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BOOK REVIEW: Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Sent by her family to work in a silk factory just prior to World War II, young Pei grows to womanhood, working fifteen-hour days and sending her pay to the family who abandoned her.

In Women of the Silk Gail Tsukiyama takes her readers back to rural China in 1926, where a group of women forge a sisterhood amidst the reeling machines that reverberate and clamor in a vast silk factory from dawn to dusk. Leading the first strike the village has ever seen, the young women use the strength of their ambition, dreams, and friendship to achieve the freedom they could never have hoped for on their own. Tsukiyama's graceful prose weaves the details of "the silk work" and Chinese village life into a story of courage and strength.


My Thoughts:

A slim volume of interconnected stories about young women working in a silk factory in China in the 1930s, Women of the Silk begins when a young girl, Pei, is sold by her father and goes to learn the craft of weaving silk. Heartbroken and alone, Pei eventually makes friends and settles into her new life. The work is hard and poorly paid, and most of Pei’s income is sent to her family. She finds a sisterhood of women, who all have their own stories of cruelty and loss to tell. The years pass, and Pei grows up. China is beginning to change, and the women of the silk change with it. They go on strike for better wages and working conditions, and some fall in love or die. Then the Japanese invade China in 1937, and Pei and her friends must try and escape.

A story as beautiful and delicate as the silk the girls spin, Gail Tsukiyama’s novel gives a glimpse into the lives of young women struggling to survive in a culture that does not value them. The result is slow and elegiac and unforgettable.

You might also be interested in my review of The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel.

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

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

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!


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.

BOOK REVIEW: The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

  

I went to see Amy Tan speak at the Sydney Writers Festival a few years ago, and bought The Valley of Amazement then. It was her first book in eight years and, like many of her earlier works such as The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife, was inspired by her own Chinese heritage. 

At almost 600 pages, the book is not a light read and this may explain why it sat on my to-be-read bookshelf for four years without ever being picked up. Every year, as the Sydney Writers’ Festival approaches once more, I try and read any books I bought there in previous years so that I don’t feel so guilty about buying another dozen or so. My own trip to China, and my desire to read novels set there, moved The Valley of Amazement to the top of the pile. 

Spanning more than forty years, The Valley of Amazement is a sweeping, evocative family epic that tells the story of a half-Chinese, half-American girl who is kidnapped and sold into a Shanghai courtesan’s house at the tender age of fourteen. Unable to escape, she is trained in the ancient art of seduction before her virginity is sold to the highest bidder. Strong-willed, impetuous, and determined, Violet becomes one of the city’s top courtesans before she falls in love with a rich American. He is trapped in a loveless marriage, but he and Violet make a life for themselves in Shanghai and have a daughter together.

Tragedy and drama follow in a long chain of events, as Violet’s life is affected by betrayal, revolution and war. The most pivotal moments in 20th century Chinese history are brought to life on the page, from the dissolution of the imperial dynasty to the rise of the Republic. Some of Violet’s adventures seem contrived merely for the chance to examine another aspect of Chinese culture and society, but Amy Tan’s writing style is so engaging this is easily forgiven. 

At her session at the Sydney Writers Festival, which moved me to buy the book, Amy Tan explained that she was inspired to write The Valley of Amazement after seeing a photograph of Shanghai courtesans in a book. She realised that the costumes worn by the courtesans was identical to an outfit worn by her grandmother. She later discovered that no ‘respectable’ woman would ever have gone to a Western photographic studio. She began to wonder if her grandmother had once been a courtesan, and what her life would have been like. Although she was never able to discover the truth, that moment of wondering became the impetus for writing her novel.

Amy Tan's depiction of the life of a Shanghai courtesan world is colourful, bawdy, funny, and heartbreaking. I was at times furious at both Violet and her mother for their stupidity in trusting bad men so easily, but then also uneasily aware that I may well have made the same mistakes, given the circumstances. Violet’s longing for love and freedom is surely universal, and China in the early 20th century was not an easy place to be a woman. 

For another great read set in China, check out my review of The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel.

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




THE BLUE ROSE: Reaching the Halfway Point

Sunday, April 22, 2018


For almost a year I have been working on a novel called The Blue Rose.

It tells the story of Viviane de Ravoisier, the daughter of a French marquis, and David Stronach, a Welsh gardener who travels to her chateau in Brittany to design and plant an English-style garden. The two fall in love, but their passion is forbidden. David is driven away  and Viviane is married against her will to a duc. She is taken to the palace of Versailles where she witnesses the early days of the French Revolution. Through her eyes, I tell the story of the fall of the Bastille, the abolition of the nobility, and the beginning of the Terror.

I imagine the Chateau de Belisima-sur-le-lac looking a little like this chateau in Brittany, the Château de Trécesson:




I first discovered this chateau when someone posted a picture of it on Facebook, wondering what the chateau was called. It was so like what I imagined Viviane's home looking like, I went and searched on the internet until I located it and it has been my desktop picture ever since.   

