Book Review: Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species, 2nd Edition, Kindle Edition

Review of the best mammal tracks book yet!

Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species
By Mark Elbroch and Casey McFarland
Review by Kim A. Cabrera


This review is for the Kindle edition of this book.

Wow. All I can say is wow. The first edition was phenomenal. The second edition, if you can believe it, improves on the first dramatically! I never thought I’d say there could be a better tracking book than the first one. But, here it is.

There is no one I know of in the tracking community that is better qualified to write this book than Mark Elbroch and Casey McFarland. The tracking community is small and everyone tends to know everyone else. We all know that these guys are the true experts in this field. This book allows their expertise to shine through on every page.

It’s got expanded sections that go into way more depth than the first edition did. There’s a section on runs, one on interpreting prey remains, sign on the ground such as scrapes and beds, and much more. It’s chock full of good solid tracking information.

The species accounts have been somewhat condensed, without losing their accuracy or detail. In fact, there is even more detail packed into each one. This was done by combining species that have similar sign, like large, medium and small ground squirrels. Each has its own section with measurements broken down by species within it. The descriptions were combined because of the similarity of the sign found. This allowed the authors to pack even more information into the book, which is awesome! If there are differences, they are pointed out in each account, so it’s super helpful to be able to compare across similar species.

The sign chapters have been grouped together so you can compare similar things you find in the field easily. Find a run and want to know what animals could have made it? Go to that section and you have plenty to compare it too. Scratches on a tree? Scratches on the ground? Same thing.

Here is a list of the chapters in order:

Ch. 1 – Introduction
Ch. 2 – Mammal Tracks and Track Patterns
Ch. 3 – Runs, Paths, and Eskers
Ch. 4 – Scats, Urine, and other Secretions
Ch. 5 – Nests, Lodges and Other Constructions
Ch. 6 – Sign on the Ground: Beds, Scrapes, Wallows, Digs, Burrows, and Dens
Ch. 7 – Sign on Fungi, Herbaceous Plants, and Cacti
Ch. 8 – Sign on Trees and Shrubs
Ch. 9 – Interpreting Prey Remains
Ch. 10 – Species Accounts

The Species Accounts are incredibly detailed. Each one includes a drawing of the animal’s feet, and its tracks, and common gaits too. The track illustrations now include arrows pointing to key features of interest, and even lines to help one visualize the orientation of the toes. It’s just like how we use our fingers or nearby sticks in the field to look at these toe orientation features! (Trackers know about this!) Only now it’s in the book to help us see it better. Key features in the drawings are numbered and each number is referred to in the text description. Each species account includes the measurements and the descriptions, but they now also include all the details shown in the chapter headings above. That’s right! Each species account shows you all those details: Run, Paths, Eskers; and Sign on Fungi, Herbaceous Plants; Interpreting Prey Remains; and Scats, etc. etc. (All of those chapter headings are used in the species accounts to provide a very thorough look at the signs left by that animal.) All described right there in the species account! No more flipping through the book for the description of the scat or burrow. It’s described right there. The photos of the signs are grouped together in their respective sections so you can compare them. The detailed descriptions are now found in the species account. I like this arrangement much better. I think it will be even more helpful in the print edition than in the Kindle edition. More on that later.

For example, here is an outline of the headings in a typical section of the Species Account chapter.

-Tracks and Trails (measurements, images of tracks and gaits, etc.)
-Runs, Paths, and Eskers
-Scats, Urine, and other Secretions
-Urine and Other Scent-Marking Behaviors
-Sign on the Ground: Beds, Scrapes, Wallows, Digs, Burrows, and Dens
-Sign on Trees and Shrubs
-Interpreting Prey Remains

For each species, this outline is customized. For example, some won’t have prey remains, some won’t have sign on grasses etc., some won’t make lodges or other constructions. Nicely organized and easy to use!

One helpful thing I noticed in this edition is that some of the track photos are now labeled so you can see which foot is LF, LH, RF, RH. That’s super helpful, especially when you are first learning to tell them apart. The descriptions also help a lot with this. Many of the photos also include rulers or coins in them to provide scale. The other thing that I like is that each animal’s feet are shown in the account so you can see what features of the feet make what features of the track. Super helpful!

