20 December 2016

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, Australia, 2013

This would have to be one of the best (if not the best) book I have read this year. The writing is, as with all Flanagan’s books, superb. Although the main part of the book deals with Australian prisoners of war and the building of the Burmese railway (and is, consequently, extremely confronting), it does not merely dwell on the atrocities of war, but gives a balanced two-sided view as to why such things may have happened. It makes no excuses, but it does
give explanations.

The book follows the life of Dorrigo Evans from his beginning in Tasmania, through a career in medicine punctuated by several years of military service, to his end on the mainland of Australia. Woven into his life is his love for Amy (his uncle’s young wife), and his less-than-satisfactory marriage with Ella.

This is a book that stays with you long after the last paragraph has been read and the book closed. There are definitely many images that refuse to go away, but there are also thoughts and perspectives that smuggle their way into your subconscious and, hopefully, shed some light on all the bigger questions: why are we here? What is life? What is death? What is love?

Days and months are travellers of eternity. So too the years that pass by. (From Basho’s travel journal The Narrow Road to the Deep North).

The edition I read (by Vintage) has 467 pages, so it is definitely not a one-evening read (and, even if it were possible, I do not think that most people would be able to absorb so much in such a short space of time). Apart from the fact that it was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2014, it is definitely a book I would recommend.

The photo of Flanagan receiving the Man Booker Award is from the ABC. 

06 December 2016

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, USA, 2015

Like all of the books I have read by Anne Tyler, this is a book about ordinary people and the ordinary things that happen to them. There is no suspense or intrigue beyond the suspense and intrigue that exists in the ordinary, everyday situation. And yet, in spite of the book’s ordinariness (or perhaps because of it) the reader is held captive, becoming part of the family described on the pages, wanting to know more.

A Spool of Blue Thread tells the story of Red and Abby Whitshank and their four children. Part of the story is told in the present tense, part is told as flashbacks to when Red and Abby were younger versions of themselves. Everything that happens in the book is completely possible, and it is this factor that grabs the reader’s attention. Situations and problems are all recognizable, and as a result it is easy for the reader to become part of what is going on.

The book, like all Anne Tyler’s books, is well written. The only criticism I would make is that it may be just a little too long. My interest was definitely retained until the three-quarter mark when, like the spool of thread it is describing, the book seemed to unwind. The remaining quarter was still worth reading, but there was a feeling of having already passed the finishing post. 

Photo of Anne Tyler from

15 November 2016

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, UK, first published 1937

This is a wonderful story about Bilbo Baggins and his adventures. Although a story for children – the preface tells us that Tolkien related the story for his children – it has an appeal that goes far beyond the limitations of age. With a primal theme of good conquering evil and the added nuances of the oral tale, it holds the reader's attention from the beginning to the very end. It is both well written and intelligently written (which probably accounts for its universal popularity), and words like Warg and Beorn are not just words pulled out of a hat but all of them have a definite and interesting etymology.

I first read The Hobbit more than forty years ago, and it was, therefore, exciting to reread it. Although I could remember the gist of the story, I had forgotten specific details. I remember loving it when I first read it, and I definitely loved it on this my second reading.

Bilbo Baggins is a simple, ordinary, down-to-earth character (I suppose anyone living under the ground would have to be down-to-earth). He is the hero of the tale, but at all times the reader is very aware of his ordinariness. In his interactions with dwarves, goblins, trolls, elves, eagles, a bear, a dragon and even a wizard, Bilbo always remains Bilbo, torn between the practicality of the home-staying Bagginses and the adventure-loving Tooks. Images of his armchair and his kettle are never very far from his mind.

Photo from the film
Whether Tolkien meant this story to be some kind of statement on our society, or whether it simply evolved as he related it to his children is difficult to say. However, it goes without saying that much of Tolkien's wisdom would have found itself into the story, either consciously or subconsciously. A great read and a must for anyone considering embarking on The Lord of the Rings by the same author.
The book has been made into a total of three (3!) films. 

01 November 2016

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, Japan, 2003

Like all of Murakami’s books (at least all of those I have read to date), Kafka on the Shore does not disappoint. It takes a mixture of ideas and unbelievable situations, blending them together into a novel that may not always seem completely rational but which always pushes the limits of our thinking powers. There are so many possibilities, and nothing is set in stone. It is like a modern-day fairy story.

Photo of Murakami from

The ‘I’ of the book is fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura (Kafka is not his real name), and when we first meet him, he is preparing to run away from home to escape from his cruel father. He also has a vague hope of finding his mother and sister. In parallel chapters we are introduced to Nakata, who is, as he likes to tell everyone, not very smart, but who has the gift of being able to talk to and understand cats. As the story unfolds, Kafka meets Oshima and Miss Saeki, who both work at a small private library. Bit by bit we learn of Miss Saeki’s past, and connections, both real and unreal, begin to appear. In the parallel story, Nakata is on a mission to find something (though he does not know what it is), and he teams up with a truck driver, Hoshino.

The stories parallel each other at the same time as they are completely intertwined. As in all fairy stories, all the characters experience personal change as a result of the situations with which they are confronted. At the end, we are left a little wiser, possibly a little confused but, without a doubt, richer for having made the journey.

18 October 2016

The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester, UK, 1998

This book about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary is amazing, and contrary to what most would expect it reads like a thriller.

