“The Rise And The Fall Of The Dinosaurs” by Steve Brusatte (2018)

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“A few hours before light broke on a cold November morning in 2014, I got out of a taxi and pushed my way into Beijing’s central railway station.”

Like many kids, I spent much of my youth with a fascination for dinosaurs. Children of all stripes seem to become obsessed by them, the real monsters and dragons of myths and legends, separated from us by millions of years. Because of the inherent awesomeness of them, children are able to trot out words like Brachiosaurus, Coelophysis and Ankylosaurus without any difficulty, long before they may reach more traditional and common words in the language. Ever since we dug up the first fossils, as a culture we have been entranced.

Steve Brusatte is one of those people whose obsession didn’t wane as he grew up. Now one of the world’s leading palaeontologists, he brings together all he’s learnt in his fascinating book. Charting the Age of the Dinosaurs from their small beginnings to their complete domination of the planet and sudden demise, he brings together all the latest research, some of the most intriguing discoveries and a sheer passion for his subject.

What we know about dinosaurs is ever-changing, as there is very little we can know for sure about beasts that lived so long ago. It is important to remember when watching films like Jurassic Park or documentaries like that still brilliant Walking with Dinosaurs, that a lot of the behaviour we see is purely speculative. Working out what they ate and how they moved is easy, but we’ll probably never know how they saw the world, what their parenting skills were like, or what they sounded like. Brusatte points out many of these changes in the book. Dinosaurs were once seen as scaly cold-blooded beasts, but these days it is widely accepted that they were probably warm-blooded, and almost all of them had feathers of some kind or another. We even have confirmation on some of their colours, which was something thought impossible just a few years ago.

Again, it is Brusatte’s passion for the subject that really shines through. He talks lovingly about fossils he has seen, the people he has met, and the creatures that he clearly longs to meet. Starting with their humble beginnings as vertebrates conquered the land, he guides us through the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, exploring how they came to diversify and dominate. A whole chapter is given over to Tyrannosaurus Rex, the most famous dinosaur of them all. Although not the biggest predator ever, and subject to recent speculation that it was actually more of a large, scavenging chicken than a walking nightmare, Brusatte corrects some of the myths and shows that actually, it was probably even more formidable than we’ve been led to believe and may even have hunted in packs. Fittingly, the book ends by exploring the death of the dinosaurs, showing how while an asteroid impact certainly played a part, it may not have been the only reason.

Dinosaurs will continue to fascinate and the more we learn about them, the more assured I am that we’ll never tire of them. And it’s pleasant to remember that some of them survived in the form of birds. This is one of the most engaging, accessible popular science books I’ve read in ages, and I would thrust it on anyone who wants to know just what palaeontology is up to these days.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“Just One Damned Thing After Another” by Jodi Taylor (2013)

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“There have been two moments in my life when everything changed.”

Be honest, we all want a go in the TARDIS. Everyone has that one point in history they’d like to go back and experience first hand. For me, I’ve got several. I’d love to go and experience the London Frost Fair of 1814 (as seen in this week’s Doctor Who, incidentally), to hang out with the Ancient Greeks, and to have a picnic on a Jurassic hill, watching the sauropods pass by. We all know the rules though – look, don’t touch. This is the rule that has led to the creation of St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, where we will be spending the duration of this review.

Madeline “Max” Maxwell is a history doctorate, specialising in Ancient History. With a slightly mysterious background, she is an expert in her field, and one day called upon by an old teacher, Mrs De Winter, to join St Mary’s. She soon discovers that this is historical research with a difference – they can go back in time and observe contemporaneously. After rigorous training and an entire shake-up of her worldview, Max is soon a qualified Historian, finding herself being sent back in time to get the real answers about history.

Along the way she falls for techie Leon Farrell, befriends many of her fellow St Mary’s recruits, and becomes one of the first humans to ever see the dinosaurs alive. But all is not as it seems, and Farrell has a secret. He is from the future, sent back to prevent a rival organisation from meddling with the timeline to fit their own means. Suddenly dinosaurs are the least of her worries.

This is such a neat concept, and one that has been twisted and shaken by most science fiction writers over time. I enjoy the concept of these jaunts into the past merely being observational and, of course, being human, they can’t help but intervene, with History all the while pushing back against the new arrivals and trying to ensure the timeline is kept in tact. There are also some genuinely funny quips and one-liners. However, and I wish I didn’t have to say this, there’s something distinctly lacking about the whole thing.

The plot is disjointed and sprints around all over the place, with occasional scenes added simply for the sake of it. I wonder if the books saw much in the way of an editor, and I was surprised to learn that while this book was published in 2013, the eighth installment was released last month, implying not much proofreading is going on. There are a couple of sections where the use of pronouns and lack of dialogue tags completely flummoxed me and I couldn’t work out who exactly was speaking, or who they were speaking about. The time frame, ironically for a book about the importance of time, is also unclear. The novel races through Max’s training, giving the impression (unless I missed it) that it’s all being undertaken in a matter of months, or even weeks. It becomes clear later that the novel has covered at least five years of time. The list of main characters in the front contains several of their ages, but it’s not clear at which point in the story they are the age noted.

