Christina’s Review: A Dangerous Fortune by Ken Follett

Christina’s Review: A Dangerous Fortune by Ken FollettA Dangerous Fortune by Ken Follett
Published by Random House Publishing Group on 2010-07-21
Genres: Fiction, General, Historical, Sagas, Suspense, Thrillers
Pages: 576
Format: Hardcover
In 1866, tragedy strikes the exclusive Windfield School when a young student drowns in a mysterious accident. His death and its aftermath initiate a spiraling circle of treachery that will span three decades and entwine many lives.   From the exclusive men’s clubs and brothels that cater to every dark desire of London’s upper class to the dazzling ballrooms and mahogany-paneled suites of the manipulators of the world’s wealth, one family is splintered by a shared legacy. But greed, fed by the shocking truth of a boy’s death, must be stopped, or the dreams of a nation will die.   Praise for A Dangerous Fortune   “A terrific page-turner.”—Los Angeles Times   “Political and amorous intrigues, cold-blooded murder, and financial crises . . . old-fashioned entertainment.”—San Francisco Chronicle   “Breathlessly plotted . . . relentlessly suspenseful.”—The New York Times   “Gripping, complex plot . . . sexual intrigue . . . fascinating characters . . . You won’t be able to put down this exciting page-turner.”—Lexington Herald-LeaderFrom the Paperback edition.

Ken Follett never disappoints me… As I have repeated in numerous reviews, I love his writing style. His stories always captivate me and I feel connected to the characters. Follett’s A Dangerous Fortune was the 8th book on my “15 To-Read of 2015” list I have gotten to this year (tracking ahead of the game!) I came across this book in a library book sale and bought it because 1) It was Ken Follett and 2) It was set in Victorian England and had an intriguing synopsis.

A Dangerous Fortune began with the story of a group of boys away at school, one of whom was found dead in the nearby creek. It was unknown if the boy drowned on accident or was killed, but there were suspicions. However, the boy’s death was soon buried under the crash of a local bank and businesses associated with. An elite and powerful family looks to secure their future and prestige in the community, a boy in the family is taken in under charity by his relatives after the passing of his father… on the other side of town, another family affected by the crash as the father was laid off were separated, and a girl and boy were left to their own will as they leave to start new and separate lives.

The story continued crossing over years of time, and the wealthy Pilaster family continued to grow in prominence throughout the community. The family’s power was invested in the great Pilaster bank, one of the more powerful and stable banks in London. As their power grew, the concept of “a dangerous fortune” also grew with the control and wealth.  Follett drew the reader into a world of scandal, affairs, money, corruption, power, deception and defeat.  In the end, Follett tied together the story through a climactic finish.

One of my favorite things about Follett’s books is how he always brings the stories together so well in the end. There are no loose ends that leave my hanging, and I feel content after finishing his stories. The characters always have a purpose and are intertwined in an intricate network. There are always certain characters I end up siding with and routing for throughout the book, hoping the best will come to them. In this book, I sympathized for Hugh Pilaster and wished evil things would fall on Augusta Pilaster and Micky Miranda. At the same time, I found the manipulation and selfish doings of Augusta and Micky to be tantalizing and wanted more.

Side note on this book: A Dangerous Fortune featured a more sexual and mature environment than some of the others books of Follett’s I have read. There is scandal, adultery, brothels and more. Just a heads up for those going into this book! (Though I felt this added to the story and did not bother me)

One other side note: The edition I read needed better proofing. (Delacorte Press, hardcover, 1993) On a few different occasions, I came across sentence and grammatical errors. On at least one occasion, I also came across Augusta’s name missing the “a” in the end, spelling “August.” While this is not a big deal, it was distracting to me and I began to notice small errors like this. For example, one sentence on page 446 read:

“Edward, you cannot go the prizefight”

… missing the “to” … “Edward, you cannot go TO the prizefight.”

While this may seem nitpicky, there were a few minor errors similar to this I kept getting hung up on.

