Cover Image: The Berlin Zookeeper

The Berlin Zookeeper

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Member Reviews

A truly heartbreaking book that shows how the effects of war last long after the war has finished.. Bethan goes to work at Berlin zoo to piece together the mystery pieces of her deceased mothers list and find out more about her past. This book shows hope and how horrific events can still bring people close together. This is written very well and I would definitely recommend this book!
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Loved, loved, loved this gem!  Knowing this has historical data supporting the story made it that much more heartbreaking.  Anna Stuart tells a story about the Berlin Zoo through two lenses - 1943 during the war and 2019 when Bethan, a veterinarian, takes a job there seeking to solve a family mystery.  So appreciated the two perspectives and the eventual unraveling of the mystery.  Anna weaves facts so seamlessly into her incredible story and the characters walked off the pages and into my heart.  Seeing the devastation of the bombing of Berlin through the eyes of its citizens, and the poor helpless animals, was a true twist for me.  I so admired Katharina and Oscar, and Adelaide, whose life was so torn apart at such an impressionable age.  Her character was such an inspirational way to tie the two story lines together.  The horrors of living at the zoo and watching the animals cruel fate was unnerving.  I was so cheering for Knautschke throughout the story.  Katharina was so pivotal in the lives of others living at the zoo, both human and animal, her Zoofamilie.  She was a true mother to all.
Enter Bethan in 2019.  The hippo brooch was another brilliant way to bring the two story lines together.  Having found the brooch and a list of women’s names in her beloved mother’s jewelry box as a young girl she was determined to find the connection.  During her sleuthing she realized things important in her own life.  Loved her relationship with Max, and also her evolving relationship with her dad.
I am a true fan Anna Stuart.  Thank you for opening my eyes to this piece of history as well as looking at the devastating effects of war from a different perspective.  Many many thanks to Anna Stuart, Bookouture, and NetGalley for affording me the pleasurable experience of reading an arc of this just published gem.  This is a must read!
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The Berlin Zookeeper (previous title, The Zookeeper’s Daughter) was powerful historical fiction that revolved around the Berlin Zoo and its keepers. The story was about life of Zookeepers, what Berlin zoo went through during the wartime, struggle and life of women keepers, Germans who didn’t support war, belongingness, friendship, family, unconditional love, courage and survival.

Writing was gripping, emotive and beautiful that gave vivid and precise picture of Berlin in WWII. It was written in alternative dual timeline third person narrative, Katherine narrating what zoo went through from 1943 to 1945 and Bethan narrating present picture of Berlin Zoo in 2019 along with her mystery list.

Plot was interesting. It started with 11 yrs. old Bethan discovering list with names of women in her mother’s jewellery box after her death along with Hippo brooch with letter BZ on back of it. Even though her father said to forget about the list and tried to threw it away, Bethan was sure the list was important but didn’t know how until years later she googled it. German roots of her mother, her love for animals as vet, hippo brooch, and the first name on the list- Katherina Heinroth, inspired her to land a job in Berlin Zoo and solve the mystery the names on the list. Back in 1943, Katherina the zookeeper of Berlin along with her husband and remaining zookeepers tried to save zoo and themselves from allied bombing and approaching Russians. Struggle, tragic events, and horrifying rumours about Russians forced her to plan the escape.

It was interesting to read what Katherine, other zookeeper, and even animals have gone through in this struggling time, how they survived and if they managed to escape, what Bethan’s list indicated and why her mother had those names, and how that list connected past and present.

Characters were amazing and there were lots of characters. I did keep a list so it was a bit easy for me, but I could see readers struggling without a list of characters as both present and past timeline introduced so many characters, all keepers, vets, zoo manager, and many other.

