Hello, Mr Kerr? David Downing here…

Well, here’s a thing.

I finally decided to mop up some early Philip Kerr titles and get stuck into #4, A Quiet Flame.

Nowhere to be found. Plenty of places had it listed, but listed as unavailable. So, I took a chance on eBay (I think it was) and lo! It arrived today and is as good as new. Actually, unless I’ve gone blind and lost my sense of touch, it is new.

img_2667From the catalogue pictures, I thought it was in the same style as the other Philip Kerr paperbacks I’ve bought over the years (with the intention of laying them in and reading them in order, you see). However, in ‘real life’ I thought “I’ve seen that somewhere before, I wonder…”

Well, yes, I have indeed seen it somewhere before. In my hands while I was reading it and on my shelves when I’d finished it. It was of course, a David Downing book – one of his excellent Station series.

img_2665This one. Though it could be them all. Well, this one has the same, the very same, not similar, the very same, man walking away from the viewer, though it was the ‘burned’ edges that first had me reaching towards the old bookshelves over there. As David Downing’s version(s) came out first, I’m thinking that his were the first to use this visual theme (it is possible to get them all in this style, a re-print of the original, if my copy of Zoo Station is anything to go by) and while Philip Kerr was writing and publishing his stories at the same time as David Downing, the later style of Philip Kerr’s, are different, or more different than this A Quiet Flame. However, something seems to have happened at the marketing department – my guess is that David Downing’s have sold in Europe, better than Philip Kerr’s. I say ‘in Europe’ as there are a series of quite dreadful ‘Bernie Gunther’ covers which seem to be aimed at the US market. I haven’t checked to see if they have ‘a novel’ printed on the front (in case you thought you were buying a packet of birdseed), which, apart from truly appalling design and typography which went out with the Ark, or the 1960’s, whichever came first, is usually the sign that you’ve got hold of a US version by accident.

img_2666img_2668But look here – the same burned edges, the same bloke – exactly – different background. Even the typo is in the same sans-serif ballpark. It looks as if Philip Kerr’s people have tried to distance the two, by throwing some money at the finishing, his name and the title are embossed and glossy and someone has tried a subtle shadow on the title along with a hideous blue tint all over. .

img_2669See here (from left to right) a later Philip Kerr in the Bernie Gunther series, this one and David Downing #2 in the Station series.

I suppose, if you’re wondering well why not? You perhaps aren’t (yet) aware that both the Bernie Gunther and the Station series, are set, or begin, before, during and after World War II. Philip Kerr’s stretch a lot later than David Downing’s, but A Quiet Flame is set well within the same timeframe as David Downing’s. OK, the Philip Kerr’s have has a bloke on them previously, but not the very same bloke.

Bottom line: Wouldn’t it be smart if we confused people. Wouldn’t it be great if we could swing on the best-selling David Downing’s coat-tails with the Philip Kerr’s?!

Make ’em look similar. Job’s a good-un!

There ya go.

You can buy A Quiet Flame here, (minus burned edges) when it’s back in stock.
You can buy The One From The Other here.

You can buy Silesian Station here.

Review: A German Requiem by Philip Kerr

Berlin Noir
4
of 5 stars

My version:
Paperback
Historical Fiction Thriller, Second World War
Penguin
2012
Bought

1947. The private eye has survived the collapse of the Third Reich to find himself in Vienna. Amid decaying imperial splendour, he traces concentric circles of evil and uncovers a legacy that makes the wartime atrocities seem lolly-white in comparison.

There are clearly some who don’t want the war to be over. Mainly those who both started it and survived relatively intact. In fact, there are a whole network of Germans who don’t seem to believe they lost. They’ve just suffered a minor stumbling block on the way to their rightful regaining of world power. It is those, many from Bernie Gunther’s past, he comes up against in A German Requiem. Though actually set for the large part in Austria. Maybe to symbolise the fact that the out-of-touch old Germans he comes up against, actually want to re-create the Habsburg era.

A German Requiem felt the most subtly complex and thoughtful of the three (so far) in the Bernie Gunther series. Actually the third in the series, and more often than not sold in a trilogy with March Violets and The Pale Criminal, it actually feels a little like a summing up, as if it could well have been the final book in a trilogy if he didn’t get the go-ahead to carry on. I found it gelled very well with another book about the period just after the Second World War I was reading at the time, called Savage Continent. Not as savage as some of the stuff in that, it does recreate the feeling there must have been about at the time very well indeed as far as I can see. The story seems more of an overview of the situation many Germans and many in Europe found themselves in at the time (I’ll rule out Great Britain from this, as the threat of Nazis left behind and/or Communist take-over from the East was not really a major concern in Birmingham B31, where my family were at the time). But the feeling of uncertainly there must have been, comes over well. Of hoping for the best, but realising you did that before the war and look what happened there. Of wanting to get rid of the old Nazi system, but maybe thinking that at least that was better than what the Russians had on offer. All comes over very well.

There are – again – a few too many, too forced similes (I have no idea how many were common currency at the time, I’m guessing he’s researched it appropriately enough). Yes, I’ll go along with that they were used during the period, but not all in the same sentence or paragraph. Gets a bit “get on with it!” Fortunately, while being mostly the perpetrator of these sins against understanding, Bernie Gunther manages to come out of it as a really strong, admirable character. Exactly as I guess Kerr wants him to be. The sudden fast forward to 1947 is a little confusing sometimes at the start. I had a ponder a few times as to why he didn’t go into Gunther’s wartime exploits. I came up with – that they would have been largely what has been done and described many times (in other books) before. And too limiting, if he set out in black and white what Gunther got up to, it would be hard to drag in things from his wartime past, in future novels (of which there are many). Some of what happens does get revealed when appropriate and it all feels right and proper doing it that way.

