The Stella Prize this year was won by a memoir, making it two years in a row for books that fall under the ‘History Memoir and Biography’ category. In 2018 the Stella was won by Alexis Wright’s Tracker and now in 2019 the winner was Vicki Laveau-Harvie with The Erratics (original publication 2017). This memoir of dealing with aging parents in an unconventional family was reviewed for the challenge back in May 2018 and was covered in an earlier round-up. While one of my self-imposed rules is that books are only ’rounded-up’ once, surely the Stella Prize is a victory worth celebrating! So let’s visit two new reviews for the Stella Prize winner that appeared during the month of March.  Kim@Reading Matters wrote that

Laveau-Harvie writes in an easy-going style that feels light as air despite dealing with dark and troubling issues and emotions. There’s no self-pity. Instead, there’s lots of honesty, pragmatism and self-deprecating (often sarcastic) humour….But underpinning the narrative is a quiet strength and an almost ruthless quest to sort things out even if it means revisiting the horrors of the past. The Erratics is a brave and sometimes harrowing book, one that deserves a wide audience, but it’s also a testament to family love and the ties that bind. (Review here)

Kate@Booksaremyfavouriteandbest found herself examining her judgments of the book and what that said about her. As a professional counsellor, she finds that 5% of the time “someone will say something that triggers an immediate personal reaction, and it’s in that 5% where counsellors do their own work”. In an insightful and honest review, Kate wrote:

Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s memoir, The Erratics, was a whole book of 5% for me….I openly acknowledge that my reaction to this book was more about me than the book per se….My score doesn’t reflect how engrossed I was in this book at the time of reading but I finished with questions and a lack of resolution. (Review here)

Other previously-reviewed books that were read during March were


It’s interesting that even though ‘History Memoir and Biography’ would appear to be focussed on people, very often these books are based on a consideration of place as well. Kate Legge’s Kindred (2019), is the story of Gustav Weindorfer, an Austrian migrant and his wife Kate Cowle who first caught sight of Cradle Mountain on their honeymoon in 1906. Four years later they each bought 200 acres of land near Cradle Mountain as the first step in their dream of a national park for  all. Although irked by some small incorrect details, Jennifer Cameron-Smith wrote in her review:

Accompanied by beautiful black and white photographs, this book tells of the achievements of Gustav and Kate and their efforts to share Cradle Mountain with the world. Their tourism venture was the forerunner to the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park. While neither lived long enough to see their vision fully realised, both are remembered for their work in being part of the beginning of Tasmania’s tourist industry before World War I and in pioneering eco-tourism. (Review here)

Two other books reviewed during March focussed on the indigenous connection with country. Jane Cadzow and Heather Goodall’s Rivers and Resilience (2009) takes the Georges River in New South Wales, and its Aboriginal history of people living, working, fighting, building families and organizing there. Jonathan Shaw wrote:

It’s necessarily a piecemeal story, and I can’t tell whether anyone from outside Sydney, let alone outside Australia, would find it interesting. But as a non-Indigenous Sydneysider who has crossed the Georges River many times and walked along the upper reaches of Salt Pan Creek, a tributary that features significantly, my internal map of the world was being radically redrawn as I read….There’s a thread of argument running through [the book]: the established way of thinking about sacred sites and Aboriginal people’s connection to land is inadequate. (Review here)

A different approach is taken in Monica Tan’s Stranger Country (2019). After being told at a country town tourist centre that there was no information on the Aboriginal history of the area, Guardian journalist Monica Tan quit her job and drove 30,000 kms alone through the outback on a quest to learn more about Australia’s ancient heritage. Rebecca Bowyer wrote in her review:

As a Chinese Australian, Tan felt particularly drawn to learning more about the ancient culture of Australia. She saw parallels with the ancient Chinese culture which formed part of her own heritage….If you want to gain a new understanding of this land we live upon – in the context of climate change, colonial history, modern social issues and cultural identities – I highly recommend picking up a copy of Stranger Country. It’s worth it for the gorgeous descriptions of magnificent scenery alone. (Review here)

