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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Francie visits her grandmother Daphne in a home but she is more concerned with her own life than she is with her grandmother's life which is now drawing to a close. Francie is a journalist working on a magazine and during a work trip to Germany she sees a picture in a museum of Daphne with Hitler in the 1930s. Naturally she is curious and wants to know more.

The story is told in alternate chapters - Francie in 2006 and Daphne in 1936 - and it shows how different life was then when compared to the twenty first century. As Francie struggles to make sense of her heritage and to make a success of her own life she becomes more and more interested in what did happen to her grandmother in 1936 - the year her own father was born.

This book grew on me. After the first hundred pages I was considering giving up but something kept me reading and I was glad in the end that I had done so. I did not take to Francie and found her a very selfish person, always considering how events related to her - getting annoyed when she thought Daphne was going to die before she could talk to her; hearing of a flat for sale in her own block and wanting a friend to buy it; being attracted to a work colleague. I liked Daphne as a character, though she too had her faults.

I did get a bit bored with the brand placement in the 2006 episodes and felt they rather over-egged the pudding. It was obvious from the reader's first glimpse of Francie and her husband, Gus that they lived a very fashionable life.

Overall this is an enjoyable read though I found it difficult to chose whether to award it three or four stars. As I enjoyed the last third of the book and read it at a sitting I came to the conclusion it warranted four stars. I felt some of the writing was a little slapdash but overall it was a good story and the two parts dovetailed well.
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VINE VOICEon 8 January 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Daphne Linden is the daughter of an Oxford don, a man of Latvian Jewish extraction and a philanderer. In 1935, she is just 18 and has a place, but not a scholarship, at Oxford. Her father suggests that she spend a few months in Germany, improving her grasp of the language, before resitting her entrance exam. Daphne has a naïveté that we cannot imagine these days, barely understanding the sudden disappearance of a Jewish classmate from her Bavarian school. She then moves to Munich where her friend Betsy joins her from finishing school. The girls find plenty of boys to squire them around and are invited to the winter Olympics.

Seventy years later, Daphne's granddaughter Francie visits the same Alpine resort for work. Francie is not a sympathetic character: she has a nice husband, a flat in Little Venice and a good job in the media so she is -- obviously -- discontented with her lot. She also lives in a world where women have 'manes' rather than hair like normal people. Then she gets word that Daphne has had a stroke in her care home and is asking for her. Next day, she is astonished to see a photograph of Daphne and Betsy with Hitler in the archives. Francie was very close to her grandparents, who brought her up as her father died when she was young and her mother went off with another man. Looking through a box of keepsakes, she is shocked to find her father's birth certificate with his father's name left blank.

I found the premise of this novel intriguing -- posh English girls go off to Germany in 1936 to improve their German and mingle innocently with the Nazi elite -- but the execution is disappointing. I did wonder, on ordering it, if Johnson could write, or if she was someone who gets published because she has a famous family. The novel is an enjoyable enough read but no more than that.

It's not easy to pinpoint where the problem lies with her writing: undisciplined is a word that springs to mind, but it also lacks the spark I expect from a really accomplished writer. Her sentences amble along with no attempt at elegant economy and the plot could be better structured, staggering about into flashbacks all over the place. Her prose is serviceable but uninspired. Every time a new character is introduced, the flow of the novel is interrupted to give a description of them, as if for a police report: the sure sign of an inexperienced novelist, except that some never grow out of it.

She's awfully fond of adjectives too, with nouns often requiring two of them. In a single sentence in chapter two we have picture windows which are vast, views which are both panoramic and marvellous, meadows both rich and Alpine, and long-lashed cows, followed by vistas (presumably different in some way from views) which are 'Lindt-chocolate-wrapper' with white mountains, yellow sun and cornflower-blue sky. I got exhausted reading it.

There are some nice jokes. Francie's husband is, her friends assure her, adorable -- meaning heterosexual, with his own hair and teeth and not obviously a sociopath.

Not all the writing is bad: there are some well-turned phrases, which suggests that Johnson would not take the trouble to edit and edit and edit again until the book was as good as it could be, which is short change for the reader.