I’ve grown to like and respect Bernie Gunther more and more as the series goes on. I’m not saying this is going to beat David Downing‘s series, but it’s coming very close.

You can buy Berlin Noir (the three first Bernie Gunther novels) at The Book Depository

You may also like these reviews on Speesh Reads:

March VioletsThe Pale CriminalZoo StationSavage Continent

 

 

 

Me, on Goodreads

Review: The Pale Criminal by Philip Kerr


The Pale Criminal
out of 5 murders

Berlin Noir/Bernie Gunther 2

My version:
Paperback
Fiction Second World War II, crime, thriller
Penguin
1991
Bought

1938, two years after the events of March Violets, Bernie Günther has taken on a partner, Bruno Stahlecker. The two are working on a case where a Frau Lange, owner of a large publishing house, is being blackmailed for the homosexual love letters her son Reinhardt sent to his psychotherapist Dr. Kindermann. Günther and Stahlecker discover the blackmailer but Bruno is killed during a stakeout at Hering’s apartment. Günther is summoned to Gestapo offices, where Reinhard Heydrich forces Günther to look for a serial sex murderer, who is killing blond and blue-eyed teenage girls in Berlin and making fools of the police. Günther has no choice but to accept the temporary post of Kriminalkommissar in Heydrich’s state Security Service, with a team of policemen working underneath him.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, the second of Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy – also the second of his long-running Bernie Gunther series. I think I’m coming to like Bernie Gunther more as a character as he, or rather Kerr, isn’t trying so hard as he did in March Violets, to out-do every other tired, cynical, wise-cracking, Private Eye in film and/or literature. Kerr has calmed down and so has Bernie, I mean. And both are a lot better for it. The fact that Bernie is a Private Eye in (soon to be) war-time Germany, is enough, I feel. And it is that that now is taking the upper-hand in the story. The evocation of time and period and place, is now effortless and convincing (having read many of what must be the yard-stick of this sort of thing, namely David Downing‘s books).

Bernie Gunther is a tricky character. He’s not cynical, he’s a realist. He’s not an idealist, he’s doesn’t believe in the Nazi’s propaganda, he sees it as what it is, manipulation. He’s not come out against it, he’s just dealing with the shit that comes his way, whoever throws it. He’s not a white knight standing up for what is right, though he will do what is needed when it is needed. He can see what is happening and about to happen with the Jews, so why doesn’t he (or people like him at the time) do anything about it? What could he do? The movement was so strong, so all enveloping, one person couldn’t have done anything to the big picture. But they could and Bernie does, help those around him, those he can help. Without getting himself killed.

The war hasn’t begun yet in Germany, but the preparations are there for all to see. The book deals with the absurdity of the mind-set of the top Nazis who were leading their own people to slaughter for their idiotic, ideals. It seems that everyone s watching and waiting to see what will happen. The resulting slaughter and destruction that we in the 21st Century know all about, hasn’t been seen as a consequence. Not that the German people are arrogant enough to think they won’t be affected or their mighty country will be destroyed. I think it’s more they can’t really believe anyone would be so stupid as to lead them and the world into such a position.

The search for the child serial murderer, had shades of the ‘no crime possible in a Communist State, situation of Stalin’s USSR in Child 44.  Which again is a paradox, in that the extreme right-wing National Socialists, were plagues by the same sort of paranoid mentality, that the extreme left-wing Communists were. So, all dictatorships are the same. Whatever the colour.

A thoroughly well-written, well-plotted and interesting book. All the right things in all the right places, now for number three.

Buy Berlin Noir at The Book Depository

Relevant reviews on Speesh Reads:

March VioletsZoo StationChild 44

 

 

 

 

Me on Goodreads

The only list that matters – Best in Show 2015!

The best book I read all year, was…

First, a list over all the books I started to read (or finished, in the case of the first on the list) in 2015.

Click on the title to go to my review for the book.

Apocalypse : Dean Crawford
The Bourne Ascendancy : Eric van Lustbader
A Traitor’s Fate : Derek Birks
Cockroaches : Jo Nesbø
The Last Viking : Berwick Coates
The Moscow Option : Jeremy Duns
The Iron Castle : Angus Donald
Avenger of Rome : Douglas Jackson
Viking America : James Robert Enterline
The Sea Road : Margaret Elphinstone
The Sword and the Throne : Henry Venmore-Rowland
Sword of Rome: Douglas Jackson
Crowbone : Robert Low
The Serpent Sword : Matthew Harffy
The Black Stone : Nick Brown
The Confessor : Daniel Silva
Potsdam Station : David Downing
Blood Will Follow : Snorri Kristjansson
The Bone Tree : Greg Iles
Killing Floor : Lee Child
Hereward. Wolves of New Rome : James Wilde
False God of Rome. Vespasian III : Robert Fabbri
The Corners of the Globe : Robert Goddard
Lehrter Station : David Downing
An Officer and a Spy : Robert Harris
Masaryk Station : David Downing
Wulfsuna : E.S. Moxon
Catastrophe : Max Hastings
The Northmen’s Fury : Philip Parker
The Cairo Affair : Olen Steinhauer
Hanns and Rudolf : Thomas Harding
The Siege : Nick Brown
The Ends of the Earth : Robert Goddard
The Bloody Meadow : William Ryan
The Long Ships : Frans G. Bengtsson
Slash and Burn : Matt Hilton
The Redbreast : Jo Nesbø
Rome’s Fallen Eagle : Robert Fabbri
The Sword of the Templars : Paul Christopher
The King’s Assassin : Angus Donald
March Violets : Philip Kerr
Hannibal. Enemy of Rome : Ben Kane
The Imperial Banner : Nick Brown
Path of Gods : Snorri Kristjansson
The Scarlet Thief : Paul Fraser Collard
Solomon Creed : Simon Toyne
Child 44 : Tom Rob Smith
Die Trying : Lee Child
The Cross and The Curse : Matthew Harffy
At The Ruin of The World : John Henry Clay
I Am Pilgrim : Terry Haynes

