Archive for the ‘Spy’ category

United We Spy by Ally Carter

October 18th, 2013

I’ve folowed the series from start to finish now, which is tough when trying to keep up with so many series being launched each month in YA fiction. Part of it is because of Ally’s visit to our school when the series first started out, but part of it is that the series has stayed classy without resorting to too many trends or gimmicks. It’s been about spies and sisterhood, and that continued through to the end.

While there are many girl power moments in the book, I appreciated when Cammie realized that Zach had friends – that not every aspect of his life revolves around her. That’s been true of Cammie, which has been so refreshing. The books haven’t really been about getting the boy and, despite some fan complaints, Zach is not Cammie’s main protector. It’s all about the Gallagher Girls.

What’s great is seeing that tradition pass on to the younger girls of the academy. My students that were at Ally’s visit to our school have now graduated high school. They are now outside in the wide open world and, much like the Gallagher Girls, must decide what to do with the rest of their lives. One important transition is understanding the need to train up the next generation, to give back. Cammie matured throughout the series, no doubt about that, but matured in ways that matter. Again, I can’t stress enough how much I appreciated that the romance plotline was present but was not Cammie’s main hero journey.

The Circle of Cavan is still at it and the Gallagher Girls must stop chaos from erupting around the world. Having read the whole series from start to finish, it was pretty cool seeing details from the other five books show up, whether it was antagonists popping up again or Cammie reliving a moment from the first book but from a different perspective. I also appreciated the title. I know how much Ally struggled with following up I’d Tell You I Love You, but Then I’d Have to Kill You, but United We Spy is the perfect wrapping up of the series in both title and plot. The last three chapters read like a season finale of Alias, which is great because Ally has mentioned that Alias made her question what it would look like to train a whole school of spies. I could hear the theme music playing and then the fade to black as the credits roll.

Ally, nice job on the series. I know that you don’t need my approval, but it takes some skill to maintain a six book series and I’m glad that I was there to see the whole thing play out.

Insignia by S.J. Kincaid

July 3rd, 2013

Before she became a writer, S.J. Kincaid interned with a politician in Washington, D.C. and you know that had to influence Insignia, her debut novel. It’s set in a future where corporations have more power than nations and war has become so distant and sanitized that teens are the ones fighting the battles via drones. The threat of a neutron bomb and mutually assured destruction keeps warfare civil.

Tom is recruited a la The Last Starfighter to train in the Pentagon (now a spire like something out of Ender’s Game) and escape his troubled home situation. It’s a fun adventure and, on the surface, is a lighthearted sci-fi story with enjoyable character interactions. I found myself laughing out loud multiple times and that’s rare for me.

But there’s another layer to Insignia, one that challenges what modern warfare really means and what the whole point is. Behind the scenes are employees of megacorporations trying to woo combatants to fight for them. Imagine if the U.S. Army was sponsored by Wal-Mart (with Wal-Mart’s two million employees) and the Navy was run by McDonald’s (where every fish in the sea contained genetically engineered McFish DNA). The great thing, though, is that it’s not preachy and addresses it in an accessible manner.

The tech is pretty cool, too. Each character is introduced with name, rank, and IP address popping up in Tom’s vision. Computer programming takes center stage for a bit, but it either produces humorous or dangerous results, so I don’t think a non-programmer audience will be bogged down by it. I like to code, though, so I may be biased. (Really, the programming action reminded me of the wizard duels in Harry Potter.)

While many parts reminded me of other stories, Insignia‘s a brilliant combination of those different elements told through Kincaid’s honest voice. It’s definitely worth a read and a copy or two on the shelf.

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy

July 10th, 2012

I have not seen much Cold War fiction for middle grade students. For nonfiction, I definitely recommend The Dark Game. I was intrigued instantly by the premise of The Apothecary: a young girl’s family is accused of being Communist, so they flee to England where she meets up with a mysterious apothecary.

The first few chapters of the book meet my expectations for spies. The main characters are caught up in watching for information exchanges, secret handshakes, and scary intelligence agents from East Berlin. The apothecary and his cohorts have made amazing breakthroughs in chemistry that will greatly impact the growing nuclear threat. Yes, sign me up.

Then the kids turn into birds. (This explains the birds on the cover, which I thought were some symbol for innocence or whatever and in no way the actual main characters of the book. Nope. The kids are birds.) The story shifted dramatically for me there and I remember being disappointed that magic realism had to be thrown in. So many middle grade novels resort to magic and I was looking for something new.