Gait diagrams have been moved so they are next to each other where you can visually compare them easily. There are also photos of most of the gaits.

Most of the journal-type writing and stories in the first edition have been removed to make room for just straight track and sign information. The stories were helpful and interesting, but not as helpful as the detailed accounts in this edition are. There are still some stories, but not as many. The ones used were chosen for their usefulness to describe a concept, it seems.

There is a lot more research included in this edition too. There has, of course, been ongoing scientific research into many aspects of biology and tracking. This edition incorporates more of that information into the text. Recent studies are cited and their information included. Also, researchers, biologists, and other scientists are credited as such on the photos they donated to the project, which is nice. They deserve the credit for their work.

Some really interesting new photos were included showing cool behaviors or just unique features. I love the photo where an otter rolled and left behind whisker marks!

Specific Kindle parts of the review:

Drawbacks to Kindle edition: the Kindle edition requires a Kindle and who is going to carry one into the field? Not me. Too much risk of getting it wet or damaged. I prefer a book for the field. (I bought both for this reason.) The Kindle edition loses the formatting that you have on a page. So, references to upper right corner of the page make no sense on a Kindle since all photos are inline and you just scroll to see them. As always with Kindle editions, there are some formatting errors. Pictures not right where the accompanying text indicates, etc. But, that’s a minor issue and users of Kindle are probably used to that in their books. For field guides, it can be annoying though. However, those are formatting issues and really not anything to do with the quality of the writing or the information contained within the book. So, if you can ignore some minor format issues, Kindle is fine. Otherwise, I’d recommend getting the paperback. Well, I recommend getting that either way, but if you want a copy on your Kindle, do like I did and buy one of each! I’ll admit that it’s something only us truly obsessed trackers do, so your mileage may vary. Ha!

Good features of Kindle: You can highlight the text in different colors. My copy is already highlighted throughout in yellow, pink, orange and blue. Your highlights and page progress can be synced to the cloud so you don’t lose them. If you ever delete it off your Kindle, you can re-download it and your highlights will be there if you’ve synced it. You are allowed to put it on two different devices, in case you have two Kindles, you know. Or put it on Kindle and your laptop like I did. Sync them and your highlights and page progress are saved to both devices. On Kindle, you can also do keyword searches. So, if you want to look up a species, you can put in the name and find all instances in the book. The bad thing is, you have to spell the name right or search doesn’t work. Kindle also allows you to make your own notes in the text. These are hidden and you have to click to open a little window and read your notes. But it’s a useful feature to have.
So, overall, I recommend this book 100% and five stars. Or should I say, five paws! If you are a tracker, biologist, naturalist, or just plain nature nerd, you need this book. Why is it not on your shelf yet? Just kidding. Buy this book. You won’t regret it. If you study it, you will become a better tracker. It’s full of the experience of two of the best trackers around, plus all the contributed experience of the other scientists, researchers, biologists, naturalists and trackers who contributed in the field. Hundreds of years of tracking experience is right here in your hands. It is 680 pages of the best information money can buy. Get it. You will not regret it. No buyer’s remorse here. It’s worth every penny!

Because I’m an affiliate, if you use the link below to purchase, I get a tiny kickback. But, that in no way influenced this review. All the opinions above are genuinely mine and I stand by them. Five paws up!

Link to purchase at Amazon.


Book Review: Come be Wild with Me

This is the post excerpt.

Come Be Wild With Me is a cute story book for children. It will appeal to younger readers and encourage them to go outside and play in nature, which is always a good thing.

The book contains a short, lyrical story about a mother and son who venture out into the forest to learn about the wild. They immerse themselves in the nature experience and have fantastic adventures exploring and being wild. The message is a positive one and shows kids that nature is a great place to be and that you can have imaginative adventures without being plugged into a device with a screen. They climb trees, throw stones into a lake, dress in leaves and eat berries. A full sensory experience of nature.

The story is accompanied by beautiful watercolor paintings depicting the storyline. The paintings are fanciful and colorful. The animals are cute and not scary for young readers. The characters are shown with smiling faces so that young readers will understand that nature is not a scary place; it’s a place that makes people happy.

