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Zoo Station by David Downing

Zoo Station (original 2000; edition 2011)

by David Downing

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4341924,268 (3.82)182
Title:Zoo Station
Authors:David Downing
Info:Soho Crime (2011), Paperback, 288 pages
Collections:Your library, 2013

Work details

Zoo Station by David Downing (2000)

  1. 10
    The Sleepwalkers by Paul Grossman (aulsmith)
    aulsmith: Family men caught in the uncertainties of Nazi Berlin with intrigue and mysteries thrown in. Sleepwalkers is set in 1933; Zoo Station in 1939.
  2. 00
    Night Soldiers by Alan Furst (majkia)
    majkia: similar books in that they focus on ordinary people swept up into becoming spies.

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Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
A quite satisfying novel. John Russell is an English journalist in Berlin prior to the onset of World War II. He is no idealist, and with a girlfriend who is German and a son who is in the Hitler Youth he feels ties to Germany, but his conscience gets the best of him when Nazi brutality hits those close to him.

This is an atmospheric novel where the gloom of the Nazi shadow is palpable, but it is not as dense as some of Alan Furst's books, and Downing knows how to ratchet the tension up to sweaty-palm levels.

The first book in a series, I'm eager to pick up the next one. ( )
  kvrfan | Apr 25, 2015 |
The first book in an ongoing series featuring an English journalist, John Russell, living and working in pre-WWII Germany. He has a young son, Paul, from a failed marriage to a German woman. Like all boys his age, Paul is a member of the Hitler Youth but he still gets to see him on a regular basis. Russell is also very involved with Effi, a German actress and with everything pointing towards a forthcoming war he doesn't want to provoke the ire of the administration which would lose him his job and to face probable deportation which would cause him to lose contact with those he loves. That's why he's loath to get involved when an American colleague asks for his help on a story that may shed light on the Nazi brutality but as he's only acting as an interpreter for an interview with a nurse who has some vital information he reluctantly agrees. Later, when his colleague is found dead by apparent suicide, Russell's conscience is pricked into taking action of his own. He's also been approached by an agent of the Russian NKVD to write a series of positive articles on the Nazi regime to help soften up the Soviet people to accept a non-aggression pact with Germany. As he'll probably need all the help he can get to remain in the country in future Russell agrees to write the articles. As if this wasn't enough, Russell also teaches English and he's just been asked to help a Jewish family as they prepare to emigrate to England. What could possibly go wrong?

This is very much an opening book for a series with the first half of this story more involved with setting the scene and atmosphere of the times and laying out the groundwork for future instalments. Despite the slow build-up it's not a dull read as there was enough going on to keep me enthralled in the action. Very similar in this respect to Alan Furst's series of espionage novels which I've also enjoyed immensely (the ones I've read so far that is). It's a very well written character study set amidst rising tensions with a credible lead who has to make some tough decisions in order to keep his head above water and still be able to remain in the place he wants to be. Definitely a series that I intend to continue with in the future.
  AHS-Wolfy | Dec 27, 2014 |
David Downing has written a series of novels about an English journalist in Berlin during WW II. In Zoo Station, the first of the series, John Russell, is in Danzig when he’s approached by a Soviet NKVD agent offering him a lot of money for a series of articles that portrayed Naziism in a positive light. Russell is an Englishman, a former Communist, who fought in WW I, having married (now estranged) a German woman. His son, Paul, born in Germany, is a member of the Hitler Youth.

Russell suspects the Russians might be laying the groundwork for a future non-aggression pact. Then the Nazis approve, having their own motivation. Both sides want him to report whatever he might learn about the other side’s interests. So Russell is walking a tight-rope as the Russians demand more (no surprise), but Russell uses that for his own ends.

Some reviewers have complained there is no action and that the book is just a litany of Nazi evils with too much journal-like writing. I disagree. What Downing has done is to present the horrifying atmosphere and story of a people gradually being subjugated (often quite willingly) by a group of thugs. At what point are we willing to resist and what motives lead us to participate or push back. There’s the story of the mother who discovers her retarded daughter has been pegged for euthanasia by the state as part of their ethnic-cleansing and the father who reports his Down-Syndrome children precisely because he wants the child to disappear. The recurring theme is the failure of ordinary people to resist.

What makes this series (at least this first book that I’ve read in the series) interesting, as with Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther books, is the sense of place, the paranoia and fear of living in a repressive regime, and the difficulties faced by relatively ordinary people during that time of crisis. I’m reading Traitor’s Gate by Michael Ridpath, which has similar themes.

I will be reading the other volumes. ( )
1 vote ecw0647 | Aug 26, 2014 |
I am definitely a fan of this series and will keep reading. The author knows the places he describes well, and he also has deep understanding of the culture and range of social nuances appropriate to this volatile and complex setting, too. The story start off in Danzig in 1939, move chiefly to Berlin, but will visit Poland, Czech, northern Germany and even England during the course of the novel as well.

