The Secret World of Connie Starr is a sweeping story of one Australian town, Ballarat, during a thirteen year period encompassing World War II and its immediate aftermath.
It’s also the story of Connie, a child whose mother knew she was different – and difficult – from the moment of her birth. She sees (and speaks to) angels and demons, and she knows that the world is engaged in a ‘long, long war of good and bad.’ (p.436)
Connie grows up with her parents, Joseph (a strict and devout Baptist minister), her mother Flora, and step-siblings Thom, Lydia and Danny, and alongside their friends and neighbours, many of whose stories are intertwined with her own.
The book is written with an ‘omniscient author’ point of view, which allows the reader to engage with the experiences of each of the main characters alongside the broad canvas of the town and the sweep of world events. There are tragedies, loves and dramas; as elsewhere the onset of war means loss and despair for some, while for others it means escape of sorts, from mistakes or from an otherwise tedious life.
Connie is not an especially likeable character, but the novel is an exploration of difference: individual differences as well as seismic events that can change lives forever:
‘I don’t know where I’ll be sent next,’ he said, and the urgency of their world, the shortness of their lives, filled their lungs and they breathed deeply and thought it was their only chance to step into the future.’The Secret World of Connie Starr p262
I appreciated the vivacity of the details in the book: wartime rationing, work and home lives, church activities, the devastation of illnesses like polio which are rarely thought of today in Australia, shortages of goods, and even the drudgery of postwar life with many missing husbands and sons and a loss of faith for so many.
Ms Neal has spent most of her life in country Victoria and lives in Ballarat, so the setting is particularly evocative, imbued with her own life experiences along with historical research. Some of the details made me smile in recognition, having grown up in country Australia in the 1960’s where many older traditions persisted: exploding ginger beer bottles in the shed, for example.
The Secret Life of Connie Starr is a beautiful book: both broad and specific, similar to the ways in which Tim Winton’s Australian classic Cloudstreet is simultaneously both a sweeping saga and a slice of Australian family life.
It is published by Harper Collins in June 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
When reading crime fiction series where the protagonist is not a detective or police officer, you must suspend disbelief: after all, how many murders can one ordinary person reasonably expect to encounter in a lifetime? Fortunately, when a series features characters like Poppy McGowan, it’s such a pleasure to spend time in their company that the ‘who-done-it’ mystery is really an added bonus.
An A-List for Death is the second in the Poppy novels by best selling Aussie author Pamela Hart (who also writes for children as Pamela Freeman). The first, Digging Up Dirt, saw Poppy dealing with a murder that took place in her being-renovated home in Sydney’s Annandale.
In this new book, Poppy and Tol’s relationship has moved along, though they face a long period of separation as Tol prepares to spend time in Jordan on an important archaeological dig. The murder this time occurs in the retirement unit complex of Poppy’s delightful Aunty Mary, and Mary’s old and dear friend Daisy.
Poppy is drawn into the drama and soon finds herself dealing with police, an unpleasant building manager, and paparazzi; the last because Daisy is attacked in her unit – and her son just happens to be a world famous rock star.
The title is a clever play on the idea of celebrity culture and the ‘A List’ of wealthy, famous and beautiful people. There are plenty of sly digs at the role of social and mainstream media in the publicity circus that occurs when a A-Lister hits the headlines. This time, Poppy herself becomes embroiled in the media feeding frenzy.
Murder is serious, of course; but there are plenty of chuckle moments, as in the first Poppy novel, juxtaposed against the police work and the serious stuff:
I read over my statement, nicely printed out, and corrected the punctuation before I signed it. Whoever had typed this up had a tortured relationship with commas. When I saw the way Martin was scowling at me, I guessed it was him, and I was very proud of myself for not winding him up about it.An A-List for Death p188
My favourite bit in the novel is towards the end, when a city-wide search is instigated for a missing man, utilising the power of social media. It captures the quintessential Australian-ness – specifically, Sydney-ness – of the novel’s setting beautifully:
The longer it went on, the more it seemed like a party – people on the street on a nice night, everyone working together. A couple of guys set up a sausage sizzle near one of the camera crews. Fundraising for the local soccer club. Of course. Where five or more Australians gather, there shall be a Sausage Sizzle. It may even be a law.An A-List for Death p273
Within minutes, #suasagesizzlesearch had started trending.