Well, I read a whole load of very good, enjoyable books in 2015. Several from authors I’d read before and some from authors new to me. On reflection, there were several contenders for best book, however, as I decided I really couldn’t single one out like that, here’s, by genre, my picks from last years’ crop.

Click on the cover to buy the book from The Book Depository, click on the title, to read what passes for my review.

Thriller
The Bone TreeThe Bone Tree by Greg Iles
If you’ve read this, you’ll know what I’m on about. It’s an 800-page monster. but grips like a vice from the get go and does not let go. I read it over a long weekend and, as the cliche goes, could not put it down.
You do need to have read Natchez Burning (the first in this trilogy and also an 800-page monster), to get the full impact from the book, as that sets up a lot of the revelations and general fuck ME!”s you get from what goes on and what is revealed in The Bone Tree. If you’ve read Natchez Burning, but not got onto this yet, you’re in for a treat. If you’ve not read either, do so now! Steven King cannot be wrong! (He’s quoted on the front cover, if you’re wondering).
Book three is out in the spring, I think.

I Am PilgrimI Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
What can I say? I’m finding I am still speechless at how good this one was. Another beast of a long one, but it doesn’t read like it – you won’t notice how long it is once you get well and truly glued too it – you’ll think only that it’s too short when it’s over. Bang up to date in story, treatment and all that, it doesn’t have an agenda and you’re not supposed to either have your prejudices confirmed or destroyed. A refreshingly ‘this is how it is’ sort of thing. A one-off, which is a rarity, though it would stand being a series, but it’s probably best it isn’t. The Guardian’s quote obviously ignores The Bone Tree, but otherwise, for once, they’re not too far off the pace. Incredible enjoyment. And that’s why we read, isn’t it?

Historical Fiction

Probably my most read genre, so there was always going to be a few to choose from here. I had a particularly good year and it came down to three I couldn’t get a cigarette paper in between.

Hannibal Enemy of RomeHannibal Enemy of Rome by Ben Kane
For me, a glorious return to the Ben Kane fold. It’s not that he went away or anything daft like that, just it had been quite a while since I’d read one of his books. He is very active, as they say, on the old social media, so I feel like I’ve also been along for the ride, even without actually reading one of his books for a couple of years. I decided to skip Spartacus and get straight into Hannibal. Wow! I was captivated the whole way through. It’s a good long book, but it’s also lean, mean and effective storytelling. An even-handed presentation of wars between Carthage and Rome, that takes neither sides, nor prisoners. A real pleasure to read and learn and a super set-up for the other two in the trilogy, not to mention the next series.

Rome's Fallen EagleRome’s Fallen Eagle by Robert Fabbri
This was an absolute joy to read. Really excellent descriptive work and a captivating story, with no signs of Robert having to straight-jacket the/his Vespasian character in order to fit things into what is the accepted historical timeline and facts and all that. After a stomach-churning time in Rome with the previous book (False God of Rome), this one is – especially as he’s out in the open of Germania and Britannia (albeit in the forests most of the time) – a real breath of fresh historical air. There’s a freedom, a sense of adventure and a clarity of purpose that is just perfect. And, that it’s number four in a series, when most series are showing signs of the well having run dry, is even more remarkable. Well, I think so anyway.

The Sea RoadThe Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone
Speaking of remarkable…I can’t remember who and when this was recommended but I’m really, really glad I read it. She is a Scottish writer as far as I can see and if, like me, you have any sort of interest in the Vikings voyages to North America, you’ll love this book. Poignant, wistful, yearning, tear-jerking…all kinds of wonderful stuff. Keep your wits about you to get the most from the ending section. Real saga storytelling i the 21st Century that knocks nonsense like the last few Robert Low Viking parodies into place. Also proof, if Robert Low and Giles Kristian need it, that it didn’t always rain from leaden skies, every day, ‘back then.’

Non Fiction

I also occasionally venture out and sample the real world, so here goes:

Hanns and RudolfHanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding
A thoroughly intriguing and surprisingly even-handed look at the lives of two Germans leading to, during the and after, the Second World War. That, by a quirk of fate, one was born Jewish and one to German parents, starts the comparison. Their fates obviously diverge somewhat, after that seemingly even start. Whilst the main thrust, is the author’s trying to figure out what his grandfather (?) did during the war, that he didn’t feel the need to talk about, it’s most rewarding for, through not actually writing the comparing and the contrasting, looking at why, how someone became the Commandant of Auschwitz. People who know more than me are never going to agree, and it’s wrong to look for a one line answer, however…this comes closest of all the books I’ve read – and I’ve read a few.

