The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones

Dan Jones seems to have perfected the art of story-telling. This is a seriously good work. Mixing exciting story-telling with actual scholarship, Jones has managed to re-create the mayhem that emerged in England as a result of Henry VI’s ineffectual rule. Jones builds the story convincingly, managing to bring the multitude of characters to life and explaining their motivations, without getting lost in the detail, especially in a conflict that was often centred on complex genealogies, petered by a multitude number of Henrys, Edwards and Richards.

Jones challenges the idea that the Wars of the Roses was some great Tudor triumph. That Henry VII in defeating Richard III and then marrying Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth of York, united the two warring factions of England, the House of Lancaster and the House of York, whose rivalry had wrought widespread desolation, and brought peace to a broken realm.

Jones claims the Wars of the Roses came about as a result of a decline in royal authority because of Henry VI’s inability to rule, augmented by the loss of all of England’s French territories. With Henry virtually a puppet for whomever was in control of him, the realm descended into riotous frustration at the royal government’s porous finances and fear of a French invasion. From this Richard Duke of York, Henry’s cousin, would stake his claim, first as protector of the realm and then more directly for the throne itself. This would lead to several brutal battles, the worst at Towton where up to 100,000 men met in battle. If there is one criticism I have of this book, and perhaps this is no fault of Jones himself, it could have done with a deeper appraisal of Henry VI.

After Towton, the crown passes from the House of Lancaster to the House of York and stabilises under Edward IV, but after Edward’s untimely death, his brother Richard III in quite an extraordinary moment seizes the crown for himself from his nephew, Edward V, and has he and his younger brother murdered in the Tower. This action, coupled with Richard’s paranoia, encourages Henry Tudor, Henry VI’s half brother, to invade England in 1485. He builds a strong army and at the Battle of Bosworth, Richard is slain and Henry becomes king.

The deaths do not end there however. Henry VII and even Henry VIII find themselves having to defend their claim to the throne from real and imagined threats, until 1525, when there was simply no body left to threaten them.

There are several revelations I found enlightening, especially with regards to the Tudors. The Tudors are Welsh, and found themselves close to royal power through the rather extraordinary life of Owain ap Muredudd ap Tudur (ap being Welsh for son of) or as we know him now, Owen Tudor. Owen manages to marry the dowager Queen, Henry V’s widow, Catherine of Valois. Together they have two sons, Edmund and Jasper. Henry VII was Edmund’s eldest son. It is a remarkable rise for a Welsh family, at a time when the Welsh were considered second class citizens.

This is a brilliant book.

Henry V – Playboy Prince to Warrior, Anne Curry

A brilliantly composite narrative of Henry V’s short life and reign. King for just under 10 years, Henry’s life was eventful and significant. It was he, with his victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, his retaking of Normandy in 1417 and the signing of the Treaty of Troyes in 1420 that left him as the heir and regent of the French throne. The realisation of Edward III’s ambition more than 50 years earlier. He was an able and charismatic leader, intelligent, capable of multi tasking with a fervent attention to detail. Perhaps what is most remarkable about Henry was not just that he won the crown of France, but that he endeared himself to the French by his firm but fair rule. This was a style of Kingship that Henry strongly believed in, often pardoning those who opposed his rule, and placing even those who were not necessarily sympathetic to his rule in positions of power. Had his life not been cut short at just 35 perhaps the double monarchy of England and France would have succeeded and the History of Western Europe would have been very different. We will never know. However the many successes of his short reign have left him as one of the most beloved and admired of Medieval England’s Kings.

Non-Fiction Reads of 2015

T.E. Lawrence in Arabia; War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Scott Anderson 5/5

Barbara Truncham, the brilliant historian most famous for ‘Guns of August’ once stated that her primal goal when writing History was to retain the reader’s attention. Many historians, vigilant as they are with the facts, fail in that endeavour, other historians lose the facts in their pursuit of readability. Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson succeeds because of the magisterial way he fuses incredible detail with an engaging readability. I often found myself reading the book aloud for chapters on end because of the melismatic ease of his writing. Having said that, this is not a simple book. It is densely researched and broad in its scope.

 

The focus is not simply Lawrence, but three other characters in the Middle East at the time of the First World War and the Arab Revolt. Curt Prufer, a German attache to the embassy in Cairo who attempts to ferment Islamic Jihad. William Yale, an American on an oil finding mission for Standard Oil and Aaron Aronsohn, agronomist and committed zionist who gains the trust of both the Ottomans and the British. Each of these men is handled with deft, with in depth explanations of their background that familiarises the reader with an understanding of the motives behind their actions, as well as placing them in the wider global context. The book jumps between these men in a linear chronology that can at times be confusing because absorbed as I was with one individual, I would forget where it was I had left the other. Yet it also serves to create a novelic feel to what is a purely academic work.

 

Unsurprisingly, given the current global context and the centrality of the Middle East to geo-politics, the role it played in the Great War and the effects of the War on it have become important questions to modern audiences.

 

Anderson convincingly promulgates the high powered geopolitical jostling for ascendancy in the Middle East at the time. The British, whom Anderson claims were largely the creators of the modern Middle East, do not emerge sympathetically. On one hand they had promised to grant the Arabs a pan-Arabic state in return for revolting against the Turks, and on the other hand the Sykes-Picot Agreement meant a partition of the Middle East between France and Britain. Even-handed as he is, Anderson also portrays the extent of the disgust within the British Military at the duplicity of such an agreement, when it came to be known. He explains the logistics of such a decision, detailing how one department of the British Army could take one decision, another department take the opposite decision, and neither side be aware of the other’s actions because of the separation between the two.

 

Written as it is chronologically Anderson skillfully weaves several different threads together, most deftly with regards to the Armenian Genocide. He proffers no opinion on the classification of ‘genocide’ instead he explores the reasoning behind Ottoman policy. Was it an attempt to ethnically cleanse all Armenians, or was it driven by a genuine fear that the Armenians would revolt against the Ottomans in the case of a Russian invasion? Was it both? If it was in fact a collective decision to ethnically cleanse the Armenians why did the Governor of Syria Djemal Pasha help thousands of them during the War. He manages a seemingly ostensible recount of their suffering, lowering it into chapters not directly concerned with the Armenians, elucidating the widespread nature of their suffering. For example, William Yale on a train trip to Damascus, describes the lines of severely impoverished Armenians up and down the roads, many of them dead, others begging for mercy.

