BOOK REVIEW: Scat by Carl Hiassen

Scat by Carl HiassenScat
By Carl Hiassen
Completed August 26, 2011

My son will be reading Scat as part of his sixth grade Language Arts assignment, so I decided to try a new strategy: Read his assigned book first so I know what he’s reading! It was fun to read this book, making mental notes of plot twists or characters that I thought he would enjoy. And it didn’t hurt that Scat was a well-rounded story.

Nicky Walters and his friend Marta were students in Mrs. Starch’s biology class, when she vanished into the swamp during a field trip. Nicky and Marta were suspicious of their classmate, Smoke, who had a falling out with the teacher during class. Little did Nicky and Marta know that Mrs. Starch and Smoke were in “cohoots” – along with a colorful naturalist, Twilly – to help protect endangered panthers from being killed.

Scat had a little bit of everything: well-developed charactes, plot twists, secrets, bad guys, good guys and animals with their own characterizations (I especially loved Horace the bloodhound). Set in Florida, I enjoyed learning about panthers and other wildlife that live in my home state. I was a bit surprised, though, by the anti-Iraq war stance in the novel. While I don’t disagree with what Hiassen wrote, I am not sure it had its place in the story. I will be curious to see if my son picks up on it.

This is just a little quibble; overall, I was very pleased with Scat and think it’s the perfect book for my son and his classmates. I look forward to my son’s interpretation of this fun book. (  )


BOOK REVIEW: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! by Karen RussellSwamplandia!
By Karen Russell
Completed July 2, 2011

Journey to Swamplandia and meet the Bigtree family – a clan of alligator wrestlers and theme park owners whose existence depends on gullible tourists desiring to see the unbelievable. The Bigtrees’ lives turn upside down, however, when Hilola Bigtree dies from ovarian cancer. Hilola was the main attraction – a petite woman who could tape shut an alligator’s mouth in 30 seconds and swan dive into a pit of alligators unscathed. While Hilola’s death takes a toll on the park, it most profoundly affects her surviving family – her husband Chief and children Kiwi, Osceola and Ava.

With the park losing tourists and their home missing Hilola, the remaining Bigtree family begins a fast deterioration. Kiwi runs off the mainland to find work at a competing theme park to help pay off Swamplandia’s debts, while Chief  takes one of his long business trips. Osceola, enjoying newfound freedom, becomes fascinated with spiritualism and believes she can date ghosts – to the point where she runs off one night to elope with a ghost named Louis Thanksgiving.

That leaves 13-year-old Ava alone – until The Bird Man arrives. Allegedly hired to help locals clear off birds from their islands, Ava befriends The Bird Man, and together they begin a several-day journey to a place called The Underworld to find Osceola and bring her home.

The majority of the  book is told from Ava’s perpsective, and true to her age, she sees things in a naive way. As the story progresses, her naivete turns to scorching reality. The reader sees what’s coming, but young Ava does not.  The last 100 pages of Swamplandia! will have you turning the pages in dread, hoping your worst fears for this young heroine do not come true.

It would be easy to dismiss this book as too fantastic with ghost lovers and swamp living, but Karen Russell does a tremendous job making it all seem very real. Her ability to describe the people and places of Swamplandia suck you into a vortex that you don’t want to leave until the last page is read. At the heart of it all, Swamplandia! is a coming of age tale that focuses on the love of family.  With its gothic feel and Florida setting, I enjoyed this story and can’t wait to read more by this talented young writer. (  )

Side note:

Swamplandia! is set in Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands – an area in southwest Florida that is largely uninhabited and teeming with Florida nature. While you may not want to visit Ten Thousand Islands in person (bugs and alligators abound!), you can take a virtual visit online. Enjoy!

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