The positive message of this book seems well-suited to readers of any age, and indeed adults will enjoy the poetic story and the accompanying paintings. The story is told in words that younger readers can sound out and spell, so it’s appropriate for the age group. Parents can read it to children who are too young to read on their own yet. It’s one of those books that a child might ask for as a bedtime story each night and memorize so that they can read along with the parent.

I enjoyed the story and its message about nature. I recommend this to anyone who wants to introduce their kids to nature and give them a storybook that will almost certainly become popular a favorite.

I would like to thank the author, publisher, and NetGalley for allowing me to see an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest review.


Book Review: The Other Forest

The Other Forest
by Danielle Koehler
Review by: Kim Cabrera

The Other Forest is a wonderful book that takes you into a unique, enchanting world. Set on the farthest tip of South America, at the tip of Chile, the story follows Olivia and her friend, Diego, on an adventure into a forest unlike any other.

Olivia is dealing with quite a lot of grief after having lost her father. She and her mother have moved far away from all her friends, and to a new country, where she doesn’t speak the language. She is struggling with her grief and anger. Olivia and her dog Max meet Diego and they become friends. One day, they set off to explore the forest, where rumors say that strange creatures lurk.  

The forest itself is populated with a variety of animals, however the animals have all disappeared from the forest that the humans live nearby. In the other parallel forest, the animals can all talk with the kids. The kids learn about the destruction of the forest that caused the animals to abandon it and move to the other forest. Olivia’s dog, Max, has disappeared, and she and Diego set off to find him, running into various forest inhabitants along the way. Some are helpful to their quest and some others are not.

Olivia has special abilities inside the other forest. Her emotions have a powerful affect on the forest world. She is given a task, to take the last canelo berry and plant it so that the forest will be restored. She and Diego set off on their journey, but they run into many complications along the way. Will they be successful?

The story is full of great themes to explore with kids. Conservation, preserving nature, dealing with grief and death, emotions, friendship, love, and more. There are plenty of details about the forest itself and the reader becomes immersed in the world where animals and humans can easily communicate. Good and evil populate this world as well.

I loved the author’s illustrations! Highly detailed and in full color, they had me gazing at them to absorb all their incredible details. My favorites were the puma cub and the otter. But they are all fantastic!

I highly recommend this book. It’s part adventure, part fantasy, and full or immersive scenes that draw the reader in. You will love it!

Cover Art

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Book Review: Tracking the American Black Bear

Tracking the American Black Bear

By Preston Taylor

Review by Kim Cabrera

This book is perfect for any tracker who wants to learn more about trailing black bears. Bears can be challenging to trail over different terrain types, but Preston is one of the few recognized experts in doing just this. He is also a trailing evaluator for CyberTracker North America, which is the only international organization that certifies trackers. He is one of the best trackers in the world. This book offers his unique insights into following and finding black bears. He is a bowhunter who uses his trailing skills to get within a few yards of the bears that he hunts, something that takes tremendous skill. If you are a hunter who wants to hunt the traditional way and become a skilled outdoorsman, I can’t recommend anyone to teach you better than Preston Taylor. Get this book and study it well. If you implement these techniques, your trailing will improve immensely.

Find it at Preston’s web site: Tracker Longbows

Or find it at Amazon

Book Review: Awakening Fire: An Essential Guide to Waking Flame, Wood, and Ignition

Awakening Fire: An Essential Guide to Waking Flame, Wood, and Ignition

By Nate Summers

Review by Kim Cabrera

This is not a book about how to make fire in the sense that you get directions on how to make a bunch of primitive fires. It’s way more than that. It’s a book that helps you understand what fire is, and what it needs to catch and grow, knowledge that is not that common anymore. The author gives an example of campers trying to place full-sized logs in a campfire pit and lighting them with a match. This won’t work.

The book goes into detail on how to begin building your fire. Campfires are probably the way that most of us would use this skill, but you can apply these same principles to building a fire in a woodstove or fireplace too. The author, Nate Summers, begins by explaining why we need to start with the small stuff, kindling and tinder, before we can add big logs. It seems basic, but most folks don’t live as close to the land as our ancestors once did, so we have lost this kind of wisdom. Maintaining a campfire is not a skill that most of us use often enough to have developed proficiency with it, so this book fills a niche in the literature on that account.

