Lost Roses

Lost Roses

Martha Hall Kelly

Penguin Books 2019


Martha Hall Kelly’s Lost Roses is a historical fiction which follows the chain of events up-to and following the fall of imperialism and the rise of Boshevism in Russia across World War I. Set across three continents and following the stories of four different women, Hall Kelly weaves a tale of resourcefulness, the power of friendship, and humanity.

Fictional Russians Sofya and Luba Steshnayva, together with a fortune-teller’s daughter, Varinka, and history’s Eliza Ferriday come together throughout the novel to show the strength of female friendships, particularly those that survive across continents.

Eliza Ferriday and Sofya Streshnayva are fast friends keeping a daily correspondence, even during wartime. The pair face a number of challenges in their day-to-day lives, only made worse by the conflict. For Eliza these challenges are taming her wilful daughter and mourning the loss of her husband. For Sofya, the stakes are much higher. As one of Russia’s elite and a relation to the imperial family, Sofya must flee for her life abandoning all she holds dear: her father, her sister, and her young son who was kidnapped during the seizure of the family property.

As Russia descends into chaos, Eliza (like history’s Eliza Ferriday) begins the American Central Committee for Russian Relief, aiming to help the women and children who fled the violence of Russia to regain their lives. She becomes an ambassador for White Russians and finding the women work and accommodation.

Sofya and Luba Steshnayva are cousins to the Tsar and through these characters we see the greatness of the Tsar and later crumble. Hall Kelly reveals that much of Russian aristocracy were in abject denial of the rising threat of the Red Army.

An entirely fictional character, Varinka embodies the desperation of the serfs during this time. A village outcast and in the care of her father’s murderer, Varinka and her unwell mother are completely destitute. When Varinka finds work at one of the rich country estates as a Nanny, she takes to the baby straight away, doting upon Maxwell in a way that verges on obsessive. Not quite a villain but certainly no hero, Varinka embodies the complex nature of humanity, portraying both great good, and great evil while simply trying to survive.

Lost Roses is a novel which asks us to interrogate what it means to be human. With history as our teacher and with fiction being a way to explore it, Hall Kelly shows good and evil side-by-side within a range of characters and situations. I would recommend Lost Roses to anyone with an interest in historic fiction, Russia, and the Russian Revolution.

4/5 Stars


Words by Kayla Gaskell

Big Rough Stones

Big Rough Stones

Margaret Merrilees

Wakefield Press 2018


An awe-inspiring testament to the feminist movement in Australia, particularly South Australia and Victoria during the 1970s and 80s, Big Rough Stones follows the women of a collective throughout their lives together.

Focused on one particularly fiery lesbian, Ro, the novel looks back on her life, her achievements, her failures, and her relationships while firmly establishing her opinions—both those she put on and those she kept to herself. Ro spent her life pioneering to be a loud and proud lesbian who didn’t conform to the patriarchal power structures that guided and continue to guide the lives of a number of women.

Ro is dying, and in dying she wants to realise her dream of becoming a writer, even if she might have left it too late. She’s always wanted to write about her experiences being a lesbian and being involved in a number of protests and rallies. While she laments her writing dreams, she also looks back on her life, giving the audience glimpses into her past, in a natural and sometimes non-chronological order.

While the novel revolves around the character of Ro, we also get to know her friends and ex-lovers, in particular the love of her life, Gerry. Gerry is a country woman, self-sufficient and alone in the Victorian farmlands, living where there would have once been a dairy farm. She is stoic and capable, and somehow taken by Ro, who is very much loud, obnoxious and opinionated (even when contradicting herself).

The book works retrospectively, separated into four parts titled: “Now”, “A While Ago”, “A Long Time Ago”, before returning to “Now”. This shows how times have changed, how ideas from Ro’s youth have continued to inform her thinking, and how her opinions have changed as she grew older.

It was wonderful to read such a powerful, loud, book by a South Australian author and see familiar places such as Adelaide, Kingston and Grange. To hear about women living together, helping one another, and fighting for what they believe in. It was fascinating to hear about the protests, rallies, picnics, and meetings that would have contributed to the transformation of everyday life for women in Australia today.

Margaret Merrilees debut novel The First Week won the Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2013. Fables of the Queer and Familiar was published in 2014 and was also broadcast around Australia as a radio serial.


3/5 Stars

Big Rough Stones is available for purchase from Wakefield press here.


Words by Kayla Gaskell

The Midnight Watch

The Midnight Watch

David Dyer

Penguin 2016


Published in 2016, The Midnight Watch is a historical fiction novel by David Dyer, a former London lawyer who now writes and teaches in Sydney.

The novel is set in 1912 and takes place during and after the sinking of the RMS Titanic. We all know of this infamous ship that sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean after colliding with an iceberg. But not all of us know about the SS Californian: the closest ship to the Titanic while she was sinking, but failed to come to her assistance. If the Californian had come, many or perhaps all of the 1,500 people who died could have been saved.

Why didn’t the Californian come to Titanic’s assistance? This is what John Steadman, a fictional American journalist, endeavours to find out. It turns out that Herbert Stone, the Californian’s Third Officer, saw the Titanic firing distress rockets on the horizon from midnight onwards, and he wasn’t the only one. The Californian’s captain, Stanley Lord, was notified, but didn’t issue any orders until 5am the next morning, when it was too late (the Titanic sunk at 2:20am). Lord’s explanation as to why he didn’t go to Titanic’s rescue immediately changed over time, and Steadman finds that pages from the Californian’s log had been torn out. This motivates him to discover the truth, no matter what.

The novel is well-written and is historically accurate. It’s clear that Dyer heavily researched everything to do with the Titanic. In fact, he lifted quotes from original letters, witness statements, and inquiry testimonies, along with other primary documents, and used them in the novel’s dialogue. The story is told from multiple points of view, which I found jarring at first, but I quickly became accustomed to it.

The novel’s themes are easily identifiable. The main theme is perhaps truth versus point of view. The truth can easily be warped by people’s point of view. As Obi-Wan told Luke in Return of the Jedi: “Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view”. This is certainly evident in Stanley Lord’s case, as his version of events confused many but obviously made sense to him.

But being a former journalism student, the theme that stood out to me the most was miscommunication. Early press reports in the immediate aftermath of the Titanic’s sinking gave false information. For example, it was thought at one stage that the Titanic, heavily damaged from the iceberg, was being towed to the nearest port by another ship. This obviously wasn’t the case. But back in 1912, they could only communicate using Morse code on one wireless frequency, so it was easy for information to become jumbled. Steadman came across as an admirable journalist, as he goes to extreme lengths to uncover the truth.

Despite being set in 1912, all the characters are believable in the sense they’re relatable and realistic. They are written as human beings, not as stereotypical twentieth century people who come across as two dimensional. They all suffer grief, internal conflict, anger, confusion – the list goes on!

I thoroughly enjoyed The Midnight Watch, and would strongly recommend it, especially to other history buffs.

5/5 stars


Words by Callum J. Jones

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Creative, honest, and reliable, Callum J. Jones loves writing fiction and non-fiction. In his spare time, he likes to read, watch movies and TV shows, and going on walks.

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