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BOOK REVIEW: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

Sunday, July 29, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is based on the true story of Lale and Gita Sokolov, two Slovakian Jews who survived Auschwitz and eventually made their home in Australia. In that terrible place, Lale was given the job of tattooing the prisoners marked for survival—literally scratching numbers into his fellow victims' arms in indelible ink to create what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust. Lale used the infinitesimal freedom of movement that this position awarded him to exchange jewels and money taken from murdered Jews for food to keep others alive. If he had been caught, he would have been killed; many owed him their survival.

There have been many books about the Holocaust—and there will be many more. What makes this one so memorable is Lale Sokolov's incredible zest for life. He understood exactly what was in store for him and his fellow prisoners, and he was determined to survive—not just to survive but to leave the camp with his dignity and integrity intact, to live his life to the full. Terrible though this story is, it is also a story of hope and of courage. It is also—almost unbelievably—a love story. Waiting in line to be tattooed, terrified and shaking, was a young girl. For Lale—a dandy, a jack-the-lad, a bit of a chancer—it was love at first sight, and he determined not only to survive himself but to ensure that Gita did, too. His story—their story—will make you weep, but you will also find it uplifting. It shows the very best of humanity in the very worst of circumstances.

Like many survivors, Lale and Gita told few people their story after the war. They eventually made their way to Australia, where they raised a son and had a successful life. But when Gita died, Lale felt he could no longer carry the burden of their past alone. He chose to tell his story.


My Thoughts:

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is inspired by the true story of Lale and Gita Sokolov, two Slovakian Jews who met and fell in love in Auschwitz.

Lale’s first sight of Gita was her thin pale arm, held out to him so he could tattoo her prisoner number upon it. She was No 36902. Lale was the camp’s tätowierer or tattooist, and every day he inscribed the camp’s dehumanising set of numbers upon the skin of his fellow inmates.

In time, Lale and Gita would escape the camp, somehow miraculously find each other, and marry and move to Australia, where Lale would tell his story to author Heather Morris. It is an astonishing saga of love, resistance and survival, and proof that the Holocaust still has many more stories to be heard.

Heather Morris originally wrote this book as a screenplay, and it shows. The writing is spare and blunt, with a colloquial tone that may be inspired by Lale’s own voice. The atrocities of Auschwitz are described with detachment, as if Lale’s mind has seen so many horrors it can no longer feel any pain. This emotional distance made it difficult for me to connect with the characters and the story as much as I wanted to; I did not feel the urgency of dramatic tension or wrenching of the heartstrings that I expected.

However, the simplicity and reserve of the narrative voice rings true. Many Holocaust survivors find their story difficult to tell, and language breaks down under such a heavy burden of memory.

And the book is as much about hope and courage and escape as it is about heartbreak and brutality and imprisonment. Lale and Gita Sokolov’s extraordinary story deserved to be told, and its message of love triumphing over cruelty is one that should never be forgotten.

You might also be interested in my review of The Passengers by Eleanor Limprecht.

I was lucky enough to interview Heather Morris for the blog this week, you can read it here.

INTERVIEW: Heather Morris

Sunday, July 29, 2018




Today I welcome Heather Morris, Author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
My mother always called me a ‘loner’. The fact that I just wanted to get out of a house comprising 4 noisy brothers didn’t occur to her. But yes, I spent more time in what I perceived to be someone else’s head than my own. Living on a farm, when not in school (where I was definitely described by more than one teacher as being a daydreamer) I loved to walk around paddocks regardless of the weather and dream of far-away places where adventures could be had. My main source of reading was the Encyclopaedia Britannica which showed me a world of exotic amazing places and people so far removed from my existence.


Have you always wanted to be a writer?
No, not really. When my husband I had our first baby we were so poor, we both loved reading and until his little eyes could focus would read him the newspaper or whatever was available. I have a delightful photo of hubby reading the financial review to a 4 week old. Of course we always changed voices and emphasis putting on our big bad wolf voice when talking about government of the day. I digress. When the financial review was no longer doing it for the little fella we cut back where we could to buy him books and he was still too young to take to a library. I purchased cheap school exercise books, the ones designed for science with one side of the page lined the other blank. I took to writing a series of children’s stories, age appropriate, and my hubby attempted illustrations. Life got in the way, along with 2 siblings for said first born and it wasn’t until they, and I, were much older that I decided I NEEDED to write. Bit of light-bulb moment really. I just woke up one morning and announced I wanted to learn how to write screenplays. This is the medium The Tattooist of Auschwitz existed in for ten years.


Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in a small rural town in the North Island of New Zealand (Te Awamutu – only claim to fame – the Finn boys of Crowded House also came from there). I now live in Sherbrooke, in the forest, about 50km from Melbourne. Having quit the day job 8 months ago I find myself a full-time traveller / speaker and promoter of my book. And do I like to do it? I love doing it. I also love spending time with four small grandchildren. Always loved travelling now I get to combine it with telling my story. Nothing beats being with my family and friends, good food and good wine.


How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
Can’t call it a flash of inspiration. I was having a pre-Christmas coffee catch up with a friend who casually said to me she had a friend whose mother had just died and his father asked him to find someone he could tell A story to. She asked me would I like to meet him. I said yes.


Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
Many people have said my meeting Lale Sokolov was serendipitous. In terms of discoveries in getting his story – every element of his story was a discovery. I’m embarrassed to admit how little I really knew about the Holocaust. If I have to name one thing, then learning that local Polish villagers came into Auschwitz / Birkenau every day to work; 9 -5, five days a week, knowing what they were building there, going home to their families, was a huge shock to me. I don’t know in retrospect why it should have been, but it was. I can now tell myself they were just trying to put food on the table and survive. Still!!


Who are ten of your favourite writers?
In no particular order: Paullina Simmons; Derek Hansen; Michael Connelly; Anita Shreve; Tom Clancy; Sara Paretsky; Bill Bryson; Minette Walters; my very talented daughter-in-law BP Gregory; two newcomers to watch out for Kim Sherwood and Angela Meyer.


What do you consider to be good writing?
Simple writing. Though having said that I loved Bitter Greens so much, and there was nothing simple about the style or structure of that story. Short sentences work for me; I actually pause at every full-stop, and most importantly believable characters. Transport me to whatever place and time you’re writing about and make me connect to your characters, good or bad. I only seem to find time to read right now in bed, so keep me awake please.


What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
It’s not original but – Research, research, research, throw away the research and now write. I do not adhere to X number of words per day / week, I’m not that organised. For me it was find my perfect writing time. I knew I was easily distracted, helped that I was a ‘night owl’ so writing in the evening and into the small hours where nothing and no-one could distract me was what worked. So I guess my advice would be to find what works for you, commit to it, start writing and don’t stop until you’ve knocked the bugger off.


What are you working on?
My next story is about a character from my book, 16 year old Cilka. Well I’ve signed the contract and taken the advance so I guess I can say I’m writing Cilka’s story. I think my publishers would like to see a bit more content to be convinced. The really good thing about this story is my research is going to take me to parts of the old Soviet Union, San Francisco and Slovakia.


You can read my review of The Tattooist of Auschwitz here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Whole Bright Year by Debra Oswald

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

In the summer of 1976 it's picking season on an Australian stone-fruit orchard run by Celia, a hard-working woman in her early forties. Years ago, when her husband was killed as a bystander in an armed robbery, Celia left the city and brought her newborn daughter Zoe to this farm for a secure life. Now sixteen, Zoe is a passionate, intelligent girl, chafing against her mother's protectiveness, yearning to find intensity and a bit of danger.

Barging into this world as itinerant fruit-pickers come a desperate brother and sister from Sydney. The hard-bitten Sheena has kidnapped her wild, ebullient eighteen-year-old brother Kieran and dragged him out west, away from trouble in the city. Kieran and Zoe are drawn to each other the instant they meet, sparking excitement, worry, lust, trouble . . .

How do we protect people we love? How do we bear watching them go out into the perilous world with no guarantee of safety or happiness? What bargains do people make with darkness in order to survive? From the creator of Offspring and author of Useful, The Whole Bright Year is a gripping, wry and tender novel about how holding on too tightly can cost us what we love.


My Thoughts:

The gorgeous title and cover of this novel are instantly enticing … and then I open the book and find a quote from Homer referencing my favourite Greek myth, the story of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, whose daughter Persephone is ravished away by Hades, the god of the underworld. At once I wonder if Debra Oswald plans to allude to the myth in a book that I know (thanks to the blurb) is set in Australia in 1976. I love books that drawn on myth and folklore in bold and unexpected ways, and so I settle in to read with a heightened sense of anticipation and interest.

