So, a while back, a young-to-the-field writer asked if I would mind looking at a manuscript. The writer had been recommended by someone I trust, and vice versa, so I agreed. Below is the result of this writer’s work. I recommend the book – it has an interesting take on magic and how humans relate to a magical species, among other things.
Williams, Martin. When the Sahara was Green: How Our Greatest Desert Came to Be. (Princeton U.P. 2021) Kindle Edition.
Once upon a time, millions of years, tens of thousands of years ago, the region called teh Sahara was green. Sometimes it held enormous rivers. Volcanoes erupted, were crowned with glaciers, and fell silent. Huge fish swam in the giant lakes and rivers. Lush vegetation of varying kinds grew on the land.
Then something happened. Actually, a very large number of somethings, including the entire continent moving in such a way that tucked the Sahara into a dry swath of climate, and Europe (the landmass) cutting the moisture supply to the northern regions. All long before humans ever wandered the landscape. So, as Dr. Williams points out, you can’t blame humans for the desert. Which may be the most useful point in the book.
Martin Williams is a geologist who specializes in deserts and how they got that way. His first introduction to the Sahara came in 1970, when the group he was with couldn’t go to Libya because of a coup in progress, so they went to an even drier region instead. As he and the group leader went ahead of the others (on camel, as the others got the Land Rovers and other vehicles repaired), Williams noticed evidence of human presence, and of a river, in a place where no water could be seen. That made him curious, and the rest is this book.
Half geology and half travel, the book is a very readable account of the Sahara’s deep history, going back to the Cambrian. It has nice maps and diagrams, although more would be useful, especially in the e-book version. The illustrations are hot-linked, as are the end-notes, so you can go back and forth, but that gets tiresome so I just studied the major diagrams and memorized what was where. Williams has a knack for translating from geology into good prose, and blends the deep past with more recent explorations and observations. He works roughly chronologically after the introduction, going back to the Cambrian and moving toward the present climate regime.
Contrary to popular understanding (and most nature shows I’ve seen), the Sahara is not an endless sea of tan dunes. About a quarter at most of the land is sandy. This is in part because sand is needed to make sand, and large swaths of the area don’t have the right rocks. More common are huge rocky “pavements”, and clumps of hard, black or red hills. Some are volcanic, some are tougher sedimentary remnants (think Ayers Rock/Uluru in Australia). Volcanoes in East Africa played a role in drying the region, blocking flow from what is now the Indian Ocean. Africa moving north to collide with Europe, closing the Tethys Sea, didn’t help, since what is now the Med has gone completely dry, most recently during the last phase of the Ice Age. Then things improved until the Younger Dryas, before returning to the current arid phase.
The edges of the desert move. This is not, as Williams points out, because of overgrazing, slash-and-burn farming, or air chemistry. It is because of changing rainfall patterns linked to the North Atlantic Oscillation and the El Niño/Southern Oscillation and Indian Ocean monsoon. How are they connected? No one knows yet, but there are a lot of guesses. In wetter phases, the North African grasslands and brush move south, or the sahel region moves north. When things dry out, the Sahara grows once more.
Humans didn’t cause this, but modern governments can make things worse for the people of the desert. Ordering Bedouin and others to stop moving, even when drought moves in for a decade or two, causes misery for the nomads and for the farmers around them. Killing off livestock “to stop overgrazing” isn’t the best answer, per Williams. Understanding the actual reason for the drought, and making space for people to respond in ways that work, is the better solution.
Williams is concerned about human effects on the environment, but he’s not pounding the “two legs bad, four legs good” drum that so many do. I suspect his background being in geology makes the difference – he’s used to looking at the looooooooong term. He talks about the humans who lived in what is now the desert, how they coped with the gradual changes and shifts, and what we know and don’t know.
I highly recommend this book. You don’t have an earth-science background to enjoy it, but it does make for faster reading. The illustrations and charts are good, and there are lots and lots of endnotes for those who want more.
FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration or consideration from the author or publisher for this review.
Black, Riley. The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of our World. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2022) Kindle Edition.
