Book reviews: Spanish stories, English writers

So many foreigners have written about Spain that it has become a country of clichés. Sun-seeking ex-pats in Benidorm, anti-social stag parties in Alicante and thrill-seekers sprinting down the streets of Pamplona.

As an English language teacher looking to immerse myself in another culture, I nearly had second thoughts about moving to Spain. Fortunately, I realised there is far more to this country than sangria and siestas. Here are three books you should take to the beach this summer if you want to read about the real Spain and its people.

bull fighters

Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through a Country’s Hidden Past  by Giles Tremlett

For a panoramic view of Spain, start with Giles Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain. Tremlett is a foreign correspondent who lives with his family in Madrid. All those fascinating questions which Wikipedia can’t answer can be found in this investigation into Spanish history and culture.

Why does a group like ETA exist in the Basque Country but not in Catalonia or Galicia? Why does no one talk about the Civil War? And where can you find the best flamenco?

Tremlett’s interviews include Pedro Alomodover’s childhood neighbours, ex-Falangists, gypsies, prostitutes and opinionated taxi drivers. You can almost hear the roar of mopeds and taste the tostadas dripping with olive oil as you read your way around Spain. At the same time, the shadows of Spain’s tumultuous past are never far in the background.

I was left with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the country’s diversity and why Spaniards are the way they are. If you are thinking of moving to Spain, or even just visiting, this book should be the first one you read.

Mad Dogs and an English Girl: A Stranger in Franco’s Spain by Caroline Waterman

Spain is a popular destination for English teachers these days but 19-year-old Caroline Waterman was travelling way off the beaten track when she went to teach in Burgos in the 1950s. This travelogue, which is based on the author’s own experiences, balances the grim realities of living under Franco’s dictatorship with the narrator’s amusing escapades.

These include a road trip through Andalucía with a fatherly American millionaire, typing lessons with an alcoholic Shakespeare fan and nights out with a reckless haemophiliac.

Although events and characters do at times seem exaggerated, this book offers a fascinating glimpse of a very different Spain. I would highly recommend it to English teachers working in Spain or anyone who enjoys historical fiction.

Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom

After Harry Brett is injured in Dunkirk, he is sent to Madrid by the British Secret Service to spy on the shady dealings of businessman Sandy Forsyth who also happens to be his old school friend. The Spanish Civil War has just finished and the Madrid Sansom portrays in his novel is hardly recognisable compared to the Spanish capital today.

Harry’s good at pretending, but even he can’t turn a blind eye to the poverty, famine and death around him. He grapples with class divisions and the politics of the day as he discovers the truth about more than just Sandy’s business.

With fast-paced adventures, an agonising love story and fascinating political insights, Winter in Madrid has something for everyone.

Want to read more about Spain in English?

Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving

 Best to be read sitting beside a tinkling fountain in the gardens of Granada’s Alhambra palace or just before bed so you can dream of buried gold and sleeping armies. This classic is a compilation of myths and legends that American-born Irving collected from the locals while staying in the Alhambra in 1829.

A Load of Bull: An Englishman’s Adventures In Madrid by Tim Parfitt

 In this true story, the British author is sent to Madrid to set up a Spanish version of the fashion magazine Vogue. If you overlook the exaggerations and stereotypes, A Load Of Bull is an entertaining read for anyone who is curious about what Madrid was like in the late 80s.

Guernica: A Novel by Dave Boling

Pablo Picasso painted Guernica’s pain in his famous portrayal of the 1937 bombing.  Dave Boling gives its citizens names, families and dreams in this historical novel. His writing conjures up such a vivid picture of the destruction of the Basque town and the suffering of the survivors that I had to put it down for a few weeks until I had the heart to continue.

Snowball Oranges: One Mallorcan Winter by Peter Kerr

One day they’ll produce an e-book that will emit all the smells, sounds and tastes of Spain. In the meantime, you can immerse your senses in the writing of Peter Kerr. Although his descriptions are somewhat long-winded in places, this travelogue is full of eccentric characters and humorous situations as the Scottish author makes a new life for himself and his family on an orange farm on the island of Mallorca.


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