Overall, however, another great Follett book I am glad I found on the used book shelf. Whenever I start one of his books, I find it difficult to put down. At the same time, I never want to rush through them. Instead I want to take my time and picture the story playing out in my head. This book in particular would make an awesome movie.

I recommend this book for a wide-range of readers. It is great for the history lover, as well as the drama seeker. Anyone who likes George R. R. Martin will find Follett has a similar writing style and would probably enjoy his books. I recommend starting with his Pillars of the Earth series before proceeding to A Dangerous Fortune and other books of his. (Just to get you ready for his writing style and stories so you will fall in love like I did!)

pj - christina

Ellen’s Review: Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett

Ellen’s Review: Edge of Eternity by Ken FollettEdge of Eternity by Ken Follett
Published by Penguin on 2014-09-16
Genres: Fiction, General, Historical, Sagas
Pages: 1120
Format: Paperback
Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy follows the fortunes of five intertwined families—American, German, Russian, English, and Welsh—as they make their way through the twentieth century. It has been called “potent, engrossing” (Publishers Weekly) and “truly epic” (Huffington Post). USA Today said, “You actually feel like you’re there.”Edge of  Eternity, the finale, covers one of the most tumultuous eras of all: the 1960s through the 1980s, encompassing civil rights, assassinations, Vietnam, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, presidential impeachment, revolution—and rock and roll. East German teacher Rebecca Hoffman discovers she’s been spied on by the Stasi for years and commits an impulsive act that will affect her family for generations… George Jakes, himself bi-racial, bypasses corporate law to join Robert F. Kennedy’s Justice Department and finds himself in the middle of not only the seminal events of the civil rights battle, but also a much more personal battle… Cameron Dewar, the grandson of a senator, jumps at the chance to do some espionage for a cause he believes in, only to discover that the world is much more dangerous than he’d imagined… Dimka Dvorkin, a young aide to Khrushchev, becomes an agent for good and for ill as the Soviet Union and the United States race to the brink of nuclear war, while his twin sister, Tania, carves out a role that will take her from Moscow to Cuba to Prague to Warsaw—and into history. These characters and many others find their lives inextricably entangled as they add their personal stories and insight to the most defining events of the 20th century. From the opulent offices of the most powerful world leaders to the shabby apartments of those trying to begin a new empire, from the elite clubs of the wealthy and highborn to the passionate protests of a country’s most marginalized citizens, this is truly a drama for the ages. With the Century Trilogy, Follett has guided readers through an entire era of history with a master’s touch. His unique ability to tell fascinating, brilliantly researched stories that captivate readers and keep them turning the pages is unparalleled. In this climactic and concluding saga, Follett brings us into a world we thought we knew, but now will never seem the same again.

With the final installment of Ken Follett’s The Century Trilogy finished, it really feels like I’ve ended an era (Edge of Eternity is a whopping 1100+ pages).  Within three months I’ve explored the evolution of war in Fall of Giants; I’ve read about the devastation of Europe in Winter of the World; and finally, I’ve experienced the constant fear of nuclear war, the battle for human rights, and the fall of the Iron Curtain in Edge of Eternity.

In short, I loved this book.  If it hasn’t been apparent from any of my previous reviews, I’m such a Euro history nerd and especially for Central Eastern Europe.  Although I’m Eurocentric, the best parts of this book focus on events outside of Europe and the United States.  In my studies – again because I’m a Euro girl – the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War are often overlooked; however, they are such important moments in history.

I don’t like to dive too much into specific moments in the books I review because I want to be as spoiler free as possible.  I am ignoring my rule for Edge of Eternity.  In the 1960’s, Jasper Murray, who is not a particularly likable character, is drafted into the American army.  Jasper is a British citizen, but due to his permit to work in the United States, he becomes eligible for the draft.  During a mission to find out where the Vietcong are hiding, Jasper’s group finds a Vietnamese village.  In the subsequent scenes, the horrors committed by U.S. soldiers are detailed.

