#BookReview: The War Below by Ernest Scheyder

Do The Needs Of The Many Outweigh The Desires Of The Few? 20 years ago as I was wrapping up my Computer Science degree requirements at Kennesaw State University just outside of Atlanta, GA, there was a massive debate raging around campus. At the time, the school – new to the “University” title, having had it for less than a decade at this point – was trying to grow from the commuter college it had been since its inception 40 yrs prior into a full fledged research level University… complete with student housing. The problem was that where the University wanted to place some of its first dorms was on the hill directly behind the Science building… where an endangered plant of some form was found, which kicked off rounds and rounds of going back and forth with various Environmental Protection Agency types. To be quite honest, I was never directly involved in any of this, but being on the school’s Student Media Advisory Board for a couple of years, I was connected enough to at least the reporting that I heard about at least the high points.

In The War Below, Scheyder looks at just these types of examples, where larger, grander ideas butt up against some much more local concern. Where the larger, grander idea is always “The only way we can see to fight climate change and stop carbon emissions while maintaining the global economy as we currently know it is to produce advanced electronic machines that require certain minerals to function, therefore we must obtain these minerals wherever they may be found.” Which admittedly means that for those that are more adamant that human-caused climate change isn’t a real thing or is some level of alarmist bullshit… well, you’ve been warned about a central tenet of this book in this review now.

However, Scheyder doesn’t really stay on the climate change debate itself, instead focusing on the more micro battles. “We found a supply of this particular mineral – but as it turns out, this particular plant that only exists in this exact spot also is dependent on this mineral, and therefore some are acting on behalf of the plant to stop us from getting to the mineral.” Or “We found a supply of a different mineral – but it happens to be under a location that some Native Americans consider sacred, and they’re trying to stop us from destroying their sacred spot.” Or “We found a supply of another mineral – but it happens to be in the middle of a town, and nearby residents don’t want to sell their land to us.” Every chapter is built around these and other variations of the same types of battles, pitting humanity’s need for these particular minerals against some more local, more intimate desire.

Scheyder does a remarkably balanced job of talking to both sides and presenting both sides in a way that they will likely consider the reporting on themselves to be pretty close to fair – as he notes within the text a few times, his job isn’t really to make a decision for humanity so much as to present the competing interests and allow humanity the chance to choose for itself.

Is our survival – as we currently see it – worth forcing ourselves on someone who is more intimately connected to that spot on Earth than most of us will ever directly be?

This book isn’t the call to arms that Siddarth Kara’s Cobalt Red, released almost exactly one year earlier and describing the outright horrors and abuses rampant throughout much of the cobalt industry specifically, was. Instead, as noted, it is more of a balanced and even nuanced look at the competing interests surrounding how and even if certain materials can be obtained in certain locations, and how these small, individual battles can impact us all at a global level.

In the case of KSU’s Student Housing vs the plant, fwiw, apparently it was resolved in favor of KSU’s Student Housing at some point in the last 20 yrs, as now the entire hill that was once a battleground is now a few different student housing complexes. In the cases Scheyder details… well, read the book. Some of them were still ongoing at the time Scheyder had to hand his book off for final editing, but he gives up to that moment details on where they are in such instances.

Very much recommended.

This review of The War Below by Ernest Scheyder was originally written on January 9, 2024.

#BookReview: Ignition by M.R. O’Connor

Controversial Yet Mostly Solid – But Needs Better Documentation. I first became interested in fire management over a decade ago, when I read an article on wired.com on July 8, 2012, where it made the case that perhaps our modern American efforts to suppress wildfires… had actually led directly to fires becoming ever bigger and more destructive. Over the following 11 yrs, I would both watch the movie Only The Brave, about the Yarnell Hill fire that claimed so many firefighters’ lives less than a year after that Wired article came out (which I just realized when researching for this review) and read the book Granite Mountain/ My Lost Brothers (it has used both titles) by Brendan McDonough that the movie was based on. I had also already seen numerous controlled/ prescribed burns as a native of the Southern US, and distinctly remember several over the years in the woods directly behind Lee County (GA) High School – where country singer Luke Bryan, American Idol Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips, and San Francisco Giants great Buster Posey had all attended.

All of that to say that here, O’Connor spends a year actively working with wildland firefighter crews roaming the western US (well, west of the Mississippi – she starts and ends in Nebraska), learning their ways, their thoughts, their struggles. And creating a compelling voice for her effort in this book. She gets the same certifications they do, goes through the same training and meetings, and does everything she is qualified to do per those trainings, and in turn we as readers get a first hand account of what it is really like on said crews. (Which McDonough’s book is also great at – just be prepared for some *very* dusty rooms near the end of that tale.)

Through this memoir portion of the book – interwoven with other interviews and research that I’ll get to momentarily – she is particularly strong and vivid. Truly, read the book for these passages if for no other reason, as it really brings home what a difficult, demanding, and yes, frustrating job this can be.

