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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The Collector’s Daughter by Gill Paul

I’ve always been transfixed by stories of ancient Egypt and in particular those surrounding the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb in the 1920s, and the tales of the Earl of Carnarvon and the archaeologist responsible for the site, Howard Carter. What I didn’t know and what Gill Paul’s novel tells, is the story of the Earl’s daughter, amateur archaeologist, Lady Evelyn (later Beauchamp), who was also present when the tomb was opened. Based on known facts and real historical figures, this is a wonderful story about love, loyalty, cultural appropriation, secrets, superstition and memory. 

Moving between two time frames – the 1920s and 1970s – the story of the discovery and the subsequent tragedies that follow, become a backdrop to Evelyn and her husband, Brograve’s, romance and marriage – familial and personal triumphs and setbacks and the ways in which the opening of the tomb impacted their lives. 

What I particularly loved about this book was that in one of the time frames, an older Evelyn and Brograve reflect upon their shared experiences over many decades as a loving couple in their 70s, dealing with a health crisis and salvaging memories and moments. It’s so sensitively written and it’s wonderful to have not only older voices narrating, but bearing witness to a functional relationship of so many years! 

The mystery at the heart of the book is evident early but also woven through the narrative in such a way that though there is no “big reveal”, the ending is both gratifying and strangely moving. It’s inevitable. The Author’s Notes are fascinating and I completely understand Gill Paul being unable to resist exploring Evelyn further once she learned about her and ultimately, telling HERstory. A lovely, affecting read.

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The Women’s Pages by Victoria Purman

The Women’s Pages by Victoria Purman is a wonderful and heart-warming read that sheds a bright light on pre and post-WWII Australia, Sydney specifically, focusing on often overlooked women’s experiences. The main character, Tilly, initially secretary to the editors of Sydney’s most popular broadsheet, the Daily Herald, finds the call of war changes everything. Like many women of the time, the absence of men who have left to fight, catapults her into a role usually reserved for males: in this instance, war correspondent. 

Unlike male reporters who are jettisoned into war zones or embedded with the troops (and I loved that genuine war correspondents of the era such as George Johnston are mentioned), Tilly’s reporting doesn’t mean travel, but it does mean covering the impact of war and loss of men – their absence – on domestic life. Determined to do her best, Tilly writes from the heart and with unerring accuracy, all the time noting the social, psychological, economic and other changes war brings about, not only on others, but her own life. As the wife of a PoW, Tilly is all too aware of the hefty cost of battle on everyone. Forced to deal with entrenched sexism, misogyny and all the other negative assumptions her remaining male co-workers and other men she encounters particularly make about women, Tilly and her peers continuously prove they’re simply doing what they’ve always been a capable of but were never given the opportunity. The age-old maxim. 

But it’s not only Tilly’s work and observations on life the book explores, but what those left behind do to help the war effort and acknowledge the sacrifices being made – from the amazing land army of women, to those who go above and beyond to send care packages, knit, sew, cook, learn trades and professions previously denied to them and generally step up and deny themselves so much to ensure the country runs smoothly and safely. That the men abroad, risking their lives and souls, know thy matter. It also deals with the constant fear and lack of accurate communication about what’s happening has on those left at home, the damage the spread of propaganda causes as well. And the book doesn’t steer away from exposing grubby politics and the way in which trade unions and dockers particularly were demonized for political gain.

When the war ends and Tilly’s  best friend and housemate welcomes her husband home as the country celebrates victory and returning soldiers, Tilly is forced to reconcile what this means to her personally, professionally, emotionally, and what it signifies for women and the rights they worked so hard to earn. The trauma of war, of loss (and not just human lives), and return to “normality’ for the repatriated soldiers and their families as well as everyone else effected, is sensitively and heart-wrenchingly dealt with.

Overall, this impeccably researched book was a fabulous, thought-provoking and not always easy read (and I mean that in the best of ways as it challenges popular myths and misconceptions) that is both utterly heart-warming and authentic. 
Loved it.

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The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird

I adore eschatological stories – end of the world ones. Whether they’re books, films, TV series, if they’re about humanity and/or the planet facing imminent annihilation, or about to implode, count me in. I think it was Stephen King who said people love horror stories precisely because they’re vivifying and remind us to appreciate life. I think it’s the same with doomsday stories. So, when I learned that The End of Men by Christine Sweeney was, essentially, about this but, as the title indicates, with caveats, I thought, why not? And then I paused with a couple of misgivings: am I ready for a book about a virus that sweeps the world and changes it considering well, you know. And, secondly, is this book a hard-line feminist take on the effects of a pandemic or is it something else? I’m all for feminist narratives, but what if it’s really a thinly disguised man-hating rant? Do I need that right at the moment considering all the rage we’re feeling; the sense of justice delayed? Maybe…

Pushing aside my concerns, I went ahead and read. And read. And read. This book was impossible to put down.