I was ten in 1976 (hard to believe, I hope!), and so the setting immediately evokes for me the long hot summers of my childhood – paddle-pops, and vinyl seats that burn your bare thighs, and pop music blaring from the radio. Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam is still licking his wounds from the Dismissal, and ABBA was ruling the pop charts with ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Money Money Money’. Such an interesting time to set a novel! The 1970s are not distant enough to be considered historical fiction (the Historical Novel Society defines the genre as books written at least fifty years after the events described) and yet the immense changes to technology and society in the last forty-two years make 1976 seem a very different time. This slippage between historical and contemporary fiction makes for a really interesting dynamic. There are no mobile phones and an answering machine is new and baffling technology, for instance, which makes it so much easier for a teenage girl to disappear without trace.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Celia is a single mother raising her daughter Zoe alone (Celia means ‘heavenly’ and Zoe means ‘life’, a subtle hint to the metafictive role played by these characters). Celia’s husband was murdered in front of her when she was pregnant, and so she has retreated to a peach farm where she works hard and tries not to worry too much about Zoe – curious and radiant – growing up so fast.

In the summer of 1976, Zoe is sixteen. It’s picking season time, which means it’s scorching hot and the peaches are ripe for the plucking (metaphor intended). Trouble with her usual pickers means that Celia needs help, and so she hires two tattooed and pierced runaways from the city to help her bring in the fruit before it spoils. There is Sheena, edgy and foul-mouthed, and her eighteen-year-old brother Kieran, brimming over with life and energy. It is inevitable that Zoe and Kieran are drawn to each other, despite Celia’s worry and warnings. And, given Celia’s tragic past, it is inevitable that she tries to drive a wedge between the two young lovers. What she does not expect is for Zoe to disappear. And so begins the mother’s desperate search for her daughter.

When Persephone vanishes, literally from the face of the earth, Demeter was so overwhelmed with grief and fear that leaves began to shrivel and fall, and frost touched the world for the first time. It is the story of the first winter. And when Persephone is found, imprisoned in Hades’ underworld, her mother’s joy means that life is restored to the frozen world and spring blooms.

Celia’s search for her daughter, in all the dark places of Sydney’s underbelly, is analogous to this search by the goddess of the harvest. It is every mother’s nightmare, and certainly one I share. I could identify with both Zoe – rebellious, intelligent, and wanting to experience as much of life as possible – and her mother Celia, hurt by life, all too aware of its dangers, wanting only to protect her daughter but inadvertently driving her away.

I don’t want to say much more, because the plot of The Whole Bright Year is driven by a sense of ever-tightening suspense. It begins slowly, languorously, with gorgeous descriptions of peaches and summer and young love, but almost imperceptibly the screw of dramatic tension is tightened until I couldn’t bear to put the book down. And, by the end, I was all choked up. A really powerful book, written with warmth, tenderness and humour that will stay in my memory a long time.


You might also be interested in my review of Sixty Seconds by Jesse Blackadder.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.


BOOK REVIEW: Force of Nature by Jane Harper

Friday, July 20, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Five women go on a hike. Only four return. Jane Harper, the New York Times bestselling author of The Dry, asks: How well do you really know the people you work with?

When five colleagues are forced to go on a corporate retreat in the wilderness, they reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking down the muddy path.

But one of the women doesn’t come out of the woods. And each of her companions tells a slightly different story about what happened.

Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing hiker. In an investigation that takes him deep into isolated forest, Falk discovers secrets lurking in the mountains, and a tangled web of personal and professional friendship, suspicion, and betrayal among the hikers. But did that lead to murder?


My Thoughts:

I really enjoyed Australian author Jane Harper’s debut crime novel, The Dry, and so was eager to see what she came up with for her second novel.

The premise is intriguing.

Five women go on a hike. Only four return.

Federal agent Aaron Falk (the detective-hero of The Dry) is called in to help search for the missing woman, Alice Russell, and determine the truth of her disappearance. Falk was one of the last people Alice tried to call on her mobile phone, and so local police have asked for his help. He and his partner, Carmen Cooper, are investigating possible money laundering by Alice’s employers and she was their secret mole at the company.

