613 of 666 people found the following review helpful
I'd like to begin by saying why I was able to read and write a review of a 925 page book on the day of its release. I preordered this book a couple of months ago, when the release date was Sep 11th. I was sent the book, received it on Sep 12th and spent a few days reading it. When I went to Amazon to post my review, I found the release date had been moved back to Sep 18th and that I couldn't post my review. So, here it is now! I'm rather curious how many other readers also received their book a week early?
Anyway, my review...
Ken Follett's new novel, "Winter of the World", is the second in the planned three volume set about the history of the 20th century. Beginning in 1933, Follett brings his huge cast of characters along from the years up to the end of the Great War. To talk about the plot of the new book is impossible. Way too many characters and too many plot points. BUT, Follett's such a good writer that he brings the reader up to date with ALL his characters. Follett gives most of his characters enough nuance that few seem like caricatures.
The interesting thing about Follett's second book is the breadth of the coverage of the 1930's and 40's (and into the `50's). Everything from the burning of the Reichstag to the T4 Euthanesia program under the Nazis, to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the battle of Midway to the development of the atomic bomb is covered. Now, in a regular novel, the reader would think, "oh yeah, how can one character or family of characters be present at all these historic events?" But Follett has developed so many characters that what happens is not unlikely. His characters seem to merge with each other and then separate much like the designs in a kaleidoscope. The American heiress from the Russian-emigree father goes to England in the mid-1930's and marries the son(s) of members the British/Welsh nobility. The German characters interact with both the British and the Russians. All these families had been introduced in Follett's first book and all interacted in Follett's second.
Something else interesting I noticed from Follett's first book and his second is the fact that none of the major characters in the first book died. They had to survive to make the second book possible. Now in the second book, several of the main characters do die, which, given the war setting, is a bit more believable. However, many children are also born by book's end and these children will star in the third book in the Follett trilogy.
Also, and this is important. Follett doesn't do a lot of reintroducing characters, their relationships, and plot points from the first book to the second. I guess he just assumes most readers have read the first book and so know the characters of the second. As a result, there's little awkwardness to his writing and the second book flows pretty naturally.
A question a new reader might ask is if he should read the first book,"Fall of the Giants" before "Winter of the World"? This second book could be a stand-alone novel. Follett sets an ambitious course with his proposed three volume set. So far, with the first and second books, he's done quite well.
I don't normally write such short reviews but there's no way to talk about the plot except to say Follett is a master. And if you don't like the book, you can always use it as a door stop. It is a large volume, containing a great story. Enjoy.
351 of 384 people found the following review helpful
on September 18, 2012
Follett is my favorite author and I have read all his books. I enjoyed the first installment in this trilogy, "The Fall of Giants" though it was not his best work. That book had a bad habit of following a character leading up to great world events, then cutting to a different character only to return to the previous one sometime after those events. I realize this is ultimately a "character story" but it's also epic historic fiction and it seemed unnecessary. Still, I enjoyed most of the characters, felt I learned new things about the history of the period and was reasonably engrossed. I gave it 4 stars.
"Winter of the World" repeats the same issue but has additional flaws. It picks up about a decade after the previous book. All the major characters that survived the end of the first book are still in this one, but they have been relegated to secondary characters. We never get the story from their first-person POV, like we did in "Giants." Instead, the POV's are now all from their various children. Which would be fine, except I felt these previous major characters had all been reduced to two dimensional archetypes. Fitz is a cliche British lord who you would have thought never had a moment of indiscretion or doubt in his life. Ethel is the wise and matronly Labor politician who seems incapable of mistakes or indiscretion. Maud is basically a straw man for the War's impact on German women, especially those who were not disposed to follow the Fascists. Grigori, who had one of the most interesting stories in the previous book, is now devoid of any interest. He's a whole-hearted functionary of Stalin, nothing more or less. The only character with any interesting backstory development is Lev, though I didn't find it quite credible.
