Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog LAND OF RED MIST by John Dolan (@JohnDolanAuthor) Historical and colonial fiction set in Malaya and a father’s letter to his son #historicalfiction #Bookreview

Hi all:

I bring you the newest book by one of my favourite writers, John Dolan.

Land of Red Mist by John Dolan

Land of Red Mist by John Dolan

What is loyalty? What drives a person to treachery? And what do we really mean when we say we love someone?

Seeking to escape the stifling atmosphere of post-war England, the callow Edward Braddock voyages to South-East Asia to work on his uncle’s rubber plantation. But it soon becomes clear that beneath the tropical sky dangers await; and most especially in the depths of the human heart.

Set in the strife-torn Malaya of the 1950s during the end days of British rule, Land of Red Mist is a tale of yearning, folly and transformation.

Author John Dolan

About the author:

“Makes a living by travelling, talking a lot and sometimes writing stuff down. Galericulate author, polymath and occasional smarty-pants.”

John Dolan hails from a small town in the North-East of England. Before turning to writing, his career encompassed law and finance. He has run businesses in Europe, South and Central America, Africa and Asia. He and his wife Fiona currently divide their time between Thailand and the UK.

He is the author of the ‘Time, Blood and Karma‘ mystery series and the ‘Children of Karma‘ mystery trilogy.

My review:

I have been checking, and I think I’ve read and reviewed most of the books John Dolan has published so far (I haven’t had a chance to catch up with his Baking Bad, supposedly a collection of notes from his diary, but I’m sure I’ll get round to it soon), and have enjoyed everything: his adventures into mythology, his peculiar and irreverent dictionary, and most of all, his two related mystery series, Time, Blood and Karma, and Children of Karma. Therefore, it is always with trepidation that I receive the news of the publication of another one of his books. I have never been disappointed yet. And I wasn’t this time either.

For those who don’t have much time, here is a summary of my review: A great historical novel set in Malaya in the final years before its independence, about a character who encompasses both, the best and the worse of British colonialism, and a good opportunity to get a taste of Dolan’s writing for those who haven’t read his two mystery series. The action of this book takes place before those, so it can function as a peculiar kind of prequel to both, although it also closes the circle and provides some answers for those that, like me, have read them all.

Those who have read Dolan’s two previous mystery series, set mostly in Thailand, will remember that in the last book of Children of Karma, Everyone Dies, David Braddock, the protagonist, is given his father’s diary upon the man’s passing. And he hesitates a great deal before reading it because their relationship was never the best. Eventually, he reads it. Well, this is that book. And, tagged at the end, we also get to read the letter Edward Braddock wrote to accompany the diary. This is a diary written a posteriori, not something Edward wrote when things were happening, and although it is written in the first-person, as it befits a diary, it is clear that some things are glossed over and some are discussed in more detail, in order to compose the narrative he wishes to pass on. It is written in chronological order, however, it does not cover the whole of Edward’s life, but rather centres around the years he spent in Malaya, with some brief mention of his childhood (to do mostly with the time when he met his uncle Seb, who plays a big part in the novel later). Edward is fascinated by his uncle and by life in the exotic colonies, compared to the boring life his father leads, always buried in formality, bureaucracy, and convention. One of his goals throughout most of the novel is to keep away from the UK, and he goes to some extremes to try to ensure that is the case, even when he knows the end of British rule is near, and the political situation in Malaya is likely to change drastically.

This is a story of a young man who is intelligent and eager to pick up the skills necessary to make a living in Malaya, always under the wing of his uncle, and he seems to pay little attention to the risks of the situation, to the life of others around him, or to the concerns his own family might have. He is a good worker (but, then, he works in a supervisory position from the beginning and takes many things for granted), but his main concern is for himself, and for trying to be in his father’s good books without having to do exactly what his father wants from him. He is confronted with issues of loyalty from the very beginning (he is supposed to spy on his uncle and make sure he doesn’t get too cozy with the guerilla fighters, as he fought during WWII with some of them against the Japanese); and he somehow manages to keep himself afloat without upsetting the status quo. He shares characteristics of both, his father and his uncle, and overall, he is more conventional than his uncle, although he loves to think of himself as an adventurous individual, and an independent thinker.

This novel has some characteristics of a coming-of-age story, as Edward learns plenty throughout the book, about himself, his feelings, and what really matters. It is also a confession and a posthumous attempt to make things right with his son. And, although late, I must admit that especially the letter, is a very touching piece of writing.

