Our Reviews: Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (Non-Fiction)

Next Tuesday, the winners of the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards will be announced, in five categories: fiction, poetry, non-fiction, writing for young adults and drama.

Each day this week, we’ll focus on one category, sharing excerpts of our reviewers' responses to the shortlisted titles.

Today, it’s non-fiction.

Gardens of Fire: An Investigative Memoir, Robert Kenny

Reviewed by Sam Twyford Moore

Disasters sometime need a personal note – and narrative – to really come home.

LaTrobe academic Robert Kenny understands as much and makes the Black Saturday fires feel so much closer in his outstanding memoir Gardens of Fire simply by being true to his own character. Kenny can be counted among those who lost their home on Black Saturday, and he details the actual events of this destruction with all the nervous energy and fretting that the reader can imagine personally going through. There are uncanny moments, when the flames feel less pressing than they are: ‘Racous flames eat the innards of the house… I say things to myself like, If I get out of this it will be great after-dinner conversation.’

Gardens of Fire is branded as an ‘Investigative Memoir’, which seems somewhat superfluous. After all, isn’t all memoir, on some level, investigative?

Read the review in full.

White Beech, Germaine Greer

Reviewed by Sam Cooney

Germaine Greer has always been a implacable believer, and this unwavering quality permeates her latest book, White Beech, a testament to the years she spent searching for a patch of Australia that could be returned to the native ecosystems that she fervently argues were destroyed by the greed and folly of Europeans. Buying a parcel of semi-wild Queensland country near the border New South Wales in December 2001, Greer has spent millions founding what she has named the Cave Creek Rainforest Rehabilitation Scheme in an attempt to conserve a living museum, one that she hopes will provide an example to other private conservators, a place that ‘might even survive global warming’.

… The book is a work of a enormous mind – a literary demonstration of intellectual diligence and tenacity.

Read the review in full.

Boy, Lost, Kristina Olsson

Reviewed by Emily Laidlaw

Boy, Lost is devastating in parts: the hurt felt by mother and son radiates through Olsson’s delicate turn of phrase. This is not to say Olsson’s book is unrelentingly bleak – Peter’s long journey from victim to survivor, and tentative reunion with his mother, are deeply touching. There are no easy solutions, however, and it’s sadly obvious that for Olsson’s family, and many other abuse survivors and their relatives, the cracks may always remain, however faint.

The heartache reaches a crescendo when Olsson, having read through Peter’s state records and spoken with other victims, telephones him and breaks down. ‘It’s not fair,’ she cries into the receiver. Turn on the news and hear any one of the many victim impact statements read aloud in Parliament – the shocking accounts of forced adoption and institutional neglect – and you too should be moved to tears. She’s right: It’s not fair, not fair at all.

Read the review in full.

Forgotten War, Henry Reynolds

Reviewed by Stephanie Convery

Australia is dotted with memorials to soldiers who fought in wars overseas. Why are there no official memorials or commemorations of the wars that were fought on Australian soil between Aborigines and white colonists? Why is it more controversial to talk about the frontier war now than it was 100 years ago?

Forgotten War continues the story told in Henry Reynolds’ seminal book The Other Side of the Frontier, which argued that the settlement of Australia had a high level of violence and conflict that we chose to ignore.

That book prompted a flowering of research and fieldwork that Reynolds draws on here to give a thorough and systematic account of what caused the frontier wars between white colonists and Aborigines, how many people died and whether the colonists themselves saw frontier conflict as a form of warfare.

Read review in full.

Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John, Helen Trinca

Reviewed by Bethanie Blanchard

There’s a pleasing symmetry to a book about the life of an author who was shortlisted for the Man Booker, nominated in turn for its own literary prize.

Helen Trinca’s Madeleine is a biography of an important but forgotten figure in our literary past, Madeleine St John – a Sydney Uni contemporary of Clive James, and part of the 1960s London diaspora that included Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, Bruce Beresford and Robert Hughes – who made history as the first female Australian to be shortlisted for the Booker, that most prestigious international book award.

Read review in full.

On Warne, Gideon Haigh

Reviewed by Kabita Dhara

Is Gideon Haigh the ‘finest cricket writer alive’, as dubbed by the Australian? Certainly, when it comes to prolificacy of cricket writing, Haigh has runs on the board. Apart from his widely published, and much lauded, cricket journalism, he is the author of seventeen other books on cricket, including the very entertaining The Vincibles which chronicles one of Haigh’s seasons at his beloved South Yarra Cricket Club. But is he the ‘finest’? Reading On Warne, you could easily believe so.

… Throughout, Haigh maintains a balance between erudite enthusiasm and clear-thinking commentary. While it is obvious that Haigh has great admiration for Warne’s skill and quite likes him in person (Haigh quotes Jana Wendt who, after interviewing Warne concluded that it was ‘uncommonly easy to like him and a little harder to explain why’), Haigh doesn’t shy away from confronting Warne’s excesses and follies and analysing them without hysteria.

Read review in full.

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