My generation may not know many men or women who fought in the World Wars, but many Vietnam veterans can be found across the United States.  Follett makes no attempt to hide the atrocities that took place in Vietnam: the rape of young girls, the torture of civilians, and murder.  The most stomach churning moment of it all was when Follett wrote about officers forcing their soldiers to participate so that no one could claim innocence.  You know it’s fictional story, but U.S. atrocities in Vietnam are not fiction.  For a character that I disliked so much, Follett placed him in a situation that I would not wish upon anyone.  It is hard to imagine Vietnam veterans that we encounter take part in anything similar but some may have.

My problem with Edge of Eternity is that I wish it had been split in two.  When the story begins, all of the characters are young.  When the story ends, each is graying.  Beloved characters from Fall of Giants pass away, and many characters from Winter of the World are ignored.  It became difficult to keep track of characters’ ages.  Being such a long book, there were some stretches that I wanted to skip.  Also being selfish, I want more time with the characters (because forty years isn’t enough…).

Any of these books can be enjoyed as a standalone work.  However, if you are going to read them all, do so in order.  Of the three books, Fall of Giants remains my favorite.  This is perhaps because I find the events of the early twentieth century to be the most interesting and impactful of the century.  Edge of Eternity is a very close second.  Follett is a great storyteller and did extensive research to write these books as accurately as possible.  The series lacks a maturity that older, long-time historical fiction audiences may desire, but if you are interested in history and want major event after major event, The Century Trilogy is for you.


Ellen’s Review: Winter of the World by Ken Follet

Ellen’s Review: Winter of the World by Ken FolletWinter of the World by Ken Follett
Published by Penguin on 2012-09-18
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 928
THE #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER Picking up where Fall of Giants, the first novel in the extraordinary Century Trilogy, left off, Winter of the World follows its five interrelated families—American, German, Russian, English, and Welsh—through a time of enormous social, political, and economic turmoil, beginning with the rise of the Third Reich, through the great dramas of World War II, and into the beginning of the long Cold War. Carla von Ulrich, born of German and English parents, finds her life engulfed by the Nazi tide until daring to commit a deed of great courage and heartbreak....American brothers Woody and Chuck Dewar, each with a secret, take separate paths to momentous events, one in Washington, the other in the bloody jungles of the Pacific....English student Lloyd Williams discovers in the crucible of the Spanish Civil War that he must fight Communism just as hard as Fascism....Daisy Peshkov, a driven social climber, cares only for popularity and the fast set until war transforms her life, while her cousin Volodya carves out a position in Soviet intelligence that will affect not only this war but also the war to come.

Winter of the World, the second installment of Ken Follett’s The Century Trilogy, takes place a couple years after Fall of Giants.  Our favorite characters from the first installment return, but the story now follows their children.  Spread across the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union, Winter of the World gives a glimpse into life during economic depression, the collapse of the Treaty of Versailles, the Spanish Civil War, Stalin’s government, and World War II.  We see characters live through major events like the bombings of London and Berlin, Pearl Harbor, and the division of Germany into occupational zones.

From a history perspective, there are a number of things that I appreciate about this book.  First, some background: There is a stigma surrounding German history during the twentieth century.  The Sonderweg, or special path, is essentially a modern theory that several historians – notably the Fischer school – subscribe to in which the events of German history are culpable for the inevitability of the rise of Nazi Germany.  This is merely an extremely general explanation, but overall, German history is viewed in a negative light due to the infamy of the Third Reich.  Recent debates sparked by the centennial of World War I challenge the notion of the Sonderweg.

Like in Fall of Giants, Ken Follett portrays both the horrendous acts of World War II Germany as well as the German citizens who fought back.  Despite being a fictitious account of the Second World War, Winter of the World does an excellent job challenging the stereotype surrounding the German people of this period.  Follett does not spend his chapters examining the brutality of the SS and Einsatzgruppen against the Jews because everyday citizens did not have access to this information; although, there is an example of violence against the LGBT community.  He shows the enchantment the Nazi party cast over German youth as well as those who rebelled against it.  For this showing the many faces of the German people, I believe that Follett conducted great research and put much effort into this work.

