Thursday, June 30, 2022

Review: The Secret World of Connie Starr

Title: The Secret World of Connie Starr

Author: Robbi Neal

Publisher: 1st June 2022 by Harlequin Australia, HQ & MIRA

Pages: 384 pages

Genre: historical fiction

My Rating: 3 cups


A stunning evocation of Australian life through the war to the 1950s, this novel is intimate and sweeping, immediate and dreamlike - a magical rendering of darkness and joy, and the beauty inherent in difference. 

Connie Starr was always a difficult child. Her mother knew as soon as Connie entered the world that day in Ballarat in 1934 and opened her lungs to scream, there was more chaos in the world than before and it wouldn't leave until Connie did. From the safety of a branch high in her lemon tree where she speaks to angels, she sees the world for what it is - a swirling mass of beauty and darkness, of trauma and family, of love and war and truth and lies - lies that might just undo her and drive her to a desperate act.

This ambitious, complex and insightful novel intertwines numerous stories of lives from before World War II and beyond, recreating with intimacy and breadth a world that is now lost to us. This book is a brightly coloured patchwork quilt of everything from shoes to polio, lemon trees to rivers, death to life that melds into one beautiful, luminous work of art.

My Thoughts

The Secret World of Connie Starr is an Australian historical drama set from 1939 to 1955 and covers a wide range of topics and social issues of the era. It provides a window into what life was like living in a small town during WWII and the years immediately after. 

‘Connie, sitting on her branch, picked herself a lemon and sucked out the sweet juice and sat there, hidden, watching the world from her secret place. Because that was how Connie was in the world: apart.’

With Connie spending time high in her lemon tree she observes family, friends and neighbours going about their daily lives - and it is these lives that the book highlights more than Connie herself. Connie is but one character and a solid explanation behind her secret world is amiss. Rather it is with this large cast of characters that all events of the various challenges of living are played out. At times it is hard to keep your head engaged with them all and what occurs. It is interesting from the historical perspective of living through the Depression, war years and beyond. I wanted to enjoy it more but not being drawn to anyone in particular it was a challenge to get through at times. 

‘Oh, Connie,’ he murmured. ‘I love that you see things other people don’t see, that you write your own story.’

This is a book about life in Australia during this time period - the many hardships, love and laughter, secrets and sadness. Connie does not fit in and lacks support from those around her and suffers accordingly. Through these events readers get to witness how ordinary people coped and survived. Sad and nostalgic, informative and revealing of a time from the past. 

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Review: Small Habits for a Big Life

Title: Small Habits for a Big Life

Author: Dr. Rebecca Ray

Publisher: 28th June 2022 by Pan Macmillan Australia

Pages: 224 pages

Genre: Nonfiction (Adult) | Self-Help

My Rating: 4 cups


Change is not about grand statements and sweeping gestures. It is about chipping away, a bit at a time, at the habits that hold us back.

Dr Rebecca Ray knows about the power of small habits to make big changes. By introducing small changes into her own life, she transformed her career as a clinical psychologist to become one of Australia's most effective communicators on matters of the mind. Rebecca has helped many members of her large online community and her clients do the same.

In Small Habits for a Big Life, Dr Rebecca Ray breaks down the process for her reader. She explains how we can override the part of the brain that seeks pleasure and comfort (ice cream and wine) and activate the parts that tolerate some discomfort for the sake of long-term goals (an hour of study instead of an hour of TV).

Small Habits for a Big Life clears the way for readers to embark on their own path to change and provides exactly the right amount of support along the way.

My Thoughts

I read and reviewed Rebecca’s, Setting Boundaries, and found it really worth my while. Once more she has provided a balance of solid theory and practice towards regaining your equilibrium and establishing wellbeing as a central focus. This time the focus is on understanding the steps of positive habit formation.

‘Values are the language of our authentic self, and they are foundational in habit change because they remind us that helpful habits shape and create a life that we are proud to live, and are worth the time and effort to create.’

Once again this is a practical book, backed with science and easy to follow journal questions for reflection. Rebecca provides you with the tools, case studies and strategies that can help you make small steps towards a better life. It is all about making changes that are more in alignment with your values and what is important to you. We continue doing what we do because that is comfortable but sometimes benefits come from stepping out of that comfort zone. 