I have given the novel three stars as it's an enjoyable read, so long as you're not expecting great art.
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on 5 January 2014
The premise of this novel was very promising - as was the jacket- but an alarming note crept into the back-cover puffs: 'Surprisingly brilliant' and 'shiveringly brilliant' - a little editing would have helped the repetition, but much more is needed inside the covers.
Lurching between two periods, 1936 and 2006, with impending crisis clumsily telegraphed at every point, the modern plot reads like slick satire of the self-referential type that readers of glossy magazines enjoy for guilty recognition of their own lifestyle. Brand names galore dropped so often that I expected sponsor acknowledgements. The characters without exception are hideously superficial and one-dimensional. This would have been great if the aim had been parody, and a magazine article, but it appears an earnest attempt at 'weighty import' in a novel that verges on the bonk-buster. The 1936 story which it counterpoints is not much better with poorly drawn and scarcely credible characters, and the opportunity of a fascinating perspective on Nazi Germany is lost. The author seems to lose track between the alternating plots: Daphne returned to the chalet 'to find her stained bedlinen had been changed' - this ignores the key twist that she had swapped bedrooms for the night with her friend, which had then implausibly led to the 'staining'. In the writing, less would be more, and a challenging editor would have helped the prose.
The preface attributes inspiration to family experience. The whole book feels lazily constructed and written and relying on the family name to sell. It could have been so much more.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Very much a book of two halves - quickly read and just as quickly forgotten; it certainly doesn't reflect the image on the cover, coming over very much as 'chick lit' of the Mills and Boone variety!

Brief Summary (without spoilers): - Daphne was sent off to Germany in the mid thirties to improve her knowledge of the German language. Seventy years later her granddaughter, Francie, interested in the time her grand-mother spent there, sets out to discover out as much as she can about that visit - a visit which appears to have had somewhat far reaching consequences.

One of the interesting techniques that the author uses (indeed one that is beginning to be used more and more) is that of moving between the two time periods; a chapter set in prewar Germany followed by one set in modern times.

For me, the descriptions of life in Germany during the mid thirties, whilst the Nazi party were on the rise, were intriguing and, whilst not brilliantly written were, nevertheless one of the slightly better aspects of the book. It picks up and reflects (all be it through a glass darkly) the feel of a society which felt that it had been shabbly treated as a result of the Peace Treaty that followed WW1, and which resulted in a willingness to accept all that Hitler had to offer. It also showed and strongly reflected the way that some of the British Upper Classes, including the Mitford family, ended up admiring the way that the Nazis party had inspired Germany, and how they were influenced to believe that it was all a move for the good.

The modern section of the book, however, was far less convincing, and caused the book to fail on many fronts. Although Rachel Johnson attempts to introduce several parallels between Francie's life and that of her grandmother's; there were far too many differences which detracted from the attempted comparisons. Francie herself does not come over as a particularly emapthetic character. Some of the events covered - icluding a rather sordid affari - were irrelevant; and much of the description of her life felt more like padding for what would otherwise have been an extremely short book rather than key content, as the real interest here was 70 years earlier rather than in details of Francie's activities ... her selections of an expensive restaurant or the 'beyond expensive' one ... her sordid affairs ... and so on!

In summary: - This is a fairly short book which is quick and easy to read in a relatively short period of time, which has been based around an intriguing and interesting concept; however, I feel strongly that it would have worked better with more emphasis on Daphne's exploits and on the History of the time - all of which is reloatively intereting, and rather less on Francie - who is NOT particularly interesting!
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 12 May 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is very much a book of two halves. Daphne has been shipped off to Germany to further her knowledge of the German language in prewar Germany. Seventy years later her granddaughter, Francie, becomes interested in the time Daphne spent there and sets out to find out as much as she can about that visit which, apparently, had rather far reaching consequences.