I have a very visual imagination and so I am always printing out pictures and sticking them in my notebooks, or pinning them on Pinterest (you can check out all the pictures on my Pinterest page if you like.) 

I also like to collect small artefacts that help inspire my imagination. 

The first is a small miniature of a 18th century French noblewoman that I bought on Etsy. It's the most exquisite little painting, and it has work dits way into the story as a miniature of Viviane's mother, who died the day she was born.  



My other treasure, I found in an old antique shop in France when I was there two years ago researching this book. 

It is a huge old key. The man in the antique shop told me that it was the key to a chateau that had been burned during the french revolution. The key was found in the chateau well 270 years later. No-one knows who threw it in the well, or why. This story really intrigued me and so I bought the key, and it now hangs on my wall. 



This anecdote too has worked its way into the story.

This week, I finished Part II of The Blue Rose and reached the halfway point at 60,000 words in total.  

My action now moves from France to a ship sailing around the world to China. 

I plan to go to China with my son in mid-May. Maybe I will find some fascinating artefact there that will inspire me anew. I hope so!


THE BLUE ROSE: my work-in-progress

Monday, February 12, 2018

In recent months I have been slowly but steadfastly working away on on my novel-in-progress, The Blue Rose.

So far, I have written 44,000 words.

My star-crossed lovers, Viviane and David, have met and fallen in love, but been torn apart by cruel circumstance.  

Those early scenes are all set in a chateau in Brittany, which I imagine being like the beautiful medieval fortress, the Château de Trécesson


My heroine Viviane has lived there all her life, not even travelling far enough away to see the sea, which is never far away in Brittany. 

My hero, David, is a Welshman and the grandson of a poor pastor. He has come to the chateau to build a garden for Viviane's father, the Marquis.

But, of course, a lowly gardener must not fall in love with a Marquis's daughter. 

Viviane is now at Versailles and desperately unhappy. Her own inner turmoil is reflected in the escalating violence in the streets. For, in the world of my book, it is July 1789, and the Bastille is about to fall.



I'm aiming for a total word count of around 120,000-125,000 words, and so at 44,000 words I am more than one-third of the way through the book. However, I've only written about a quarter of my planned story.  

I'm not worried about this.

I always write much more than I need as I discover my story, and so the first section will need to be cut back strongly. I will do that when I finished a rough first draft (what I like to call my 'discovery draft') as I will then have a stronger idea what must stay and what can go.)

The title of the book is inspired by an old fairytale set in China called 'The Blue Rose'.



You will just need to wait to find out what this has anything to do with a novel set during the Terror of the French revolution ...

Desperate to know more?

Read my earlier blogs about the inspiration of The Blue Rose.





   

BOOK REVIEW: The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel

Friday, November 10, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

There is no easy path for a woman aspiring to power. . . .


A concubine at the palace learns quickly that there are many ways to capture the Emperor’s attention. Many paint their faces white and style their hair attractively, hoping to lure in the One Above All with their beauty. Some present him with fantastic gifts, such as jade pendants and scrolls of calligraphy, while others rely on their knowledge of seduction to draw his interest. But young Mei knows nothing of these womanly arts, yet she will give the Emperor a gift he can never forget.

Mei’s intelligence and curiosity, the same traits that make her an outcast among the other concubines, impress the Emperor. But just as she is in a position to seduce the most powerful man in China, divided loyalties split the palace in two, culminating in a perilous battle that Mei can only hope to survive.

The first volume of the Empress of Bright Moon duology paints a vibrant portrait of ancient China—where love, ambition, and loyalty can spell life or death—and the woman who came to rule it all.


My Thoughts:

I met Weina Dai Randel when I was in the US earlier this year, attending the Historical Novel Society conference in Portland. A gorgeous cover and intriguing premise worked their usual powerful force on me, and I added her novel The Moon in the Palace to the great pile of books I had to lug home.

The story begins when a Buddhist monk predicts that a five-year-old girl named Mei would one day be the mother of emperors and reign over the kingdom of China. From that moment, Mei’s father began to plot to have his beautiful little girl brought to the attention of the Emperor. Her father’s plans are disrupted by his unexpected death, but then Mei – now twelve years old – finds herself summoned to the court as one of fifteen maidens chosen to enter the Inner Court. From this moment, her life changes drastically. Separated from her mother, she must learn to negotiate through the intrigues and dangers of the life at the palace. The Emperor has many hundreds of concubines, most of which he has never seen. If Mei wants to become his Most Adored, she must use her wit as well as her beauty … and be very careful not to fall in love with another man …

The Moon in the Palace brings the claustrophobic world of ancient China to vivid life. Exotic, dangerous, brilliantly coloured and romantic, it’s an astonishingly assured debut and a fascinating story.


For another great read set in Ancient Asia, in this case Japan, I recommend Lian Hearn's book Across the Nightingale Floor, the first in a fantastic series. It made my list of favourite books by Australian Authors. 


Remember to leave a comment - I love to know your thoughts!




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