The new characters, the next generation, were inconsistent in quality. With the exception of Daisy, Lev's daughter, I didn't find most of their characters that complicated or interesting so much as the historical circumstances they were in the middle of. Ethel and Fitz's son Lloyd, for example, had one of the most interesting stories, but not because he was complicated. He was a decent man and hero from start to finish with very little personal development. But his adventures volunteering in the Spanish civil war before the full outbreak of WWII was interesting. Maud and Walter's daughter also had an interesting story, as did Grigori's son. But not much in the way of development, other than to sow the seeds for Grigori's son's doubts about communism. They were highly likeable, just not complicated. Ethel was complicated.
Another short-coming of this sequel to "Giants" was that Follett didn't expand the universe of families and had already contrived for the ones established in the first book to all be reasonably prosperous and important. In "Giants" the Williams start out as dirt-poor miners in England and we get some great perspective on that life and what it was like to be a grunt for the Allies in WWI. Similarly, Lev and Grigori start out as peasants in Russia. Here we never get that perspective first-hand from any of the characters. The Williams are by now a Labor Party political dynasty. Grigori is a General in Stalin's Russia and Lev is would be Godfather-style gangster with an unconvincing twist (which I won't spoil). The only family in decline is Walter and Maud's in Germany, but still they are better off than most.
Nor does Follett make any effort to give the reader perspective from multiple sides this time. In "Giants" for example we had Germany's perspective from Walter and saw it not as a unilateral act of aggression but the inevitable results of aristocratic arrogance from all sides. Here the Nazi's and Stalin's communists are evil incarnate from day one. On the brief occasions we're in any of the heads of those supporting them it's always to see them doubting and troubled. I'm not suggesting the Fascists weren't evil, of course, but it just lent the story less depth and complexity. Germany, for example, had the better part of a decade where more and more people became supporters of the Nazi's because they did temporarily improve the quality of life and efficiency of government for those citizens they didn't persecute. This was true not just in Germany but beyond, where they were admired by many people in the West until they started invading their European neighbors. Here that admiration is portrayed almost exclusively as fueled by hatred and prejudice rather than the false allure of Fascist efficiency. Missed opportunity.
Follett remains my favorite author and I still look forward to reading the third installment of this trilogy. It was okay, just not exceptional.
Oh, and the $20 Kindle price (US) is ridiculous. If you're not a die-hard fan or deparate for a new read, I would consider waiting until you can borrow a copy from the library. But I didn't factor that into my review or rating.
200 of 225 people found the following review helpful
on September 17, 2012
Winter of the World is volume 2 of a saga covering all of the 20th century, focusing on four interrelated families: American, British, German and Russian. Follett has done a commendable job of juggling these characters using their personal stories to lead the reader (in this volume) through the major historical events of an era running from 1933 to 1949 (the rise of Nazism to the beginning of the Cold War).
His huge cast of characters is made up of plastic, credible humans, many of whom are capable of growing into the situations thrust upon them, and by situations that are sometimes almost too horrible for words - but are nonetheless borne out by history. Yes, these things actually happened!
Follett leads us through the burning of the Reichstag, the Spanish civil war, Hitler's annexation of Czechoslovakia and Poland, the Soviet-German non-aggression pact, Stalin's mistrust of his own espionage agents and the resulting disasters, the Battle of Britain, etc. and manages to make it all close and personal! Missing however (the reason I withheld the 5th star) are the heroic rescue effort at Dunkirk, the saturation bombings (fire bombings) of places like Guernica, Dresden and Hamburg and especially, the siege of Leningrad! I'm not sure how an 872 day siege with its tremendous loss of life and unimaginable heroism escaped the author's notice. Granted, none of his characters were there and putting them there might have been difficult. But, to leave it unmentioned?
Clearly, covering the history of that period is an enormous project, but the enormity is no excuse for skipping events that are key to the memories the various nations involved ... the carnage that was D-Day was also brushed over lightly.
Critique notwithstanding, the book was fast-paced, exciting, and really hard to put down! I'm looking forward to the 3rd volume, but first I intend to re-read this one.
52 of 58 people found the following review helpful
on September 24, 2012
By default the Kindle version starts with page 1 of the story - so you have NO IDEA that there is a very important and useful List of Characters that precedes page 1.
This default to open at the beginning of the text of a novel occurs with the Kindle versions of all books and it is a horrible editorial decision.