Several times people seem to come to conclusions, make decisions or have knowledge of things that it seems they otherwise shouldn’t. Characters often go by two different names, depending on who’s speaking. There’s an unexpected fantastical addition towards the end of the novel, and at one point there’s suddenly an incredibly graphic sex scene out of the blue in an otherwise fairly chaste novel. Max’s own history is absent, with just a few mentions that lead us to surmise she had a terrible childhood and apparently doesn’t speak to any family, but it’s never made clear what the situation is. On the last few pages, something else entirely otherwise unmentioned happens and is supposedly important, but at the moment it’s hard to tell how.

I don’t want to put the whole series down, as there’s a good chance I’ll return here and see what happens next, but I think I expected better.

“Jurassic Park” by Michael Crichton (1990)


It's frightening in the dark...

It’s frightening in the dark…

“The tropical rain fell in drenching sheets, hammering the corrugated roof of the clinic building, roaring down the metal gutters, splashing on the ground in a torrent.”

I’m not big on films. I’ve probably covered that a few times before. But one film I do unequivocally love is Jurassic Park. Twenty-two years after the film came out, it still stands up as one of the greats, and the long-awaited fourth installment Jurassic World was just as satisfying to see earlier this year.

It was, therefore, with some trepidation that I approached the novel. I’m one of those people who sits firmly in the camp that declares the book is always better than the film, but on this occasion I was nervous. Was this an example where the book couldn’t hope to live up to the amazing visuals? It couldn’t possibly be that I would enjoy a film more than a book … could it?

For those who have been living under a rock for the last few decades, Jurassic Park is the story of what happens when scientists start playing with genetics. Paleontologist Alan Grant and paleobotanist Ellie Sattler are invited by wealthy eccentric John Hammond to his private island off Costa Rica, told that they will see something that they never could have believed. It turns out that Hammond has been cloning dinosaurs and plans to open up the island as a tourist attraction, Jurassic Park, to the rest of the world. Using DNA found in the blood of insects trapped in amber (the science is, if anything, shaky), Hammond’s scientists have found a way to bring them back to life. He now has to prove to the lawyers and unconventional mathematician Ian Malcolm that the island is completely safe and his Stegosaurs, Tyrannosaurs, Velociraptors and Compsognathus are completely safe. And that nothing can go wrong.

Predictably, it does.

A number of events including a storm, a rouge agent within Hammond’s team, a power shortage, and the unexpected intelligence of the raptors culminate within hours of the visiting team arriving on the island to bring about a disaster unlike any seen before. The humans now just have to survive long enough to get off the island again, all the while dealing with creatures that haven’t been around for over sixty-five million years.

In short, I’m happy to say, the book is better. As always there is a lot more time to expand on things, so there are more characters here, including a vet and a public relations man, who get subsumed into other characters in the film. Most of the key plot points are here, but there are so many more. The book opens with a little girl getting attacked by a Compsognathus on another island, which became part of the second film, and the pterodactyls of the third film, and the river journey of the fourth are here too. The characters that we do recognise are also very different. Ellie Sattler is only twenty-four in the book, Grant is a fan of children from the off, and both Tim and Lex are considerably younger (and unbelievably even more annoying) in the book than the film.

Jp_rexThe biggest stumbling block with the novel though is the fact that you really have to suspend all disbelief. I know that’s necessary for the film, but you still sort of accept it. In here, more emphasis is placed on the science that led them to their current place. While I’m not a biologist by any means, I know that many of the things shown or discussed simply aren’t true, the biggest one being that you can’t extract DNA from amber-trapped mosquitoes! DNA has a half life for a start, so would be long useless by modern day, and besides, getting the DNA would require that insect to have only feasted on one species in its lifetime. Nonetheless, I’m prepared to accept these things because it’s such a tense, interesting book.

Although people’s fascination for dinosaurs will probably never diminish, meaning in that sense the book will never date, the technology in the book does already seem outdated. This is particularly notable when Tim uses a touch screen computer, noting that he’s never seen one before. Then again, this can be refreshingly accurate too, as the book doesn’t claim to take place in the future – it takes place in the 20th century.

Like when I read Forrest Gump, another classic movie of the nineties, the book is really a different beast to the film, although in this case the two share more of the same DNA. It’s compelling and hard to put down, and I found myself fully caught up in it. Ian Malcolm remains an interesting character but even when lying on his death bed, he’s still going on and on about his theories for pages at a time. That’s possibly more unbelievable than the dinosaurs. The most jarring alteration between mediums though is probably John Hammond. In the films, he’s more of a kindly grandfather figure, although one with a clear obsession for what he’s trying to achieve, but in the book he’s blinded to the island’s faults and somewhat nastier, even seeming to turn against his grandchildren by the end.

If you loved the film, you’ll love the book too and despite the danger inherent in the idea, it does make me a little sad that we’ll never see dinosaurs. Mind, that’s probably not a bad thing. Let’s leave them in the imagination where they can take on a life of their own and not chew our faces off.

FILM: “Jurassic World”

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Life, uh, finds a way...

Life, uh, finds a way…

“We have our first genetically modified hybrid.”