I have talked about Edward at length, and I must confess that although I was fascinated by his life, I didn’t particularly warm to him. His is a mostly utilitarian point of view, and he had to be challenged to try and see things from anybody else’s perspective. He makes some disparaging comments about his father, but sometimes he acts in the same way, and he takes many things as a given and as a right, just because he is who he is. I won’t go into a lot of detail about what happens to him later, but let’s just say his life does not remain charmed forever, and his reaction is… complicated but understandable. Seb is a fabulous character, and I kept wondering how a novel about him would be (Hint, hint!). Although we don’t learn much about Jeanne, Edward’s sister, who also decides to try life in the colonies, I became very intrigued by her. (Yes, I wouldn’t mind learning more about her either). And Yu Yan. And Elizabeth. I’d love to get her own version of the story. Because there is a marriage, but romance… Not so much. There are plenty of other characters, all seen from Edward’s perspective, some heroic, some standard, some mysterious, and some truly horrid. And, perhaps the most important character of all is Malaya. The historical background, the international political situation, the fights, the changes the world was undergoing at the time, and the turmoil, all make for a compelling story, and this is a great way to learn about that historical period and gain a good perspective of what life must have been like in the area, especially for the Europeans living in the colonies. (There are only passing glances at what life was like for the natives).

Loyalty to the family, to your friends, and to your country (what and who really deserves your loyalty) are questioned, as are family relationships, betrayal, love, and respect, colonialism and independence, romance and love, fatherhood, blame, grief, revenge…

The book flows well and the writing style suits perfectly what we imagine would be the diary of a well-educated and travelled Englishman of the period, somebody well-informed in politics (he learns about it as he grows older), convinced of his own opinions although with some moments of hesitation and self-doubt, a good observer but not given to lengthy descriptions, rather preferring to write about the impression something makes on him. He can be witty at times, although he is not as given to philosophising or turning things on their heads as his son David is. The story is told at a good pace, it flows easily, and there are enough adventures to keep us turning the pages. Towards the end, the rhythm increases, and it is harder to keep up. Although the book is not explicit in its violence (and there is no graphic sex either), there are scary moments and some violence we are direct witnesses to (and some that are narrated second-hand), so people who prefer to avoid such subjects, should stay away.

As an example of the writing, here you have Edward’s description of his father:

My father, George Nathaniel Braddock, was by contrast a pillar of the British Establishment, a ramrod-backed soldier of the state and all that it represented: traditional values, deference to legal authority, moral superiority, and an unquestioning belief in the rightness of the Anglo-Saxon cause.

In case you wonder about the title:

The presence of jungle and swamp along parts of the route made the conditions ideal for ambushes: insurgents could wait patiently for a suitable target, then afterwards evaporate into the interior “like red mist” in the words of one of my fellow soldiers.

And here, his uncle Seb, talks about Edward’s father:

It is not blood that runs through George’s veins, Edward, but duty.

I have mentioned the letter that accompanies the novel, and it went a long way to make me make my peace with the main character, a man who lacked self-awareness but had to face some extreme and painful events in his life, and whose final words to his son are not a self-justification, but something much more beautiful.

Having said all that, I recommend this book to anybody keen on historical fiction set in Malaya post-WWII towards the end of the British home rule, to any fans of John Dolan, and to those who would like to discover a talented writer with a flair for combining great locations, with unforgettable characters, and complex plots that will keep them thinking.

 Thanks to the author for his new novel, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to share, click, comment, and like, and never, ever stop smiling and enjoying every single minute of life. ♥


Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview Surviving the Death Railway: A Pow’s Memoir and Letters from Home by Hilary Custance Green (@HilaryCustanceG) A touching reminder of the people behind the history books and a well-deserved memorial

Hi all:

As I told you I’ve accumulated a lot of reviews that I haven’t had a chance to share yet. Today, I bring you a book I read recently (I’m afraid there won’t be a lot of order on how I share the reviews either). A fellow blogger (Hilary Custance Green) contacted me to ask me if I would be interested in reviewing a non-fiction book. As you know, I read and review mostly fiction books, but I’ve read many non-fiction books in my life, for my studies or personal interest, and when she explained her project, I couldn’t resist. Through her book, I got in contact with a very interesting publishing company from Barnsley, South Yorkshire, a stone throw away from where I live and with a great and varied catalogue. They kindly sent me a hardback copy of the book and I read it on my recent trip to Paris. Although I don’t mention it on the review, the book (that’s also available in digital copy) is filled with maps, photos of the letters, and pictures of the people it talks about, so a paper copy is a good investment.

