The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

My friend Douglas Burcham has created an innovative scheme for evaluating books using what he calls the five E’s.

  • Engrossing and interesting
  • Enjoyment and entertainment
  • Emotional
  • Educational
  • Ease of reading

Douglas reads widely – contemporary, historical, non-fiction – long books and short ones – books from around the world. He was on the blog almost exactly one year ago as part of a series of reader interviews.

In keeping with Tuesday’s post, Perspectives on Book Reviews, the five E’s form an excellent backbone to support a review, what James Parker calls “the aesthetic criteria by which the critique is being made”.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard FlanaganRecently, Douglas applied the five E’s to Richard Flanagan‘s novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2014. A brief synopsis:

August, 1943: Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. His life, in a brutal Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma Death Railway, is a daily struggle to save the men under his command. Until he receives a letter that will change him forever.
A savagely beautiful novel about the many forms of good and evil, of truth and transcendence, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost.

How does The Narrow Road to the Deep North stand up to the five E’s?

Engrossing and interesting – Past 100 pages more so becoming a strong page turner one not knowing what would come next or where the story would end up. After 50 pages I could have put aside but on reaching 100 pages the book starts to find its legs.

Enjoyment and entertainment – Given the subject not a book to score highly under this heading. There was enjoyment in reading the book as a heavy hard cover rather than an e-book.

Emotional – One became bound up with the character’s lives in war and in love and marriage pre and post war. Memories of Dr Zhivago sprang into my mind as the book neared its end. 

Educational – Much interesting new information about WW2 and the war with Japan.

Ease of reading – The solid strong writing was not the easiest of reads but flowed well, despite some very deep description and different time frames, making the book hard to put down.

Summary thoughts: Despite the lack of enough punctuation and proof reading, I found the book a powerful and strong reading experience even forcing me to stop reading until the following day in a couple of places because his wartime descriptions were so graphic. I regard books like this as semi-fiction, the book being based on the war time experiences of the author’s father and I suspect much more of his life. 

Although I have read widely in fiction and non-fiction about the WW2 conflict with Japan and generally prefer factual accounts, the history told here from several viewpoints was both shocking and interesting in giving a better understanding of the Japanese psyche. One to be kept in my bookshelves. Well worth a read … and for me a reread in due course.

Many thanks for your contribution, Douglas!

Douglas Burcham started writing on 1st June 2010 and has not stopped since. He was saved from the clutches of vanity publishing by Mick Rooney in TIPM in July 2010. In May 2013 his characters, including his fantasy twin brother Alexander, took all his fiction writing and set themselves up as the Allrighters with other writing friends. They self-published a book of short stories “Ywnwab!” in September 2013. In their latest Plan, by working in 18,000 word bites, Douglas, along with the Allrighters, are now trying to convert a million words of draft writing completed in January 2014 into several reader friendly books totalling 900,000 words of fiction and 100,000 words of non-fiction. The latter being about writing and memories of buildings, trains, boats and planes. Progress is slow as Douglas and the Allrighters prefer new creative writing to editing and restructuring existing writing. He enjoys composing a monthly contribution to the TIPM blog under the heading ‘Writing and Reading for Pleasure’.


A Reader of History – Douglas Burcham

Douglas Burcham found A Writer of History last summer and ever since has been offering suggestions and wonderful encouragement as I published Unravelled and then conducted my survey. Douglas has also been going through the self-publishing cycle. Written in collaboration with his fantasy twin brother Alexander (a frequent commenter on my blog) and guest writers from writing groups, his book of short stories Ywnwab! came out last September.

Douglas reads and writes with the Allrighters. This post appears on his web site and blog

Many thanks for all your support, Douglas!

A Reader of History

After I started writing fiction in June 2010, I found a strong recommendation on a web site to read Stephen King’s On Writing. The book justifies the referral and I took King’s advice about reading widely, not to plagiarise but to absorb the atmosphere and ways of storytelling. Since 2010 I have tried to work through at least a book a week thereby reading ten times as many words as I write each year. Even then I know I am hardly scratching the surface of the millions of fiction books available.

In a Christmas-time discussion with my first professional editor, we talked about what might form good advice to new and old writers, as we are both putting together short books on the subject: his from many years of writing and publishing experience and mine a new writer’s petulant view from my last 43 months, before I become conditioned into the entrenched thinking of the established literary world.

I contend the three most important elements of a good book are similar to property purchases with the location, location, location mantra becoming … story, story, story. A good story badly told is, in my view, better than a bad story perfectly told – showing not telling and the rest of the technical ways in vogue. Reading, in my view, gives a writer the strongest clues about what makes a book which the world may want to read. I accept all jokes need to be told well to succeed … if only I could.

