book reviews

Non-fiction About the Natural World

Here are three non-fiction books that discuss nature through the eye of authors who live it (in alphabetic order):

  1. Heartbeat of the Wild–a nature explorer decided to walk across Africa, joined in part by a NatGeo journalist
  2. How to Read a Tree–Tristan Gooley shows it’s not that hard to do
  3. Walking with Gorillas–the real-life adventures of a woman who worked with gorillas for the nation of Uganda

–a note about my reviews: I only review books I enjoyed. That’s why so many of my reviews are 4/5 or 5/5

Heartbeat of the Wild

by David Quammen


With a title like Heartbeat of the Wild (National Geographic 2023), I couldn’t wait to read David Quammen’s story of walking across Africa, and for the most part, Quammen didn’t disappoint. There were pages filled with the flora and fauna, the danger and drama, how Mike Fay (the star and intrepid explorer) almost didn’t make it–

“it seemed almost impossible that Fay could complete this epic trek as projected, given the factors such as exhaustion, malaria, the politics of national boundaries, the finitude of patience and stamina among the men of his field crew, the occasional charging elephant, the swamp water to drink, the filaria flies to shoo off, and the Gaboon vipers to avoid stepping on—all that and the other considerations arrayed against him. But a year had gone by, and he was still on the trail.”

Quammen was invited to join Mike Fay–an “untamable man who just loves to walk in the wilds”–in this year+-long walk, many areas so remote “…its chimps had never heard of Jane Goodall.” Quammen did a few weeks at a time and then returned to civilization, to write about Fay’s endeavor for National Geographic–

“…’We’re going to parachute into Borneo, live on crackers for a month, and look for the world’s largest spider; we have your chute packed and an extra crate of crackers; we leave Tuesday. Are you in?” my answer is “I’m in.” (Although I might ask: “How large a spider?”) Nick Nichols is one of those two people. Besides, who doesn’t want to spend weeks living out of a comfortable safari tent in the backcountry of Serengeti National Park, following lions with one of the world’s leading lion biologists and his stalwart field assistants…”

If you love nature and a challenge, what could be better? Me, I was thrilled to join from the comfort of my reading chair, and what an adventure it was. There were many times, I wondered if Fay could make it. I won’t tell you if he did, but I will tell you the story is filled with gorgeous insights into the wildness of nature, how it is like nothing else:

“Africa is an extraordinary repository of wildlife. It’s the greatest of places for great beasts.”

“One female chimp held an infant whose large ears stuck far out from its head, glowing amber like a pair of huge, dried apricots whenever they caught backlighting from a shaft of sunlight.”

The only distraction from the feral beauty of Nature was the chunk of pages devoted to politically-charged issues. A few times my eyes glazed over and then I snapped back, grudgingly tolerating that ugly world for the opportunity to immerse myself in the uncompromising beauty of nature.

If you decide to read this, don’t expect a modern Matthiessen. Often, the book is more about the people studying the animals and their goals for protecting the chimps and gorillas than it is about the animals themselves. That’s not good or bad, just an observation, but because the title led me to expect more Nature and less humans, I was a bit disappointed. Admittedly, that could be me and you won’t have that reaction.

Overall, this is an intriguing personal book with lots to hold a nature lover’s interest.

–received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review

How to Read a Tree

by Tristan Gooley

I have read several of Tristan Gooley’s fascinating ‘how to read nature’ books. In fact one is open on my desk right now—The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs. All of Gooley’s books are chatty, readable explorations of nature for the armchair enthusiast. How to Read a Tree (2023) examines trees in the same relentless depth, digging into facets that sound obvious (like trunks and leaves) as well as those most of us don’t see but should (like the tree’s shape). Did you know that trees grow bigger on their southern side, or that a strong pale line down the middle of the leaves means there’s water nearby? Me either! Tristan not only noticed, but studied it with an enviable passion for understanding why, carried away by what goes on around him.

The chapter titles are as enticing as what’s contained in them:

  • A Tree is a Map
  • Wind Footprints
  • The Trunk
  • Bark Signs
  • Lost Maps and Tree Secrets

Who doesn’t want to find out how a tree is a map?

Gooley covers not just the endearing bits about trees (like why conifers don’t shed their leaves in winter) but the scientific details (like auxins and apical buds and epicormic sprouts) that will make you feel knowledgeable about this grandest of nature’s creatures. And then there are intriguing questions even I with my Masters and lifelong learner badge couldn’t answer:

Find a tree with a large low branch that you can just touch standing on tiptoe. … If you come back in five years, will you still be able to touch that branch? (No spoilers here)

Some of my favorite lines are:

  • “…the familiar rich whiff of verdancy and decay
  • “If the trees change, they are telling us that something else has also changed…”
  • “Whenever we step into woodland, there are certain patterns we can expect…”

To enhance the elegant pros, Tristan includes classic etchings of trees and their environs that added much to my understanding.