An Officer and a SpyAn Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris
Not strictly non-fiction, but a dramatising of fact, in fiction in a A Day of The Jackal-type way. If that guy who wrote Schindler’s Ark can get away with it, Rober Harris can, the other way, in my list.
I was familiar with the name Dreyfus and also with Affair and that it was a big deal to French people, both back then, and now. So, I thought, let’s find out. After reading a few barnstormers by the formidable M. Harris, I got into this. Phew! Incredible…such bravery, such fortitude, such stupidity, bare-faced lying and moral courage. If right was done, it was done too late to save face, lives were ruined and very few came out smelling of roses. As a way of understanding the utterly stupid – though probably not thought stupid at the time – mind-set that led to World War I, it’s indispensable.

And finally Esther…

Independent

Well, it should be a genre, or maybe not a genre, as they write in genres, but…erm, well, many plucky authors – and you make up your own reason why here – clearly send their manuscripts to the boss of Decca, or the umpteen people the Hairy Potter woman did. And, as a blind blogger, I don’t see Self-Published as a different genre to be avoided like a plague, not touched with a barge-pole, I’m way too good to waste my time on that stuff, don’t you know, now what does this publisher want me to say, oh yes : It’s BRILLIANT! Yes, I see them as books and stories and really, really good.

The two I know are Independent sort of things I read this year, both – fortunately – turned out to be excellent. So, purely in order of ace-ness of cover, here they are:

The Serpent SwordThe Cross and The CurseThe Serpent Sword and The Cross and The Curse by Matthew Harffy
Despite having a face that says ‘read my books or I send the boys round’ Matthew seems a really nice guy. Goes without saying, he knows his Anglo-Saxon onions too. The loner, outsider, proving his worth against the odds, isn’t new. However, it is new when set in Anglo-Saxon invasion times. That’s after the Romans and before the Vikings, to you and me. The real beauty here, is The Cross and the Curse. Fan-Saxon-Tastic! I almost wanted to hug him, but then thought of the publicity shot and thought better of it – it’s so good. Go buy it (it’s out NOW!) as they say) and get in on the ground floor, then it won’t just be me saying ‘of course, I’ve been reading Harffy for years, don’t you know?’

Wulfsuna by E.S. Moxon
Despite having the same surname as one of my neighbours (also English) near here at Speesh Towers in deepest Harlev, Denmark, this is a superb first effort from the lovely Ms.M. She of course got an extra star for either being from Birmingham, or now living there, I forget which. Anyway, this is in the same sort of ball-park as Matthew, in the Anglo Saxon ball-park, that is. However, in a way, the Wulfsuna stories are the other side of the fence (in that ball-park?), I thought. As they start, with the main characters coming over to Britain, rather than Matthew’s already having been here a good while. I thought a lot of Snorri Kristjansson’s books, in that there were some fantasy elements woven into what is obviously a very clever interpretation of the historical records. As in, she knows what we know and uses that as a launch pad for the stories.
I think I’m right in putting this in the Independent pile, though it is published by Silverwood Books. Anyway, who needs a tin-pot genre like Indie, when the story and writing is as good as this? Not me, no sir.

So there you have it. It could well be, if you’ve read any of the above, that you think differently. That’s great. All I hope, is that you enjoyed whichever books you read last year and you enjoy all the books you read this year. That’s, as I say, what it’s all about. Reading books for enjoyment. And I finish and review all the books I start. Oh, thanks for reading this blog, btw.

Review: March Violets by Philip Kerr

Berlin NoirThe verdict is in!

4 out of 5 Stars

The version I have:
Published by Penguin 2012.

Bought with help from RegionMidt.

The cover picture, is the version I have. Other versions are available. I haven’t seen them sold separately, but looking on the man’s website, at cover designs for the individual titles, I never want to. Truly dreadful.

March Violets is the first book of Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy. As they are described in several places I can see as a ’trilogy,’ it would seem to suggest that the first three books – March Violets, The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem – were either intended to be the only three books about Bernie Gunther, but the series proved a success (I don’t know) and Kerr followed on. Or, that they are interlinked in some way, the stories similar, about the same characters, or a similar theme. As I’ve only read the first of the ‘trilogy’ I can say as yet. I have read one of the later Bernie Gunther thrillers, but that was most definitely not set in 1930’s (or ‘40s) Berlin.

Bernie Gunther, a 38-year-old ex-policeman, has become a Private Investigator and a new case begins with the investigation of the theft of a diamond necklace from the wealthy industrialist Herman Six’s daughter Grete’s house. Just ask Grete, you’d think. Problem is, both she and her husband appear to have been killed in the break in, and the house has been set on fire. Gunther must use all his resources and those of his informants, call in favours, and go in debt for new ones. He runs into those at the top of the Nazi heap – like Hermann Goering – and those trawling the bottom of the pecking order, such as the delightful ‘Red Dieter.’ A tortuous tale of deceit, corruption, anti-corruption, the Olympic Games (never thought you’d see the words ‘corruption’ and ‘the olympic Games ‘in the same sentence, eh?), mistaken identity, grisly murders, extortion, have I missed anything? Oh yeah, and a visit to Dachau concentration camp. And there’s an explanation of the title March Violets – what’s not to like?

Nothing can compare with David Downing for ‘this sort of thing’ for me – books set in (Nazi) Germany just before, during and after the Second World War. The feeling that he has actually invented time-travel and actually HAS been back to the period he writes about. There’s no other explanation for writing that convincingly. However, to be fair, this is the first Bernie Gunther book of the series and only the second one I’ve read, so it’s early days yet, for both Bernie, Philip and me. And there’s actually more meat in the plot than a fair few of the Alan Fursts I’ve read. Gunther is an interesting character. Intuitive, clever and amusing. Perhaps written a bit too amusing on some occasions and he does seem to get away with saying inappropriately funny things to inappropriate people than perhaps would actually have happened. The wisecracks mostly work, never descend to Roger Moore James Bond banal quip-territory and as I know from having read a later novel, do wear off with time.

