Tag: book review

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 Luminous Solution, by Charlotte Wood

Title: The Luminous Solution: creativity, resilience and the inner life

Author: Charlotte Wood

Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2021; RRP: $32.99

Charlotte Wood is an established Australian writer of fiction and non-fiction who counts the Stella Prize and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction amongst her accolades.

The author had earlier conducted a series of in-depth interviews with writers exploring the creative process, which she later published in her highly successful book The Writer’s Room. She also explores the writing process in her podcast The Writers’ Room. Much of what she discovers from these conversations and her own practice is contained and developed further in The Luminous Solution.

The phrase ‘luminous solution’ is how the author describes that experience when a writer hits a wall with a new work and, despite all their efforts, is unable to progress, but then, inexplicably, a resolution presents itself, often involving a radical rethink of the entire work.

She gives as an example her own struggle with The Weekend, which she  ‘initially envisaged (as) a wry celebration of domestic realism’ based on the friendship of three old friends, but hit a  creative dead end, putting it aside in despair for several months.

A ‘decrepit, geriatric dog’ belonging to one of the three friends, however, kept haunting her and one day, months later, she suddenly realised its dereliction and confusion represented less comfortable, hidden aspects of the women themselves and their relationship. This was Charlotte Wood’s own ‘luminous solution’.

In the process of pinning down how this sudden illumination worked and how it could arise,  the author found other creatives – not just writers – experienced this sudden resolution and also discovered that the experience and the nurturing of it could be found in certain patterns of behaviour and background that creative people shared. 

Throughout the book she constantly references the work and practices disclosed in comments by other creatives, both Australian and international. In the process she discovers practices that were repeated, including some she realised she did herself but had not really thought about. These practices formed the foundation for and fed these sudden, inexplicable breakthroughs that often broke the practitioners’ previous approaches and/or the norms of what they were trying to achieve.

Listen to Charlotte Wood on her writing practice

at the garrett, 2019

The Luminous Solution is a freewheeling ride through a wide range of topics – writing tribes, the use of anger, humour, nature, teachers, dreams, identifying what was missing, sharing work, art,  therapeutic reading, feral writing, spirituality and religion, writing the un-writable and more – synthesising all parts into a coherent whole.

Each creative practice is developed in separate chapters. They are disparate: some internal states, some a particular environment, some ordered and routine, some involving spontaneity and letting go. But combined they lay the groundwork, fertilising the creative mind and making it possible for the sudden leaps that carry both creator and creation forward, whether it be a painting or a piece of writing.

The writing style is very close and immediate and captures a sense of a mind probing deep inside to voice something that by its very nature cannot be pinned down or reduced to a series of steps.  Capturing – naming – the ineffable. The writing voice is reflective and what could easily have been something fuzzy and disconnected comes together with a precision and immediacy that brings all separate, sometimes opposing, elements together into a coherent whole.

The Luminous Solution will appeal to those who create as well as those who simply love reading and literature and who wonder sometimes how writers come up with the scenarios, characters and outcomes that they do. Serious students of literature and those who study the practice of writing also would benefit. There is also a psychological aspect to it in her references to dreams, creativity and the subconscious that would appeal to those who are interested in a more  scientific or academic approach to the workings of the human imagination.

Reviewed by: Rhonda Cotsell

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Review copy provided by the publisher

Book review – Dinner with the Schnabels, by Toni Jordan

Title: Dinner with the Schnabels

Author: Toni Jordan

Publisher: Hachette, 30 March 2022; RRP: $32.99

Toni Jordan is an established Australian author with six novels to her credit. Amongst her well-known works are Addition in 2008 and the Miles Franklin longlisted historical novel Nine Days in 2011. Nine Days was also judged Best Fiction in 2012 at the Indie Awards. Toni has received numerous other prizes and accolades for her writing and holds a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a PhD in Creative Arts. She lives in Melbourne.

