Thursday, May 12, 2016

A Dangerous Fortune by Ken Follett

  Paperback Back and front cover 
I purchased this paperback to take with me  on my European trip along the Danube in November and December.  It went along all those miles and remained right in my tote bag as a companion, I never did open it other than on the flight to Amsterdam.  But recently I opened it and was drawn in as always with Ken Follet's fictional sagas.    Yesterday I was "resting" taking first doses of antibiotics for a UTI so that was how I read through and finished it, all 568 pages, it kept my attention, so I could remain at rest, curled up with a good book and so the afternoon passed easily.  

This work about the fictional Pilaster banking family begins in 1866...from the beginning, Follet sets a scene that will work its way through generations and the primary characters. Page 1, ""On the day of the tragedy, the boys of Windfield School had been confined to their rooms. It was a hot Saturday in May and they would normally have spent the afternoon on the south field, some playing cricket and others watching from the shady fringes of Bishop's Wood.  But a crime had been committed.  Six gold sovereigns had been stolen from the desk of Mr. Offerton, the Latin master, and the whole school was under suspicion."    In another few lines we meet Micky Miranda and Edward Pilaster, two friends, students.  Their  friendship will remain lifelong through years and events and the attachment will become deadly over decades.  

I enjoy Follet's works and this one was first published in 1993. His characters are reflective of all human traits, good and bad,  adorable and detestable.  It's difficult to pin one word to the genre, some reviews reference  "political and amorous intrigue, cold blooded murder, gripping complex plot, fascinating characters, financial crises" but consistently reviews applaud "old fashioned entertainment."   

Hugh Pilaster is the unworthy cousin whose father died disgraced and who is generously taken in by his uncle Joseph and aunt Augusta, a character who makes Cruella deVille seem angelic. But Hugh is the essence of a man who will always do the right thing, while cousin Edward, son of Augusta and Joseph is a weak character at best, a pervert at worst.  Kind of a Cinderella tale of male cousins, and in the end good triumphs.  The story based in London, reaches to a  fictional South American country, Cordova, and the  nitrate mines there amidst extreme political disruptions.  Scenes weave from ballrooms to board rooms to brothels to the exclusive men's clubs in London.  The Pilaster family legacy of success holds intrigue, deception, tragedy, triumph all the while reflective of wealth of the times, the influences,  and the impact of markets across the ocean in America and globally.  Besides Augusta, Mickey Miranda is a true devious villain character and another one who opposes Hugh.  There are several other characters all with different  attributes.  What I enjoy about Follett's work is his characters are revealed in depth,  they are  lifelike, some detestable, some shaky, some likeable.  Humanity portrayed back in time perhaps not so different today.. 

The last  lines of the novel, "But it was over now.  The debts were paid. If there had been an evil spirit it had returned to the bottom of the pond.  And Hugh had survived.  He stood up.  It was time to return to his family.  He walked away, then took a last look back.   The ripples fom the stone had disappeared and the surface of the water was immaculately still once again. "  

This is a 5 ***** read, an excellent novel that kept my attention til the end.  

Monday, May 2, 2016

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Dead Wake is another excellent historical research nonfiction novel by Erik Larson, published 2015 by Crown Publishers, 353 pages, 6 pages of Acknowledgements, 50 pages of Notes, 8 pages of Bibliography and the Index  all together to offer a complete story of the sinking of the Lusitania.  This is the 3rd novel  of Larson's I have read and enjoyed.  This relates the voyage of the commercial Cunard cruise ship, Lucy aka Lusitania, torpedoed and sunk by a German U20 boat near the end of its sailing across the Atlantic from New York  to Liverpool.  The sinking of this ship, death of the American passengers including some who were very prominent precipitated the entry of the United States in WWI.   May  7, 1915 making good their threat to sink commercial liners as well as military, the Germans stepped up U-2 boats off the coastal waters surrounding England. Captain Walther Schwieger of the Unterseeboot-20 aka U-20, submarine was responsible for the disaster.  As stated on the inside cover flap, " an array of forces both grand and achingly small--hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more--all converged to produce of the the great disasters of history." Of the 1959 passengers there were 189 Americans.  

With all the historical information, the author does an excellent job introducing characters such as Captain Turner of the Lusitania, the German Captain  Schwieger, and many passengers and President Woodrow Wilson.  There is intrigue about the British Room 40, the secret decoders a system which was kept fully secret.  I had thought and recalled that the sinking of the Lusitania immediately drove President Wilson to enter WWI when actually the US did not enter the war for another two years. 

Erik Larson, author
I absolutely enjoyed reading this and learned a lot about the era, the technical aspects of the German submarines and President Woodrow Wilson. I felt sorry for Captain Turner being made the scapegoat by the Cunard line and the British Admirality. Pg. 355, Acknowledgements by the author:" What especially drew me was the rich array of materials available to help tell the story in as vivid a manner as possible, --such archival treasures  as telegrams, intercepted wireless messages, survivor depositions, secret intelligence ledgers, Kapitanleutnant Schwieger's actual war log, Edith Galt's love letters and even a film of the Lusitania's final departure from New York.  .....Finding these things was half the fun.  Every book is an expedition into unfamiliar realms, with both an intellectual and a physical component..  The intellectual journey takes you deep into a subject, to the point where you achieve a level of expertise...."  

Near the end  page 326 takes the reader down the lane of "what ifs", "if only ....Captain Turner had not had to wit the extra two hours for the transfer of passengers from the Cameronia he likely would have passed Schwieger in the fog, when the U-20 was submerged and on its way home.  ...More importantly had Turner not been compelled to shut down the fourth boiler room....." 

I give this the full 5*****.  Another excellent example of why historical nonfiction, properly researched and presented by a good author is my preference in reading.