90 of 105 people found the following review helpful
on September 30, 2012
Fall of Giants, the first in the series was wonderful. While preparing for the follow up, I reread this first in the Century series in preparation for more vivid characterization and wonderful, intersecting story lines. Who can forget the opening story of Billy Williams going into the dangerous Welsh mines for the first time and his heroic endeavors underground? And, how about the fascinating women of the region: the fiery Maude, and Ethel, Billy's sister, who rose to become a member of Parliament? As time for the release of "Winter..." grew near, I pondered the best way to get the book. Fall of Giants, I had in paper version; it was heavy (perfect for lifting weights), or the overpriced Kindle version? I finally decided to invest the money in the Kindle version, so I wasn't in danger of a slipped disk from the weight of the book. I was also anxious to get started with a writer I knew would not disappoint.
What slow recognition awaited me! I had carefully read no reviews, so I would not be influenced. Where in the world did Ken Follett go? Did he outline the plot and assign immature writers to "fill in the blanks"? The rating I have given him is only because of the research and historical knowledge of the times that I have garnered. I don't mind that the characters are present at every important event of the WWII years. What I do mind is the shallow characterization of people I feel no reason to like. I really resent the few sections, possibly written by Follett, as in the 101st segment, that are cut off mid section, then summarized later in the book. I really mind the immature sexual scenes that make me dislike the characters even more.
This book contract probably had too short a time for Follett and his assistants to meet deadline. It probably should have been divided into two books. At any rate, do not count on me to reread the second in the trilogy in preparation for the third. Also, do not count on me to spend twenty dollars for the next book. I will read the reviews and decide whether I want to waste my money and my time.
42 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on December 4, 2012
I have read several of Ken Follett's books, and particularly enjoyed the historical perspective and well-researched accounts he gave in World Without End and Pillars. This series, however, seems like a watered-down, pop version of history. Unfortunately, Follett seems to have gotten to that stage in his career where his work no longer needs to be an impactful, moving, and memorable work of literature. Instead, his name will bring enough people to buy the book just based off the nostalgia they feels for his previous, much greater works.
The major flaw I saw in this work was the very obvious political agenda Follett pushed. The diversity and attention to minority and progressive issues was forced into each character relationship, and it seemed artificial and tedious rather than natural. Although I appreciate reading about the issues that faced marginalized groups during that period, he overused and exhausted these issues to far beyond the point of historical insight and humanitarian concern. Reading this book felt like taking a series of courses in African American history, civil rights, women's rights, handicapped rights, the history of antisemitism, gay lesbian and bisexual rights, and racial prejudices. When he did mention conservative politics or Christianity, it often was accompanied by negative undertones. Regardless of one's politics, I expected the same standard of accurate presentation of the complicated nature of history, rather than this very simplified, almost childish black-and-white, good-and-evil story.
As being born in the Soviet Union myself, my family has personally experienced the treachery and the unexpected humanity from both the Nazi and Stalinist regimes. Follett had a great opportunity to present another, hidden side of history, and the story of the men and women caught up in Fascism who fervently believed they were doing good. Instead, it seems every Nazi soldier he depicts is the same stereotypical impulsive sadist who, as if it wasn't enough to make him personally barbaric, was also portrayed as physically disgusting. If history has taught us anything, it is that nothing is ever so clearly black and white, and all aggressors were seen as hero's by some society or another. This book is a colossal failure in giving people a different perspective on the causes of evils that took place in WW2. Instead, Follett has made this book an easy 3-day read with the simplistic dichotomy between good and evil equivalent to that of a children's novel.
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on November 10, 2012
HOW VERY DISAPPOINTING!!!!
I can not believe that the same author who wrote "The Pillars Of The Earth" actually wrote this book. He must have hired a 14 year old to write if for him. The language is very simplistic and is condescending to any experienced reader (especially anyone who has been a reader of his previous books).
If I wanted to read a book about World War II in a novel form, I would re-read War and Remembrance by Wouk.
67 of 78 people found the following review helpful
on November 20, 2012
This is the second of a planned trilogy of 20th Century history. The first volume, Fall of Giants (2010), was an interesting and rewarding effort. In fact, I reread the first volume in preparation for this one. But Winter of the World is a total failure--Follett should forget about the third volume.