I freely admit I grabbed this because it was on sale and I wanted something completely unrelated to anything else I am working on (Scottish history, Vlad III, academic histories of various kinds). I enjoyed the heck out of all but part of one chapter. The book is a celebration of life, and of what survived the worst single-event extinction in planetary history.
Black does a fantastic job balancing hard science with very plausible might-have-been-likes. The introduction explains why Hell Creek is the main lens through which the dinosaurs’ world is studied, and gives a bit of background on paleontology, including why the K-T event is now supposed to be the K-Pg event*. Black writes very well and puts you into the places and times being discussed.
The book starts in the late Cretaceous, with a Triceratops and a Tyrannosaur. It’s hard to go wrong with that combo, at least for those of us who went through a dino-mad phase as kids. Black discusses the ecology of Hell Creek, the world of the dinosaurs, and what happens when they die. Then the camera pulls back a bit to take in the boloid aimed for Earth.
The impact and the following hours and days are described very well. You might want to read this with some ice water at hand, because trying to imagine a world that gets turned up to “broil” for 24 hours is pretty miserable. Black handles the gore, and the chemistry, quite well. The story moves around the world, considering what effect the erupting Deccan Traps had (an important one, actually), and the effects of the impact event on the seas. The author then jumps to one week, one month, one year, and so on.
This brings up what I considered a strength but others found as a weak point: the book jumps around from the main narrative to look at other places around the world at the same time. So Hell Creek is the main story, but Black will cut over to Antarctica, the Indian Subcontinent, the Atlantic (once it opened up enough), and so on. Also, Black dramatizes events, using data available through scientific papers and sources. Some people don’t like this approach. I found it useful, BUT I’m also well read on paleoenvironments and so on, so it wasn’t entirely new to me.
Black hammers one point pretty hard: nothing was predetermined. The non-avian dinosaurs went extinct because they were perfectly adapted to their world. When the world went to hell, literally, that was that. But nothing said that the meteorite would hit at that angle in that place. Nothing said that the Daccan Traps would ease the global cooling. No special gift led primitive primates to develop so quickly compared to other mammals, or that monotremes and marsupials would fade out compared to true mammals. Black’s other oft repeated point is that life didn’t stop. That’s one of the author’s pet peeves, or so it appears. Existence did not cease with the dinosaurs. That world ended, but ferns and cycads hung in there, fish, reptiles, things that could hide underground or under water all made it. Perhaps not for long, but the story didn’t end with Chixulub.
Black takes the story up to a million years after the impact, then offers a last chapter meditation on change, extinction, and the resilience of both dinosaurs and life on Earth. I admit, I skimmed this, because it brings in the author’s personal life and I’m not really interested.
However, the appendices are fantastic. Here Black explains what we do know, how we know it, what is still being argued over (99% of everything), and the sources used for each chapter. This is an excellent way to document the material while keeping the bulk of the book fun for non-experts, without resorting to long footnotes. I like chatty footnotes in academic books, but they don’t suit a semi-narrative like this one.
I’d recommend the book to people who want to know more about the death of the non-avian dinosaurs and what came after. A bit of background knowledge in science is helpful but not really needed, since the author does a good job explaining terms and concepts. Some of the authors hypotheses have already been challenged, which I’d expect. After all, paleontologists seem to love nothing more than a good argument. OK, finding an intact member of a new species probably comes first, but a good argument’s not far behind.
*Sorry, to me K-Pg is either KP&G, the power company, or the initials of what is now KPMG before they added the M. It’s the K-T line to me.
FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book with my own funds for my own use, and received no remuneration from the author or the publisher for this review.
Wright, John. The Forager’s Calendar: A Seasonal Guide to Nature’s Wild Harvest. (London: profile Books, 2020)
I first saw the book in the gift shop at Dawick Gardens. However, the weight deterred me, since over-weight charges on the airlines have become considerable. Once I got home, I tracked the book down again and ordered a gently used copy. It is a month-by-month guide to things in England and Scotland that you can safely forage and eat, as well as a quick reference for major rules about where and when to forage, laws that pertain to gathering edibles, and what will kill or at least greatly sicken you. (Mushrooms have a LOT of ways to do you in, or at least make you lose weight quickly. Ahem. And so do wild carrots.)