And no more blah, blah, blah…

Surviving the Death Railway. A PlW's Memoir and Letters from Home Edited by HIlary Custance Green
Surviving the Death Railway. A PlW’s Memoir and Letters from Home Edited by Hilary Custance Green

Surviving the Death Railway: A Pow’s Memoir and Letters from Home by Hilary Custance Green

The ordeals of the POWs put to slave labour by their Japanese masters on the ‘Burma Railway’ have been well documented yet never cease to shock. It is impossible not to be horrified and moved by their stoic courage in the face of inhuman brutality, appalling hardship and ever-present death. While Barry Custance Baker was enduring his 1000 days of captivity, his young wife Phyllis was attempting to correspond with him and the families of Barry’s unit. Fortunately, these moving letters have been preserved and appear, edited by their daughter Hilary, in this book along with Barry’s graphic memoir written after the War. Surviving the Death Railway’s combination of first-hand account, correspondence and comment provide a unique insight into the long nightmare experienced by those in the Far East and at home. The result is a powerful and inspiring account of one of the most shameful chapters in the history of mankind which makes for compelling reading.

This is the link to the hardback copy in

This to the digital one:

Here in

In my review, I share the publisher’s site, where you can also get a copy:

Thanks to Hilary Custance Green (who edited part of her family history and that of many others) and to Katie Eaton from Pen & Sword Books Limited  ( for sending me a paperback copy of this book that I freely choose to review.

As a reader, when it comes to stories about the war, I’ve always been more interested in the individuals (both in the front and back home) than in the way the battles were fought. I had heard, read, and mostly watched TV programmes and movies about Japanese war camps (I won’t forget Tenko in a hurry).  Probably lots of people have. This book provides the personal experience of a family whose lives were affected and transformed by the war. We get to know Barton (Barry) Custance Baker, born in Malaya, before the war; we later learn of his marriage to Phyllis and then we follow him all the way back to Malaya and read on as he becomes father and prisoner of war. We also read (thanks to the correspondence of the period, some that reached its destination and some that didn’t) about Phyllis’s life, the thoughts of those left back home and the way they tried to hang on to hope.

The book combines letters from Barry to Phyllis about his life in the East, most of the time not sure if any of them would make it to his wife, letters from Phyllis to Barry, trying to keep up his spirits with news about their son, Robin, and his family, and the diary Barry wrote, containing more details about his time abroad, although always trying to emphasise the positive and understate the difficulties. The combination of these narratives creates a complex and complementary testimony of the varied experiences of the war for those on both sides of the conflict, such as the difficulty of being away and separated from those you love for years, missing the early years of a son you hardly know and worrying that you might no longer know your partner when you go back (or when they come back), and contrasting the often mistaken ideas and thoughts about what the other party might be enduring.

Barry’s parents thought he would be bored as a PoW, never imagining he would be building a railway line, the Thailand-Burma railway, appropriately called Death Railway, as it cost so many lives (not only British). That he, as an officer, might be engaged in heavy labouring work, starved and ill did not enter their imagination.

Barry also had little concept of life back home and did not have news of his parents’ move to San Francisco to help with radio transmissions in Malayan or later, of the death of his younger brother, John. He imagines there might be some restrictions and even danger, but not how unsettling the lack of news was.

Barry’s efforts trying to ensure he kept track of his men and that he did all he could to keep them safe were echoed by those made by Phyllis, who tried her hardest to create a network of information to share any news between the relatives and friends of the men in her husband’s unit, sending encouraging letters, and even creating a dossier with as much data as possible about all the men, to facilitate the task of the War Office in identifying and reporting their fate.

The book is extraordinary too because it clearly shows the tireless efforts they all made to try and keep in touch at a time when communication with each other wasn’t only a click away, and when sometimes years might pass without any news of the other person (and in the best case scenario the news might be years old by the time they get it). Forget about 140 characters on Twitter. The rules of their communication kept changing and at some point they could only send 25 words to their loved one, and that included the date. And the best they could hope for was a prewritten card with only a few words added by hand.

