Category Archives: Biographies

Born to Run (picture book edition) – Cathy Freeman. Illustrated by Charmaine Ledden-Lewis.

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Penguin Australia

  • November 2021
  • ISBN: 9781761043802
  • Imprint: Puffin
  • RRP: $24.99

There are some moments in Australia’s sporting history that are just complete standouts: Bradman’s first international century or, indeed, his final ‘duck’, Australia II crossing the finish line in the America’s Cup, Adam Scott’s US Masters playoff win or Cadel Evans’ triumph in the Tour de France, and Cathy Freeman’s Olympic glory is right up there alongside all of these. Those of us who were fortunate to witness her success still remember it very clearly. In fact, I was in Cairns having taken my late mother on a holiday and we happened to be in the casino at the time – the whole place came to a standstill as we watched Catherine Astrid Salome Freeman OAM blaze a trail for her mob, her country and her own personal victory.

Cathy’s memoir was a hugely successful book and now, younger readers, can follow her life story and her determination to succeed in this beautifully realised picture book. The facts of Cathy’s life and sporting career are easy to come by but the inspiration she can provide to young people, whether Australian or otherwise, is what sets this book apart.

Cathy’s words are, in and of themselves, a great recollection of her story but for young people, the illustrations from Charmaine Ledden-Lewis will not only truly bring this to life but to the forefront of their personal ambitions. I particularly love that Cathy concludes with her own Top 10 tips for kids to keep in mind as they pursue their own dreams.


This is a superb addition to your collection both as a fine example of First Nations literature and as a wonderful encouragement for your students, of all abilities. I highly recommend it to you for readers from around Year 2 upwards. I will certainly be suggesting it to our Year 3 cohort as they focus quite heavily on cross-cultural perspectives.

Windswept & Interesting: my autobiography – Sir Billy Connolly

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Hachette Australia

OCT 12, 2021 | 9781529318265 | RRP $49.99

What an absolute privilege to be able to review this! I’ve been a fan for more years than I can remember and have eagerly watched his comedy, travel shows and documentaries as well as the books written by Pamela Stephenson. His own description of ‘windswept and interesting’ is one I’ve used often and many times in my own conversations – it really has, to my mind, become part of the vernacular.

One might think that after so much has been written and shared about hi, that the man himself would not have much more to add, but not so. Because aside from the recollections and anecdotes, it is Billy’s innate gleeful humour that lifts this beyond straight autobiography to become a literary stand-up delivery 🙂 and a laugh-out-loud reading experience.

What truly amazes me is that when one looks at the bald facts: losing his mother before he was 4, the crowded and haphazard tenement life in Glasgow and the terrible abuse from not just one by two members of his close family, it could be reasonably expected that this man would be one of these archetypal comics – morose, bitter, depressed. Not Billy. This is a man whose warmth, joy in life and generosity of spirit is so evident, that one cannot help but smile at the least but mostly guffaw as he rambles his way through his memories.

We find out much about his childhood, the good and the bad, his teens (and really, couldn’t such an upbringing easily result in a kid going off the rails?), and his start, in a working life, as a welder in the shipyard where he found, seemingly much to his own surprise, that he could make people laugh. It was his love of music, in particular the banjo, that provided his first entrée into entertainment though. His ability as a banjo player should not be under-estimated (and I’m extremely envious of my ex, who remembers going to see The Humblebums many years ago). Along the way in his early forays into performing, his patter became part of each show and, little by little, began to eclipse the musical side. In the mid 1970s his appearance on the Michael Parkinson show (anyone else remember that?) catapulted him from ‘cult hero’ to not only a national star but international as comedy shows, TV programs, documentaries and movie roles followed.

It took the dual diagnosis of cancer and Parkinson’s to slow down his incredible life as a performer of live shows, though TV and film work has continued, as has his art (a talented creator), fishing, farting and writing.

For those of you who are fans of the Big Yin, I don’t need to recommend it but for those who may not be (seriously? you’re kidding, right?) but enjoy to learn about the rise of someone from less than ideal beginnings to a much-respected, be-knighted (who’d ever have guessed that back in the start?) and dearly loved icon, I heartily give this my highest accolade: this is one review book that is remaining on my own shelves as I know it will give me the greatest pleasure to re-read it – and laugh aloud again as I do so.

This Much is True – Miriam Margoyles

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Hachette

September 2021

ISBN: 9781529379884

RRP: $49.99

Well, what a rambunctious and joyous ride this memoir has been for my holiday read of the past few days! Miriam did not really cross my radar until I saw her as the Spanish Infanta in Blackadder but that’s really as much as I for one needed – thereafter, I was always keen to see her (or indeed, hear her).

Much of Miriam’s work did not reach us (or certainly not me) being often UK or US theatre-based, or her many voice-over parts but when she did come to my attention it was always noteworthy – whether as the voice of Fly, in Babe, or as Professor Pomona Sprout, Head of Hufflepuff.

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(the best house don’t you know!).

Now at 80, Miriam has taken time to share with us all anecdotes, memories, significant incidents and her dearest people in a memoir that is both profound and hilarious, reflective and insightful, fascinating and vulgar – in fact, everything you would expect from this much-loved and well-respected veteran of radio, stage, TV and film.