There is a whole section on what kinds of wood are good to make fire, broken down by region. You also learn many different styles of fire. Who knew there were so many? If you were ever to get lost in the woods, this skill would certainly come in handy.

I enjoyed this book and learning the different techniques for making and maintaining a campfire. I will be able to put this learning to use this summer when I go camping, I hope. It is a useful book and one that outdoorspeople will find useful to have on their shelf.

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Book Review: Keeping a Nature Journal, 3rd Edition: Deepen Your Connection with the Natural World All Around You

by Clare Walker Leslie
Review by Kim Cabrera

Drawing from nature seems difficult, but this book gives you some great tips on how to do it. I’ve always wanted to learn to draw and have felt that my drawings are awful. Using the techniques in this book, I improved my drawings a little bit. It’s not as tough as it looks. Clare Walker Leslie has several books on nature and nature journaling and I have wanted to read her work for a long time. I am glad I finally got one of her books! I will be reading some of the others in the future.

There are exercises that show you how to begin learning to draw, such as doing a blind contour drawing. That is pretty fun. You draw something without looking at the paper and without lifting your pen or pencil. It looks messy when it’s done, but you really can see the shape of whatever you drew in those messy lines! I was surprised at how that worked. Next, the author moves on to show you techniques to draw various natural things, like birds and mammals. Finally, you learn to draw landscape scenes.

I doubt I will ever be a professional artist, but I did find that these techniques worked well. I was able to see that drawings don’t have to be perfect. They are really sketches that convey the idea of the object you are drawing without being photographically accurate.

The whole idea behind the book is to learn to make a nature journal. In it, you can record your observations and make sketches of what you see. Phenological observations help you to track various events in nature over time and you can go back to older journals to make comparisons. This can help document things like climate change and how species are adapting by changes in the timing of their life events.

I think the idea of keeping a nature journal is interesting. The very act of drawing or writing something down really helps solidify the observation and you will remember it longer because you are creating a neural pathway. Studies have shown that hand writing notes helps the note-taker remember longer than just typing them. So, I agree that keeping a record of your nature observations can be very useful to anyone who is studying the natural world.

The illustrations in the book are by the author and her students. They are all excellent. It’s amazing to me that, with a few lines, an artist can convey an image that looks like a rabbit, or a bird, or a tree.

Overall, I found this book full of excellent advice and tips on how to improve techniques. I look forward to trying more of these ideas out when I go on outdoor excursions! I give this book five stars!

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Book Review: The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees

The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees
By Douglas W. Tallamy

Review by Kim Cabrera

Oak trees are common where I live, and they are one of the most amazing species of trees. According to this book, they support a wide variety of kinds of life. Everything from insects to fungi and mammals. I’ve always loved Douglas Tallamy’s books and this one is right up there with the best of his writing.

I love that Tallamy emphasizes how our own use of native plants can help wildlife. The oak tree is native to most places in the U.S., so it makes a good choice for a native tree for a garden. The species that use oaks are immense! This book goes into detail about some of them, but there are far more than can be shown in a single volume. It’s amazing how much life there can be on one oak tree!

The book follows a single year in the life of an oak in the author’s yard. He begins with the Fall and goes month by month, talking about the biology of some of the species that live on his oak. It’s fascinating reading.

My favorite chapter had to do with galls. I’ve been fascinated by galls for many years and love reading about them. Tallamy does not disappoint! The chapter on galls was interesting and full of details. The gall-makers have such complex relationships with their host plants, and there are so many of them! The galls on oaks are some of my favorites because of their complexity and their many forms.

The author’s writing style is very easy to read, and his accounts don’t require an advanced degree in science to understand. It is very approachable and understandable for any audience. There is a handy list at the end of the book of oak species by region. (U.S. regions only though.)

If you love natural history or trees, I highly recommend this incredible book. You will find it hard to put down!