If physically the experiences are very different (although not full of gross details, we get a clear sense of the trials and suffering the men had to endure), mentally, the toll of the lack of information, of the separation and the impotence is clear on both sides. And those letters of mothers, girlfriends, uncles, asking for information about their loved ones, sharing the good and bad news, but always trying to encourage the other person, no matter what their lot has been, are impossible to forget. Even the replies to Phyllis request for particulars about the men convey so much more than what is written. It is amazing how a few words to describe somebody can be so full of feeling and be so touching, and how much they say about unspoken emotions.

As readers, we can but share in the feelings, and are touched by the hopes, anxieties, and stress of the situation. We are given an extraordinary insight into the lives of people whom we might have known, and who could have been our neighbours, friends, or family. We read about their joy at the impending reunion and their wish to get to know each other (and the worry that they might no longer recognise or like the persons they have become). Barry and Phyllis become our ersatz family and we’re happy to learn they had more children and lived happy and fulfilling lives. I was particularly moved by a moment towards the end of Barry’s life when he’s ill in hospital and for a moment believes he’s back at the camp. When his daughter (Hilary) explains to him what has happened since and he realises he’s ill and dying but has lived a full life he says ‘I’ll settle for that’. I hope we all can say that when our time comes.

Hilary Custance Green, the editor of the book, and Barry and Phyllis’s daughter has found the way of letting the letters and the diary tell the story, with very little explanation or unnecessary interference, other than minimal clarifications or explanations when needed. The material is powerful enough in its own right. She has done a great job and the book is a great memorial not only to her parents but also to all the men and women who went through the experience. At the end of the book, there is a call to anybody who might have information about families of members of the Men of 27 Line Section to get in touch with the editor. Don’t forget to pass the message on if you know anybody connected to the men or with contacts who might have more information.

In summary, this is a fantastic book for those interested in World War II, both from the point of view of war action and of the home front, those interested in stories about PoW, tales of human bravery, valour, endurance and the heroism of extraordinary ‘ordinary’ people. Don’t miss this book and don’t forget to pass it on to anybody who might have known a member of the unit.

Here a bit about the editor of this fantastic book:

Author, editor Hilary Custance Green
Author, editor Hilary Custance Green

Hilary Custance Green was born in England, but had a European childhood, including two years at the top of the rock of Gibraltar and four years in a Belgian convent. She studied languages at school but was determined to become a sculptor. After her first degree, in Fine Arts at UEA, she went to St Martins in London and pursued her dream, working as a sculptor for twenty years while also getting married and having children.

She became fascinated by the brain and studied Psychology at the Open University, followed by a PhD at Cambridge University looking at Attention mechanisms in the brain. It was during this period that she started writing fiction. She found the contrast between the direct, clean arguments of academic writing and the rich, sensation-laden prose of fiction highly enjoyable.

Hilary aims to write entertaining, read-in-bed fiction, yet her books also look honestly and realistically at how individuals cope with what life throws at them. In 2003 Hilary’s first novel, A Small Rain, was published. She was interested in the way our social life is scattered, so you might practise music with one set of friends, take Spanish lessons with another and the confusion that can result when these groups meet. A Small Rain also looked at the way grief disrupts life and music and poetry can act as consolations.

Unseen Unsung was published in 2008 (with the eBook version appearing in July 2014). This opens in the ruins of a building and looks at the courage of ordinary individuals in extraordinary circumstances. In this book, Hilary allowed her passion for music free rein but always making it accessible to non-musicians.

In December 2014 her latest novel, Border Line, will come out in both print and eBook format. This is a love story set in Slovenia, yet it also explores the dilemmas of living with guilt and choosing suicide and the vexed subject of assisted dying.

Hilary is also working on an exciting non-fiction project about Far East POWs in WWII. She has hundreds of letters written during WWII between a young couple and also from the wives and mothers of men imprisoned in the Far East. She wants to tell, using their own words, the story of separation and survival, hope and heartbreak that so many of our parents and grandparents lived through.

To see more about Hilary go to her website at or visit her blog at

I asked the author/editor, in case any of the readers knew somebody who might have information about the Men of 27 Line Section and she suggested it might be worth checking this post on her blog for more information. And don’t forget her website.

Thanks so much to Hilary Custance Green and to Pen and Sword Books Limited for this opportunity, thanks to all of you for reading and remember to like, share, comment and CLICK!

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