 

Of course this is a book about T.E Lawrence, and while he is placed into a necessary perspective in the hierarchy of decision making, he is not relegated from significance. Thomas Edward Lawrence emerges a tragic hero, often frustrated by British decision making during the war and eventually broken by the decisions at Versailles and Lausanne. He is a lonely figure, whose sexuality remains a quag of speculation and innuendo. He loved the Arabs, he spoke their language and felt at ease with them. He genuinely believed in their right to self-autonomy and was deeply affected by the decision to partition the Middle East along imperial lines.

Anderson, although broadly sympathetic, does challenges Lawrence, if a piece of evidence contradicts Lawrence’s later recollection of events, his difficult nature, his arrogance and his disloyalty to the British in favour of the Arabs.

 

Despite the considerable fame he procured in the years following the war, Lawrence spent his final years desperately unhappy, spending the majority of his time in seclusion. ‘It’s hard to escape the image of a sad and reclusive man, his circles of friends and acquaintances steadily dwindling to a mere handful’. Anderson believes that this desire for anonymity was born out of a sense of guilt, that he had promised the Arabs so much and failed to deliver; that men had died in the pursuit of these unfulfilled promises. In the end Lawrence died in 1935 in a car accident. It is for certain that the mystique of Lawrence will endure for his contribution to history is of the unlikely variety. A middle-class Englishman helps lead an Arab revolt against the Ottomans. It is the stuff of legend and myth; precisely the best storytelling.

 

This book overwhelmingly leaves the reader with the question of ‘what if?’. What if the Ottomans had joined alongside the Allies rather than the Central Powers? What if Germany had won the war? What if the British had listened to Lawrence and invaded from Alexandretta as opposed to Gallipoli? A decision that, based on further research I’ve undertaken, is breathtaking in its incompetence and short sightedness.

 

What if the British had in fact granted the Arabs their state? Would it have succeeded? Anderson provides a qualified statement. ‘The notion of a true pan-Arab nation was always something of a mirage, the differences between its radically varied cultures far greater than what united them… (However) It is hard to imagine that any…could possibly have produced a sadder history than what has actually transpired over the past century, a catalogue of war, religious strife and brutal dictatorships that has haunted not just the Middle East but the entire world.’ A Brilliant work.

 

The Iron Kingdom, Christopher Clark 5/5

 

This is a book about a Kingdom that no longer exists whose former existence was greatly consequential to modern European History. Prussia was the Kingdom that lead the unification of Germany. The book details it’s most famous personalities from Frederick the Great to Otto Von Bismarck, the decimating effect of the Thirty Year’s War, it’s many years of inferior status in Europe, it’s religious tolerance. Prussia was dismantled by the Allies after the Second World War, its leaders believing Prussian militarism responsible for the Two World Wars. Clark grapples with this question. He acknowledges the extent of the role the military played in Prussia, but details that there was more to Prussia. This was an enlightening read about a society I knew very little about and I came to appreciate just how important Prussia and Germany were to European society.

 

Kaiser Wilhelm II; A Life with Power, Christopher Clark 4/5

 

Kaiser Wilhelm Hohenzollern II is one of the most controversial figures in 20th century history. As the leader of Germany during the First World War he has been held ultimately responsible for the actions of his nation prior to and then during the conflict. Christopher Clark assesses his legacy in this book and in his familiar style doesn’t explicitly state a sympathy or antipathy towards his subject, it must be found in between the lines. Clark has no time for comparisons with Hitler and the notion that Wilhelm was evil. Rather the Wilhelm Clark portrays is more a child than a villain. He is temperamental, his focus shifting from one subject to another fluidly, in need of constant adoration, frustrated by Germany’s seeming isolation in Europe, desperate to attain the supremacy he believed Germany deserved. As Queen Victoria’s grandson he revered and is jealous of the British, it is this inferiority complex that forms part of the reason Wilhelm pursues the fateful German naval building policy. I found this relatively short book did not answer all my questions about Wilhelm but on its own accord it is excellent.  

 

Russia: A Short Introduction, Geoffrey Hoskings 3.5/5

 

There are many of these Short Introduction books that provide simple, easy to read, overviews of their subject. It can be read in a few hours barely 100 pages long. I bought the Russian edition because I wanted to attain an overview understanding of Russian History. Geoffrey Hoskings is an expert on Russia and he manages to tell Russia’s story simply and provide answers to questions about Russian History. Especially to the question of why Russians will support a strong leader no matter how despotic – Ivan the Terrible, Josef Stalin – they are. The reason is essentially because they believed the alternative to be anarchy. This is a great introduction to Russia.

 

The Plantagenets; the Warrior Kings and Queens Who Ruled England, Dan Jones 5/5

 

The English Royal Dynasty best known to posterity are the Tudors. It is perfectly understandable, there’s is a dynamic story that involves all the ingredients to keep modern audiences transfixed. However the Royal Family that preceded them, the Plantagenets, were just as transfixing. For three days straight I locked myself in my room and flew through this lengthy read that encompasses over 300 years of history. It includes everything we know and love about Medieval Europe. Knights, War, Famine, the Church, Rage, Power, Lust, Sex. It begins with who I think was the best of the Plantagenets Henry II and includes some of the most important moments in English History. Murder in the Cathedral, Richard the Lionheart’s death, Magna Carta, the Wars with Scotland, the Black Death, the Crusades, the Barons revolt, The removal of Edward II, the Hundred Years’ War, the Peasants Revolt, ending with the removal of Richard II whose rule proved most unpopular. Dan Jones is very even handed through-out, as all good historians ought to be, even finding positives to state about possibly the most reviled of all the English Kings, John. No numerical addition required for there will only ever be one King John. I loved this book and will return to it as it contains so much information, it is impossible to absorb in one reading.

 

The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan 4.5/5

 

In the end the First World War was a tragedy, a tragedy the pulled Europe to the brink and worst of all ended millions of lives. Some have attempted to claim that the war was a pointless crime but to do so would be wrong, because many of those who fought did so because they believed it was necessary. To do so would be to arrogantly presume our current society so advanced that no such conflict could be replicated in our times; the reasons for War in 1914 not applicable to ours. To do so would be to deprive our generation of a valuable lesson from history. The sad reality is that many Europeans at the turn of the 20th century shared the belief that Europe, now a beacon of enlightenment and progress, had found the means to avoid war. Margaret Macmillan attempts to, and largely succeeds in elaborating this point, hence the title, the War That Ended Peace. All the regular players are involved, Kaiser Wilhelm, Tsar Nicholas, Edward Grey. The narrative begins at the 1900 Exhibition in Paris, France, showcasing the modernity and progress of the modern world. A glimpse into pre-war society that is almost haunting benefited by hindsight.