Having nearly completed my target of writing a million draft words in three years, set in July 2010, I am about to set off in 2014 on a long self-edit and restructuring of my past writing, based on the magical elements and ways used in books I like reading.

Since 2010 I do not think my plotting and story creation have improved, but with all the actual writing, and particularly the added reading, I believe I am in a much better position to produce books readers may want to read.

Over Christmas I have also taken a view of my reading over the last three and a half years. I realise my memories of books read have been crowded out by history titles. Because of this I feel this post as A Reader of History is an appropriate flip side to Mary’s awriterofhistory blog.

There are so many books to read and, given the wide choice, this has made me a fickle, demanding, critical and sometimes cynical and disloyal reader. Why do I read?

  • For enjoyment of all books, except those with grim content.
  • Entertainment mostly in quick 24 hour easy read thrillers, the snacks of reading.
  • For interest and education books with a good technical or historic background in the last century, often banquets of reading.

As I write this post my instant reading memories of 2013 out of sixty or so books I ploughed through are three factual books.

  • one medical Why Bipolar? By Declan Henry,
  • another No Easy Day about a killing or assassination (you can choose which)
  • a biography of Bernie Ecclestone, a self-made man.

The AllrightersOED – History. – The branch of knowledge which deals with human events. The formal record or study of past events, especially human affairs.

Based on this definition, a surprise for me – all these factual books slip onto my bookshelf as A Reader of History. I found the characters and their modern history all interesting and educational.

These memories are followed by five fiction titles I regard as serious fiction, each a banquet of reading, all with an historical background in the last century.

Never Forget – Angela Petch

In this book I felt very close in my own memories with the main female lead character telling the story of her brothers’ receiving the family inheritance on their mother’s death and her being left with a box of old letters in Italian and a collection of photos. I found myself on her shoulder, being taken back to Italy under German occupation and two romances, one in wartime and another in the present.

The main lesson to me as a writer was the intimacy Angela created between me as the reader and the main character in her telling of her story.

I read this to the end on Kindle, always a stern test of a book for me as I probably stop reading more Kindle books than others, because I do not really like electronic reading and its detrimental effect on my tired old eyes. A hard cover, large print book of about 500 pages is my ideal read.

Unravelled – M.K. Tod

I found the awriterofhistory blog and this book through a post by Mary on Mick Rooney’s Independent Publishing Magazine web site about marketing books. I am not really into families and romance and again I read the book on my Kindle, so reaching the end gives great credit to the book. The WW1 information about signals, details of the Canadian War Memorial – including the Mother Canada figure and the excellent crafting of the uncertainty of the times of not knowing the result of WW2 and the pressure on family members created by service were all memorable. The book links a family and WW1 to WW2. I look forward to Lies told in Silence … a title to raise reader’s hopes of a good read.

I prefer to read non fiction books about the sharp end of war and have previously shied away from fiction, apart from Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks, about WW1. Unravelled awakened my interest in more war fiction books, including my current read The Yellow Birds, which although fiction reads as a grim autobiography. From the incidental closeness of these two titles a stray thought occurs to me about birds and war. 

Turning Point – Calvin Hedley – To be published in 2014.

I had the good fortune to read this draft book of c100,000 words as an advance reader able to comment on the content of the book in substance and detail. I read the book twice. The action takes place in 1940 and 1982 and is built around a pivotal moment in WW2, involving secrets, aircraft, Hitler and Churchill. I believe it has the makings of a good film as well as a book. Calvin has helped me with my own writing, especially with my awful grammar and punctuation. His achievement is even greater because he is blind.

The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Ing

My wife had been urged to read this book by friends and when it turned up in our house from the library, I started to read the first few pages and did not stop until completion the following day, a short sub-loan. I usually take time reading serious fiction, but this demanded my undivided attention. The ingredients were good. Malaya in the 1940s at the time of the Communist insurgency, with flashbacks to Japanese occupation, and near the end a surprise technical analysis of something seen in every day life.

To me the key to my pleasure reading this book centred on the delightful way the often horrific story was told and the two timeframes, current and flashbacks to the past. I will have to read it again.

Winter – Len Deighton

He chose a huge canvas from before 1900 to 1945 on which to paint twentieth-century history and a family story. Several sub plots, so his story kept me reading. Of necessity a slow read, stopping for breath and reflection on descriptions of everyday events taking precedence over horror, the characters seemingly unfeeling. An unsatisfactory ending to me and at the time I could not think of a better one! I can now. One knew in advance the end of the story of Hitler and the Third Reich but not the fate of all the characters. The story of events in Germany put another slant on the history of WW2 for me and provided many new insights. I will have to read it again.

All sound like wonderful novels, Douglas. I’m honoured that you chose to include Unravelled and look forward to our ongoing dialogue as we both strive to become better writers! I applaud the concept of A Reader of History.