Dinner with the Schnabels is an entertaining, fast moving, funny and relatable story that ranges over a one-week period. Simon Larsen is having a tough time. He’s lost his job and business and he and his wife, Tansy, and their two children have moved to a cramped flat after being forced to sell their former home. Tansy now works full time and Simon spends time on the couch, his self-worth in tatters and struggling daily for motivation.

Tansy’s family, her mother, sister and brother are heavily involved in her life and add to the pressure Simon feels to get his life in order. He agrees to take on a hurried backyard landscaping job for a friend who is to host a special event for the Schnabels. Simon has from Monday to Saturday to complete the undertaking before the big occasion on Sunday.

A relative who is unknown to them arrives and Tansy takes her in despite the difficulties the family is under. Monica has alternative ideas and views about life and comes and goes at all hours. In the meantime, Simon procrastinates with the backyard overhaul but convinces his in-laws, Tansy, and himself that he is on track for completion for Sunday. He is also worried about Tansy and the future of their relationship as he discovers she is holding a secret from him.

Toni Jordan on writing

at the garret

This is a modern-day depiction of life in the fast lane and how quickly life can unravel when circumstances change. The story delves into the daily struggles, ambitions, and pressures from extended families.  Simon, Tansy and their children, Mia and Lachie, are lovable and funny and at times sad and reactive. The reader is invited to travel with them, particularly with Simon who is suffering emotionally and yet trying to pretend otherwise. His agonising, lingering procrastination brings tension and frustration as the time ticks by and the backyard work remains unfinished.

The characters are vibrant, well developed and stay in the reader’s head well after the last page is turned. There are several twists and turns laced with anticipation that keeps the story galloping along at an enjoyable pace until the very end. Does Simon make the deadline?  What happens on the day?

Toni Jordan’s Dinner with the Schnabels is relevant to current-day life and is a laugh aloud reading experience.

Review by: Heather Whitford Roche

Ballarat Writers Book Review Group 2022

Review copy provided by the publisher

Book review – Mother’s Boy, by Patrick Gale

Title: Mother’s Boy

Author: Patrick Gale

Publisher: Tinder Press (UK)/Hachette, March 2022; $32.99

Patrick Gale was born on the Isle of Wight and grew up in Winchester before attending Oxford University. Gale is well known and revered for his popular works of fiction with over 20 titles to his name. Gale lives in Cornwall.

This novel, set in Cornwall and spanning both WW1 and WW2, is based around the similar circumstances of the Cornish poet Charles Causley and his mother Laura.

The story begins with Laura, a poor working-class girl, who marries Charlie. They have a child before he goes off to war in 1918. He returns a changed man, becomes ill and dies, leaving Laura to raise their son, Charles. Laura works as a laundress, and this sustains their meagre village lifestyle. Of particular delight in this book is the Cornish lifestyle and the local characters.

Charles is all that Laura lives for. Charles is considered to be a boy of immense talent and Laura makes it possible for him to develop his musical skills in playing the piano. Despite their obvious closeness, as Charles matures, he remains distant and secretive toward his doting mother. He is always polite but subtly withholds from her.

Joining the navy in 1941 marks a turning point for Charles. He establishes himself and earns a rank as a coder. This world, far removed from his Cornish village and his adoring mother, allows Charles to explore and take risks with his sexuality and to search for love in his own way. It is a harsh and dangerous time as he becomes closer to the war front and experiences the death of navy personnel and friends.

Patrick Gale talks to Valerie Khoo about Mother’s Boy and other things

at the Australian writers centre

The story turns full circle when Charles eventually returns to his village in Cornwall where he once again resumes living with, by now, his elderly mother. She knows nothing of Charles’ personal life in the navy and is simply satisfied just to have her son back home. Charles carries a life within that can never be shared with Laura and she never intrudes. At times Charles seems aloof. Or is it a manifestation of wanting to protect his mother from a truth that he feels is too complex for her to comprehend or accept?

Mother’s Boy is a story about challenges, identity, sexuality and the hardship of class and societal expectations within a small community. And it’s a story about the love a parent has for her child and the fierceness of strong mothering.