The book is small enough to carry around in a bag, but it is heavy because of the illustrations. I would make color copies (especially if you are looking at fungi) and take those instead, if weight and bulk were a consideration.
Wright begins with useful tools for the forager, and an overview of the laws in England, Scotland, and Wales about foraging for wild plants, including mushrooms. The laws vary depending on if the property is on public land, private land, the seashore, or the public right-of-way. As you would expect, if you are on private land without permission, you can get in trouble. Foraging in some parks is also a no-no (just like the US, although some US parks and wildlife refuges allow mushrooming at certain times and in certain parts of the park.) Having separate bags and baskets for each kind of plant or mushroom is also important. One bad fungus in with a bunch of quite edible ones will ruin your day (or the rest of your [brief] life.)
The book starts in January and works around the year. It has lots of illustrations, anecdotes, suggestions for identifying plants, and a few recipes. The first page of each chapter has a list of “things to get now” and “things carrying over from earlier months.” As you would imagine, the lists get longer and longer as winter becomes summer. If a plant or mushroom is better at one point than earlier or later, Wright makes a note of that.
The last chapter has all the poisonous plants in it. They range from “rapid weight-loss will result” to “scary but most people recover. Most . . .” to “is your will up to date? Your estate will want to know.” For readers outside of Britain, this section is more of general interest, although any “wild carrot” or really colorful mushroom is probably best to avoid.
As a writer, this is great for using as a reference for pre-modern or early-modern characters who will be living off the land, or who need to know that certain things should be avoided at certain times. (Or who intend to bump off or scare another character.) Yes, it is Anglo-centric, but it gives a starting place and a way of looking at the world.
I have foraged on right-of-ways and in parks and refuges all over the US, at least for berries. Mulberries and gooseberries are easy to identify and safe to nosh. Wild strawberries have also been nibbled, although not as often (lots of work for not much flavor). I don’t do mushrooms, aside from puffballs, and those I get by asking the land-owner (often home-owner) for permission. Ditto dandelions. I don’t go digging for other things, even when I have identified them, because US and state rules are different and too varied. (I also avoid things that I know have been sprayed for or with something.)
This is a fun book. The author knows what he is doing, and is quite up front about “this tastes great,” “this will keep you from starving,” and “some people like this. I don’t know why.” And “add this to vodka to make a great gin. Here’s a cocktail to try.”
FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration from the author or the publisher.
Grant, Dorothy. Between Two Graves: Combined Operations Book 4. Kindle edition, 2022.
When home isn’t “home,” and family is what you make, what does it mean to be ordered back to the place of your birth and your genetic kin? AJ, a career space-soldier, and his (fairly new) wife Jenna go back to his birth family for his mother’s funeral. Things are different. The roads are actually roads (mostly), the new house is large and pretty modern, and his siblings’ kids are tall because they actually got enough to eat. And the bad guys are hanging around because they literally want to buy the farm, the family property. AJ would prefer that they bought the farm in the metaphorical sense.
Then the shooting, back-stabbing, sibling rivalry, and casserole serving begins . . .
Between Two Graves is a little different from the other books in this series, because the main characters are not falling in love. They are already married and are navigating the shoals of “Um, Jenna, this is the family”—all two hundred or so of them. OK, not that many, but AJ comes with a goodly number of kinfolk. Some of whom still detest, despise, dislike, or disregard him. The feeling is rather mutual, and Jenna pours oil on waters when she’s not giving as good as she gets.
If that were not enough drama, the Feds show up and crash the “party.” Why do they want the farm? And what’s the secret hiding up in the rough pasture on the hills? And most important of all, why does AJ even bother hoping that a shopping trip with Jenna will end quietly? She’s 2-0 for “I was just looking at clothes! I didn’t start it.”
The book is very well written, and the cultural differences between parts of the Empire become very clear. Grant explains the blessings and curses of a justice system based on older values than the Imperial “normal,” and goes deeper into the difference between AJ’s military training and equipment as compared to earlier characters in the series. Conditioning someone who fights outside the hull of a space ship to go “cold” and freeze when shocked or injured makes excellent sense. What works in-atmosphere isn’t so great when only a space-suit separates you from Space. Grant weaves the tech bits in deftly and as appropriate.