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Book Review: Empire of Ants: The Hidden Worlds and Extraordinary Lives of Earth’s Tiny Conquerors

Empire of Ants: The Hidden Worlds and Extraordinary Lives of Earth’s Tiny Conquerors
By Susanne Foitzik and Olaf Fritsche

Review by: Kim Cabrera

Ants! The word conjures up many images. But, did you know that most ants are female? This fact and more can be learned in the fascinating new book, Empire of Ants: The Hidden Worlds and Extraordinary Lives of Earth’s Tiny Conquerors. These stories are not about the ants you picture raiding a picnic basket. These ants are the little creatures that run the world, to paraphrase the authors.

Ants are way more fascinating than you would think. This book makes their life stories come alive in an easy-to-read and understand format. You don’t need a science degree to understand this text. The author has a very conversational style and tells the ants’ stories in an engaging and intriguing tone that will make you want to read more. It’s not a thriller, but some of the ant stories read like one!

I had no idea how ants moved around the world on ships and got to other continents. There is an entire world to be learned about that is tiny and often ignored because they live beneath our feet, underground, but ants live some complex lives! They use scent to recognize each other and there are ants in each colony who have very specific roles. You will learn all about these in this great book.

My favorite anecdote was how the scientists had to explain their ant-collecting tubes to the airport security people! So funny. There are plenty of stories and illustrations to help you get into this micro world of the ants.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in nature and its fascinating inhabitants. Ants may be small, but they are mighty. Ants rule the world.

Find it at Amazon here.

Book Review: Up a Tree

By Richard M. Brock
Review by Kim Cabrera

That was a wild ride! Hold onto your seats because this book will grab you and drag you along for a ripper of a good tale!

Ruby and Quinn are 12-year-old boys living in rural Hackers Loon, NY, who dream of being pirates and going on adventures. When they have an accident and make a mistake trying to cover it up, they get their wish. The boys set off on a cross-country adventure that reads like a Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn tale for the modern day.

Once the action begins, it is non-stop until the very end. This one kept me awake into the wee hours of the morning, reading because I could not put it down. Some parts are unbelievable, but it is fiction, so that’s the point. It’s just a really fun tale!

As the adventurers make their way, they encounter various people and expand their horizons about the world outside their small community, and the wider social and environmental issues others deal with every day. They learn about corporate greed, environmental destruction, homelessness, racism, countercultures, and so much more. Through it all, Ruby, the narrator, maintains a positive outlook on life and yearns for more adventure.

Written in the voice of a 12-year-old who grew up in a relatively isolated rural area, the story shows our heroes coming of age on the road, much like Tom and Huck. They get into countless scrapes and find their way out them, making their way steadily westward. The scene with them frolicking in the Pacific Ocean was my favorite. I could just imagine their joy at finding the ocean and celebrating a successful journey where they got to be cowboys and more.

This book would be great for teachers to use in their classrooms to introduce some of the social issues. There are plenty of opportunities for good class discussions around the many themes touched on in this book.

I give this one a solid five stars. It certainly was, as Ruby would say, a ripper of a good tale!

Book Review: Book of the Little Axe

Book of the Little Axe
By Lauren Francis-Sharma



Book of the Little Axe is a sweeping novel that covers the story of three generations of a family from Trinidad. The Rendon family story begins in Trinidad and then moves to North America, where Rosa Rendon moves after events in her home country. Trinidad is a beautiful island and the descriptions will leave the reader wanting to go see it.

Rosa Rendon is a very strong female lead character. She’s not afraid to speak her mind. She has a tendency to remind those around her that she’s just as good at some things as the men are. Sometimes, the men take offense at her attitude, but she sticks to her beliefs. Rosa is a role model that girls today can look up to. During her time though, that boldness could get her in trouble. Rosa is the daughter of Demas Rendon, who is a free Black land-owner and blacksmith. He also runs their farm and raises quality horses. Rosa prefers to work with the horses and with her Papa rather that do the housework or cooking that her sister does. She really hates that kind of work.

Trinidad was under control of the Spanish, and then the English came, took over, and colonized. That’s when things started to change for the Rendon family. They lost more and more as the years wore on under English colonial laws. This part of the story was tough to read. As a reader, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. The colonizers liked to take the land from people whose countries were colonized (they had many unethical ways to do this), and I kept worrying that this would happen to the Rendon family. It was amazing how well the author told the story so that a reader begins to really care about a fictional family.

