I was recently contacted by Random House Australia and asked to do a book review for Deborah O'Brien's new novel, The Jade Widow, which is being released this month – September 2013. I agreed to do it and then of course immediately started to get the pre-review jitters that, for me, always accompany a review promise.
I have talked before about how I approach book reviews with a fair amount of trepidation. I know that just because I don't enjoy a novel it doesn't mean that others won't. I also know the blood, sweat and wrist cramps that have gone into creating a book, and I hate to take away from the amazing accomplishment and hard work of the author.
There's a lot of inner dialogue going on in my head in the days leading up to reading the novel. All of this inner dialogue usually leads to a stalling process. I'm too tired, too busy, too…scared. Scared that I'll hate it. Ahhhhhh – what if I really, really hate it?
Anyway, I am happy to say that my stalling and agonising was all for nothing. Even though The Jade Widow, and Deborah's first fiction novel Mr Chen's Emporium (the prequel to The Jade Widow) are not books I would normally reach for, I loved them.
I am very lucky today to not only be presenting my review of The Jade Widow, but Deborah has very kindly also agreed to an author interview.
ABOUT DEBORAH O'BRIEN
Deborah O’Brien is a teacher, visual artist and writer. Born and raised in Sydney, she majored in French and German at the University of Sydney where she also completed a graduate Diploma of Education. She has authored a number of non-fiction books, contributed articles to a variety of magazines and written short stories.
Together with her husband and son, she divides her time between Sydney and a country cottage on the outskirts of her own personal Millbrooke. The Jade Widow is her second novel, following the bestselling Mr Chen’s Emporium.
BOOK REVIEW – THE JADE WIDOW
The Jade Widow picks up the lives of Amy Chen and Eliza Miller in Millbrooke, a small country town in New South Wales, twelve years after we left them in Mr Chen's Emporium.
Amy Chen is still in mourning for her husband, Charles, as she raises their son and runs the Emporium with her brother-in-law, Jimmy, and his wife. When she embarks on an ambitious plan to build the finest country hotel in New South Wales, she employs a handsome, green-eyed Irishman to manage the hotel and finds herself in danger of once again losing her heart.
Eliza is an outspoken woman helping usher in the dawning of the women's liberal movement. With only one year of her medical degree left she is devastated when Dr Allen, the local doctor she assists in Millbrooke, employs Dr Martin Burns to help him run his practice. Over the course of the next two years she finds, to her surprise, that her antagonism for Martin is replaced with something entirely different.
The point of view flows effortlessly between Amy and Eliza, seamlessly tying together their stories with the book's themes. Racism and discrimination, honor and honesty, and women's rights in the 1850's are explored along with the most important question for Eliza and Amy. Is it possible to have both love and a career?
Add to this the historical accuracy of the language, fashion, architecture, medical knowledge, attitudes and current political climate and you start to appreciate the hard work that has gone into creating this tale.
A historical novel would not be my normal preferred reading material but I found The Jade Widow so mesmerising that I read the entire book in one night. I was transported back to a time in Australian history where women were the weaker sex, an elevator was a marvel in engineering and Australian soldiers saw their first foreign war.
Perhaps my only criticism of The Jade Widow would be concerning the character development of Amy Chen. I found it a little hard to conceive that this woman who had been strong enough to brave her father's wrath and the ensuing scandal caused by her elopement with a Chinese man, and who conceived and carried out the dream of building and running a luxury hotel, would be so shocked by Eliza's outrageous claims that women were as good as men.
I realise that her confidence was shaken by the death of her husband, and that she perceived that death as punishment for their elopement, but she had also spent the last twelve years with John Miller, a man openly supportive of his daughter's desire to be a doctor, as her pseudo-father. She was a business owner and a single mother and had been best friends with Eliza for long enough that I would have thought some of Eliza's opinions might have started to creep into Amy's conscious thoughts. This anomaly, however, did not detract from my enjoyment of the book, but was more something I found myself thinking about after the story had ended.
Although it is the sequel to Mr Chen's Emporium, The Jade Widow can also be read as a stand alone book. I would recommend this book to anybody with an interest in Australian history or women's fiction. It would also make an excellent book club novel and school students studying Australian history would benefit from its addition to their school curriculum. Deborah O'Brien has even had the foresight to add a list of Reading Group Questions at the end of the book.
(I was given a copy of this book to read for free in exchange for an honest review.)
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First of all Deborah I’d like to thank you for taking the time out from your busy schedule to do this author interview. I’m thrilled to be able to showcase your latest novel, The Jade Widow, on my blog.
Thank you, Donna, for inviting me here.(By the way, I spent this afternoon reading all three pages of your blog articles and was thoroughly entertained.)
Both The Jade Widow and its prequel, Mr Chen’s Emporium, are situated in a country town called Millbrooke which you describe with a richness that transports the reader out of their living room and into the streets of the town. Have you lived there or is your intimate knowledge of Millbrooke due to your extensive research?
No, Millbrooke is a fictional place, but I think what makes it seem believable and authentic is that it’s a composite of many real Gold Rush towns, including my own. I’ve always loved the architecture of the Victorian era, particularly the cast-iron lace, the big verandahs and the parapets topped by Grecian urns, so I’ve incorporated those aspects into my imaginary town. When I was writing MR CHEN’S EMPORIUM I even drew a map of Millbrooke with all the buildings on it.
While we are talking about research I just wanted to say, one author to another, that I was profoundly impressed with the amount of investigation you must have completed to so thoroughly depict Millbrooke as it would have been in the 1880’s. Which was the most difficult to research: the buildings/street vista, the clothing, the political climate, the vocabulary or the medical knowledge of that time?