This series has been called “tactical romance” because the military actions are realistic for the world and the situation. The romance is about people finding each other, and coming home, even if that home doesn’t include blood kin.
FTC NOTICE: I purchased this book for my own used and got no remuneration from the author or publisher for this review.
Heughan, Sam and Graham McTavish. Clanlands: Whisky, Warfare, and a Scottish Adventure like no Other. (London: Hodder and Stoughton LTD, 2020)
Short version: A readable walk through the Highlands of Scotland and their history with two of the actors from the TV series Outlander.
Sam (plays Jamie Frazier) and the older Graham (Dougal MacKenzie), a camera team, and a rather sturdy camper van make their way to the sites of events described in the best-selling Outlander series. It starts with a morning whisky tasting, and Sam admitting that he has not driven a stick in several years, and never driven something that large with a stick shift. Graham begins to doubt his sanity (both his Sam’s and his Graham’s). They survive, although not without one very, very close run for Graham. That wasn’t Sam’s fault for once.
Graham is the older, calmer and more history minded head of the pair. I admit, I’d skim Sam’s adventure tales for the most part, and focus on Graham’s discussion of history, landscape, and the people around them. And how the TV series fits into the history of Scotland in the early 1700s, the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Culloden. Although I’m not a fan of buddy-stories or of reading narrative, the two actors do a good job with their respective stories. They also give a good sense of the society of the Highlands before Culloden and the Clearances that depopulated the region. There’s heroism, treachery enough to make Judas blush, cruelty, honor, and amazing scenery. And whisky. And wine, and whisky. And adventures in kilts, and the “joys” of shooting night scenes in cold rain for the third night in a row on a rather steep grassy slope with weapons that, while not all that sharp, can still hurt you pretty badly.
I have not seen the Outlander show or read the books. Time-travel romance aside, they are pretty smelly, gritty depictions of the harsh world of the Highland clans, and I have a low tolerance for rapine and sadism. I read to escape history. However, the still images I’ve seen from the series are pretty impressive. It’s not glamourous or romantic Scotland, but the hard-scrabble world I’ve read about.
The book climaxes with the Battle of Culloden. I’ve been told that the battlefield is haunted, especially at night, and what Sam and Graham describe explains part of why. It was cousin-against-cousin, with clans having people on both sides in order to ensure survival of the larger group. Sometimes it didn’t work. They visit on a chilly, misty day, and Sam is especially moved.
The sense you get from the book is that 1) the Highland clans were hard, determined, and sometimes cruel people who were not the Romantic heroes Sir Walter Scott and others portrayed. 2) But they weren’t demons, either (OK, one or two people aside. That one laird . . .) 3) Do not let Sam drive large stick-shift vehicles.
I’d recommend the book as a light read for people interested in Highland history, in Outlander, and in how guys behave in front of cameras. Sam and Graham are professionals, for all their grousing about each other, and are good friends. It’s an easy read, and if you want the history, you can skim the whisky and vehicles bits.
FTC Notice: This book was borrowed from a family member who purchased it for his own use and the author of this review received no remuneration or promotional consideration for this review.
Breverton, Terry. Breverton’s Phantasmagoria: A Compendium of Monsters, Myths, and Legends. (London: Quercus Publishing Plc. 2011)
Some days, or times of day, you just want something you can pick up, nibble for a page or two, then set aside. This is that sort of book. If you want to read about the Gordian Knot, the Ship of Fools, The Flying Dutchman, learn if snakes really do flee from naked men, or puzzled over the story of Prince Madoc, you can find all that and more in this book. It is great for trivia buffs, writers in search of plot seeds or McGuffins, or people who occasionally read while in the, ahem, Reading Room.
I get the feeling that Mr. Breverton collected odd bits and things, snippets and archaeology reports and mythologies and folk lore and archaeological reports a bit like a bower bird. It is a book you can read through by topic, or just open at a random page and nibble at random moments. The writing style is light and somewhat breezy. A few things I sort of shook my head at, because there’s a bit of “gee-whiz!” at times. Spaceflight in the Mahabarata? Um, I’d like to see other translations of the text. The book starts with people, then monsters and ghosts, then magical places (real and otherwise), flying monsters and odd things in the sky. Mysteries of the deep comes next, then strange artefacts and maps and stuff, treasure tales (Oak Island again), and wraps up with “is this legend true? Well, here’s what inspired it.)