When events go bad at home, Rosa leaves Trinidad and travels to Oregon. She eventually ends up with the Apsáalooke (Crow) tribe. Her son, Victor, grows up there. He believes that a man named Edward Rose is his father. After a tragic event, Rosa and Victor leave the tribe and travel to Kullyspell, Oregon. Along the way, they are attacked. (There is a very tough scene to read here.) Once they arrive at the abandoned military post in Kullyspell, they both start to heal. Victor finds the diary of Creadon Rampley and learns more about his family’s history.

Through back flashes to the story of Rosa and her family in Trinidad, the tale works its way up to the current time period. Victor is learning of the events in 1830 in Oregon. However, the events in Trinidad go all the way back to the end of the 1700’s. Along the way, the reader will learn a lot of history of Trinidad. In those days, women were not allowed to own land, so Rosa could not inherit her father’s land. Over the years, he has worked hard to make a successful business. But, the English arrive and start changing laws and enacting taxes. The once-successful business falls on hard times. Rosa’s father, Demas, tries to find a husband for each of his two daughters, someone who he can trust to carry on his work and inherit the land to keep it in the family. But, there are many unscrupulous forces at work.

What I liked about this book

I thought that Rosa’s character was a very interesting and complex woman. She was strong-willed and independent. The story of her life on two continents was the main focus, but Victor learning his family history was also a big part of it. So, there were several concurrent storylines to follow. Including the narrations of Creadon Rampley, there were three interwoven stories. The author pulled it off well. It took me a couple chapters to solidify in my mind who each of the characters were and what their situations were, but once that was cleared up, the story just flowed well.
I liked how the historical events on Trinidad were seen through the experiences of the Rendon family. Rosa and her father are Black, but her mother is of mixed race. Her sister and brother look more like their mother. So, things go easier on them than on Rosa and her father. The reader learns a bit of the history of Trinidad and the various colonial takeovers and how that affected the people who called it home. It affected multiple generations of the families. This is not a history that we normally get to learn about so it was all new to me.

I really liked the scenes of Victor’s life with the tribe. I love that time period in history and always enjoy reading stories of that time.

What I didn’t like

I would have liked to know what happened to the Rendon family after Rosa’s departure. I was sad that the events led to the sudden breakup of the family. They tried so hard for so many years. I worried that bad things would happen to them and that Rosa would never see them again. I wanted there to be some resolution to their story too. As a reader, their story was important to me, as was that of Rosa and Victor. Perhaps there will be a sequel in which we can see what happens to them.

I never was able to figure out the complex relationships of the Rendon family with their neighbors and friends. Some of them seemed more like enemies than friends. Some seemed eager to find a way to take Demas’ land by whatever means. It’s like they wanted him to fail so that he could not pay taxes and end up forfeiting his land. I hoped for more clarity on those relationships, but maybe the confusion is the point. It must have felt confusing for the Rendon family to have to sort out the intentions of everyone around them all the time.

Overall impression

I enjoyed this book and found it detailed and complex. With three timelines to handle, the author juggled them quite well. At times, it can be difficult to read some of the incidents that happen to these characters. You really feel for them. The author made them come to life so well that you end up seeing them as real and not fictional characters. The thing is, they could have been real. There very well could have been families like the Rendons that experienced these things. That’s the thing about historical fiction. It brings the reader into that time period and immerses you in what it was like to live through these events. The author, Lauren Francis-Sharma, accomplished this very well.


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Book Review: Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy

Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy
by Alastair Gee, Dani Anguiano



This book is an account of the Camp Fire from multiple perspectives. The Camp Fire was the most destructive fire in California history and began on Nov. 8, 2018. The fire wiped out the town of Paradise, and others. It moved so fast that people could not outrun it. The toll of this fire was devastating.

In this book, the authors interview many people who were there. Their stories are told here, many of them interconnected. The firefighters, residents, business owners, hospital workers, and more. Their stories are tragic, sometimes horrific, sometimes uplifting. All share an intensity and a message that we Californians need to hear.

