Now that it´s March, we’re settling into a more familiar, but still contingent world. I was curious to compare the number of books reviewed in March 2021 compared with March 2020, when we were facing the shock of lockdown and worldwide pandemic. As I suspected, our March total of 16 books this year was much higher than the 11 books we read in March 2020, when we seemed to take refuge in fiction instead.

As always, some of the books listed this month have been enjoyed and reviewed previously. Veronica Strachan contributed a perceptive review of Carly Findlay’s edited collection Growing Up Disabled in Australia, and Grace Wholley reviewed Sandra Hogan’s With My Little Eye. Ashley Kalagian Blunt’s How to be Australian was reviewed by Ktbookbingo, who also featured Top End Girl as one of her Instagram reviews (see here). Cloggie Downunder reviewed Katherine Kovacic’s The Schoolgirl Strangler, and it was good to see Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner still attracting attention with Jackie’s review (see here).

So what was new this month? Unusually, there were no biographies this month, and the histories and memoirs reviewed seemed to cluster into themes.

History/True Crime

There have been a number of True Crime books published recently that revisit a historical crime, examining not only the crime and its investigation, but also the social context in which it was perpetrated. Tanya Bretherton has released four such books at almost yearly intervals, and this month two contributors reviewed her most recent publication The Husband Poisoner (2021).

In her review, Shelleyrae@Book’d Out wrote:

In The Husband Poisoner, Tanya Bretherton focuses largely on two women who were found guilty of administering Thall-Rat to commit murder in the post World War II period …It seems somewhat incongruous that a book about poisoning also includes recipes for pikelets, jam roll-poly, roast pork, and potato and bacon pie, among others, but it was through the provision of banal family meals, sweet treats, or soothing hot drinks, that many victims were poisoned. The use of rat-killer as a murder weapon is a decidedly domestic crime, and the perpetrator is almost always a member of the same family. …I was less interested in the tangent Bretherton followed with regards to the two detectives, Fergusson and Krahe, who investigated both Fletcher and Grills. Though interesting men, their character deficits didn’t seem particularly relevant to the subject at hand….Well researched and written, The Husband Poisoner is a fascinating and macabrely entertaining read and will appeal to those who enjoy the genres of true crime and history.  (Review here)

Kim Forrester@Reading Matters had similar reservations, while also finding the book interesting and well-written:

…If I was to fault the book in any way it is the creative element in which conversations and feelings are “invented” in the interests of telling a good story…. But I understand why the author has taken this approach: it makes the narrative more compelling and it’s easier to identify (and empathise) with characters. …The segue into the police investigation near the end of the book feels slightly clunky, too, almost as if it has been added as an afterthought. …The Husband Poisoner is a riveting expose of the darker side of Australian life after the Second World War.  As well as looking at a series of disturbing murders, it puts things into context by providing a fascinating account of post-war social change. It’s by turns macabre and sinister, eye-opening and, dare I say it, blackly comic. (Review here)

Another historic True Crime reviewed during March was Stella Budrikis’ The Edward Street Baby Farm (2020). Set in Perth, it recounts the story of Alice Mitchell, a so-called ‘baby farmer’ accused of neglecting and killing five-month-old Ethel Booth in 1907. In her review, Shelley Timms wrote:

Author Stella Budrikis has done an excellent job of painting a picture of what life in Perth was like during the early 1900s, injecting tangents of descriptive language into the story that work well as a reprieve from the depictions of child abuse and neglect. This story can be quite exhausting to read at times, and I did find myself having to put it down after reading a few chapters. The author’s writing isn’t poor by any means; it is so well written that you can’t help but feel so deeply connected to the plight of the poor children in this book. …The book states the facts clearly whilst adopting somewhat of a narrative style, which I found easier to read and able to digest information more easily. The nonfiction elements in this book are clear without being clinical, which I think readers will appreciate. (Review here)

Memoir/Health and Wellbeing

There have been several memoirs released in recent years where the author grapples with the experience of a life-changing illness. Katerina Bryant’s Hysteria (2020) recounts her search for a diagnosis for chronic illness which caused seizures that struck without warning, leaving her anxious, exhausted and fearful of participating in everyday activities. In her review, Kate@Booksaremyfavouriteandbest wrote:

Hysteria is well documented, and Bryant weaves historical case studies of women with broadly similar conditions to her own, through her story. …There is much more to this book – notably, the role of gender in medicine and treatment (and this is particularly relevant in psychiatry where ‘hysterical women’ were, and are, subjects for ‘hero’ male doctors); the belief that you don’t deserve help because others are suffering ‘more’; and Bryant’s understanding that she may live the rest of her life with an ‘illness’, and the ambiguous grief associated with that. …Her writing is engaging, honest, and the case studies provide robustness to her story, without interfering with the personal perspective. (Review here).

Memoir/ Essays/ Family

Some months we have a string of ‘family’ memoirs but this month there was only one – Monsters: A Reckoning (2021) by Alison Croggon. In this case, however, the story of the breakdown of the relationship between two sisters is the point of departure into a wide-ranging hybrid of memoir and essay. In her review, Jennifer Cameron-Smith wrote:

A fractured relationship with a sister provides the starting point for this reflective narrative. …I want to reread this book. As I shifted between memoir and essay, between the impact of a fractured relationship and the power structures of the British Empire, my thoughts kept straying to some of the related and painful contemporary issues in Australia. (Review here)

Memoir/ Careers

Several of the memoirs reviewed this month were written by women who undertook unusual careers.

