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Sunday, 15 February 2015

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

(Book received from, and review written for,
Fear and Hope under Stalin           My rating:  5/5

This is an exciting, fascinating and thought provoking read.
Set in 1953 (the year of Stalin’s death) the book has two themes: firstly the investigation of a crime, and secondly what life was like under Stalin for ordinary people through to the secret police. It is set in Moscow, villages and small towns throughout Stalin’s Russia.
For me the horror and hardship of living under this terrifying regime was the main focus of the first half of the book (I kept stopping to think about what I was reading, and talking to others about it), and then in the second half the crime solving took over as I raced to the end.
From the point of view of a tourist (or anyone else!) I think this is an essential read. When visiting Russia if you meet (or see) anyone over the age of 60 you will look at them with eyes of wonder, as you realise that they lived through this time. It also gives a different perspective on their lives today compared to those of us brought up in the UK (or a country with similar politics).
The writing style is easy to read, the characters are easy to follow (the names are not too difficult). At the end of the book are some “Stalinist Statistics” which are interesting/shocking.
I think this is one of the best books I have read for a long time; not only for the reading of it, but also for the conversations I have had with others about it.
And the great news is that there are two follow on books!

News from Berlin by Otto de Kat

(Book received from, and review written for,

Separate, yet interwoven, lives in London, Berne and Berlin    My rating:  2/5

What to do when you have news that could save hundreds of thousands of people, but if told could also result in the death of your daughter?

Although a short book (200 pages) there is plenty of depth to this book. The plot skips between Berne, London and Berlin and shows how a few words spoken in 1941 can change personal lives, and might (literally) change the future of the whole world. The father, leading a shadowy life in Switzerland, aware that he always being watched. The wife, living in London, with memories of a past love being rekindled. The daughter, living in Berlin, hoping for a future. Everyday lives, taken over by the power of war – and the implications of what they now know.
This is a book for those who like to think, and consider the material they are reading. If this is you, you will probably love this book, and return to it again. Others may find the lack of depth of information and character portrayal frustrating.
The differences in lives being lived at the same time in the 3 cities are illustrated well, though without detail to help a visitor to any of these cities. However the opening scenes in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland will bring a smile of recognition to anyone who has visited traditional Alpine villages in the winter.
Love it, or be bored by it. Which will you be?

The English Girl - Margaret Leroy

(Review written for
History and Romance in Vienna 1937 – 38     My rating:  4/5

This book is narrated from the viewpoint of an innocent and naive 17 year old English girl (Stella) who moves to Vienna to study music in 1937. The first half of the book is gently paced as Stella explores the sights of Vienna, discovers the beauty of the city, and finds love.

If the first half of the book is a little slow moving stick with it; as the pace of change in pre-war Vienna speeds up, so does the story, and by the last third of the book I found it impossible to put down.
I have never quite understood how Austria came to be annexed to Germany in WWII; this explains it clearly and simply, and how a city can change from a place of vibrancy to a place of fear in a very short time.
For the visitor to Vienna this is a great book. Many of the places Stella visits are still there – parks, the funfair, art galleries, Schoenbrunn Palace etc. etc. I wish I had listed all the places and coffee houses she visited to look up to see if they exist/existed.

I loved this book. The naivety of Stella could be a little infuriating, but she, of course, did not have the benefit of hindsight that we have. Definitely a book to think back on, and a great way to learn more about the history of this period.