#BookReview Stella by Takis Würger, trans. by Liesl Schillinger @ReadersFirst1 @GrovePressUK

StellaAbout the Book

In 1942, Friedrich, an even-keeled but unworldly young man, arrives in Berlin from bucolic Switzerland with dreams of becoming an artist. At a life drawing class, he is hypnotized by the beautiful model, Kristin, who soon teaches the naïve Friedrich how to take care of himself in a city filled with danger, escorting him to secret jazz clubs where they drink cognac, dance and kiss.

But as the months pass, the mood in the city darkens yet further, with the Nazi Party tightening their hold on the everyday life of all Berliners. Kristin’s loyalties are unclear until she shares her astonishing secret: that her real name is Stella, and that she is Jewish, passing for Aryan. Friedrich comforts her, but he soon realises that Stella’s control of the situation is rapidly slipping out of her grasp, and that the Gestapo have an impossible power over her.

As Friedrich confronts Stella’s unimaginable choices, he finds himself woefully unprepared for the history he is living through.

Format: Paperback (208 pages)     Publisher: Grove Press
Publication date: 4th March 2021 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

As the author reveals in the afterword, although many of the characters are fictional, Stella herself is based on a real historical character.  And Takis Würger’s personal connection to the story that unfolds is underlined by the book’s dedication to his great-grandfather, killed by the Nazis in 1941.

Arriving in the city of Berlin in January 1942, Friedrich falls immediately under the spell of the woman he initially knows as Kristin, but whose real name is later revealed to be Stella Goldschlag.  It’s no wonder Friedrich is dazzled by Stella; she’s beautiful, spirited and uninhibited.  Through her, Friedrich meets the equally larger-than-life Tristan von Appen, one of whose idiosyncrasies is his habit of addressing Friedrich as ‘old boy’. (It reminded me rather of Jay Gatsby’s habit of addressing Nick Carraway as ‘old sport’ in The Great Gatsby.) Soon Friedrich finds himself rubbing shoulders with senior Nazis at a garden party where the champagne flows, music plays as the guests enjoy a lavish buffet. As Friedrich reflects, ‘You could have forgotten we were in wartime’.  

The story unfolds month by month with each chapter commencing with something akin to a news report in which mundane items appear side-by-side with more chilling material.  So, for example, May 1942’s report includes the news that Bing Crosby and other musicians have recorded the song “White Christmas” in New York, the monthly fat ration has been cut and there has been an assassination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich.  Many chapters also include extracts from witness statements concerning Jews arrested and sent to concentration camps as a result of being denounced by informers, the relevance of which only gradually becomes apparent.  

As the months go by, Friedrich slowly awakens to the realities of what is taking place in Berlin. “Every day in Germany I had been going through this, acting as if I could live with what was happening to the Jews in Germany. I had put up with the flags with swastikas and with the people greeting me and roaring at me with their right arms outstretched.” The revelation of the nature of Stella’s involvement sees him attempt to protect her. This leads to a surreal scene in which Friedrich is forced to play a game of cards in the office of Dobberke, the head of a detention centre, whilst negotiating a deal for the release of prisoners involving bacon.  

Duality and performance are themes of the novel. So while the Reich outlaws “degenerate” art, Nazi officers visit illegal jazz clubs where the music of Jewish composers is played.  And while the citizens of Berlin endure food rationing, hard cash can buy the finest luxuries for those in the know.  Stella remains an enigma, and the consummate performer.  Even Friedrich comes to recognise this fact. “This woman contained so many roles within herself: the artist’s model, the singer with the breathy voice, the beauty in my bathtub, the penitent, the liar, the victim.  Stella Goldschlag, the woman I loved.” 

Stella is a powerful story of naivety, betrayal and the limits of love which also explores the impossible choices people are forced to make in times of war. 

I received an advance review copy courtesy of Grove Press and Readers First.

In three words: Compelling, immersive, emotional 

Try something similar: Cesare by Jerome Charyn

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Takis WurgerAbout the Author

Takis Würger is a reporter working for the German news magazine Der Spiegel. Named one of Medium’s “Top 30 Journalists under 30,” alongside other accolades, Würger’s work as a journalist has taken him to Afghanistan, Libya, Mexico, and Ukraine. His first novel, The Club, won the lit.Cologne debut prize in Germany. (Photo credit: Goodreads author page)

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#BookReview Dangerous Women by Hope Adams @MichaelJBooks

Dangerous WomenAbout the Book

London, 1841. The Rajah sails for Australia. On board are 180 women convicted of petty crimes, sentenced to start a new life half way across the world. Daughters, sisters, mothers – they’ll never see home or family again. Despised and damned, all they have now is each other. Until the murder.

