Carl Hiaasen

Book - 2018

Billy Dickens discovers that his mysterious father lives in Montana, so this summer Billy will fly across the country, hike a mountain, float a river, dodge a grizzly bear, shoot down a spy drone, and save his own father.

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Humorous fiction
Mystery fiction
New York : Alfred A. Knopf [2018]
Main Author
Carl Hiaasen (author)
First edition
Physical Description
276 pages ; 22 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

SO MUCH OF early childhood is about animals. We dress toddlers in T-shirts emblazoned with zoo creatures, teach them songs about livestock and tuck them in with stuffed bunnies. Their picture books feature peace-loving bulls, cookie-loving mice and oversize red dogs who make excellent stand-ins for little humans. But the middle-grade years - when kids' passions are still more fixed on kittens and horses than the opposite sex - are the real sweet spot for animal books. This is when we get animal protagonists with inner lives as complicated as a 10-year-old's ("Charlotte's Web") and tender stories about kids whose beloved pets help them grow and mature (I call them bildogsromans), like Kate DiCamillo's "Because of Winn-Dixie." There's also the recurring theme of an animal rescued by a resourceful child - what could feel more empowering to a 10-yearold than saving a life? Four new novels provide their own twists on these classic story lines and prove, once again, that tales about animals can help kids understand the world and themselves. PATRICIA MACLACHLAN ("Sarah, Plain and Tall") is the master of quiet books that pack an emotional wallop. She's also a die-hard dog lover who's written several novels celebrating the healing power of her favorite creatures. Her latest, my father's words (HarperCollins, 144 pp., $15.99; ages 8-12), finds the author in her element: It's the story of a sister and brother who start volunteering at a dog shelter after their father's sudden death. And though the premise might seem way too sad - or even a bit too obvious - MacLachlan turns it into something remarkable. Fiona and Finn's father was a psychologist who loved runny eggs, choral music, basketball and passing along bits of therapy-speak to his children, like the meaning of "passive aggressive." After he is killed in a car accident, fifth grader Fiona notices that the younger Finn has become withdrawn and angry. When the children begin spending time at an animal shelter, Finn bonds with a dog named Emma. Fiona, meanwhile, begins to heal with the help of a former patient of her dad's who calls her once a week to share her father's words, which helped him years ago. In this slim book, MacLachlan provides a beautifully nuanced portrait of one family's recovery after tragedy. Yes, the dogs help the bereaved children - as Fiona puts it, "sometimes people needed dogs to teach the people how good they can be." But they also find comfort in the kind gestures of neighbors, games of basketball in the driveway at night, favorite picture books and new stories about their father from people who knew him. Written in the solemn voice of Fiona, an observant girl who seems to have inherited her father's instinct for listening, the book feels as direct and true as a dog looking you straight in the eyes. IN SHARON CREECH'S SAVING WINSLOW (HarperCollins, 176 pp., $16.99; ages 8 to 12) the rescued creature is a scrawny minidonkey named Winslow, with "black eyes and feathery eyelashes." Beware: This guy is so cute, young readers may be lobbying their parents for one. Born on an uncle's nearby farm, the "pitiful" motherless creature isn't expected to live long. But 10-year-old Louie takes him in, and just like the immortal Fern with runty Wilbur, he pours on the tender love and care, bottle feeding him and wrapping him in blankets. Naturally, as Winslow begins to thrive, he gives back. He helps Louie deal with the painful absence of his older brother, who's left home for the Army. And he coaxes Nora, an odd new girl who oozes negativity, into shedding her prickly exterior. The bond that develops between boy and donkey is genuinely heartwarming. And in seeing Louie's