I am a student of 20th Century history and love to read historical fiction of the Winds of War genre. But I don't like to be fed rank propaganda in the guise of history even if it advocates benevolent and largely positive social goals. This patronizing book is just saturated with the author's social agenda. The plight of women, gays, Jews, blacks, workers, union members, "disadvantaged people," and social "progressives" of every kind fills every page, while the establishment is portrayed as lazy, intolerant, and decadent. After a while the reader just wants to cry out "All right, enough already, enough of your preaching. I just want to read a good story in the context of historical events."
In addition, the story line is so contrived and implausible that the history becomes tainted by its proximity. The book has a central list of shallow characters, from the US, England, Germany, and Russia, who just happen to continually run into each other, for decades, and all over the world. In the first volume, for example, the aristocrat Earl Fitzherbert, while in the British Army in France during World War I, coincidentally wanders into the path of a German friend, an officer who had done diplomatic service in the UK and got to know the him well. This meeting takes place during the famous Christmas truce where German and English soldiers wished each other holiday cheer in no man's land. And if this were not enough, the German officer was secretly married to the Earl's sister. These kinds of coincidences occur throughout this book. The evil Earl, moreover, fathered a son by his maid, who turns out to be infinitely more intelligent and socially correct than the Earl, and the bastard child twice has occasion to meet his half-brother without knowing the relationship.
The principal Russian characters are brothers Grigori and Lev Peshkov. Grigori is an intelligent and kind person, responsible and thoughtful of others, while Lev is irresponsible, cruel and scheming. The bad Lev ends up as a rich capitalist in America, while the good Grigori ends up as a Bolshevik revolutionary, a warrior for social justice, who becomes an assistant to Lenin and Trotsky. And, of course, by a tortured set of contrivances that just defies rationality Lev is forced to join the American army, his unit is among the small contingent that was ordered to Russia in 1918, and in that vast land that occupies one-sixth of the earth's surface, the brothers just happen to bump into each other near Omsk in Siberia, where Grigori is a high political official. The book is filled with such coincidences, which are so implausible that they infect the entire narrative and make it not believable.
This book reads like it was written by a staff of adolescents, who have no notion of plausibility or history and whose only purpose is to wag their fingers at the readers and teach them the ways of the world. As I read it, I kept thinking that it would get better but that never happened. The dialogue is often laced with 21st Century jargon that is worlds apart from, say, 1914 Wales or 1930's America. People just didn't talk that way either in Edwardian England or Depression Era US.
And oh! I must say a word about Follett's plastic sex scenes. He must have a fetish for tongue kissing because he includes vivid descriptions of it in every such episode, which invariably involve young people whose wonderment at the practice seems extraordinary.
All in all, don't waste your time on this nearly 1,000-page pile of words. There is a lot of good reading out there.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on October 18, 2012
Winter of the World is a disappointment. Although Follett knows how to piece together a sweeping story, his wordsmithing skills are mediocre. This deprives the reader of the rich mental imagery that a good writer can elicit. He relies heavy on unlikely coincidences on every few pages to have characters running into each other over vast temporal and geographic distances in a way that constantly reminds the reader that he is an observer of a constructed story rather than a participant in the characters' lives.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on October 3, 2012
I love Ken Follet novels and the first novel in this series was brilliant. I think the best word to describe this sequel is, "contrived."
I found Maud Von Ulrich's devotion to her husband as the reason for staying in Nazi Berlin a ludicrous reason for not leaving the country, perhaps because we know what happens to Germany at that time, but it does seem counter to her personality. After all, she abandoned her friendship with Ethel in the first novel just for a minor political difference in women's suffrage. Remaining devoted to Germany when the country was turning to fascism seems a far stretch, especially when she exclaims to her daughter in the first chapter, "What kind of world did I bring you into?"
I groaned as the Dewar family and their significant others landed in Honolulu on December 6, 1941, and predictably had a scheduled tour of battleship row from the water on the morning of December 7th. That was such a stretch, I nearly put this novel away, but plowed on. Without giving anything away, just know that when you read this novel, you will come across one contrivance after another to the point of being ridiculous. Granted, this is historical fiction, but it really stretches you to believe that these families could possibly be as interwoven into such major historical events of the WWII era.
There are good moments though, but overall, this sequel was disappointing.