If you love Sulari Gentill’s Rowland Sinclair series, or Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher, you’ll be pleased to discover the Poppy McGowan stories. I enjoyed An A-List for Death enormously and look forward to reading the next Poppy novel.
An A-List for Death is published by HarperCollins in June 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
I very much enjoyed Tara Moss’ first historical crime novel Dead Man Switch, now published as The War Widow. In book two, it’s 1947 and Sydney-based private inquiry agent Billie Walker sets off for London and Paris, to investigate the disappearance of a client’s husband.
The Billie Walker novels flip the script of familiar 1940’s noir stories. For a start, Billie is a refreshingly forthright, courageous and skillful investigator who navigates her way adroitly through the sexism inherent in the era. She is also a woman of decidedly modern and progressive views, and readers become aware of the troubling laws and practices of the time, around race, the role of women, divorce and homosexuality.
In Europe, Billie is confronted with stark reminders of the effects of the devastating war that ended just two years earlier. She is also reminded of her short but passionate relationship with Jack, whom she married while both were on assignment as journalists covering the war, and Jack’s mysterious disappearance. While searching for her client’s husband, Billie also searches for clues about her own.
What began as a trip to solve her client’s mystery becomes a much more complex – and deadly – affair, during which Sam, her reliable and loyal assistant, proves his worth more than once.
I especially enjoyed the vivid historical details in the settings of post-war Sydney, London and Paris, and the glimpses of each city’s wartime experience and (slow) recovery. It’s also sobering to realise that, unlike today, the world did not yet know the full extent of Nazi atrocities throughout Europe, and the novel shows us how this information was revealed, for example, during the Nazi war crimes trials.
There are a few of Billie’s expressions that I found jarring, but overall I enjoyed the characters of Billie, Sam and Shyla in particular.
I hope there’ll be a third Billie Walker story before too long.
The Ghosts of Paris is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Acclaimed Australian author Victoria Purman’s new historical fiction novel is a fat book, just the thing for reading by the fireside during a prolonged wet spell – which is how I enjoyed it. It’s an easy read – though not a light one – as it deals with real historical events that proved distressing, often tragic, for those who lived through them.
The setting is the real-life ‘Harefield House’, a grand mansion owned by wealthy expatriate Australians in the little village of Harefield, in Middlesex, England. In 1915 it was converted into a hospital for Australian troops recuperating from injurie inflicted at some of the many battlefields in Europe – especially at Gallipoli, France and Belgium.
The hospital was staffed by Australian doctors and nurses and it must have been wonderful for the ill and injured Diggers to hear the familiar accents from home as they were cared for.
If you, like me, are interested in the history behind the novel, the author has a piece on HarperCollins’ website with more detail, along with lovely photographs of the place, the nurses and some of the soldiers who went to Harefield. You can find it here.
The story concerns four nurses, among those who sailed from Australian homes to help establish the hospital and stayed to care for the injured. There is also a local woman, Jessie, who volunteers to help care for the patients. We witness their anxiety as they await the first influx of soldiers, followed by their increasing horror as the hospital, established to cater for up to one hundred and fifty men, is flooded by thousands, stretching their resources, both physical and human. We are not spared the sights, sounds and smells that engulf the nurses as the brutality of war on human bodies and minds becomes clear.
Cora had been well-trained, had more than a decade’s experience behind her and had believed she had seen almost everything, but nothing in Adelaide, nor the extra army training she’d undergone, could have prepared her for this sight.The Nurse’s War p79
The novel also touches on other, perhaps unexpected, results of the war: profound change as the fundamentals of society shift, with women stepping into what were previously ‘men’s jobs’, becoming agriculture or postal workers, tram conductors, ambulance drivers; new trends in clothing allowing women more freedoms and comfort; and of course the suffrage movement. The threat of instant death and loss also changed many people’s long-held beliefs and attitudes, about marriage, love, or religion, for example.