Thanks for saying that, Donna. I love doing research so it’s never a burden. These days the process isn’t as difficult as it used to be, when writers had to closet themselves away in libraries for weeks on end. I still like to visit libraries and museums, but there are also wonderful resources available online, including the National Library of Australia’s Trove website, which, among other things, gives access to old newspapers. There’s no better way to capture the spirit of the times than to read contemporary articles and classifieds. I tend to ‘waste’ a lot of time, lost within those digital pages.
It also helps that I live on the outskirts of a heritage town, and I’m literally surrounded by the past. On a Saturday afternoon, when the main street has emptied of traffic, I can half-close my eyes and easily imagine I’m back in what Henry Lawson called ‘the Roaring Days’.
You left the ending of The Jade Widow with the possibility of a third instalment in the series. Are you planning to write some more about Amy Chen and Eliza Miller?
There will be a third Millbrooke book but it doesn’t involve Amy or Eliza – well, not directly. I think we can guess where their lives are leading from the clues in MR CHEN’S EMPORIUM and also from what happens at the end of THE JADE WIDOW.
I noticed that Mr Chen’s Emporium was your first fiction book. What non-fiction books have you written?
I used to write art and design books. I also contributed articles to a number of magazines, both lifestyle and general interest – all under my married name.
Marriage of an Australian girl to a Chinese man was quite shocking in the 1880’s. Especially in the gold rush regions where there was a profound mistrust and jealousy of the Chinese people. Apart from Quong Tart and Margaret Scarlett Tart where there any other notable marriages like this that you came across in your research?
The marriage of Quong Tart and Margaret Scarlett is probably the most famous, but there were many others between Chinese men and European women during the second half of the nineteenth century – far more than people realise. Prejudice was rife, and sometimes the Chinese ancestor was erased from the family tree by succeeding generations. This was particularly the case during the period of the deplorable Immigration Restriction Act, codifed nationally in 1901. It became known as the ‘White Australia policy’ and persisted into the mid-twentieth century.
Your description of the platypus in his natural habitat was spot on. Have you spent a lot of time observing them, and if so where?
Yes, we’re fortunate to have several platypus living in the creek at the bottom of our garden. The day the real estate agent first showed us the property, we saw a platypus happily duck-diving in the water, oblivious to the humans observing him. I have to confess he provided the ‘wow factor’ that sealed the deal.
I particularly liked your use of the words conniption and piffle, and intend to use them more in everyday conversation. Were there any new words that you learnt while writing The Jade Widow that you have taken up as your own?
I do like ‘fudge and fiddlesticks’ but haven’t actually used it. I’m sure it would provoke an interesting response if I did!
It’s fascinating to look at how language has changed and the ways in which new words and phrases are acquired while others become archaic. The problem for writers of historical fiction is that we have to be wary of anachronisms. We can’t have our characters using modern expressions. It jolts readers out of the historical world they’ve been immersed in and right back into the twenty-first century.
What’s next for Deborah O’Brien?
I’m working on an ill-fated love story shifting in time between the 1970s and the present day. And I’m doing the revisions for another Millbrooke novel (as mentioned earlier) – the final book in the Emporium Trilogy – a modern-day story involving Angie.
Okay so now I’m going to put you through my Author Pop Quiz so my readers can learn a bit more about the real Deborah O’Brien.
Cats or dogs?
Dogs (but don’t tell my cat, a seventeen-year-old tabby!) I have an adorable kelpie x blue heeler puppy called Angel – I’m hoping the name is a self-fulfilling prophecy. And before Angel, we had a beautiful tricolour collie rough.
Sunsets or sunrises?
Sunsets – we face west over a river.
The beach or the country?
Definitely the country for its peace and quiet.
Travelling abroad or around Australia?
When I was younger, I travelled widely in Europe and North America, but these days we enjoy exploring closer to home.
The gym or the couch?
I’m not really a gym person so I’ll have to say the couch – with a cup of tea, a plate of Tim Tams and an episode of DOWNTON ABBEY.
Mystery, fantasy or science fiction?
Definitely mystery. I love a good crime thriller, preferably Ian Rankin, Ruth Rendell or Michael Robotham.
Cooking or cleaning?
This is a no-brainer. I hate cleaning and love cooking.
You have to choose an animal you will become in your next life and the only ones not taken are a skunk, a bird spider and a chicken. Which would you choose and why?
I don’t really fancy any of them. Are you sure alpacas aren’t taken? Okay, definitely not the skunk or the spider.I suppose if I were to be a free range chicken (not a battery hen – poor things) on a nice little farm, it wouldn’t be too bad.
And now for the ever important Food Portion of the Pop Quiz.
Sweet or savoury?
Tea or coffee?
Tea – Early Grey with skim milk.
Ice-cream or gelato?
Red or white wine?
Cake or biscuits?
My mum’s melting moments and ANZAC biscuits. That golden syrup smell is irresistible.
White, milk or dark chocolate?
Dark chocolate – isn’t it good for you?
Meat or tofu?
If there’s one thing I hate, it’s tofu. But I love a roast dinner.
Thanks again Deborah, it’s been a real pleasure hosting you on my blog. Good luck with The Jade Widow and whatever project you are currently working on.
Thanks, Donna. It’s been a pleasure.
Mr Chen's Emporium and The Jade Widow are available for sale at Big W, all good book stores and internet distributors.
Here are the links to the eBook version on amazon.com:
Visit Deborah's Blogsite.