Film Review:



The madness and futility of the First World War has been the inspiration for many fine films, beginning in 1930 with Lewis Milestone’s version of the Erich Maria Remarque novel, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, which was a daring story for its time, in that it showed the horrors of war from the perspective of German infantrymen.

In Sam Mendes’s ‘1917’, it is the British with whom we sympathise, but in other ways, the themes are similar - incompetent and ego-driven officers, and troops who are treated as cannon fodder. Mendes, however, also gives us officers doing their best in impossible circumstances.

This film is based on a story told to Mendes by his grandfather, Alfred, to whom the film is dedicated. In that respect, it is a very personal project.

But what makes ‘1917’ unique is the way it is filmed as a continuous shot or, at least, the illusion of one. We literally follow the two lance corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), on their mission to cross no man’s land and reach the Devonshire battalion in order to warn the colonel that they are heading into a German trap and they should call off their attack. For Corporal Blake, this mission is deeply personal – his brother is a lieutenant with the Devons.

We follow Blake and Schofield as they weave their way through the British trenches and then cross the battlefield, avoiding bomb craters filled with water and rotting bodies. Eventually they reach the abandoned German trenches, where a nasty surprise awaits them.

There are heart-stopping incidents along the way, as well as a poignant encounter with a young French woman who is caring for an orphaned baby, a scene which reminds us humanity can exist in the hell that is the Western Front. Possibly the most moving moment of the entire film is the scene involving the hymn ‘Poor Wayfaring Stranger’. It brought tears to my eyes.

‘1917’ does not have leading men in the traditional sense. The two protagonists are little known* actors; their very anonymity makes the viewer’s identification with them much stronger. There are some ‘name’ actors in the film – an almost unrecognisable Colin Firth as the general who sends the boys on their mission, Andrew Scott (Moriarty from ‘Sherlock’) as a world-weary lieutenant who couldn’t give a damn, and the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch in a brief but nuanced performance as the frazzled colonel in charge of the Devons.

‘1917’ is a moving story of the horrors of war. It has already won a Golden Globe for Best Drama and you can expect an Academy Award to follow for the film and its director.

*George MacKay plays a tortured Ned Kelly in 'The True History of Ned Kelly' (2019)  alongside Essie Davis and Russell Crowe.

Deborah O’Brien

26 January 2020


fbook icon 60Adverbs and Chocolate

 Welcome to LINDT's Secrets of Chocolate

Image: Lindt Chocolate 

I have a confession to make. Just as I yearn to finish a box of Lindt chocolates in a single sitting, I'm also tempted to sprinkle my prose with adverbs. I can trace this tendency back to primary school days when we were encouraged to drop adverbs into our sentences in the same way you might add a generous handful of chocolate chips to a biscuit mix.  If you wanted a high mark for your story, you soon learned that lean, spare prose wasn't good enough. You had to produce a lavish confection loaded with modifiers.

Some years later, I read Stephen King’s wonderful book, On Writing and discovered I'd been committing a terrible sin.

This is what Mr King had to say:

‘… the road to hell is paved with adverbs.’

He was right, of course. And in my case, he might equally have said: ‘The road to hell is paved with chocolates’.

After that, I followed Mr King's advice and established some rules for myself: verbs and nouns are okay but exercise caution with adjectives, and extreme caution with adverbs. And ration yourself to two squares of dark chocolate per day.

Recently I’ve been writing an historical novel set in the Victorian era. It's a time period which allows me to indulge my secret passion for adverbs. You see, unlike the literati of the modern world, the Victorians loved them. In fact, you would rarely find an adjective or a verb without a modifier accompanying it.  ‘Dreadfully’, ‘exceedingly’, ‘awfully’ were favourites. The Victorians combined them with positive words: dreadfully nice, exceedingly handsome, awfully good to intensify the meaning of the adjective.

