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on 1 August 2016
Elephant Moon, John Sweeney’s debut novel, is the story of a class of orphans trying to escape Burma during WWII. As their British colonisers abandon Burma, the Japanese begin to attack. The half-Burmese orphans, the result of coloniser affairs with local women, are unwanted by either side during the conflict. Having been raised by the British, their only protector is their school teacher Grace, who chooses to help the orphans rather than being evacuated.

Grace and sixty-two school children face the mammoth task of reaching India across rivers, jungles, and mountains. As if the landscape didn’t pose enough peril, the group are under the constant threat of Japanese soldiers. When hope seems lost, a herd of fifty-three elephants and their riders appear, also on their way to India, who aid the orphans on their journey. Elephant Moon is based on the true story of the elephant men who rescued refugees in 1942.

The novel presents a different side of the WWII story, one not commonly documented, and provides a good opportunity to learn something new about the war. It portrays an interesting and less-heard perspective, such as the British abandonment of those they colonised. Moreover, the central concept of the elephants aiding orphans safety is appealing, and the descriptions of the elephants is wonderful, particularly Oomy and his mother. Undeniably, this novel has great potential.

However, it was evident that Sweeney is not a natural fiction writer. Award-winning journalist at the Observer and Panorama, Sweeney does build an impressive sense of suspense throughout and illustrates the landscape and war well. However, after a slow start and a crescendo-building middle, the ending is rushed, and like many authors, Sweeney misunderstands the concept of an epilogue (when will they learn what an epilogue is?).

Moreover, his characterisation lacked depth, and most characters fit into good or evil stereotypes. His ability to draw a believable female character was weak, and while Grace should have been portrayed as a powerful female character who sacrificed her own safety to help her class, instead she was a almost parodied goody two shoes whose main attribute seemed to be her ridiculously-often-mentioned attractiveness (pass us a bucket please!).

Sweeney’s best writing skills were displayed in the story of Eddie, where he seemed much more comfortable detailing a male character. Unfortunately, here Sweeney fell into the trap of adding an unnecessary subplot that distracted and detracted from what was a strong enough story on its own. The novel would have been much improved if this subplot had been avoided and Sweeney had focussed his efforts on padding out Grace, the orphans, and the ending, and giving readers more of what they wanted – the elephants!

In general, for a short novel Sweeney tried to take on too much, with the outcome that it seemed disjointed and chaotic (while we mused that this may have been to depict the chaos of war, we found it more likely a result of an undeveloped writing style). There was a lack of depth and focus, and the novel either needed to be longer to cover all of the subjects or shorter and more focused.

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on 19 November 2017
This book started so strongly as a war story but faded considerably as it became just another romance drama. I found it really interesting, emotional and engaging until the villain of the piece arrived, then I’m sad to say it became a little ridiculous. Personally I think a story about fleeing Burma on elephants whilst being hotly pursued by the Japanese is exciting enough without the rather convenient plot points that came on half way through. It was still a good read but I wish Mr Sweeney had just stuck to the Japanese threat and journey challenges rather than focused on the irksome Mr Gregory and the flimsy romance plotlines.
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on 2 August 2017
I like the story, it was charming but written as if it were begging to be made into a film. The "save the day" coincidences were unbelievable but were of the type that would be entertaining in a film. One bugbear dear author. Many of your readers will be northerners and you have perpetrated the irritating southern authors' error of trying to portray northern speech in your own voice. In reporting the colourful vernacular of the Yorkshire sergeant you use the spelling "fook". Well that is fine for southerners but most of the country rhymes that with "luke". It is lazy and extremely irritating and it would be better to describe the flat vowels we enjoy in the north and then just write everything with normal spellings. If I thought this would recur in another of the author's books I would have to think twice about buying it.
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on 23 November 2015
I agree with a number of other reviewers that this would make an exclent film. The plot provides plenty of opportunity for drama, suspense and the development of relationships between the characters. From this point of view the novel offers good and, most of the time, a compelling read. The characterisation of the female characters is not as strong as the males and it was the 'baddie' whom I felt I knew the best of all. Where I felt that it was flawed was in the structure. The narraration was all from one viewpoint for a large proportion of the book and then suddenly, started to vary between three different key characters. This did allow us some useful insight into the minds of the characters concerned, but seemed to sit sit uncomfortably with the previous single viewpoint. There were also rather too many chance meetings between key characters to keep the story credible. However, the descriptions of sights, smells etc are excellent and the trek through the jungle gives some idea of the difficulties faced and the fear of capture and the fear of the mission failing at the cost of human and animal life. The elephants themselves are delightful and some come over as distinct personalities. Worth a read!
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on 19 October 2016
A wonderful book telling the story of a teacher and her orphan children escaping Burma during the first world war. Their perilous journey made possible by a sympathetic tea farmer and his herd of elephants was quite a stretch of the imagination but, nevertheless, the story of their escape to India had many elements of authenticity, and I was gripped by the many precarious and anxious pitfalls they encountered along the way.