As the fearful hunt for a killer begins, everyone on board is a suspect. The investigation risks tearing their friendships apart… But if the killer isn’t found, could it cost them their last chance of freedom?

Based on a real-life voyage, Dangerous Women is a sweeping tale of confinement, hope and the terrible things we do to survive.

Format: Hardcover (352 pages)     Publisher: Michael Joseph
Publication date: 4th March 2021 Genre: Historical Fiction

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Dangerous Women


My Review

Conviction The Recovery of Rose Gold Henley Literary FestivalI first heard about this book at Henley Literary Festival in 2019 when it was one of the debut novels featured at the Michael Joseph Proof Party, alongside Stephanie Wrobel’s The Recovery of Rose Gold (which I’ve since read and reviewed). At the time, Dangerous Women was due to be published in 2020 under the title Conviction. For various reasons, publication was delayed but the plot of Dangerous Women is largely unchanged from that which the author described at the time. Indeed the passage from the book which Hope read at the event can be found in the final version. You can read my review of the event here. Be aware it features descriptions of strangers mingling before social distancing was even a thing.

Dangerous Women is inspired by the real life voyage of the Rajah from London to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1841 during which many of the women prisoners, as in the book, worked on the embroidery of an elaborate quilt – now held in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. You can read the author’s blog post about how she first learned of the quilt here and view pictures of it here.

Although technically sentenced to transportation for a set number of years, for many of the women aboard the Rajah, it will be the last time they see England, leading to heartbreaking scenes as the ship departs. “The ones who have children will yearn for them. The ones who have living parents will fear their deaths, their sicknesses, and being unable to help them.” But it’s not the same for all the women. For Kezia Hayter, who her whole life has felt underappreciated by her mother compared to her sister Henrietta, it’s a chance to forge an independent path in life. Her appointment as Matron on the voyage is also an opportunity to contribute to a cause about which she feels strongly: the welfare and rehabilitation of female prisoners. From the outset Kezia feels sympathy for and a sense of responsibility towards those in her charge, coming to think of them as her women. She goes out of her way to encourage them and to defend them where necessary.

The convicts are perhaps fortunate in that both the captain of the Rajah, Charles Ferguson, and the ship’s surgeon, Mr. Donovan, hold relatively enlightened views. Like Kezia, they are prepared to recognise that circumstances – poverty, abuse, coercion – may have led the women to commit the crimes they have. Clergyman Mr. Davies, on the other hand, subscribes to the less generous view that the cause of the women’s crimes is sinfulness.

For the women chosen by Kezia to work on the patchwork quilt she has designed, it’s not only a means of learning a skill that may benefit them in their new lives but a chance to leave the confines of below decks where the other less fortunate convicts spend their days. It also becomes a shared endeavour. Despite their different backgrounds and life experiences, by the end of the voyage they have become, as the author so imaginatively describes it, “a patchwork of souls”.

Although we’re told the Rajah is transporting one hundred and eighty women, for narrative reasons the reader only really gets to know the eighteen women chosen by Kezia to work on the quilt, and even then only to varying degrees.  The plight of the remaining women and the cramped and claustrophobic conditions that must have existed below deck remain largely in the background, except for a vivid scene in which the Rajah encounters a storm. However, within the circle of women working on the quilt, the reader gets to see friendships formed and severed, stories shared and secrets revealed.

A vivid account of an epic voyage, Dangerous Women is also a cleverly constructed “locked room” mystery. As well as trying to work out who might have carried out the vicious attack that takes place early on in the voyage, I enjoyed looking out for clues to the identity of the individual onboard who is not entirely what they seem. To be truthful, the answer to the latter was revealed a little earlier than I expected but that still leaves plenty of dramatic events to unfold.  There are revelations that bring redemption for some and unexpected possibilities for others.

I received an advance review copy courtesy of Michael Joseph via NetGalley.

In three words: Intriguing, compelling, dramatic

Try something similar: Fled by Meg Keneally or The Tides Between by Elizabeth Jane Corbett

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About the Author

Hope Adams is a pseudonym of Adele Geras. Adele was born in Jerusalem and spent her early childhood in many different countries, including Nigeria and British North Borneo. She went to Roedean School in Brighton and from there to St Hilda’s College, Oxford.

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Dangerous Women