Saturday, September 30, 2006

Absolutely DROWNING in spies! (KIKI STRIKE)

Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller
4Q 4P M/J

Of all the girl spy books, this is the one that's getting the notice and getting the raves. Maybe I'm more lukewarm on it than others because it was the third in the genre that I read pretty much right in a row. It's a good idea to mix things up a little so that books stand out from each other and things don't run together so much, and I didn't do that well this time. There is a lot to like about this book. It's just that it didn't stand out for me the way I expected it to after hearing so many excellent reviews of it.

Ananka Fishbein 's life changes the day she looks out the window of her New York City apartment to see that a sinkhole has appeared in the park next door. She also sees a small figure crawling out of the hole. The small figure turns and waves to her. It's a girl! Ananka has to know more about that girl and the sinkhole. She runs downstairs to explore the hole and discovers a hidden door that she eventually learns leads to the Shadow City. What's the Shadow City? It's a city of passages, tunnels, and secret rooms that lead all over the city. What's down there? Dead bodies, rats (big ones!), and treasure. But Ananka doesn't learn any of that until she discovers who the girl is: Kiki Strike.

Kiki, it turns out, is a student in her own school, but Ananka has never noticed her before. That's a surprising, because Kiki has the kind of looks that make her stand out in a crowd: she's only about four feet tall (but she's at least fourteen) and she has absolutely white hair. She also carries herself with a confidence few other teens can match. Kiki soon introduces Ananka to several girls with unusual talents: there's Betty (a master of disguise), Luz (an electronics genius), Dee Dee (a chemist who's great at explosives), and Oona (an excellent forger and thief). Together they form the Irregulars, and together they explore the Shadow City. All of those unusual skills come in very handy when you're doing something you don't want anyone else to know you're doing.

But Kiki has secrets she isn't telling the others, and when one of their explorations ends in disaster, Kiki disappears and the Irregulars break up. But that's not the end of the story. Ananka keeps getting glimpses and information that lead her to believe the Kiki hasn't gone far. Two years later, Kiki is back, and this time, things are serious. Kiki doesn't need them just to map out and explore the Shadow City. This time, teenage girls are disappearing, and the Irregulars know why and what the kidnappers want. They also know they have the means and skills to get the girls back and stop the kidnappers. But they don't know everything. And they most definitely don't know everything they need to know about Kiki Strike.

This book is chock full of girl power and advice for would-be spies that just happens to be potentially useful in real life, too. Check out the end of most of the chapters for items such as:

"The Benefit of the Doubt: Most people are willing to give young girls the benefit of the doubt. Girls are too sweet and innocent, they think, to be up to no good. A clever story--generally one involving a missing kitten--can get you out of trouble in nine out of ten situations. Remember, a tear or two will make any tale more believable." (page 16)

"Duct Tape: Take a roll with you whenever you travel. It can be used to immobilize criminals, fix essential equipment, and make a cute skirt if you're in a bind." (page 86)

You've got to like a book that can mix strong characters, a sense of humor, and adventure and do it well. This book does. Really. I admit it, it's not ever going to be on my favorite books list, and it's not likely to wind up on my Top Five or Top Ten of 2006 list (as it has appeared on others' lists already). But I will happily recommend it to readers who enjoyed the Sammy Keyes books and to kids who like interesting characters doing interesting things.

Spies, Spies, and More Spies!

Girl spy book #2: I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You by Ally Carter

I liked this book, too, but it's less focused on actual spying than it is on how difficult it is to conduct a romance when you're a teenage spy in training.