relentless efforts to keep Winslow alive - he sleeps with him in the cellar, wakes for 4 a.m. feedings and even learns how to administer injections - young readers may absorb a subtle lesson in passion and persistence. The plot itself is rather uneventful: At one point, Winslow goes missing, and that's about it, dramawise. But the story is buoyed by the whisper-weight chapters and Creech's spare, poetic language. Creech isn't writing in verse (which she used to great effect in "Love That Dog!") but her words evoke imagery that will linger in a reader's mind long after the final page. When Louie first sees Winslow, for instance, "he felt a sudden rush, as if the roof had peeled off the house and the sun had dived into every corner of the kitchen." SOMETIMES THE WILD and fierce are more fascinating than the domesticated and cuddly. Carl Hiaasen's best-selling middle-grade capers ("Hoot," "Flush," "Scat," "Chomp") all have intrepid tweens, lawbreaking baddies and endangered Florida wildlife at their center. His latest, SQUIRM (Knopf, 276 pp., $18.99; ages 8 to 12), is narrated by Billy Dickens, who lives with his mom and sister in Florida. Billy doesn't have a "halfway normal life" for a few reasons: He hasn't heard from his father since he was 3 or 4, his eagleobsessed mom makes him and his sister move every few years so they can live near an active nest, and he spends most of his free time with snakes. When Billy figures out that his dad - who may or may not be working for the C.I.A. - is living in Montana, he flies out West to confront him. There, he meets his father's new wife and stepdaughter and becomes embroiled in a high-stakes battle involving snakes, grizzlies, drones and villainous gun-toting trophy hunters. It's a fun romp that will keep readers hooked, even as the plot becomes increasingly convoluted in the manner of a wacky PG-13 movie. Perhaps best of all is the way Hiaasen conveys the wonders of wild creatures, from the "skittish and solitary" behavior of panthers to the unusual nesting habits of swallows. Don't be surprised if after reading "Squirm," your young reader tells you the safest way to handle a yellow rat snake or scare off a grizzly. And now that we're on the subject of bears, let's consider the most famous bear of all. Most children think of Winnie-thePooh as the mustard-yellow bear in the bafflingly small red shirt. But before Disney got hold of him, dear sweet Pooh was, of course, the creation of the British author A. A. Milne, whose inspiration was an actual black bear named Winnie at the London Zoo during World War I. ADOPTED AS AN ORPHANED cub by a Canadian Army veterinarian named Henry Colebourn, Winnie eventually sailed to England with the troops. The author Lindsay Mattick and the illustrator Sophie Blackall shared the story in their 2015 Caldecott Medal-winning "Finding Winnie." Now, Mattick (a great-granddaughter of Colebourn) has teamed with the author Josh Greenhut on Winnie's great war (Little, Brown, 227 pp., $16.99; ages8 to 12), a middle-grade novel, also illustrated by Blackall, that expands upon these events for a slightly older audience. This fleshed-out Winnie is very much a reflection of Milne's Pooh - a naive, openhearted creature with a great weakness for food and capacity for love. We get a range of dramatic scenes conjured by the authors, including Winnie's last moments with her mother (who utters "Be brave, my Bear!" before she's shot by a trapper) and the friendships she makes with squirrels, horses and a rat named Tatters. While the juxtaposition of cute talking animals and excerpts from Colebourn's actual diary entries is disorienting, the overall result is a work of undeniable charm. This is distinctively old-fashioned, gentle storytelling that children will enjoy hearing read aloud. And the photographs of the real Winnie at the end of the book are the clincher - a reminder that real animals can be more enchanting than any we've imagined. CATHERINE hong writes for publications including Architectural Digest and Martha Stewart Living, and blogs about children's books at mrslittle.com.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [July 11, 2019]
Review by Booklist Review