Even the research, both interviews and historical, is truly remarkably well done. It is this section in particular (along with, perhaps, some of the commentary from the fire teams she is on) that will likely prove most controversial, as it really drives home the exact point that at least parts of that 2012 Wired article were making – the “suppression only” firefighting tactics we’ve used against wildfires primarily over only the last century or so really do seem to be causing more harm than they are doing good. And, as it turns out… pretty well everyone knew this before we started doing it. From millennia before Europeans came to the Americas, Native Americans had already been using fire to shape and control their environment in numerous ways, and had already developed tactics that worked *with* nature for the good of all beings. O’Connor’s work here makes a particularly strong case that at minimum, these strategies need to be more actively considered. Indeed, much the same way that Gilbert Gaul’s 2019 book The Geography Of Risk made such a strong case for re-examining coastal development strategies in the face of hurricane damage.

The one weakness here is a quibble, perhaps, but it is consistent with my other non-fiction reviews (and I did already mention it in the title of this review, above), and that is that at just 14% bibliography, it falls a bit short in my own experience – where 20-30% documentation seems to be more standard. Extraordinary claims – and yes, challenging the prevailing “wisdom” of the last century qualifies as such – require extraordinary evidence, and while O’Connor’s case through her narrative is stellar, her documentation is sadly quite lacking.

Still, overall truly a fascinating read that deserves far more attention than it may ultimately wind up getting. Very much recommended.

This review of Ignition by M.R. O’Connor was originally written on October 11, 2023.

#BookReview: Desert Gold by David Wood

Next Up. Yet again, Wood shows that he knows his characters and audience quite well – this is yet another excellent Maddock and Bones tale with both of them working together, along with a wide range of the friends they’ve picked up over the years, to solve some puzzle involving some long lost artifact. We get the same banter and action that the audience has come to expect, and we get the same quick (120 page or so) tale that has come to typify these later works in particular – meaning they’re never too much of a time commitment even for people new to the series. Though this one does reference *several* prior tales, so those who are anti-spoiler absolutists… well, this *is* listed as Book 15 of the series… 😀 The addition of an in-world park that is clearly distinct from, yet also clearly similar to, a certain real world park with complexes in both Los Angeles and Florida is even better, with quite a few solid jokes (and some mild, one-line and move on type, commentary). Adventure fans and/ or anyone looking for a quick read that could likely be completed while sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, look over here. Very much recommended.

This review of Desert Gold by David Wood was originally written on May 2, 2023.

#BookReview: Thunder Mountain by David Wood

Perfect – and Perfectly Short – Dane Maddock Adventure. This is one of those tales that is *deep* within a series… and yet still manages to work *perfectly* as an introduction to this character and this author’s style of storytelling. At less than 40 pages, this is a *very* quick read and thus near-perfect for those who maybe don’t know who Maddock or Wood are and maybe don’t want to risk too much time in finding out. After all, investing 300+ pages into a character/ story only to find that you can’t stand the character or the way the author writes can be daunting. I get it. So try this one on for size if you don’t know them already… and prepare to become addicted after your first hit! (Long time fans will still be satisfied as well, if in the way a good amuse-bouche can be satisfying.) Very much recommended.

This review of Thunder Mountain by David Wood was originally written on March 2, 2023.

#BookReview: Lair Of The Swamp Witch by David Wood

Another Fun And Hilarious Bones Adventure. Yet again we find Bones getting called off in search of some cryptid and getting sucked into some minor-ish mystery, with all of the usual tracking, fighting, wisecracking, and bone cracking this generally entails with this character. Another short tale at barely 120 pages (in the Kindle edition anyway), this is an easy read perfect for when you need a quick break from reality. As it does heavily reference characters from previous Bones adventures, those at minimum are recommended reading before this one, even if you don’t want to get into the larger Maddock universe quite yet (which is also very much recommended and more tangentially referenced, as in nothing there plays a truly essential role here the way characters from prior Bones stories do). As always here, very much looking forward to the next one and this one is very much recommended.

This review of Lair Of The Swamp Witch by David Wood was originally written on January 28, 2023.

#BookReview: Contagion by Michael McBride

LOTS Of Moving Parts. This is one of those longer books at 634 pages with a LOT of moving parts that can be difficult to track at times – but which it is hard to say that McBride could have separated into two books at any given point. MAYBE by separating out some of the individual threads into two separate yet concurrent 300 ish page books? Yet I struggle to think that the tale would be so compelling without seeing all that is happening at once.

Essentially this is the tale of the beginning of the Apocalypse, and McBride makes it clear in his author’s note that a major inspiration was The Stand (which believe it or not, I’ve never read). Another somewhat similar story that I drew several parallels with from one of McBride’s contemporaries is the Project Eden series by Brett Battles, which I’ve noted for years was the best full series I’ve yet read.

Here, McBride begins to make his case to take that title, and despite the length here and just how many individual threads are all going on… he absolutely makes a strong opening statement. By the end of this book, it is quite clear that this particular tale setting up the Apocalypse and showing how it began is complete… and yet it is also quite clear that several threads will be left for subsequent books and at least a few of them are likely to not be resolved until the final book of this series, whenever that may be. Very much recommended.

This review of Contagion by Michael McBride was originally written on June 2, 2022.