The main character is John Russell, an Anglo-American forty year old journalist with complex ties to Germany that include a twelve year old son in the Hitler Youth and a strong willed actress girlfriend. He is fluent in Russian, German, and English, and is wise enough to see both the growing dangers the Nazis represent and the growing dangers to those who openly challenge them. He does not not see himself as heroic, but is a man of principle. Given whom he knows and where he goes, he becomes increasingly useful to representatives of different nations and political perspectives. Downing builds suspense at a slow but sure speed. ( )
  Hanneri | Apr 7, 2014 |
You'll like Zoo Station, if you like Philip Kerr's 'Bernie Gunther' stories or Robert Harris' 'Fatherland'. If you like Alan Furst.

If you like thrillers set in Europe the years leading up to the outbreak of WWII.

If you'd like a tantalizing glimpse into a somewhat forgotten - and in many ways, misunderstood - world.

Zoo Station, the first in David Downing's Zoo series, is a really rather wonderful and absorbing period piece. In essence; a small tale set against a much bigger, darker backdrop. Involving ordinary people doing ordinary things, like just getting on with their lives, during extraordinary circumstances. The 'hero', is John Russell, an English freelance newspaper writer living in Germany in the early months of 1939, obviously just before the outbreak of World War II. Though, as the book further illustrates (and as if you have read anything else about this period, you will know), 'outbreak' is much more accidental-sounding than was actually the case. Through Russell, we see how the Nazi party has infiltrated its way into the minutiae of Germans' everyday life. And not in a pleasant way of course. You don't need to have done, but it certainly would increase you understanding of novels set in this period, if you had read a book like Richard J. Evans' 'The Coming of the Third Reich'.

With hindsight, it might seem a little strange that an Englishman is living in Germany at this time. But he has good reason to be there. His has an ex-wife, a son and a beautiful, actress girlfriend to care for. He becomes involved with the Russians, ostensibly writing articles on typical German daily life, so the Russian people might better understand their prospective allies. But really he's spying. He knows that and thinks that as long as he can keep the Russians where he can see them, he'll be ok. The same with his British allies. As of course, the British also want a piece of the information cake. So Russell in effect becomes something of an unwitting double agent, with no real master but himself and no real loyalty to anyone, apart from to his family. But, being an Englishman more than somewhat integrated into pre-War German society, gives Russell the opportunity to observe, perhaps understand - though without condoning - and maybe react differently to the zeitgeist. Differently to how a typical German person would have. Or would have been able to have done.

I found this a wonderful, engaging and involving read. An Englishman in a strange land, just doing the right thing, without fanfare. Acting heroically when looked back on, but only made heroic by the times. It is sublimely written and plotted, really well put together. You can almost touch the atmosphere of pre-War Berlin (I have no idea what the pre-War Berlin atmosphere was really like, but I can't imagine it being far from what is brought out here). It's the little things, the small incidents that do it. Giving English lessons to Jewish children, taking trains to Poland, trips to London, picking his son up from his ex-wife, all give this story its edge over others you might read. It's not exactly what you'd think of if I said 'a real page-turner', but to someone who appreciates fine writing and acute observation, sometimes with an acerbic edge *takes bow*, it was a book I found very hard to put away. The best part is, there are many more to come after this one.

My only beef, would be with the recommendation on the cover. I'm never normally a great fan of 'a wonderful evocation of *insert long, long ago time period here* -type recommendations. I mean, unless they themselves were the character's age during that very same time, how do they know? It's not just about knowing the facts of what went on, that's often the easy part. It's surely about knowing about what people felt at that time and why. And the 'and why' can only come if you grew up in that period, were there and were affected by those special circumstances. A person born today would, when reaching writing/author age, surely have trouble imagining a time when there was no Internet, for instance. Tell someone that TVs used to be only black and white, only one or two channels and were the size of a Shetland pony - see what kind of look you get back. So someone saying it is 'a wonderful evocation of...', is guessing it is, hoping it is and probably should have inserted 'in my opinion' in there somewhere. Having said all that...this, in my opinion and based on what I have read about the period - and with parents still alive who were alive during that period, IS 'an extraordinary evocation of Nazi Germany on the eve of war...', as CJ Sansom says on the front cover.

If you like an absorbing read, a good tale well told and with more to come. This is for you. ( )
  Speesh | Mar 29, 2014 |
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When an old acquaintance turns up at his hotel, John Russell's life begins to change. Gradually he is persuaded by a combination of threats and financial need, and appeals to his conscience to become a spy - first for the Soviet Union and then, simultaneously, for the British.… (more)

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