For most of the narrative Macmillan allows the sources she’s collected to speak for themselves but there are other times where she is more equivocal in her opinion. She scorches the Germans for the incompetency of their foreign policy. She takes the view that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was on the verge of collapse. She views the Kaiser as a bit of joker. Yet, like many modern historians, Macmillan doesn’t apportion blame to any single nation for the war but spreads it around to Germany, Russia, Austro-Hungary, Serbia and to a lesser extent Britain and France, whom Macmillan claims deserve less blame than the others, but ought to be criticised for not doing enough to prevent the conflict. It truly was the War That Ended Peace and the world is all the worse for it.

 

The Uses and Abuses of History, Margaret MacMillan 3/5

 

This is a short, sharp read about how History has often been used as a political means of justification eg. Hitler and Frederick the Great, and the adverse effects of doing so. There are points where MacMillan’s political views emerge but overall it showcases the dangers of history as a political tool.

 

Paris 1919: 6 Months That Changed the World, Margaret MacMillan 5/5

 

When the First World War concluded following four years of inglorious fighting the World’s focus shifted to Paris where the world’s leaders met to negotiate the peace. Leaders from all across the world converged on Paris in what was an extraordinary period in the city’s cherished history; from China and Japan, to parts of Africa, Australia but mostly from Europe. A Europe altered dramatically by the Great War. The three most important of these men were Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States, David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Georges Clemenceau, Prime Minister of France; The victors. It was in their hands that the most important decisions of the Paris Peace Conference were made.

 

One of the central theses of this work is that the Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles were not to blame for the Second World War. MacMillan, in this brilliant work, argues that these men believed they were creating a better world, especially Wilson and his beloved League of Nations. However, they had to balance this with the promises they had made to allies during the War, against the often irrational demands of jingoistic nationalism, as well as the appeasement of their own populaces. The book details how difficult this often proved to be. In the end the peace was hardly perfect and many of the decisions of the conference continue to affect us today. Notably the division of the Middle East, but perhaps most surprising to me was the effect it had on the Chinese populace, who lost much faith in the West owing to their treatment at the conference. I read the majority of this book in Europe, including Paris, which only added to the enjoyment I received in reading this enlightening and important book.

 

When We Were Young And Foolish, Greg Sheridan 3/5

 

Greg Sheridan is an Australian journalist who works for the Australian. He is of conservative inclination, and a close personal friend of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. His area of expertise is Asia, an area he loves, and writes passionately about especially Indonesia. This book details his early years, including his time working for a Union as a member of the Labor Party, taking the fight up to the Communist dominated left at University, entering a seminary to become a Priest, and getting to know some of the most important of figures of future Australian politics, including Bob Carr, Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull. This is a fascinating read and while Sheridan is a good writer, he is a better columnist.

 

The English and Their History, Robert Tombs 5/5

 

There is an intrinsic depth and breadth to English History that is captivating. This book, over a thousand pages in length, explores English history but also explores the culture and art of the moment, the development of the English language, and the overall historical context. As the title suggests, this is not just a work about English History it is also about the English. Tombs is remarkably even handed through-out, one reviewer hoped Tombs would ‘bare some teeth’ but he doesn’t. That is in essence what makes this such an agreeable book. Any author who manages to remain apolitical about Margaret Thatcher is doing something right. Another example is the First World War. Tombs declares that the First World War was not an accident but then questions what else Edward Grey could have done during the July Crisis. He claims that Europe’s populations did not happily march into war, believing it an adventure to be over by Christmas, rather they were quite saddened by the announcement, fearful of its ramifications, but also believing in it. The English Civil War is portrayed not as some great Parliamentarian victory but as an avoidable accident. The Empire is portrayed for its mistakes as well as its victories. I loved this book and whenever I feel I need some information on English history I return to it. He does brush over Medieval England a little, but there are plenty of other books to turn to for that.

My Reading Year 2015 – Fiction

Fiction:

Favourites:

I was unable to split my two favourite books of 2015. Both unforgettable in their own way.

The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky. 5/5

This is a novel that doesn’t quite leave you. It may take you a while to complete it though. It is so detailed, racked with depth and intelligence. I’m not ashamed to admit that I have spent an inordinate amount of time this year aimlessly pondering its endless crevices. It is the story of the four sons of Fyodor Karamazov. Dmitri, Ivan, Alexei and Smerdyakov. Each of the brothers is extremely different in temperament and belief. This cocktail, mixed with a debaucher father, proves to be lethal when Fyodor is murdered. The writing is not lyrical, it is dense and detailed, allowable to consider the breadth of thought and ideas expressed by the Brothers. Their conversations consider God, suffering, morality, Love, honour. This manifests itself most famously in the ‘Grand Inquisitor’, a chapter where Ivan tells Alexei a story he had created about the return of Christ and his implication that the Roman Catholic Church would not welcome this. It is a brilliant and thought-provoking dissertation that my many hours of pondering often focused on. Alexei is the novel’s hero, and he is mine. Perhaps my favourite literary character. He is so humble, so honest, so good, a creation seemingly to be trampled upon, broken by those around him, yet he emerges as the hero and rises above. It is a brilliant work!

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Zafron. 5/5

It is novels like these that remind me of why I love literature. The Shadow of the Wind is exciting, heart-warming, heart-breaking, a pallet of emotion. It’s characterisations are real and authentic, yet Zafron never ceases in holding the reader’s attention. Set in post-war Barcelona, this is the story of a young boy who is taken by his father to the Library of Forgotten Books. He picks the Shadow of the Wind and falls in love with it. That is merely the tip of the iceberg. Zafron’s majesty lies in the way he brings the lives of a large group of disparate people together, leaving the reader breathless and moved.The story shifts from comedy, to tragedy, to social commentary on the Francoist regime.  Barcelona comes to life, almost as a character of its own but is used only to advance the story, not as a means of laudatory propagation.

Perhaps it is strange to place the Shadow of the Wind on the same mantel as The Brothers Karamazov. It is true that they are two extremely different novels. Karamazov is intellectual and thought-provoking, where as The Shadow of the Wind is passionate and intense, almost the anti-thesis of the other. Yet for all their differences, they share a similar message. The way that ideas, dogmatically held, influence us all.  It may not be the literary equivalent of Karamazov, yet I will never forget the way the Shadow of the Wind made me feel. The emotions that I experienced. For that reason, I cannot separate the two.