Friendships forged in wartime can be intense and profound, as can romances, but the novel does not pretend that these led to a ‘happy ever after’ ending for everyone. Rather, it illustrates the essentially random nature of an individual’s fate in times of war: an apparent throw of the dice can take a life or crush a person’s future. In such circumstances, is it surprising that people behave differently, re-think future plans or even their faith? World War I left behind a legacy of vast numbers of missing or profoundly wounded young men, multiple generations of grief, and a new social order in many parts of the then British Empire.
Some aspects of Australian life, however, continue throughout – including racial discrimination, where indigenous men had to have written permission from the Protector of Aborigines to enlist, and yet still faced racism on the battlefield, in hospitals, and also at home at war’s end.
This is a beautifully researched novel with characters that I quickly came to care about and a storyline that took me from the naivety of young Australians embarking on an adventure at the other side of the world, through the horrors of their war, to a profoundly moving conclusion.
At the end of The Nurses’ War, the influenza pandemic is sweeping through the world, inflicting a terrible toll on those who’d managed to survive years of war. Again, the random hand of fate is at play. And given the global pandemic of 2020 to the current time (2022) I could not help but compare the experiences of then, with now. I found myself wondering: could modern-day Australians or British cope with prolonged, seemingly never-ending trauma and stress of a convulsive war, followed so closely by a deadly pandemic, in quite the same way as our forebears had to do?
Coincidentally, this post is published on ANZAC Day, an annual commemoration of Australians who have died or suffered in war time. As I write this, a brutal war is being waged in Europe, as Russian troops attempt to take over the democratic nation of Ukraine. As always, I hope ANZAC Day will allow people to think about the futility and barbarity of war and redouble global efforts to put an end to using violence as a way to deal with disputes.
The Nurses’ War is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2022.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
In the early 1800’s, a time when well-bred young ladies were raised to do embroidery and look after their households and husbands, Rose de Freycinet dressed as a man and stowed away on her husband’s ship, sailing across vast oceans on a voyage of scientific exploration.
In so doing, she did support her husband’s venture (and occasionally sewed whilst on board) but she also became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe and to leave a record of her adventures. Her resolution from the start was:
Never, through my fears or my own wishes, to part my husband from his duty.Rose p348
It was a dangerous adventure for many reasons. To begin with, there was a strict prohibition on women aboard French ships. There were political considerations: the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had changed the geo-political scene irrevocably, and the Commander and crew of the ship Uranie had to tread carefully at their various ports of call. There were the common dangers of a voyage in the smallish ships of the time, with none of today’s comforts and navigational technology: the ever present possibility of shipwreck, disease, storms, being blown off course, running out of supplies and fresh water. Added to that was Rose’s unique position as a lone woman on a ship full of men, with whom she travelled for several years.
This is a thoroughly researched book and readers get a fascinating insight into how such a voyage was planned and prepared for; maritime traditions and practices in the nineteenth century; questionable (but common) medical practices; the drive to add to scientific and navigational knowledge; the intriguing customs and manners of the people encountered in places such as Brazil, French colonies, ‘New Holland’ (now Australia), the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Guam and the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), for example.
Looking at the map of the Uranie’s voyage, it is amazing to think of people setting sail into what were at times, literally uncharted waters. From our modern perspective, when many people don’t venture to a new town or country without checking on-line maps and reviews, these people were taking enormous risks! They were creating and correcting the maps as they went and recording what they found.
Rose recorded her experiences via a journal and in frequent letters to her mother back in France. After her death these were edited (the author suggests they were also ‘sanitised’ in some instances) and later published. I am grateful for that, because they give a very different perspective on the voyages of this period than do the formal ones written by her husband and other men.
For example, the Uranie was indeed shipwrecked, running aground at a bleak and deserted island in the Falklands. For Rose, the dreadful experience of terror followed by hunger and cold as they waited for rescue, was compounded by the fact that her husband became seriously ill. What would her fate be if he died, leaving her to the mercies of men without a commander?
I have always loved the Freycinet Peninsula in Tasmania’s northeast, named for Louis de Freycinet. When I travel there in future, I shall also think of Rose, a person of equal courage and adventurousness as her husband.
Rose is published by HarperCollins in March 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
I fell in love with this book while reading its opening pages. It ticks so many boxes for me: family history, family stories, personal challenges and insights, humour…I know it will be one of my ‘stand-out-reads’ of 2022.