In March we had not one, but two memoirs written by sex workers. Two reviews were received of Emma Jane Holmes´memoir One Last Dance (2021). Shelleyrae@Book’dOut wrote:

One Last Dance is a unique memoir by Emma Jane Holmes, who for a time was employed in both the taboo industries of death, as a funeral assistant, and sex, as an exotic dancer. …Whether it’s collecting the body of a deceased person, assisting with burial preparation in the mortuary, or standing graveside she revels in her new role, …Written with sensitivity, humour and a casual, confiding tone, One Last Dance provides insight into two very different worlds few of us have access to. (Review here)

Denise Newton wrote in her review:

this is no memoir of an ‘ordinary’ life, lived in the clear daylight. Much of the author’s working life has been spent inside, behind closed doors (a mortuary and funeral home) and also a nightclub, where she worked nights as an exotic dancer under glitter balls and low stage lighting. This is where the G-strings come in, obviously …If you read and enjoyed The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein, I’m certain you will be equally intrigued by this insight into two different worlds. (Review here)

Also in March, Ktbookbingo reviewed Come: A Memoir (2020) by Rita Therese. Ktbookbingo publishes her reviews on Instagram, with a beautifully staged photograph of the book she is reviewing – check them out! Her review noted:

Come: A Memoir is the story of Rita Therese. Beginning her career as a topless waitress, Therese soon finds that there is serious money to be made in stripping, adult films and ultimately escort services; and so we say hello to Gia James, the sex worker. …Come is very frank, warts and all memoir in which Therese does not shy away from anything. To say that this book is an eye opener is to put it mildly; ….It’s open, brutally honest, blunt, funny and melancholy which makes for a damn good read. …I’ve read quite a few memoirs/biographies by sex workers, but Come was next level. There was something about Therese’s sass and confidence as Gia and vulnerability and awkwardness as Rita that I didn’t get from the other sex worker memoirs.(Review here)

From sex worker to highly acclaimed ophthalmologist – that’s quite a leap, isn’t it?! The Chase (1986) is the memoir of Ida Mann, a world-famous ophthalmologist, born in England in 1893, who had already reached the peak of her research career when she emigrated to Australia with her husband Professor William Guy, an acclaimed cancer researcher in 1949. After his death in 1952 she continued her work, researching the prevalence of eye disease (especially trachoma) in Indigenous populations and speaking at World Heath Organization Conferences throughout the world.  Janine Rizzetti (Resident Judge) wrote of the book:

Published in 1986, it’s very much a product of an earlier time, drawing on fairly pragmatic and workmanlike ideas of autobiography, and expressing attitudes for which Ida Mann would be condemned today (and indeed, in the 1980s as well). … You’re unlikely to find a copy of this autobiography very easily. In a way, that is a pity because autobiographies of female scientists are not common. On the other hand, the stilted narrative, incessant name-dropping and dismissive individualism are not appealing features of this autobiography. Perhaps Ida Mann needs a biographer who can rescue her life from her own narrative.(Review here).

Memoir/ Travel

This month there were two travel memoirs: one based in Australia (which may be as far as we get this year) and the other in Italy (about which we can only dream). The Bicentennial National Trail was originally known as the National Horse Trail, and it stretches  between Cooktown in Queensland and Healesville in Victoria. Liz Byron wrote a memoir The Only Way Home (2020) about her nine-month 2500km journey. In her review, Gretchen Bernet-Ward wrote:

Liz Byron challenges herself in every way, mentally, physically and spiritually to start afresh by walking the rugged Bicentennial National Trail towards a new, independent life.  …‘The Only Way Home’ is an intimate memoir with a heartbreaking look into family life, the pain Liz suffers and the repercussions for those involved.  It also captures the freedom of walking through wide-ranging bushland, fording rivers, and making camp with two charming character-filled donkeys Grace and Charley. …I liked the way the chapters and timeline were introduced.  Backstory arrives at pertinent intervals with sections of Liz’s life before, during and after she walks the Bicentennial National Trail. Through Liz’s retelling more shocking revelations emerge, putting her quest in sharper focus. (Review here)

You may know the name Pip Williams from her recent, highly acclaimed debut novel The Dictionary of Lost Words. This memoir One Italian Summer  tells of Pip’s four-month sojourn with her husband and sons around Italy as WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms). It was published earlier (2017), and has been re-released in a new edition. Ashleigh Meikle – The Book Muse- wrote in her review

During this time, they lived an itinerant lifestyle out of packs, often in accommodation that wasn’t ideal and living on a very small budget in between farms. Yet it also allowed them to have experiences that are unique, at times frustrating, yet are experiences that will teach them and their sons new things and open their eyes up to a new way of life and bring new friends into their lives. Pip’s lyrical prose is about more than just the journey and her experiences – it is about family and friends, and the small things that unite us and change us, and the people we meet and spend time with. It is about life and what we make of it, and what we do to get through it. This is one of those books that is slow and meditative. (Review here)

Thanks, as always, to our perceptive and well-read reviewers: keep up the good work!

About: I’m Janine Rizzetti and I blog at 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. I’m officially retired but more occupied than I thought I would be with my local historical society, playing with grandchildren, learning Spanish and now playing ukulele!