Billy Dickens isn't your typical tween unless your typical tween has a thing for rattlesnakes. His dad's been out of the picture for as long as he can remember, but when Billy gets ahold of his address Montana, not far from Yellowstone the savvy, brave oddball flies out there solo to track him down. What he finds instead is his stepsister, Summer Chasing-Hawks, and his dad's new wife, Little Thunder Sky, aka Lil, both Crow Indians. Unfortunately, his dad's not so easy to track down. As the story spans from Montana to Florida and back, Billy continues to find and lose his father, who's in a bit of a wild goose chase himself, hunting down rich-boy poacher Lincoln Chumley Baxter. As always, Hiaasen's latest is richly steeped in the natural world and all the peril it contains, from rattlers to grizzlies. Still, what may be most satisfying for readers are the personal connections Billy makes, whether it's getting to know his new stepsister or making peace with his dad. Hiaasen's fan base will relish his latest tale.--Jennifer Barnes Copyright 2018 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

The focus of the latest eco-adventure by Hiaasen (Chomp) is not an endangered animal but an elusive one: Billy Dickens's absent father. When Billy was three or four, his dad disappeared, though support checks still arrive monthly. Billy's mother, a bird lover, moves him and his older sister every few years so she can live within 15 minutes of an active eagle's nest. She's an otherwise responsible party, but she aggravates Billy in one other way: she refuses to share information about his father's whereabouts. Billy pieces together his dad's address in Montana after fishing bits of an envelope from the trash, and he uses his mother's credit card to book a flight there from Florida. (Mature beyond his years, he leaves a check from his own savings to cover airfare.) In Livingston, Billy meets his father's new wife and his stepsister, both members of the Crow Nation, and becomes embroiled in his father's well-intentioned but dangerous attempts to protect wildlife from trophy hunters. Billy is an admirable kid with deeply improbable snake-handling abilities, and the story never quite fulfills the promise of singularity offered in the opening scene, wherein Billy keeps people out of his school locker by placing an Eastern diamondback there. Ages 8-12. Agent: Esther Newberg, ICM. (Sept.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Horn Book Review

Billy Dickens accepts his mothers peripatetic ways as she moves all over Florida feeding her passion for living near nesting bald eagles. Such a lifestyle has made Billy somewhat of a loner, but one who bravely (and often cleverly) sticks up for underdogs such as a bullied classmate, misunderstood snakes, and at times even himself. Still, there is a hole in his life. Billys father left the familyunder mysterious circumstanceswhen his son was only four. Then Billy finds out his father lives in Montana and decides to make an impromptu visit. He discovers that his dad has a new family, a mysterious occupation, and something that had been preventing him from seeing Billy. That something is both dangerous and noble: his fathers job entails tracking down poachers who are killing threatened wildlife and stopping them. This time he sets his sights on a rich hunter who wants to kill both a Montana grizzly and a Florida black panther. The story moves back and forth between the two states, where in both settings readers are treated to an entertaining, pulse-pounding environmentalist story. In Hiaasens books, causes can sometimes overshadow characterization, but here readers meet nuanced characters undertaking a bold adventure, with enduring themes about family, the environment, and the end justifying the means. betty carter January/February 2019 p 90(c) Copyright 2018. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Billy Dickens is not the kind of kid who suffers bullies or poachers or absent parents.Billy's dad left when Billy was 3. Checks arrive on the 10th of every month, but Billy's mom destroys the envelopes to keep the return address from Billy. Shortly before summer vacation, Billy pieces one together and discovers his father's in Montana, so he leaves Florida to find him. Billy's tired of his mother's evasiveness about his fatherall he knows is that he's got a new wife and familyand Billy's ready for answers. In Montana, Billy meets Lil, his stepmother, and Summer, his stepsister, both members of the Crow Nation. But not his dad. Lil and Summer profess to know as little as his mother about his dad's actual job, but they don't mind having Billy wait with them for him to return (they even give him a little primer on U.S.-Native Nations relations). When his father's truck is found abandoned with slashed tires, they get a message via drone: "See you in Florida." Billy's had enough. He tracks his dad down, but that turns out to be just the beginning of his adventure. Hiaasen's newest wildlife-centered caper for middle graders is characteristically entertainingand, just as characteristically, genially improbable. Narrator Billy's white, a sarcastic outsider with a strong sense of justice and a deep affection for snakes. Humorous, self-deprecating narration and convoluted exploits will keep pages turning till the satisfying close. (Fiction. 9-14) Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