In more recent years I have relished her documentaries which have been both well-conceived and brilliantly executed with integrity and empathy as well as her interviews – many of which have left me gasping for breath after all the laughter.

Miriam takes us on a journey from her middle-class upbringing as the only child of a respected Jewish couple, to her schooldays as the naughtiest girl at Oxford High School, onto Cambridge where she took her degree in English and then her first steps in acting, behind a radio mike with many of the greats of the day. She began making an impressive living with her many voice-over roles whether as one of the female roles in Monkey (stuff of legends that!), PG Tips or the Cadbury Caramel rabbit. Later, her career diverted to many varied roles in all kinds of genres, many to critical acclaim including her BAFTA award for Supporting Actor in The Age of Innocence. Her recognition has not been confined to her industry. In 2002 she received the OBE for Services to Drama, an award she was chuffed to receive despite some contrary political views.

Her gossipy insights into her encounters with the famous and great – as well as the famous and less-than-great – are screamingly funny and clearly her skill as a raconteur translates as easily in the written word as in her spoken interviews.

This is an absolute pearler of a read but, fair warning, if you are squeamish about ‘language’ or straightforward commentaries of the sexual kind, this is likely not a read for you. Fortunately, I don’t know anyone like that, and my friends and family are all clamouring to read this and will love it as much as I have.

Highly recommended for anyone interested in memoirs or admirers of this icon of British acting.

PS: Great interview

The Countess from Kirribilli – Joyce Morgan

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Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 9781760875176

Imprint: Allen & Unwin

RRP: $32.99

I was born and bred in Sydney and, though no expert or fount of all knowledge, not such a slouch when it comes to the history of my home town and yet I had never heard of Elizabeth von Armin. This vivacious, talented and popular woman forged a literary career that earned her worldwide acclaim, and led an extraordinary life and yet, in the city of her birth, there is no mention of her nor her success. Sydney has a Writers Walk, installed in 1991, which acknowledges many leading authors, not only Australian, but those who visited our country and yet there is no mention of this woman whose books were runaway successes and whose career spanned decades. After reading her story, I find that completely unfathomable.

Mary Annette Beauchamp, known as May, was born in 1866 at Kirribilli Point in Sydney to quite wealthy parents and was part of a very large extended family. Her father re-located the entire family to England when May was young and so most of her formative years were spent there. Her first marriage made her a Countess and the mother of five children and was not particularly happy but did provide her with the fodder for her first highly entertaining and witty books, which became instant bestsellers. Following the death of husband #1 she had a lengthy and tempestuous affair with H. G. Wells, which was followed by a very disastrous second marriage to Bertrand Russell’s brother, Frank, 2nd Earl Russell, which lasted a mere three years. Then followed another affair this time with a man half her age, Alexander Frere, who went on to become the chairman of publishing house Heinneman.

Following the ups and downs of Elizabeth’s life (she adopted this name early in her professional career) has been fascinating reading for me the past week or so. Her observations on society of the time in that late Victorian/early Edwardian period in particular and the insights into other famous writers, whom she collected as friends wherever she went, are both enlightening and entertaining.

Her personal life was often marred by tragedy and at times hardship, despite her status, money and success, but she triumphed over this with grace and dignity until her death in 1941. All of her works are available via Project Gutenberg but there have also been some reprinted and certainly my interest in reading at least some of them has been piqued.

In the meantime, this is a wonderfully written biography from Joyce Morgan and provides this largely ignored Australian literary figure with some long-overdue recognition for her contribution to writing.

I would urge you to pick this up for a thoroughly engaging and absorbing read- whether you are interested in writers or Australian literary figures, you will find it fascinating.

Elizabeth von Arnim monument, Buk, Poland

House of Dreams: The Life of L. M. Montgomery –  Liz Rosenberg. Illustrated by Julie Morstad

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Maud

Walker Books Australia

ISBN: 9780763660574
Imprint: Candlewick
Release Date: August 1, 2018
Australian RRP: $19.99
New Zealand RRP: $22.99

This year marks the 110th anniversary of the publication of Anne of Green Gables and what more fitting way to celebrate the author who brought so many thousands of readers such a memorable cast of characters than a brand new biography.

While others have been written about this remarkable resilient woman this is the first specifically aimed at younger readers. The story of Maud’s life from small girl growing up with strict grandparents, after her mother’s death and virtual abandonment by her father traces her development as an often solitary child who retreated into her writing and books for comfort.  Prince Edward Island a quiet little piece of paradise in Maud’s youth was always her lodestar of inspiration and though she left it in later life she would always return there to refresh her spirit.

Her life, often far from happy, resounds throughout her many books and we can recognise the lonely girl, and then young woman, repeatedly stymied by circumstances beyond her control. A marriage later in life than most of her generation brought her some degree of fulfilment but was also fraught due to her husband’s mental health issues and later her eldest son’s despicable and often illegal actions.  Throughout every tumultuous interlude Maud never gave up her dream of writing – not only with a view to success but because of the compulsion to do so. Her determination saw her become Canada’s most successful and wealthiest writer, one who left a legacy around the world for generations and to this day is still revered by readers of all ages.

If like me and those many thousands of others, you have read and re-read Maud’s wondrous stories, you will enjoy knowing more about the woman behind the books. The delightful line illustrations denoting each new chapter bring a stylish suggestion of the period to the work.

Highly recommended to readers of around 13 upwards.