One of the things that's most fun about this book is the description of the Gallagher School for Girls, which is where the story takes place. We just don't know the half of it out here in the "real" world. For instance, who knew about the first assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln? You know (well, no, I guess you don't!), the one foiled by Gillian Gallagher, who killed the assassin with a sword. Who knew someone once planted a bomb in the White House that a Gallagher Girl defused...with her teeth? The Gallagher School is deep undercover, as befits a school for spies. The locals think it's a school for rich, spoiled girls. It is very, very exclusive. But every now and then, someone breaches the defenses one way or the other. When that happens, as it does when a senator, his cosmetic heiress wife, and their very, very disaffected daughter, Macey pull up to the front gates, a Code Red sounds. Instantly, walls turn around, displays disappear into the floor to be replaced by something more innocuous (sports trophies and the like), "Vote for Emily" banners appear, and so on. We learn later on that the school has numerous secret passages, too, also befitting a school for spies. The girls' curriculum is, of course, geared to those things that spies need in order to get by: foreign languages, Culture and Assimilation, Countries of the World (COW), Covert Operations (the professor is seriously hot), and P&E (Protection and Enforcement). In short, this school is just plain fun to picture, and the description of the Code Red and the various courses help set the tone for the rest of the book. Which it might be a good idea for me to finally get around to talking about!

Cammie Morgan is the fifteen-year-old daughter of the school's headmistress. She speaks fourteen languages fluently, including Portuguese, Mandarin, and Farsi, and she knows seven different ways to kill a person, one involving a piece of dry spaghetti. She's known as the Chameleon, because she has a real talent for blending in to the background. She has two good friends, Bex and Liz. Since Cammie, Bex, and Liz are long on spy knowledge and short on boy knowledge, the addition of Macey (reluctantly, on both sides of the equation) to their group becomes important, since Macey, while totally lacking in spy knowledge, is a fount of information on boys.

Remember that seriously hot Covert Operations professor I mentioned earlier? The caper begins when he assigns Cammie, Bex, and Liz to tail one of their professors to a local street fair and determine what he drinks with his funnel cake. This professor is so paranoid that he gets plastic surgery every year to completely change his looks, so their chances of succeeding on this mission are about zero. Sure enough, Bex and Liz get spotted almost immediately. But Cammie, chameleon that she is, manages to evade the professor's notice. She does not, however, escape the notice of a very cute boy, who happens to find her just as she's taking the professor's Dr. Pepper bottle out of the trash can. If Josh were a master villain, Cammie would have no trouble taking him on. But he's a fifteen-year-old boy who's a cross between a young George Clooney and Orlando Bloom, so Cammie's tongue-tied and awkward. She manages to blurt out that the bottle is for her cat, Suzie, who likes to play with bottles (lie!). When he says he'll see her at school, she can't think what to say, leaving him with the impression she's home schooled for religious reasons. (lie! But she can't tell him where she really goes to school, of course!) And, oh yeah, she just barely remembers to tell him her name and get his. She's so addled by Josh that all she really knows is that she really, really wants to see him again. But that's easier said than done. All of her spy skills are going to be needed here, not just to see him again, but also because it's possible that Josh isn't who or what he says he is. Is he just a cute teenage boy, or is he really an enemy agent trying to compromise the school? The girls don't know, but for the sake of true love, they're determined to find out. The rest of the book revolves around how Cammie can sneak out of school (this is a spy school, so that's supposed to be difficult) to meet Josh and how she can avoid letting him figure out her real story.

This is another fun book, but definitely one that goes over the top here and there. This is a top-notch spy school, but one of the professors is seriously deficient in any kind of spy skills (I guess he's a desk man, not a field operator!). Another professor we don't really meet is apparently a scientific genius, but very prone to having major explosions and other catastrophes in his lab. That's really fun to read about, but it leaves you wondering how good he really is. And Cammie seems to be able to sneak in and out of the school at will, despite the fact that this school is supposed to be loaded with every kind of security device and run by experts in their fields. These top operatives don't know how to keep a proper eye on teenage girls? They'd surely know all the tricks, and they ought to know at least as much about the secret passages as Cammie does. But no, these adults are clueless. According to, this book has been optioned for the movies. It'll be interesting to see what they do with it. I hope they don't dumb it down the way they did The Princess Diaries and Ella Enchanted.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

There are spies EVERYWHERE!