The author uses the technique of moving between the two time periods, with one chapter on the earlier period followed by one in the later. I thought that the descriptions of life in Germany during the mid thirties, at a time when the Nazi party were very much in the ascendant, were very interesting. One quickly picks up on the whole feel of a society which had been treated shabbily in the peace negotiations following the First World War, and which, as a result, proved to be a fertile ground for Hitler's poisonous philosophy. Equally interesting was the way in which British middle to upper classes, including the Mitfords and others, were in open admiration and awe of the way in which the Nazis had galvanised Germany and had managed to convince themselves that there was not going to be a further Great War.

I found Francie in the mid 2000s rather less convincing. Whilst the author clearly attempts to introduce parallels between her life and her grandmother's I do not think they were at all compelling as not just the time period, but also the circumstances were so different. Francie's sordid little affair with her boss did not seem at all relevant and much of the description of her life had the feeling of padding, as the real interest here was 70 years earlier rather than in details of Francie's restaurant forays.

This is a short book which I read through quickly. The whole concept is an interesting one, but I think it would have worked better with more emphasis on Daphne's exploits and rather less on Francie.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Winter Games by Rachel Johnson for me was a book which I could not say I enjoyed mainly because I found the writing slow and repetitive, the main reason is the characters especially the character in 2006 Francine. I know there is a selfish side to everyone but with these characters I do believe it was impossible for them to think of anyone other than themselves. I fully understand this is the way the author wanted her characters portrayed but with most authors they do give us characters which the author can appeal to or even warm to as the story develops.
The story could have been interesting as it showed the reader how Germany was developing before the Second World War. The author used the Olympics 1936 as the basis of this book which she did at an excellent time as we are still living with our own memories of 2012 London Olympics.
The author tells the story in two separate time zones in the 1936 Daphne and her horrible cousin Betsy have been sent to finishing school at the same time the rumbling of war is at their feet and as their parents have told them there will be no war they simply ignore what is going on around them. While Francine is actually the granddaughter of Daphne and she is living in her own world where her thoughts and cares are all that matters. While in Bavaria researching hotels for her job she finds a photo of her Grandmother as a young girl standing alongside Betsy but with Hitler in the middle. This photograph starts Francine researching into her Granny's youth while trying to find out who her Grandfather actually is.
This could have been a brilliant story in another author's hands but I simply could not accept the writing as it was such a childish look at human emotion. To be honest the simply reason I did not enjoy the book was because it bored me.
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on 23 November 2012
Winter Games is a novel that moves between present times and the mid-1930s when the Winter Olympics were held in Germany under the Third Reich and also seeks to tackle some fairly hefty interrelated issues. Whilst I'm sure it's possible to unite these two eras elegantly via a single theme, it would take a more skilful author than Johnson.

Altogether, this novel does not really work. A story about the rape of a teenager, set against the rise of a fascist regime contrasted with a character in the modern day who is insubstantial and not really that likeable, yet has done something morally questionable, does not blend seamlessly; it curdles into lumps.

The main problem here is the style. Johnson wants to be witty and Mitfordian (of which more later) for the 1930s' sections and makes great efforts with her parade of characters and their dialogue, however her main subject matter can't really be dealt with like this. The modern-day story suffers similarly. The undercurrent is quite serious, but the characters are Bible-paper-thin and she relies on constantly quoting brand names to fill in the picture. The two styles individually aren't brilliantly rendered (the 30s is a bit better than the contemporary), however put together they just bang up against each other and the sound is clangingly hollow.

As expected, Johnson mentions the Mitfords (whose ghosts would haunt anything like this, even if they weren't explicitly mentioned). However, anyone familiar with what happened to Unity when war was declared and her life afterwards might feel that it is a bit distasteful to have her mentioned in this novel, no matter how fleetingly. The mention could easily be deleted at no cost to the narrative and should have been.