The story alternates between Falk’s point-of-view, as he follows a bewildering and contradictory set of clues, and flashbacks to the women’s hike into the bush and the series of events that led to Alice’s vanishing. This parallel narrative, unusual in contemporary crime novels, creates a sense of slow creeping tension.

The claustrophobic atmosphere of the rain-drenched wilderness adds greatly to the suspense. Jane Harper is particularly good at setting, I feel, and I was glad that she did not replicate the hot, parched landscape of The Dry but explored a different Australian landscape.

The psychological drama being played out among the five women, the series of mistakes and misunderstandings that led inexorably to tragedy, and the highly charged pace all make Force of Nature riveting reading.

You can read by review of The Dry here.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think. 

BOOK REVIEW: Love & Hunger: Thoughts on the Gift of Food by Charlotte Wood –

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

The award-winning author of The Children and Animal People, explores the solitary and shared pleasures of cooking and eating in an ode to good food, prepared and presented with minimum fuss and maximum love.

'What's important is the fact of eating together - the gathering at the table, the conviviality.'

Love & Hunger is a distillation of everything Charlotte Wood has learned over more than twenty years about cooking and the pleasures of simple food well made. In this age of gastro-porn and the fetishisation of food, the pressure to be as expert as the chefs we've turned into celebrities can feel overwhelming.

An instant antidote to such madness is this wise and practical book - an ode to good food, prepared and presented with minimum fuss and maximum love.

Cooking represents 'creativity in its purest form'. It is meditation and stimulation, celebration and solace, a gift both offered and received. It can nourish the soul - and the mind - as well as the body. Love & Hunger will make you long to get into the kitchen to try the surprising tips and delicious recipes, and will leave you feeling freshly inspired to cook with joy for the people you love. Love & Hunger is a gift for all who value the solitary and shared pleasures of cooking and eating. Like a simple but glorious meal, this feast of a book is infused with warmth and generosity.

Acclaimed and award-winning novelist Charlotte Wood also writes the popular cookery blog How to Shuck an Oyster and is a brilliant home cook and food enthusiast. An invitation to dinner at Charlotte's house is always cause for celebration.


My Thoughts:

Charlotte Wood is best known as the Stella-award-winning author of The Natural Way of Things, but she is also a brilliant cook and food writer. For quite a few years, she wrote a food blog called ‘How to Shuck an Oyster’ in which philosophical musings on the importance of food and eating were mixed with helpful tips on how to be a better cook.

Love & Hunger grew out of this blog, and is a warm, wise, personal and practical collection of essays, recipes and cooking advice. Charlotte shares her own discovery of the art of cooking, gives guidance on how to be a good host, offers shrewd insights into the causes of picky eating, mediates on the fear of death in the disgust of offal, and brings me to tears discussing the best way to cook for people who are ill and dying.

I love to cook myself, and relish reading books about food and cooking. It is rare, however, to find one written with such intelligence, sensitivity, and skill. There is not a sentence in the whole book that is not beautifully constructed, and not an essay which does not enlighten and inspire. Love & Hunger is a book to be read in a single gulp, and then returned to again and again for savouring.

For another great food-inspired read, check out my review of Picnic in Provence by Elizabeth Bard.

Please leave a comment, I love to hear your thoughts.



BOOK REVIEW: Peach by Emma Glass

Friday, July 13, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Something has happened to Peach. Staggering around the town streets in the aftermath of an assault, Peach feels a trickle of blood down her legs, a lingering smell of her anonymous attacker on her skin. It hurts to walk, but she manages to make her way to her home, where she stumbles into another oddly nightmarish reality: Her parents can't seem to comprehend that anything has happened to their daughter.

The next morning, Peach tries to return to the routines of her ordinary life, going to classes, spending time with her boyfriend, Green, trying to find comfort in the thought of her upcoming departure for college. And yet, as Peach struggles through the next few days, she is stalked by the memories of her unacknowledged trauma. Sleeping is hard when she is haunted by the glimpses of that stranger's gaping mouth. Working is hard when her assailant's rancid smell still fills her nostrils. Eating is impossible when her stomach is swollen tight as a drum. Though she tries to close her eyes to what has happened, Peach at last begins to understand the drastic, gruesome action she must take.


My Thoughts:

An extraordinary, savage, and surreal novel by a young British debut author, Peach is quite unlike any novel I’ve read in a long time.