All in all it is a fun book, and the two things that I back-tracked he was correct as far as sources went (did a boloid explosion do-in Soddom and Gamorrah? Quite possible, which led to my reading about something similar, at about the same time, in the Alps.)
The book is available on Kindle, but that takes some of the fun of “open to a random page” out of it. Breverton seems to be a trivia buff, because he has several more themed titles.
Two paws up.
FTC Note: I purchased this book with my own funds, and received no remuneration for this review.
A good natural history book is a joy to read. They seem to be growing scarcer, alas, although it might just be that there are so many books out these days that winnowing “natural history” from “environmental dirge” from “pop-science” from “local writer writing about local birds” has grown far more difficult. But when I find a good natural history, it is such a treasure.
What is natural history? I know it when I read it. OK, beyond that, it is a study of a place over time, one that looks at everything from the dirt and rocks to the birds, plants, waters, land-use, and weather of a generally small bit of of the world. When you finish reading, you know the critters, flowers, trees, grasses, soils, and story of the land – sort of a biography of place, with a dollop of science. The first of these that is fairly well known in English is Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne. Selborne was the parish where White was minister for many years. The book was published in 1789, and is still in print. White described the place through the seasons, what grew there and why, and so on. Pliney and other ancient and Renaissance writers had done descriptions of places and critters, but no one had written a popular study of one small corner of the world.
White inspired a lot of other writers, some talented amateurs, some professionals, some a little of both. Aldo Leopold was a forest ranger with a gift for writing, and his Sand County Almanac and other essay collections are magnificent depictions of places, and meditations on “nature” and “Wilderness” and what those ideas mean for people and critters.
So, what’s the difference between environmental history (my bailiwick) and natural history? Environmental history is more academic, meaning it has all the things that are required of academic writing (footnotes/endnotes, historiography, formal introduction and conclusion with certain elements in them). Environmental history often includes a lot about people, government policies, laws and how they were applied (or were not), corporate history, you know, paperwork stuff. And they tend to cover more ground. A natural history of Cheyenne Bottoms in Kansas, for example, only talks about that particular place. It doesn’t go into discussions of federal and state wetland policies and how they changed over time, except as they related directly to the wetland, and then only one chapter at the end of the work. Instead, it starts with the geology, then the mud, the cattails and other things that root in the mud, the fish and bugs and amphibians, and works up to the raptors and other birds that live in and around the wetland.
I’ve tried my hand at writing a few natural history type things. I’m not good enough, and I don’t know enough to do a good job. Natural Histories are love songs. Environmental histories are ballads.
Andrews, Robin George. Super Volcanoes: What they Reveal about Earth and the Worlds Beyond. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2022) Kindle Edition
I’d hoped that this might be a book about supervolcanoes, the giganormous ones like Yellowstone and Toba. No, it is about how cool volcanoes can be, and about volcanic activity on Earth, the moon, Mars, Venus, and some of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter. It’s a very well-written, intriguing book, and you get the sense that the author is sort of geeking-out over all the cool rocks and ice and really strange things that volcanoes get up to.
Andrews is a PhD in geology who works as a science reporter. The book is a little breezy at times, as I’ve come to expect from “reporter does science.” However, the geology is sound, and once you get past the “oh my gosh, I love rocks!!!!!”, it’s a fascinating work of popular volcanology.
He begins with Yellowstone, and why the hype is just that. He does indulge in a bit of “OK, so if this does blow, how badly will it effect North America.” As badly as you’d think, even if the eruption is weaker than previous (as seems to be the pattern when continental crust moves over a hotspot). Then he considers other well-known mountains before moving to some truly outré mountains in Africa. I suspect African volcanoes are pretty much mysteries for most people, aside perhaps from Kilimanjaro, and perhaps those in Rwanda that have erupted within the past five years. East Africa has a marge number of active peaks, some of which possess the oddest chemistry terrestrial volcanoes this far are known to have. Part of the story is “how can volcanologists and locals work together?” and part is “crazy things people will do to get samples.” Ingenuity, desperation, and a low budget can work wonders. Lava that’s not exactly lava, lava that’s too cool to be lava (but that will still kill you), chemical stews that make even bacteria think twice . . . These mountains and rifts are not always friendly.
