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Historical Novels
Title: Jade Phoenix
Author: Syd Goldsmith
Rating: Must Read!
Publisher: iUniverse
Web Page:
Reviewed by: Les Chappell | View Bio

Syd Goldsmith's "Jade Phoenix" is an exemplar of the historical novel: a book that portrays its era with the same detail and sensitivity as the characters that live in it. Its era is that of 1960s-1970s Taiwan, and its characters are two Chinese and an American forced to make a living in a country where one remark can kill and one week creates a decade-long infatuation.

Goldsmith's characters learn fast what it takes to survive in Taiwan. Ko-sa Ong, once a poor orphan, grows up to be the island's largest car dealer but is shackled with fear he dishonored his ancestors. Nick Malter, a failed graduate student, moves from studying to reporting in an attempt to understand the inscrutable Chinese mind. Both men are united by doubts, but even more by Jade Phoenix - prostitute daughter of a disgraced general, gifted with unconcealable beauty.

Meeting randomly, the trio finds their lives entwined by a series of commitments that Goldsmith renders with ample detail and emotion. Nick and Ko-sa form a friendship in the suspension of scuba diving - where language and race is irrelevant - and Nick falls helplessly in love with Jade after a week in the temples and landmarks of Tainan. When financial problems entangle Ko-sa and Jade, Nick extends help without any expectations and shows them his culture with veteran understanding of their outsiders' dilemma.

The fact that these characters are deep in the fallout of China's Cultural Revolution only makes it more interesting. Goldsmith's Taiwan is far less optimistic than American history books show: not an outpost of freedom but as socially restricted as China, desperately believing their little island can conquer the mainland. When President Nixon breaks the stand-off with China, Ko-sa and Nick experience no joy at a Cold War victory but spite that he also broke decades of United States-Taiwan relations.

And by the time that event comes around, the reader will share their disdain for a political move that ruined the independence hopes of 12 million Taiwanese. They'll already share Nick's desire to get deeper into Chinese culture, balanced with Ko-sa's tension at being born into it. Goldsmith doesn't bludgeon a reader with these views but lets them develop, clearly familiar with his subject and subtly furthering the connection.

Connection is unquestionably the right word for the feeling "Jade Phoenix" provides, for there is so much information and emotion that a reader is driven to see what happiness Nick, Ko-sa or Jade will find in this life - or the next if Ko-sa's faith are correct. Elaborate and emotional, "Jade Phoenix" is as rare and valued as the peace they seek.

A Review By Cassia Glass, in Centered on Taipei, Volume 7, Issue 5, February 7, 2007, page 27.

Jade Phoenix, a finalist for a literary prize, is the first novel by former US diplomat Syd Goldsmith. The book is set in Taipei and Washington, DC, during the 1970s, and tells the stories of two disparate men, American student and journalist Nick Malter, and Taiwanese millionaire Ko-sa Ong, who form a deep friendship across vast cultural and political gulfs, and their love for the same woman, Jade Phoenix. The story plays out against the background of the recognition of China, the derecognition of Taiwan, and the rise of the Taiwanese independence movement.

The great strength of Goldsmith's story lies in its rich depiction of the realities of Taiwan during the heyday of KMT rule. Goldsmith, who knows many of the historical persons who appear as characters in the book, both real and fictionalized, is able to leverage his vast knowledge of the island to produce a book that is not only historically informed but also culturally accurate. Angel's discovery that Nick is "cheating" on her, or Ko-sa's demolition of his marriage trying to get a son, are prime examples of the way Goldsmith uses culturally-driven misunderstandings to propel the story.

In many novels of other cultures, one experiences the Other through the eyes of the hero who moves to the exotic culture and brokers the reader's understanding of it. Goldsmith refuses to fall into that trap, for he brings Ko-sa back to the US, so that the reader may experience his own culture as the Other seen through the eyes of Ko-sa. Nor does Goldsmith create an idealized picture of either culture in an attempt to play one off the other - just as Nick suffers injustices and confusions in Taiwan, so does Ko-sa in America.

This is an entertaining and educational book, a magnificent journey into a turbulent time, filled with interesting characters, fascinating history, and told in bluff, rapid prose that never gets in the reader's way. I hope a copy of it finds its way into your hands soon.

Michael Turton, in The View From Taiwan

"Jade Phoenix" is compelling story of love, life and clashing cultures. Mr. Goldsmith breathes life, in all its intricacy, into his characters and he has crafted them with great care and passion. The exotic locales exude an authenticity of sights, sounds and tastes. Mr. Goldsmith invites the reader into Jade Phoenix's world and we step through time and space and walk beside her. This story is about conflicting cultures and volatile politics but the central thread of the story is the woman, Jade. Her heart, her soul and her spirit are the driving forces of this book. If you like stories of ordinary people living through extraordinary circumstances, you will like "Jade Phoenix". The hallmark of any great book is, "does it make the reader care about the characters?" This book will make you care. I thought about this book long after I finished it.

Deb M. (Buffalo, NY USA)

I couldn't put it down. I was totally absorbed into the lives of the characters and the swiftly moving story. Mr. Goldsmith has a knack for pulling you into a time and place, and making it vividly real. My only caveat: Don't start reading when you have to have to pick up the kids or get dinner on the table. Someone will get left stranded or hungry!

silverside, A reviewer

Novels, Novels, Novels! Bookviews by Alan Caruba, September 2007

My love of history was part of why I enjoyed Jade Phoenix by Syd Goldsmith ($19.95, iUniverse, available from and other outlets). The author has lived a most remarkable life, part of which during the 1970s included being a diplomat in South America and Greater China. At one point, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, he had to convince rampaging Red Guards that he was not an American spy. He would later serve as the unofficial U.S. Consul General in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. The decision, during the Nixon administration, to seek better relations with Red China had profound affects on the breakaway island nation of Taiwan that was also experiencing turmoil as it moved from martial law dictatorship to becoming the first ever Chinese democracy. Out of this experience Goldsmith has fashioned a terrific story in which a friendship between a young American reporter, Nick Malter, and his best friend, Taiwanese millionaire Ko-sa Ong, is put to the test because both love the beautiful girl, Jade Phoenix. Both, too, must cope when America’s President and Secretary of State reject formal recognition of Taiwan as an independent nation in order to favor Red China. The novel takes one back to those tumultuous days as experienced by three compelling characters from very different cultures.

Midwest Book Review, Bookwatch August 1, 2007
By Michael Dunford

Diplomat and New Voices in Literature Award finalist Syd Goldsmith presents Jade Phoenix, a novel set in America and Taiwan during the turbulent 1970s. Taiwanese millionaire Ko-sa Ong and his best friend Nick Malter have a long history together, cemented by their mutual hatred of Chiang Kai-shek and the American Secretary of State who steadfastly denies to recognize Taiwan as a country. Yet their bond for each other becomes brittle in the presence of the beautiful woman Jade Phoenix. A passionate novel of culture in turmoil, loyalties put to the test, and love so strong it transcends the limits of life itself, Jade Phoenix entrances and compels the reader up to the final page.


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