The Scent of Lemon Leaves by Clara Sanchez.

Cover imageThis one proves the old adage about not judging a book by its cover, which in this case does the book no favours at all, the content being totally at odds with the impression the cover conveys. The book was originally called ‘Lo Que Esconde To Nombre’ (What Your Name Hides) and had on its cover a disturbing image showing the photo of a young woman with her mouth ripped away. Why the change?

A couple of things caught my eye when I was considering buying this book: the thumbnail of the Kindle edition appears to have the author’s name wrong (Sarchez, rather than Sanchez); in the ‘formats’ box, when I hover over ‘paperback’ a window opens telling me that the publisher is Alma Books Ltd and that the publication date is March 2013, whereas this English edition was actually published in June 2012.

I had a quick look at the publisher’s website. I can’t say I was impressed: the first two pages I looked at carried contradictory information about the number of books published; the blog has only had three posts this year and the one I started to read had a typo near the beginning.

None of which had anything to do with the book itself, which I enjoyed – with reservations.

For me the structure worked very well, alternating contributions from the two central characters giving two accounts of the same meetings and letting us discover what each of them were doing/thinking in between. Given that the two were over fifty years apart in age, and with very different life experiences, I thought that the writer captured each very well. Julian, a concentration camp survivor and, in his younger days, a Nazi hunter, now struggling to cope with the physical problems of an aging body, is a well-drawn and sympathetic character holding on to memories of his wife and friends.

Sandra is a solidly-drawn 30-year-old, unmarried, pregnant and wondering where she wants to take her life.

The background is real enough. The town of Denia does exist and an enclave of former Nazis did make their home there, supporting their lifestyle (like those in the book) by the sale of jewellery stolen from their victims so many years before.

So, we have good central characters and a good setting for a satisfying story: why didn’t it quite live up to expectations?

Well, sometimes the language is so odd that it jars. I can only think that it must be down to the translation which may have been done literally rather than with a real feel for the appropriate English idiom.

I had issues with aspects of the plot. Spoiler alert!!

The Nazis and their Brotherhood were never quite as dangerous as the author kept suggesting. When one of their number disappeared we were led to believe that they had bumped her off because she had become an unreliable member of their group – but then she turned up living comfortably in an old people’s home, and when they discovered what Julian was up to, they did nothing about him. The ‘magic potion’ they believed was keeping them young was just daft; Julian easily had it analysed – did none of them think of doing that? Sandra suddenly falling in love with one of the Brotherhood after minimal contact just didn’t ring true.

I did, however, find the ending satisfying.

The book is available for Kindle from Amazon, where the print format is also available. The Scent of Lemon Leaves

Winter in Madrid by C J Sansom

Cover image for Winter in MadridAfter a few disappointments with Amazon’s 20p Kindle bargains I was hoping that this book would restore my faith in the bargain basement, and it did – almost. Don’t expect anything even remotely similar to Sansom’s Shardlake series.

I’ve read books about the Spanish Civil War, and novels set in that period, but knew nothing about what happened in Spain after that war ended and WWII began. The author’s meticulous research makes this an informative and disturbing read.

As a source of entertainment it doesn’t work as well. It is slow-paced and, without a whiff of humour in its 500+ pages, it’s rather heavy going. When the pace picks up towards the end the complex scheme devised by the characters is hard to believe; I couldn’t help thinking that the plotters could have achieved their aims without the complications.

I’m glad I read it. There are powerful images of political and religious conflict, corruption and of the suffering of the Madrid population facing starvation while Franco sent food convoys north to feed Hitler’s army in France.

At the end of the book is an Historical Note that doesn’t appear in the table of contents. I recommend reading this first as a useful scene-setter, particularly as it makes clear that a number of the characters really existed.

I doubt that you will still be able to buy it for 20p, but It’s still available for Kindle from Amazon, and in print format. Winter in Madrid