Although the Dictionary is of necessity at the centre of the novel, it shares that position with Dr William Chester Minor, who in spite of his unbelievably tragic life was a leading contributor to the Dictionary. Once it was decided that there was a need for a dictionary, comprising all words in the English language (Samuel Johnson's dictionary only included words he liked), quotes (using the words) and definitions (explaining the words) needed to be collected, and the population at large was asked to contribute.

Photo of Simon Winchester from

The other person of significance is Dr James Murray, who is now considered one of the 'towering figures in British scholarship' (p. 30 Penguin edition from 1999). As the first editor of the Dictionary, he gave almost his entire working life to the project and, in doing so, became inextricably involved with W C Minor. With an unbelievable thirst for knowledge, he taught himself several languages and read all that was available on subjects such as geography, science, archaeology, history and, of course, philology. He had a formidable mind, which came to be the force behind the Big Dictionary as it was called.

The American Civil War, the Irish question, murder, lunatic asylums and the wonder of words are all part of this wonderful, informative and entertaining novel. I warmly recommend it.

 Photo of Broadmoor Asylum from

04 October 2016

The Year of Living Dangerously by Christopher Koch, Australia, 1978

This is a great book, beautifully and intelligently written. The subject matter – Indonesia in 1965 – is close enough to our own time for many readers to remember the upheavals and the violence as President Sukarno sought to retain power while trying to remain straddled on the fence between the Left and Right factions of the government.

Hamilton, the Australian journalist at the centre of the novel, becomes slowly drawn into the strange world of Billy Kwan, a dwarf who is also Hamilton's photographer. Hamilton, together with other international journalists, meet regularly at the Wayang Bar – wayang being a Javanese word for a play using shadow puppets – to discuss the chaos that is inevitable. The wayang puppets become an important symbol as the situation, already dire at the beginning of the year, descends into turmoil where no one really knows what is happening or what is likely to happen.

Photo of Christopher Koch from
The characterization is extremely good, and Billy Kwan, for one, lives on in our memory even after we have reached the last page and closed the book. The many glimpses of Indonesian life – the landscape, the slums, the people, the beliefs, the smells – join together to produce an amazing backdrop to an amazing and thought-provoking story.

In the end, there is no good or bad, nothing is clear cut. As Koch writes: 'The West asks for clear conclusions, final judgements. A philosophy must be correct or incorrect, a man good or bad… '

The Year of Living Dangerously was made into a film by Peter Weir in 1982, with Mel Gibson starring as Hamilton.

                                                The photo from the film is from


19 September 2016

Bright Air by Barry Maitland, Australia, 2008

A mystery that unravels between Sydney and Lord Howe Island, this novel by the very prolific Barry Maitland is well researched and captivating. Having spent much time in Sydney and some time on Lord Howe Island, I felt a connection with the setting of the story, and this definitely caught my interest in the very first chapter.

A story woven around rock climbing (with which Barry Maitland is obviously acquainted) and three tragic deaths, Bright Air leads the reader in a number of directions before, eventually, all the somewhat divergent paths converge. Josh, the central character and a member of the rock climbing group, returns to Sydney after a four-year stint in England. Shortly after arriving home, he catches up with Anna, another rock climber, who gives him the news that two of their friends recently fell to their deaths while climbing in New Zealand. Anna begins to draw connections between the two recent deaths and the death of another climber, Lucy, some years earlier. At first Josh refuses to accept that there may be connections, but, bit by bit, he is drawn into Anna's way of thinking. 
This is an easy read with plenty of suspense and action. A knowledge of Sydney and Lord Howe is simply an extra bonus.

The photo of Barry Maitland above is from

06 September 2016

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, France/London, 2004


Although Suite Française was not published until 2004, it was actually written in 1940/1941, which makes it, like the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, extremely valuable. While many other novels based on the horror of World War II have been written in the years after the war, either as memoirs by people who experienced it or after extensive research by people who did not, Irène Némirovsky wrote Suite Française while the war was raging around her. It was intended as a suite of five novels – she only managed the first two before she was arrested for her Jewish connections (even though she and her family were Catholics) and was taken to Auschwitz where she perished.

Photo of  Irène Némirovsky from
She did leave some notes on how she was intending to write the remaining three novels; however, while the notes for book three are fairly detailed, the notes for books four and five are extremely sketchy. The first of the two books, Storm in June, was most probably edited at some stage by Némirovsky, whereas the second book, Dolce, reads in many parts as a first draft. Given Némirovsky's situation, it is more than likely that she did not have the time to edit her second book.

While I do not agree with those who hail Irène Némirovsky as France's greatest author, I feel that her Suite Française is a valuable portrait of a time most of us living today have only read about. The characters in Storm in June, though occasionally bordering on caricatures, are well described. Her powers of observation are amazing, and parallel to the tragedy of France's invasion and occupation there is a lot of humour: at no point does her writing become sentimental or maudlin. 

Although the relationship between the French woman Lucile and the German officer Bruno (in Dolce) never really makes lift-off, it is obvious from the notes she left that Némirovsky had thought to develop their story (and their relationship) in the successive books. 

When Bruno says to Lucile “Ah! Madame, this is the principal problem of our times: what is more important, the individual or society? War is the collaborative act par excellence, is it not?… “, he is perhaps summing up one of main themes in Suite Française – a story about a tragedy, which became a tragedy in itself.

In 2015, Suite Française was made into a film by Saul Dibb. The photo above (from the film) is from