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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.

INTERVIEW: Kirsty Manning

Friday, July 06, 2018


Today I welcome Kirsty Manning, author of The Jade Lily, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
Yes indeed. I think this was the most frequent comment on my school reports. It wasn’t a compliment at the time, but it has served me well over the years.
Although, my kids often stop and ask me who I’m talking to when I’m alone.
I’m often caught walking, or driving along having animated conversations with people who don’t exist.

How extensively do you plan your novels?

I like to have a rough idea of the line of my story before I start. The Jade Lily is historical fiction and set in Shanghai during the Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War (WW2) so there were specific dates that had to be hit, for obvious reasons!

The book opens with Kristallnacht in Vienna and I had a very clear idea of the opening scene. I then had some specific scenes planned, plus a rough idea of how the book would end. I used Scrivener this time, and found it very helpful to map out scenes and move them around. I’ve learnt after two books I tend to write the opening, then a loose ending … then I patchwork the two storylines together. I’m never quite sure of how it will turn out, but a plod away and somewhere in the writing some magic happens to join all the dots up. It’s a delightful surprise (and a hell of a relief!) when it all comes together in the end.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
I spent time speaking with Sam Moshinsky in Melbourne, author of Goodbye Shanghai, and a Russian Jew who grew up in Shanghai’s French Concession. He was delighted to meet me over coffee and tell me about his time in Shanghai and he then went on to read a draft of the book and answer questions ranging from Jewish rituals, to the tiny minutia of life in Shanghai under the Occupation.

Sam introduced me to Horst Eisfelder, a former German refugee who spent time in the Shanghai ghetto. It turned out Horst had arrived in Shanghai on the same Italian ocean liner, Conte Verde, as my imaginary Romy … and also, his family had owned the real café in the ghetto my character Romy visits, Café Louis.

Where do you write, and when?

I have a small office—basically a corridor—that overlooks my deck and the garden. It’s like working in a glass treehouse. When I’m at the early stages, and also when I’m editing, I like to work here as it is filled with reference books and it is easy to access the bookshelf.

When I start a book, the office is impeccable. During the last draft and editing, you can hardly see the desk or floor as it is covered in scrawled notes and annotated pages.

I write during school hours for the initial drafts, then in a mad frenzy whenever it is close to submission. I always promise myself that I won’t work right up to the deadline like a crazy person, but I always do.

What do you do when you get blocked?

I do feel full of self-doubt at times. I worry I’ll never find a satisfactory path to the end of the novel. But I’ve learned there is no divine inspiration involved. For me the key is discipline.

I avoid being blocked because I sit down and treat writing a novel like the job it is … just as if I were required to submit an article when I was a freelance writer. I give myself a task every day, or word count, and I methodically work away at it. Some days are better than others

It helps when I start on the book to dive in and stick at it until I nut out the characters. I’m always dreaming about my novel, and talking to myself trying to figure out how to make it work. Much of the work is done when you are doing other things, like driving, weeding and cleaning. Sounds mad, but true!

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

Reading widely, walking and gardening.

I love being in my garden, doing hard physical work. It forces me to slow down. Gardening is a little like writing in some ways—it’s not instant results. You have to have an idea, and break it down to plant out or weed section by section. It’s easy to be overwhelmed if you try and do it all at once.

In my writing, I try to capture that old-school idea of how plants can uplift us and create something special.

I adore being in different landscapes, and I’m always peeking at gardens down lane ways and over fences when I travel. I just can’t help myself. Plants and landscape really inspire me every day.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Oh, that’s tough. I love writers across a range of genres. In no particular order: Geraldine Brooks, A.S. Byatt, Michelle de Kretser, Jodi Picoult, Michael Robotham, Richard Flanagan, Ian McEwan, Harper Lee, Richard Ford, Kate Grenville and Isabel Allende. That’s eleven, but seriously … who would you cut from that list?

