Book Reviews


Mightily chuffed and honoured to have my supernatural/historical short story SHARK’S ISLAND swim into this year’s THE YELLOW BOOKE, the annual collection of “original horror, ghost stories and weird fiction” from US-based Oldstyle Press. Shark’s Island (pages 123-132) transports you to the wildest outer limits of Australia’s convict past. Follow the link to read The Yellow Booke (vol iv) free online, or buy a print copy from Amazon at an Amazingly good price.

the-yellow-book-volume-4
As well as putting out the annual Yellow Booke, Oldstyle Press publishes handsomely illustrated and annotated editions representing many of the great masters of classic weird and supernatural fiction – Poe, Shelley, Blackwood, Stoker, Bierce, Dickens, James, RLS and more. Well worth sinking your teeth into!

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 EXPLORATION FAWCETT (1953, Hutchinson) by Percy Harrison Fawcett

A century ago South America was at the tail end of the rubber boom, a jungle frontier wilder than the American West. Life was cheap, anacondas were 60 feet long and Percy Fawcett was in the thick of it, swashbuckling his way through exploits that make Indiana Jones look about as intrepid as a suburban paperboy.

An English army officer, Fawcett began his South American adventuring in 1906, surveying boundaries in remote wilderness along the Brazil-Bolivia border. This was a hideously arduous undertaking but Fawcett was the man for the job. His attraction for death-defying jungle jaunts seems to have baffled even himself. As he put it: “Inexplicably – amazingly – I knew I loved that hell. Its fiendish grasp had captured me”.

Fawcett spent most of the first quarter of the 20th-century exploring Amazonia. He became fascinated by rumoured lost cities, particularly one he called Z, a mysterious civilisation of ‘white indians’ said to exist in the Matto Grosso. Z was his obsession and downfall; in 1925 Fawcett and two others (including his eldest son Jack) failed to reappear from an expedition in search of it.

The dream that unknown white civilisations might be found in the unexplored depths of new countries crops up again and again in the annals of European colonialism. The legendary ‘Welsh Indians’ were a staple of US frontier lore, while Australia had (or rather, didn’t have) its elusive ‘white colony’ which convicts believed lay in the bush just beyond Sydney, as described in my book Tour To Hell.

In the early 1950s Fawcett’s surviving son Brian assembled Exploration Fawcett from the Colonel’s journals, adding a chapter about the search for his father. It was a bestseller and no wonder, bursting with piranha-infested rivers, drunken gunmen, lethal wildlife, revolting diseases, haunted houses and poison-tipped arrows raining down from jungle tribesmen not home to visitors.

Percy ‘Exploration’ Fawcett

A major strength is that Fawcett himself is much more than your typical rock-jawed derring-doer. He frequently surprises. For instance, his method of avoiding starvation in the jungle was to ‘pray audibly’ for food, an early exercise in positive thinking that he claims invariably resulted in the sudden appearance of game willing to be shot for his pot. Ready to sign up for an expedition with this man?

Fawcett’s enthusiasm for extreme and horrific conditions is impressive, if more than a little barking mad. And it is debateable how many tall tales crept into the narrative, especially given that he often recounts stories from people he met along the way. Some critics have suggested his son Brian may have found vested interest in adding colour – and a few feet to the gigantic 62-foot anaconda his father described shooting (this is two to three times longer than various recorded maximums for the largest anaconda species).

Still Fawcett is a lively writer, a most entertaining vicarious travel companion and an excellent antidote to the gentle horror of a regular city commute. You can bet he’d much prefer a river churning with ravenous piranha to a train carriage stuffed to the gills with office workers checking Facebook.