‘Goals are important because life without them can pass by unchecked all too easily. When we don’t stop to reflect on whether or not we are on track to living the way we want to live, then we run the risk of living a ‘some day’ life, spending our time focused on the things we plan to do . . . some day.’

Rebecca is authentic and realistic and knows this is not an easy process - we are not programmed for this necessarily as humans. Progress is rarely in a straight line and daily living does not often accommodate such changes. Yet discomfort is part of life and of this we must be accepting. Understand that although challenging, life will be more of what you seek in the long term. 

It means that we focus on the process, the daily efforts towards something meaningful, the satisfaction of overcoming small problems and challenges as they occur along the way, and the little wins that bring us closer to a larger goal. This is the kind of motivation that is about daily action in line with values.’

The stars probably will not align for you to begin. However, change begins the moment you do something differently. Start small. Be imperfect. But most importantly …. start now.

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Monday, June 27, 2022

Review: Six Days in Rome

Title: Six Days in Rome

Author: Francesca Giacco

Publisher: 10th May 2022 by Hachette Australia

Pages: 270 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre:  fiction, contemporary, travel, Italy, romance

My Rating: 4 cups


Emilia arrives in Rome reeling from heartbreak and reckoning with her past. What was supposed to be a romantic trip has, with the sudden end of a relationship, become a solitary one instead. As she wanders, music, art, food, and the beauty of Rome's wide piazzas and narrow streets color Emilia's dreamy, but weighty experience of the city. She considers the many facets of her life, drifting in and out of memory, following her train of thought wherever it leads.

While climbing a hill near Trastevere, she meets John, an American expat living a seemingly idyllic life. They are soon navigating an intriguing connection, one that brings pain they both hold into the light.

As their intimacy deepens, Emilia starts to see herself anew, both as a woman and as an artist. For the first time in her life, she confronts the ways in which she's been letting her father’s success as a musician overshadow her own. Forced to reckon with both her origins and the choices she's made, Emilia finds herself on a singular journey—and transformed in ways she never expected.

Equal parts visceral and cerebral, Six Days in Rome is an ode to the Eternal City, a celebration of art and creativity, and a meditation on self-discovery.

My Thoughts

If you are looking for something different and a virtual trip to Europe, then this could well prove the ticket. Six Days in Rome is a unique piece of literature with this ancient city playing a major character. Don’t be deceived - this book is far from being a travel journal. It is a sublime reflection on relationships in all its various forms. For sure, there are wonderful descriptive passages on Roman cuisine, locales and the general ambiance. Yet it is equal parts a delve into the lead characters past and her  life in America. 

‘Is this how these six days are going to unfold? Circling strangers, overhearing hints of their lives, imagining what the rest might resemble? Wanting to know them? Not being able to?’

At one level you have Emilia who is dealing with the breakup of her relationship and a trip to Rome that is now solo rather than duo. Emilia is the conduit through which the reader observes and reflects on a plethora of sites, sounds and situations. Emilia takes you on a journey not only through Rome itself (which is wonderful) but also through her life and loves - a reflection on her life and a vast array of experiences from her past. Somewhat of a romance but I rather see some of her encounters as opportunities to challenge and face her past demons. 

‘No one knows me here, and with that, certain things seem possible. Like I’m capable of strength or abandon on this side of the ocean that would be laughable at home. I'm someone else waiting for something new to happen.’

Francesca’s writing is something quite unique. There is no major plot going on here. Rather, this is a person who takes these six days for ambling introspection - her relationships, her family, her job, her future. This is messy and even in the end, nothing is boxed up neatly and placed away. Rather this is prose exploring art, freedoms, love and loss.  I am somewhat torn by this book. On the one hand there is so much to relate to and embrace and yet …. it does jump around and go off on sudden tangents. It may be six days in Rome but there are a lot of days spent elsewhere. 

‘This was a deal I made with myself before coming here: no communicating with anyone from my real life, within reason. The idea was to double down on solitude, in hopes it might teach me something. That maybe, with no outside interference, I could start to see more clearly.’