This trend is present in other areas of the book as well.  Victors tend to view themselves as great and containing few flaws, probably because it is the victors who write history, but Follett again shows that this must be challenged.  Winter of the World demonstrates how easily fascism almost spread to the United States and Great Britain.  Before each country battled fascist Germany, Italy, and Spain, many Americans and Brits were just as eager to voice anti-Semitic opinions, challenge democracy, and use scare tactics.  Scenes from Winter of the World include demonstrations, protests, and debates over the future of each country.

While I appreciate the depth Follett explores in history, the story itself was not as compelling for me as Fall of Giants.  Simply, there were too many characters and too many events.  I feel as if Follett wanted to make sure he included every major event, which in turn sacrificed the quality of character development and cohesiveness.  A big part of me wanted to follow the characters I came to know in Fall of Giants.  Yes, you get to continue their stories, but it is through another perspective – their children – and if each protagonist from the first book has two kids, it becomes a lot of characters to learn and build a relationship with.

My favorites in Winter of the World are Daisy Peshkov, daughter of Lev Peshkov; Lloyd Williams, son of Ethel Williams; and Carla von Ulrich, daughter of Maud and Walter von Ulrich; and at times Volodya Peshkov, adopted son of Grigori Peshkov.  These characters had the most exciting storylines, the most developed personalities, and were the easiest to become attached to and sympathize with.  The other protagonists had some exciting moments, but I found them to be mostly dull and just wanted to skip ahead.  Follett also included repetitive moments that seemed unnecessary.  For example in the cases of both Lev and Fitz, the abandoned son meets the wanted son.  Neither instance proved to be as dramatic as Follett probably intended, and neither instance added much substance to the plot.

Looking beyond these issues, I still recommend Winter of the Worlds to any historical fiction or series-loving fan.  The exciting moments make the book worth reading, as does the ability to see what happens to former protagonists.  I’m waiting for the final installment Edge of Eternity to be available for download from my library, so expect a review on the completed series in the near future.


Ellen’s Review: Fall of Giants by Ken Follet

Ellen’s Review: Fall of Giants by Ken FolletFall of Giants by Ken Follett
Published by Dutton on 2010
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Sagas
Pages: 985
View our Ken Follett feature page. Ken Follett's World Without End was a global phenomenon, a work of grand historical sweep, beloved by millions of readers and acclaimed by critics. Fall of Giants is his magnificent new historical epic. The first novel in The Century Trilogy, it follows the fates of five interrelated families—American, German, Russian, English, and Welsh—as they move through the world-shaking dramas of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the struggle for women's suffrage. Thirteen-year-old Billy Williams enters a man's world in the Welsh mining pits...Gus Dewar, an American law student rejected in love, finds a surprising new career in Woodrow Wilson's White House...two orphaned Russian brothers, Grigori and Lev Peshkov, embark on radically different paths half a world apart when their plan to emigrate to America falls afoul of war, conscription, and revolution...Billy's sister, Ethel, a housekeeper for the aristocratic Fitzherberts, takes a fateful step above her station, while Lady Maud Fitzherbert herself crosses deep into forbidden territory when she falls in love with Walter von Ulrich, a spy at the German embassy in London... These characters and many others find their lives inextricably entangled as, in a saga of unfolding drama and intriguing complexity, Fall of Giants 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. As always with Ken Follett, the historical background is brilliantly researched and rendered, the action fast-moving, the characters rich in nuance and emotion. It is destined to be a new classic. In future volumes of The Century Trilogy, subsequent generations of the same families will travel through the great events of the rest of the twentieth century, changing themselves-and the century itself. With passion and the hand of a master, Follett brings us into a world we thought we knew, but now will never seem the same again. Watch a Video

Sitting in my World War I class last semester, my professor asked each student to state their opinion on whether historical fiction can teach anything about the past. In a graduate level course on the First World War, this may seem like a silly question, as certainly everything we read, debate, and analyze uses primary sources as evidence – unless your thesis examines literature of the time. This particular day, however, our reading discussion centered on All Quiet on the Western Front, one of the most well known war stories.