This is and, for as long as I keep doing it, will always be primarily a book blog. Books are the main media I consume, so it makes sense to write about them. But believe it or not, I do occasionally experience other things. I’ve already reviewed a show, so now it’s time to bring a film under the spotlight. After all, the blog title says “fiction” – it doesn’t specifically say anything about books. As such, I’m about to review Jurassic World. Before you continue, I’ll just give fair warning that this review will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet, maybe wait before reading on.

So we find ourselves on Isla Nublar, which is now running a fully functioning dinosaur theme park. Our main characters include Zach and Gray, two young boys who have come to the island to experience the magic and wonder, their aunt Claire who is one of the park’s directors and very focused on public opinion and the financial running of the park, and Owen, a trainer who appears to have formed a close bond with the Velociraptors, getting them to obey him.

Because dinosaurs no longer supposedly have the “wow factor” that the park’s bosses want, the scientists, including Dr Henry Wu from the first film, have been cooking up stuff in their lab. They have come up with a new creation, the Indominus rex, a creature based on a Tyrannosaurus rex, but with a whole bunch of other classified animal genetics thrown in. Due to the fact that a theme park with real life dinosaurs in it is never a good idea, this all very quickly goes wrong. The Indominus rex breaks out of her enclosure after showing enough intelligence to trick her human captors, and soon she’s on her way to the centre of the park, where twenty thousand human visitors are located, and it seems that nothing is going to stand in her way.

As a big fan of the first films (well, the first and third ones anyway, I never much cared for the second), I was hugely excited about the prospect of a new film, although also very wary. Thankfully, it’s a really great movie. Considered a sequel to the first film, the original two sequels seem to have been forgotten about, although apparently they are canon just not mentioned.

Jurassic World seems to enjoy throwing in references to the original film and it’s fun to try and spot them all. There’s a guy wearing a shirt with the logo of the original park on it, a repeat of the classic Dilophosaurus moment, someone saying that the park “spared no expense”, and also a prolonged scene in the first visitors’ centre, which appears to have been left to the elements after a very quick evacuation. Despite all this, only three characters make an appearance from the first film – the aforementioned Dr Wu and … I won’t say the other two. You’ll see.

Alright, so the characters are basically stereotypes, but they do get deconstructed throughout and it works well, and the action scenes are second to none. It’s such a beautiful film, I’m happy to believe that the dinosaurs are really there. Do I completely get the notion that someone has managed to (almost at least) tame the raptors? Not really, but it’s a fun idea. The Indominus rex is a thing of wonder, and further emphasises the muddy waters we’re playing in when it comes to genetic experimentation. They’ve even managed to get away with ignoring the last twenty years of dinosaur research and discoveries by handwaving that the dinosaurs may look very different if they had a whole genome to work with, rather than having to fill the missing its in with bits of frog, toad or snake.

If you want an all-action, scary, funny and incredibly entertaining film, then go see it, because it may be full of cliches and archetypes, but no one really minds all that much. It’s a film about dinosaurs – is that not enough?

“All Yesterdays” by John Conway et al (2013)

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All my troubles seemed to far away...

All my troubles seemed so far away…

“What images come to mind when you hear the word ‘dinosaur’?”

Few things are as exciting to discover when you’re a child than the existence of dinosaurs, and nothing is more tragic than the follow up lesson that tells you none of them are around anymore. Children seem naturally drawn to dinosaurs – they have been given the role of actual monsters, the closest things to aliens that we have. And it isn’t just children, because secretly I think that every adult is also still obsessed with them.

This book, therefore, isn’t really a children’s book, but rather a picture book for adults based on modern scientific findings. It’s a short book and contains illustrations and short pieces on the appearance and behaviour of dinosaurs, suggesting that we’ve got it all wrong. It points out that not only will things like colour, behaviour and sound never be fossilised, neither will skin, feathers, cartilage or fur. Who’s to say that the sauropods didn’t have huge flaps of skin around their necks? What if that isn’t a sail on Dimetrodon‘s back, but rather a hump? Did Carnatosaurus‘s tiny arms act as a way to attract a mate? It’s entirely based on speculation, but with a firm grounding in the appearance and behaviour of current species, allowing us to see an alternate history to the one we’re used to.

BUT then halfway through the book things take a turn for the even more bizarre and we are shown reconstructions by future archaeologists of creatures that live in our time. How wrong may they get it? What mistakes will they make? By showing familiar animals in a new light that can only be inferred from the remaining bones, it highlights everything that’s been shown in the book’s first half. The illustrations are all beautiful and in this section we see such animals as the lithe cow (its large fat reserves would never fossilise), the hippopotamus (mistaken as an epex predator, given its teeth), the swan (wings mistaken for spear-like forelimbs) and the python (assumed to have legs, but none have yet been discovered). Even the elephant is displayed here, although lacks a trunk, given that it has no bones and therefore is unlikely to survive, and whales and hummingbirds are both completely twisted and displayed in new ways.

It’s an interesting and engaging book. Although just shy of 100 pages, I could happily sit and devour 1000 pages of this stuff. A very clever, beautiful and thoughtful look at one of the most interesting topics I can think of.