But before I proceed any further, let me dispel a myth. Not all adverbs end in ‘–ly’. In fact, some of the most useful ones don’t look like adverbs at all:

sometimes, often, seldom, never, ever, always, soon, already, seldom, now, nowadays, today, tomorrow, yesterday, then, …

perhaps, maybe, also, almost, only, just, quite, very, too, …

everywhere, nowhere, anywhere, elsewhere, backwards, forwards, …

And that’s just for starters.

So here's the thing. When people offer warnings about adverbs, are they just referring to the ‘-ly’ variety or to all of them? And if certain types of chocolate have a higher fat content than others, is it the same with adverbs?  Are the  ‘–ly’ variety more sinful than those I listed above? I really don’t know the answer. Perhaps someone can tell me ...

P.S. If I missed out on highlighting any adverbs, please let me know! 

Deborah O’Brien

February 22, 2013 


fbook icon 60Introducing THE JADE WIDOW

Jade Widow01 small 

There’s always a lot of nail-biting after a writer finishes a new manuscript and sends it off to the publisher. Is it as good as the last one? Is the beginning strong enough? Does the ending work? And should I have checked it just one more time before pressing the ‘Send’ button? When you receive word that your publisher likes it, the relief is palpable.

   Then the revision and checking processes begin. This time I decided to do chapter summaries and a timeline – not from the outset, but after I completed the first draft. For someone who doesn't plan her books beyond an initial premise and a few guideposts, it was like having root canal. (I’ve never actually undergone that particular dental procedure, but the words alone terrify me.) Nevertheless, the summaries and chronology were worth the pain, not to mention the tedium, because they revealed inconsistencies and errors which are best eliminated early.

As a Libran, I love balance. So I’ve structured the book in the same way that I arrange things on a mantel – symmetrically. My story starts in November, 1886 and then goes back to February of 1885, a tumultuous month in the history of New South Wales. From there the novel works itself forward to the end of the following year. Events come full circle … or do they?

THE JADE WIDOW is a sequel to MR CHEN’S EMPORIUM, picking up Amy Duncan's life when she’s thirty, but it’s also a stand-alone novel. I'm hoping new readers will enjoy meeting the Chen and Miller families, while those who've read MR CHEN will take pleasure in revisiting some of the characters they got to know previously in the historical thread of that novel. Eliza Miller, who seems to be a favourite with readers, plays a big part in this book. 

You'll also meet some intriguing newcomers, including a couple of rather engaging gentlemen. I have to confess that I fell in love with one of them in the process of writing him. Yes, I realise it was a very silly thing for a writer to do, but I’m afraid I couldn’t help myself. (I’ve done it before – with Charles Chen – so I really should have known better!)

THE JADE WIDOW will be released in the second half of the year.

Deborah O’Brien

January 28, 2013


fbook icon 60The Colour Lilac


DOB BFly02 

I’ve always associated the colour black with mourning. Black arm-bands, high-necked black dresses, black veils, jet jewellery. Recently I've been researching mourning practices during the Victorian era for my book, The Jade Widow. What I've learned is that there was a convention known as ‘half-mourning’, which allowed the grieving widow to wear lilac after the first year or two had passed.

For those who have suffered the loss of a loved one, you will know there is no such thing as grieving by halves. Not in an emotional sense. Nor can anyone set a timeline on the grieving process and expect a person who has been bereaved to follow it. ‘Grief has its own timetable,’ as one of the characters in my book says. ‘You can’t expect it to depart at a set time like a steam-engine.’

All the same, I'm drawn to the idea of lilac as a transition from sombre black and greytones to lighter, brighter hues, reflecting the journey from darkest grief towards hope and renewal.

But why lilac rather than any other colour? Well, it seems that lilac bushes have been a symbol of love and loss since ancient times. Whether this special significance derives from the flowers themselves or the lingering fragrance or even the heart-shaped leaves, I don't know. 