From Africa and then Hawaii, our intrepid reporter turns to undersea volcanoes and the black-smoker thermal vents. I felt a bit of a warped grin forming when he described how rarely eruptions undersea are recorded and observed by geologists in real time. This was, oh, three days after Tonga went dark under volcanic ash.
Lunar volcanoes, Martian mounts, Venusian vents, and things hanging out around Saturn, Jupiter, and parts beyond wrap up the book. No, this isn’t your usual geology book.
The end-notes are quite good, and the “climate change delenda est!” passages are generally short and skip-able. Something about how much CO2 volcanoes burp into the air compared to everything that humans do, and so on. No, we won’t become Venus because of burning coal and oil.
I recommend this book for people interested in more than just “This is a volcano. Volcanoes are mountains that make lava” and want a general, wide-ranging look at the topic. Andrews assumes that you have a basic understanding of geology, which I suspect most if not all of my readers do. He doesn’t write down, but he doesn’t go sailing over your head, either.* It’s a fun read for the rock buff, or people like Game Masters looking for evil new things to throw at their players (carbonate volcano!)
*Unlike a lecture on the chemical crystallography of the magmas of Kilauea and Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea that I lost track during and never caught back up. The conclusions were fascinating, but oooooh, then chemistry to get there!
FTC Note: I purchased this book with my own money for my own use, and received no compensation from either the author or the publisher for this review.
Chancy, C. Pearl of Fire (Kindle Edition).
Life inside the caldera of an active volcano is interesting. Life in an active volcano kept in check by magic, and threatened by followers of a fire-god, is a bit too interesting for Allen Helleson, police detective and elemental Spirit worker. And theologian, but that’s the family business and he tries to keep out of that. When blind fire-worker Shane Redstone stops a bomb from igniting a chain reaction that would wipe out part of the city, Halleson has to sort out what to do with her, and to find whoever set the bomb.
A fantasy police procedural, and the story of a woman still fighting a war she can no longer see, Pearl of Fire starts with a near-bang and wraps tighter and tighter. Caldera City is just that – a city in an active volcano, one tamed by magic and populated by dragons. The people fled war and an implacable foe, taking shelter in a place too dangerous for any others. However, their enemies will stop at nothing to eliminate the calderans. The calderans believe that the Lord of Light made five elements, all of which people might use, should they be so blessed. Shane Redstone was the army’s strongest fire worker until a curse blinded her. Allen Helleson has a weak spirit gift, but one that allows him to sense truth and falsehood. That is a valuable talent for a police officer, even one from outside Caldera City. Helleson left his family because he believes that the laws should be followed. Redstone too follows the law . . . in her own ways.
Chancy weaves a fast-paced tale in a rich, detailed world. She elides some things, leaving it to the reader to fill in what are sketched outlines. Helleson, Redstone, and the others are believable people, and Helleson’s struggle to balance his faith and his dawning understanding of outside evil unfolds well. As with her other books (Seeds of Blood and A Net of Dawn and Bones), religion plays a major role. Yes, the bad-guys’ faith resembles that in the non-fiction world, but humans have developed several ideologies that include “believe what I say or I will destroy you.” Some are called political systems, not religions, but the same mental pattern exists, alas. However, the book is far more about Redstone and Helleson as people, and about solving a mystery, than about religion. The tension between bureaucracies is, alas, a bit too realistic for my taste, but credit-claiming is also a human universal whenever two or more departments compete for budgets and praise.
There is room for a sequel, and I hope Chancy writes one. I agree with one on-line reviewer that the followers of Ba’al are a bit too close to an existing real-world faith, but they are more of the outside driver of the story. The characters of Redstone and Helleson are the core of the book, and both suffer and grow, coming from rather different places to work together and—perhaps—find peace and friendship. Or at least not kill each other before they get the problem solved!
FTC Notice: I purchased this book with my own funds for my own use, and received no remuneration or consideration from the author or publisher for this review.