When I started working, I used to get my books from a second hand book store called Saints located at Bukit Timah Plaza. They had two prices stamped on the book. You paid the higher price printed on top and when you returned the book, they refunded you the amount printed at the bottom. Do they still have this practice?
My preferences tended to be influenced by the author. Once I have a liking for a particular author, I would go on to read most of his books. My earliest favourite, of course was Nevil Shute. This was followed later by Herman Wouk. More ‘recent’ additions were Arthur Hailey, Frederick Forsyth and James Mitchener.
Arthur Hailey’s stories have this unique focus on a particular industry or profession. For example, Wheels took place in the automobile industry, Strong Medicine was on the drugs industry, Money Changers was on banking industry and Hotel was obviously from the hotel industry. My favourite was Strong Medicine. I remember reading it during my slow and arduous train ride back from Ipoh after my first visit there to meet my (then) girl friend’s parents and then returned alone by train. (She stayed on as it was the school holidays.)
My two favourite Frederick Forsyth books were No Comebacks and The Fourth Protocol. The first was actually a compilation of short stories. The second had to do with nuclear weapons I think.
I liked James Mitchener too, but his books are very thick, and so it was a challenge to read all his books. I think I read Poland, Space and The Source. I liked the last one most because he touched on many events depicted in the Old Testament.
But my favourite authors are still Nevil Shute and Herman Wouk. Maybe it’s a case of ‘first love’.
Nevil Shute has written more than twenty novels and I have read most of them. His ‘heroes’ tended to be very simple people – maybe that’s the attraction to common people like me. Speaking of common people, I saw a Taiwanese movie about a writer who wrote a book entitled， “一个平凡人的故事” or An Ordinary Man’s Story. But anyway, I have digressed. The three books by Nevil Shute that I enjoyed most are, No Highway, An Old Captivity and Requiem for a Wren.
No Highway was the text for our O-level literature, and so I remember the story well. It’s about an eccentric metalurgist at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Theodore Honey, who believed the company’s plane, the Reindeer had a problem with metal fatigue which causes it to fail after 1,440 hours of flight. He was sent to Labrador to investigate one such plane crash. But midway, he discovered that the very plane he was traveling in, also a Reindeer, had already flown more than 1,440 hours. He was unable to convince the pilot to turn back, and so in desperation, when the plane landed in transit, he forcefully grounded it by lowering the undercarriage (or something equally dramatic). Of course that created a huge row. Another team was sent to Labrador to investigate the first plane crash. Meantime, Honey got to know and fall in love with one of the plane’s air stewardesses, Marjorie Corder who not only took good care of him, but also his daughter Elspeth. He was a widower. Of course, you get no prizes for guessing the ending of this story.
An Old Captivity was about a pilot who was hired by a professor to carry out an aerial survey of Greenland. During the expedition he fell ill and had strange dreams of himself as a slave on a Norse long ship of about a thousand years before.
Requiem for a Wren is rather sad story of Janet Prentice a navy girl whose fiance, an Australian marine sergeant by the name of Bill Duncan was killed in the war. (A Wren by the way, is not a bird but an employee of the Women's Royal Naval Service). Troubled by all the death, violence and destruction in which she had played a part, she found her way to Australia after the war, and took up the position of a parlour maid in the home of her fiancé, without their knowledge. She became very close to Bill’s mother. Meantime, Bill’s brother, Alan, the only person in the Duncan family who has met her before, was searching for her. He was a pilot who had lost both his feet in the war and was depressed and was returning to Australia. Unable to face the prospect of Alan's imminent return, Janet commits suicide.
But my all-time favourite books were Winds of War and its sequel War and Remembrance by Heman Wouk. Both were voluminous books exceeding one thousand pages. I read Winds in 1977 and eagerly waited three years for its sequel which came out in 1980. These were historical novels, but the events recorded were real. Winds traced the 2nd World War from September 1939 to the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Remembrance continued till the end of the war. History was told through the eyes of one Victor Henry and his family who were somehow present at all the big events of the war.
If you have an appetite for such epics, I would highly recommend these two books. After all, history is just as relevant today as it was to the young man who read them more than a quarter century ago. But, if you don’t have the patience, you can still get the dvds because both these books were made into television mini-series starring Robert Mitchum as Victor Henry. As for me, I think I still have the books somewhere in my store room. I plan to reread and savour them one day. When I can find the time. When I am retired maybe.
I promised my librarian friend, Ivan Chew to do a book review of a couple of books from a quarter of a century ago. I think I have ‘gone the extra mile’ here, if I may borrow a favoured tag line from our government.