Book Review: Zoo Station (John Russell #1) by David Downing

Zoo StationAbout the Book

By 1939, Anglo-American journalist John Russell has spent fifteen years in Berlin, where his German-born son lives. He writes human-interest pieces for British and American papers, avoiding the investigative journalism that could get him deported. But as war approaches, he faces the prospect of having to leave his son and his long-time girlfriend, Effi.

Then, an acquaintance from his communist days approaches him to do some work for the Soviets. Russell is reluctant but ultimately unable to resist. He becomes involved in other dangerous activities, helping a Jewish family and an idealistic American reporter. When the British and the Nazis notice his involvement with the Soviets, Russell is dragged into the world of warring intelligence services. (Audiobook narrated by Simon Prebble)

Format: Audiobook    Publisher: Audible
Published: 7th December 2009 [2007] Genre: Historical Fiction, Thriller

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My Review

Opening in pre-World War 2 Berlin, the book sees journalist, John Russell, witness firsthand increasing anti-Jewish sentiment and signs of the persecution and brutality to come.  There is a particularly powerful scene at the beginning of the book which illustrates this.  At the same time, in a chilling juxtaposition, the German people continue going about their daily activities: enjoying coffee and cake in pavement cafes, shopping, visiting the theatre or enjoying the latest Marx Brothers film at the cinema.  I enjoyed the believable detail about the streets, squares and public spaces of Berlin.  The Zoo Station of the title acts variously as clandestine meeting point, location for train spotting, a point of arrival and departure, and the scene of a suspicious death.

Russell becomes embroiled in the fate of a Jewish family and with a fellow journalist who is on the scent of a story about Nazi plans for an atrocity greater than anything witnessed so far (which is saying something).  Russell soon discovers that asking questions can be a dangerous business and faces a conflict between his journalistic instincts and integrity, and concern for his own safety and those close to him.

Russell’s early optimism that his work for the Soviets ‘would make him safer and richer’ turns out to be misplaced as he finds himself drawn in deeper than he intended. Suddenly, his life ‘seemed to be breaking up in slow motion’.  However, tired of being used and exhibiting a rebellious streak, he decides to find out if he’s still brave enough or quick-witted enough to turn the tables on those who are trying to manipulate him.  As he reflects, ‘A life concerned only with survival was a thin life.’  Has he, though, been seduced by his own cleverness? In the breathless final chapter, with Europe on the brink of war, the author ratchets up the tension as the reader nervously witnesses Russell run his greatest risk yet.

I really liked the touching relationship between John Russell and his German-born son, Peter, as they bond through activities such as attending football matches to cheer on their team or visiting the zoo.  Nevertheless, the malign influence of Nazism is never far away, even between father and son.  Effi, Russell’s girlfriend, plays a supportive if minor role in the book.  However, her fame as an actress does prove a fortunate and timely distraction at one point in the story.

Zoo Station is a taut, compelling espionage story with an authentic sense of the period and setting.  I’ll definitely be looking out for further books in the series.  In a first for me,  I listened to the audiobook version which is ten hours long.  There are twelve chapters of between 45 minutes and an hour listening time.  Simon Prebble makes an excellent narrator with his clear diction, measured pace, rich vocal tones and ability to create distinctive voices for the various characters (including the female ones).

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In three words: Atmospheric, tense, gripping

Try something similar…March Violets (Bernie Gunther #1) by Philip Kerr

David DowningAbout the Author

David Downing grew up in suburban London. He is the author of six books in the John Russell espionage series, set in WWII Berlin: Zoo Station, Silesian Station, Stettin Station, Potsdam Station, Lehrter Station, and Masaryk Station and the nonfiction work, Sealing Their Fate: The Twenty-Two Days That Decided World War II.

He lives with his wife in Guildford, England.  (Photo credit: Goodreads author page)

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About the Narrator

British-born Simon Prebble has played in everything from soaps to Shakespeare on stage and television, but it is as a veteran narrator of over four hundred audiobooks that he has made his mark since coming to the United States in 1990. Simon is one of AudioFile magazine’s Golden Voices, has received over twenty Earphones Awards, five Publishers Weekly Listen-Up Awards, and he has been a finalist fourteen times for an Audie Award. He was Publishers Weekly’s 2006 Narrator of the Year, and Booklist’s 2010 Voice of Choice.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Zoo Station (John Russell #1) by David Downing

    1. Thanks. I’ve not got into audio books up until now but my sister listens to them a lot and persuaded me to try one. My local library has an audio book loan facility so I can see myself trying more in future, especially for long books that I might be put off reading in physical form. I find it quite relaxing listening in bed before I go to sleep.


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