I was among those fortunate enough to be given such an early copy of this book, it was before ARCs were even available. The downside to this was I’ve had to sit on my excitement about what an absolute stellar of a read it is until now.

The Secret World of Connie Starr is a whimsical, beautiful work of historical fiction, set in Ballarat during World War II and a decade or so beyond. It centres on the Starr family, the Baptist minister and head of the family, Joseph, his younger, second wife, Flora, three children from his first marriage and then the youngest child – Joseph’s and Flora’s only child – Connie. From the moment she is born, Connie is marked as different – not so much physically – it’s her way of perceiving the world that marks her out as extraordinary. For Connie experiences life as a never-ending battle between forces of good, evil, daring and cowardice, truth and lies, yet when she tries to explain this to her friends and family, she is blithely dismissed, feared, bullied or her unique way of seeing things is exploited.

As daily life goes on around Connie and the years pass and people come and go, she observes those who enter and depart, most often from the branches of her beloved lemon tree. Beyond Connie’s gaze, however, the reader is given insight into what happens behind the closed doors of not just the Starr family, but others in their tight-knit community – in particular, the Finchleys, Mabbetts and Mitchell families.

This is small-town life writ large and with brutality, rawness and, above all, astonishing beauty. Quintessentially Australian, evoking a time and place at once familiar and strange, this book is an ode to difference, to those who dare to dream, who break the rules, defy authority, but also the high price that is sometimes exacted for such risks. For all its poetic splendour, the book is not without darkness: shadows fall throughout, a stark reminder that even within simplicity and beauty there are dangers hovering in the wings – people, events, accidents, choices, and more. Written in sublime prose, this novel is filled with drama, humour, tragedy, hope, loss, forgiveness and love.

It’s an achingly lovely tale that shines long after the last page and I’ve no doubt whatsoever, Connie Starr will set the literary firmament ablaze.

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Based on actual historical events and people, this novel is a powerful and moving tribute to the Australian nurses, doctors, allied health workers and civilian volunteers – British too – who did all they could for the men and women who survived the horrors of the WWI battlefields.

When Australian nurse, Sister Cora Baker, has the opportunity to serve her country at a newly established hospital in Middlesex England in a little village called Harefield in 1915, she doesn’t hesitate. Harefield House, donated to the Australian army by some generous expatriates so it can be turned into a hospital to care for wounded Australian soldiers, Cora works with other Aussie medical staff to establish and transform the grand house.

Not knowing quite what to expect, as the war rages on and the casualty and death count grow, Harefield House is overwhelmed and all too soon, Cora and the other nurses and doctors are working around the clock, exhausted but determined to do their duty. When they call for volunteers, a local, young seamstress, Jessica Chester steps up.

It’s while working at the hospital that she meets Private Bert Mott, a recuperating soldier who is destined, like so many others they care for, to be returned to the front.

As endless stream of injured and dying enter and leave the care of the dedicated nurses and doctors, it’s apparent the nurses are fighting their own kind of war, one defined by bandages, pain relief, and an abundance of loving care. But is it enough when despair, fatigue and a crushing sense of failure abide with them as well?

The Nurses’ War is an amazing story of a little-known chapter in Australian, British and war history. It doesn’t steer away from portraying the brutal realities of the physical, psychological and emotional wounds inflicted upon the soldiers, the courage of those at the front, but also that of those who fought a silent, different and harsh battle behind the lines – one of healing, resilience and hope.

Heart-achingly raw yet filled with the beauty of the human spirit, this is an important and ultimately triumphant story of Australia’s part in the Great War and what happened in the aftermath – when peace was finally reached and an unforeseen enemy arose to fell yet more. The novel explores love, loss, incredible bravery, fortitude, frustration, failure and above all, hope. It shows that heroes wear all kinds of faces and uniforms.

The Nurses’ War is a triumph that will linger in my heart and soul a long time. The Authors Notes at the end are wonderful as well. Here, Victoria not only reveals the real history behind the novel and how these people are commemorated even to this day, but a very personal link to the story as well. So incredibly moving. I should also add a caveat – I was given the privilege of reading an Advanced Readers’ Copy of this book – an ARC – and asked if I would endorse it. Hence, my quote on the front cover. Authors don’t endorse lightly, and I was proud – especially as an ex-service member – to do just that for this wonderful book.

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The Last of the Apple Blossom by Mary-Lou Stephens

There’s no doubt that books set in Tasmania are popular at the moment and if this marvellous debut novel by former Taswegian, Mary-Lou Stephens, is anything to go by, it’s no wonder. This beautiful, heart-wrenching and atmospheric story about the apple orchardists of the scenic Huon Valley, is Australian historical fiction at its finest.

The tale opens in a dramatic and utterly riveting fashion – with the traumatic and deadly bushfires that ripped through not just Hobart, but great swathes of the East Coast, destroying everything in their path. Readers follow schoolteacher, Catherine Turner, as she desperately sets about keeping her pupils and colleagues safe from the flames’ path, before undertaking a dangerous journey south to check on her family and their apple orchard.