This book is highly recommended not just for tree lovers, but nature lovers who want to lose themselves in the scent and sights of the physical world. His down-to-earth voice and consummate respect for the topic puts this among the best nature writers and I’ve read many. I left this book wishing I could walk through a forest with Tristan Gooley and absorb his passion and love for this majestic part of nature.

Besides his books, Tristan offers a plethora of other resources on his website for exploring nature, from videos to classes (which I’ve taken), shorties, and quick topical documents. If you love nature and want to understand her better, anything by Tristan Gooley is a good start.

–received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review

Walking With Gorillas

by Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikosoka


I’ve waited a long time for a sequel to Dian Fosse’s excellent though heart-rending Gorillas in the Mist so when Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka’s publisher offered me early access to her book, Walking With Gorillas (Arcade 2023), I grabbed it.  This is the story of one of our closest relatives–gorillas–told by an individual dedicated to sharing their tale despite challenges that could defeat anyone less committed. Because of this, Kalema-Zikusoka has become an important voice in saving our endangered cousin.

“… a magical time for me and a turning point in my life, where I decided to become not just a veterinarian, but one who works with wildlife.”

She realized early that as a native, no one had a better lens to tell this story so she must do it.

“Vernon reminded me to be patient by relating a saying I will never forget, “Africans have the time while Europeans have the watches!”

“… in Uganda, where the local Batwa hunter/gatherers avoided the gorillas because they believed it was bad luck to look in the eyes of a gorilla, people in Zaire ate gorillas because they believed that eating a gorilla would give them its strength.”
“Later I realized that local beliefs was also the reason why there were several giraffes in Murchison Falls National Park and only a handful in Kidepo, where boys had to kill a giraffe as part of the initiation ceremony into manhood.”

But don’t be surprised when the story becomes more complicated than where the gorillas live and what they eat. With the budget constraints and time demands endemic to not just Uganda but the world of agencies trusted to protect endangered wildlife, there seems to be almost as much time involved in caring for the animals as securing the approvals, funding, and support to make that happen. Kalema-Zikusoka took pains to make this book–unlike any other I’ve read–almost a procedural in how to save African wildlife.

Overall, this is an important book not just for the work Kalema-Zikusoka did in the field, but for the revealing way she explains what had to be done to make that happen. I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to make that commitment to preserving the planet’s natural resources.

–I received an ARC of this book, but the opinions are my own.


Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular prehistoric fiction saga, Man vs. Nature which explores seminal events in man’s evolution one trilogy at a time. She is also the author of the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers and Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. Her non-fiction includes over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, reviews as an Amazon Vine Voice,  a contributor to NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, Savage Land Winter 2024.


58 thoughts on “Non-fiction About the Natural World

  1. How interesting … oddly this month (next Friday!) I’ve organised a speaker who has walked across Africa from Namibia to Tanzania – so now I’ll be more aware and interested … and will look into David Quammen’s books … I gather this book (Heartbeat of the Wild) is a collection of essays … it’s only published here in May.

    I’ll look into How to Read a Tree and others of Tristan Gooley’s books … Mike Gooley, Tristan’s father started the travel site’Trail Finders’ …

    Similarly with Dr Kalema-Zikusoka’s book on as you describe it: ‘a procedural in how to save African wildlife’ …

    Thanks Jacqui – fascinating choices … and thanks for reviewing them so thoroughly for us. Cheers Hilary

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There is so much to know before you can write your early man books with the authority that you do, Jacqui. I admire your dedication to researching your background info. These books sound really good for supplying some of what you need for your writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. These books sound fascinating, Jacqui. (Some great research for your book here). I often think that non-fiction isn’t for me, but then I get totally wrapped up in accounts of the natural world. Thanks for sharing your reviews.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Dear Jacqui
    we read this book how to read trees after we have heard Tristan Gooley in our wildlife centre. We like this book like you do.
    Little parts of David Quammen’s book we read in the National Geographic magazine. Siri 🙂 asked us why do you do such a walk. Whom does it help? We are not convinced of his project.
    Wishing you a happy weekend
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wish Tristan would present in America. I would attend! I’m a little bit envious that you got to see him.

      And David Quammen’s book–I think Mike Fay walked horizontally across Africa because he had to. Something inside him made his feet keep moving. There were so many times a ‘normal’ person would have screamed Uncle! On a much smaller scale, it’s why I write prehistoric fiction rather than literary fiction or some other more popular genre. I have to. Something inside doesn’t give me a choice.

      Liked by 1 person

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