It all hangs together very well, is very carefully and logically – for the time, of course – plotted and is all in all, a thoroughly good and interesting read. Kerr has clearly gone after a kind of Humphrey Bogart type Sam Spade sort of wise-cracking gumshoe type thing. Set in Nazi Germany. And you know what? I think he may well have done it.

Buy March Violets at The Book Depository

Me, on Goodreads

Review: Masaryk Station

Masaryk StationMasaryk Station by David Downing

My rating: of 5 stars

A superb end to a simply wonderful series. A marvellous end to the book. Happiness tinged with sadness. Tragedy and hope.  It didn’t really feel like a goodbye.’ An au revoir, hopefully. Though that’s probably me wishing it, rather than it actually being so. And yes, he saved the best for (the) last (two).

As the book begins, it is three years since the second war to end all wars ended. But the world feels for many just as unsafe as it was. Perhaps more so. The series’ ‘hero’ John Russell and his old espionage ‘friend’ and part-time Soviet controller, Shchepkin find themselves sinking deeper and deeper into the new world of spies and mistrust, as the two new world powers let paranoia about each other override any thoughts of justice and retribution for the people who suffered most. The ordinary man and woman in the street, wherever that street might once have been in Europe, are just as expendable in the new Cold War as they ever were in the ‘old’ war. Russell and Shchepkin reach the conclusion that there is probably no escape for them, or those they care for, not alive anyway. Unless, that is, they can find a secret about one side or the other, to use as blackmail. They know plenty of secrets, of course, but the people they know secrets about, also know secrets about them. It needs to be a big one, a huge one, a secret so potentially devastating, that it would be worth leaving them alone to pay for. If they survive long enough after disclosing it, to use it, that is.

I don’t think there’s been a deep message to be got from the Station series. David Downing hasn’t been on a cliched anti-war, anti-Nazi, anti-conflict, mission. That’s for us to read in maybe. The things I take from the series are maybe the triumph of spirit and that people, no matter where they come from, are fundamentally decent at heart. That war affects every side differently, but in the end the same. There are no winners, the human race loses. Masaryk Station, in summing up the series that has gone before it, is about betrayal. Of people, each other, of ideas. It’s about starting to build your own future, because no one else is going to do it for you. Certainly not the Big Powers, as here. They say they are, but they can’t be trusted with the future and certainly not with yours’. Universally relevant wherever you find yourself today, it’s about all sides being let down by their leaders, elected and unelected.

Despite (obviously) being written by an English (speaking) writer, the series has been remarkably even-handed and non-judgemental. You draw your own conclusions, if you want to. Obviously, the events and atrocities will speak for themselves, however, they can be open to interpretation, however you want to interpret them, depending on which side you were or are. There were no winners, nothing was solved by 5 years of war and 40-odd million dead.

It’s impossible to pick a best book of the six Stations and would be wrong to even think about trying. Could the series be returned to? Yes. Should it? That’s a whole other question.

Masaryk Station especially and the series as a whole leaves me with sadness, hope, tragedy, happiness, possibility. Leaves me with a smile on my face and hope in my heart and glad that I travelled with David Downing, John Russell and Effi Cohen.

Click on the cover for my reviews of the previous Station books. The covers are to the paperback versions I have. Yes, I got the wrong Zoo Station. Irritating.

Lehrter StationPotsdam StationDavid Downing Stettin StationSilesian StationZoo Station

 

 

 

 

 

You could and should, buy them here.

Me on Goodreads

Review: Lehrter Station

 

Lehrter Station by David DowningLehrter Station
My rating: of 5 stars

It goes without saying that this is (another) beautifully written paced and structured, evocative, sometimes provocative, story from David Downing. All his books in the Station series have been. I’m not quite sure how he’s done it – maintain such a high standard of writing and story-telling over six novels (yes, I’ve finished the sixth now, though this is number five). Maybe he wrote them all at one sitting and then divided it all into six parts. Who knows how he’s done it, they’re all uniformly superb and this is (obviously, after all that) no different.

Lehrter Station begins at the end of 1945. The war has ended and John Russell, Effi and John’s son, are holed up in London. Naturally, Effi misses Berlin, but so does John. Then, the bleak, post-war London woodwork squeaks and out comes Russell’s old Soviet contact Shchepkin, with an offer Russell, after some consideration, finds he can’t, or would be stupid to – as in he wouldn’t live very long if he did so – refuse. So, Russell returns to Berlin to work for the Russians. And the Americans. He finds himself essentially, walking a tightrope at the cusp of the old war and the new, cold war. Clearly, as soon as the war was over, peace declared and celebrated, even before that, the parties were working behind the scenes on the next one.