Patrick Gale is a master storyteller. His ability allows the reader to experience a closeness with the characters, their sadness, and small joys along the way. This is a historical novel that’s engaging and full to the brim with substance.

Reviewed by: Heather Whitford Roche

Ballarat Writers Book Review Group 2022

Review copy provided by the publisher

Book review – Missing, by Tom Patterson

Title: Missing

Author: Tom Patterson

Publisher: Allen & Unwin, January 2022; RRP: $32.99

Missing is the first book for Tom Patterson, who grew up in the New England region of New South Wales. A hiker himself, he spent time in the gorge country, but he never saw or met Mark May, the man whose true story he tells with compassion and insight.

The author pays tribute to the May family, especially Peter May, Mark’s brother who provided Tom with documents, photos, and details of Mark’s life. Peter even spent time with Tom in the Gorge where Mark lived for thirty-five years.

Born into a Catholic family in the fifties, Mark was the second of seven boys. They lived in Armidale before moving to a fifty-acre property called Bynalong, just outside of town. Their father, Phil, along with the boys established the property from scratch. Mark was never a willing participator and avoided his father. Mark and his brothers became familiar with the rugged terrain and often camped out, becoming accustomed to the tough conditions.

Mark’s rebellion started early, and his school days were marked with difficult encounters. He was an unsettled student but bright. Drugs and drink became problematic until Mark decided to put things right. It didn’t last long. He and two of his brothers went away to boarding school where Mark’s problems surfaced but he managed to sit his Higher School Certificate. He obtained entry to Australian National University to study law but continued to heavily use drugs. Mark eventually took to the life of a hermit, only coming out of the remote gorge country to collect supplies and sometimes to have fleeting contact with family members.

In 2017, after not sighting Mark for many months, his brothers Pete and Steve with two other family members decided to search for him. Their suspicions and concerns were well-founded when they found one of Mark’s campsites and discovered his remains.

Tom Patterson talks about Missing with Deborah Knight

at 2GB

Tom Patterson has structured this book in a way that gives Mark’s life understanding, an understanding that we are often not privileged to see. Mark, through his letters to friends and family in the earlier years, showed his emotional state at the time, his ongoing struggle and his fine and clever mind. He had extreme reactions to the norms of society; living a life as a hermit may have been his only workable choice. It’s hard to imagine such a tormented mind and not want to reach out to him. But Mark was also strong. He lived for three and a half decades in survival mode in extremely rough terrain.

I recommend Missing, a sad and unique story of a man and his unconventional life.

Reviewed by: Heather Whitford Roche, February 2022

Ballarat Writers Book Review Group

Review copy provided by the publisher

Book review: Lament, by Nicole Kelly

Title: Lament

Author: Nicole Kelly

Publisher:  Hawkeye Publishing, 2020

Nicole Kelly is the author of short stories and non-fiction articles, and is currently working on her second novel.  She is a school teacher and lives in rural Victoria.

Lament, written as historical fiction, is her first published novel. It was short listed in the Hawkeye Books Manuscript Development Prize in 2019, and later accepted for publication by Hawkeye in 2020.

The novel opens with Ned Kelly and his gang arriving in Glenrowan. From there they set out to derail the train travelling from Benalla in the belief a contingent of the Victorian Police Force are on board. In the expected aftermath of the train crash, the gang plan to take hostages, then ride on to Benalla and rob the local bank. However things don’t go as expected, and Ned begins to realise he and the gang have to change their plans.

Written in the first person, Ned is an observant, descriptive narrator. His voice is strong, full of rage, and his belief in the Kelly gang is unwavering. But as their plans begin to unravel, Ned begins to see the potential for another way of living and starts to question what he really wants to do with his life.

This leads Ned and the Kelly gang to move away from the High Country, and, in an attempt to begin again, they make their way down south. As they start to build a new life for themselves, their plans again go astray, and they are left to face the repercussions of their past lives as bush rangers, forcing them to deal with the devastating consequences. 

Nicole Kelly has written a fast-paced, exciting novel – part fiction, part fact. In her hands, Ned Kelly comes alive as we hear his thoughts, his fears, and his yearnings. The characters in the story are well drawn out, with their adventures told in captivating detail that leaves the reader with an understanding of how life was for members of the Kelly gang and their families.