People of the past

Two very different people feature among the biographies of people of the past, both reviewed this month by Jennifer Cameron-Smith. Henry Shiell was the coroner for Sydney between July 1866 and January 1889. Catie Gilchrist’s Murder, Misadventure and Miserable Ends(2019) uses the coroner’s inquests conducted during his long career as a lens to examine 19th century Sydney. In reviewing the book, Jennifer Cameron-Smith wrote:

Reading through each chapter gave me some insight into both the coroner’s processes and causes of death in colonial Sydney. Some of the deaths, especially those of young children, are tragic. There are reminders as well of how very fragile life could be: dreadful workplace accidents, illness and unregulated use of poisons all feature in this book….I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants a closer look at life and death in colonial Sydney.(Review here)

A more domestic and intimate story is told by Ann Nugent in researching her grandmother Anne (Annie Hutcheson) who was born in the UK and died in Australia in 1934. As a child, Ann was shown a small canvas bag that contained a few precious relics owned by her grandmother, and in her mid-50s, Ann decided to use these relics as a way of tracing the grandmother she had never known. In her review of Leaving the Rest Behind (2012), Jennifer wrote:

This slim, self-published book tells as much of Annie Hutcheson’s story as Ann Nugent could trace. Annie could neither read nor write—she left no first-person record of her life….If you enjoy reading family history, especially where imagining everyday life augments dry biographical details, then you may enjoy this as I did. (Review here)

People of the present

Two memoirs set in the present were reviewed this month. The first, Caro Llewellyn’s Diving into Glass (2019) was reviewed by Therese Smith, who doesn’t generally read memoirs, likening them to musicals on the stage, where the singing gets in the way of the story. Llewellyn, who was director of the Sydney Writers Festival between 2002 and 2006 was diagnosed with MS in 2009. This book is her memoir of her personal, and her father’s, experiences of disability. Therese wrote:

Now, I don’t read many memoirs, just like I don’t watch many musicals, but from time to time one will pique my interest. I actually requested Diving into Glass from the publisher for review because the topic of the memoir, a woman dealing with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, was on my radar of interest….I just really wish there had been more of her MS journey through to the present day and less of everything else. I need to stay away from this form of writing and stick to reading biographies and fiction. (Review here)

The second memoir reviewed this month, Small Wrongs (2018) by Kate Rossmanith, combines an analysis of a more abstract concept – in this case, the idea of “sorry” – with personal memoir. As Kate@Booksaremyfavouriteandbest wrote in her review:

When an author gets the balance between memoir and journalism* just right, it makes for brilliant reading. Kate Rossmanith has done it with Small Wrongs a book that explores how we say ‘sorry’….Although the book is structured around remorse in a legal sense, Rossmanith adds threads of her own story, examining the parts of her life where the word ‘sorry’ would be significant – her shaky marriage; her ‘lost’ time as a parent while she battled post-natal depression; and most notably, her efforts to understand her father, whose childhood in Vienna during WWII had left scars….by the time I had finished, I had dozens of thought-provoking passages marked. (Review here)


And as we head into a Federal election on May 18, it’s timely to have a review of a book that tells the history of Australia’s electoral system. In From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage (2019) political scientist Judith Brett tells a much more optimistic and progressive story than you might think. In her review Cloggie Downunder wrote:

From the state governments before federation through to the present day, Brett explains how and why different aspects of voting evolved, and who pioneered the various innovations like the format of the ballot paper, voting booths, preferential voting, non-partisan electoral administration and Saturday polling day with its associated holiday vibe….It is apparent on every page that this book is thoroughly researched and meticulously referenced. As emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Brett certainly knows her stuff and gives the reader a wealth of information, all of which is presented in an easily digestible form, so the book is never dry or boring….Especially for those living in the state of NSW and facing two elections in 2019, but really for everyone in Australia who has, can or will one day vote, this is a very topical read. (Review here)

And just think….by the time you read the next History, Memoir and Biography Round Up in late May, the whole election will be over!

About: I’m Janine Rizzetti and I blog at the immodestly-named The Resident Judge of Port Phillip where I indulge my love of reading, podcasts, history and seeing films and exhibitions just before they close. I am a historian, interested in Australian and colonial history, officially retired but more occupied than I thought I would be with my local historical society, playing with grandchildren, learning Spanish and now- mah jong!