Many of us in California live in wildland-urban interface zones that are prone to fire. With the climate changing, our wildlands are more vulnerable to fire, even into historically damp months like November. The fact that this fire could start in November and burn as fast as it did should be something that all of us in the Golden State pay heed to. It could happen anywhere.

Paradise, Concow, Magalia, and more were destroyed in this fire. It caused billions in damage and losses, but the worst part was the loss of life. Over 80 people died in this fire. Knowing these facts can make this a difficult read at times.

As a reader, I found myself tearing up at points in the book. I just could not help it. When you realize that the people whose stories you are reading are no longer here, that they died heroically trying to help others, it just hits you emotionally. This is definitely a book that will take you to places and feelings that can cause much sorrow. Yet it also offers hope. The towns will rebuild. The people are resilient. There will be recovery. It will never be the same though.

What I liked about the book:

The pace was appropriate. The story was told from all perspectives and all tied together into a coherent overall picture of events. The different perspectives showed the fire from all points of view and gave a good clear image to the reader of how chaotic and intense it really was.

What I didn’t like:

I didn’t like as much the emotions that were brought up. It can be a very difficult read because these are real events and real people. I live not far from there and these events could happen in my area too. So, that makes it tough to read at times. This is not the fault of the book or the author. This is just a difficult and emotional subject that hits close to home for many Californians, especially those who have lived through our many fires. I think it’s good to have forewarning before you pick up this book that you may find yourself sobbing at times because this is not fiction.

Overall, I think this book is one to read if you need to get an insider perspective on California fires. It is not light reading. The story flows really well and you will learn a lot from it. Be prepared with a box of tissues though.


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Book Review: Skunk Train

Skunk Train
By Joe Clifford



Skunk Train, written by Joe Clifford, is a sort of coming-of-age tale set against a backdrop of California’s grittier side. The hero of the story is 15-year-old Kyle Gill, who lives in the hills of Humboldt with his cousin, Deke. Deke and a friend, Jimmy, have come into possession of a hundred pounds of marijuana. In their attempt to sell it, they run afoul of some dirty cops, a biker gang, the Mexican cartel, and assorted others. Kyle and his new friend, Lizzie, end up on the run with a backpack full of cash.

The Humboldt hill country, where the story begins, is described fairly well. The communities mentioned by name are fictional, but there really is a Skunk Train, although it is not a motel, it’s an actual tourist train. As a resident of Humboldt, this reviewer found the descriptions of the rural life here relatively accurate. Kyle seemed a bit naive for his age, but it is partly due to his isolation in the hills with his cousin, who is a marijuana farmer. The communities described in the book seem to be based on mashups of many local communities, rather than just one town. The name of Kyle’s town, Dormundt, is an interesting play on words. Sounds like Dormant, which could be an interesting reference by the author to some of the ways of life here in Humboldt. The other fictional towns are Richter and Cutting.

Deke and Jimmy are the ones who set the events in motion when they help themselves to the stolen marijuana. Then, they attempt to sell it to some dirty cops, but that is interrupted by the biker gang. In the process, Deke is killed. Kyle ends up running off with Jimmy’s truck, which, unknown to Kyle, has a bag of money in the back. Kyle ends up in San Francisco, where he tries to locate his uncle. He loses the truck and the money and finds a girl named Lizzie, who eventually decides to help him. Kyle wants to find his father, who he believes is a movie director in Hollywood.

The story was believable and the characters were built up well over the course of the novel. Kyle does a lot of growing up in that time span. Lizzie has her own reasons for helping him. The situations Kyle runs into are unfortunately too common for runaway juveniles. The harsh reality of his situation seemed very realistic.

I liked that the novel didn’t try to make things seem too perfect. The reader sees the reality of life on the street and of the hidden side of our cities. The events seemed realistic for a kid from out of town with no money who knows no one in the area. What would he do to survive? How would he go about finding his father with the very slim amount of evidence he had to work with?

The plot moved along well and the reader will be eager to see what happens next. This was a pretty good page-turner and really drew me into the story. Characters are believable and the locations are well-described. Overall, I thought the author did a great job bringing this story to life. There is a sense of reality to it that is lacking in some fiction.

I give it five stars. A very enjoyable read. Recommended.

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