#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 Garden of Angels by David Hewson @rararesources @severnhouse

The Garden of Angels

Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for The Garden of Angels by David Hewson. My thanks to Rachel at Rachel’s Random Resources for inviting me to take part in the tour and to Severn House for my digital review copy via NetGalley. The Garden of Angels is available now in hardback, ebook and as an audio book. Do also check out the posts by my tour buddies for today, Amanda at Ginger Book Geek and Els at B For BookReview.

The Garden of AngelsAbout the Book

The Palazzo Colombina is home to the Uccello family: three generations of men, trapped together in the dusty palace on Venice’s Grand Canal. Awkward fifteen-year-old Nico. His distant, business-focused father. And his beloved grandfather, Paolo. Paolo is dying. But before he passes, he has secrets he’s waited his whole life to share.

When a Jewish classmate is attacked by bullies, Nico just watches – earning him a week’s suspension and a typed, yellowing manuscript from his frail Nonno Paolo. A history lesson, his grandfather says. A secret he must keep from his father. A tale of blood and madness . . .

Nico is transported back to the Venice of 1943, an occupied city seething under its Nazi overlords, and to the defining moment of his grandfather’s life: when Paolo’s support for a murdered Jewish woman brings him into the sights of the city’s underground resistance. Hooked and unsettled, Nico can’t stop reading – but he soon wonders if he ever knew his beloved grandfather at all.

Format: Hardcover (320 pages)         Publisher: Severn House
Publication date: 29th January 2021 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

I was drawn to this book partly by its subject matter but also by its setting. I’ve been lucky enough to visit Venice on a couple of occasions, although I can’t claim the intimate knowledge of the city the author clearly possesses. I’ll admit that, because of its unique location, it hadn’t occurred to me that Venice would have been occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War. Therefore, this was an aspect of the novel I found especially intriguing.

The story of the wartime experiences of Nico’s grandfather, Paolo Uccello, and his fellow Venetians is revealed in instalments to Nico, by way of a series of letters. A little confusingly Paolo’s recollections are related in the third person, as if he was an observer rather than a participant, and include scenes and conversations to which he was not a party. Leaving that aside, the story Paolo tells is one of fear, betrayal, collaboration and wartime atrocities but also of courage.

As Nico learns more about Paolo’s experiences, he wanders the streets of Venice visiting – and photographing – some of the locations mentioned by his grandfather, such as the building that housed the SS headquarters and the site of the Jewish ghetto. He is struck by the seeming unawareness of present day visitors to the terrible events that took place in those same places fifty years before.  Seeing a group of children playing football at one site, he has to stop himself shouting ‘Don’t you know what happened here? Can’t you feel the traces of all that memory?’.  As it happens, the Venetians who lived through that time, including the family’s housekeeper, seem equally unwilling to talk about what went on during the occupation. Nico’s wanderings through the city give him a growing sense of past and present eliding. ‘More and more I felt I was walking through two cities at the same time.  The Venice I’d grown up in.  The different, darker, violent city that Nonno Paolo had known when he wasn’t much older than me.’  

I liked the way his grandfather’s story makes Nico reflect on how war can make people behave.  ‘That was one of the lessons he was trying to teach me: evil wasn’t special. There was no need for extraordinary villains with scars, and wicked, dark glints in their eyes.  It was ordinary, mundane, a part of the city, a lurking virus within us all.’  A good example in the book of the ‘ordinary monsters’ is the character Luca Alberti, a Venetian policeman who finds himself collaborating with the Nazis. There are plenty of other memorable characters too such as Catholic priest, Filippo Garzone, and Aldo Diamante, appointed by the Nazis as leader of the Jewish community in Venice, who becomes faced with an impossible dilemma.

The book displays the author’s impressive knowledge of Venice, especially the ‘off-the-beaten track’ areas rarely visited by tourists.  I loved the imaginative ways Venice, ‘the city on the water’, was described, including as ‘a precious gilded prison’ and ‘the louche old lady of the lagoon’.  Not only did I learn a lot about the history of Venice and Italian politics of the period but also about the process of weaving a kind of velvet known as soprarizzo using a Jacquard loom. You can find out more about the latter here.

The Garden of Angels is both an intriguing wartime story and a great advertisement for the wonderful city of Venice.  It’s a trip to put on your bucket list.  In the meantime, why not visit in literary form by adding The Garden of Angels to your TBR pile.

In three words: Atmospheric, intriguing, dramatic

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david hewsonAbout the Author

David Hewson is a former journalist with The Times, The Sunday Times and the Independent. He is the author of more than twenty-five novels, including his Rome-based Nic Costa series which has been published in fifteen languages, and his Amsterdam-based series featuring detective Pieter Vos. He has also written three acclaimed adaptations of the Danish TV series, The Killing. He lives near Canterbury in Kent.

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