The continuing adventures of reviews of books I read a while ago but never got around to writing up.

Front cover: An earthquake leaves Kriss stranded with an old hermit and a "talking" chimp!

Back cover: Capers for every kid. Adventure. Mystery. Science fiction & fantasy. Hilarious escapades... by many of today's favorite authors.

This is why thrift stores are great sources of books. I can't imagine finding this weird little unknown work-for-hire book by a very famous author in a regular bookshop, and indeed I never have. I had vague recollections of reading this book as a kid, though I had not remembered the author (I probably read it before I read any of Yolen's more typical works), and recall finding it rather disturbing. I re-read it as an adult. For a very short kiddie adventure novel, it actually is rather disturbing.

The beginning introduces Kriss, a clumsy California boy who wears glasses. His father refuses to take him camping on the grounds that he's so terrible in the outdoors that he'll instantly break his leg, his glasses, and get poison ivy. Annoyed, Kriss decides to sneak out and hike to his grandmother's house. He'll show them!

It is mentioned in passing that a few years previously, there was a huge earthquake and Los Angeles fell into the ocean.

Kriss hitches several rides to get to the wooded area through which he plans to hike. I check the copyright date. Huh, I guess in 1981 the idea of a kid hitch-hiking wasn't OMG SHOCKING, because nothing is made of that. His last ride is with a guy transporting caged signing chimpanzees to a lab. Then the Big One hits! The truck crashes. The driver is killed. All of this is described in pretty vivid detail - again, especially, for a book intended for eight-year-olds.

Kriss releases the chimps, who stick with him. I have to say, after reading about the guy whose chimp ate his face, I would have regretfully left them where they were. But these are nice signing chimps, not face-eating chimps, and they and Kriss wander around the wilderness, helping each other and fleeing the people who immediately reverted to cannibalism pet dog-eating - okay, I guess Yolen did make a concession to the age of her audience. Then one of the chimps falls into a crevasse and is killed.

Kriss then runs into an old vegetarian hermit named Chris. They have adventures together, including trying to rescue some pets from a pet store (most are already dead - I told you this was dark), but he does get another chimp. Then Chris has a heart attack. Surprisingly, he does not die. They are medevaced out by a mysterious, possibly sinister helicopter, and Kriss releases the chimps into the wild and certain death lest the helicopter people do something awful to them. Kriss still has no idea whether or not anyone in his family is still alive.

The end! Only not, because Yolen has an author's note discussing signing chimps. It concludes - this is the last line of the book - But even though scientists may disagree about the talking chimps, they all agree that there is a real possibility that one day California will have a different coastline than the one it has today. Have a nice day, California readers! It is scientific fact that one day you and your family may be killed in a giant earthquake!

I don't give this an "awesomely depressing" because it doesn't actually read that way, despite the dead people, dead chimps, dead dogs, dead pets, possibly dying buddy, and possibly dead family. It reads as an entertaining but slight adventure that would probably have been more memorable at a longer length. But seriously, that author's note! What was she thinking?

The Boy Who Spoke Chimp (Capers)

So, what weird children's books do you recall, or wonder if you imagined? Have you read any of them as an adult? How were they?
This is the long-delayed fourth book in Jane Yolen’s “Pit Dragon” series, and probably the concluding one. While it makes a better ending to the series than the third book did, as a reading experience by itself, I was underwhelmed.

I still really like Dragon’s Blood, which takes a very old story – young person bonds with cool animal, escapes rotten life – and tells it with clarity, conciseness, and grace, so that it seems classic rather than clichéd.

In this particular version of the story, bonded slaves on a desert planet may buy their way out of slavery, though this is so ridiculously difficult that very few ever manage it. But Jakkin, a boy at a ranch which trains dragons for gladiatorial combat, plots to steal an egg, raise the dragon, train it to fight, and PROFIT – sorry – escape slavery. (I should note that slavery in this context is nowhere near as horrific as it was in, say, the US, but is more like being an indentured servant, that is, it sucks but no one’s getting beaten to death.) Unsurprisingly, complications ensue. I loved the realistic details of life at a dragon ranch, and the lovely way that the dragons communicate, in bursts of telepathic color.

I was not thrilled with the sequels. I don’t think it’s horribly spoilery to say that Jakkin discovers more sophisticated dragon communication… but the talking dragons were so much less interesting than the color-communicating ones. And though I see why Yolen wanted to tackle the looming revolution, I was less interested in that than in the dragons. Also, honestly, Yolen is better at dragons than she is at revolutionaries.

Dragon Heart has problems with pace and editing. While a fair amount happens, the length and pace make it feel as if not much is – it’s significantly longer than the other books in the series, but there’s about the same amount of plot. A number of potentially interesting situations are set up and then never delved into, like the dragon pregnancies and Slakk’s encounter with the drakk, while pages and pages are spent on nothing in particular.

Apart from artistic problems, this book was largely not telling the story I wanted to read. I was interested in the dragons, and Yolen was interested in social change, and while her portrait of a slave/owner society struggling to cope with legal equality was quite believable, I wanted to read about dragon hatchings and dragon communication and so forth. Oh, and there was a lot of pus and puking. Too much for my taste, in my opinion.

This sounds like I hated the book. I didn’t hate it. But Dragon’s Blood is still the only one I’ll ever re-read.

ETA: Ack, sorry for the lost spoiler cut! Here it is.

Read more... )

Dragon's Blood: The Pit Dragon Chronicles, Volume One

Dragon's Heart: The Pit Dragon Chronicles, Volume Four
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