At the heart of it, there’s uncertainty. “I’m beginning to think certainty died with the Nazis” as a Jewish activist puts it. The new future is in many ways more uncertain than it was under the Nazis. Even at the end of the war, even not knowing where the next bomb was going to fall. Before the end, you knew who to avoid, who was the enemy. Now, even though the ‘enemy’ have been defeated, things are more unclear than they were. It’s about the future obviously, but also the past. How to think about it, how to revenge it. Should it be revenged? Is not revenging it, letting those who died, down? Is it revenge, or is it ‘justice’? Even when the Jews do it? Do two wrongs make it alright?  About people paying for their past sins. Should they? Should sins be passed down to their children? Should whole nations be held responsible for the actions of their countrymen, when the actual perpetrators can’t be identified? When is enough? Do we turn a blind eye, because they’ve been wronged? No one won. We all lost. No one is behaving properly. Maybe the losers were, of course the Jews. And the Russians sent to their slaughter by Stalin. And the German people, sent to their slaughter, by the Nazis. And the German people, who saw their future destroyed. Twice. And the Jews. Though, basically, everyone thought they had it worse than everyone else (read Max Hastings’ All Hell Let Loose, you’ll know what I mean).

It’s about expediency and realpolitik – our new enemy’s enemy is now our friend. Even if that means our enemy of five minutes ago, now has to be our friend. It’s about how complicated it was for the ordinary person, not involved in the new Great Game, just to survive. And about mothers and families. Ordinary people doing what they have to do to survive. People looking in from the outside seem to be able to judge and tell those they’re looking at, what is right or wrong. The people doing it think they’re right, that it was right to go to war and what they’re doing now, after that, justifies whatever they do – they must be right, because they ‘won.’

“You end up asking yourself – how much better off are we? Enough to justify 40 million dead?”

David Downing has built up a totally immersive picture and puts you in it. I have not so much feeling I’m reading about it – I’m there. Right there. Finest kind.

Buy Lehrer Station at The Book Depository

Me, on Goodreads

Review: Potsdam Station

Potsdam Station

Potsdam Station by David Downing
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

All David Downing’s books have been excellent. Potsdam Station, book four (of six) in the Station series, continues that trend – and then some.

There did seem to be a bit of a leap between Stettin Station and Potsdam, some four years, in the story-timeline. It was a little unsettling at the start and I had to re-convince myself a few times that I hadn’t missed a book. I hadn’t, I eventually realised – and so relaxed. I couldn’t really make up my mind (totally) why he did that. Perhaps he felt that he’d concentrated so much of the previous three, that if he was to continue at that ‘speed’, he’d need too many books to take it to where he wanted the series to end, some years after the war. I do think he had six books planned from the start and therefore needed to build in a ‘break’ between Stettin and Potsdam. Also, it might be a little unbelievable if Russell got into life-threatening scrapes every couple of months for the whole of the war. And, as a ‘foreign’ journalist, other than going underground, the sensible solution for someone like him, would have been to get out, even if that meant leaving his ‘life’ behind. As he does.

Russell has been ‘forced’ to leave Germany – and leave his girlfriend Effi and son Paul behind to face The End. However, he soon realises he needs to go back – and quickly. He knows what the Red Army are capable of and have begun to do, in their headlong rush to reach the German capital. Partly because they want to, partly because Stalin wants them to and partly to beat the Americans to the big prize. They’re also intent on exacting their own special form for revenge, Russian-style. And it would, one has to admit, take the cheek-turning ability of the Saint of all Saints not to want to exact revenge on the Germans for what they did – and planned on doing – to the Russian people. So Russell’s past as a Russian spy comes in useful (for once) in getting himself on a Russian plane and parachuted in, hopefully ahead of the now rampant Red Army. His son Paul, is 19, and has been put in the firing-line on the eastern front and has had to grow up very quickly, mainly because life-expectancy on the eastern front, is very short. Russell’s girlfriend Effie has, as I say, also remained behind in Berlin and so we see the trials and hardships of the German people, as the rule of law is swept away, as they are abandoned by the Nazis, as they are bombed back to the dark ages and await their fate at the hands – and the women at the loins – of the Soviets.

Potsdam Station, is absolutely perfectly written to show how everything, every emotion, every seemingly ordinary situation, is magnified and changed in wartime. Good and evil, obviously, but the seemingly previously ordinary, suddenly seems suspicious. Why is it ordinary? Why is there no one there? Is there someone? Are they watching, waiting? Why? No one, nothing, is innocent, no remark without another meaning. “It often felt as if all normal life had been consumed by the war.” The book is about the truly desperate situation the people of Berlin found themselves in. If you want to read more about this period, I’ve put some titles at the bottom of this review. You could say ‘well, after what they were doing – still doing until the end – to their Jewish populations, they deseved it.’ But that isn’t the point here. Effi is involved in helping the Jewish people she finds along the way, she is doing something, not to ease her conscience, but just as one person helping another. As we all should do, in or out of wartime. Retribution is, as I know now, to be discussed in the next book in the series, Lehrter Station.

It is, I felt, Effi’s book. Not that she gets significantly more page-time than Russell, but it felt like she got more of the story this time than she has in the past. Previously, with her being an actress, once she’d gone off for the day acting, there wasnt really much of a way he could develop too many stories around her. She does feature, but I’ve felt, more as an accessory to the main story-driving character of John Russell. Here, with him being out of Germany and her having to survive on her wits and instincts in Berlin, she really comes to the fore and develops tremendously as a character. Downing shows how, as I thought Max Hastings did admirably in his (non-fiction history of the Second World War) ‘All Hell Let Loose,’ ordinary people were affected by the decisions taken by all sides in the conflict. We can then draw our own conclusions. The ‘problem’ of, as mentioned above, being understanding of the Russian’s demands for revenge, doesn’t mean we can condone the attacks on the ordinary German people, who weren’t neccessarily responsible for the actions of the Nazi party. But many were, so was it ok to kill and rape lots of them? Clearly not, so where do you draw the line? You can’t. And, why shouldn’t the German people feel the need for revenge for the actions both of the Russians, and the British, for bombing – for instance – civilians in Dresden? No one is right and no one has the right to be right in war. That’s what I take away from ‘Potsdam Station.’