Basically, it describes a world overtaken by a pandemic except, as the title indicates (so no spoilers) this virus only kills men. Very few (about 10%) are immune, but all women are carriers. It starts in Scotland and, as we very much know, despite efforts to contain it, spreads with a virulence. Told from multiple points of view – mostly female, but some men, the reader enters into the head, heart and experiences of a range of people – scientists, journalists, mothers, fathers, partners, single people, politicians, teachers, farmers – ordinary men and women – heterosexual, homosexual, trans etc. In that sense, in style and even progress, it reminded me a little of the power and impact of Max Brooks’s Word War Z (which I also loved). The immediacy draws you in and doesn’t let you go and you long to discover the story arc of a person you’ve just been introduced to, learn what happens to them, their experiences. Do they survive? What about those they love? And so the story develops from the start of the pandemic to its aftermath. It’s an intoxicating and breathless ride. 

World War Z (reprint) (paperback) By Max Brooks : Target

Yes, it is a feminist take on the end of the world, written with such searing intellect and a huge heart. It’s political, social, moral, psychological, economical, cultural and so much more besides. It is completely thought-provoking and I am so in need of people to talk to about some of the notions raised, I am pressing my partner and close friends to read it just so we can debate and discuss. If that’s not a sign of a great book, I don’t know what is. Book clubs will love this. And what of my second concern, that it might be a man-hating treatise? On the contrary, while there are some hateful men (and women) in it, it’s a realistic take on patriarchy, how it has shaped the world – for better and worse – and what the loss of 90% of one sex – those who essentially built it – might do. What changes would be wrought? Would life as we know it continue? (and, of course, you have to ask, what if the virus had killed 90% of the women? Would men have handled the situation the way the women in this novel have? I think we all know the answer to that… but what a discussion is to be had right there!). Far from loathing men, the novel portrays the multiple roles they play in relationships, families, professional spheres – including trades, medicine and politics – and what their loss signifies and the changes that must be wrought to compensate. In so many ways it points to how we (mostly) need each other – regardless of sex.

I am not going to say too much more except to recommend this over and over in the highest possible terms. It’s not so much an end of the world narrative as, to borrow from the song, an “end of the world as we know it” book. I think I have to call it now and say, this is one of my all-time favorite reads. Not just the story, the way its told, but for the fact it is so plausible and that it makes you think and feel and ask, “what if?”… and then wonder… 

Absolutely sensational. A ripper of a read. 

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Daughter of Victory Lights by Kerri Turner

This second book by Kerri Turner, Daughter of Victory Lights (her first was The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers), is an exquisite, heart-aching tale of love, loss, rejection and connection all set against the backdrop of firstly, London during the Blitz and, later, the post war years and early sixties.

Evelyn Bell is a young woman who rejects the roles and path society and her times insist upon for her. Determined to carve her own future and contribute to the war effort, against her family’s wishes, Evelyn joins the first all-woman Searchlight Squadron, tasked with the dangerous job of tracking enemy planes so they may be shot out of the sky or, alternately, helping friendly planes to land. It is a fraught exercise and not merely because of the terrible personal peril the women put themselves in, but because the women know that in saving the lives of many, they also end the lives of a few and destroy family forever. In the end, war has no victors. 

It is family that lies at the heart of this tale, that and the way war irrevocably alters both the social and personal fabric of our lives. Unable to settle back into “routine” in the aftermath of the war, Evelyn seeks, yet again, a different life. This time, she finds herself working the lights on The Victory, a ship which sits in different waters and offers entertainment like no other. It’s here that Evelyn meets her future, only it’s one that no-one, least of all Evelyn, anticipates…

Not only does Turner recreate London during the war and the stifling social and other mores (and attempts to disrupt and overturn them) of the time in a beautiful fashion, she breathes life into those who found theirs shattered. Whether it’s a US soldier tasked with retrieving bodies (the melancholic and heart-wrenching Grave Regiment) and giving them dignified burials, or those who for a variety of reasons find themselves displaced or wishing to hide, the reader is drawn into a world like no other and champions those who dwell in it. Our hearts alternately ache and are lifted in response to what happens as we witness to those who bravely forge ahead or those who simply cannot and are doomed to repeat a cycle of despair and guilt, as they’re locked in an emotional and psychological prison. 

Family comes under scrutiny in the novel. Here, it comes in familiar and different guises and its often the family which we create ourselves where the strongest bonds are formed, even out of tragedy. Add to this the marvellous burlesque/circus-like show that those on The Victory perform each night and what they have to do to sustain their performances and each other, and we have a rich, satisfying and utterly captivating novel. 

The writing is lovely, the historical backdrop and details beautifully rendered, never once dominating the story, but giving it depth and authenticity – the sign of a master storyteller at work. Not only was I riveted by this story (and wept and laughed and hurt), but I learned about an aspect of history that I didn’t know. I also loved that though Kerry foregrounds women and their varied lives, aspirations, triumphs and failures, she does so with empathy, truth and an acknowledgment of the good and not so good men and women who either aid them on their journeys or cross their paths only to trip them or prevent them moving forward. Fabulous characters in an utterly satisfying story that will leave you feeling fulfilled and wanting more.

Next book, please, Kerri!!!

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