If you haven’t read the 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque, the story follows the life of young German soldier Paul Bäumer and his comrades as they deal with death and survival on the Western Front. The book is an example of anti-war literature and was eventually banned during the reign of the Nazi regime. All Quiet on the Western Front represents not only an example of censorship in the Third Reich, but also represents and portrays that not all Germans were war mongers, how poorly citizens lived at the home front, and the terrors of life in the trenches. The class unanimously decided that historical fiction, when the author does his or her research, can be a good learning tool in history classes.

With this viewpoint in mind, I was excited to start reading another World War I historical fiction Fall of Giants by Ken Follett. Fall of Giants is the first book of his Century Trilogy that covers the lives of five interconnected families in the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia and the United States living through both World Wars and communism. Think Love Actually in novelized form written like the A Song of Ice and Fire books through various points-of-view. This first installment covers the years leading up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand through the creation of the Weimar Republic.

Since Fall of Giants spans such a large period of time and follows many characters, it is difficult to provide a short summary that does the book justice. Instead, I’ll briefly describe some of Follett’s protagonists as spoiler-free as possible:

  • Billy Williams begins the story as a young Welsh miner, who uses his religious upbringing to help bring clarity and guidance to his life. When the war breaks out he joins the Welsh Rifles to fight on the Western Front and later finds himself across the world in Vladivostok.
  • Ethel Williams, Billy’s older sister, is a housekeeper at Ty Gwyn, the luxurious estate of the local Earl near her hometown. Circumstances cause Ethel to leave her position and set up a new life in London. Outspoken, Ethel becomes a leading suffragette in London.
  • Earl Edward “Fitz” Fitzherbert inherited Ty Gwyn from his father as well as his noble title. Fitz is married to a Russian princess, and they travel between homes in London and Wales. The men in Fitz’s family were respected military leaders. Fitz, longing to gain the same respect of his forefathers, heads the Welsh Rifles during the war.
  • Lady Maud Fitzherbert, Fitz’s younger sister, is a rebellious noble woman who voices her opinion for women’s suffrage. By day she runs a doctor’s office for poor, unmarried women, and by night she attends operas and dinners where figures such as David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill are in attendance. Maud later heads a newspaper to publish her and other suffragette opinions.
  • Walter von Ulrich is a German diplomat, who works in London before the war breaks out. Another example of anti-war sentiment in German society, Walter spends most of 1914 attempting to prevent a pan-European conflict. When this proves to be impossible, Walter returns to Germany to fight on the Western Front.
  • Gus Dewar is a senator’s son from Buffalo, NY and works as an aide to President Woodrow Wilson. His role led him on diplomatic travels to the United Kingdom, Germany, and Russia. When the United States enters the war in 1917, Gus trains to join other Americans in France.
  • Grigori Peshkov is a Russian peasant, who works in a factory in Saint Petersburg. Grigori is drafted to defend Russian lines on the Eastern Front and later becomes one of the first supporters of the Bolshevik Revolution.
  • Lev Peshkov, Grigori’s younger brother, escapes Saint Petersburg and eventually finds himself working for a gangster in Buffalo, NY. After being forced to enlist in the American Army, Lev returns to Russia on a mission in Vladivostok.

As a history student, I really appreciate Follett’s note on how he writes his historical fiction: if he finds that a scene could not have realistically taken place or if a character would not have realistically said certain things, he leaves them out. He also consulted several notable historians while writing the book.

I very much enjoyed Follett’s writing, the characters, and the overall story. Despite being fiction, Fall of Giants contains a great deal of general history about the First World War. Since I do study history, some parts seemed too obvious or forced to me, for example something along the lines of “oh the Schlieffen Plan…Germany’s plan to quickly defeat the French and then turn focus towards the Eastern Front…” but to a non-history student, this may be fine.

At its core, Fall of Giants is a love story, a war story, and a story on changing political ideologies. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in twentieth century history as well as to anyone who likes an exciting read. You will easily connect to the characters, become a champion of several, and eventually find yourself sympathetic or disgusted with others.

To my other history lovers, what are your opinions on using historical fiction to learn about the past?