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Books

What the critics liked

The plaque at 7 Schönholzer Strasse, in the trendy Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin, is easy to miss, says The Economist. “Yet it marks one of the most astonishing episodes in the grim history of communist East Germany.” For it was from here, in September 1962, that 29 East Berliners escaped to freedom via a narrow 120-metre tunnel “underneath the wall that had cleaved their city in two a year earlier”. Helena Merriman’s Tunnel 29: The True Story of an Extraordinary Escape Beneath the Berlin Wall (Hodder & Stoughton £20) was originally a successful podcast for the BBC – it has been downloaded more than 6m times. “Happily, the written account is no less captivating.”

The “hero” of the tale is engineering student Joachim Rudolph, who escaped from East Berlin less than two months after the wall’s construction. He joins forces with a “network of student and other activists” to build a tunnel that can smuggle out East Berliners. The “battery of obstacles” ranges from water leakage and equipment shortages to the “ever-present threat” of Stasi infiltration.

Merriman excels at recreating the physicality of their experience, says Philip Oltermann in The Guardian – “the smell of dense clay, the click-clack of a woman walking down the street above in high heels”. There is the constant fear of water rushing in, and of border guards digging down “to meet and greet them with a stick of dynamite”.

Alongside the story of the dig runs the story of the mole, says Emma Duncan in The Times. Siegfried Uhse, a gay hairdresser, was the Stasi’s choice to charm his way into West Berlin’s escape network; his job was to tell escapees when to be ready and where to go. The book’s denouement is “more gripping than a thriller”, because it is about “real lives that were transformed or destroyed by the events described”.

Available as an audiobook on Audible, narrated by the author.

Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train is a phenomenon: 23m copies have been sold around the world. Her latest novel, A Slow Fire Burning (Doubleday £20), is better still, says Alison Flood in The Observer – “shocking, moving, full of heart”. This “deeply layered and intricately plotted” thriller explores how ordinary people turn to murder.

Opening with the discovery of a man’s body on a canal boat in London, Hawkins shows us how “trauma and heartbreak are woven deep into the lives” of her three main characters: lonely Miriam, who lives on the canal boat next door; troubled Laura, who was seen leaving the boat with blood on her clothes; and Carla, the murdered man’s estranged aunt.

So begins a nuanced mystery, says Geoffrey Wansell in The Daily Mail, in which these three “damaged” women, plus an ex-husband, “circle the crime and its consequences”, each with a plausible motive. The story’s twists and turns reveal “the slow fire burning inside each”, which might just destroy them. “Utterly compelling.”

Available as an audiobook on Kobo, narrated by Rosamund Pike.