Fall of Giants

by Ken Follett, 2010, Dutton, published by the Penguin Group, New York

This book was a disappointment.  Follett has attempted to create a great historical trilogy and this is the first book in this effort.  The book is written in a similar fashion as his previous novels, Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, in that he picks out individuals in various walks of life and traces their lives through various historical events.  But, unlike the previous novels which were set in much earlier times, Fall of Giants takes place at the beginning of the twentieth century and extends through World War I.  Perhaps it’s because the timeframe is much more recent that Follett’s historical novel becomes so much more trite.

Follett’s characters are extremely one-dimensional.  It seems that once they get identified with a particular cause or philosophy, they remain totally rigid and unable to be at all flexible in their perspectives.  They seem to be stick figures in a gigantic soap opera and they very quickly become tiresome.  One of the main characters is an English earl, Lord Fitzherbert, who is mired in his conservative view of the world.  His German counterpart is Otto von Ulrich who is even more of a conservative dinosaur in his views.  Lord Fitzherbert reminded me very much of the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey, except for the fact that the Earl of Grantham, while clinging to his old ways, really cares about other individuals and can sometimes be persuaded to alter his views.  In so doing, he becomes someone that is at least interesting.  Lord Fitzherbert in Fall of Giants has no such endearing qualities, however.  As I progressed through the book, I found that I was losing interest in the other characters as well because of the same reason.

Follett uses very short sentences in his books in order to make it fairly easy to read.  This helps to keep it going, but after a while it becomes a bit tedious as there is no variety.

The historical backdrop of the novel, the start of World War I and it’s subsequent impact on the characters, had a lot of potential but it somehow wasn’t connected as well as it could have been.  An example is the depiction of the war’s ending.  The scene was a battle at a bridge in France and the Germans’ defeat in that battle.  In the next few pages the Germans were suing for peace.  The reasons for the war ending were left very vague.

Also, Winston Churchill was depicted throughout the novel as a warmongering Conservative who was fighting the franchisement of women and all labor reforms.  No mention was given of Churchill sponsoring the bills to provide national health insurance and a minimum wage for the workers when he was a member of the Liberal Party.

Finally, Follett, in an attempt, I suppose, to pander to the reading public these days, includes many awkward sex scenes throughout the novel.  These scenes altogether seem to detract from the novel versus adding any real value.

The book was okay to read, but long, long, long.  I would suggest that Herman Wouk’s Winds of War and War and Remembrance are some excellent examples of this type of novel where ordinary individuals are swept up by the events associated with war.  The unsurpassed novel in this genre, however, has to be Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago.

Ken Follett has apparently stepped beyond his capabilities when he bit off this novel.  I would suggest that he return to writing suspense novels where his talents can readily be applied.

2 1/2 stars

Dreams of Joy: A Novel

by Lisa See, Audiobook, 2011, Read by Janet Song, Random House Audiobooks

This novel was fairly pleasant to listen to, but the plot and characters were pretty light weight.  The book is about a young girl of Chinese descent who, through being enthralled by the promise of Chinese communism and her own idealism, decides that she will run away from home and go back to China.  She ends up in a commune and reality is much harsher than her dreams.

The story slogs along and towards the end the part which should be the most exciting is given very little attention.  It’s over.

The reading was okay but not inspiring.  Other than that, I don’t have much to say about this run of the mill effort.

2 stars

The Shadow of the Wind

by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Translated by Lucia Graves, 2004, The Penguin Press, New York

This is a well-crafted mystery about a boy who comes across a mysterious book in a “book cemetery.'”  The plot thickens from that point on as the boy progresses into manhood and the circumstances surrounding the writing of the book and the subsequent events that occur as the result of its writing take control of his life.  The book is set in Barcelona, Spain, around the time of Spanish Civil War.

The plot is well constructed and the characters are interesting and believable.  The only thing I feel that keeps this book from becoming a masterpiece is that it tends to get bogged down a bit in its later parts.  I felt that I was experiencing some of the scenes multiple times and there were times that the story didn’t seem to move forward.

I also thought the author’s writing style was very good. Despite a few shortcomings I felt the book was interesting and enjoyable to read.3 1/2 stars

 

Birds Without Wings

by Louis de Bernières, 2004, Vintage Books, A Division of Random House Inc., New York

This book was recommended by Johanna Hanink, a classics professor at Brown. who accompanied us on our cruise, Pearls of Antiquity, to Greece and Turkey.  I have to admit that I didn’t know much about Greek and Roman settlements in the Greek Isles and Asia Minor prior to going on this trip.  Virtually all of our lectures focused on Greek mythology and art and most of our excursions were to ancient Greek and Roman ruins.  At the same time I could see that I was in two vastly different countries and I had very little understanding about either of them, particularly given the current turmoil that each of them is experiencing. This book helped me to gain a great deal of knowledge about them and insight into their more recent histories.

The book is primarily about the lives of some of the common people living near what is currently called Fethiye on the west cost of Turkey starting prior to World War I.  During that time ethnic Greeks and Turks (Christians and Muslims) lived pretty much side by side in the Ottoman Empire without a great deal of discord.  The book highlights the events that took place and how they affected both the Christians and the Muslims living in the small town.

The author’s prose is extremely readable and the story is compelling, although a bit brutal at times.  Despite this, I found the reading to be somewhat of a chore at times.  Perhaps this was due to the very small print which made the book seem to be much longer than its 554 pages.  The characters in the book, although fictional, seemed to capture the essence of the place.

