Book Reviews


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?

 If you’re in Sydney….

Better Read’s Talking Heads:

Josephine Pennicott

Don’t miss award-winning local author Josephine Pennicott in conversation with Newtown Library’s own Gayle Donaldson. Josephine is a natural born story teller. She will discuss the inspiration and research for her new historical mystery novel Poet’s Cottage, give her own take on tips for being a writer and touch on the art of being published. 

 Josephine’s new book Poet’s Cottage is an absorbing historical mystery set in the bohemian 1930s and the present day. It’s a Tasmanian tale about a mother and daughter, Sadie and Betty, uncovering the truth about wild life and violent death of Sadie’s controversial grandmother, the free-spirited children’s writer Pearl Tatlow.

WHEN: Tuesday July 31, 6pm to 7pm 

WHERE: Newtown Library, 8-10 Brown Street, Newtown (Sydney).

Admission free, but book your place here 

Presented with Better Read Than Dead Bookshop

Very proud to say that Josephine’s new novel Poet’s Cottage (Pan Macmillan) is officially out and ready to leap from the bookshop shelves NOW. 

A mystery set in a Tasmanian coastal village in the 1930s and the present day, Poet’s Cottage concerns the wild life and strange, unsolved death of a bohemian children’s writer, Pearl Tatlow, and the divergent memories her daughters had of their unconventional upbringing. In the present day, Pearl’s granddaughter Sadie tries to solve the mystery of her death and also come to terms with the legacy of her life.

The German hardcover version is due in September. There has been quite a lot of publicity and reviews already. Here’s a feature by Steve Meacham – and photography by me! (brag, brag, brag) – which appeared in the Sun Herald (Sydney) on March 18. Click on the link here to read the full article

Years ago I pitched an article to a magazine on the latest hunt for mystery big cats in the bush near north-western Sydney. No, said the editor, because ‘nothing ever happens’ when people look for big cats.

[Even less happened with this short-lived magazine, by the way, except bankruptcy and, for hapless contributors, ‘cheques in the mail’ of which there have been, in stark contrast to said cats, no reported sightings at all – but I digress.]

He clearly thought yarns of big cats roaming the Australian bush were crap. Or scat. How wrong can you be…

Australian Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers (Strange Nation Publishing) must be the most detailed compendium of Australia’s best documented cryptozoological conundrum. Authors Michael Williams and Rebecca Lang shine more light on the mystery than has ever been shone before.

There’s no doubt big cats are out there in the outback. The mystery is what kind of cat, and whether other animals account for some of the sightings. These range from feral dogs and foxes to rather more unlikely candidates such as the long-extinct marsupial lion.

The Grampians in Victoria host the most sightings but there are other hotspots across Australia; this is a mystery with regional variations and little chance that a single species is behind it all.

As expected there are no firm answers, but I came away thinking the most feasible explanation in most cases is that feral domestic cats are simply breeding bigger out there. We’re talking up to double normal size. Which, just like the whole story of big bush cats, is actually a lot bigger than it sounds.

So where was I over the summer holidays? Drunk in the gutters of Boston, juggling double albums and narcotics in the basements of Villefranche… vicariously of course. In other worlds, reading Keith Richards’ Life and Poe: A Life Cut Short, Peter Ackroyd’s new biography of Edgar Allan Poe.

Both of these men were significant innovators on their particular seacoasts of Bohemia. Poe, of course, is famous for taking poetry and prose in important and exciting directions, inventing the detective story along the way. Richards was the major (though not the first, as he reveals) importer of Spanish tuning into the Top 40 (Honky Tonk Women, Brown Sugar, etc). And, as revealed here on this website for the very first time, both chaps favoured startlingly similar white neckware. 

Life might be the best-selling Stones-related release  for decades. Certainly it’s had more attention than any new album since… anyhow, while it’s necessarily something of a greatest hits itself, with many an old yarn revisited, there’s also plenty 
that’s new re life and music in this most quintessential corner of the bohemian jetset. His overriding passion for the music is palpable, and thanks for the tip on playing Jimmy Reed! Overall, it’s perhaps the most entertaining book of its kind since Dylan’s Chronicles.

Poe was  probably the first ‘weird tale’ writer I discovered (you too, perhaps). A dead woman stuffed up a chimney by an orang-utan, a king and courtiers chained to a chandelier and burned alive by a disgruntled dwarf, a prisoner about to be sliced up by a sharp swinging pendulum… these are not images easily forgotten.

Ackroyd’s biography is a very slim and pacy volume, focusing more on the wild ride of Poe’s life than indepth consideration of his writing. It’s a good place to go for a quick handle on Poe, being short, well-constructed, fair-minded, plausible and entertaining. My only quibble is its odd tendency to begin a lot of sentences with ‘So’, which gets a little distracting.

 The funny thing is Richards, for all the dissipation and rocker-most-likely-to-drop-dead status, emerges as  the more careful of the two. He was never going to be found dying in the street like Poe, wearing someone else’s pants.

 

 

Another excerpt from doctor/rugby international/author Herbert Moran’s surprisingly Tour-To-Hellish 1940s memoir Beyond The Hill Lies China (see previous post):

Here Moran, in London during the Blitz, tells how he found a metaphor for his life journey in the difficult flight into unknown territory undergone by convict runaways as they struggled towards an imagined freedom.

He is inspired and encouraged by how they staked everything on their belief, which he elevates to a vision of transcendence. Challis, his protagonist, is his barely fictionalised self.

Over to Moran:

‘He had come to identify himself with those convicts who, out of the enclosure of their settlement, had pushed forward, their pockets full of grain. Was he not kindred to them in a felony of the senses? The West Road was the symbol of their travail and their release. Did it not carry still the meager relics of their passing: crumbling stones with an arrow and a number, the dust over all? Yet those convicts had pushed on, exhilarated. They had seen summits and ranges with red dawns spilling over a distant peak. Beyond the Hill and across the Bay they had found a goal. God in His Mercy had given distance to their dream. What did it matter if, on the way, they shed the trivial remnant of their flesh?

Originally a gift in 1946

Challis thought on the years when he had blindly groped his way, years of precarious foothold, when the mountain peak was veiled in mists, when Faith had slumped through nights, when he had known the shame of self-pity and the yielding to it. He had been giddy on sudden heights and vain on little pinnacles. But now he, too, was pushing forward with those old shadows for company.’

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