Ned Kelly is portrayed as a proud man, with a firm self-belief that he would be remembered. As indeed is the case.

But Lament presents us with another version – one that explores the humanity of Ned Kelly, and with it, an enthralling story that offers another side to the life of the man who has become such a part of our Australian history.

Reviewed by: Linda Young

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Book review: The Time of Our Lives, by Robert Dessaix

Title: The Time of Our Lives – Growing Older Well

Author: Robert Dessaix

Publisher: Brio, 2020

The author

Robert Dessaix is an Australian writer and life commentator.  He is best-known for the autobiography A Mother’s Disgrace and the novel Night Letters.  His writing is informed by a life of travel, learning, and deep, diverse friendships with “interesting” people.

The book

This is an intimate insight, almost a monologue, into Dessaix’s personal tussle with the finite nature of life and its inevitable end. His own advancing years, brushes with death and the imminent demise of Rita, his partner’s mother, focuses the conversation (largely one-way) on life and what it means to live a meaningful life. 

It is set largely in Java, and Rita’s room in the nursing home.  Rita is frequently used as a springboard into the unknown and to contrast the ideas he is trying to draw out.

Little nuances and details add colour and dimension, turning the ramblings of an old man into a story. The use of Javanese village life and inclusion of references to friends in cleverly crafted little side snippets create a multi-layered, thoughtful and interesting reading experience.

There is good advice in here for the young, though I fear it would be lost on many of them.

Listen to an ABC Radio interview with Robert Dessaix on The Time of Our Lives

Patricia Karvelas on The Drawing Room

Dying features heavily; the idea that we inevitably reach a point of finality drives a lot of Dessaix’s thinking. To grow old well, he suggests, you need to be satisfied you have lived well. Consequently, he includes a lot of discussion on living. Of course, Dessaix’s idea of living well, or anybody else’s for that matter, may differ to yours.

There is a memorable little analogy that suggests you do not want your life to be like the traveller who finds the best coffee shop, restaurants, and places to go on their last day at a location they will never return to.

I must confess I was expecting an epiphany or two when I set out to read this book. However, I was disappointed: two out of three of Dessaix’s major life conclusions I had already reached, despite not having lived an exotic life such as Dessaix’s.  For other conclusions … you will just have to read the book for yourself, which I heartily recommend.

Reviewed by: Frank Thompson, December 2020

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Book review: Beloved: a Word Banquet by Amy Tsilemanis

Author: Poems by Amy Tsilemanis with images by the late Susie Surtees

Publisher: Amy Tsilemanis

Book Design: Tiffany Titshall

Year: 2020

Genre: Poetry

ISBN:  978-0-646-82011-8

Cover of Beloved: a Word Banquet

The Author

At the time Ballarat’s Word Banquet was running, Amy was a PhD student at Federation University working across the Collaborative Research Centre in Australian History (CRCAH) and the Arts Academy. This research was based on her practice as curator at the Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute (2016-2019).

In 2019 she was nominated for the Ballarat Heritage Awards‘ inaugural Mayoral Award for emerging heritage and design practitioners

Amy has always loved storytelling and creating unique, beautiful and thought-provoking things. She loves making ideas happen through innovative projects and events.

Amy is based in Ballarat and is involved with curation and research on various local projects around arts, culture and heritage.

Word Banquet

Word Banquet was a monthly literary discussion group run by the late Susie Surtees with assistance from Amy Tsilemanis at the Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute in 2018: “a participatory experience with other lovers of the words and ideas that move, inspire, and change us”. 

The Book

They say good things come in small packages. This book is more than a simple book of prose, it is a commemorative item, desirable and collectable. Beautifully presented, from the hard cover with the symbolic image of ginkgo leaves to the luxurious, thick pages, it is a tactile delight. Beloved: a Word Banquet is an apt title for a book in memory of friendship and kindred spirits.