Bethan was great throughout the book. She was in her early thirties, loved animals and was amazing vet. But when it came to personal life, she was a bit less confident and yielding. I seriously don’t know why she was with her useless boyfriend who obviously didn’t respect her work and her bond with her parents and only was staying for free accommodation. It took her time in Berlin, with new friends and working on her mother’s list at zoo to realise that. Her development was slow but good. I can’t believe I’m saying this but I agreed with that boyfriend about no matter what list suggest and what she discovered about it from her father she shouldn’t forget the love she got from her family and it’s what matters at the end. But at the same time, I admired her determination and tenacity to get to bottom of it and how much she learned from it.  

Katherine was best character in the book. She was fiery, fierce, determined, resilient, lovely and amazing keeper who openly showed her views against Nazi party and the war, even though she knew the manager of zoo who was party member could report her and she could lose her life. Her love for zoo and zoofamilie was admirable. Even though she had degree and was competent, she wasn’t given the title of ‘Keeper’ as she was a woman and she still dedicated her life to zoo. It was amazing to read how she was running the zoo, helping the keeper, took those keepers who weren’t experienced under her wing and taught them all about animals, fought with her life and everything she had in her to keep them and zoo safe. I constantly worried for her even though it was evident she survived war from the very beginning. But wasn’t sure how and if other keepers survived or not which kept me flipping page faster.

I loved many secondary characters from 1943 timeline- Adelaide, Shasha and her husband, French men brought to Germany who worked in zoo, and cleaners- Ursula and Gisela – who were as expert as any keeper. In present timeline- Max, Ella, and Paul. Oh, and Monica- she sure steal the show and I’m sure she would be pleased with it.

Best part was the history. I have read how things were during WWII in London, France, other countries but I never read how it was like in the heart of the Germany, what people have gone through, how they suffered, had to follow party command even though they resisted it in their heart, and how women kept things going in Berlin because only they were left, even 13 yr. old kids and 60 yrs. old men were forced to fight the bloody war, and lived constantly in fear of Russian army. Reading all that gave different perspective for Germany in wartime.

It was heart wrenching to read how the war started by humans didn’t spare innocent animals. They were just meat after their horrible death because of bombing and even though it twisted keeper’s heart and stomach they had to cook and eat them without any objection as they never had full meal for who knows how long and have to share it with citizen who whenever possible gave something in exchange to keep living animals safe and alive; how Russians progressed in Berlin the situation got even worse, no water, no food, no protection, how they spent time in bunkers, and even birthed babies without doctor or midwife. That scene of women of Berlin fighting for cyanide was most terrifying.

There were so many layers in the book and even though story was filled with heart-breaking heavy subject with so much loss, pain and suffering, there was a lightness to it. Berliners weird dark humour and characters’ nature made me smile few times.

Mystery of list was really interesting. At around 25% we know how Bethan’s mother had the list of women and what they indicated but that didn’t solve how they were connected until story progress in both the timeline. It kept me guessing until it was revealed in last 10% of the book.

Climax was tense and sad. Both main character from different timeline had hopes and yet so much disappointments with unpredictability. But the turn of event just before end was like shining light in darkest time. I felt so happy for both of them, especially Katherine, it brought happy tears in my eyes. End was perfect, satisfying, uplifting, and filled with so much hope.

Overall, The Berlin Zookeeper was emotional, heart-breaking, and well written historical fiction that gave different view to Germany in WWII. I highly recommend this book to fans of this genre specially those who love this time period.
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It was 2019 when Bethan Taylor was accepted as a veterinarian at the Berlin Zoo, with a contract for a year. She left her home, taking the piece of paper that had belonged to her mother Jana. It was a mystery Bethan was desperate to solve as she knew her mother had been trying before she died. Beth hoped to uncover a secret locked in the past from the war years in Berlin.

1943 and Berlin and the zoo had been bombed continuously. Katharina and her husband, the zookeeper Oskar, and the zoofamilie all hid in the bunker below the zoo grounds until the bombing was over. The women were doing the work of the men as the able-bodied had been called to work for Hitler. Ten-year-old Adelaide had a newborn sister, Hanna and had lost their mother to childbirth. When Adelaide saw her father die, making her and Hanna orphans, Katharina took them under her wing – but Adelaide was never the same after that. Katharina was determined to move the baby animals and as many of the women and children to safety. But could she do it? The Red Army was on its way, and the rumours were terrifying…

When Beth continued with her work, which she loved, she also met with an old lady who sat on a bench at the zoo day in and day out. Ada loved the animals and was happy to sit. She was happier if the keepers gave her cake. Would Ada be instrumental in helping Beth find the answers she needed?

