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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Book Review: The Cold North Sea (Ingo Finch Mystery #2) by Jeff Dawson

The Cold North SeaAbout the Book

A game of spies, a brutal murder, the fate of an Empire…

The North Sea, October 1904 – When Russian warships bombard the Hull trawler fleet, killing innocent fishermen, public outrage pushes Britain and Russia to the brink of war, the sparks from which could inflame the entire Continent.

Doctor Ingo Finch, once of the Royal Army Medical Corps, is long done with military adventuring. But when a stranger seeks him out, citing a murderous conspiracy behind the infamous “Dogger Bank Incident”, Finch is drawn back into the dark world of espionage.

With Whitehall, St Petersburg and rival Bolsheviks vying to manipulate the political crisis, the future of Britain, and Europe, is at stake…

Format: ebook (370 pp.)    Publisher: Canelo
Published: 3rd December 2018      Genre: Historical Fiction, Crime, Thriller

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Find The Cold North Sea (Ingo Finch Mystery #2) on Goodreads

My Review

I really enjoyed Jeff Dawson’s first book, No Ordinary Killing (read my review here), so I was delighted to see that he’d written a second book in the series.   I’m happy to say I found The Cold North Sea just as enjoyable as its predecessor.

When a stranger with a story of international conspiracy turns up unexpectedly at the house of Dr. Ingo Finch (who has previously spent time in South Africa but is now back in England) and the stranger leaves behind a notebook (of a kind) containing a possible clue, my immediate thought was, “We’re in The Thirty-Nine Steps territory here!”.  Even more so when Finch is warned off investigating further and accused of involvement in a suspicious death.

As the mystery deepens and danger looms from seemingly every direction, a touching and timely reunion sees Finch team up with an old ally.  However, his actions risk putting that ally in danger as well – the last thing in the world he’d want.  The introduction of another narrator creates an additional point of interest as the reader wonders just how – and when – his story will connect with that of Finch.

With a story line full of narrow escapes from what seems like certain death, sinister organisations, ruthless individuals, conspiracy at the highest levels and an atmosphere of impending danger even on the quiet streets of London it’s all very Buchanesque!  (Regular followers of What Cathy Read Next will know I’m a great admirer of the author John Buchan so when I describe something as ‘Buchanesque’ it’s definitely intended as a compliment.)  The book even features the use of trains and, at one point, a bicycle as a means of escape, as utilised by Richard Hannay during more than one of his adventures.

The scene that opens the book is based on a real life incident (variously known as the ‘Russian Outrage’, ‘The Incident of Hull’ or ‘The Dogger Bank Incident’) that could have plunged Russia and Britain into war in 1904.  However, the plot of The Cold North Sea also feels very contemporary in that it deals with Russian aggression against British citizens and the fate of nations.

In the dedication to The Thirty-Nine Steps, addressed to his friend Tommy Nelson, John Buchan recalls their mutual fondness for ‘that elementary type of tale…which we know as the “shocker” – the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible’.  I don’t think there could be a better description of The Cold North Sea which is an accomplished, tremendously entertaining historical crime thriller full of twists and turns.

I’m hoping I’m right in interpreting the closing chapter of the book as meaning there’ll be more from Ingo Finch in the future.

I received a review copy courtesy of publishers, Canelo, and NetGalley.

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In three words: Compelling, action-packed, suspenseful

Try something similar… The Power House by John Buchan (read my spoiler free review here)

Jeff Dawson CaneloAbout the Author

Jeff Dawson is a journalist and author. He has been a long-standing contributor to The Sunday Times Culture section, writing regular A-list interview-led arts features (interviewees including the likes of Robert De Niro, George Clooney, Dustin Hoffman, Hugh Grant, Angelina Jolie, Jerry Seinfeld and Nicole Kidman). He is also a former US Editor of Empire magazine.

​Jeff is the author of three non-fiction books — Tarantino/Quentin Tarantino: The Cinema of Cool (Cassell/Applause, 1995), Back Home: England And The 1970 World Cup (Orion, 2001), which The Times rated “Truly outstanding”, and Dead Reckoning: The Dunedin Star Disaster (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005), the latter nominated for the Mountbatten Maritime Prize.

Historical thriller No Ordinary Killing (2017), an Amazon/Kindle bestseller, was his debut novel. The follow-up, The Cold North Sea (2018), continues the adventures of Captain Ingo Finch.  [Photo credit: Amazon author page]

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