A young woman named Peach stumbles home, blood trickling down her leg, language shattering to pieces in her head: ‘Thick stick sticky sticking wet ragged wool winding round the wounds, stitching the sliced skin together as I walk, scraping my mittened hands against the wall. Rough red bricks ripping the wool. Ripping the skin. Rough red skin. Rough red head.’

There is a sense that whatever has happened to Peach has been so traumatic, so destructive, that her very sense of the world has been broken open and rendered inchoate.

She makes it home, and stitches herself closed. Normal life seems abnormal. Her parents are oblivious, self-obsessed, sex-fixated. All Peach’s perceptions seem preoccupied by thoughts of food. Her baby brother is jelly: ‘his jelly body jiggles.’ Her boyfriend Green is a tree: ‘He kisses my mouth and I taste twigs. His brown eyes take root in mine.’ Her teacher Mr Custard is, unsurprisingly, ‘yellow goop’. Her attacker is a sausage, and his lingering ‘smell of rotting pig meat’ overwhelms her.

In an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, Emma Glass said she wanted to create a ‘sensory experience’ by focusing on language rather than a conventional plot. In this she has succeeded. The staccato sentences, relentless repetition, and adroit word play create an intense, raw and visceral tone. Nothing and no-one seems real. Peach has staggered into a nightmarish and absurdist world. ‘Everything that was up is down. Gravity is gone.’

It is not an easy book to read, because of this intensity. I kept having to put the book down, to try and settle my stomach and my mind, only to pick it up again, troubled but riveted. Her stream-of-consciousness style reminds me of James Joyce, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison and Arundhati Roy. It is written in language cracked by violence and cruelty. As Emma Glass said herself, it is ‘the language of ordeal’.

A tour-de-force in experimental writing, Peach is bold, surprising, and unsettling. Not for the weak-stomached.


You might be interested in reading my review of The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

I was lucky enough to interview Emma Glass this week, you can read it here.

Have you read Peach? Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

INTERVIEW: Emma Glass

Friday, July 13, 2018

 

Today we welcome Emma Glass, author of Peach, to the blog.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born and raised in Swansea, South Wales. I’ve lived in London for seven years where I work as a children’s nurse. I’m still figuring out how to be both a writer and a nurse, my work is essential, it’s an amazing source of inspiration and makes me feel like a useful, helpful person. Writing is my escape, but I wish I had a little more balance in my life as I rarely have extended periods of time to write. When I’m not nursing or writing I like to run on Hampstead Heath and spend time cooking and eating.

What is your favourite part of writing?
The best part of writing is finishing a piece and having someone read it, that’s when the writing becomes a story.

What do you do when you get blocked?

Cry. Learning how to be a productive writer is still a challenge for me. The best advice I heard from another writer to avoid block is to stop writing when you realise you’re on a roll. It’s much more appealing to go back to writing something you’re excited about than to go back to something you feel stuck on.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Patrick DeWitt
Magnus Mills
George Saunders
Margaret Atwood
Roald Dahl
Gertrude Stein
James Joyce
Shirley Jackson
Ann Patchett
Joan Lindsey

What do you consider to be good writing?
Writing that doesn’t just open up your imagination, but evokes reactions that you can feel in your body, something that stays with you a long time.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Don’t compromise on your art. Take advice on titles for your work. Always have a back up plan; writers need food and water, like plants and flowers.

What are you working on now?

Hopefully a ghost story!

You can read my review of Peach here.

Please leave a comment!


BOOK REVIEW: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

In nineteenth-century China, in a remote Hunan county, a girl named Lily, at the tender age of seven, is paired with a laotong, “old same,” in an emotional match that will last a lifetime. The laotong, Snow Flower, introduces herself by sending Lily a silk fan on which she’s painted a poem in nu shu, a unique language that Chinese women created in order to communicate in secret, away from the influence of men.

As the years pass, Lily and Snow Flower send messages on fans, compose stories on handkerchiefs, reaching out of isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. Together, they endure the agony of foot-binding, and reflect upon their arranged marriages, shared loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their deep friendship suddenly threatens to tear apart.


My Thoughts:


This extraordinary novel was first pubished in 2005, and gained a great deal of attention at the time, becoming a New York Times bestseller and being made into a movie. It was a book I always meant to read, but never picked up, until my own trip to China this month encouraged me to give it a go (I always like to read books set in the country to which I am travelling.)

