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Staff Pick: Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

At 1000+ pages, this big book, which Kirkus Reviews refers to as “cat-squashing”, deals with big issues during a most turbulent point in the last century. This is the first in the planned Century Trilogy and it’s going to be a long wait until 2012 and the next installment.

Fall of Giants by Ken Follett begins in 1911 with George V’s coronation and ends in 1924 as Europe copes with the aftermath of the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Thirteen year old Billy Williams, or Billy Twice, goes down into a Welsh coal mine for the first time. His life might have predictably been short or unhealthy, but fate had other plans for him. It is the end of an era for the great families of Europe. Lord Fitzherbert finds his world shaken by a mere housemaid. The Peskov brothers are born into a world that will no longer tolerate cruelty at the hands of the Russian aristocracy. Five interrelated families find themselves in a changing world. Workers’ safety becomes as important an issue as profits. Women fight for their right to vote. We see a diplomatic course that leads inevitably to World War One and the horrors of trench warfare. Class distinctions become blurred as bravery and intelligence become valued over circumstances of birth.

Century Trilogy will follow these five families through to the Cold War.

The Williams family are a Welsh family with a long history of coal mining. David Williams is a union organizer with a very strict religious and moral code. He instills in his children a sense of fairness and an abhorrence of injustice.

The Fitzherberts are an old monied family, the ninth wealthiest in England. Fitz is not unkind, but is slow to comprehend that his privileged and unearned life cannot be sustained in this new century. His sister Maud embraces the new world and proves that she is a survivor.

The German Von Ulrich’s must cope with the Kaiser’s failure and their country’s defeat. On the other side of the ocean, the American Dewars exist in a democratic county which still harbours its own class and economic prejudices.

Perhaps most dramatic are the Peshkov’s brothers who are cruelly forced to witness their father’s execution and their mother’s death at the hands of the aristocracy. The utter disregard for human life sow the seeds for the revolution which is to come.

In 2012 will follow these families and their fortunes through the Depression and the Second World War.

Fans of epic, character-driven fiction that spans decades would also enjoy John Jakes, James Michener and C by Tom McCarthy. “An epochal saga from the acclaimed author of Remainder, C takes place in the early years of the twentieth century and ranges from western England to Europe to North Africa. Serge Carrefax spends his childhood at Versoie House, where his father teaches deaf children to speak when he’s not experimenting with wireless telegraphy. Sophie, Serge’s sister and only connection to the world at large, takes outrageous liberties with Serge’s young body — which may explain the unusual sexual predilections that haunt him for the rest of his life. After recuperating from a mysterious illness at a Bohemian spa, Serge serves in World War I as a radio operator. C culminates in a bizarre scene in an Egyptian catacomb where all Serge’s paths and relationships at last converge. Tom McCarthy’s mesmerizing, often hilarious accomplishment effortlessly blends the generational breadth of Ian McEwan with the postmodern wit of Thomas Pynchon and marks a writer rapidly becoming one of the most significant and original voices of his generation.” – publisher

Pat Barker also does a wonderful job bringing this time period to life. In Regeneration, the first of the Regeneration trilogy, “Craiglockhart War Hospital, Scotland, 1917, where army psychiatrist William Rivers is treating shell-shocked soldiers. Under his care are the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, as well as mute Billy Prior, who is only able to communicate by means of pencil and paper. Rivers’ job is to make the men in his charge healthy enough to fight. Yet the closer he gets to mending his patients’ minds the harder becomes every decision to send them back to the horrors of the front. “Regeneration” is the classic exploration of how the traumas of war brutalised a generation of young men.” – publisher

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