As for the sudden popularity of the colour lilac in the mid-1800s, there’s a very practical reason. Until that time, the colour had been extracted from mallow plants or from the glands of mollusks. Both processes would have been labour-intensive and expensive. No wonder purple was the colour reserved for royalty! Can you imagine how many mollusks would have been sacrificed to make a single vial of lilac dye? I don’t even want to think about it!

In the spring of 1856 everything changed when eighteen-year-old London student, Jade Widow Statue02William Perkin undertook a chemistry experiment which produced a lilac-coloured residue. Realising its potential as a synthetic dye, he dubbed it ‘mauveine’ and applied for a patent. In 1862, the year after Prince Albert died, Queen Victoria was seen wearing lilac – or mauve, as it came to be known - to the Royal Exhibition. And suddenly it became the hue du jour.

The colour lilac plays a symbolic role in my novel-in-progress, 'The Jade Widow' (September 2013), which is set in 1880s' Australia. But I had better not go into the details for fear of giving too much away. Suffice it to say that the widow in question is so reluctant to replace her black clothes with something less sombre that her friends have dubbed her ‘the black widow’.

Will she remain the grieving widow forever or will she embrace life again? I'm afraid you’ll have to wait and see! 

Special thanks to my friend Jan N. who first alerted me to the significance of the colour lilac in Victorian times.

Photo taken by my husband this summer before the heatwave - it's a buddleia not a lilac.

Deborah O’Brien

January, 2013


fbook icon 60Christmas


DOB Xmas 2012 5

Christmas is a very special time at our house. This morning my husband took some pictures of our Christmas tree decorated with the ornaments friends and family have given me over the years. Each one tells a story and reminds me of the giver. Some of them are handmade - exquisite little pieces of cross-stitch, folk art, beadwork and every kind of art and craft. But my favourite remains the clothes-peg reindeer my son made in kindergarten.

DOB Xmas 2012 1

DOB Xmas 2012 6

Over the years a dear friend of mine, who lives in the country, has given me the most beautiful painted Santas, as well as quilted and embroidered wall hangings. Isn't the Santa gourd wonderful?

DOB Xmas 2012 2

My garden looks like Christmas too - the gardenias and hydrangeas are in bloom. Everyone asks me how I manage to grow such large gardenia flowers  - I really don't know. I have an entire hedge of them, but only one bush produces big blooms.  Maybe I'm just lucky.

DOB Xmas 2012 8

Wishing you a joyful Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year!


Deborah O'Brien

December 1, 2012 


fbook icon 60Alpacas versus Llamas


If you've read 'Mr Chen's Emporium', you'll know that it contains a storyline about alpacas, which appears in the modern-day thread of the book (alpacas were only introduced to Australia in 1988*). One of the characters in the novel is always confusing them with llamas. I'm not exactly sure of the biological difference between alpacas and llamas myself , except that llamas are bigger, but I've always thought alpacas are cuter.

However, I'm now wondering if I might have been wrong about that. You see, my husband recently showed me these pictures he took many years ago whilst mountaineering in the Andes. He and a group of friends from his university in Canada flew down to Peru with the intention of climbing a particular mountain which had never been climbed before. Unfortunately the leader left the map behind! So they decided to catch a bus from Cuzco and after a very long trip they were dropped off in a valley at the start of an old Inca trail. They climbed it for several hours, reaching about 15,000 feet. That was where these pictures were taken. 

Did they ever climb the previously unclimbed mountain? They weren't really sure. They did climb to about 18,ooo feet, where they looked towards a distant range of mountains. "I think that's where we should been climbing," said the leader.



Aren't the llamas gorgeous? Here's an alpaca picture (crias) so that you can compare the two.


* According to a fact sheet from the SA Department of Primary Industry and Resources, alpacas were first introduced to Australia in 1858 but the initiative failed. I imagine that the alpacas must have died, perhaps from the heat. Very, very sad.

Since writing this article, I've discovered several contemporary articles in 'The Argus' (courtesy of the Trove website run by the National Library of Australia), referring to the arrival of the alpacas. 

Deborah O'Brien

December, 2012.


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