It is an absolutely riveting read, telling the story of a long friendship between two Chinese women in the nineteenth century. At the age of seven, Lily is paired with another girl of the same age named Snow Flower. Their relationship is one of laotongs or sworn sisters, with a signed contract between them akin to that of marriage. "A laotong relationship is made by choice for the purpose of emotional companionship and eternal fidelity. A marriage is not made by choice and has only one purpose – to have sons." Snow Flower introduces herself to Lily by sending her a silk fan on which she’s painted a poem in nu shu, a secret language written only by Chinese women so they can communicate without men knowing.

The two girls have their feet bound on the same day, and their shared agony knot their lives together even more closely. This chapter is one of the most powerful and heartrending in the book, and dissects an appalling cultural practise that literally crippled girls so that they were kept closely constrained within the house and family. Not banned in China until 1912, foot-binding today seems barbaric but Snow Flower & the Secret Fan shows how deeply entrenched it was in some sections of Chinese culture. This unflinching honesty and historical accuracy is one of the great strengths of the novel, and truly transports the reader back in time.

As the years pass, Lily and Snow Flower continue to write their clandestine language on the fan, recording their hopes and dreams and fears and failures. Both have marriages arranged for them, both have children, and both carry secrets that will ultimately damage their deep bond.

Intense friendship between women is not often depicted in fiction, and that alone makes Snow Flower and the Secret Fan remarkable. I was also utterly immersed in the world of nineteenth century China, and its fascinating beliefs and customs. I feel I learned so much, and understood an aspect of human life that had always been closed to me before. This is what great historical fiction does for its readers – it teaches and illuminates as well as engaging and diverting. Haunting, heartbreaking and enthralling, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is utterly brilliant in every sense of the word.

For another great read about female relationships, check out my review of Louise Allan's The Sisters' Song. 


I was lucky enough to interview Lisa See for the blog this week, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment and recommend me some similar books!


INTERVIEW: Lisa See

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

 

Today I welcome Lisa See, author of many books, including Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
Absolutely. I don’t know how a writer could not be a daydreamer. We’re daydreaming all the time.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I knew three things about myself when I was growing up. I never wanted to get married, I didn’t want to have children, and I always wanted to live out of a suitcase. I took two years off from college to travel in Europe. The whole time I was wondering how I was going to make my life work the way I envisioned it and how I would be able to support myself. One morning, when I was living in Greece, I woke up and it was like a cartoon lightbulb had gone off in my head. I thought, Oh, I could be a writer! But clearly I didn’t know myself very well, because I also got married and had children. I still spend an awful lot of time living out of a suitcase though!

In one way, I was extremely fortunate with my first book. In another way, I’d already worked a very long time as a writer. To backtrack… I had worked as a journalist for many years and had been the West Coast correspondent for Publishers Weekly for about eight years when I started On Gold Mountain. Like I said, I’d already been working a long time as a professional writer, so people in publishing knew me and my work. (They may not have known me personally, but they read me almost every week and knew, among other things, that I could meet a deadline.) I also benefited from the success of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. Publishers were actively looking for more Chinese-American stories. Amy’s agent was Sandy Dijkstra. Sandy has a great American art collection, and she helped me with some of the art sources for On Gold Mountain. After two years of work—doing interviews, traveling back to the home village, searching out what I could find in archives, and then writing the proposal—I thought that Sandy would be the perfect person to sell the idea. There was an auction—a miracle as far as I was concerned. So, hard work, timing, and good luck.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?

