Skink is the latest book by Carl Hiaasen for younger readers, as opposed to his usual, adult crime fiction novels. My children and I have read every one of Hiaasen’s offerings so far, and loved them all, with the exception of Flush, which we found not up to his usual standards. Skink is so new that it is still out in hard back, but we were desperate to read more of his stuff and consequently I was despatched to buy it at any price. You can imagine that I was hoping with all digits crossed that it would live up to expectation.
I am happy to say that it indeed does. In this story we see Hiaasen on fine form, telling the story through the narration of teenage Richard, a young man whose best friend and cousin, the strong headed, Malley, has disappeared with a man she met on the internet.
Richard is terrified for her, and rightly so. Malley believes she is strong, clever and smart. She believes she is completely in control of her own destiny and will be able to get herself out of any scrape. She is a bit of a hell raiser, but this time she has bitten off more than she can chew. It turns out that she is not quite as in control as she thought she was, and her running away makes her incredibly vulnerable and puts her in enormous danger.
Richard teams up with an aged eco warrior called Skink who he meets on the beach, trying to protect rare turtle nests from being looted by unscrupulous greed heads. Skink, it turns out, is quite a character, and he and Richard set off into the wilds of Florida to help find Malley.
Hiaasen always writes with a passionate interest in saving the ecology of Florida, which is something my children always enjoy reading about. This time, rather than it being at the forefront of the book, which it was to a large extent in Flush, it is there, but more as a secondary narrative. This works better for us, as the thriller style, race against time tension of the primary narrative really pulls you along as the reader, and as much as the spotting of rare woodpeckers is interesting, you really want it as an aside rather than the meat of a chapter.
The thing that makes this book sing out is the character of Skink. I am aware that he features in some of Hiaasen’s best loved adult books, and some reviewers on Amazon have complained that this watered down version of Skink ‘lite’ is no good. I would say that having just read this to a group of eager children ranging in age from 16 to 8, he was a smash hit, and they absolutely loved him, watered down or not.
The humour element is strong in this book, and it helps balance out the fact that this is the darkest of his books for children so far. The issues he deals with are interesting in that they are very relevant to teenagers today. The cyber stalking, internet chat room, and online problems in the book are well handled and should really make children think before they embark on this kind of adventure, and some of them do.
We teach internet safety in primary schools now, and this book, despite the darkness, only hints at the things that Malley has had to endure and because it is not graphic, and has no swearing in it, and the violence is handled in a reasonably humorous way, it could be used for a Year Six (aged 11) primary audience alongside teaching other aspects of internet safety.
Malley is my least favourite character. She is selfish, self absorbed, heedless of the danger she puts herself and others in, and emotionally out of control. I found her very difficult to like, but thinking about her in terms of my review I think she worked well as a vehicle for teaching more self assured children who think they are perhaps more mature than they are, that they are not necessarily as invulnerable as they might think.