Other Titles

I’m Not Scared, Niccolò Ammaniti 3.5/5

What is perhaps surprising about Italian society, based on the two books  I have read this year set in Italy, is just how recently violent its society was. Perhaps this is an unfair generalisation and I find myself somewhat confused by it, Italy is one of the largest economies in the world, with approximately 60 million people and millions of tourists who travel there every year, they’re not going to travel to a violent country, yet as recently as the 1970’s poorer communities in the south of Italy were kidnapping the children of richer families from the north for ransom. This is the focus of this short but chilling novel, about a young boy who finds a child in an old abandoned house. He presumes him to be a ghost, and written as it is from the perspective of a child, the novel retains its innocence through out, even as the reader figures out that this is no ghost and the reality is more frightening.

The Zahir, Paul Coelho. 3/5

Paul Coelho is best known for the Alchemist, a novel I have bought but yet read. Zahir is the Arabic word for obsession, this novel’s central theme. The main character’s wife leaves him and he becomes obsessed with finding her. The novel asks questions about love and life, about how much work is too much work, and what does it truly mean to be happy. Interestingly the novel ends up in Kazakhstan. It suffers from being too repetitive. Coelho makes the same point about happiness several times.

The Iron King, Maurice Druon 4/5

The first book in a series of historical fiction novels that document the fall of the Capet Dynasty in France. The Iron King details the brutal end of the Knights Templar and the curse placed on the Capet Kings by the final remaining Templar, as he burns to death. George Martin called it the original Game of Thrones. It is every bit as gruesome as GOT, only not fantasy, but very very real.

The Little Prince, Antoine De Saint-Exupery 4/5

Arguably the most famous work of literature to come out of France. The Little Prince is a novella about a pilot stranded in the desert, who meets a Prince from a distant planet. It is written for children but arguably more so for adults. A touching, beautiful read, it teaches us not to forget the power of imagination. Not to loose the innocence and hope of youth.

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante. 3.5/5

Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of an Italian author whose identity remains unknown. She has written a coming of age series set in Naples that focuses on two young girls Elena and Lila, growing up in the 50’s and 60’s. The first book in this four part series, focuses on their childhood on the streets of Naples. It is often violent and bloody. I was rather shocked by the extent of the violence but then again Naples is known for that. Other times it is literary and beautiful. They learn many different languages and push for their chance at education. It is very eloquently written. I am looking forward to reading the second part of the series.

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn 4.5/5

Managing to hold the reader’s attention doesn’t necessary make a novel great, but in the case of Gone Girl, it is precisely this staying power that renders it unforgettable. I decided to read the book before I saw the movie, which came out last year. I picked it up thinking I would read a few pages, unsure of its premise, and found myself mesmerised. The novel is written from two very different perspectives, Nick Dunne and his wife Amy. Nick returns home one morning to find that Amy has disappeared and very quickly the reader realises not to trust his narrative entirely. Running simultaneously is a diary written by Amy from the time her and Nick first met. This also proves to be very unreliable. There are points in this novel that are jaw dropping. It reaches a peak towards the middle and then just runs home from there.

The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith 3.5/5

The second book in JK Rowling’s new Cormoran Strike murder-mysteries. They’re wonderful reads that keep you fixated and engaged for long periods of time. This time it focuses on the murder of a not-so-successful author. At times it is laugh out loud funny, especially when Rowling re-creates sections of the dead author’s work. The reveal of the murderer at the end of this book was much better than in the Cuckoo’s Calling.

Memoirs of A Geisha, Arthur Golden 4/5

You are immersed in a world that you didn’t know existed, in a world that is now lost. It is often bleak, punctured by rare rays of light, with a similarly bitter-sweet ending. Golden has done his research and it shows in the descriptions of make-ups and dresses, of the training and classes Geisha’s went through, the unceasing need for the approval of ones clients. You can almost smell the perfume and taste the Sake. A novel I plan on returning to.

The End of the Affair, Graham Greene 4/5

I remained awake till early dawn to complete this book. I began it late one evening and before I knew it, it was three am and I was complete. It is different to other Greene novels in that it is so eloquently written. The story of a torrid love affair, between a married woman and a single man, it asks questions of love and life, and in typical Greene fashion, places Catholicism right at the heart of it.

The Quiet American, Graham Greene 5/5

This book reminded me a lot of The Year of Living Dangerously, which explains why I loved it so much. Based on Greene’s time as a journalist during the Indochina war, a British journalist in Vietnam befriends an American agent working undercover. The novel takes you close to the natives and the destructive nature of war. Piercingly anti-American, its focuses on the effects of colonialism as well as of the inefficiency of intelligence agencies. It may have been published 1955 but in many respects it remains very relevant today.

The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini 4/5

I had been encouraged by several people to read this novel, stating that it is beautiful and heart-warming. It most certainly pulls on your heartstrings and you don’t forget how you feel after you’ve read it. Set in Afghanistan the book tells the story of a young boy and his father and how the Afghani wars on the 70s till now demoralised a nation and its people. Despite being well written, it is a very black and white story; there is no room for grey. The bad guys behave horrendously and the good guys can’t help but be victims of their horror. Real life is more nuanced than that.

Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel 5/5

The second book in the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, Mantel focuses on the downfall of Anne Boleyn. Just as brilliant as Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies is even bleaker. Despite knowing what will happen, Mantel manages to make these events fresh and exciting, keeping the reader engaged as she seamlessly and believably recreates one of the most controversial and mysterious events in English History. This maybe a revisionist history of Thomas Cromwell, but you still can’t help but despise him for what he does to so many innocent people, simply to appease the wishes of his despotic King.

A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel 5/5

I don’t think there’s anything of Mantel’s I’ve read that I have disliked. It isn’t as if she possesses a distinct style I find engaging. On the contrary, Mantel is known for the distinction between each of her books. A Place of Greater Safety focuses on three of the most important figures of the French Revolution, Maximillen Robespierre, Jacques Danton and Camille Desmoulins. Despite being unaware of the intricacies of the French Revolution, I found this book easy to follow. It is experimental, jumping from first person, to third person, sometimes mid-sentence. There are scenes written as scripts. After almost 900 pages, you are left with an understanding of the way the Revolution descended into a terror that destroyed its most hopeful aspirants.