I was born in Paris, but I consider myself to be a fifth generation Angeleno and sixth generation Californian. My parents were traveling when I was born. I spent my first six weeks sleeping in a dresser drawer. I live in Los Angeles. I love to hike, go to movies, eat fabulous food. I love being in nature. I love to travel. Most of all, I love to spend time with my family.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I first heard about nu shu – the women’s secret writing that was invented, used by, and kept a secret by women in one small county in Hunan province for a thousand years – when I reviewed a book for the Los Angeles Times on the history of footbinding. It was just a short three- or four-page mention, but I thought, how could the secret writing exist – the only writing system to have been found anywhere in the world used exclusively by women – exist and I didn’t know about it? Then I thought, how could this exist and we all didn’t know about it? Because so often we hear that in the past, there were no women writers, artists, historians, chefs, and the list goes on and on. Of course, women did these things, but that work has been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up. Nu shu, on the other hand, was an example of something that women had invented, used, and kept a secret for a thousand years. That amazed me, and I have to say I became totally obsessed. That obsession is what led me to write Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
I usually start with a seven-page outline. It has the main characters, the relationship I want to explore, the historical background, and a bit of a sense of the beginning, middle, and end. Then I start to do research. Without question, research is my favorite part of the process. I never know what I’m going to find. There are days when I’m hidden in the UCLA Research Library and I’ll come across something and think, Oh, I’ve got to use that! What this means is that the research helps build the plot. These things start to become signposts along the way. The outline begins to grow to sometimes as long as fifty or sixty pages. As I write, I’m slowly moving from major signpost to the next major signpost. In the day-to-day writing, my imagination takes over as I think about my characters moving toward that next signpost.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

Rarely. But sometimes when I’m stuck I’ll task my sleep time with trying to figure out what should happen next or how to solve a plot problem. Sometimes it takes a few nights of sleep, but then one morning I’ll wake up and I’ll think, Aha! Problem solved!

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
Not so much with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but it certainly happened with my most-recent novel, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. That book has a character named Deh-ja, who’s banished very early in the novel. After she was banished, I thought that was the end of her character. But things don’t always turn out as I plan. Years (and many chapters) later, when Li-yan, the main character, is walking to Thailand, who does she bump into? Deh-ja! That totally surprised me, but it made me very happy to see her again. Then, many years after that, when Li-yan is on the steps of the Social Welfare Institute in Menghai, who’s there? Deh-ja! Again! I was even more surprised. She wasn’t in my plot outline, and yet she kept elbowing her way into the story. As Li-yan says to her, the fact that they kept bumping into each other in the most unlikely places had to mean something. For Li-yan, that meant taking Deh-ja home with her. For me, it meant Deh-ja needed to be in the story. And for Deh-ja, it meant that her persistence had won.

Where do you write, and when?

I have an office at home. We have a beautiful garden, but my desk faces the wall because I don’t want to be distracted by the beauty outside my window. I get up early and work on my e-mail for an hour or two. Then I write 1,000 words a day. That’s only four pages. Some days I write more, but I try never to write less. I write from beginning to end without stopping to edit. Some writers won’t move forward until they get the first sentence, then the first paragraph, then the first page absolutely perfect, but I think you can spend a lot of time questioning yourself doing that. Also, if you write straight through, you allow magic – those unexpected things that pop up – to happen.

What is your favourite part of writing?
The research! I’ve gotten to travel to some really interesting places. But more than that, I just love the discovery of new things.

What do you do when you get blocked?
I’ve never had writer’s block. (And please don’t jinx me now!) That doesn’t mean that some days I don’t feel like writing or that I think what I’m writing sucks and will eventually be cut. Even when it’s going badly, I feel it’s really important to just keep writing that 1,000 words a day. This is not to say that sometimes I don’t get stuck: how am I going to physically get a character from here to there, what is the importance of an object and how does it play out in the story, why is a character behaving so badly? When these things come up, I don’t panic. I allow myself to daydream. (I find I have the best daydreaming when I walk, am stuck in traffic, or am in the shower. In other words, placed where no one can interrupt my imagining mind.) And I tell myself to let my sleeping mind figure it out.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
This is a great question, because it applies to every part of our lives. To me, the answer all boils down to keeping your heart and mind open. That means literally being open to new ideas, new artists, new art, new emotions, new—and different—everything.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
Not really. I make myself a great cup of tea. I try to close out the rest of the world. (My desk facing the wall instead of the garden, as I wrote earlier). I only type with three fingers. (That’s right. Eleven books with only three fingers!) I play music as long as there are no words in it or I can’t understand the language. Geez! I guess I have rituals after all!

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
I’m going to put these in alphabetical order so no one has their feelings hurt (assuming they’re still alive): Bob Dylan, E.M. Forster, Rudyard Kipling, John Lennon, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nina Revoyr, Carolyn See (my mom), Wallace Stegner, Amy Tan. For my tenth favorite, I’m going to say all the other wonderful writers out there.