I must admit to a slight bias, having attended three Word Banquet sessions and thoroughly enjoying each of them.  They opened the door to a richer world.  This book perfectly captures the mood and sentiment of those relaxed, civilised conversational events.

Beloved: a Word Banquet is to be launched online on 1 August, 2020; see the Facebook event for details

The images in the book are a mixture of symbolism, memory, and natural beauty. The cover image of ginkgo leaves with their soft rain-laden colours and association with peace and duality is a testament to how Susie viewed the world.

The images and writing are informed by deep philosophical understanding, years of reading, learning and research.  Amy’s poem for May I found particularly resonant for its observations of the social impact of advancing technological communications.

To me this book speaks of a richer life, where ambition is not about possession and power but for learning and love. Communication, through words and images, transcending place and time, but always with respect and consideration for others.

I am glad to have this book – a beautiful memory.

Reviewed by: Frank Thompson, July 2020

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book review group

Book review: The Deceptions by Suzanne Leal

Title:                The Deceptions

Author:            Suzanne Leal

Publisher:        Allen & Unwin, 2020

Suzanne Leal has published two previous novels—The Teacher’s Secret and Border Street.

She was the senior judge for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards from 2017 to 2019.

Suzanne is a lawyer experienced in child protection, criminal law and refugee law.

This current novel, published in 2020, is a work of fiction. However, it was inspired by a story as told to Suzanne by her neighbour, who, along with his wife, was a Holocaust survivor.

The novel centres on the main character Hana, who tells of her life and experiences as a young Jewish woman during the Second World War. She lives with her family in Prague, then is interned in a Jewish ghetto in Theresienstadt.   There she meets Karl, a Czech gendarme, who has been assigned to the camp. This event leads to catastrophic changes in the direction and outcome of Hana’s life.

From this premise, the story moves back and forwards over time and countries, as Hana’s life, and the family she creates, evolve.  No one person is left unscathed by their life’s experiences.

The novel brings together the present and the past, when the titular deceptions are finally disclosed, and the repercussions for all are tragic.

The author has taken a story of the Holocaust and written a novel that is gripping. It is not an easy read. Suzanne Leal has written in graphic detail life in the concentration camp to which Hanna was eventually sent. It opens our eyes to the horrors experienced by so many millions of people, and the long term effects of the war on extended families. 

It is confronting, but these stories need to be told, and Suzanne Leal has certainly done that in The Deceptions.

Reviewed by: Linda Young, July 2020

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book review group

Book review: The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell

The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson

Author: Leah Purcell

Publisher: Penguin Books Australia, 2019

the drover's wife by leah purcell

Leah Purcell is an award-winning writer and has a background as a playwright, actor and film producer amongst other achievements.  This novel has been adapted for film, which is slated for release this year.

This historical fiction novel, based on a short story written by Henry Lawson, provides a stark sense of our history, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. Set in the late 1800s, The Drover’s Wife tells of the harsh and almost impossible conditions that were endured during white settlement. The plot focuses mainly on Molly Johnson who, with her children, waits for her husband to return from months away droving. They live in an isolated hut in the High Country where, with the help of her eldest son, Danny, Molly and the children survive and cope on their own, including the birthing of a baby.

A visitor arrives unexpectedly. Yodaka is keen to be away from civilisation and begs time to recover from the injuries he’s received on the run. Eventually Molly discovers that Yodaka is the holder of knowledge that Molly eventually understands.

The book depicts the best and worst of human behaviour: cruelty, degradation, humour, love and a will to survive. The intriguing plot invites the reader to travel in the shoes of the tenacious and suffering Molly Johnson, the drover’s wife.

This story lingered in my thoughts for weeks after finishing the novel and I quickly fell back into the emotive ambience of the book while writing this review. I loved the book – it made me think yet again about colonisation and our (I’m a white Australian) role that has never been fully owned up to. The writer integrated and treated the issues of women and their place in history and society with clarity and directness.

Thanks, Leah Purcell. I couldn’t put this book down.

Reviewed by:

Heather Whitford Roche, Jan 2020

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book review group

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