I say this a lot, but it’s as true now as it’s ever been: I don’t need to review this book, because you already know if you want to read it or not, so really, my job here is just to make sure that you know it exists. And did you know that Riley Black’s The Last Days of the Dinosaurs existed? Yes? Then you have it already. No? Go buy it. I was about to say “It’s about dinosaurs!,” which actually isn’t quite true, because the book begins on what Black quite reasonably refers to as the worst day in the history of the entire world: the day that a 6-mile-wide object, possibly an asteroid, possibly a fragment of a much larger asteroid, and possibly even a comet, slammed into the Chicxulub region of what is now the Yucatán and basically killed every living thing on Earth. Including all the dinosaurs, except for the ones lucky enough to be living underground or underwater when the object hit. She goes into some pretty intense detail about what happened in the immediate aftermath and then skips ahead a bit in each subsequent chapter– the next day, the next year, 100 years later, and so on. “That sounds fascinating!,” you think, if you’re the type of person who would be reading this blog in the first place.
I like the description on the cover, there, that refers to the book as “narrative prehistorical nonfiction.” This is definitely a work of pop science; there are notes, but they’re confined to the back; Black is not citing sources or arguing with specific paleontologists during the text, because it’s not that type of book, but neither is she engaging in wanton speculation. Where things are fuzzy, she says so, but she talks about the different changes on Earth after the explosion through narrative, fictionalized stories about the various creatures that would have been alive (or could have been alive, at least) during whatever time period she’s discussing. In other words, we might not have uncovered the fossils of the specific Triceratops with bone cancer in the Hell Creek formation in what is now Montana that she discusses in the first chapter, but there were definitely Triceratops there and we’ve uncovered evidence of some that appear to have had cancer. Do we know for sure that this particular turtle might have been in this river at that time, staying alive partially by breathing through its cloaca? Nope! But they can do it now, so it’s reasonable to project that ability backwards given other trends in the evolution of prehistoric turtles.
You get the idea. This book tells stories; the stories are not specifically true, necessarily, but they are carefully fictionalized, and there’s forty pages of extra “stuff” in the back past the official end of the book if you want to read in more detail. Which I do, of course. What you need to be able to pull off a book like this is a fine grasp of the detail, a good journalist’s instinct for getting your story straight, and a novelist’s flair for storytelling, which is a rare combination, but one Black (an amateur paleontologist but not, I believe, a Ph.D) has in spades. This is a great read for anyone who thinks deep history and dinosaurs are cool, and if you’re not one of those people, you’re not here anyway, so everybody else go buy it.
(Oh, and also: I found out about it on Twitter, and bought it on the spot, so those of you who don’t think Twitter can sell books are doo-doo heads.)