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Then We Take Berlin (2013)

Then We Take Berlin (2013)

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3.86 of 5 Votes: 3
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0802121969 (ISBN13: 9780802121967)
atlantic monthly press

About book Then We Take Berlin (2013)

Full review originally at Fantasy Book CriticANALYSIS: I’ve never read John Lawton book before this one. He’s had a previous series, which featured a character set in the pre-WWII era. This book however featured a whole new character and is mostly set partly just after the WWII & then in the 1960s. The story was a strong one but I was partially wrong in regards to the nature of the book.The story begins in 1963 wherein John Wilfrid Holderness is happily married to Judy but has fallen on rather lean times. He gets called into New York City; by his old wartime associate Frank Spoleto. Frank is a member in the Carver, Sharma and Dunn advertising agency. Joe is a person brought up on the East end side of London. He’s gained his wits after his mother’s death in the German blitz and since then has been brought up by his grandfather. Joe's grandpa Abner is a cat burglar with a particular eye for cracking safes. He moves into Joe’s house with his paramour Merle who sometimes moonlights as a street lady. Joe’s father is a brute who works in the army & whenever he’s home beats Joe, threatens Abner & generally makes life miserable for everyone. Christina Helene Von Raeder "Nell" Burkhardt is an orphan sent to live with her uncle by her mother as Berlin falls. She however faces the brutal impact of the German loss after WWII. Her acceptance of her familial losses leads her to become a very morally hardened person that will thrive in the post war black market. She currently is the person that is tasked by the mayor of Berlin with creating President J.F. Kennedy’s itinerary for his 1963 trip to Berlin.With these POV characters, we are taken to their teenage years as we are shown how the war has affected Britain and Germany and then we are shown the different career paths taken by Joe and Nell both. The main story unfolds in post war Germany as the author portrays a bleak if not entirely abject atmosphere. The reader is shown how both these characters come to become the characters we have met at the start of the book in 1963. The author’s research is where the main story gets its backbone from & while I’m no expert, to me it was a very captivating read. The author shows us how the black marketers went about and how Joe and Nell meet each other while doing their own things.While these are the main POV characters, there’s a big side character cast who are equally enigmatic, interesting and flawed. They are the people that Joe meets such as Lieutenant Colonel A. Burne-Jones & Rada, who shape his worldview while saving him from his self-destructive tendencies and wizen him for the world. There are also Abner & Merle who in turn become parent figures to Joe but because of their own acts scar his psyche in small but significant ways. With Nell, there’s a whole range of folks that come across her path and mold her into the person she is by death, savagery, sympathy & even a little serendipity.With this book, I thought it to be a standalone but I was sadly mistaken about that as the climax proved oh so strongly. But to get to the meat of the plot, it is about the tragic circumstances that were prevalent in Berlin divided into East & West sections. Firstly the main group of characters used to smuggle goods like cigarettes, alcohol, coffee, etc. but now nearly fifteen years later are tasked to smuggle people and therein lies the whole Herculean quandary as to how to go about it.The book serves like a prologue to the lengthy events that are to come as the author goes all out in building up his world for the modern readers to visualize & imagine. The characterization is competently handled as all characters are given pages & time to entrance the reader but the book suffers from this as the pace stutters quite a bit in the first half of the book. While the author shows the growth of the world and the main characters, he takes his time and therein lies the catch-22 situation, for some readers will love the author for this move while others will castigate him for taking his time to get to the meat of the plot. I found myself hoping that the slack pace would pick up but it wasn’t something that happened quickly.Lastly the ending is a bit of a stunner and would have been better appreciated had I know that this book was the first of a series and not a standalone. As the climax occurred, I kept flipping pages to see if my ARC was missing pages but afterwards I learnt that this was how the book ended and perhaps a line saying, “to be continued” would have been nice. Overall I have to say while this book had its faults; overall it is still a good book for its strengths make it all worthwhile in the end.CONCLUSION: This was my first tryst with John Lawton’s works and I have to say I’m impressed. He seems to be utterly fascinating with his historical thrillers and herein he does his best to introduce a new cast of characters for fans of his Inspector Troy series. Then We Take Berlin is simply a good historical thriller that perhaps needed bit of tightening in its middle to liven up its pace.

Mysterious Book Report No 160by John Dwaine McKennaI’ve always enjoyed reading historical fiction or crime and espionage novels, as well as most anything to do with World War II and the early cold war period. When I found an unfamiliar author who had just written a novel that combined all those elements into one project . . . I couldn’t wait to get a copy and dive in, see if all the publicity and book jacket blurbs were accurate, or just hype. I’m happy to report that this week’s MBR more than meets expectations, and uncovers another high-quality, but often over-looked author named John Lawton. His new novel Then We Take Berlin, (Grove Atlantic Inc., $26.00, 418 pages, ISBN 978-0-8021-2196-7) takes place in Berlin during the aftermath of World War II; when the city was isolated behind the Iron Curtain and divided into four sectors controlled by the US, Britain, France and the USSR . . . an unsettled few years during which governments were being reestablished, the process of rebuilding Europe was getting underway, and, because the basic necessities of life weren’t readily available . . . there was a thriving black market. When combined, those factors made Berlin a thieves bazaar . . . and a smugglers paradise. Into this cauldron of fomenting hardship and discontent, author Lawton introduces us to Joe Wilderness, a British orphan who survived the Blitz, using his skills as a burglar and three card Monte hustler . . . he’s a cockey criminal with an astonishing ability to remember all that he sees, reads or is told. When we engage as readers with him, Wilderness has been drafted into Great Britain’s RAF, or Royal Air Force, where he’s in prison, for insubordination and faced with a lengthy sentence. He’s freed, under the auspices of a British Secret Service officer and given an accelerated college education in German and Russian languages, including advanced studies in art, culture and nuclear physics at Cambridge, then posted to Berlin as the war ends. He spends his days interviewing ex-Nazis and doing occasional burglary jobs for the British Secret Service. At night, he teams up with Frank, an American Office of Secret Services, or OSS officer, and Yuri, a Major in the Russian Secret Service, or NVKD and they proceed to set up a monumental smuggling operation with the intention of making themselves rich. Then, Wilderness meets Nell, an aristocratic German girl who possesses “all the scruples that he lacks,” and things become even more complicated, culminating in President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 visit and Ich bin ein Berliner speech that rocked the world.This excellent, well-written and erudite novel will captivate, delight and educate you about an important, but overlooked part of mid-twentieth century history. It’s a great read!Like the review? The greatest compliment you can give is to share it with others on Facebook and follow us on

