Saturday, 3 December 2011

South by Java Head by Alistair MacLean - Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

As Singapore falls to the Japanese, a small group of men and women set sail on a desperate journey. One of them carries a cargo without price – the complete plans for the Japanese invasion of Australia. The Japanese will stop at nothing to get these plans.”

I’ve a liking for history and I possess a particular interest in gathering information about the two world wars. When I wanted to read works of fiction on the world wars, I was immediately redirected to Alistair MacLean. I picked South by Java Head since my knowledge on the Pacific War isn't all that high (The edition I purchased was also rather inexpensive).

Coming to the plot, retired Brigadier Foster Farnholme is at Singapore and he is desperate to leave. The reason being, he has the complete plans for the Japanese invasion of Australia and wants to hand it over to the Australians. Unfortunately, the situation isn’t favourable to him, the Japanese troops are all over Singapore and the British forces were all set to surrender on the next day. Farnholme along with some people leave Singapore and after a chain of events in the sea, they end up in a British – Arabian tanker Viroma led by Captain Findhorn and his trusted subordinate John Nicolson. But, they know that they aren’t going to be out there for too long and the Japanese may attack them any time. The plot is centred on John Nicolson along with a romantic sub-plot between Nicolson and a nurse.

When I was suggested Alistair MacLean, I was told to expect a thrilling adventure, an element of suspense, traitors and double-agents and of course, protagonists surviving beating all the odds. South by Java Head fulfils all these, including the last one. It had a brilliant adventure, desperate people trying to reach Australia by sea from Singapore. An element of suspense – when the Japanese are going to attack and how this little crew is going to cope up with it. Protagonists surviving beating all the odds – I’m not willing to make this a spoiler. Definitely, you’d also be made to guess who is going to be the traitor, there might be one or more.  

But, the book certainly also has several drawbacks. Alistair MacLean might be well known for anything else, but certainly not for his language, with most of the dialogues being flat and boring and also had occasional grammatical errors. I also didn’t like the way the author portrayed the Japanese, as heartless killing machines and frequently referring to them as “those inhuman devils”. Besides, people who aren’t familiar with maritime terms would find it difficult to understand the navy jargons. Moreover, the end to the sup-plot was also quite abrupt, as though the author used it only to lighten the entire plot and had no intentions of giving it a proper finish. There were also several loose ends, such as; it was never mentioned why Farnholme had a liking for the two year old boy and why he had to arrange such a dangerous trip for him.  

However, the bottom-line is, whether the reader contemplates if the occurrences are possible in a real situation or not, the reader would certainly enjoy reading this book. This book is highly recommended to those who are in the same “boat” as I am in terms of interests. I’m willing to give this book a six out of ten, because of the excessive number of negatives.

Rating : 6/10

Have a nice day,



  1. I agree with your criticisms and overall assessment of this book. While Alistair MacLean wrote some terrific World War II novels, "South by Java Head" is not one of them.

    You can find recommendations of better ones (such as "Where Eagles Dare" and "The Guns of Navarone") at my fan website,, where I have reviewed and ranked all of MacLean's novels (and many of the films based on them).

  2. @Big Dave : Thank you for being the first one to comment in my blog. I shall definitely check your fan website. But I have a query - if South by Java Head is not a World War II novel, then what would you categorise it under?

  3. It is a World War II novel - it simply isn't a _terrific_ one. Sorry if my comment was unclear!


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