Poignant and nuanced, I fell in love with the series all over again with Potsdam Station. Several times. I felt like this must be the best of the series and the others have been leading to it. The End, of course, was climactic, so it is appropriate enough that this should feel like the story reaching a crescendo. It is a non-judgemental look at how it all fell apart, on a human, ground-level, personal scale. It is on the surface a love story between John Russell and Effi, but also the German people’s love for a Germany that they deserved, the Nazi party smashed and the Russians bombed and raped flat. Was it all worth it?

Also worth investigating:
Antony Beevor : Berlin, The Downfall 1945.  BUY
Richard Overy : Russia’s War.  BUY
Ian Kershaw : The End.  My review. BUY

Me on Goodreads

If it’s 2015, it must be time for – Book of the Year 2014!

I thought I’d actually wait until the year was over (2014, just in case you…) before putting my heads together and seeing what I’d read that was worthy of

The Speesh Golden Bookmark*

for best book/read I read in 2014.

As usual, I don’t seem to have read any of other places’ ‘Books of the Year.’ Partly because I don’t often get on to actually reading books that were released in the year their list covers.

Anyway, I have readed** a fair few books this year. Listened to a fair few as well, after being temporarily (slightly) blind.

So, with grateful thanks to our sponsors –

RegionMidt (the people I work for and who pay, indirectly, for all the books and who really need to put a stop with the Danish Government’s attempts to starve the hospitals of money, calling it ‘savings’ when everyone at the sharp end (me) knows they’re ‘cuts.’ How can you put a price on health? Your health, my health. Can’t. Bastards).

Sydbank (our bank who turn a blind eye to a little overdraft now and then).

And a couple of authors who were kind enough to send me a copy of their books after reading this here blog and surmising, correctly as it turned out, that I might like to be sent their book(s): Here is a list of all the books I have finished in 2014. In order of finishing:

1. The Bourne Imperative : Eric Van Lustbader
2. The Ways of the World : Robert Goddard
3. Ratcatcher : Tim Stevens
4. Secret of the Seventh Son : Glenn Cooper
5. The Last Conquest : Berwick Coates
6. Stay Another Day : Mark Timlin
7. Swords of Good Men : Snorri Kristjansson
8. The Last Minute : Jeff Abbott
9. Arrows of Fury : Anthony Riches
10. Grail Knight : Angus Donald
11. Hannibal. The Patrol : Ben Kane
12. The Small Boat of Great Sorrows : Dan Fesperman
13. Stettin Station : David Downing
14. Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs : Hugh Bicheno
15. The Whitehall Mandarin : Edward Wilson
16. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Sp : Len Deighton
17. The Lion and The Lamb : John Henry Clay
18. The Rule of Four : Ian Caldwell
19. Out of Exile : Luke Preston
20. Conquest : Stewart Binns
21. Defender of Rome : Douglas Jackson
22. The Lost Symbol : Dan Brown
23. Of Merchants and Heroes : Paul Waters
24. Fortress of Spears : Anthony Riches
25. The Holy Thief : William Ryan
26. The Leopard Sword : Anthony Riches
27. Dead Men’s Dust : Matt Hilton
28. The Wolf’s Gold : Anthony Riches
29. The Dying Hours : Mark Billingham
30. A Farewell to Justice : Joan Mellen
31. The Bat : Jo Nesbø
32. Siege of Heaven : Tom Harper
33. Book of Souls : Glenn Cooper
34. Rome’s Executioner : Robert Fabbri
35. The Eagle’s Vengeance : Anthony Riches
36. A Colder War : Charles Cumming
37. The Emperor’s Knives : Anthony Riches
38. Natchez Burning : Greg Iles
39. The Wolves of the North : Harry Sidebottom
40. 1066 What Fates Impose : G.K. Holloway
41. The Fort : Bernard Cornwell
42. Judgement & Wrath : Matt Hilton
43. The Amber Road : Harry Sidebottom
44. Not In Your Lifetime : Anthony Summers
45. Mission To Paris : Alan Furst
46. The Bourne Retribution : Eric Van Lustbader

So, the best of the year?

Gonna have to be in two categories here. Historical Fiction and plain old Fiction. Maybe also Non-Fiction. Go on then, Non-Fiction as well.

“So what are they?!”

Best Historical Fiction book I read all year:

What Fates Impose1066 What Fates Impose by G.K. Holloway

No doubt about this one. And it’s not just because I finished it late in the year and can’t remember too far back…It’s because it’s a superb book, telling an interesting story in a wonderful way. I can’t remember being so impressed by a book for a good long while. I even forced it upon my neighbour (I/we live in Denmark, he’s also English, fortunately) and he loved it as well. You will believe the English are gonna win, I can assure you. Could do with the cover being a bit more dynamic, but otherwise, I cannot recommend this to you all highly enough.

The author had a look at the type of books I read/reviewed on the site and asked if I would like a copy sent. I haven’t been paid for the review other than getting the book for free.

Here’s my review.
Here’s where you can buy it wherever you live.

Good ol’ G.K. also informs me that it’s on Amazon UK and Amazon US, should you really not want to get it from The Book Depository.

