The Thunder Child

Science Fiction and Fantasy
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Vol 1, Issue #8
"Stand By For Mars!"
August 2006

Non-Fiction Book Reviews
by Caroline Miniscule


The Complete Idiot?s Guide to Dinosaurs
Jay Stephenson, PhD., and George R. McGhee, PhD.
Alpha Books

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Poor writing has long been the bane of science popularization (not to mention textbooks for technical subjects, etc.) There are some people who do not seem to realize that it is poor writing, and not their own lack of education, that hampers their ability to understand a subject.

Catering to these individuals are book series with names like "The Complete Idiot's Guide to..." I have always found these titles quite offensive, yet it seems lots of people are leery of most books on a subject - once bitten, twice shy, or indeed are so afraid of having to actually work with their brains a little bit that, if sales figures are any indication, they flock to these things. (I have no such objections to the "Made Simple" series - at least they don't patronize their readers.)

If you want an introductory guide to dinosaurs, this "Idiot's Guide" is a book you could read. All the basic information is here, from how fossils (body fossils, hard parts, mummy fossils, ichnofossils, footprints and tail prints, skin impressions, gastroliths, natural casts and coprolites) were formed, to the historic time periods, to the two different types of dinosaurs (bird-hipped and lizard-hipped, or as this book takes delight in saying, bird-butts and lizard-butts), the history of fossil discovery, to dinosaurs in the mass media of books, movies and television.

The problem I have with this book is the writing. It is simply too annoyingly "with it." The authors try very hard to be funny but do not succeed - at least with anyone with an emotional age over the age of twelve. The book is full of puns and bad jokes that just make you grit your teeth as you bypass them in search of the nuggets of information. If you are a fan of the writing of Forrest J. Ackerman (of Famous Monsters of Filmland fame) you might enjoy it - if not...

Throughout the book, dinosaurs are usually referred to as dinos. (That?s like referring to Barnabas Collins as Barney, or ol? Barn!)

To quote just a few examples of this annoying writing style:

?Dino footprints have been at the center of a number of kooky controversies.?

?In fact, many dinosaur tracks suggest a vogue for Jurassic jogging and paleo-powerwalking.?

?No, a rotten rock doesn?t smell bad, but some elements found in rock actually break down and fall apart at a steady rate.? [The authors are talking about decay of isotopes].

?As so often happens, would-be stars that can?t make it in the States go off to find themselves before hitting it big back home.? (The authors are talking about the dromaeosaurus, which was renamed the Deinonychus by Yale paleontologist John Ostrom.)

That kind of writing permeates the whole book.

There are a lot of photographs, and a lot of illustrations (captioned with the same kind of snarky humor).

Cave Canem
SaveCancelCloseEdit It is practically impossible to publish a non-fiction book without errors. Always has been, and despite the advent of computers, it always will be. I?m not talking about information that becomes out of date - that can be clarified at a book?s website (which all non-fiction books should have), but about errors in the text itself.

This book has its share of errors. There?s a problem is with the index. Several names are not mentioned in the index, or have the wrong page number assigned. To take only one example, on page 186, Waterhouse Hawkins (who sculpted the first dinosaurs - the Megalosaurus, Hyleaosaurus, and Iguanodon, to the specifications of Sir Richard Owen during the early 1850s) is referred to as Coleman Hawkins. (Coleman Hawkins was a jazz musician.)

The index calls out Waterhouse Hawkins on page 261. His name isn?t there. Turn to page 262 and voila, as this book?s writer?s would put it, there he is.

Another error, which may just be a typo: On page 214 the authors say that Yale paleontologist John Osborn found the Deinonychus in 1964 in southern Montana, but in two other place in the book the year is given as 1969.

Overall, this book is a disappointment and I can't recommend it.

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