When Australian writer and mother Ella Ward was undergoing treatment for a rare cancer at the age of thirty-six, she began a series of letters to her young daughter, in case she would not be around as her daughter grew into adulthood
In the process, she documented a lively and fascinating family history, encompassing her own stories but also those of her great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents: their lives, loves and adventures. Woven throughout are 188 ‘Lessons’ for her daughter. The final one sums up her purpose: ‘Lesson #188: Tell your stories.
A family is only as strong as the stories that are told. And, I’m afraid to say, the stories can’t just be told – they need to be kept.27 Letter to My Daughter, p4
When my mother, the keeper of our family history and stories, began losing those memories due to encroaching dementia, I promised that I would hold, remember – and tell – the stories for her. This is what Ella has done for her daughter and all who follow her.
The Lessons serve as mother-to-daughter tips for a fulfilling life, and each one appears after family anecdotes that illustrate the points. Some of my favourites are:
Lesson #1: If you have a family, you have a story
Lesson #18: ‘The End’ does not mean ‘THE END’
Lesson #30: If you’re young, forgive yourself. If you’re not, stop (This one appears in the chapter called ‘For when you’re a jerk.’
Lesson #45: Try and do your stupid things with kind people
Lesson # 63: Your heartbreak will last exactly as long as it’s
Lesson #71: Shock will tear you apart. You will come back together. Differently, but together
Lesson # 110: Menopause is a feminist issue. Followed by Lesson # 112: Bleed loudly
Lesson #179: It’s okay to stay up past your bedtime when a book is to blame
The family stories include Ella’s great-grandfather’s experiences in the trenches of WWI, her grandparent’s globe-trotting lives, her mother’s single parenthood, her own experiences of travel, first jobs, love, motherhood and trauma. So yes: sadness, distress, hard work, blood and tears. But also: joy, fun, mischief, music, scents and sights. And magic and dreams.
27 Letters to My Daughter is a magical book that will have a place on my bookshelf for many years to come.
27 Letters to My Daughter is published by HarperCollins Publishers in April 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
One of the (many) things I love about Jackie French’s historical fiction is that she effortlessly shines a light on frequently overlooked people and events from history, without veering into tokenistic territory. Her characters represent people who really were there, but who are so often hidden from view in traditional histories and stories. Her new Girls Who Changed the World series for middle grade readers is a good example.
In Book One, Ming and Flo Fight for the Future, we meet Ming, a twelve year old schoolgirl whose family has Chinese-Vietnamese and European heritage. Ming loves learning about history, but not the way it is taught at her school. She asks a question in class one day: ‘Sir, why don’t we ever learn about girls who changed history?… Where were all the girls at all the important times in the past?’
Good question, right? Sadly, her teacher and classmates have no answer for her. Ming is exasperated, until Herstory appears, to offer her a chance to return to the past – as an observer. Ming agrees, but in the process she manages to become a person living in the past. She is now Florence, and the year is 1898.
She is plunged into a drought-stricken farm in the middle of nowhere, grinding poverty, and the sudden death of Flo’s mother, until Aunt McTavish arrives to take Flo to share her well-heeled life in Sydney. Aunt McTavish is a friend of Louisa Lawson, a committed Suffragist, but determinedly ‘British to the core’ – despite her obvious mixed Chinese and Scottish heritage.
So Ming/Flo experiences some of the challenges for girls and women at a time when girls’ education was considered unimportant, women could not vote, and the White Australia policy loomed. As Herstory had warned her: ‘The past is – uncomfortable.’
In the process, Ming learns that it is not just the big, obvious actions that can lead to profound social or political change. More often, it is the small, unnoticed actions by committed people who never give up, that set the scene for change. As Herstory tells Ming:
Men like Henry Parkes get the credit for uniting Australia, but it would never have happened without the speeches, petitions and passion of women. When social forces come to a head, it’s usually been a man who got the credit, not the hundreds, the thousands, the millions of women who made it happen too, like Mrs Lawson.Ming and Flo Flight for the Future p256-257
Book Two of Girls who Changed the World will see Ming in Belgium during WWI. I look forward to reading it! This series will be enjoyed by those who are interested in stories from Australian history told from the viewpoint of those who are usually forgotten.