PS: Paramount has a movie lost in pre-production, The Lost City Of Z, based on a book of that title (2005) by David Grann which offers a theory about Fawcett’s disappearance. Charlie Hunnam will play Fawcett; Robert Pattinson and Sienna Miller also star. Director James Gray promises it will be ‘epic and hallucinogenic’ – two words which well describe Fawcett’s own book. And yet I wonder: could any Hollywood adaptation keep pace with the wild ride of the real story? Brad Pitt, whose production company kicked off the project, was originally slated for the lead role but dropped out four years ago. From Jungle Hell to Development Hell, the Colonel’s adventures continue…

PPS: A conspiracy theory (not espoused by Grann’s Lost City Of Z ) contends that Exploration Fawcett was a smokescreen concocted by Brian Fawcett to disguise his father’s true fate. Colonel Fawcett, so this story goes, never intended returning and abandoned the outside world to found a secret jungle commune. It’s an attractive idea – the indefatigeable seeker of lost worlds ends up building his own to lose himself in – but convincing evidence remains thoroughly lost, too.

CONVICT AUSTRALIA’S GREAT ESCAPE MYTHSTour-To-Hell

  Tour To Hell (UQ Press) tells the true story of a fascinating but little-known aspect of Australia’s early convict days – the myths of escape that fired many dreams of liberty throughout the penal colony, particularly amongst convicts transported from Ireland.

Founded in 1788 as the world’s most remote penal colony, Sydney presented formidable natural barriers – thousands of miles of ocean to the east, thousands of miles of uncharted wilderness to the west. These were very effective de facto prison walls.

But within a few years, convicts had other ideas about the daunting unknown around them. Tales arose of white colonies across the nearby Blue Mountains with churches and masted ships, a nation of ‘copper-coloured people’ beyond a river just north of Sydney – places where Irish and other escapees hoped to find sanctuary, or even a way home.

The first convict 'Chinese travellers' went eastwards along the Parramatta River in 1791 (seen here from Sydney, 1797) but were soon bewildered in the extensive scrub.

The first convict ‘Chinese travellers’ went east along the Parramatta River in 1791 but were soon lost in the extensive scrub. Courtesy National Library of Australia (nla.pic-an2716983-v)

These ideas were often corroborated – perhaps even originated – by Aborigines, and they inspired many escapes. Governors Hunter and King, exasperated by these unexpected and destabilising myths of liberation, both mounted inland expeditions aimed at disproving the existence of the mythical ‘white colony’.

Convict escape myths appear in the historical record from 1791 until about 1830 and peaked between 1798 and 1803. Their role in colonial development has to date remained largely unexamined. But they prompted some of the most wide-ranging early explorations and had a surprisingly close relationship to the parallel ‘official’ myth of the inland sea.

Escape mythology could be said to constitute the first genuine folklore of colonial Australia.

It offers unique insight into the convict imagination, and shows how imagination helped shape the development and exploration of a continent.

Tour To Hell combines tales of escape, exploration and bushranging with a new look at Australia’s most reluctant first settlers coming to grips with the harsh and foreign landscape of their new home. It is the first book devoted solely to this chapter of Australia’s story.

For reviews, escape to HERE, or to order online run away to THIS PAGE

Tour To Hell has placed in the following literary awards:
Alex Buzo Prize 2009, awarded to shortlisted finalists of the CAL Waverley Library Award For Literature (The Nib).
Honourable Mention, Manning Clark House National Cultural Award 2008
Commended, Melbourne University Publishing Award 2008
(Fellowship of Australian Writers National Literary Awards) 

OLD FOURLEGS: THE STORY OF THE COELACANTH – JLB Smith (1956)

One of my most constant and peculiar obsessions had always been a conviction that I was destined to discover some quite outrageous creature – JLB Smith.

And he did, too. The discovery of the coelacanth in 1938 is well known in thumbnail-version – supposedly long-extinct fish turns up in fishing net – but the full story of the one that got away for 65 million years is quite a fisherman’s tale.

It involves a sharp-eyed museum curator named Miss Latimer and JLB Smith, South Africa’s foremost ichthyologist. Much of the drama comes from Smith’s 14-year quest to find a second specimen, which finally turned up off the Comoros Islands in 1952.

Ironically after 65 million years time was short. Battles against red tape, suspicious officials, South African politicians, Christmas holiday ennui and the tyranny of distance make this book quite a cliffhanger, with the careworn Smith forever racing to reach specimens before they putrify beyond usefulness.