The Berlin Zookeeper is my first by Anna Stuart and I loved it. It was an eye opener to read a war book from the perspective of German civilians, and know the horrors that they went through, the constant murder of innocent people – the same the world over. The shock of knowing the immense loss that the Berlin Zoo suffered – only 91 creatures left from more than three thousand at the beginning of the war. Katharina, Ursula, Sasha, Gisela – four strong women and their children, Adelaide, Hanna, Beatrice and Olivia – some would survive, some would not. The Berlin Zookeeper is a brilliant read which I highly recommend.

With thanks to NetGalley and Bookouture for my digital ARC to read in exchange for an honest review.
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This was such an interesting read. I'm so used to reading books set around WW2 from the point of a British person so to read something from a German' person's point of view was a change. This book broke my heart several times, my animal loving heart was sore quite a bit. What people want through during those dark years was horrific and there are parts of this book that don't make for easy reaing, it's definitely one of the grittier historical fiction books I've read . Anna Stuart is a brilliant storyteller and I can imagine this being a film or TV drama.
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I found the subject matter and the setting of this book to be fascinating. The author either had some personal connection or did extensive research because everything zoo-related seemed authentic and plausible. As with other historical fiction novels, there are dual storylines. I thought this worked in the book because there was not only a connection between the two, but some of the characters spanned both. I was completely taken by the story of the “Zoofamilie.” The historical storyline takes place in Berlin during the retaliation strikes for the Blitz, and it was interesting to read from the German point of view. Kudos to the author for an honest portrayal of wartime. For a detailed review, please visit Fireflies and Free Kicks. Thank you to Bookouture and NetGalley for a digital ARC of the book.
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A stunning story based on true events. I absolutely loved it. Couldn't put it down. 
The writing style is so beautiful and it made me feel like I was there with Bethan fighting to find out the big secret, I felt the pain of those war times and the desperation of losing it all but I also felt the love, the passion and the joy
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There are many World War II stories out there, but The Berlin Zookeeper is different. It’s set at Berlin Zoo. It focuses on the animals and their keepers. I’m sure there are many of us that didn’t even think about the zoo animals during the war. You will read about the struggle of the “zoo family” to keep the animals protected and fed, and the terrible living conditions they were in. The arrival of the Russians in Berlin was terrifying to these people.

I do love a good dual timeline story and The Berlin Zookeeper is just that! Right from the start, it had me hooked on the stories of the two main women characters, Bethan and Katharina. They are both strong characters and determined. Bethan in 2019has got a vet job at Berlin Zoo, leaving behind her self-absorbed boyfriend in the UK. She is eager to find out more about the secrets surrounding her mother and the connection with Berlin Zoo. Then we have Katharina back in the 1940s who will do anything to protect her Zoo and the children around her. The Berlin Zookeeper will tug on your heartstrings and you will be eager to read it to the very last page.
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This story is based on true characters and events.

The Berlin zookeeper is written in duel timeline which I find a very good thing so we get povs from both timelines.

Bethan the main character is a strong willed character who loved her job as the zoo keeper and a lover of animals. She soon uncovers a secret.

This is a heartbreaking story set at the end of world war II.

It tells a story about loss and resilience at that time in her life.

I loved it and will highly recommend this book to anyone.
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It is 1943 and keeping the Berlin Zoo running in the throes of World War II is no easy task. Not only is Katharina Heinroth in charge of the skeletal crew and trying to keep the animals fed and alive, she has a far more critical task - that of saving children. Two children in particular, ten-year-old Adelaide and newborn Olivia, eventually come under her care. 

Then we have present day and Bethan Taylor is a vet and takes a year-long contract at the Berlin Zoo and runs into someone that makes her concerned about her past. In fact, she asks her father for clues about her past, particularly about her deceased grandmother. Bethan opens a pandora's box of lies and deceit and is determined to unearth any secrets she can.

I love reading historical fiction despite the seriousness these stories entail. Having read much of concentration camps and survivors in these fictional settings, to read of a book in a zoo setting was completely different. None of these stories are feel-good stories, but what is good about them is the dedication many have to deal with whatever circumstances they are facing. In this case of this book there were some passages that were difficult to read. When it comes to the women in this story there is definitely a level of sadness, but more than that there is an incredible level of strength. It is the strength that these women showed in this story that make this an utterly riveting read.

This touching story by Anna Stuart taught me about dark times and survival, and about an amazing Zoofamilie that showed the tragedy of reaching out for help that might never come. The mystery of Bethan’s past was compelling and I loved that it was inspired by a true story with a mix of creative license. Lastly, not only did the Berlin Zoo survive despite incredible odds it is still in the same location as it was during the war. This is just one of the intriguing things I learned from the informative Historical Note at the end of this book. This impressive book will be with me for a long time and definitely comes highly recommended.

Many thanks to Bookouture and to NetGalley for this ARC for review. This is my honest opinion.
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The Berlin Zookeeper is a dual timeline story which focuses on the people who worked in the Berlin Zoo during World War Two as they struggle to survive the bombing by the Allies and the Russians advancing towards the city, as well as a young woman seeking answers in the present day. It’s a well written and well researched story that shines a light on an aspect of the war I had never read about before. You really wouldn’t have given any thought to a zoo during the war considering so much else was happening on a world wide scale but here Anna Stuart brings to light the subject matter very well. A shocking family history, a wartime secret and a heart-breaking loss all form the themes being explored throughout the story. The scene is set so well that you actually feel like you are at the zoo, both in the present day and the years during the war. Amidst the stories as to how the animals and the zoo itself suffered at this time is a story of bravery, courage, resilience and dedication and Bethan in the present day is determined to uncover the many answers she has as to her own personal family history.

Bethan’s mother died when she was 11 and all she now has is a list of women’s names with a hippo-shaped brooch attached to the top of the list. This is a link to her mother when she believed all connection to be lost but it only stirs up so many questions and emotions and suggests there was a lot going on in her mother’s life that she had no idea about. Her father is evasive and not willing to give her answers to the innumerable thoughts running through her mind. Who or what is he protecting? Who were the women on the list? What significance did they have in her mother’s life? Katharina Heinroth is the first name on the list and she had been the director of the zoo post World War Two and so she becomes the main character in the strand of the story that centres on the past. 

Bethan has a new and exciting job at Berlin Zoo. It means leaving her boyfriend Callum behind in England but she is determined their relationship will continue to work long distance. She feels she has been called here as the brooch must have originated from the zoo. Will she find the answers she seeks and if said answers are uncovered will a piece of her slot into place that she did not know was missing? I did enjoy the chapters set in the present day. The descriptions of the zoo, the work done there and the various people Bethan meets really helped compare and contrast to the experiences of the workers during the war. It was clear there was a significant link between Bethan’s family past and events during the war and I was as keen as Bethan to find out just what they were. Her quest had such a natural flow to it and nothing was rushed, except perhaps towards the end. Instead slowly she begins to connect the dots and piece the story together and what she uncovers is remarkable. 

Alongside Max, the head primate keeper and assistant manager, the secrets hidden in the zoo and beyond slowly start to unravel themselves. You witness Bethan coming to an understanding of where her family heritage originated and she has to comprehend an extraordinary story of bravery, loss, devastation and above all else love and sacrifice. A romance element does insert itself into her life but to be honest I wasn’t all that fussed about it. My interest was much more directed towards the story set during the war. That’s not to say Bethan’s story wasn’t well written, it was but I found the historical aspect slightly stronger than the modern day.

Having the story set in the zoo during the war years really showed how different aspects of German society dealt with what the war years were throwing at them. To be honest do we really think much about Berlin or the population of Germany as a whole during the war when we read historical fictions set during this time? I know I don’t, I’m generally more concerned about how the Allies were doing world wide or reading stories of remarkable bravery by secret agents and how the people of London coped with the Blitz etc. So this was a new slant for me and with the added strand of the animals it shone a whole new light on things for me as to how the citizens dealt with the British bombs on a practical and daily basis.

Katharina was a fantastic character. She never ever rested and time and time again she put her own needs to one side and dealt with both the human and animals issues lying at her door. The question of what made one animal or human better than any other because of where they came from was raised and provided plenty of food for thought whilst reading. Katharina shouldered many burdens. It was like the weight of the problems of those surrounding her became hers and the pressure must have been immense. Yet she never complained and was always looking for ways to find the path to lasting survival. The author created such tension, suspense, unease, danger which only increased with every turn of the page. With Katharina and the various workers forced to hide in underground bunkers as the bombs rained down on the city and the zoo that was such a landmark. Their life’s work was being destroyed, not to mention the scenes they witnessed, having such a devastating and long lasting impact. You see the situation deteriorate as they worry about the Russians coming nearer and nearer to the city but everyday life continued and they had to navigate what this would bring right to the confines of the bunker. What amazed me though was that after every bombing they surveyed the damage and losses and attempted to pick up the pieces and run the zoo as normal. It was seen as a beacon of hope at a time when all everything seemed devoid of faith and belief.

I did think there were an awful lot of characters introduced in the sections in the past and I was trying to keep track of who was who and how they connected to each other. A little list of characters perhaps at the beginning of the book that you could refer back to would have been welcome. I say this because coming towards the end when things did take on a frantic pace as Bethan edged ever closer to the truth I became confused and found myself at times struggling to join the pieces together as quickly as Bethan did. But what is eventually uncovered is an amazing story that showed that Katharina when needed most became a matriarch, protector and saviour to so many. She shouldered the burden of those all around her and knew that survival of so many depended on her. Her motivation was strong and never wavered despite tragedy and loss beating down the gates of the zoo. As for how the past and the present link together well that was emotional and very well developed. Things came full circle very nicely and highlighted what strong women they were at a time when the world was falling apart.

The Berlin Zookeeper is Anna Stuart’s first foray into historical fiction and it proved to be an enjoyable, eye opening read with both a strong plot and cast of characters. It gave the reader a totally different perspective on the time period. The author had clearly done much detailed research and enjoyed bringing her story with such a fascinating setting and wide range of characters to life. Already there is news of a new book to come from Anna Stuart this year. The Secret Diary publishes in August and having read the blurb it has already whetted my appetite for what is to come from this new and exciting author.
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There are certain books that catch your attention right away and when there is a mystery to be solved who can’t resist. The Berlin Zoo is the setting for a dual timeline with the years being covered 1943, which means a War torn time and the year 2019.

Not only were animals being smuggled out to safety, but babies and children. The author of the book created very strong characters to include the 1943 zoo keeper, Katharina who had to find the strength to  not only keep the animals alive, but her staff as well. The other key player is Bethan who is a veterinarian that comes to work for the zoo in 2019. Bethan discovers a mysterious paper with the names of ladies in her mothers jewelry box when she is eleven years old after her mother has passed on. One of the names is the past head Zookeeper, Katharina.


I received a free advanced copy from NetGalley and these are my willingly given thoughts and opinions.
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Loved it!!!  Those poor animals (and of course the people).  The zoo animals were lucky to have zookeepers that loved them so much that they would risk their own lives to take care of them.  I never thought about what happened to the zoos during the war and how they would be affected.  I loved the mystery about Bethan's family.  I enjoyed how the book alternated between Bethan in the present and the zookeepers at the Berlin Zoo in in 1940s.  My favorite part of the book was Katharina and her story during WWII.  I didn't love Bethan.  I couldn't understand why she would be so mad at her father.  She was only eleven when she found the list and her dad was grieving with the loss of his wife and her mom.  She acted like her grandmother was no longer her grandmother because they weren't blood relation.  I loved getting to know all the characters and felt like I was right there at the zoo.  

