#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 

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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 The Diplomat’s Wife by Michael Ridpath @CorvusBooks @ReadersFirst1

The Diplomat's WifeAbout the Book

To love, honour, and betray…

1936: Devastated by the death of her beloved brother Hugh, Emma seeks to keep his memory alive by wholeheartedly embracing his dreams of a communist revolution. But when she marries an ambitious diplomat, she must leave her ideals behind and live within the confines of embassy life in Paris and Nazi Berlin. Then one of Hugh’s old comrades reappears, asking her to report on her philandering husband, and her loyalties are torn.

1979: Emma’s grandson, Phil, dreams of a gap-year tour of Cold War Europe, but is nowhere near being able to fund it. So when his beloved grandmother determines to make one last trip to the places she lived as a young diplomatic wife, and to try to solve a mystery that has haunted her since the war, he jumps at the chance to accompany her.

But their journey takes them to darker, more dangerous places than either of them could ever have imagined…

Format: Paperback (368 pages)           Publisher: Corvus
Publication date: 4th February 2021 Genre: Mystery

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My Review

Phil’s plan to spend the summer of 1979 hitchhiking across Europe with a pal, chatting up girls turns into an incident-filled adventure with his grandmother, Emma. It’s certainly a little more eventful than her description of it as ‘a little trip around Europe to revisit old times’ would suggest. But then Emma is not your conventional grandmother. For the wife of a former diplomat, she’s delightfully un-diplomatic when it comes to expressing her opinions and speaking her mind. As Phil reflects later, “He imagined her as a young diplomat’s wife confounding all who met her, diplomats and spymasters, throughout Europe”.

I enjoyed the dual time structure, switching between 1979 and the 1930s, with Emma gradually revealing to Phil her experiences in Paris and Berlin. I particularly liked the sections in which the reader experiences through Emma’s eye the atmosphere of pre-war Paris – the diplomatic parties, the Embassy politics, rubbing shoulders with artistic and literary luminaries such as Marc Chagall, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. I also found it fascinating to see the contrast Emma observes between pre-war and post-war Germany, now separated by the Berlin Wall.

For someone supposedly familiar with the novels of John le Carré some of Phil’s actions seemed a little naive, allowing himself to fall into traps that seemed fairly obvious to me. However, at other times, he proved himself quick-witted and resourceful. His steadfast devotion to his grandmother made theirs a touching partnership, even if it emerges she’s not been entirely truthful about her past – or her present, come to that.

For fans of spy thrillers, there are all the features you would expect: coded messages, emergency contact procedures and counter-surveillance measures. And for readers who like a bit of action, there are also some moments of melodrama. The currency of espionage is betrayal, lies, and more lies and there’s plenty of that here. I certainly felt some sympathy for Phil as he wonders just what to believe and who to trust. I confess I was rather more interested in Phil’s and Emma’s journey into her past than I was with the covert mission Phil finds himself entrusted with which definitely ventures into John le Carré territory, recalling the reveal at the end of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

A search for answers, a quest for justice and a story of love, loss and betrayal, The Diplomat’s Wife combines an eventful road trip across Cold War era Europe with all the ingredients of a wartime espionage thriller.

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

In three words: Intriguing, dramatic, suspenseful

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Michael RidpathAbout the Author

Before becoming a writer, Michael Ridpath used to work as a bond trader in the City of London. After writing several financial thrillers, which were published in over 30 languages, he began a crime series featuring the Icelandic detective Magnus Jonson. He has also written five stand-alone thrillers, the latest of which is The Diplomat’s Wife. He lives in London. (Photo credit: Twitter profile)

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