There is no escaping that this is a beautifully written book. This is a book that makes you pause and ponder, it is character based and one hundred percent reflective. I have many highlights that I will return to and contemplate. There is much on offer here to encourage you to spend Six Days in Rome.

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Review: Retreat to the Spanish Sun

Title: Retreat to the Spanish Sun

Author: Jo Thomas

Publisher: 23rd June 2022 by Random House UK, Transworld Publishers, Penguin

Pages: 352 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: women’s fiction, romance

My Rating:  3 cups


Eliza has a full house! When her three children grew up and moved out, she downsized to a smaller property... but now they're all back. Every room in the house is taken and Eliza finds herself sharing her bed with her eldest daughter and her daughter's pug. Combined with the online course she's trying to finish, plus her job to fit in, there just isn't the peace and quiet that Eliza needs.

So when an ad pops up on her laptop saying 'house-sitters wanted', Eliza can't resist the chance to escape. She ends up moving to a rural finca in southern Spain, looking after the owner's Iberico pigs, learning about secret gastronomic societies... and finding a new zest for life and love along the way.

My Thoughts

‘It’s like, now, with the family grown-up, I’ve realized I don’t know who I am. Who is Eliza Bytheway if she isn’t a mum, juggling a family and a part-time job?’

Having read and enjoyed other Jo Thomas books, I anticipated an armchair trip to Spain with Eliza who was trying essentially to rediscover herself. The appeal of a book from Jo is always one of great scenery with delectable food and a slower approach to life.

Eliza escapes to house sit in Spain in an attempt to finish writing her essay.  This is away from her adult children who had returned home to her tiny flat in England and were crowding her life - literally and figuratively. At times this book tended to simplify things in addition to many convenient occurrences. Readers will also be up for a lesson on pig farming as well. 🤷🏻‍♀️

Of course nothing goes to plan, situations become implausible to comedic at times - somewhat over the top. I did not really warm to the cast of characters - except perhaps Juan's attempts to win the Tapas competition. Eliza often did herself no favours which I found frustrating and encounters failed to genuinely gel.

With a mission to retrieve the stolen prized hams from feisty locals (not just the pigs!) many will find this a fun and enjoyable escape if somewhat predictable and repetitive at times. Sadly, this was just not the midlife journey I was seeking but it had potential. 

‘I’m Eliza Bytheway, living the dream, in a beautiful Spanish cortijo, feeling content with who I am: a forty five year old woman, who has brought up three children, has the scars to prove it, the streak of grey in her thick dark hair that, out here, seems to look so much better than it does in the morning mirror back home. Maybe it’s the sun, the food, or just being able to accept who I am while I’m here, not constantly feeling I need a degree to validate myself. I’m just me.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Review: Elektra

Title: Elektra

Author: Jennifer Saint

Publisher: 26th April 2022 by Hachette Australia

Pages: 338 pages

Genre: historical fiction, Greek mythology, retellings

My Rating: 4.5 cups


The House of Atreus is cursed. A bloodline tainted by a generational cycle of violence and vengeance. This is the story of three women, their fates inextricably tied to this curse, and the fickle nature of men and gods. 


The sister of Helen, wife of Agamemnon - her hopes of averting the curse are dashed when her sister is taken to Troy by the feckless Paris. Her husband raises a great army against them, and determines to win, whatever the cost. 


Princess of Troy, and cursed by Apollo to see the future but never to be believed when she speaks of it. She is powerless in her knowledge that the city will fall. 


The youngest daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, Elektra is horrified by the bloodletting of her kin. But, can she escape the curse, or is her own destiny also bound by violence?

My Thoughts

I read and reviewed Jennifer’s, Ariande, and loved it, so no surprises that I was eager to read her latest offering, Elektra. WOW! I loved it and then some. If Greek tragedies are your thing, you are in for a treat. 

‘…. my voice would be, at last, clear and brave. If I could speak the will of the gods and see the very fabric of fate, I could command attention and respect. With all of my heart, that was what I wanted. To be something other than myself; to speak in someone else’s words instead of my own.’

