14 year old Richard Sloan and his cousin, Malley, were born nine days apart and have always been close. So when she runs off with a guy she’s met on the Internet, who turns out not to be who he says he is, Richard sets out to track her down, accompanied by a wildly eccentric old man he has just met – Skink, a former governor of Florida, and an eco-crusader from previous Hiaasen adult novels.
Richard and Skink make an unlikely but effective duo – Skink is as resilient and resourceful as The Terminator, and Richard has local knowledge and dogged determination – and together they muddle through several madcap encounters with the local wildlife on the Florida Panhandle, including alligators and feral pigs.
As with his previous novels for middle graders, Hiaasen combines fast-paced adventure with ecological advocacy, and weaves in naturalist tidbits including using the possibly extinct Lord God Bird to provide a key clue to Malley’s whereabouts.
When they eventually find Malley, she is scared, though it appears she has held her own against the cardboard cutout abductor. Nonetheless, the idea of online predation sits a little uneasily with the signature slapstick absurdist humor and I’m not sure if teen readers will enjoy Skink (the character) quite as much as adults – he seems pretty ghastly and it’s not quite clear why either Richard or his mother trust him!
For reasons which I can’t quite fathom, this is being touted as Carl Hiaasen’s first YA novel. Yet to me, it doesn’t read differently to his previous kids’ books, like Hoot (2002) and Chomp (2012). Sure, some of the subject matter is more appropriate for teens, but then Tuna, in Chomp, was physically abused by her father, which also seems quite a mature topic. Anyway, whoever the publisher decides to pitch it to, kids that have enjoyed Hiaasen’s previous books are likely to enjoy this one too.