Book Review: Burma ’44, by James Holland

Available in bookshops nationwide

cv_burma44A photo caption, “Every man had to dig himself a hole in the ground” almost sums up the nature of the Battle of the Admin Box, as told in James Holland’s astonishing account of a crucial but forgotten battle fought by a “ragtag collection of clerks, drivers, doctors and muleteers….” that saved Britain’s 14th Army – the forgotten army of the war against Japan.

After many disasters and an almost total loss of faith, the British in 1944 were planning the retaking of Burma, the hard way, across the Indian Border and through the jungle. They were under new command with General Slim supported by the newly arrived Commander and Chief of the all forces in the East, Earl Mountbatten. Everything was going according to plan with a careful build-up of well-trained men, veterans from many other fronts such as Alamein. Food, ammunition and most importantly top quality fighter aircraft, Spitfires, were all available and ready to go.

But the Japanese had other ideas. They wanted to invade and conquer India. And they moved first, catching the British, who were preparing to go on the offensive, by surprise. Their path lay through Arakan, in North West Burma, an area of dense tropical forest with heavy rain and sweltering heat, making conditions very difficult. The area was defended by units of the 5th and 7th Divisions of the Indian Army, a collection of many nationalities and faiths.

The real focus of this book is what became known as the Battle of Admin Box. But is not until Part Two on Page 161, that the amazing story of this battle begins to be told in detail.
Prior to that, James Holland skillfully develops the context of the battle that took place over those few fateful days in February 1944.

Part one is really a tale of how the Britain’s Indian Army of the Raj, an army basically of occupation, was turned by defeat, retreat and humiliation into one that was well led, trained and resourced with modern equipment; that had learned how to fight, had discovered that Japanese soldiers were not superhuman and by withstanding and winning a most brutal and murderous assault, eventually triumphed.

There were later, bigger battles, at Imphal and Kohima which have had considerably more attention by historians. But perhaps for the War on the Indian sub-continent it can be said that the Battle at Shazeya was, as someone said of another battle, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”. And it was not even fought by a majority of trained soldiers but a “ragtag…”

Readers, taking up this book, would be well advised to observe carefully its construction. Get a clear understanding of the maps before starting and also of “The Cast,” noting that there are no footnotes but lots of quotations from officers and soldiers. References to these are found at the back, along with an order of battle, timeline, glossary and comprehensive index.

The story is actually told by “The Cast” from their own diaries, letters and oral histories, skillfully woven into a comprehensive account of events.

This book is good, modern military history: very readable.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

Burma ‘44: The Battle that Turned Britain’s War in the East
by James Holland
Published by Bantam Press
ISBN: 9780593075869

Book Review: The Widow, by Fiona Barton

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_widowFiona Barton brings her skills as a journalist into her storytelling, gripping the reader with every turn of the page.

After over 2 years in the limelight of a police investigation, her husband Glen Taylor is dead. He has been knocked over by a bus. On the surface, Jean Taylor appears to be the perfect grieving widow; turning on tears at the appropriate moment and answering questions from the police in way that almost seems rehearsed.

Glen Taylor had been accused of being involved in the disappearance of Bella Elliot, a little girl. Her mother Dawn had been inside doing household chores when Bella ran outside, following her cat into the small front garden. When Dawn went to call her a few minutes later, there was no trace. How could she just disappear into thin air?

A distressed Dawn rang 999 to report her daughter missing. Detective Inspector Bob Sparkes headed up the investigation into her disappearance. The Police rapidly came to the conclusion that this is no simple abduction. Glen Taylor’s name entered the investigation when a neighbour of Dawn’s noted down a blue van similar to Taylor’s van in the area at about the time of Bella’s disappearance.

As the investigation continues into Glen and Jean Taylor’s background, discrepancies appear. Their computer is seized by the Police so that forensics can do a search of the hard drive.

I found this a hard book to put down and as I read each chapter I was spurred on to find out the who and why regarding Bella Elliot’s disappearance and possible death. The ending was a bit of a surprise, but a welcome one, as it wrapped the story up quite neatly.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

The Widow
by Fiona Barton
Published by Bantam Press
ISBN 9780593076224

Book Review: Creativity, Inc, by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace

This book is available now from bookstores nationwide. 

Ed Catmull is currently cv_creativity_Incthe President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation. Throughout his career he worked with George Lucas and helped found Pixar, with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter. Ed details an early love of Disney movies, and his PhD work in computer science and further studies developed the technology allowing fully computer animated 3D cartoons to be made. He is a pioneer in the field of 3D animation.

I can still remember going to see Toy Story, the first Pixar production. Until this time animated cartoons were drawn by hand. My friends and I were really taken aback − we had never seen anything like it. Both the detail in animation and the depth of story were a contrast from previous animated movies. The book details some of the technology involved in creating these movies; the emphasis however is on the creative process.

The book is part biography/ part management manual. It is more of a narrative style, so not one that is quick to reach into for management tips. There is a bullet point summary of the tips at the end of the book, but otherwise you need to glean them from the story. I wasn’t really sure how widely applicable this book was as a management manual − so much emphasis was on the unique creative process and ‘creative types’ involved.

I was often exasperated with the style of this book − the tendency to be long-winded, the hybrid style of biography and manual and what almost felt like soul searching journal entries. Ed puts much emphasis on ‘telling a good story’ as part of the creative process. He develops a group that rigorously oversees story development at Pixar. I think the book could have used similar oversight as it is not a smooth read. By the end of the book I was feeling disengaged. I was not prepared for the stunner of a final chapter that left me in tears!

I think the book may be too modest an account. Ed Catmull has an interesting life, and a biography about him, including his experiences, would be a great read. I got the impression that the middle of the book was more a longform defence of in-house development protocols. The biographical sections that link in with other well-known people or events are really interesting – you just need to keep reading through the lengthy bits!

Review by Emma Wong-Ming

Creativity, Inc.
By Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace
Published by Bantam Press
ISBN 9780593070109