FIRST GREAT READS FOR OCTOBER, 2014
Passing Through, by Coral Watson
Christchurch, New Zealand, 1923: the Great War, followed closely by the influenza pandemic has been over for five years. Everyone has lost someone; everyone is grieving, if not for brave husbands, sons or brothers lost at the front, then for family members taken by the ‘flu, especially the little children.
The whole world is suffering: it has undergone savage, cataclysmic change and Christchurch and its citizens do not have the monopoly on sorrow, but they are as ripe for exploitation as anywhere else on the planet. Spiritualism has come to town.
British ex-Army Captain Jethro (‘Ro’) Miller has decided to turn his talents to fleecing grieving widows of their savings. He has hired a dilapidated hall (behind which he lives), and regularly attends unveilings of memorials to honour The Glorious Dead – there to introduce himself to likely targets by intimating that he may have known their husbands/brothers – ‘we were in the same regiment, don’t you know.’ The next step is to invite his target to a séance at the hall where his assistant, Miss Nan MacDonald, celebrated medium, will commune with the beyond through her spirit guides: ‘You never know – this could be the day your Loved One makes contact!’
Naturally this is an offer that is impossible to refuse, and it is not long before one such widow, Louisa Craddock, has been lured to the séance and stunned by Nan’s revelations – for Nan really does possess The Sight. She has never been more than a skivvy for most of her young life, but she can see the future – she even knew she would end up in con man Ro’s bed, as well as cooking, cleaning and foretelling the future, but she draws the line at using ‘aids’ to ‘enhance the atmosphere’ and keep the punters coming back week after week. She is as honourable as Ro is not.
Which means that a parting of the ways is inevitable, and What Happens Next to these great characters is the meat and potatoes of this lovely book. Ms Atkinson recreates New Zealand in the 1920’s with meticulous accuracy, right down to favourite foods, fashions and the wonderful slang that has long fallen into disuse – who calls anyone a drongo these days? Or uses ‘grouse’ as a term of admiration? Reading this great dialogue was like listening to my grandparents talk again, and just in case you think I am overcome with nostalgia (which is true!) Ms Atkinson has crafted a compelling story that is well plotted and beautifully written, with endearing characters who try to survive and make sense of their existence after world events have destroyed everything they held dear.
Last but not least: if ever a cover could sell a book, it is this one. A design project by students of Whitireia Institute, they have produced a cover and format that is quite simply stunning – which begs the question: if this is what they can rustle up as students, what wonders will they achieve when they are employed in Publishing houses? Highly recommended.
Edge of Eternity, by Ken Follett.
You need strong wrists to read this book. I read the hard copy and it weighs 1.2 kg. Never would a Kindle have been more appreciated, for that reason alone! This is the third book in Mr Follett’s trilogy, following ‘Fall of Giants’ and ‘Winter of the World’ (see reviews below) – and the most unsatisfying.
Despite the world-changing events his narrative covers, Mr Follett has pumped out 1098 pages ( surely he could have managed two more!) of mostly sterile prose that does little for the heart-stopping events he describes: the long fight for civil rights in the United States during the 60’s, when the Kennedy brothers championed in ringing tones (Ich bin ein Berliner!) their opposition to the building of the Berlin wall and the imprisonment of one half of Germany at the whim of the Soviet Union, but could not manage domestic policy so that African Americans would at last have the equality that Abraham Lincoln envisaged a century before; the birth of Rock and Roll and feminism, not to mention Free Love and the violent opposition to the Vietnam War – yes, there is a rich vein of twentieth century contemporary history to mine and as before, Mr Follett has researched events exhaustively; unfortunately, the formula he used so successfully for the first two books has failed him this time, mainly because his characters are lamentably two-dimensional; they don’t have the gumption of their forebears: where’s the fire in the belly? Most of all, where is the credibility that transforms ciphers into people who live and breathe on the page? Not happening here. I was hugely disappointed.
The story starts in 1961, and Mr Follett concentrates now on the grandchildren of the original families: the infamous Lev Peshkov’s son Greg has fathered an illegitimate black son George; throughout the story George gives the Negro perspective on Civil Rights and their lack; Daisy, Lev’s legitimate daughter is now married to Labour MP Lloyd Williams, Ethel’s bastard son to Earl Fitzherbert (still with me?). They have two children, Dave and Evie, who conquer the world, Evie as an acclaimed actress and Dave as a pop star. They cover the sex and drugs and rock and roll years. And Dave also has dyslexia, though in the 60’s it wasn’t recognised as a condition. Mr. Follett is covering all the bases. Trapped in East Germany are the grandchildren of Earl Fitzherbert’s sister Maud: one escapes, also to become a pop star and drug Addict in San Francisco. Those Flower Children had a lot to answer for!
Unscrupulous Lev’s big, responsible brother Grigori stayed in the Soviet Union, rising through the communist ranks and enjoying great prestige; his grandchildren Dimka and Tanya are the vehicles by which Mr Follett charts the rise and terrible repression of the people under a dictatorial regime, and its eventual fall. They both have at different times one or two pallid romances, neither of which bring their characters to life – and that is the glaring fault with this book: how can such a tumultuous, rebellious time in our history be portrayed in such lacklustre fashion, especially when the first two books were the opposite. Mr Follett has run out of steam.
I admire Mr Follett’s diligence in chronicling world events of the last fifty years with accuracy and intelligence: on that level he succeeds, but oh, for a bit of flair – a heartbeat. That would be good.
Winter of the World, by Ken Follett
Reviewed January, 2013
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 Grigori 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. Highly recommended.