It’s a Savage World: Don Winslow’s SAVAGES & Carl Hiaasen’s STAR ISLAND

We’ve had gorgeous weather here in SoCal so you’d think I’d be outside doing outdoorsy stuff, right? Wrong. OK, maybe I spent a couple days outside. Rest of the time, I’ve been a good little nerd, catching up on reading while sitting at my window seat, basking in some secondhand rays. Here’s a couple I finished:

Savages by Don Winslow

Ben, a “Baddhist” (bad Buddhist), and Chon, a vet of two tours in our current war, have gotten rich doing what they love: get high. Chon brought home premium seeds from “Stanland” (Afghanistan) which Ben cultivated into potent blends sold by happy dealers for whom the benevolent Ben even provides health care. Life is good until the Baja Cartel decides to muscle in on their business and kidnaps O, their mutual gal pal, to make sure the boys obey. Big mistake, because Ben and Chon, who suffers from PTLOSD (Post-Traumatic Lack of Stress Disorder), show they can be David to the Goliathan cartel, igniting an explosive series of events that leave more than a few people dead.

If you’re thinking “Drug dealers? No, thanks,” consider this: Winslow is expert at making you care for people you probably wouldn’t want to know in real life. A theme that pops up in many of his books is brotherhood, the unbreakable bond between friends. Ben, O (short for Ophelia), and Chon might do questionable things but what you do unto one, you do unto all. I like books that challenge my worldview and make me a little less judgmental, if only towards fictional characters and situations.

Winslow has a distinctive rhythmic style I find lean, mean, compelling. Here’s how he tells about a lesson Chon (Little Johnny) learned when he was three:

Big John lifted Little Johnny up to the living room fireplace mantel, held his arms out, and told him to jump. “I’ll catch you.”

Delighted, smiling, the little boy launched himself off the mantel, at which point Big John lowered his arms, did an ole, and Little Johnny crashed face-first on the floor. Dazed, hurt, bleeding from the mouth where a front tooth had gone into his lip, Chon learned the lesson his father had intended about trust:




Did I mention the book is also funny? It’s dark humor, sure, but there’s levity among the violence. And the dialogue is so hip, you feel a little more gangsta after reading.

It’s no surprise Oliver Stone snapped up the movie rights since the action is cinematic and some of the scenes are actually written in script format. Stone had better not eff it up or I’ll get all Chonny on his ass.

Nerd verdict: Fierce Savages

(For more on Winslow, including coverage of a recent SoCal appearance, check out my friend le0pard13’s three-part article here.)

Buy Savages from Amazon| B&N| Powell’s| IndieBound

Star Island by Carl Hiaasen

Cherry Pye is a spoiled pop star whose penchant for partying and drugs forces her management team, which includes her mother, to hire a double to make the public think Cherry is out and about whenever she’s actually unconscious or getting her stomach pumped at a hospital. A tenacious paparazzo, Bang Abbott, accidentally kidnaps Ann the stand-in then tries to negotiate her release in exchange for getting an exclusive one-on-one photo session with Cherry. When Cherry’s mom doesn’t call the cops, fearing her stunt-double scheme would be exposed, Ann calls a homeless man named Skink to come rescue her. A recurring character in Hiaasen’s books, Skink is a former Florida governor now determined to keep greedy developers from ruining the “cherished wild places of his childhood.” He’d also previously held Ann hostage for a short time but long enough to become smitten with her. He sets off to rescue Ann in Miami, Cherry continues her destructive ways, the hapless Bang thinks he’s getting what he wants but in the end, everyone gets what they pretty much deserve.

From that synopsis alone, you can probably tell this is an over-the-top story with wacky characters. Besides the aforementioned ones, there’s a bodyguard named Chemo with a weed whacker for a hand, a manager with a taste for jailbait, and chain-smoking twin publicists who have had so much plastic surgery their faces don’t move. None of these people have ethics or any other redeeming qualities; this book could have also been called Savages. But unlike Winslow’s characters, there’s no one here to really root for. Ann is probably the most relatable but considering the cast of crazies, she’s in that position by default. She seems decent enough but too passive and ambivalent to be the hero.

