Month: June 2022

Book review – The Secret World of Connie Starr, by Robbi Neal

Title: The Secret World of Connie Starr

Author: Robbi Neal

Publisher: HQ Fiction, June 2022; RRP: $32.99

Robbi Neal is no stranger to the world of writing and the visual arts. Her first book, Sunday Best, a memoir, was released in 2004, and in 2016 Robbi produced a book of Indigenous stories, After Before Time. Robbi’s third book, The Art of Preserving Love, written under the pen name of Ada Langton, was published in 2018. A trained artist and painter, Robbi has an exhibition of her paintings planned for later in 2022. Robbi lives in regional Victoria.

The Secret World of Connie Starr is a story that encapsulates the trauma of pre and post WWII when the lives of families and individuals changed forever. Sons and husbands joined up to fight for the nation and left abruptly for war. Women, children, and men who were outside eligibility to join, were left behind to continue family and community life in often reduced circumstances.  

Set in the regional town of Ballarat, the characteristics of the landscape are subtly interwoven, creating a setting and atmosphere that effortlessly allow the reader to be transported into the era of the thirties, forties, and fifties

The characters are enchanting and so very real, depicting the lived experience of the time.  Connie, quirky, different, and engaging, is the central protagonist in this story — she is unusual but those close to her accept, if not reluctantly, her odd demeanour. Finding solace in her lemon tree, she has an uncanny and outspoken manner of speaking the truth at the most inappropriate times. But Connie can also keep a secret and does so to her own detriment.

The novel is strongly connected to the Baptist Church, its mantras, beliefs, and failings at the time. Connie’s father, Joseph, is the Baptist pastor and her mother, Flora, twenty years younger than her husband, is a dutiful housewife, mother, and pastor’s wife. Flora provides a caring role to those less fortunate, needy or in distress who arrive on the family’s doorstep. Everyone is welcome and is offered a safe haven.

The Secret World of Connie Starr follows the lives of four main families: the Starrs, the Mabbetts, the Mitchells and the Findlays. These four families form the basis for the ongoing story, and whilst each family demonstrates different situations, not all are necessarily related to the consequences of the war. With the families the reader rides the waves of sadness, loss, humour, and strength. Childhood death, family violence and unexpected pregnancy are some of the issues facing them. The Starrs are no exception, and the four Starr children all respond differently to their life challenges and at times threaten to bring shame on the pastor and his wife.      

Robbi Neal has a unique style and voice that is capable of weaving boundaries between reality and the imagined — it’s this ability that allows the story to shine, and shine it does. Bravely written with confidence and honesty, this novel is rich in spirit and thoroughly engaging from start to end.   

Reviewed by: Heather Whitford Roche

Ballarat Writers Book Review Group, June 2022

Book review – The Writer Laid Bare, by Lee Kofman

Title: The Writer Laid Bare: Emotional Honesty in a Writer’s Art, Craft and Life

Author: Lee Kofman

Publisher: Ventura Press, April 2022; RRP: $32.99

Lee Kofman holds a PhD in social sciences and a MA in creative writing. Lee, who lives in Melbourne, is a writer, mentor, editor and teacher. She identifies as a Russian-born Israeli-Australian writer and has written three fiction books and two memoirs. Lee has also co-edited works and written short pieces that have been published in Australia as well as the US, Scotland, UK, Canada and Israel.

Lee Kofman doesn’t do things by halves. In The Writer Laid Bare, she tackles the big and complicated issues of writing in a way that only an experienced and brave writer can. This book, written in her third language, English, covers themes that most writers at some time or other struggle with. The notion of ‘mastering emotional honesty in writing is explored in a depth that makes the book unique.

‘Nonesty’ is a term developed and used by the author to describe a writing process that isn’t honest, integrated or in touch with the complexities of the subject. ‘Artistic writing begins with self-awareness of, and honesty about our psychological landscape — all those messy emotions, thoughts and memories that make us who we are.’

Lee Kofman reads from The Writer Laid Bare

@ writing western sydney: the readings

Further to the above, Lee introduces tenets for the writer in regard to finding their subject. They are: ‘write about what is urgent’, ‘just wait’, ‘write what you need to understand’, and write ‘what makes you blush’. These are challenging and confronting notions for any writer to negotiate but steer us toward the honesty that, I believe, Lee knows so well and is the prelude to writers moving towards an accomplished and satisfying level of writing.

Covering topics in an in-depth manner, this book is structured into four parts, exploring psychological, personal, practical, and external factors that influence a writer’s life. It’s easy to read and relevant to writers whether emerging or established. The author shares and exposes her own experiences with great generosity, which allows a level of authenticity seldom seen in books on the topic of writing. Alongside the personal disclosures are the well-researched inclusions from a wide-ranging field of experts.

This book is a journey into the mind of a writer who has spent time understanding and then understanding again the enormous complexities of writing fiction or non-fiction and how the use of self and self-awareness impacts on all aspects of our writing.

The Writer Laid Bare is a wonderful contribution to writers and the writing sector in Australia and beyond.

Reviewed by: Heather Whitford Roche

Ballarat Writers book Review Group, May 2022

Review copy provided by the publisher

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