On the positive, the main character is not some chosen one from an ancient civilization/order. At least we don’t have to rehash that trope – as far as I know, since this book follows another trend of setting up a series. “I will return.” Yep. This is just book one.

The Cold War paranoia and the politics of nuclear weapons is portrayed really well and makes it worth the read. There was enough action to keep readers interested; it wasn’t a bunch of people spouting off ideologies. It’s a good book that I know students will enjoy. The ones that have read it have said so. I just wish it didn’t follow the alchemy trend of books like This Dark Endeavor and others that are out right now. It’s tougher to write a book where you have to think through a character’s escape and not simply resort to, “They drink a potion and everything’s swell.”

Out of Sight, Out of Time by Ally Carter

March 14th, 2012

“And I remembered ‘normal’ might never be the same again.”

That, in a sentence, is the theme of the series and the core idea woven throughout the entire plot of the fifth book in the Gallagher Girls series. Cammie Morgan is a senior in a high school for spies. She still worries about what boys think and if her friends like her, but now more than ever her bigger worry is why people are trying to kill her.

Students and adults who have talked to me about what they enjoy about the series always share one common factor: Ally Carter’s ability to expertly portray the voice of a teenaged girl. Not once does Cammie sound unauthentic. What’s really cool is that, in book five, the importance of loyalty to sisterhood is emphasized and plays an important role at key plot points. A number of students I’ve talked with have been let down/ignored/backstabbed by friends and to have a main character who remains loyal even through conflict is promising.

Cammie’s view of herself is also challenged in book five. What makes her special is her ability to blend in, earning the nickname “Cammie the Chameleon”. Within the first few pages of the most current book, her concept of herself is thrown out the window and she has to figure out anew who she is. Yes, that’s a common theme in YA novels, but there’s a reason. During junior high and high school, students are trying to figure out who they are. Ally Carter continues to explore Cammie’s perception of herself without it being redundant or too conceited.

I’m a fan of spy stories. Alex Rider was one of the first book series that got me hooked on YA. The issue with having a main character as a spy is that he or she will be put in life or death situations. Spies sometimes use guns in those situations. What I appreciated in Out of Time is that an instructor says that a spy needs to know about guns but that “…weapons make you lazy”. Keen senses are what keep you alive. Ally Carter, Batman applauds you. (And, as I’m sure you’re aware, George Clooney once played Batman.)(Even though I like to block that from my memory.)(Do I hear music?)

Just like how when people talk about Hunger Games, they talk about other stories that had arena fighting first, Out of Sight had elements found in Bourne Identity and Chuck. The key, though, is in taking those elements and remixing them to make something new in the context of the Gallagher Girls. It’s something that I realized when I read the gazillionth dystopian book or superhero story (and yet still enjoyed Legend, Divergent, and The Unwanteds). The spy stuff that happens in Out of Sight is the next logical progression, which is a good thing, and is rewarding for fans of the series.

Students like an antagonist to cheer against and we definitely have that in book five. There is a ton of information revealed about character backstories, which should make longtime fans of the series happy. There are also references to conversations and lessons from book one, which is great at unifying the series. I also appreciated the fact that the school library was integral to the plot.

Side note: readers who have family in the military will appreciate when Cammie says, “When in doubt, find a marine.” I think I may have also caught a Brennan-Black author duo reference in there.

The series needs no recommendation from me, but I give it. It’s been a fun new tradition to read the books while on Summer/Spring Break. I started it at 10 this morning and finished it a little before 10 tonight. It was an enjoyable read and has a great lead into the sixth and maybe final (Cammie is a senior, after all) book of the series. Librarians, you know what to do. Stock up.

For a history of real spies in the United States, check out The Dark Game.

The Dark Game by Paul B. Janeczko

March 8th, 2012

The Dark Game is a history of spying in the United States, from current FBI moles all the way back to the Culper spy ring that helped the U.S. defeat the British in the Revolutionary War.

Now, it’s not tough to make a book about spies interesting. The Dark Game is no exception. The short histories are the perfect length to give details about the person or events but not so long that they take away from the rest of the book.

Janeczko has done his research. I checked the bibliography for more books that I want to read. The details that he has included are not just the same old stories that I had read before, even though I was familiar with most of the events described. It’s the little details, like a photo of Juan Pujol‘s imaginary spy network (which is really funny…you have to read about it), that make history engaging and remind us that this stuff actually happened.

The Dark Game is definitely worth the purchase and fits well with the current push for more nonfiction in the library.