Hiassen is a gifted writer capable of combining wicked satire and topical issues. His previous novels have often provoked thought while making me laugh out loud. This time the targets of his parody—fame whores, their grubby hangers-on, greedy lying bastards, unethical politicians—have become so ridiculous in real life, the author can’t outdo them in outrageousness. As I read about Cherry’s sordid adventures involving pills, booze and impulsive tattoos, it felt like reading a tabloid about all of Paris/Lindsay/Britney’s bad behavior. It’s not funny or even satire when it’s too close to reality. I found Cherry’s life and much of the book sad, which was probably not Hiaasen’s intention.

Nerd verdict: Star lacks power

Buy Star Island from Amazon| B&N| Powell’s| IndieBound

What are you reading this weekend? Anything you recommend?



  • Reply
    August 6, 2010 at 6:57 am

    Great reviews! You’re so right about Don Winslow and SAVAGES, Elyse. That rhythmic style is very much in evidence in how he wrote the new book (and in its formatting on the page). It sounds very much like this and STAR ISLAND were a great pair to read together. Thanks for the book reviews, and, thank you very much for the shout-out. You’re are kind and generous, as always.

  • Reply
    August 6, 2010 at 7:03 am

    You nailed it with the comment about Winslow making us care about characters we otherwise wouldn’t. O, for example, is an archetype of modern America that I feel compelled by a knee-jerk reaction to not like at all, yet I loved her in this book. Same with a couple of the villains. Just a great book all the way around.

  • Reply
    August 6, 2010 at 10:09 am

    Always love whatever Winslow wants to get published. His style fits me to at “T”. Wish there were more writers like him out there. I picked Savages the other day and am already halfway through. It’s awesome.

    As for the Carl Hiassen’s Star Island. I get exactly what you are saying. I picked it up and just felt like I was reading the latest edition of CNN’s Headline News rather than watching it. I wish these Lindsays/Kardashians/Britneys people would just go away, not invade the literary world by becoming part of books as well. I couldn’t read past chapter one. Not Hiassen’s fault for what passes for news in the media, but I wish he would have ignored this particular group when it came to picking his subject matter.

  • Reply
    August 6, 2010 at 11:13 am

    SAVAGES is sitting in my TBR que. When Brian started reading it, he laughed, handed it to me and said to read Chapter 1 real quick. Ha!! How can you not want to read on further after that? Love Don Winslow!

  • Reply
    Shell Sherree
    August 6, 2010 at 9:58 pm

    How did you know?! I was thinking, “Drug dealers? No thanks.” {I don’t watch Weeds either.} But I trust your reviews, PCN, so if I miraculously motor through the rest of my queue, I’ll go for a walk on the wild side with Savages.

  • Reply
    Naomi Johnson
    August 7, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    Don’t go all Chonny on me, I’m loving SAVAGES!

  • Reply
    Pop Culture Nerd
    August 7, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    le0pard13—You wrote the book on kind and generous.

    Chris—Drug dealers and aimless, vacuous girls are usually at the bottom of my list of characters I care about. Winslow’s ability to make me like the leads is why I’m such a big fan of his work.

    EIREGO—I agree it’s not Hiaasen’s fault some real celebs are even more ridiculous than his characters.

    Christine—Yes, that first chapter is attention-grabbing!

    Shell—If Winslow’s name wasn’t on the cover, I’d be thinking that exact same thing. But I’ve learned to ignore whatever/whomever his books are about, knowing he could make me love a story about lint.

    Naomi—OK, I’ll put down the toolkit since you’re loving it.

  • Reply
    Natalie @ Coffee and a Book Chick
    August 8, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    I tend to find all of Hiassen’s books hilarious but also sad to a certain extent because of the social commentary — he always makes sure to incorporate the true reality of it all even though he’s making such fun of it. When I read Skinny Dip, the story on the surface was all about a woman who was thrown over a cruise ship by her dumb biologist husband but who survived. She ended up doing what she could to drive him nuts, but the *real* story was about the destruction of the Everglades because of the drainage of chemicals from farms. It was really sad to read about the corruption that was slowly killing an amazing part of Florida’s history. I can’t wait to read another one of his books!

  • Reply
    August 9, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Just finished Winslow’s SAVAGES. It was a great read. My only regret is that I had to put it down to eat and go to the bathroom!

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