The combined effect of our trip to Greece and Turkey and the reading of this book causes me to wonder about the impacts of civilization.  With so much philosophy, art, architecture, etc., generated in this region of the earth, why is it that the only way that a people can live in harmony is by getting rid of everyone who is different from them?  It seems that no amount of culture can deter the human race’s ability to inflict mayhem on other human beings.

Although I have arrived at a somewhat depressing conclusion, this is a very good novel and I recommend it to anyone who has the perseverance to read it through. 4.5 stars

The Towers of Trebizond

by Rose Macaulay,1957, Paperback edition, 2012, Ferrar Strauss and Cudahay, New York

I read this book because it was on the reading list for our educational vacation to Greece and Turkey.

This book is about a trip to Turkey by a young English girl along with her aunt and an Anglican minister.  While in Turkey her aunt and the Anglican minister take off to Russia leaving the young girl on her own.  She travels around Turkey on a camel and undergoes a variety of experiences.

The young girl evidences an unusually innocent demeanor while possibly being a lot more street smart than she lets on.  She asks herself many questions about various matters which tend to take a lot of potshots at things that don’t seem to add up.  One of her targets in this process is the Anglican Church which seems to be embarking on a folly which is to establish itself as an alternative to Islam in Turkey.  He aunt, on the other hand, is upset about the treatment of women in Turkey, but doesn’t seem to be able to have any impact on correcting the situation.

Our heroine also manages to con an unscrupulous young author who has purloined another individual’s work as her own,.  She uses this as a means of getting him to provide her with free food and drink as well as money.

All of this suggests she isn’t quite as innocent as she puts on.

The book is humorous at times although the ending is somewhat dark.  Although the book becomes a bit tedious, it is mostly fun to read.3 1/2 stars

 

The Language of Flowers

by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, read by Tara Sands, 2011, Random House Audio

Not much to say about this book other than it was okay to listen to.  The plot was somewhat improbable and drawn out, the characters tolerable but not particularly interesting, and the theme of the book, flowers that have a language, was not credible.  I listened to this book on a trip from Naples to Narragansett over three days.  It got a bit tiresome, but I made it to the end.  I don’t think this book won’t find a place for itself in the annals of great world literature.2 stars

Turning Angel: A Novel

by Greg Isles, 2006, Pocket Books

This suspense novel takes place in Natchez, Mississippi, and paints a dark picture of that community with gangs, drugs, political corruption, etc., running rampant.  The books itself was a pretty good page-turner, but the incident that the book revolves around was a little hard to believe.  It seems that three different persons happened on the crime scene by chance within a very few minutes – very strange.3 stars

The Ferguson Affair

by Ross Macdonald, 1960, republished in 2010 by Vintage Books, a division of Random House

I chose this book for my Kindle as I was going on a month vacation and needed a book that would be light reading.  Another reason I chose it was that Ross Macdonald (aka, Kenneth Millar) was an officer on the same aircraft carrier my father was on in WWII, the U.S.S. Shipley Bay.  Macdonald is undergoing a posthumous resurgence in popularity as a writer of mystery stories.  My father didn’t know him very well as he kept to himself in his stateroom where he apparently spent his time writing but I was curious to read one his books.

The time Macdonald spent writing while floating around in the Pacific seems to have been well spent.  I enjoyed this book quite a bit, although the plot was a little convoluted.  It moved right along and I liked the main character who is a lawyer who gets caught up in a murder investigation.  It was a perfect book to read on a cruise.  I suspect I will read some more of his books in the future.3 1/2 stars

Whiteout

by Ken Follett, 2004, Signet Publishing

This is a typical Ken Follett suspense novel: exciting and suspenseful with good characterizations.  It has, however, not much in the way of lasting impressions or value.  Also, there are times when I, as a reader, had to really try hard to suspend belief when some of the plot unfolded.  I guess that’s what makes it fiction.

I started this novel before our vacation to Australia and New Zealand and finished it on the plane en route to New Zealand.  One of the Air New Zealand flight attendants expressed an interest in what I was reading so he was the lucky recipient of the book when I finished it.  With no disposal issues, that made it almost as good as an electronic version.  How we have changed our attitudes towards printed books over time! 2 1/2 stars

Caleb’s Crossing

by Geraldine Brooks, 2011, Audible Audio Edition, narrated by Jennifer Ehle

This audiobook is written well and is interesting as it depicts the life of early settlers on what is now called Martha’s Vineyard.  It also depicts some of the early times of Harvard University.  I felt, however, that the author was a bit harsh in her assessment of the virtues of some of the English settlers versus those of the natives.

The main character, Bethia, who tells the tale of her long life and her relationship with the Indians, maintains her strong Christian faith while, at the same time, experiencing its destructive impact on the native culture and religion.  She also glosses over the brutality that the Indians inflicted on the white settlers during the King Phillips War.  Her totally worthless brother at the early stages of the book becomes a very worthy individual by the end of the book.  Indian boys become top scholars at Harvard and individuals, both white and native, pick up not only each other’s languages with ease, but also Latin and Greek.

I have no doubt that many individuals who lived in this era were extraordinary persons but I feel challenged to believe that the deeds and events that the author depicts could be close to reality.  Perhaps she took some of the characters from historical records but because of their extraordinary feats, I tend to think that they are either imaginary or embellished to a great degree.

The narrator, Jennifer Ehle, uses a stilted style to emulate a New England woman settler in the early 1600’s.  The style incorporates a succinct and slow enunciation of each syllable of each word.  The style is in keeping with the story and probably adds to the overall listening experience, but it tends to wear a bit over the length of ten CD’s.

Overall, the book is certainly better than average and enjoyable, but it did, at times, stretch my belief. 3 1/2 stars