If you want to find out about what went on in Germany in this era, there are plenty of excellent social histories as well as a wealth of eye-opening works on the Mitfords; I'd stick with them, as truth, as always, is much stranger than fiction.
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VINE VOICEon 15 May 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Unfortunately this book didn't make it past my 50 page test and I've decided that life is too short to struggle on with books that I'm not enjoying. I was initially intrigued by the book description and the cover but once I started reading I didn't like the style of writing nor did I engage with any of the characters or the storyline. If it hadn't been for the change in Vine reviewing rules then I wouldn't have bothered to submit this review as I hadn't completed the book but as I am forced to I think its only fair that I give it 3 stars. It wasn't a book for me but that doesn't mean that someone else wouldn't enjoy it, however I wouldn't rush to read any more by this author.
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VINE VOICEon 7 February 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I don't usually give out one-star ratings (or five stars for that matter...) but I found this novel so unremittingly dreadful that I had to skim most of it, and it wasn't even enjoyable as a trashy read. The central idea is fascinating. The two plot threads follow Daphne, a young Englishwoman abroad in 1930s Munich, and her grand-daughter Francie, living a hedonistic dream in 2006 before the financial crash. The idea seems to be to contrast these two generations enjoying themselves heedlessly before their inevitable downfall - I was reminded of the famous photograph of flappers dancing on a roof of a building - and Rachel Johnson should be given credit for the originality of this idea. The incident that kickstarts the novel, Francie's discovery of a photograph of Daphne and a friend with Hitler, is also a good place to start. Unfortunately, this novel is simply written so badly that much of this promising material is squandered.

In 2006, the impending doom might as well be spelt out in red letters, as when Francie thinks about 'couples who'd been house-hunting, i.e. about to drop several million pounds of borrowed money on a property they assumed would double in value in a couple of years. Either that, or one of them worked for a US investment bank, in which case one of them could simply mop up his (of her) end-of-year bonus with a large house.' Amazingly, however, despite the shallowness of Francie's plot thread and how irritating she is as a character, I still found her chapters more readable than Daphne's sections, which combine all the worst cliches of bad historical novels, and give no sense of time or place. The awfulness of the writing is evident from her first chapter, which inexplicably ends with a single line, given a paragraph of its own: 'Daphne was eighteen' as if this is some incredibly portentous fact. It just left me baffled - were we supposed to have assumed that Daphne was older than this from the previous scene? Younger? Neither really makes sense considering that the family were discussing her entry to Oxford. This may sound a trivial detail, but to me it epitomised how lazily written and badly-edited this book is.

If you want a serious novel about the political situation in the 1930s, you can't go wrong with Ishiguro's 'The Remains of the Day', whereas for a properly escapist read about snow-capped mountains, I'd recommend Belinda Jones's 'Winter Wonderland'. Just do all you can to avoid this awkward mishmash of the two.
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on 16 August 2013
This is tremendous fun- an odd thing to say about a novel set in Germany in the run-up to the Second World War but true never-the-less. A hybrid chic-lit/historical fiction work it switches effortlessly between contemporary London and Bavaria in 1936.

Francie Fitzsimon is a journalist for a glossy magazine sent to do a piece on an holistic spa built on the site of the mountain retreat where Hitler planned the invasion of Russia. The chance discovery of a photograph of her grandmother with the Fuhrer himself sets her on a quest to discover the past that was never spoken of. Daphne Linden was nearly twenty when she was set to Germany to be "finished". A little Wagner, improving her German and learning to ski amongst the right sort of foreigners (Frenchmen cannot be trusted in taxis) was what her parents had in mind.

The detail of thirties Germany is period-perfect. The shadow of economic depression, the promise offered by New Germany, the uniforms, the marching, the hope, the Winter Games and the gradual realisation of the price demanded and the darker side of the new regime. Equally well-delineated is the picture of the Notting Hill set, "the time of peace and plenty, when houses doubled in value every ten years, households threw away as much food as they consumed and men didn't die for their country they did Yogacamps and BeutCamp Pilates". Both heroines display a naive vunerability perhaps initially more obvious in the sheltered Daphne but as the novel progresses equally evident in the superficially sophisticated Francie embarking on an affair with her caddish boss.

First and foremost this is a novel wittily written and romping along. The voices of the 1930s Deb set ring true adding to the flavour of the times. The pace is fast and the characters engaging but Rachel Johnson has taken the trouble to get her history right and in among an entertaining story and an intriguing what-really-happened puzzle there is much to think about after you have put the book down.
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