Ming and Flo Fight for the Future is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2022.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
Are you a good person, or do you just look like one?
The question of what makes a ‘good person’ is explored from the perspectives of first year university students, in this contemporary novel by Sydney based writer, Diana Reid. Readers are invited to consider the hot-potato issues of consent, power and sex – a powder-keg mix if ever there was one.
If you can remember your late teen/early adult years, chances are there are at least a few cringe – or shame – inducing vignettes that you’d rather forget. Michaela is that age, living away from her Canberra home for the first time, and wanting to fit in somewhere. She is not an unquestioning acolyte, but rather interrogates her own experiences to the point of exhaustion. Her friendship with her college room neighbour Eve – wealthy, slender, white, and confidently opinionated – has her feeling out of depth, but she participates in the habitual, conditioned behaviours of young people in this environment – too much drinking, casual sex and drug use.
An occurrence during the university’s ‘O-week’ acts as an underlying pull for the narrative, providing conflict and some mystery. It is a narrative device – but it’s all too recognisable, and one that allows for layers of meaning and intent to ramp up the tension.
The novel shines a spotlight on the awful pressures on young people to conform; women endure harrowing personal humiliations but are expected to ‘take a joke’; young men are groomed for a life of adult privilege and power. Some speak out, others pretend none of it happens.
It’s embarrassing, as a reader, to recall the self absorption of youth and the mistakes that, in retrospect, seem inevitable. At times, the characters’ behaviours reminded me of the hopeless, unhappy role playing of the characters in Sally Rooney’s Normal People.
Similarly, this novel is definitely one for its time: the issues around what constitutes consent in sexual situations is currently being examined in ways not seen before, as are power dynamics and the role of prestigious university colleges in grooming new generations of (potentially) abusive, or at least complicit, men and women.
The prose is beautiful, evocative and very moving at times:
I dived down and counted twelve dolphin kicks, resurfacing close to the moored boat. My body was warmer for the movement, but the morning froze on my face. It was cold enough to remind me, in every tingling pore, that I was, first and foremost, a physical thing. Before thought or feeling or reason, I was a stretch of skin, a bag of flesh, for the ocean to cradle or drown with indifference.Love and Virtue p160
The author states that she wrote this manuscript – her first novel – during the 2020 Covid lockdown in Australia. It was an excellent use of her time and whilst I have no wish for similar lockdowns to happen again, I do look forward to reading more of her work.
Love and Virtue was published in 2021 by Ultimo Press.
I’ve enjoyed participating in several reading challenges over the past few years. Kind of like being in a book club, it is an added incentive to read beyond my ‘usual’ genres, and especially to explore new authors or styles of writing.
For 2022, here’s what I am aiming for:
The Australian Women Writers Challenge has been going for 10 years and I’ve participated in the past few years.
In 2022 the AWW blog will focus on ’19th and 20th century writers including authors who may not have achieved prominence in their lifetimes, or whose works have been forgotten and/or overlooked.’ I will join in discussion of contemporary Australian women writers in the AWW Facebook group Love Reading Books by Aussie Women.
(No need for me to set a goal for this as I already ‘love reading books by Aussie women’!)
The Aussie Author Reading Challenge hosted by Jo at Book Lover Reviews is a fun one for me: I love to read books by the amazing talented authors we have in this country. This year I will go again for the ‘Kangaroo‘ level, which means I will read and review 12 books written by Australian Authors, of which at least 4 of those authors are female, at least 4 of those authors are male, and at least 4 of those authors are new to me; Fiction or non-fiction, at least 3 different genre.
1. Social History 2. Popular Science 3. Language 4. Medical Memoir 5. Climate/Weather 6. Celebrity 7. Reference
8. Geography 9. Linked to a podcast 10. Wild Animals 11. Economics 12. Published in 2022
And lastly, my own informal personal challenge: Continue to increase the number of works I read by First Nations authors and/or about First Nations cultures and histories, especially Australian. There are so many First Nations authors publishing wonderful works here just now and I always love discovering new ones.
So that’s it for me for 2022. As always I expect to vary from my initial goals: either I read way more than I anticipate or miss out on a particular category somewhere along the line. It’s all just fun, and a way to be a little mindful of the books I choose.