The Cuckoo’s Egg by Cliff Stoll

April 26th, 2011

Cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and expect someone else to raise their young. In The Cuckoo’s Egg by Cliff Stoll, astronomer-turned-sysadmin Stoll discovers 75 cents worth of computer time on a spreadsheet unaccounted for in the user logs. Someone logged in, but there’s an error. Like any good scientist, Stoll picks apart the computer code and sees that it’s working just fine. As he digs deeper, he realizes that a hacker has been in Berkeley Astronomy Labs.

Stoll’s conflict between freedom and order, between his college radical roots and his admin duties, is what creates the character development and makes Stoll a relatable narrator. This is a true story of a computer crime case that happened in 1986. Stoll published the book in 1990 and has many details from his logbooks included in the story.

I can remember being online for the first time in 1994. I had a teacher who ran a bulletin board service and I dialed in my 2400 baud modem to connect directly to his computer. The Cuckoo’s Egg is great for tech nostalgia. Usually I want a tech book that is extremely current, but sometimes it is important to see our roots. The epilogue is my favorite part as Stoll recalls a new threat: a worm embedding and spreading across the Arpanet, the Internet’s grandpa.

This, kids, is a floppy disk. This particular one holds tech-deadly source code.

Even if you’re not a total computer fanatic, there are parts to enjoy about the book. I do feel, though, that having a decent knowledge of computing greatly enhances the suspense when you’re able to appreciate the nontraditional techniques the astronomer uses to capture a hacker who has ties to a high-powered government agency.

Trackers by Patrick Carman

June 28th, 2010

Students know how much I enjoyed Skeleton Creek and Ghost in the Machine. Back in 2008, before the books came out, I had heard about the mix of video and print and knew it was going to be a hit at our school. I feel like Patrick Carman took a risk with the format of Skeleton Creek and now people are copying the pioneer.

What I love to see is an author that continues to improve throughout their career. Trackers is proof that Carman still takes his craft seriously.

This is a caution to students, though – don’t sit down expecting ghosts to jump out at you. I did and it took me a couple of videos to realize that Trackers has a different tone. It’s the story of a high tech team of teenagers that get caught up in an Internet crime scheme that is much larger than they can handle individually. Patrick Carman’s research/previous knowledge concerning technology is appreciated and it comes out in realistic dialogue between characters (and great passwords for the videos – the majority are computing superstars like Babbage and The Woz).

Trackers takes on a neo-noir feel. Much like detective stories from the 30s and 40s, main character Adam doesn’t know who to trust (one character, Lazlo, shares a name with someone from Casablanca). His confusion grows when he’s distracted by a beautiful girl who quickly betrays him. The focus of the book is figuring out who is tracking the Trackers and what they can do to reverse the situation.

So, instead of being afraid that Joe Bush is going to stalk you from the dredge, you’re now more paranoid about going online. If you liked the movie Eagle Eye, Trackers should already be in your queue.

It’s told in an interrogation format, so the whole time you’re trying to figure out who has brought Adam in for questioning. This is book one and obviously so (well, besides it saying that on the cover), but in great Carman style he leaves you hanging at the end of the book.

Online supplemental materials are becoming a requirement for books, especially teen ones. Many have games associated with them, like P.J. Haarsma’s Rings of Orbis game (Haarsma is another digital pioneer, an author who also creates his own tech content). Patrick Carman understands technology, especially engaging technology, and offers the videos but also a very challenging Glyphmaster game. You try and organize the icons to spell a sentence. I found myself saying, “Just one more round.” My recommendation is to make it a Facebook game.

Librarians, you need Trackers. Kids will read it. But what was awesome is that he included a transcript of each video in the back of the book. This helps students who are reading in class. You can’t interrupt silent reading with a video of Finn crashing on a ramp at the local skateboarding hangout. Now students can get the info and watch the video later. Many of mine had to come in at lunch and hope the district Internet filter hadn’t blocked the Skeleton Creek site. This streamlining of the experience is one sign that the author is growing and improving.

And, like any book that involves Jeffrey Townsend, I stay up too late wanting to keep reading.

The alternative reality missions are releasing later today. While I read the book, I had my laptop next to me so I could look up any sites mentioned. I hope to see more from the missions. I can easily see the lines of fiction blurring under Patrick Carman’s expert use of media.