Tragedy awaits Catherine yet, being stalwart and loyal, she seeks to help her grieving father and mother rebuild their business and stake a claim in the industry and area she loves. Only, long-standing prejudice, changing political and industrial conditions and heart-ache will stand in her way.

In the meantime, her neighbour and childhood friend, Annie, has just given birth to a longed-for daughter. After five sons, this child is precious. Even so, Catherine cannot fathom Annie’s set against her husband’s old friend, Mark, and his young son, Charlie, who have come to stay with them as respite from a stalled career and broken marriage. Unable to help herself, Catherine is drawn to both Charlie and Mark, alienating Annie because of her interest, but without understanding why.

Against this alternating familial and friendship backdrop, the greater story of the apple orchardists, their heart-ache, back-breaking work and disappointment plays out over the years. We bear witness to massive social and political changes and challenges, the influx of migrants into the community, union movements, decisions made in far away in an indifferent parliament (and another country) and the impact they had on the ground, and learn how the Huon particularly became a haven for hippies and other artistic folk who wished to live differently and defy stultifying social norms.

I confess, I didn’t know much about the history of apples or the orchards or how Tasmania earned the moniker the Apple Isle. Mary-Lou has done impeccable research and given the story of what was endured and survived or the adaptions made such heart and depth. I ached for these folk; laughed, cried, became so indignant and angry. It’s testimony to fabulous writing that you can be pulled into a story that, at one level, is so vast and terrible and yet, at another, is experienced very personally through the main characters we grow to know and love.

This is a beautiful tale of loss, love, tragedy and triumph but, above all, incredible resilience that is both lilting and testimony to the people to whom its dedicated. It will linger in your mind and heart long after the last page. Better still, it will make you long to not only see Tasmania and all her natural beauty, but fight to maintain it.

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No Small Shame by Christine Bell

This historical fiction by Christine Bell is a bleak and often harrowing read that nonetheless, tugs the heart strings and tells an unputdownable story of familial bonds, religion, war, love, sacrifice, courage, and heartache, all against the backdrop of Scotland and Australia during and in pre and post-war times.

Young Catholic, Mary O’Donnell, follows her family to Australia in the hope of a better life, one that offers more than their little mining village in Scotland ever could. Landing in Australia and moving to the small Victorian township of Wonthaggi, Mary’s dreams for herself and those she loves are soon shattered.

Following a series of terrible decisions and exiled from her family, Mary flees to Melbourne to start what she hopes will be a better life. There, she finally finds what’s she’s been looking for – purpose, friendship, and burgeoning love.

But when her past comes back to not just haunt her, but alter everything she thought to be true, Mary is faced with a terrible choice: ignore duty and what her faith and family tell her she must do, or follow her heart?

This is an utterly gripping book that I found so hard to put down. Swept up in Mary’s story, I read until 4.30 in the morning because I simply had to know what happened. The story told isn’t a “nice” one, after all, it’s about the impact of poverty, war, and racial and religious discrimination on individuals, families, and culture. The way Scottish and Australian history is represented in the novel is so well done – it doesn’t dominate, but serves the story as it always should in this type of fiction, allowing it to colour and, to a degree, drive the narrative forward, but never, ever overshadow it. The characters are so very rounded and real, even the minor ones. But it’s Mary that we root for and love, whose compassion and desire to break free of the shackles that she sees and feels holding herself and others back, that make you ache for her. Her – and even the less sympathetic characters who are also bound by social and other ties and cannot see their way free.

Be prepared to be transported into the past, to be caught up in a slice of Aussie history but, mostly, swept away in a completely relatable and beautifully told tale that will move and, in the end, fill you. Outstanding.

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Tidelands by Philippa Gregory

A huge fan of Gregory’s work, I was so excited to see that not only had she written a book in the third person, but had moved away from her wonderful fictive histories of various British royals to focus on an “ordinary” woman and her family. Only, the beautiful Alinor is anything but ordinary, as a young priest deposited on the shores of anti-Catholic England in 1648, just when the country is in the midst of Civil War and the King imprisoned, and who is tasked with an important mission, realises the moment he encounters her.  

Alinor is a wise-woman, a healer who acts as a midwife for her local community and is entrusted with their health and well-being. The mother of two children, her bully of a husband is believed lost at sea. Not quite a widow and not quite married, when she finds the priest, James, and leads him out of the marshes and to safety, she knows something momentous and dangerous has been set in motion.

As the weeks go by and rebellion grows even while the tidal community go on with their daily grind, James and Alinor’s secret bond grows. But these are hazardous times to be a Catholic, a monarchist but, above all, it’s a perilous time to be a wise-woman, especially a beautiful one.

This book is a slow burn. Gregory takes great delight in presenting the reader with the minutiae of Alinor’s life as well as that of other villagers. I really enjoyed the initial slow-pace, the context against which the wider political and social turmoil receded into the background. The writing is mostly lovely and it’s very easy to imagine Alinor and the rest of those who dwell in the liminal spaces between land and sea. Where I struggled a bit was with how repetitive some of the dialogue became. Characters kept repeating themselves, sometimes over and over – to each other and even with their thoughts. I found this a little distracting and even skimmed a bit when this occurred.

Overall, this is a good read with an ending that segues nicely into the next book in what promises to be a series worth following.


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