This book tells the story of three women who are each impacted by the Trojan war - Clytemnestra, Elektra, and Cassandra. If you are at all familiar with their stories, or the overall saga, you are in for a good retelling as this stays true to the original tale (think Troy: Fall of a City on Netflix) and I believe does a good job at giving a voice to these women.

‘A struggle for power was one thing - common enough, perhaps - but the history of this family I had joined was a gnarled and warped tangle, like the twisted roots of an ancient tree. Could I really believe that Agamemnon had severed the knot?’

What sets this apart from other retellings of this famous tale? The author chooses to focus on the ‘tainted’ bloodline of the cursed House of Atreus and how these three women’s fate are linked accordingly because of a curse, the dominance of powerful men and of course, the will of the Gods. I appreciated not only once again immersing myself in this famous tale but reading it afresh through three very different feminine perspectives. The characterisation is a definite highlight with all three viewpoints being clearly distinct. From all three women you get such different hopes and dreams with outlook and ambition surrounding revenge, abandonment, violence and trauma.

‘I wonder how she felt; what choice, if any, she had. My own twin sister, but I 

can’t imagine it at all. All the death and destruction that would chase them across the ocean; the years of relentless war that bought them their escape. Did she have any inkling of it? Of just how far the suffering would spread, how the tendrils of it would twist out to ensnare so many others?’

I believe Jennifer Saint has done an amazing job of interweaving, through elegant prose, the lives of these three very different women. The story is well paced and intensely heartbreaking at times. Ariande was a great debut however, Elektra I found to be next level engagement. This is a book I definitely recommend for readers who enjoy Greek tragedies through a feminist retelling. 

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Review: Man Through the Ages: A Global History

Title: Man Through the Ages: A Global History

Author: John Bowle

Publisher: 5th June 2022 by Sapere Books

Pages: 429 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre:  nonfiction, history

My Rating: 3 cups


How have societies, cultures and traditions from across the globe shaped our conception of who we are as human beings in the modern world?

Many who love history become fascinated with certain aspects of the past, be that Tudor England, Renaissance Italy or the American Civil War. John Bowle encourages us to look beyond our own interests and to examine the entirety of world history, from Ming China to pre-Columbian America, medieval Africa to Mughal India. Bowle’s book allows the reader to reassess the past, revealing aspects of humanity’s journey which we might previously have overlooked but which undoubtedly have impacted the world we live in today.

In this study covering over six thousand years of history, from our archaic origins through to the twentieth century, Bowle demonstrates civilizations that have risen and fallen, how religions and scientific ideas have shaped the way we think, how trade and language have allowed disparate communities to work together, and how our overlapping histories continue to form us.

Written in accessible and entertaining language Man Through the Ages should be an essential refresher of the global history of mankind.

My Thoughts

I was intrigued to read this book because as Santayana reputedly said, ‘those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it’. I have a great passion for history.  To consider that this book had originally been published in 1966 (some sections even supposedly four years prior under a different title) it is amazing to appreciate the foresight and understanding exhibited by the author.

John Bowle was born in 1905 in England. He was a history master, lecturer, professor at a range of notable colleges from 1947 onwards. He wrote many historical books on not just history but Western politics and opinions and was editor of the 1971 Encyclopaedia of World History. He knew his stuff! I appreciated how the author opened my eyes to look beyond what was familiar:

‘The debt of our own civilization to Greece, Israel and Rome is widely appreciated, but few Europeans who are not experts understand the debt of Cambodia, Thailand, Burma and Indonesia to southern India, or of the Japanese to China.’

Whilst on the one hand this is a thorough and illuminating citation in so many respects, it is however, purely academic and not truly accessible for all readers. I have a great fascination for history, not only for interest's sake but also as a key to understanding how it has shaped our present world. Unfortunately, however, this book took a great deal of effort to delve through and find the gems I was hoping to discover. 

It is a brave undertaking for any person to try and write a history of the world. Yet it is very clear from the outset that this book - academic in nature-  highlights how even still today, we are in danger of not learning from lessons of the past:

‘The danger is all the more urgent since, although never in history has political change been so fast, it has lagged behind the technological developments that have dragged mankind after them and created so urgently the need for world order as the alternative to catastrophe.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.