Crocodile Tears by Anthony Horowitz

November 30th, 2009

Over the weekend, when I wasn’t figuring out Google Wave, I finished Crocodile Tears by Anthony Horowitz. Stormbreaker (as well as Haddix’s Among the Hidden) was the first YA book I read as a junior high teacher and it helped me to see how that market of books has developed over the years. If you remember my review of Ghost in the Machine by Patrick Carman, I made reference to how much I enjoyed Scorpia (my favorite of the series) and how Ark Angel was a letdown for me. (Yes, I’ve read Snakehead.)

As I began Crocodile Tears, I thought, “Can this get me back from ‘I enjoy the series’ to ‘I rave about the series’?”

I love how Horowitz starts out the novels with an opening scene much like a James Bond movie. We see minor characters involved in some sort of trauma, introducing a sliver of the main conflict. We also don’t see Alex Rider, for the most part. Chapter one gets you hooked with a disaster at a nuclear power plant. A charity swoops in to help immediately and we are instantly suspicious that the charity may have known ahead of time when the disaster was going to happen.

I was nervous, at first. I’m a huge supporter of helping out wherever you can, even internationally, so I was hoping that Horowitz would not paint a jaded view on aid organizations. There’s a great conversation where Alex Rider is defending people who donate because it’s the right thing to do, not because they’re playing some kind of game.

Desmond McCain is a good villain in the spy movie sense. There are some times where the cheaper, easier way to win would be to just kill Alex and be done with it. Nope. Just like it’s mentioned in Pixar’s Incredibles, the villain monologues and explains the plan, trusting the henchmen to finish the job. Not the most logical way to enact your evil schemes, but it definitely fits the style.

A student and I had debated on whether Alex Rider had actually killed anyone in his books. The villains pursue him to the “Captain Ahab” level of obsession to their own demise. In this one it’s pretty clear: bad guy is going to kill Alex, Alex kills him first – but it’s under a spy code of morality.

  1. You point a gun at someone and shoot, you’re an assassin.
  2. You create an elaborate plan to watch the person die, you’re a supervillain.
  3. You create an elaborate plan using just what’s on you at the moment (perhaps feeling a degree of remorse), you’re a super spy.

Alex is angst-ier this time around.

Something that I had lost sight of is that the entire series has just been one year in Alex’s life. In other words, he has missed a TON of school. Crocodile Tears highlights this; the adults finally realize that this 14 year-old should probably attend a full day of school from time to time.

It’s definitely not the end to the series. There is still room for Alex to grow throughout the years. Crocodile Tears is an enjoyable read. (I’m still biased towards Scorpia, but I’m excited to see where the series goes.)

H.I.V.E. by Mark Walden

August 21st, 2009

If you are a fan of James Bond, this is a book for you.

Where do all of those supervillains learn their tricks? The Higher Institute of Villainous Education offers many courses that would make other schools cringe. Otto is joined by other students who show promise at becoming villains as they try and figure out exactly why the school was formed.

One of the funnier scenes in the book is when some of the older students are talking with each other about the main enemy agent. He always has a similar style and demeanor, but his face always changes. This is in direct reference to the James Bond movies, parodying how the main character is played by different actors.

Much of the book revolves around different tests, like trying to swing across a pit of spikes using grapple gloves or discovering a way to amplify a superweapon. Where the action really picks up is when Otto and his circle of allies decide to escape from the island compound.

H.I.V.E. is a fun, light-hearted adventure with some larger than life scenes that many junior highers will enjoy.

Don’t Judge a Girl by her Cover by Ally Carter

February 19th, 2009

Many people have seen me reading this book; many want a copy of it. A funny thing that has happened is that as I’ve been answering questions about the book, people are saying, “Sounds like a great book. I just don’t like the cover.”

I have an advanced reading copy. There are only words on the cover. So… people were judging…based on the cover. I found it funny.

Fans of the series will be happy. More questions are answered, but just like any good spy story, more questions arise as you delve deeper.

We see more of Macey as her dad is on the campaign trail for vice president. We’re no longer just in training, though, since the book starts out with a helicopter and a kidnapping attempt.

We see more of Zach, but he may have some connections to the villains. Intriguing.

We learn more about Gilly Gallagher, the sword, and spy heritage. Very cool.

The best part for me? Sure, there’s great character interactions, funny dialogue (I was glad that Ally fulfilled a promise by putting in a “boys do make passes at girls who…” line from Liz), and all of that. But the spies confront lethal situations. I liked Cross My Heart, but I wished that there was more spy combat. Just like any good series, it’s building progressively as they become more proficient pavement artists.

It’s always good to know that a series continues in quality and what made it successful in the first place. Definitely pick this one up when it comes out this June.