention.  She is talkative and precocious and all of France and the French court becomes smitten with this charming little girl.  The author describes the very adult tasks that she must endure such as receiving ambassadors from foreign countries and attending balls in her honor.  At one such ceremony the little infanta is described as sucking on her thumb and clutching her favorite doll while a group of academics from the University of Paris pay their respects to her.  The only one who is not taken in by the charms of the princess is her own husband, King Louis XV.

Things do not go quite as smoothly as Philip D’Orleans had expected as far as these arranged marriages are concerned.  But, what did the regent expect when he decided to base political alliances on the lives of children?  Even though the little princess, Marianna Victoria, is a delightful four-year-old, her future husband, the king, is a jealous and petty eleven-year-old boy who is very upset that his nanny is now taking care of his future bride.  As he grows up he has no interest, whatsoever in spending any time with her or getting to know her.  The infanta, on the other hand, worships the king and is so thrilled whenever he is around her.

Meanwhile, in Spain the roles are reversed as Louise Elizabeth, the future Queen of Spain, wants nothing to do with her husband Don Luis.  The future King of Spain is so thrilled to have a pretty wife and he wants nothing more than to consummate their marriage.  But Louise Elizabeth does everything she can to keep the Prince away from her.  I don’t want to give too much away, but nothing works out in the end as the regent had intended.

The Exchange of Princesses actually reads more like a non-fiction history book than an historical fiction.  The author uses real letters from the characters involved as well as newspaper articles from the time period.  There are great details about ceremonies, details of palaces and descriptions of costumes.  If you are looking for a fast-paced, exciting historical fiction novel then this is not the book to read.  However, if you want to learn something about the political situation between France and Spain during the 18th century and the players involved then this well-researched novel is the perfect choice.


About The Author:
Chantal Thomas (born 1945 in Lyon) is a French writer and historian. Her 2002 book, Farewell, My Queen, won the Prix Femina and was adapted into a 2012 film starring Diane Kruger and Léa Seydoux.

Thomas was born in Lyon in 1945, and was raised in Arcachon, Bordeaux, and Paris. Her life has included teaching jobs at American and French universities (such as Yale and Princeton) as well as a publishing career. She has published nineteen works, including essays on the Marquis de Sade, Casanova, and Marie Antoinette.

In 2002, Thomas published Les adieux à la reine (Farewell, My Queen). The novel gave a fictional account of the final days of Marie Antoinette in power through the perspective of one of her servants. It won the Prix Femina in 2002, and was later adapted into the 2012 film Farewell, My Queen. The film stars Diane Kruger as the titular queen and Léa Seydoux as her servant Sidonie Laborde. Thomas co-wrote the screenplay,and it opened the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival. Helen Falconer of The Guardian called the work “a well written slice of history” with “evocative, observant prose,” but criticized it for creating a narrator who “merely provides us with a pair of eyes to see through rather than capturing our interest in her own right.” While disagreeing in its classification as a novel, Falconer did however add that Farewell, My Queen “generates in the reader a real sense of being a fly on the wall, eavesdropping on the affairs of the great and the not so good.”

Thomas is currently the director of research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research.



Filed under France, Historical Fiction, Literature in Translation, Spain

Review: The Awakening by Allen Johnson

I received a review copy of this novel from the author.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is a beautiful novel about the power of redemption.  The story reminded me quite a bit of the same message that is conveyed by Dickens in A Christmas Carol: it is never too late in life to make amends and become a better person.

Lupita is a successful doctor who works at a local clinic in her hometown of Espejo, Spain.  She lives with her elderly, yet feisty, grandfather, Diego.  One night Diego finds a severely wounded man on the street and brings him home for Lupita to care for.  After a few days, the stranger whom they call Antonio, is recovering from his wounds but is still in a coma.  His sleep is fitful and tormented and Lupita and Diego wonder with what demons this wounded man is wrestling.

This story is also a bit of an historical fiction as Diego reminisces about his younger years and meeting the greatest love of his life, Lupe.  Diego and his wife move to Granada after they are married and experience the turmoil of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s.  The two time periods in which the story takes places, both the 1930’s and the 1990’s are intertwined nicely in the narrative.

The most interesting aspect of the story deals with Antonio and his awakening and subsequent amnesia.  For 4 months he cannot remember who he is or why he was attacked.  As he his healing, he finds peace with Lupita and Diego and truly becomes a part of their family.  But when he does regain his memory, will his previous life threaten the happiest home he has ever known?  I highly recommend reading THE AWAKENING so that you can find out!


About The Author:
Allen Johnson has been called a modern Renaissance man. Yes, he is a popular author, but that’s just the beginning. He is also a Ph.D. psychologist, keynote speaker, leadership consultant,cyclist, painter, actor, jazz pianist and vocalist, photographer, and videographer.

Allen has a voracious appetite for life. He has cavorted with giant turtles in the Caribbean, climbed the glacier peaks of the Pacific Northwest, and flown a single-prop plane across the country. He is fluent in French and calls a small village in the south of France his second home. That lust for life is always present in his writing: His characters are multidimensional and brimming with ambition and desire.

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Filed under Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction