Both The Siege and its sequel The Betrayal can stand alone but if you're intending to read both, it's probably better to read them in the correct order. Having read The Betrayal first I knew who would survive and who would perish, but for me this didn't spoil The Siege.
The story centres round Anna, a nursery teacher in her early twenties. She has looked after her young brother Kolya since their mother died in childbirth and shares an apartment in Leningrad with their father, a writer whose offerings are out of favour with the authorities. Andrei is a young doctor, trying to help the wounded as the German army advances. Among those he helps is Anna's father.
The setting is Leningrad in 1941, and when the German army surrounds the city, effectively isolating it from the rest of the country and cutting off all supplies, Anna carries on her bicycle what produce she can from the family dacha and the struggle for survival begins. The Russian winter is long and harsh, and Helen Dunmore excels at creating a sense of winter. This is even more apparent in The Siege than it was in A Spell of Winter, the first book I read by this author.
You can feel the cold and hunger as the nights lengthen and the snow deepens. As I tucked into my bowl of porridge this morning, I tried to imagine how anyone could survive on just two slices of bread a day, all that the rations allowed. Imagine struggling through the snow in temperatures of -20 degrees to queue for bread, your ration book securely hidden so no one steals it, without even knowing whether there will be any bread today.
I had put off reading this book as I feared it would be gloomy and depressing but, despite the hardship and the millions dying of starvation and cold, it ends with a ray of hope in the brief Leningrad summer. I'm so pleased I read it, and would thoroughly recommend it.