Sunday, 20 January 2013

Just in case you think I have been pretty slack lately – you know, not many titles reviewed -  well, I must confirm that I have been reading as busily and prolifically as ever (even though Christmas and New Year with family and friends intervened), but books that I looked forward to reading, that I thought would be sure-fire winners proved less so.  Why bother to review something that falls short of the mark, I told myself – then thought that it’s entirely likely that others might find more and different things to enjoy in these novels than I did, and fair enough: ‘ one man’s meat is another man’s poison’, so below are listed some ‘close, but no cigar’ titles that readers less picky and pedantic than I might enjoy.

The Darlings, by Christina Alger – Big business and bigger greed in New York City

The American Heiress, by Daisy Goodwin – Downton Abbey Lite, but very entertaining

The Wrath of Angels, by John Connolly – his 12th Charlie Parker book, but not his best

The Cutting Season, by Attica Locke – her first novel ‘Black Water Rising’ is the better book by a mile

The Laughterhouse, by Paul Cleave – there’s nothing at all to laugh about here; a squalid, sombre, entirely negative view of Christchurch and its people pre-earthquakes.

I finished all of those books, but didn’t think they came up to the standards of other titles reviewed in this blog – comments, anyone?  I would welcome your opinions.

Winter of the World, by Ken Follett

Once again, the reader joins the five families introduced in the gripping first volume of Ken Follett’s trilogy.  The characters we met in ‘Fall of Giants’ (see 2011 review below) have all had children and it is they who take centre stage in this second book.  Once again the reader needs strong wrists and a firm grip – this is a whopper novel, in scope and sheer size, but as before, weight is unimportant as the reader is swept up on the tide of world affairs, the evil events that led up to World War Two, and the unimaginable suffering and privation of ordinary people as they endured the destruction of democracy and the end of the civilised and ordered  life they had always taken for granted.
It is 1933.  Walter von Ulrich and Lady Maud Fitzherbert are married and live with their two children, Carla and Erik, in Berlin.  They are horrified at the relentless rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party, and like many other concerned Germans, do their best to oppose his growing power, but to no avail.  Hitler is seen by richer citizens as being ‘good for business’ and by poorer folk as a saviour because he is creating jobs.  Fascism is gaining ground and they can do nothing to stop it.
Ethel Williams, the young housekeeper of Earl Fitzherbert’s Welsh mansion has produced a bastard son to him, and has made a new life for herself in London with her Jewish husband, Bernie.  Ethel has long held political ambitions and is now the Labour MP for her district in the East End.  Lloyd, her adored son, has no idea who his real father is and the Earl, a Tory MP, does nothing to acknowledge him, for he has a legitimate son, Boy, of whom he is most proud.  Who needs the bastard when you’ve got the Real Thing?
Lev Peshkov, the charming Russian petty criminal and escapee from St. Petersburg, has also made a new life for himself in Buffalo, New York – he is now an owner of Movie theatres, a film producer – and a regular user of the Casting Couch, in spite of having a long-suffering wife, Olga (mother of Daisy) and a mistress, Marga (mother of his son Greg):  He hasn’t let any grass grow under his feet!  And there are disturbing rumours that he has gangster connections and a gang of heavies to carry out his threats, rumours with enough substance to stymie the social asperations of Daisy, who has to flee to England where her substantial wealth will buy her admittance to the circles in which she wishes to move.
Grigori, Lev’s responsible older brother, has married Katerina, Lev’s pregnant girlfriend, and has raised Volodya, her son, as his own.  He is a leading light in the Communist party, though his ideals have become stunted as he watches worrying mistakes and shortcomings exposed in the day-to-day implementation of the dream that so many fought and died for.  But he is an optimist – Rome wasn’t built in a day!  Comrade Stalin will keep the ship on a steady course – won’t he?
Gus Dewar is now a Democratic senator in President Roosevelt’s government, and has two sons of his own.  His great dream is to reprise the idea of the League of Nations, rejected by the Wilson government in 1918;  he sees it as a way to stop the spread of fascism and to unite all nations in a bid to keep world peace.  Roosevelt is not receptive, however:  his New Deal is of paramount importance;  united nations will have to take a back seat for the time being.
Once again, Mr Follett sets the scene superbly for his cast to play their parts;  his calm and reasoned analysis of events leading up to the war and the reactions of his characters to the situations in which they find themselves is a high point of storytelling.  His accounts of the major battles fought on sea and land are superlative – and gripping:  this reader is usually prone to eye-glazing at the mere mention of strategy and tactics, but Mr Follett winds up the tension – and the heart rate effortlessly.  This is a page-turner on the grand scale – which is just as well, considering its length.  The only time that the story loses a little credibility is when Mr Follett writes romantically;  then his characters become two-dimensional and unconvincing – in other words, he can’t write love scenes:  he’s an action man, not a lover!  Regardless, I’m hanging out for the third book.  We went from 1933 to 1949 here;  as the second generation have all produced children I expect the last in the trilogy will feature the third generation.  I shall be waiting.  Highly recommended.    

Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett
I waited seven months to read Ken Follett’s latest Best Seller, such is his popularity with library members, and I’m happy to say that it was well worth the wait.  He may never scale lofty literary heights but  what a good storyteller he is, and how credible are his characters.  He has produced (yet again) the consummate read – a rattling pace, Love (True and not so!), the horrors of war and revolution, and a meticulously researched account of the seeds that were sown to germinate  the War to End All Wars, World War 1.
The story starts in 1911 and ends in 1924.  This is the first novel of a trilogy and deals with five families:  The Williams family, Welsh miners and unionists;  The Fitzherberts, English Aristrocrats absolutely certain of their ancient, inalienable rights as the ruling class;  two impoverished Russian brothers, Grigori and Lev Peshkov, eager to escape the crushing burden of serfdom under the hated Czar;  the von Ulrichs, German Junkers and diplomats – Otto the father, implacable in his dream of the domination of Europe for his Kaiser, and Walter the son, doing his utmost to avoid war at all costs;  and American Presidential Aide Gus Dewar, for a large part of the war a worried spectator of events until early 1918 when the United States finally entered the conflict.
Mr. Follett is a master at keeping the reader turning the pages at a furious rate as he moves effortlessly from continent to continent, marshalling his characters with the precision of a chess player.  He sets the scene beautifully for future events:  Ethel Williams, young housekeeper to Earl Fitzherbert takes fatal steps above her station;  her young brother Billy, ‘down t’ pit’ at thirteen and in the army to become cannon fodder at 16,  becomes implacably hardened in his support of socialism after surviving the Somme under the inept leadership of aristocratic superiors;    brothers Gregori and Lev choose very different ways to escape starvation and the Czar’s corrupt police -  Lev, irresponsible and charming, skips Russia to end up eventually in Buffalo, New York, whilst Grigori is conscripted into the Army to fight the Germans;  and Walter von Ulrich enters into a secret marriage just before war is declared that will have consequences for all.
‘Fall of Giants’ could essentially be seen as a family saga and a love story but all is framed by the huge and momentous events of the early twentieth century:  no-one emerges unscathed from the cataclysm of war and revolution and there is a sad inevitability that the second book in the trilogy will pose yet more trials for characters who have become unforgettable.   Regardless, Mr. Follett’s storytelling expertise is such that, potential tragedies notwithstanding, the reader will again be swept up in the lives of these five families – and soon, one hopes.  I shall be waiting.



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