I have recently read Michael Spradlin's SPY GODDESS #1: Live and Let Shop and Ally Carter's I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You, and I am almost finished with Kirsten Miller's Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City. Wow. Spy books for girls! It's funny that all three have come out at the same time, when there probably haven't been three other spy girl titles published in the last three years. Anyhow, I'll be happy to recommend all three, though they all address the issue a little differently and the three might not all satisfy the same reader.

First, Spradlin's Spy Goddess. I might be in the minority, but frankly, I think I enjoyed this one the most. Rachel Buchanan, the protagonist, has a smart mouth (which is one of the many reasons she's in big trouble as the book begins), and it makes her fun to read. Rachel's the daughter of wealthy parents who (stereotypically) don't have the time or interest to pay her any attention. Consequently, Rachel has been upping the ante for a while now, hanging out with kids who are bad news, shoplifting, joyriding, anything to get the attention and the goat of her parents. When Rachel and her friends are caught joyriding (the friends take off), Rachel is sentenced to at least a year at Blackthorn Academy, a private school on the East Coast. If she doesn't stick it out, she'll get a year in Juvie instead. Rachel's pretty sure she's not going to stick around, and when she gets to Blackthorn, she's certain: no Internet? No phone? PE every day?! She's outathere! But her escape attempt is foiled by a sprained ankle (wrist?), confusing woods, and the headmaster, Mr. Kim. Mr. Kim puzzles Rachel. He seems to know everything about her (and even what she's thinking), and nothing she says or does pisses him off, even when she's trying her very hardest. He convinces her to give the school a one month trial. Despite herself, Rachel agrees.

Blackthorn Academy is not like most schools. All the kids have some connection to the justice system, there's a top-secret off-limits floor, and the classes are in things like Code Theory, microelectronics, and the martial arts. Rachel is a little intrigued, and she does make a couple of friends. But still, at the end of the month, she decides she's heading back to California, even if it does mean Juvie. She's on her way down to tell Mr. Kim so when the weirdness gets racheted up a couple of notches. The FBI are in the school, talking to Mr. Kim, who doesn't look happy. Then Mr. Kim disappears. Well, Rachel is not one to let her curiosity go unsatisfied. She's determined to figure out what's going on and what happened to Mr. Kim. This leads her and her friends to a secret passage, a secret room, and the biggest secret of all: somebody named Mithras is out to take over the world, and they've just put a major wrench in his plans. And he doesn't like that one bit. Game on!

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I liked the blend of humor and tension. Is it realistic? No. Is the plot a little thin? Yes. Is the villain paper thin and stereotypically whacko? Yes. But I didn't care. Rachel and Mr. Kim are interesting characters I'd like to read more about (Rachel's friends need more development, which I think might be coming in book two). And just when you want to roll your eyes at something Rachel says or does, she does it for you with a snarky comment. All in all, it was a quick and fun read that I happily recommend. I will be ordering the next in the series.

This is really long, so I'll post about the other two books separately.

BECOMING CHLOE - final thoughts (at last!)

Okay, I guess it's time for me to finish up my thoughts on this book! But I guess it's a good sign that almost three months later, I can still remember a lot about the book and why I liked it. There are books I finish that I can't talk about three days later.

I liked this book a lot. I liked it enough to recommend it to several people and to pass the title on to one of the high school media specialists, in the hopes that they'll add it to their summer reading list. I know the first part of the book might cause eyebrows to raise, but I hope people who might do so read the whole book before they react to it one way or the other. My teen book discussion group is interested in reading it, so in a few months, I'll get to hear some feedback. (One of them is a girl I already recommended it to, and she helped convince the group it was worth reading.)

I love the sense of hope that this book gives. These two kids have had some rotten things happen to them, and you know it would be easy for them both to give up all hope. I love that he doesn't give up hope, and I love that not only does he help Chloe find the beauty in life, but that she is open to finding it. Yes, some might say this book is too simplistic, that it paints too rosy a picture. I don't care. I love the thought of somebody going through a really rough spot, finding this book, and finding some comfort and hope in it. And I think that that will happen. Catherine Ryan Hyde is paying it forward when she writes books like this.