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John Lawton is on my top-5 list of contemporary authors, so I was excited when I heard he had created a new protagonist, John Wilfrid Holderness. That sounds like a posh name, but he's known by most people as Joe Wilderness, which is a much better fit.Joe is a London East End wide boy, a chancer who lives on his wits and guile. That's all the more true when his mother is killed in the Blitz, found dead ensconced on a barstool with her gin still sitting in front of her. Joe's grandfather Abner moves Joe into an attic room at his place in Whitechapel, where Abner lives with his longtime girlfriend (and sometime prostitute) Merle.Abner teaches Joe everything he knows about burglary and safe-cracking. Joe is a quick study, not just about crime, but books, and observing people. Just because he's smart doesn't mean Joe is lucky, though. Just when all the soldiers and sailors are returning home from World War II, Joe is drafted. He's about to be tossed into the punishment cells for insubordination when he's plucked out by Lieutenant Colonel Burne-Jones, who's seen Joe's IQ score. Burne-Jones sends Joe off to Cambridge to learn Russian and German, and to London for personal tutoring in languages, politics and history.Of course, Burne-Jones is training Joe to work in military intelligence, but you already figured that out. Off Joe goes to Berlin in 1946. What an amazing place for a wide boy. "It was love at first sight. He and Berlin were made for each other. He took to it like a rat to a sewer." In between intelligence jobs for Burne-Jones, Joe can't resist increasing the stakes in his black market game, which means making ever larger and more dangerous deals, deals that involve crossing over to the Russian sector.But for Joe, it's not all about sussing out former Nazi bigwigs and scientists by day and smuggling by night. At one of Berlin's nightclubs, famous in the Weimar era for using tabletop telephones and pneumatic tubes so that strangers could propose assignations, Joe meets Christina Helene von Raeder Burckhardt, known by the Brits and Americans as Nell Breakheart. Not because she actually breaks hearts, but because she's so beautiful, inside and out, that they're lining up in hopes of getting their hearts broken. And wouldn't you know, she chooses Joe.In language so vivid you can see it all in your mind, Lawton recreates postwar Berlin, with its ruined buildings, squalid living quarters created in cellars or apartments with shorn-off walls, crews of women who earn rations by clearing rubble in bucket lines, dirty kids harassing servicemen from the US, Britain, France and Russia for candy bars, the stink of open sewers, fear and despair, and the sweeter scents of money, graft and opportunity. I read a ton of WW2 historical novels and I can't think of another one that does it better.But the novel isn't all postwar Berlin. It's bookended by the stories of Joe and Nell in the summer of 1963. You know, the summer JFK made his famous visit to Berlin. If there is some of the 1963 plot that is not quite up to snuff (and there is), that takes up a very small proportion of what is a dazzlingly inventive and layered story, packed with fully dimensional characters–––several of whom Lawton fans will recognize from the Frederick Troy novels.I've often wondered why John Lawton hasn't gained the recognition I firmly believe he deserves. I've come to think it might be because of the book world's compulsion to categorize books and authors into easy genres and sub-genres. Lawton's books are most often classified as mystery and espionage, but neither is accurate. As Lawton once commented, they are "historical, political thrillers with a big splash of romance, wrapped up in a coat of noir." The noir comes in because, as you might have suspected reading about Joe Wilderness, John Lawton likes to write about people on the edge, living in a world of shadowy morality.If you enjoy authors like Ian McEwan, Philip Kerr, Sebastian Faulks and William Boyd, give this book a try, along with his other novels, especially his haunting 2011 title, A Lily of the Field.Note: I received a free review e-galley from Netgalley.
—Maine Colonial

My sister-in-law Margaret kept telling me to read something by John Lawton. This was my first. Lawton is well published with a previous series. It turns out this We Take Berlin will likely be the first in a new series, which means "to be continued". The conclusion was weak. I was very disappointed. The beginning and end are 1963, but most of the book takes place in Berlin in about 1945-48. Joe Wilderness is a very smart thief who was educated in safe cracking by his grandfather in London. He gets into the British CIA assigned to ferret out important Nazis and scientists after the War. By night he works with several Brits, an American and a Russian to run stolen Western goods across to the East for cash. The book is about his escapades, buddies, foes, lovers, and wife.I think of this book as historical fiction with good thrills and actions. Character development was wonderful - I felt like I knew these people. His description of how devastated Berlin was after the war - including smells and sounds - were most interesting and believable.

He is arrested for stealing, but catches a break. Everyone is his family is a habitual card shark, burglar, etc. Grandpa has taught him well. But the war is going on and the government needs his particular bag of tricks. Joe is sent to Berlin. There he meets and falls in love with a girl named Nell, who has every reason to be dishonest but is not. The time waffles between 1946 and the 60's. Nell is now an aide to Willy Brandt, and Kennedy is supposed to visit Berlin. Joe is sent also to "help" out.The characters seem so real, they must have been based on real people. Very entertaining.

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