The Best Fiction book I read in 2014

…well, there were two. In order of equalness – or alphabetical, you decide –
I give you:

9780007467471A Colder War by Charles Cumming

Stunning book, absolutely. Glues itself to your hands, turns your brain inside out and has me counting the days to a sequel/follow up/his next one. Spy story par-excellence, bang up to date, harking back to the great spy novels of yore. Simple and effective and much better than a fair few others of his I’ve read. For once, the references to John le Carré are right. Go buy it.

Here’s my review.
Here’s where you can buy it wherever you live.

 

 

The Whitehall MandarinThe Whitehall Mandarin by Edward Wilson

OK, I read a lot of John le Carré when I was younger, so I like a good spy story and this is just that. Not in the shadow of le Carré at all, out on its own. A really interesting, intreguing journey through the’ 60’s, ’70’s, spy scandals, the diplomatic hot-spots and turning points. World-wide in scope, uniquely English in execution. I loved this one from start to finish. Get it bought. Do it now!

Here’s my review.
Here’s where you can buy it wherever you live.

 

 

The Best Non-Fiction book I read all 2014, was:

A Farewell To JusticeA Farewell to Justice. Jim Garrison, JFK’s Assasination and the Case That Should Have Changed History by Joan Mellen

First, an absolutely incredible piece of work. Mind-boggling marshalling of facts into evidence. I really did think this was the last word on the whole affair. Joan Mellen owns the Kennedy conspiracy. Though… Anthony Summers has butted in with Not In Your Lifetime, Mellen still rules – for now.

Another pretty dreadful cover – and don’t let the Oliver Stone quote put you off, you need to read this book.

Here’s my review.

Here’s where you can buy it wherever you live.

Mentioned in dispatches:

Natchez Burning by Greg Iles.

Fabulous. Stunning. All that.

I posted a review. The Natchez tourist people follow me on Twitter. Excellent stuff.

Here’s my review.
Here’s where you can buy it wherever you live.

Alan Furst - Mission to ParisMission to Paris by Alan Furst

His best…so far.

1939, Paris, Berlin, Paris. Subtle, suspense, something else good beginning with ‘s.’

Here’s my review.
Here’s where you can buy it wherever you live.

The Small Boat of Great SorrowsThe Small Boat of Great Sorrows by Dan Fesperman

The Balkans, the Second World War, the Balkan conflict, Italy. One that gets better the more I think about it. And bought for a song in the Porthcawl RNLI shop. Result.

Here’s my review.
Here’s where you can buy it wherever you live.

I hope you enjoyed the books you read in 2014 and that you’re looking forward to the ones you’ll read in ’15.

Remember to read real books (that’ll be ones made from paper) and make sure you only ever use Amazon for books if you really can’t avoid it, or until they start paying the right amount of tax. Like you and I do.

*There isn’t a golden bookmark. I made that up.

**Yes, I know…

Review: Mission to Paris.

Mission to Paris.
Mission to Paris. by Alan Furst
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think if you’re going to start reading Alan Furst novels (and if you haven’t, why not?), you could do no better than start here. Though, as this is so good, maybe it would be better to start elsewhere and save this pleasure? Hard to decide how to recommend it best. It really is a summation of all his strengths, all his subtitles. The perfect place to start, the perfect place to carry on from.

A deceptively simple story – all the best are – and American movie star, Frederic Stahl agrees, at his studio’s prompting, to make a movie. In Paris. In 1939. Of course, we know now that that probably wasn’t the best idea the studio, or he, ever had, but it was back then. Though, and as you might have guessed from the spelling of his name, Stahl isn’t your typical American movie star. If there is, or was, such a thing. Anyway, Stahl is a movie star in America now, but began his life in Vienna, born into ‘intelligentsia,’ though at the age of 17 he ran away to sea. A ship took him to America, then his looks took him to Hollywood. Hollywood sent him to Paris to make a movie. He is ‘hot property’ in more ways than one, as he soon finds out. Not just to the party, wining and dining, cocktail and cafe-society, but also to the intelligence agencies. On both sides of the yet to be declared, but every one knows is coming, conflict. You can’t say ‘war’ because no one – with the possible exception of Berlin – knew if there’d be a war or not. Obviously, everyone (with the exception of Berlin) hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but the sense of it being the last dance for the Parisian society, the foreboding, the hidden – and not so hidden – threat of a mighty power finding it will not, and probably cannot, be opposed, is handled to perfection by Furst. Stahl, is knowingly or unknowingly more and more entwined by forces he knows he doesn’t and shouldn’t want to be entwined by. As a film star, his value to the Nazis is immense, they can justify their regime by using him. They invite him to Berlin, to a film competition. He knows he shouldn’t go. But he also knows that while it is just an invitation, it’s one he can’t refuse. There will be ‘consequences.’. However, by being used by the Nazis, he finds he is then making himself valuable to the American intelligence services. He can, as a still neutral American, go pretty much where he likes in Europe. As an American with a European past, he finds out different. All Stahl wants to do, is revisit the Parisian haunts of his youth, be wined, dined and partied by the hight society he once stood on the outside of, finish the film – and get his end away with the wardrobe mistress.

As an aside, if you’ve read any David Downing – if not, why not?! – you’ll recognise some of the places Stahl visits while in Berlin. At around the same time as the John Russell books too. I half expected them to bump into each other at the Adlon bar!

This is the perfect showcase for all Alan Fursts talents. The complete Furst. By turns slow, reflective, ordinary, tense, erotic and passionate. Light, dark and sometimes dangerous. And more. I’d have to put it way out in front the best Furst I’ve read so far. It has everything all his other novels have in parts, distilled in total. Beautifully well written, perfectly paced. Perfection on the page. Nothing less.

View all my reviews