Definitely a good read with many interesting characters, and I really found myself fearing for the safety of Grace and her charges as the threat of capture by the Japanese was never far away.
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on 13 May 2015
This story of a party of abandoned Anglo-Burmese schoolgirls escaping the Japanese invasion of Burma by double-decker bus and then by elephant, along with their very young schoolmistress was an enjoyable read. There is excitement, danger, death and a bit of romance thrown in as the children and their teacher make their treacherous journey via jungle and mountain to India. It's not great literature and I expect some people will find the characterisations somewhat shallow and two dimensional. It is made clear who the brave people are and who the cowards are straight away and no characters have any blurred boundaries. They are either good or bad. Also, the narrative read rather like a screenplay in places as some events were skimmed over and characters not fully explored. It could have been a significantly longer (and some may argue, better) book. Nevertheless, I found Elephant Moon an enjoyable read. Exciting, not too challenging, suspenseful in places. You never quite knew what was going to happen next and how each obstacle in the journey was going to be overcome. It also presented an interesting and different perspective on WW2. I hope a screenplay is developed as it will make a great movie.
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on 13 December 2014
What a very pleasant surprise - I bought this blind and for a few pages was resigned to this little book being about a foreign romance during the Japanese invasion of Burma (yawn, not my thing, romances) but it is far from it!! A school for orphans forced to flee from the carnage, led by a gutsy, very likeable young female teacher...chuck in a mysterious guardian angel and elephants and you have a very good story indeed. The descriptions of the landscape are detailed and wondrous and although I am not an expert on this period of wartime, I am assured by others that the details of the soldiers are accurate.
I thoroughly enjoyed Elephant Moon and would recommend it - even a hardboiled crime thriller fan such as me was totally immersed in the story - it is not at all girly or sentimental, it is quite hard going in some places because you are never allowed to forget for one minute the brutality of war. There is a link at the end of the novel to an amazing story of how elephants were actually used to save soldiers in Burma during the war - you can see the film footage and more is available at through the Cambridge University link.
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on 1 May 2017
Labouring through this over-wrought tale (cost precludes the description "penny-dreadful" ) I was at a loss to understand why John Sweeney's style is so inconsistent. Some passages have excellent writing - good enough to forgive all the improbabilities of the storyline. After all Thomas Hardy didn't baulk at the implausible in inventing some of the incredible coincidences that kept his p(l)ot boiling. The truly dreadful writing comes when Sweeney goes way OTT every time the main villain is in the story, pouring out cliche after cliche in comic book language that wouldn't have been used then (and shouldn't now). Quite spoiled the whole effect for me.
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on 7 December 2015
I was gripped by this story of the elephant men helping half caste orphans and their feisty teacher Grace escape the Japanese after the fall of Rangoon and helping them survive the jungle to the freedom of India. It was gripping and exciting and the sweetness and personalities of the hard working elephants and their oozies was enjoyable to read and learn about. I would happily read another book written by this author as I thoroughly enjoyed the book and it was easy to read. Beautiful descriptive passages too which didn't detract from the plot. Not an easy balance to achieve. Also crosses several genres again not easy and not particularly a mans book nor a woman's but either and appealing to anyone too, fascinated by history.
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on 27 January 2017
Bought this because of the many good reviews. An interesting story line which could have made for an excellent novel - but I found the authors style of writing and the prose not to my taste. The characters seemed shallow and very under developed which, for me, made for a frustrating read. Disappointing.
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