2000 - 2007 Crime Non Fiction Uncategorized

In the Time of Madness by Richard Lloyd Parry

In The Time Of Madness: Indonesia on the Edge of Chaos

Five words from the blurb: Indonesia, violence, cannibalism, besieged, crisis

People Who Eat Darkness is my favourite true-crime book so I was excited to read another of Richard Lloyd Parry’s books. Unfortunately In the Time of Madness wasn’t in the same league and I found the brutality too much to bear.

In 1997 Richard Lloyd Parry found himself in Indonesia, reporting on the elections there. By chance he heard about the terrible violence that was taking place in other areas of the country and decided to investigate it.  This led him to witness some of the most savage violence in recent history; including beheadings and cannibalism.

Richard Lloyd Parry is a fantastic journalist, clearly explaining the situation without bias or sentimentality. I loved the way that this book explained the history of Indonesia to me. I was aware of the violence that took place there, but I have to admit that I didn’t know the reason behind it or anything about the different tribes at war with one another. Unfortunately his lack of emotion was a problem for me. It was good to read that it troubled him too:

I had never worked in such conditions before, and nor had anyone I knew. The experience produced two contradictory reactions. The first was relief, together with a guilty pride, in finding myself unable to confront horror without nausea or fear. The second reaction took the form of more troubling questions, which nagged me at odd moments. Why wasn’t I more upset my this? What was wrong with me? I don’t know what to call such an emotion, but it is something close to shame.

The graphic (but never gratuitous) descriptions of violence were too disturbing for me and I found myself skimming sections to avoid adding the terrible imagery to my brain. As the book progressed I was skipping more than I was actually reading.  It lacked mystery/intrigue and it didn’t have the outstanding structure of People Who Eat Darkness so there was no imperative to read on. In the end I had to admit this book wasn’t for me and I abandoned it at about the half way point.

If you have an interest in the history of Indonesia then this book is a must-read, but don’t go near it if you have a delicate nature.



2012 Other Prizes

Moffie by André Carl Van Der Merwe

MoffieJoint winner of 2012 Green Carnation Prize

Five words from the blurb: gay, conscript, army, South Africa, strength

Moffie is a beautifully written book about a gay man in the South African army. The novel focuses on Nicholas, a young man forced to fight in the Angolan Bush War. The shocking homophobia of the army makes life hard as he must hide his true identity from those around him.

Much of the book is based on the author’s own experience and this is obvious from the detail and vivid descriptions of the emotions involved. Unfortunately it also echoed real life in the way the plot developed – there were slow sections and then chapters where everything seemed to happen at the same time. It feels wrong to criticise a book for being too realistic, but I can’t help the fact that some sections in the middle bored me and I longed for the pace to pick up. Luckily things improved towards the end and I was impressed by the book as a whole.

The writing is best described as tender. The juxtaposition of the horrors of war with the gentle beauty of his relationships seemed to make everything more powerful.

He has survived a world I have only heard about, and getting through the army doesn’t scare him. I’m attracted to this confidence.
And so I learn a new love; one I have not yet experienced and one I don’t understand. It is the love of a friend. As we slip deeper into understanding each other, this love grows like ascending stairs; discovering new treads between the risers.

This book does contain some violent scenes, but these are kept to a minimum and the main impact comes from what is left unsaid. Instead the novel focuses on the day-to-day suffering caused by homophobic attitudes within the army and the general population.

It is a deserving winner of the Green Carnation prize and I hope that its win will bring the book to a wider audience.


2008 Non Fiction

The Weight of a Mustard Seed – Wendell Steavenson

The Weight of a Mustard Seed attempts to discover why ordinary people were driven to commit evil acts under the orders of Saddam Hussein. The author,  Wendell Steavenson, is a journalist who travelled to Iraq many times between 2002 and 2005 interviewing the friends and family of General Kamel Sachet; a decorated hero of the Iran-Iraq war and a man favoured by Saddam Hussein. She tried to discover what motivated Sachet and his colleagues and how his actions affected his family.  

The book is a fascinating insight into the lives of both ordinary Iraqis and members of the military. All the people were brought to life and I found myself having great sympathy for everyone in the book, despite the horrendous acts many of them committed. Wendell’s ability to make me see things from their perspective was impressive.

‘You chose to be a part of it,’ I told him. ‘You could have resigned, you could have gone to live in the country like your cousin.’
‘One of my American debriefers asked me the same question. He asked me why I continued to fight against the Americans. I told him it had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein. It’s hard for you to understand, but it was a matter of military honour, being part of a country and within that comes your loyalty to your high command.

The Weight of a Mustard Seed was very readable and although there were some descriptions of violence I never felt that it went over the top. The modern history of Iraq was well described, although as the book wasn’t written in chronological order I got a bit confused occasionally.

The book contained many examples of psychological experiments which explained why people behave as they do under the pressure of war. Unfortunately I was already aware of all of these and so these sections were irrelevant for me. If you are interested in finding out about them then some of the experiments are summarised in this post: The Ten Most Revealing Psych Experiments

I highly recommend this book as an introduction to the psychology of war, but if you have read a lot of books on the subject you may find it too basic.

Everyone seemed to enjoy this one:

…one of the most interesting, engaging, horrifying and moving non fiction books that I have ever read. Savidge Reads

…an accessible book for those wanting to read a factual book about Iraq. Novel Insights

This is a powerful, well-written and moving account… Reading Matters