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

1. Read widely. Most writers I know are great readers across every genre, not just the area they write in. I read biography, historical fiction, commercial, literary fiction, poetry and crime. Study how great writers perfect their craft and then step away and find a way to make it your own.

2. Be disciplined and do the work. There are very few writers who have the story just pour from their fingertips. Most rewrite and re-work and massage until it is ‘just so!’ It will likely take far more time, and far more re-writing than you expected.

3. Learn the craft. There are so many amazing writing courses around, along with online writing communities. Try both, if you can.

4. Write what you love. Writing is a long game. Chances are you will spend years lost in the story and characters. So don’t write what you think you should, write what you love because you will spend a hell of a lot of time with this story every day. (Dare I use the word, obsessed?)

5. If your children are old enough, teach them to cook. Trust me, meal prep can be time-consuming and you can buy yourself an extra hour of writing time while they get busy in the kitchen. My kids enjoy planning meals, especially in the holidays. Extra points if they can do all the housework too.

What are you working on now?
My third novel, with a dual timeframe narrative. This one centres on another forgotten corner of history, and tries to solve a centuries-old mystery.

I’ll be exploring themes of truth, beauty, globalisation and identity. Sounds very Keatsian, doesn’t it? My readers will expect a couple of exotic destinations, a generational conundrum, lovely gardens and some mouth-watering food. I’m doing my best to research it all now. Particularly the food. I always start to cook the dishes of the countries I am writing about. I like to lose myself in the scents, the textures, the rituals … it is all part of the process.

You can read my review of The Jade Lily here.

Please leave a comment!

BOOK REVIEW: The Midsummer Garden by Kirsty Manning

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Travelling between lush gardens in France, windswept coastlines of Tasmania, to Tuscan hillsides and beyond, The Midsummer Garden lures the reader on an unforgettable culinary and botanical journey.

1487 Artemisia is young to be in charge of the kitchens at Chateau de Boschaud but, having been taught the herbalists' lore, her knowledge of how food can delight the senses is unsurpassed. All of her concentration and flair is needed as she oversees the final preparations for the sumptuous wedding feast of Lord Boschaud and his bride while concealing her own secret dream. For after the celebrations are over, she dares to believe that her future lies outside the chateau. But who will she trust?

2014 Pip Arnet is an expert in predicting threats to healthy ecosystems. Trouble is, she doesn't seem to recognise these signs in her own life. What Pip holds dearest right now is her potential to make a real difference in the marine biology of her beloved Tasmanian coastline. She'd thought that her fiance Jack understood this, believed that he knew she couldn't make any plans until her studies were complete. But lately, since she's finally moved in with him, Jack appears to have forgotten everything they'd discussed.

When a gift of several dusty, beautiful old copper pots arrives in Pip's kitchen, the two stories come together in a rich and sensuous celebration of family and love, passion and sacrifice.

My Thoughts:

Kirsty Manning is an Australian journalist and author who has previously co-authored a book on gardens and cooking called We Love Food. These two passions are apparent on every page of her debut novel, The Midsummer Garden.

The novel travels back and forth in time between the stories of Pip, an Australian doctoral student in 2014, and Artemisia, a cook at the Chateau de Boschaud in 1487. The two are linked by the discovery of a small book of hand-written recipes hidden within a set of antique French copper pots given to Pip as a wedding gift. Artemisia is planning to marry also, although she must keep her romance a secret from the cruel Abbot Roald who would never give his permission. Pip’s marriage plans are also in danger of falling apart, as her studies into Tasmanian marine life do not seem as important to her fiancé Jack as they are to her.

As both women’s hopes and dreams unravel, the story travels to Spain and then to Italy as Pip searches for her true calling. This is a rich, sensual, and evocative novel, fragrant with the smell of crushed herbs and flowers, and haunted by the high cost that women must sometimes pay to find both love and their vocation. 

For another book about food and France, see my review of Picnic in Provence by Elizabeth Bard. 

Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment! 

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