This one kid, he got kicked out of school.   That's not easy to do--you need to break some actual laws. We heard lots of rumors, but nobody gave us the straight story.   The kid's name was Jammer, and I got his locker.   Who knows what he kept in there, but he must've given out the combination to half the school. Kids were always messing with my stuff when I wasn't around.   So I put a snake inside the locker. Problem solved.   It was an Eastern diamondback, a serious reptile. Eight buttons on the rattle, so it made some big noise when people opened the locker door. The freak-out factor was high.   Don't worry--the rattlesnake couldn't bite. I taped its mouth shut. That's a tricky move, not for rookies. You need steady hands and zero common sense. I wouldn't try it again.   The point is I didn't want that rattler to hurt anyone. I just wanted kids to stay out of my locker.   Which they now do.   I set the diamondback free a few miles down Grapefruit Road, on the same log where I found him. It's important to exit the scene fast, because an adult rattlesnake can strike up to one-half of its body length. Most people don't know that, and why would they? It's not a necessary piece of information, if you live a halfway normal life.   Which I don't.       "What does your dad do?"   I hear this question whenever we move somewhere new.   My standard answer: "He runs his own business."   But the truth is I don't know what my father does. He sends a check, Mom cashes it. I haven't seen the guy since I was like three years old. Maybe four.   Does it bother me? Possibly. Sure.   I've done some reading about this, how it can mess up a person when his parents split, especially when one of them basically vanishes from the family scene. I don't want to be one of those screwed-up kids, but I can't rule out the possibility.   Mom doesn't say much about Dad. The checks always show up on time--the tenth of the month--and they never bounce. We might not be rich, but we're definitely not poor. You wouldn't believe how many pairs of shoes my sister owns. God, I give her so much grief.   The way I look at it, Mom doesn't get a free pass just because she doesn't want to talk about my father. That's not what you'd call a healthy, open approach to an issue. So I stay on her case, though not in a mean way.   "What does he do for a living?" I'll say, like I've never asked before.   "Well, Billy, I'm not exactly sure what he does," she'll begin in the same tight voice, "but I can tell you what he doesn't do."   Over time, based on my mother's commentary, I've scratched the following professions off my Phantom Father list:   Astronaut, quantum physicist, lawyer, doctor, heavy-metal guitarist, veterinarian, architect, hockey player, NASCAR driver, jockey, plumber, roofer, electrician, pilot, policeman, car salesman, and yoga instructor.   Mom says Dad's too claustrophobic to be an astronaut, too lousy at math to be a quantum physicist, too shy to be a lawyer, too squeamish to be a doctor, too uncoordinated to play the guitar, too tall to be a jockey, too hyper for yoga, and so on.   I don't like this game, but I'm making progress, information-wise. Mom's still touchy about the subject, so I try to take it easy. Meanwhile, my sister, Belinda, acts like she doesn't care, like she's not the least bit curious about the old man. This fake attitude is known as a "coping mechanism," according to what I've read.   Maybe my father is a psychiatrist, and one day I'll lie down on his couch and we'll sort out all this stuff together. Or not.   At school I try to keep a low profile. When you move around as much as my family does, making friends isn't practical. Leaving is easier if there's no one to say goodbye to. That much I've learned.   But sometimes you're forced to "interact." There's no choice. Sometimes staying low-profile is impossible.   The last week of school, some guy on the lacrosse team starts pounding on a kid in the D-5 hallway. Now, this kid happens to be a dork, no question, but he's harmless. And the lacrosse player outweighs him by like forty pounds. Still, a crowd is just standing around watching this so-called fight, which is really just a mugging. There are dudes way bigger than me, major knuckle-draggers, cheering and yelling. Not one of them makes a move to stop the beating.   So I throw down my book bag, jump on Larry Lacrosse, and hook my right arm around his neck. Pretty soon his face goes purple and his eyes bulge out like a constipated bullfrog's. That's when a couple of his teammates pull me off, and one of the P.E. teachers rushes in to break up the tangle. Nobody gets suspended, not even a detention, which is typical.   The dorky kid, the one who was getting pounded, I didn't know his name. The lacrosse guy turns out to be a Kyle something. We've got like seven Kyles at our school, and I can't keep track of them all. This one comes up to me later, between sixth and seventh period, and says he's going to kick my butt. Then one of his friends grabs his arm and whispers, "Easy, dude. That's the psycho with the rattler in his locker."   I smile my best psycho smile, and Kyle disappears. Big tough jock who likes to beat up kids half his size. Pathetic.   But lots of people are terrified of snakes. It's called ophidiophobia. The experts say it's a deep primal fear. I wouldn't know.   During seventh period I get pulled out of class by the school "resource officer," which is what they call the sheriff's deputy who hangs out in the main office. His name is Thickley, and technically he's in charge of campus security. He's big and friendly, cruising toward retirement. Excerpted from Squirm by Carl Hiassen All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.