What do you consider to be good writing?
I love books that when you open them you step into another world, another culture, another time. A truly good writer is able to take me to those places. Great writing allows me to connect to a character who’s real or imagined. What are we doing as readers when we’re making those connections? I believe we’re thinking about what we would do in that situation. Would we rise to the occasion or fail? Would we be loyal or betray someone? What I believe we’re doing in those moments is connecting to what it means to be human. We’re connecting to this greater thing we call humanity. That to me is good writing, and it’s what I strive for in my own work.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Write a thousand words a day, five days a week. That’s only four pages a day. At the end of a week, you’ll have a chapter. Write what you really care about. You need to be passionate, because it takes a long time to write a book and a lot of bumps happen along the road to publication. Love, love, love what you do.

What are you working on now?
The next novel, THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN, takes place on the island of Jeju in South Korea. Jeju is home to the haenyeo—women who free dive for up to two minutes on a single breath. The island has a matrifocal society, meaning that the culture is centered around women. It’s the women who earn money and provide for their families, while the men take care of the children, cook, and do the housework. It used to be that haenyeo retired at age fifty. Now the youngest ones are fifty! This is extremely dangerous work. The women go down sixty feet (again on a single breath) to harvest sea urchin, octopus, and abalone. When I was on Jeju, I got to interview several haenyeo who were in their eighties and nineties. The novel explores the bonds of friendship and how historic events affect people and those they love.


You can read my review of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning

Friday, July 06, 2018

  

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

In 2016, fleeing London with a broken heart, Alexandra returns to Australia to be with her grandparents, Romy and Wilhelm, when her grandfather is dying. With only weeks left together, her grandparents begin to reveal the family mysteries they have kept secret for more than half a century.

In 1939, two young girls meet in Shanghai, the 'Paris of the East': beautiful local Li and Viennese refugee Romy form a fierce friendship. But the deepening shadows of World War Two fall over the women as Li and Romy slip between the city's glamorous French Concession and the desperate Shanghai Ghetto. Eventually, they are forced separate ways as Romy doubts Li's loyalties.

After Wilhelm dies, Alexandra flies to Shanghai, determined to trace her grandparents' past. As she peels back the layers of their hidden lives, she begins to question everything she knows about her family - and herself.

A compelling and gorgeously told tale of female friendship, the price of love, and the power of hardship and courage to shape us all.


My Thoughts:

I flew off to China on a research trip last month, and so Kirsty Manning’s new book arrived with perfect timing to pack and take with me.

A parallel narrative moving between Australia and China, and modern day and the 1930s, The Jade Lily is a rich and evocative story of family secrets and love.

In 2016, Alexandra returns to Australia to be with her grandparents, Romy and Wilhelm, in the final weeks of her grandfather’s life. As she spends time with her grieving grandmother, Alexandra begins to wonder about some of the hidden mysteries of the past. Alexandra’s mother was adopted in China after the war, but Romy has never wanted to talk about why a young Western couple should bring home a Chinese baby at such a tumultuous time.

The narrative then moves to Romy’s point-of-view in 1938, when she and her parents are forced to flee Vienna after Kristallnacht brings violence and tragedy into their lives. Unable to find asylum anywhere, the family finds their way to Shanghai, the 'Paris of the East', the only place offering still visas to Jewish refugees.

Shanghai is strange and exotic to Romy’s bewildered eyes, but it is not long before her father, a doctor, finds work, and Romy begins to make friends with the beautiful Chinese girl next door, Li Ho, and her dreamy artistic brother Jian.

Meanwhile, in modern times, Alexandra has moved to Shanghai with her work and is taking the opportunity to research her mother’s true identity. Every avenue of enquiry ends in a dead end, but she too makes new friends, among them a handsome landscape designer who creates extaordinary gardens mingling Eastern and Western traditions.

As with Kirsty Manning’s first book, The Midsummer Garden, a great deal of the pleasure of reading The Jade Lily comes from the lush sensuality of her descriptions of food, cooking, gardens and healing herbs. The air of Shanghai is redolent with spices, Romy learns to make chrysanthemum tea, and Alexandra discovers the delicious local cuisine while strolling through crowded markets hung with red lanterns inscribed in gold. The two Shanghais – one modern and cosmopolitan, the other old and filled with fascinating traditions – are both brought to vivid and compelling life. Utterly sumptuous.

You can read my review of The Midsummer Garden here.

I was lucky enough to interview Kirsty Manning for the blog this week, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment, I love to hear your thoughts.


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