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, Hilary Mantel 5/5

What could be more terrifying than living in Saudi Arabia? According to Hilary Mantel, not much. Based on her experience living in Saudi Arabia for three years, Mantel gives a tense, shocking incursion into what daily life is like in the Kingdom. Written in the gothic style, it reaches a terrifying climax, that leaves the reader with chills. In one particular scene the main character Frances Shore, is attempting to cross a street. She sees that a car is coming, so she pauses to let the car through. The gentleman in the car stops to allow her through. Just as she is about to cross, he revs his car forward slightly frightening Frances. He just stares at her not moving and Frances realises he does not want her to cross, so she turns and goes another way. I cannot know for certain, but I feel that Mantel may have experienced this herself. As with any Mantel novel it is beautifully written, but as in any Mantel novel, it is unlike anything else she has written. She very clearly portrays the divide between eastern and western values that have for so long plagued relations between them. A very relevant tome in our times.

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro 3.5/5

I hadn’t heard of Ishiguro until a snippet of his latest novel appeared in the UK Telegraph. What struck me was the calm, poetic tone of his writing. The feeling one gets reading Ishiguro, is the feeling one gets reading when it is cold, gloomy and raining. It is the best time to read. The Buried Giant is set in Anglo-Saxon England. It is a re-imagining of a world that still remains in our imagination because we know so little about it. Yet it tells a story of the universality of love and the fickleness of memory. A theme that recurs quite often in his works. It suffers at time from an inauthenticity of voice.

The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro 5/5

Like Graham Greene, Ishiguro’s novels tend to be short and snappy. They make their point without lingering unnecessarily. The Remains of the Day is Ishiguro’s most famous work, and won him the Booker Prize. Set in the 1950s, an old Butler, Stevens, who serves in a former great English estate known as Darlington Hall, takes a journey to visit Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper. In extensive flashbacks over the three-day journey, Steven looks back at the previous thirty years of his life and considers his actions, assesses his regrets, especially the blindingly obvious but unacknowledged love between he and Miss Kenton and affirms the importance of his job as a butler. It has an interesting side-story about, the once owner of Darlington Hall, Lord Darlington’s attempts at conciliation and appeasement with Weimar and then Nazi Germany.

An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro 4.5/5

Ishiguro’s second novel. Set in post war Japan, from the perspective of Masuji Ono. During the War, Masuji was not only an artist of Japanese Propaganda but also a police informant. He finds himself discredited in the new Japan, embarrassed of its imperialist and jingoistic past and his daughter struggling to find a husband because of the reputation of her father. Like the Remains of the Day, Ishiguro patiently makes these revelations through flashbacks and conversations. This is perhaps Ishiguro’s most heartfelt story as Masuji Ono slowly begins to understand the impact of his life’s decisions.

A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro 4/5

Ishiguro’s first novel. This is one strange read. After I finished it I spent a couple of hours on the Internet attempting to make sense of it. Etsuko in England is saddened by the suicide of her daughter Niki. She reminisces about Sachiko a single mother she met when she was still living in post-war Japan. The novel moves at a simmering yet predictable pace until it alters towards the end and the narrator, Etsuko, proves to be very unreliable. There are many different theories on what it means, Ishiguro has admitted that he made it too ambiguous, but nonetheless there is an element of enjoyment in attempting to decipher the ambiguity.

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro 4.5/5

When you get to the end of this novel you don’t know whether to cry for the characters or be happy for them. Set in a dystopic England where the main characters are clones of other humans, raised to donate their organs, and then eventually die ‘complete’ from the complications. Without ruining any of the story, this is inherently a novel about death and how we humans struggle to accept it, constantly looking for ways to avoid it, rarely accepting that we can’t do so. Probably Ishiguro’s most thought-provoking novel.

When We Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguro – 4/5

According to Wikipedia, this is considered Ishiguro’s weakest effort. Even he says so. ‘This is not my best work’. It may not be his best, but considering the consistent quality of his work, it is still of a high calibre. Set during the inter-war years, it focuses on successful detective Chrstopher Banks’ desire to find out how and why his parents disappeared in Shanghai when he was a child.  The novel’s themes are similar to other Ishiguro works. The unreliability of memory, the effects of war, the unspoken but obvious. The flashbacks to Shanghai are absolutely brilliant; nobody quite does flashbacks like Ishiguro, who seamlessly fits them into the narrative. The second half of the novel is weaker than the first. Something about the Banks, returning to Shanghai because he believed his parents to be alive, struck me as unconvincing, there are also times when the novel lulls, but overall it’s a beautiful work.

Girl with Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson. 4.5/5

It isn’t very often that you come across a novel that is so unique; it possesses its own texture and depth. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is very much this novel. It is very dark and tense. Every turn of the page, the reader fears what may happen next. A murder mystery into the disappearance of Harriet Vanger, it is more a parable on the violence women experience and why it often goes unreported. Lisbeth Salander, the novel’s titular character, is inverted and strange, but we identify with her. She has struggled; some of these struggles receive very detailed documentation in the book, others remain a mystery. A truly unique experience.

The Girl who Played With Fire, Stieg Larsson 4.5/5

The second novel in the Lisbeth Salander series may not be a clear-cut murder mystery but it is equally thrilling and intense. Not to mention equally gruesome. Written in that distinct style, the second book encompasses more characters and takes an even more political tone. Journalists become involved and shady underworld figures gain prominence. Once again Larsson focuses on female injustices, this time sex-trafficking. Lisbeth Salander only becomes more fascinating as we learn more about her mysterious past.

Life of Pi, Yann Martel 3.5/5

For such a popular book, it may seem a very low rating. That is because the middle section of the book is often quite boring. The movie suffers from the same problem. Others may disagree but I found myself often skimming the middle sections. The plot is simple. Pi, is a deeply religious young boy, practising, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. His family leave India to Canada. On the way, their ship gets destroyed (how exactly, we don’t know) and Pi ends up shipwrecked with a Tiger known as Richard Parker, (his family owned a Zoo in India and were transporting the animals to Canada). Part 1 and Part 3 are brilliant and thought-provoking. Pi survives the ordeal and ends up on the shores of South America. When explaining the story to the Japanese Insurance Company investigating the crash, they don’t believe him, stating his story doesn’t make sense. He can’t have survived with a Tiger on board with him. So Pi tells them another story, which is more believable, instead of animals, they are people. Which story is true? The first story with the Tiger, explains Pi, has God, the other doesn’t. The Japanese choose the story with Tiger, because the story is always better with God. A very though provoking novel.

The Great Zoo of China, Matthew Reilly 3/5

An easy, couple of hours read, about a Great Zoo built in China. Its main attraction; Dragons. It has a well-constructed plot and moves incessantly. No literary awards are coming its way, but it was a great easy read.