Definitely recommend the book.  I loved the characters, writing style and story- everything about it. 
 This is the first book I read by the author and I look forward to reading more.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Bookouture through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.
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I'm so disappointed with myself for not liking this more. I know for this this is a case of it's me, not the book. I've always struggled with historical fiction where it's a mix between past and present. I prefer my historical fiction to be entirely set in the historical period the book takes place in. But I had really hoped I would like this one.

I think the biggest problem for me was the characterization of Bethan. A lot of things just didn't make sense to me. She had known about the list of names for 22 years, but yet she had never asked her father about it or eve studied the period of history she knew at least one the names was attached to. If you're so desperate to know who the people on the list are, why would you let such a large stone go unturned?

Then there's Ada. I think Bethan put way too much pressure on this poor woman. So many times she was brought to hysterics because of Bethan's questions, and I think it was a really selfish and unfair thing to do. Bethan had 22 years to learn about her. Okay, so she was 11 when she found the list. I don't know if the UK has an age of adulthood like the US does, so for the sake of the argument, say Bethan waits until she's an 18 year old adult to start digging (since her father didn't want to talk about it when the list was first found). That still leaves 15 years that Bethan could have used to find Ada sooner. That poor woman didn't deserve to be badgered so hard with the way her age was affecting her mental capacity.

I enjoyed reading the sections from the past. But Bethan really annoyed me, and made reading a present a real chore

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Just beautiful and poignant. Heart breaking and heart warming. I cried and I suffered with the characters. Just beautiful. Do read this one.
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A superb book that I struggled to put down as I just wanted to keep reading. I love historical fiction especially in this era but this is the first book I've read where the story is based in Berlin and we see it from the perspective of the citizens of Berlin.

When we look back at World War II we rarely stop to think that many Germans didn't agree with Hitler and just wanted the bombing and destruction of their wonderful city to stop.

Written on a dual timeline we meet Beth who is moving to Berlin to work in the zoo, she is keen to solve a puzzle from her mothers past and through this we get to visit the zoo and its keepers in Berlin at the height of the war.

This story grips you as you read about the poor living conditions for both the zoo keepers and the animals as they struggle to keep as many animals as possible alive. I have learnt so much about what the citizens of Berlin faced through the war torn years and how severe the punishments were if anyone spoke out against what was happening around them. 

These wonderful characters will stay with me for a long time from across both timelines as well as the memories of the wonderful animals they lost and those they fought so hard to save from not only from the bombings but the arrival of the Russians as well.

A heartwrenching story that pulls you in and makes you eager to keep turning the pages.
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I love time slip novels especially one’s that revolve around World War II, and this one written by Anna Stuart kept my attention from start to finish.  This rapid page turners is an absolute must read. It is one that I devoured in one sitting.

I absolutely loved the story of Adelaide and her infant sister.  But Katrina who was a true heroine because of the sacrifices she made in her life to help the orphaned children of the war.  She would do anything to save as many children as she possibly can. But now fast forward to Berlin current day, Bethan Taylor and goes to work in the Berlin Zoo as a Vet.  One day she meets a lady at the Berlin Zoo sitting on a bench.  As the conversation begins is the lady she meets someone she knows…from her past?  As Bethan’s desire to uncover the mystery of her past and determine her future, the lady she has come across can unlock, solve and answer so many questions.  This time slip novel, mixes the past and the present, it is one that is sure to stick with you for a very long time.

