Thursday, August 2, 2012

Review: Chomp by Carl Hiaasen

Chomp by Carl Hiaasen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Carl Hiaasen started out writing for newspapers, then he wrote some gritty tales with dark humor, and now he's writing YA. It seemed like an odd transition to me then, and his previous attempts (Hoot, Flush, and Scat) have seemed a bit cutesy. With this one, though, it feels like he's finally comfortable writing for a preteen audience, and he winds up with an entertaining tale about the illusion of reality TV, and how nature is pretty but mean.

In Chomp, Mickey Cray takes a job, through his son, Wahoo, working for a reality nature show with a Steve Irwin wannabe. Derek Badger (not his real name) is stupid and clumsy, and his impressive survivalist stunts are entirely staged. The Crays own a property with a lot of tamed wildlife, the showcase of which is a 12-foot alligator named Alice.

I've read a lot of books with characters who share my name, by the way. This is the first literary Alice I've liked without reservation.

Derek Badger gets it into his head that he wants to go out into the Everglades and meet wild animals to add a level of realism to the show, after Alice nearly drowns him for trying to ride her like a pony. (That is not a euphemism. This is YA.)

Of course, this goes disastrously, and the TV crew is transformed into a search party in due time. Meanwhile, Wahoo brings with him a friend named Tuna, whose drunkard father slogs out with a gun to collect his daughter.

The book moves at a good clip, and there are several plot threads running throughout that tighten the tension. I cared what happened to these characters, even the doofuses, and I wondered if Hiaasen was dark enough to kill off good guys in a YA.

This is the first YA I've read in a while that felt like it was set today, with real characters. The cultural references were current, and they sounded natural coming out of the characters' mouths. Adults are clueless about the utility of cellphones, but the kids text like crazy, use Skype, and google up the scientific names for animals. Maybe it'll seem dated in another few years, but it added a touch of realism I really enjoyed.

The characters are all unique to this book, but they're still Carl Hiaasen staples. Mickey Cray plays the heroic nutcase, Derek Badger plays the big dope who's in over his head, Jared Gordon plays the dangerous lunatic, and Wahoo Cray and Tuna Gordon play the plucky kids necessary to call this YA. They're all interesting characters, for the most part, and most of them have a back story and motivations beyond making people's lives more complicated. The scenes where Mickey Cray undermines Derek Badger while barely lifting a finger are some of the most amusing.

Overall, I felt like Hiaasen finally has this whole YA thing figured out, with this book.

A note about the edition: I listened to this on audio, with James Van Der Beek narrating. While there were places I found his delivery a little strange, for the most part, I found his voice soothing and melodic. He should read more audio books.

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