The Shadow of the Wind

It is after 2 am, apparently. Had I really been reading for that long? It hadn’t felt like it. I was still wide-awake, buzzing with excitement and adrenalin, having experienced a full spectrum of emotion. Two minutes ago, it had seemed, I had opened the final two hundred pages and told my self I would read till the end of the chapter. I was so mesmerised by the story, by its lucid writing, tragic heroes, evil villains, tragic villains and evil heroes, and mostly its unforgettable storyline, that I didn’t realise the hours that had passed. The page number became irrelevant, I was going to get the end and I did. When it was all over, I put the book down, disappointed, I hadn’t wanted it to end, but exhausted by the emotional veracity of its content.

This is a story of the tragedy of love, the hope of youth, the bleakness of age and the power of literature. The Shadow of the Wind is a story, within a story, where the sub-plots have sub-plots. It intertwines itself into a Barcelona of a different age, before the millions of tourists arrived and altered it forever. It is a reminder of how beautiful and moving literature can be. At times it makes you laugh, others it makes you cry, others it frightens you.

Combining brilliant story telling with memorable, vivid characters. Zafron’s majesty lies in the way he takes the reader deep into the lives of his characters. He makes us love them because we know their story.

We hope with them, we despair with them; we hold our breath knowing some of what comes next. Penelope, Julian, Miguel, Jacinta, Fumero, Nuria and Daniel are elevated because we know their story, their trials and hardships. Even Fumero, the novel’s main villain, has a tragic backstory. He is unable to let go of his past, of his lost love, of his sense of inferiority. He lashes all those around him, disloyal and savage, doing all he can to move up in the new world, so he can destroy the old world of which he was nothing.

Zafron doesn’t just show, he also tells; story after story, from the perspectives of the many different characters we come across, in evocatively written flashbacks.

He gives the characters a very authentic voice, especially the larger than life Fermin. Everything Fermin says feels his own, as opposed to that of a writer, moving a storyline along, shaping a character to his will.

It is easy to see now why millions have loved this book and why millions more will love it in the future.

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street

In an interview with the Telegraph Hilary Mantel expresses an ‘I told you so’ attitude about the current difficulties the west is facing in deal with extremism. Her frustration stems from an understanding she gained of these difficulties living in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for four years in the 1980s and in 1998 publishing a novel on it. 8 Months on Ghazzah Street is a tense, paranoid, brilliant novel about Frances and Andrew Shore who move to the city when Andrew gets a well paying job.

The novel moves at a simmering pace, carefully placing important pieces of information to keep the reader feeling tense and uncomfortable. The gun men on the street, the sobbing upstairs in the so called ’empty apartment’. Rumour and innuendo spread by ex-pats.

Mostly, through its riveting account of the suffocating existence for a woman, even a man, in the Kingdom. Women cannot drive, they cannot work. Alcohol is illegal. The religious police are constantly lurking in the background. The punishment for adultery is hanging for men, and stoning for women. Frances is assured by her neighbour Jasmin that the stones are a mere token and the woman is then shot. ‘I’m relived’, replies Frances. In these conversations the East-West divide provides the central premise of this book. The polarity of experience and sensibility between Jasmin and Frances cannot remain hidden. Frances cannot help but judge, and Jasmin becomes defensive. These two woman represent two very different ideals and values and while they may be calmly discussing it over ‘bitter-tea’, its ramifications are ones we continue to feel today. As Mantel notes the book explores the ‘vast gulf of misunderstanding between East and West. It was in those misunderstandings that extremism breeds, because the image of the West there was so black and so distorted.’

The final chapters are hair raising, but we won’t give them away. Note to readers, once you have completed the book, go back to the memorandum on the first page and check the dates. There is a nasty surprise in stall for you.

Thoughts on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with Dragon Tattoo is first and foremost a murder mystery. The major premise is the attempt by Mikhael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander to determine in 2003, what happened to Harriet Vanger, a young girl who disappeared off the family island in 1966.

At its behest though is a very powerful undercurrent about woman, the violence they experience, the frequency of this violence, and the infrequency of its reporting. That is what this highly popular novel is about.

First there is Lisbeth Salander, the novel’s titular character. She is declared mentally incompetent at 12 and for the next 10-12 years of her life has a legal guardian. When this legal guardian has a heart attack, the new legal guardian she is assigned uses this position to gain sexual favours from Lisbeth. First it is oral, shocking enough, then he rapes and sodomises her. These scenes are written in great detail, conclusively building a morose and macabre picture that leaves a permanent mark on any reader’s mind. Arguably the book’s most iconic moment comes when Lisbeth gets her revenge on her guardian. First she tasers him, ties him up, shows him that she had filmed him raping her and exacts demands from him. To top it all off, she tattoos onto his abdomen ‘I am a sadistic pig, a pervert and a rapist’.

Of course this is not in anyway believable. The probability of any raped woman exacting revenge in this way is minute to non-existent. One could even claim that her actions were above and beyond the pale, yet you do not feel any sympathy for her guardian. Even in that moment with the Tattoo needle in her arm, the reader is encouraging her to do it, in awe of her veracity.

What is perhaps more believable, more powerful, is what is found up on Hedeby Island. The central premise of the novel as already mentioned is the investigation, originally by Mikhael Blomkvist, later joined by Lisbeth, into what happened to Harriet Vanger. They are commissioned by the family patriarch, 82 year old Henrik Vanger to find out if she was murdered, escaped or committed suicide. Vanger believes it was the former.

Without going into too much detail about the case, Mikhael finds a diary Harriett kept of Bible verse numbers next to the initials of women that had been violently raped and killed in the 40s-60s. Eventually they figure out that these murders had been committed by Harriett’s father, Gottfried, and then continued by her brother Martin, the current head of the Vanger Corporation. Unlike his father, Martin chooses to discard the bodies he captures, rapes and then murders, in the ocean off the island. All of them foreigners. Easy to capture and murder without too many people snooping around and asking questions. It is quite chilling to listen to Martin speak of his activities with such clarity and seeming logic.

He does deny killing Harriett though and we later find that Harriett had not in fact been killed but rather escaped. She had found out that her father had killed several women, even taking Martin along to the previous murder. He used a quasi-religious method to justify his actions. She had killed her father when he drunkenly attempted to rape her violently one night, only to find that her brother was now following in his father’s footsteps. So she escaped and ended up in Australia on some farm north of Alice Springs.