I was so enthralled with this emotional story.  I was so engrossed with the story and the characters.  This one will have to be read with a box of Kleenex nearby.  Thank you Anna Stuart for this phenomenal story, I absolutely loved it.
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Upon reading the blurb of this book, I knew it was something I was going to enjoy, Berlin zoo in 1943 a young girl and her baby sister are caught up in the bombings with devastating consequences, after fleeing to the Zoo they are looked after by one of the zoo keepers who happens to know the girls, I really felt for the girls and shed a few tears for them too, I could never imagine what they had to go through. Through the book we also see what is going on in Berlin zoo in 2019 where Bethan is working, she notices an elderly woman sitting on a bench all alone and decides to talk to her, what she uncovers will surprise us all. I loved reading all about the zoo in that era back then and also liked how the two stories intertwined together, I didn't want the story to end as I was completely entranced by it.
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Inspired by a true story this tells the story of Beth who has recently been appointed a veterinary position at Berlin Zoo. She discovers that her grandmother was not blood, her now deceased mother having been adopted, or rather “ gifted”. She always knew that there was a link to the zoo and being here now enables her to investigate further. Back in 1943 the war has hit hard and a group of women are doing their best to look after the animals despite the bombings. Ten year old Adelaide is keen on the animals and helps her mother. When she becomes orphaned Katherina takes her under her wing. Bethan realises that all the staff know Ada well- she visits every day and rambles on about “ the babies” which appears to be about the animals. Could she hold the key as to whom Beth’s real grandmother was and what is the true story about the war years? I enjoyed this, I’ve read several wartime books recently and this was a real change. Not only the animal side but set in Berlin so a completely different perspective to many war time stories which I find very interesting and a wonderful way to learn a little history albeit through the eyes of fiction.
An interesting read, some history, wonderful animals and a smile and a little romance along the way. Wonderful.
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This book’s historical thread is set during the chaotic and dangerous final days of the Second World War, as the Nazi regime is disintegrating and the people of Berlin wait to see what the future holds – atrocities perpetrated by the invading Russians, or liberation by the allied forces. What makes this story so very different is that it’s set in Berlin Zoo, as the “family” fight against the odds to secure their own lives and futures alongside those of the animals. And then, in the present day, Bethan is a vet working at Berlin Zoo, pursuing clues to her family history based on a list of German names left by her mother, who died when her daughter was 11, together with a treasured hippo brooch.

The success of a dual timeline story often depends on both stories having equal strength and interest, and this wonderful book certainly achieves that with consummate ease. The historical story really tears at your heart – the constant danger, the devastating losses (both animal and human), the impact of the situation on a group of individuals fighting to save what they love – with a wonderful focus on their passion and commitment. At times, the story is particularly harrowing, and difficult to read – this is really powerful writing, and some of the scenes of bloodshed and devastation really sear themselves into the memory. Katharina, at the story’s centre, is the kind of strong woman who I always enjoy – entirely three-dimensional, sometimes flawed, often vulnerable, but showing exceptional bravery and resilience as she struggles for something she believes in.

The present day story provides the lightness, though driven by Bethan’s quest to uncover the secrets her maternal grandmother took to the grave. She has a boyfriend at home, a total tosser who seems to have zero interest in anything Bethan does (the Leicester City duvet cover really told me all I need to know!), and the distance allows her some space to examine their relationship. And there’s the possibility of a new romance, a fellow zoo worker who makes her heart beat a little faster – and who is more than happy to help and support her as she uncovers the layers of family secrets. At first, I did wonder if her story might be a little too light – but it develops really nicely, and the characters are strong enough and their story so involving that it provides a welcome relief at times from the more disturbing aspects of the wartime experiences. There’s a nice focus on family in the present day too, and I particularly liked Bethan’s relationship with her father – there’s a particular warmth about it, although he was initially so vehemently opposed to her investigations into the past.

I particularly liked the fact that the wartime story was based on the real history of Berlin Zoo – Google told me that Katharina Heinroth did become scientific director at the war’s end, helping to restore it after the ravages of allied bombing, when the animal numbers had been tragically reduced from 4000 to 91. But this book is much more than a retelling of well-researched history with some light romance and a few family secrets on the side – it’s a really compelling read, deeply moving, and a fitting tribute to the ordinary Berliners who risked their lives for a future they believed in. A great read, wonderful storytelling – and highly recommended by me.

(Review copied to Amazon UK, but link not yet available)
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