At the time of publication, Smith thought he had found two species, but later it became apparent they were the same. Of course they were nothing new to Comoro fishermen, who knew them as the very oily and far from tasty gombessa. A second species finally showed up in 1998 off Indonesia.

JLB Smith and long-lost friend

Googling for more info, I was shocked to find the curmudgeonly but likeable JLB Smith killed himself with cyanide barely a decade later, beset by terminal illness. And the intrepid Captain Hunt died in a shipwreck almost as soon as the book came out.

Meanwhile, we’re still pulling those weird blue fish out of the deeps and wondering what other surprises the sea has in store.

PS: FISH & CHIPS
A sadly true news story from 2012, underlining the disturbingly far reach of ocean pollution, reported a coelacanth found with plastic garbage in its stomach. A packet of chips, apparently. This is a poor reflection on the human race any way you look at it.

THE SEA AROUND US – Rachel Carson

I’d never heard of this famous classic of natural history when I found a copy washed up on the footpath several years ago. As literary flotsam of the street it proved a real find, a magnificently written ‘biography’ of three-quarters of the planet.

SeaaroundusSome outdated science is immediately obvious – it was published in 1951, before plate tectonics confirmed continental drift – but this diminishes the authority and poetry not a drop. The prehistoric ocean-forming rain that lasted millions of years is wonderfully described, as are tides and currents. In sediments, Carson sees “a sort of epic poem of the earth. When we are wise enough, perhaps we can read in them all of past history”. The book overflows with this sort of visionary power, strengthening and sweetening the purely informative aspects.

In recent years, Miss Carson’s words about the possibility of submarine tidal activity causing global warming has kept The Sea Around Us surfacing in climate-change debates.  She is also among the most maligned authors of the last 50 years due to her Silent Spring, a famously powerful and influential polemic against the overuse of DDT and other pesticides.

 Some people blame her for every malaria death in the world since she wrote it. But she didn’t call for an outright ban on DDT, much less enforce one herself, and DDT was never banned in countries where malaria is most prevalent. If she had such global power, we should have asked her to rid us of landmines and jet-skis.

Just received a copy of Rodney Fox’s action-packed memoir Sharks, The Sea & Me (Wakefield Press). Rodney, you may know, famously survived a major shark attack in 1963, fifty years ago this month.

sharksseameHe went on to pioneer abalone diving in South Australia and, in 1965, the filming of great white sharks from custom-built cages. Having obtained the first-ever underwater footage of great whites, Rodney began filming sharks for many productions, including Blue Water White Death and Jaws – the latter providing some of the book’s best anecdotes.

In February 1976 Rodney ran the world’s first shark-cage dive tourism trip, and today Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions is the major Australian player in what is now a global industry. He’s also a leading shark conservation advocate, with the Fox Shark Research Foundation a key enabler of cutting-edge shark science. Of course I’m biased because I was one of the book’s editors, but it’s a great story and unputdownable for anyone interested in sharks, diving, adventure or true-life Australian stories. For more info see the Wakefield Press website.

 

TIME WARPS – John Gribbin (1980)

I haven’t read Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time, although possibly a smarter version of myself in a parallel universe has. I’m sure Hawking wouldn’t rule it out. Or John Gribbin.

Is time travel possible? Gribbin takes us through the usual paradoxes and problems, then embarks for the outer limits of physics and metaphysics.

He suggests that time travel might be possible given that there may be an infinite array of universes playing out infinite variations of our pasts, presents and futures. All we need do is figure out how to visit them. Of course this may take some time.

Readers coming to this book 30 years late may notice its one unassailable timewarp, namely Gribbin’s very 1970s confidence that Stonehenge and other stone circles served as astronomical computers. The evidence for that is looking a little rocky these days, the last time I looked anyway.

Overall, however, time has had little effect; the central topic remains mindbendingly speculative and well beyond the current means of our species to prove either way. Which is all very good; an interesting universe must keep some of its mysteries, afterall. And it’s good to bend those little minds of ours once in a while, isn’t it?

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