Natural History and Supernatural Thrills

Douglas Preston has been an active writer over the past fifteen years or so, mostly writing what I would call “techno-supernatural” thrillers, not too dissimilar from the types of books that Michael Crichton used to write.  I had been drawn to them because he used to work at the American Museum of Natural History, and takes the science in his books (whether it’s biology, geology, astronomy) seriously.

I would love to tell you that I loved them, but I didn’t.  I thought by and large that they were good-not-great page-turners.  Fun, but his characters were just a little too cliché to take his books to the next level.  His “Pendergast” books — about an exceptionally and perhaps supernaturally gifted investigator, which he co-writes with Lincoln Child – have left me ever-so-slightly-disappointed.

Which leads to last month when I was scouting around for another audiobook for my commute, and I saw a recommendation for Preston’s “Tyrannosaur Canyon”.  I hemmed and hawed, but I like dinosaurs (I mean, who doesn’t?) and I knew it wasn’t a Pendergast-novel and thought why not.  In the story, a dinosaur prospector finds a fossil of ground-breaking quality and implication, but he is killed before he gets to reveal the hidden sight in the northwestern New Mexican badlands.  He is found by the story’s protagonist, Tom Broadbent – a local veterinarian.  Tom gets caught up in an ever-expanding conspiracy of who killed the prospector and who wants to keep the find a secret.

In the end, the story was like the other Preston stories that I’ve read.  Good, not great.  One thing that I did enjoy was that the action took place in Santa Fe, Abiquiu, and other places that the Beloved and I love in New Mexico.  Also, I appreciated his incorporation of science into his science fiction and there were some good tense scenes, but again the characters were a little too two-dimensional and the story wrapped up a little too cleanly for my taste.

Three stars out of five.

However.

While Preston may not be my favorite thriller writer, he’s written one of my favorite non-fiction books ever.  In the mid-1990s, Preston and a companion decided to re-trace Coronado’s exploration of the American Southwest – from the Mexican border with Arizona to the pueblo at Pecos.  They opted to do so by horseback, covering the inhospitable desert in as much the same way as they could as the Spanish had 450 years before.

Coronado's Exploration, 1540-1542

Along the way, Preston interweaves their personal stories (learning how to deal with horses, how to find water, how to deal with the elements etc.) with stories of the Native American peoples they encounter (much of the journey is over Reservation land), and of the history of the area from the 16th century into the 20th.  It is incredibly absorbing.

In this non-fiction setting, Preston really shines.  He is disarming and you feel like he’s telling you this great story over a beer and a meal.  He has a natural snarky wit that makes following this “tenderfoot” on the trail incredibly fun and informative.  And just when you’re happy and smiling, Preston will come in with a tale that will make your heart ache.

I think this book is a must-read for anyone interested in the Southwest, or any American interested in this far-too-often overlooked part of our past.  I don’t read a ton of non-fiction, but I loved this book.

5 stars out of 5

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7 thoughts on “Natural History and Supernatural Thrills

  1. Great reviews, Steve. On horseback – cool. I enjoy those “survival” stories, especially with snark and beer. ;) (and the AMNH is one of my favorite museums – it would take a week to see the whole thing)!

  2. Cities Gold sounds like an interesting read. Thanks for sharing. You seem to be an avid reader. How many do you read a month on average? I am lucky to make it through a book a month these days.

    • Jenny — According to my goodreads account (social media for book-nerds and a good online database of your own books), I’ve been reading 30-35 books a year. One thing I’ve done this year is listen to audiobooks during my commute, which has been really good — except now I don’t know any new music! :)

      http://www.goodreads.com/stevebetz

  3. I enjoy speculative/science fiction, but too often the reading is ruined by the flat, unconvincing characters you mention in your review. A whodunnit with dinosaurs might make me try this novel, however. As you said, who doesn’t like dinosaurs?

    (And that said, I thought Michael Crichton was beginning to show signs of imagination fatigue when “Jurassic Park” came out. The dialog was so silly in parts, I couldn’t believe actual scientists would talk like that. Or maybe they do and I’ve missed out.)

    • HG — yes, sometimes I think there are “idea” writers and “character” writers. Jurassic Park is a great example of that — I loved, loved, loved the idea behind it and still enjoyed the book because the idea overcame average writing. “The Da Vinci Code” was the alternate to that — another idea that I thought was really fun — but the execution was SO bad, that it ended up ruining the whole thing.

  4. Pingback: Cities of Gold | The Fenn Diagrams

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