Greg Bear,
Dinosaur Summer
(Warner, 1998)

Peter Belzoni is 15 and his parents are divorced. His mother, who lives in Chicago, is very bright, studious, proper, caring and yet also somewhat aloof. Peter lives with his father, who is charming, a bit hot-headed, very adventurous, somewhat reckless and likes to roam, which fits his profession as a photojournalist. Peter is not a replica of his father, nor is he a male version of his mother, but he does have some of their traits. Peter is trying to figure out who he is, separate from these two, very different and very clearly defined adults who are major factors in his life. OK, that sounds like the plot of dozens of coming-of-age stories. What makes it stand apart?

It might just be ... the dinosaurs!

It is the late 1920s and, in this fictive universe, the Lost World stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were actually the stories of a very real Professor Challenger, as told to his friend, Doyle. Challenger had gone to Venezuela, found live dinosaurs atop an enormous plateau and brought many of them back over the years. Many circuses and zoos incorporated these dinosaurs into their shows and collections. But, it did not work out well, as many of the dinosaurs died from improper care, plus a few got loose and wreaked havoc. By the time this story starts, only one circus, Circus Lothar, has dinosaurs left, and Circus Lothar is about to close when its owner retires.

National Geographic magazine has decided that it would be great if the few dinosaurs remaining in Circus Lothar could be taken home to Venezuela instead of being put out to pasture. Peter Belzoni's father, Anthony, is hired to document this expedition in pictures, and he takes his son along, as the magazine has agreed to pay Peter to keep a journal of his adventures with the dinosaurs. As you might have guessed, taking a group of dinosaurs, by train and boat and truck, from the United States to a high Venezuelan plateau, is not easy, and it does not go at all according to plan, especially when the dinosaurs include a two-ton centrosaur, a three-ton ankylosaur and a three-ton altovenator ferox (a fictional cross between a Tyrannosaurus rex and a velociraptor). It does make for quite an adventure tale.

As I read this book, I kept thinking what a fantastic movie it would make, and I hope someone takes up that challenge. One concept it addresses is rarely discussed -- if dinosaurs had survived, they would not have stopped evolving. Several "new" varieties are described, including a nine-foot salamander, a hive colony of "communisaurs" that are up to eight feet long and the magnificent stratoraptor velox, or "death eagle" (imagine a flightless eagle that could stand toe-to-toe (talon-to-claw) with a Tyrannosaurus rex, and probably win).

What really made me a fan of this book, though, is the ending -- just when you think it's done, a bigger and better climax comes along. As I read about the titanic battle at the end, I could hear the roars in the distance.

The pace of the book is quick, and character development is quite good. Peter is the narrator and protagonist, but many of the side characters are also developed into three-dimensional people. That includes three of the dinosaurs, by the way. The coming-of-age story is very well done, and it blends in seamlessly with the adventure. The setting is also described lushly and elaborately, without bogging the story down in detail. The book has quite a few sketched illustrations, plus several full-page, full-color "plates" to show you the characters (of all species). There is also a nice afterword that helps the reader separate fact from fiction, as in which dinosaurs were fictional creations and which are based in paleontological findings.

Dinosaur Summer is a good, fun read and makes ideal summer reading for ages 10 (or so) and up.

by Chris McCallister
2 September 2006

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