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Then We Take Berlin

Written by: John Lawton
Narrated by: Lewis Hancock
Series: Joe Wilderness
Length: 15 hrs and 16 mins

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Publisher's Summary

John Holderness, known to the women in his life as ‘Wilderness’, comes of age during World War II in Stepney, breaking into houses with his grandfather. After the war, Wilderness is recruited as MI5’s resident ‘cat burglar’ and finds himself in Berlin, involved with schemes in the booming black market that put both him and his relationships in danger.

In 1963 it is a most unusual and lucrative request that persuades Wilderness to return - to smuggle someone under the Berlin Wall and out of East Germany. But this final scheme may prove to be one challenge too far....

©2014 John Lawton (P)2014 Oakhill Publishing

Critic Reviews

"A superbly well-built Cold War cocktail - bracing, deliriously delicious, but carrying the slightly bitter aftertaste of dreams gone bad." (Booklist)
"John Lawton finds himself in the same boat as the late Patrick O'Brian - a sublimely elegant historical novelist as addictive as crack but overlooked by too many readers for too long." (Daily Telegraph on A Lily of the Field)

What listeners say about Then We Take Berlin

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  • KiwiDevitt
  • 08-08-20

A MUST Read!!!

The reading of this delightful book is a work of art! You can See what's happening it is so well read! can't wait to read the sequel!!

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    3 out of 5 stars
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  • Paula McMullan
  • 21-07-17

Not really a Cold War thriller at all

Although the story of chancer Joe is deftly written and narrated, the Cold War really only appears in the final hour of this talking book. However it is a very detailed and finally observed history of the end of World War II and its aftermath. I kept expecting something to happen, but it never really did.

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  • WhatCathyReadNext
  • 18-06-20

Entertaining spy thriller - first in a series

Although I enjoyed Then We Take Berlin, I wasn’t entirely a fan of its structure. At times, it seemed like (at least) three different books all rolled into one. (I see I made a similar comment about Friends and Traitors by the same author.)

Then We Take Berlin opens in 1963 as Joe Holderness travels to New York to be offered a job by a colleague of Frank, a buddy from his days in Berlin after WW2. I enjoyed Joe’s wide-eyed reaction to seeing the sights of New York for the first time. The job he’s offered will involve him returning to Berlin and making use of his knowledge of that city. However, it will be a long time before the reader learns more about what Frank and Joe got up to in post-war Berlin and even longer until the mission Joe is offered takes place.

Instead the book goes back in time to 1941 to reveal Joe’s wartime childhood, including his experiences at the hands of a violent father. Events occur which mean Joe is brought up by his grandfather, Abner, and Abner’s girlfriend, Merle. It’s during this time that Joe is tutored in the dubious skills that will prove to be of such value in the future. Later, after the war has ended, he’s called up for National Service and Joe’s facility with languages is spotted by the British Secret Service. The result sees him embark upon an entirely different kind of education.

Then in what I thought was one of the most powerful sections of the book, the story moves to Germany and introduces a new character – Nell. Evacuated during the war from her home in Berlin to live with her uncle, the end of the war brings her by chance to the site of a wartime atrocity. Using her powers of persuasion and a few untruths, she gains work as an interpreter for the Allied forces and begins documenting the identities of survivors. She is nevertheless determined to return home to Berlin because, as she frequently says, “I am a Berliner”.

Eventually the story of Joe’s exploits in post-war Berlin takes centre stage as he and some comrades with connections in the right places take advantage of the flourishing black market. But have they got in over their heads? There’s an impressive amount of detail about the Berlin of the time which is clearly the product of a lot of research.

As the book reaches its climax we’re back in the year 1963 and Joe finally undertakes, albeit with reservations, the job he’s been contracted to do. Events move along at pace and woven into the story is an iconic moment in history that takes place in West Berlin. The author gives Nell a pivotal role in this, as signalled in the opening chapter. The last few chapters of the book are full of tension and the ending leaves enough loose ends to make a sequel irresistible.

Although only around 400 pages, the book has a lot of chapters, many of which are extremely short. Having taken a quick peek at my copy of The Unfortunate Englishman, I see that it also has many short chapters so this must be a deliberate style choice on the part of the author. The audiobook version has over two hundred chapters and I’m guessing its narrator, Lewis Hancock, must have been pleased when it was finally time to say “Chapter 206”. Talking of the narration, Lewis Hancock does a great job coping with the different accents required – Russian, German, American, etc. – although I did have difficulty at times recognising it was Nell speaking.

Then We Take Berlin is an entertaining spy thriller with a charismatic central character and, despite my reservations about its structure, I definitely intend to read the next two books in the series at some point.

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  • The Curator
  • 06-02-20

Fascinating take on modern history

There’s something Zelig-like about the way Lawton’s characters slot, slide and sometimes fall into world events and yet he gets away with it. Set in the same world as the Troy series, this book features the same kind of chancers and scumbags and very good it is.

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  • Anonymous User
  • 08-10-19

pleasant suprise

wanted something to listen to while traveling. couldn't stop listening to it in the taxi, train, bus, airport, plane... I think you get it. was addicted after a few chapters and was dying to find out what would happen next. looking forward to second book !!!!

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  • Flora Poste
  • 23-04-18

Another great story from John Lawton

What made the experience of listening to Then We Take Berlin the most enjoyable?

Everything! His plots are complex but clear, always deeply absorbing and funny too. The historical detail is beautifully presented and never intrusive, set in the often neglected period immediately post war in Britain and Europe.

Who was your favorite character and why?

The central character Wilderness is a delight but also the old forger, who's name I have forgotten

Which character – as performed by Lewis Hancock – was your favourite?

The old forger

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

The suicide of Wilderness's father

Any additional comments?

I've started listening again to the second in this series, (I bought them the wrong way around) and I can't wait for Mr Lawton to write another. I'd thoroughly recommend the Troy novels too.

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  • H. Tollyfield
  • 16-09-16

Atmospheric story of post-war Berlin

I've long been a fan of John Lawton and I think this is one of his best books. Wilderness is a really likeable, roguish anti-hero, whose personality is brought out well through the story. I also like the attention which the author pays to developing the other characters, particularly Nell. As with other John Lawton books you learn a lot about the time, place and events within which the story is placed and I found the detail absolutely fascinating. He really does evoke the chaos, the grimness, horror, and the ludicrous, sometimes funny, events that characterised Germany, particularly Berlin, at the end of the war. He also draws out the different reactions of the survivors - those who will survive at any cost (who will do anything at any cost) and those who cannot continue to carry the burden of what they have experienced. I can't agree with others who criticise the ending. It stands up well alongside other endings which leave the reader to use their imagination - it made me think of the classic ending to the Italian Job and Michael Cain saying "Just wait while I think of something" (apologies if I have got the quote wrong) as the coach teeters on the edge of the precipice.

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  • KG07
  • 18-03-15

where was the end?

I thought books needed a beginning, a middle and an end. the first two parts were great, various characters from other Inspector Troy books popping up, evocative period description, and then it was as if the author ran out of time and just dashed of any old ending. Such a shame.