Book Review: Close to the Wind, by David B. Hill

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_close_to_the_windThis is an unassuming book about the wartime escape of a New Zealand reserve sailor, Len Hill. Told by his son David, it is part family history, and part creative non-fiction, with the dialogue between the servicemen being re-created by the author. But it’s a good read, based on an extraordinary maritime escape from Singapore in 1942.

For an appreciation of the story and the perspective of the author it is necessary to actually read the Afterword first. One needs to realise that it is the son who is writing the story of his father and his comrades. The other two main comrades became the author’s godfathers, so this is quite an intimate portrayal. Also, by reading the Acknowledgements it becomes clear that this is an alternate version of the escape from Singapore in 1942, that provides something of a different view to that of a book published by an English survivor who was not part of the successful final voyage.

What we get therefore is very much a New Zealand version, with Kiwi heroes who are hounded by the advancing Japanese forces all the way along the coast of Sumatra. After fleeing in their Fairmile craft ML310 with senior British officers, the New Zealand sailors come aground on the small island of Tjibia. The survivors decide to take a small craft they have found, which only holds five men, through the Java Sea to Batavia, before the Japanese can capture it. They eventually reach the Java mainland with some Dutch sailors, only to have to find another vessel to flee to Australia.

The interaction with the Dutch servicemen, who are also part indigenous, adds an interesting sub-text to the adventure. The author identifies the ethnic tensions underlying the war effort in New Zealand, and the whakapapa element in his own family history, including the loss of Māori great-uncles in the First World War. This theme is explored through his father Len’s dialogue with a Māori soldier on the initial trip of the navy reservists to England in 1941. The soldier, Haami Parata, does not appear again in the story, but his knowledge of tikanga is portrayed as a key influence on the young Len Hill, even though he had really been brought up a Pākehā.

Perhaps it was the author’s choice to enhance this association, which may have otherwise been seen as fleeting, compared with the close bonds forged on the tiny yacht which brought the sailors to eventual safety. There is also the problem that most of the dialogue must be filled in, which is perhaps easier in the combat situation, than in the parts of the book that include visiting the bars and nightspots of Singapore.

Overall, I found this a riveting story and a pleasure to read, and it was obviously a labour of love. Even for those not necessarily interested in war stories this would be of interest, without the cover hinting of the very dramatic adventures inside the book. The book does lack a detailed map of the South Asian area, and perhaps could have placed the archival photographs as a centrepiece rather than as an appendix, with higher quality paper. But otherwise this very personal project was fully realised.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Close to the Wind
by David B. Hill
Published by Huia Publishers




Book Review: Close to the Wind, by Zana Bell

“It doesn’t seem fair that New Zealand should have quite so many beautiful corners tucked away…” (Close to the Wind, by Zana Bell)
I love a great historical romance, so when I was offered Close to the Wind for review I jumped at the chance; I can’t say I’ve ever read a historical that is partially set in little old New Zealand!

The story starts off in 1860’s England with our heroine blissfully unaware of the turmoil and danger that is about to turn her already far from perfect world upside down.

In her haste to escape the grip of an overbearing aunt and a deceitful and dangerous fiancée, Georgiana disguises herself as ‘George’ and secures a position aboard a ship sailing to New Zealand in the hopes of finding and saving her sick brother. And so under the watchful, albeit blind-to-the-ruse eye of Captain Harry Trent, ‘George’, for the most part fits in to life at sea. But it’s not long before trouble finds our hapless hero(ine) and things are again thrown awry.

Becoming ‘Georgiana’ again, our heroine tries to fend for herself and, while thinking herself a master of disguise and cunning, takes on yet another persona (Sarah) in the hopes of throwing off the fiends on her trail.

Not knowing who to trust, yet falling victim at every turn, ‘Sarah’ finally makes her way to New Zealand to again find herself in the middle of another misunderstanding, another scuffle, and another change back to ‘Georgiana’ (are you keeping up, it’s confusing I know!) and finally sharing some tender moments with Captain Harry. And then it’s all tied up into a tidy little bow with happily-ever-afters for everybody.

Close to the Wind is well written as far as grammar and punctuation etc go, but I found it hard to get into because I felt I was being told what to see rather than sinking into the story and feeling the journey.I enjoy heroines with lots of spunk and quick wit, but I didn’t feel that from Georgiana, I found her to be rather dull; her loyalty to her brother proving to be her one redeeming quality.

I also felt let down by the lack of New Zealand in the story. If you’re going to use the tag line “Love, Passion and Adventure in 1860s New Zealand” on the cover, then you might want to make more use of its beauty and its people because other than a few phrases mentioning the mountains, the lack of decent roads, and the lightweight wooden buildings, there really isn’t much more detail. There’s no mention of the Chinese population that worked the mines or the Maori that would have also been living in and around the surrounding countryside in which Harry and Georgiana traveled.

Overall, for me the book was a slow paced, thinly veiled historical read with a touch of light romance.

A good read if you’re not going to get hung up on the lack of depth or details, but Close to the Wind was not the swashbuckling adventure I was hoping for.

3.5 Stars

Reviewed by Cath Cowley

Close to the Wind
by Zana Bell
Published by Choc Lit
ISBN 9781781890264