Book Reviews: Epic Tales and Family Dramas (not at the same time)

Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett

Book description: This is an epic of love, hatred, war and revolution. This is a huge novel that follows five families through the world-shaking dramas of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the struggle for votes for women. It is 1911. The Coronation Day of King George V. The Williams, a Welsh coal-mining family, is linked by romance and enmity to the Fitzherberts, aristocratic coal-mine owners. Lady Maud Fitzherbert falls in love with Walter von Ulrich, a spy at the German Embassy in London. Their destiny is entangled with that of an ambitious young aide to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and to two orphaned Russian brothers, whose plans to emigrate to America fall foul of war, conscription and revolution. In a plot of unfolding drama and intriguing complexity, “Fall Of Gaints” moves seamlessly from Washington to St Petersburg, from the dirt and danger of a coal mine to the glittering chandeliers of a palace, from the corridors of power to the bedrooms of the mighty.

My review: I adored this book. I have been waiting to read it for quite some time. I was pretty certain I was going to enjoy it. Ken Follett has a marvelous way of describing complicated historical issues in a way that makes complete sense and brings you into the drama of the time. Also, I love love the lead-up to World War One. It is my favourite historical period, I think. I even took an entire university class just on the diplomatic issues that came about during this time.

Looking back at all the elements that lead the world into the most useless, pointless and expensive wars, with a death toll that was unprecedented at the time, is fascinating to me. It’s like watching a runaway train, but far too late to do anything about it. Sometimes when I’m watching world news, I wonder: is this the tipping point? Are we now on an inexorable slide into destructive war, right now, and we have no clue what’s coming at us? But that’s kind of dark.

Follett did not disappoint. His Century Trilogy, detailing the major diplomatic and international events of the 20th century, is ambitious to say the least, but the way he lays it out makes so much sense. It follows a few families as they negotiate the hazardous landscape of pre-war and war torn Europe. I love how they all end up intertwined, while still being separate enough to offer a clear view as to different mindsets during that period: whether it’s the wealthy aristocracy, poor Welsh coal miners or starving, brutalized Russian workers. I am so excited to read the next one, Winter of the World. Which I may have forgotten to tell my sister that I borrowed it and brought it to Switzerland. Sorry about that!

 

The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown

Book description: The Andreas family is one of readers. Their father, a renowned Shakespeare professor who speaks almost entirely in verse, has named his three daughters after famous Shakespearean women. When the sisters return to their childhood home, ostensibly to care for their ailing mother, but really to lick their wounds and bury their secrets, they are horrified to find the others there.

See, we love each other. We just don’t happen to like each other very much.

But the sisters soon discover that everything they’ve been running from — one another, their small hometown, and themselves — might offer more than they ever expected.

My review: I liked this book a lot more than I thought I would. It is more “literary” than a lot of what I read, and after reading the crazy intense Fall of Giants I assumed that a small family drama about sisters and sibling rivalry would be somewhat of a comedown. But Brown has such an interesting voice that I was really pulled into the story of the three sisters and their obsession with Shakespeare. I found at first her use of first person plural as a narrative voice, told from the perspective of the sisters as a whole, was a little disconcerting at first, but I came to really enjoy it. And I found the ending to be perfectly satisfying. It’s always great to put down a book and nod, like, yes, that was how that was supposed to be.

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