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


16 August 2016

We Die Alone by David Howarth, UK, 1955

This amazing true story tells how, in March 1943, Jan Baalsrud, a Norwegian expatriate resistance fighter, sails from the Shetland Islands to the northern coast of Norway with three other Norwegians and the crew of the small fishing boat. The idea is to help train Norwegians within the resistance movement; however, after making landfall above the Arctic circle, plans go horribly wrong, and Jan is forced to flee across the inhospitable winter wasteland of northern Norway. With Nazi soldiers pursuing him and not knowing whom he is able to trust, Jan has no choice but to push on.

Wounded, without proper clothing and with very little food, he survives almost six weeks in conditions that would have seen the death of most people after only a few days. Freezing temperatures, blizzards, avalanches, snow blindness, frostbite, gangrene were only some of the hurdles that Baalsrud encounters as he desperately tries to take himself across occupied Norway into neutral Sweden.

That he succeeds is dependent to a great extent on his own strength of character but it is also thanks to the many people who help him. These people offer their help even though they are fully aware that discovery will most surely result in a death sentence for both themselves and their families. We Die Alone is a wonderful example of courage against formidable odds but also a celebration of ordinary people's charity and self sacrifice.

Although this is not a novel of great literary merit, We Die Alone is definitely worth reading for the suspense and the descriptions of bravery and resilience that go far beyond what we believe could be possible.

 Photo of Jan Baalsrud from

01 August 2016

The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet by Colleen McCullough, Australia, 2008

I am not a fan of anyone taking characters from another author's book – in this case one of the classics – and writing a so-called sequel to that book. I can imagine that Jane Austen turned in her grave when this book hit the shelves: the writing is mediocre, the characterization is extremely poor and the plot is both superficial and unbelievable, to say the least. However, for anyone with hours to whittle away and a penchant for third-class romantic novels that follow the Mills and Boon requisite for a happy ending, this book may possibly tick all the boxes.

The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet picks up twenty years after the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice, focusing on the middle daughter, Mary, who has undergone some kind of transformation and, after being the plain one in the family, is now considered beautiful, possibly even more beautiful than Elizabeth. Mrs Bennet dies on page two, leaving Mary (her carer) the option of moving in with her sister Elizabeth, and becoming a live-in spinster aunt, or pursuing the possibility of independence (a no-no for young ladies of the early nineteenth century). Of course, in keeping with the title of the book, Mary chooses the second of these two options. As an unaccompanied lady, she endures a hair-raising trip across England and ends up being imprisoned by a religious maniac.
Photo of Colleen McCullough from
While we are following the trials and tribulations of Mary, we are also reintroduced to the other characters of Pride and Prejudice – all of them completely at odds with or, at the very least, caricatures of their original incarnations. Fitzwilliam Darcy is obnoxious, Lydia is a drunk, Elizabeth is frigid, Jane seems to be completely without backbone… add to this a number of senseless murders, a surprise sibling, thousands of pounds worth of hidden gold and fifty uncivilized orphans, and the scene is set for one of the worst novels I have read this year.

I am not recommending this book, but I do suggest you read (or reread) Pride and Prejudice and enjoy a well written and well crafted novel.