One of the questions the novel leaves open to interpretation is whether Martin can be blamed entirely for his ways, or whether his father who introduced him to these acts should bare responsibility. Mikhael thinks Gottfried is the ultimate villain; Lisbeth doesn’t and angrily argues that Martin is ultimately responsible for his own actions. It is fascinating. Nature versus Nurture. Would Martin have turned out as he did had his father not existed? Does it even matter?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a brilliant and sobering read. Depressing yet ultimately triumphant. Lisbeth and Harriet despite what they go through find redemption in their own way. Harriett returns and takes over the company. Lisbeth brings down Martin Vanger and goes around helping women and the families of those affected by sexual violence. These women do not allow themselves to be defined by the injustice that befell them; rather they rise above it.

The irony being of course, as Larsson reminds us at the beginning of the last section of the book, the authorities are not notified. The truth is far too inconvenient.

The outside world is never made aware of their past, and it is this point above all else, despite the improbability of several storylines, that is the most believable and powerful.

2014: My Reading Year

2014 was my most productive reading year. As my library grows at an increasing rate, so must my reading if I’m going to keep up.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel was the best book I read all year. I read it in two periods over a couple of months. It was impossible to put down. Her writing is immersive and beautiful. Focusing on the rise of Thomas Cromwell in Henry VIII’s court, Mantel delves into the human mind and its frightening capacity for evil, which she finds even in the most innocuous conversation. Written in the third person, Cromwell is the ostensible narrator, simply known to the audience as ‘he’, even if sometimes it is unclear who ‘he’ is. I can’t wait to read the second book in the trilogy, Bringing Up the Bodies.

2014 I was introduced to a couple of well-known British Catholic writers, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Greene was the more arresting character, intensely religious, with a fairly flexible sexual morality. I read two of his books, the Power and the Glory, and the Captain and the Enemy. Both books take you to Latin America. The former set entirely in Mexico. His books are short yet intense, written with a rigid detachment, I look forward to reading more of Greene.

Brideshead Revisited a very famous work by Evelyn Waugh was one of the more enjoyable reads of the year. Waugh is considered a great linguist and I can understand why. His sentences are lucid and flow with ease. His characters are almost Dickensian, yet he imbues them with more depth than Dickens ever did.

Speaking of Dickens, Bleak House was his major contribution to my year. I’d watched the BBC series and felt I had to read the book and like all Dickens books I read, had I not seen the series, I would have been lost. Yet the book is remarkably vivid in its descriptions, a sense of being there in the moment of early 19th century England, not to mention Lady Deadlock who has to be the most fascinating character Dickens ever wrote.

Australian authors also contributed to my year, I read Christopher Koch’s Year of Living Dangerously, about a group of journalists living in Indonesia in 1965 under the anti-western rule of Sukarno. Billy Kwan is the emergent anti-hero, a dwarf, who keeps records of people, eventually attempts to assassinate Sukarno and gets killed in the process.

Eyrie by Tim Winton wasn’t my favourite, evidenced by the fact that it took me a while to finish a fairly easy read. Despite an exciting finish, the book wallows except for a few sentimental scenes between the main character, a disgraced former environmentalist, and his neighbour’s grandson.

One of the more intriguing novels this year was Donna Tart’s Goldfinch which I read at the start of the year. Long and detailed, it’s an absorbing story about a young boy that loses his mother in a terrorist attack at a museum. He steals a painting known as the Goldfinch and the painting serves as a metaphor for the rest of the book as he has difficulty letting go of his mother. It’s a novel that stays with you long after its completion. I expected to read a couple of chapters, yet the writing was so beautiful, I remember staying up till the early morning and having it complete in a couple of days.

Another of hers that I read later in the year was The Secret History. A rather depressing read, about a group of Greek learning university students who decide to kill one of their own. The first line establishes the melancholy, ‘This is the only story I will ever tell’. One thing about Tart to remember, she’s verbose and wants you to know it.

The Book Thief by Marcus Cuzak was the most experimental book I read all year. The narrator is death, rather depressingly, and the narrative focuses on the day to day life of a German family during the Second World War. Its experimental narrative ensures the work isn’t too preachy, yet still manages to get its point across, not to mention it’s extremely depressing ending. A brilliant book.

Robert Galbraith, or should I say JK Rowling debuted a crime novel which I read in 2014. A private investigator with only the one leg, is hired to investigate the death of a model, that police had ruled a suicide, by her brother. It was the most absorbing book I read this year. Like Harry Potter, Rowling has a keen eye for minute detail that slowly, but engagingly builds the story for the reader. The reveal of the murderer at the end was somewhat of a let down, and didn’t make complete sense, yet the process getting there was phenomenal.

From one famous author to another, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was a book I just had to read and boy am I glad I read it. I thought it would take me ages but I was wrong, just over a week, it was that difficult to put down.
Tolstoy’s story is dramatic yet filled with moments of realism that force the reader to pause and reflect. For example when Levin finds out that Dolly is sick, he is hunting birds, two fly over his head in that moment and he is distracted by them, before remembering that he was unhappy and why. Tolstoy gets into the minds of all his characters, even a dog at one stage, granting them great depth. I plan on returning to it.

Politics is never too far away and I was very excited when a political thriller from two Australian journalists, Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis, whom I admire was released. It’s a sequel to a work they wrote a couple years ago. Titled the Mandarin Code, the work recreates Australian politics with a satirical take that is both hilarious and frighteningly accurate. The book also focuses on the difficult Australian balancing act between China and the U.S. I recommend reading both books. Can’t wait for the third.

Fantasy fiction is a favourite of mine.

I finally began the Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. The story is engrossing, and certainly worthy, the world loaded with depth and detail, not to mention magic and enchantment. Yet the writing is a let down. Long winded and clunky, the books could be almost half the size with a leaner writer, and be just as good. I hope to have a few more of them finished by the end of the year, after all there are 14 books!

I’m in the process of re-reading the Lord of the Rings, don’t get me started on how much I love Tolkien. It’s even better the second time around.

I read the Da Vinci Code for the first time….the less we say about that the better.

2014 was also the year of non-fiction. There was much Australian non-fiction to enjoy. Paul Kelly’s Triumph and Demise on the six years of Labor was brilliant. A totem on how not to run a government.

John Howard’s the Menzies Era, focusing on the 23 years of Liberal Party rule between 1949-1972, sought to challenge the perception that the Liberals did nothing for the 23 years they were in Government. A brilliant read.

Afternoon Light by Robert Menzies, a book I had to get off Amazon, was something I’d longed to read. In it Menzies articulated his political philosophy and defended his political legacy, notably his contested leadership during the early years of the Second World War. The book proves what an accomplished writer he was.

Menzies appears a fair bit in 2014, a book by his daughter Heather Henderson, focuses on her father’s personality and character. A more intimate and wholistic image of our longest serving Prime Minister is emerging.

