Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Different Kind of Thriller

The wreckage of Manila Harbor 
and the once-proud Manila Hotel, 1945

Some time ago I got an email from a novelist friend, Philip Coggan, that contained a link and the words "Buy this book from Kindle."  I did, and got my biggest reading surprise of 2012.

The Yellow Bar, by a first-time novelist named John Falch, swept me off my feet.  I can say with no reservations at all that I love this book.

It's the story of Manila in World War II, a sort of Pacific Gone With the Wind.  Through the use of multiple perspectives, mostly members of a poor family called the Reynaldos, it tells the story of the Japanese invasion and occupation and of the "rescue" by MacArthur's forces, which turned Manila into an absolute hell until the Japanese were eradicated.  It's an epic, but one of the book's many wonders is that it's all told from a distance of about four feet by characters we love, people who--somehow--lived through it.

And it turns out that Falch has a matrimonial bloodline, on his wife's side, to the story. Much of the final segment of the book focuses on an eight-year-old girl named Imang, stolen from an orphanage by the Japanese and put to work under slave conditions in a factory to sew parachutes for the Japanese.  Her escape from Manila is a tale of Dickensian proportions.  Imang grew up to be the mother of John Falch's wife.


I have to tell you that--after having read the book--when I saw her photo on John's website, I almost burst into tears.

Here's John Falch himself, about his book.

How would you describe The Yellow Bar in, say, 100 words or less?

It’s about some nice people, the Reynaldo family, who live in 1940s Philippines. Their sweet rural life goes to hell when they are caught between two warring giants, America and Japan. It starts with the Japanese invasion and ends with the destruction of Manila. It’s about: Love. Family. God. War. Luck. Survival. The Reynaldos teach us how to make lemonade when life throws lemons at you. (And, when it’s time, to throw those damned lemons back, so hard that it knocks teeth out.) Fate comes in two parts; what life gives you and what you make of it. The Yellow Bar is also a reminder that we all belong to the same family of man, and that hating and killing our different brothers are the stupidest things we can ever do.

What inspired you to write the novel?    

I lived in Manila in the mid 1980s. Some of the happiest times of my life were when I just sat around and talked to family and neighbors. Filipinos like to talk, boast, gossip, and most of all, weave a good story. Back then, there were still many older people who had lived under the Japanese occupation and the battle of Manila. They told me stories (always with a smile and maybe a tear) of how they survived the war. Hair-raising tales like: How the Japanese Bayonetted My Baby, or, What Auntie Alice Did When a Hand Grenade Came Through the Kitchen Window. It was amazing how they told these stories without a trace of bitterness. This is because they believe in God and forgiveness. This is because they are Filipino.

My father in-law, Felipe (Pepot) had the best stories of all. He was a short, jolly, fat man and he also had the voice of a foghorn. When he was speaking English he liked to punctuate with invectives that he had learned from the GIs in the Yellow Bar:

“... and when the bombs started falling, GODDAMIT it was hell!...”

The Japanese Kamikazes had lived in their house during the occupation. As a child servant in his own home, Pepot saw how how these pilots lived and how they prepared to die. He told me how the family had saved themselves at the end of the war by selling homemade liquor to the American GIs. From him I learned that my mother in-law, Maxima (Imang) had been forced to work in the Japanese parachute factory as a child slave laborer. I remember thinking that someone should write a book or make a film about these stories.

In 2010, after a long absence, I attended a family reunion in Manila. Most of the immediate family now live in different parts of the world. While we were there, I realized this incredible family history was fading away, that the stories would soon be forgotten. I started writing the book on my third day in Manila. It took me a year and a half.

From my perspective, The Yellow Bar is worth every minute of a year and a half.  And, in case I haven't made myself clear, I hope everyone who can read a Kindle file will read this book.  (By the way, father-in-law Felipe, called Pepot in the novel and aged 10 to begin with, is the book's principal narrator.)

Here's the link:  It's only $2.99, making it the deal of the year.

My interview with John goes on for quite a while, and more of it will be found on my own blog, at

Tim -- Sundays


  1. Tim, your recommendation is good enough for me. I've downloaded it. I love books that show other cultures through different eyes.

  2. I'm with Michael on your recommendation. It's also of a somewhat personal interest. Filipinos have been the preferred domestic housework force in Greece for four decades and their emergence, experiences, and perseverance is a story in itself.

  3. Make it three. I have it. Ordinary people surviving war is a theme I love. Thanks, Tim. Kudos to John. If he impressed you, I know I am going to like his book.

  4. Thanks to all of you. It feels sooooo good to know I've done you all a favor, or in Michael's case, a favour. Please let me know how you like it.

  5. Downloaded and done. I feel that 70 years later, we are still not really aware of the cost of that war. Sometimes, it's hard to balance the story of "The Greatest Generation" with how it was for the people on the ground, so to speak. Thank you for the recommendation.

  6. Tim,

    As always, your wisdom of and generosity towards fellow authors and their works is, quite honestly, astounding. Much gratitude to you.

    As a Filipino, I'm sure it will bring me back to the days when I sat at my grandmother's feet listening to her survival stories from the war.