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Dino Gangs - Josh Young ***

This is a book with an identity crisis. When I first saw the publicity material for it I assumed it was a children’s book. After all Dino Gangs is hardly an adult title. But no, it appears it is aimed at an adult audience. And then there’s the strange case of the author. The book cover is very clear there is one author, Josh Young. And in the ‘about the author’ section of the press release, there is also just one author. Dr Phil Currie. What? At the top of the press release the book is by ‘Dr Phil Currie & Josh Young.’ Totally confused. I turn to the copyright page as the definitive source, but the copyright belongs to ‘Atlantic Productions’, whoever they are.
The reason for all this confusion is that in many ways this isn’t a book at all. Atlantic Productions is a TV production company that made a documentary about the work of palaeontologist Phil Currie for the Discovery Channel. What we have here is an attempt to turn the script of the documentary into readable form. This comes through most painfully in Phil Currie’s contributions. Despite being labelled the author and/or co-author (except on the cover), we only ever see Phil Currie as the written equivalent of a talking head in a documentary. We keep seeing things like ‘”The whole world went a little crazy for a while,” Curry says.’ That present tense is the give away. After a while the recital of ‘Phil Currie says this’ and ‘Phil Curry thinks that’ becomes a trifle nauseating, like a sort of literary hero worship.
So the presentation is weird and more than a little off-putting, which is a shame, because at the heart of it there is a really good book trying to get out. Currie has an interesting theory that tarbosaurs, a particular type of tyranosaur, hunted in packs, rather than the way they have been traditionally portrayed as lone hunters, or more recently as scavengers.
Once we get the rather childish scene setting about how ‘dino hunters’ have to be able to live rough in tents, and a truly dull chapter that is just about the background of Currie and some of his contemporaries, there is a really interesting development of the group hunter concept, taking us through various analyses from how the animals could run (comparing legs with ostriches and humans among others), modern analogues (from komodo dragon to lion) and more. It was telling how well this part of the book works, where I suspect the author has been given a little more freedom, that at the end of one chapter I was left thinking ‘Hmm, but how intelligent were these dinosaurs?’ Then the next chapter… discusses the intelligence of these dinosaurs.
Overall, I couldn’t give the book more than three stars because the format has such a deleterious effect on it – but it’s a shame, because under the fake teeth smile of the TV documentary there is a really good book trying to get out. If it had been left to the author just to write a book, it could have been so much better. We would hopefully have seen rather more of the people who pop in briefly with ideas that oppose those of Dr Phil, for example – and would have had a much better journey. Even so, I think the book as it stands is worth persevering with. It’s a quaint oddity of what happens when TV people get too much control of a different format, but the subject matter is interesting enough to make it worth reading.
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Review by Brian Clegg


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