Bob Carr’s somewhat controversial, Diary of a Foreign Minister is a very well written insight into what life in Foreign Affairs is like. It also provided an insight into the elitist, yet cunning politician Bob Carr is/was.

Julia Gillard’s My Story was also an important book published this year. Gillard wrote a highly selective account of her Prime Ministership, unable to acknowledge her errors, portraying Kevin Rudd as mentally unstable to justify her move against him. To her credit, most of the book was about policy and the reasons behind her decision making. Unfortunately Gillard was unable to show this as Prime minister.

Another political tome, is He Who Must be Obeid, about Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid and the trail of corruption he left behind. It’s truly depressing, yet sometimes I got the impression that the writers, notable journalists Kate McGlymont and Lynton Besser, were so keen at portraying Obeid as evil they try and find something wrong in everything he does. Nonetheless Eddie attempted to rig a tender license, of that there could be no doubt.

The centenary anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War was this year and it provided much discussion and publication. I read two books on the reasons behind the war (and countless other articles and watched countless documentaries). It has to be one of the most fascinating periods in history. The first book July 1914: Countdown to War by Sean Mckmeekin provides a day by day recount of the diplomatic wrangles from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand to the final declaration of war between Austria and Russia. It’s intense and detailed, displaying how diplomatic incompetence contributed to the war, especially in Austria-Hungary and the eagerness with which the great powers clung to their alliances.
The superior work is Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark. It is breathtakingly brilliant and detailed. Shattering illusions about the war, highlighting the role Serbia played and providing a detailed account of the pre-war years. In fact Clark begins the story in 1903, when the Serbian Monarch was overthrown and replaced. He can be a little too pro-German in his analysis. Doesn’t criticise Germany’s decision to invade neutral Belgium enough, almost excusing it as ‘well if they hadn’t, the French would have’. Yet the story provides brilliant analysis and anecdotes of some of the European characters of the time. The most vivid to emerge is Kaiser Whilem II, who Clark portrays as a somewhat childish leader, in constant need of affirmation.

Charles Moore is a prominent conservative commentator in England and was selected by Margaret Thatcher to write her biography. Part 1: Not For Turning, published shortly after her death, is brilliant. Amazingly researched, Moore rises above partisanship and writes with remarkable balance. Provides Thatcher’s early years with skin and bones, explores the shaping of her political philosophies, her unexpected and lucky rise to the top, her economic policies, culminating in England’s victory in the Falklands War. The chapters on the Falklands War are thriller like and the best part of the biography. The chapters on economic reform were too dense for my mind. I await Part 2.

The most moving book I read in 2014, was Dear Leader. A book written by a North Korean deserter Jan Jin-Sung, it details the poverty and oppression of the North Korean state. Some of the chapters on the poverty are heart breaking and stay with you. What elevates this story further, is the fact that Jin-Sung was a senior propagandist for the Kim-Regime. He reveals details about the way the Government functions that until now many western readers would never have known. Ofcourse we cannot know if the details are correct, yet they are impressively detailed and therefore must have some truth.

Here’s to a greater 2015.

Vivid Imagery

The skull was shattered open, blood and intellect, spluttering out. So long constrained, now free to move as they choose, their services no longer required. The jaw broken, on the verge of tearing from the rest of the face, the nose a fountain flowing blood. The body, moments earlier seated upright in the swarthy black executive office chair, lay slumped sideways, upper body hanging off the left edge, right hand thumb caught inside a cleft in the broken skull. The legs spread apart, pants filling with blood. Carpet, chair, desk, all red with liquid. A silver frame, hanging behind the desk, of a newspaper front page ‘Peace Ensured’ was splashed in gore, slowly dripping down the frame.

Dear Leader: North Korea’s Senior Propagandist Exposes Shocking Truths Behind The Regime

The title is slightly misleading. Jang Jin-Sung was one of the senior North Korean propagandists, not the most senior.  However it seems oddly appropriate for a book about North Korea to be misleading in its title.

As a senior propagandist he writes poems about the Dear Leader, under the pseudonym of a South Korean poet espousing the virtues of the North Korean state against the ‘tyranny’ of the South state which until 1987 was a military dictatorship.

Jin-Sung’s rise through the ranks, convinces him that almost everything he has been taught to believe was false. He becomes increasingly disillusioned with the regime. In 2004, he decides to flee the state with a friend, when authorities find that he has been sharing private Western literature with those who don’t have the clearance to view such content.

The books details his journey from North Korea into China and eventually into South Korea. It is at times a thriller, other times a political history.

It is filled with shocking and detailed information about the Kim family regime. It is almost impossible to go into detail in a review because any subtraction in detail would detract from the powerfully woven revelations about the state.

Most shocking for me was Jin-Sung’s return to the province he grew up in. Set during the North Korean famine of the 90’s, the province had been reduced to a place of poverty and death. In fact the people so poor and death so common, local party officials were paying desperately poor people to remove the bodies of dead beggars from the streets.

The plight of a local family that Jin-Sung knew as a child was heartbreaking. Living off the residue produced when rice is boiled and saving the rice for as long as possible.

Public trials are a farce. Accusations are read out by army personnel, judgements given immediately and death by the firing squad performed publicly in the market for all to see. Not that anybody can afford anything sold at the market.

It is impossible to read these sections passively.

As as a Western reader, i’m most shocked by the extent to which North Korea controls the thoughts and actions of its people. I have difficulty comprehending it.

The cult of personality which surrounds the Dear Leader is nothing short of incredible.

When Jin-Sung meets Dear Leader Kim Jong-il he is shocked to see that his feet swell. He had been taught that the Dear Leader was a semi-god. Did not get sick or even use the toilet. He was the perfection that all North Korean’s must aspire to. It is here that Jin-Sung begins to question the truth of his regime.

North Korean’s must feel an un-abiding  love for the Dear Leader that overrides their love for any person or any object. When a woman comes to his rescue in China, he is shocked when she explains to him what a ‘fiancé’ is and describes him as her ‘honey’ or ‘love’. He is stunned to hear somebody publicly acknowledge her love for another person and not the Dear Leader.

There are many more powerful stories that permeate this book. The kidnapping of Japanese and South Korean children so they can be raised sympathetic to the regime. Mother’s selling their children, because as they will most likely die from starvation, at least there is somebody to look after her children.

While media coverage focuses on North Korean rhetoric, its power struggles and Kim Jong-Un’s haircut, this book refocuses our attention to the horror and desolation the North Korean people suffer at the hands of its regime.