Monday, February 4, 2013

Cross my Heart and Hope to Spy by Ally Carter

Title: Cross my Heart and Hope to Spy
Author: Ally Carter
Publisher: Hyperion
Rating: WARTY!


So yes, we're launching into volume 2 of this series. This is the first time I've gone to a second volume since the Ruby red series.

Well, the start of Cross my Heart and Hope to Spy (CMHAHTS) is depressing not because anything depressing is happening, but because Cam is a whiny brat and it's depressing to read it. What a way to start a novel!

I know that Carter has to set the scene for those who, unlike me, read this with a hiatus after the first vol, but it’s depressing. Cam is being taken for debriefing to CIA HQ, but instead of simply driving to Langley, they go to a mall, enter a clothing store, and descend in one of the changing booths, into a lobby which is far too Harry Potter-ish for my taste, not to say unbelievable in the extreme. I have to wonder why. I mean I honestly have found myself wondering what's going thru Carter's mind when she writes this stuff! Is she simply being goofy? Is she too embarrassed or lacking in confidence to write a decent spy romp, so all we get is romp minus the decent and spy? Or is she just amusing herself and is lucky enough to have garnered for herself a readership with her idle pastime? It’s really hard to engage with this kind of writing at times.

Then there are other times when it's addictively adorable, like in Ch 2 where she mentions the rumor that her mother once killed someone with a People magazine! That thought crosses her mind as she enters her school again and discovers that the East Wing has been locked down because of some chemical contamination. That sounds suspicious right off the bat. The chapters after the first one are littered with amusing gems like that, which is why I keep reading this despite certain misgivings!

In order to reestablish everything as rapidly as possible, Carter has Cam hook-up with her three friends immediately: Bex, Liz, and Macey. And she discovers that James Bond isn’t the only spy! Jason Bourne gets a mention. Two of Cam's friends are just fine, but Macey is ensconced in the library where Cam finds her sleeping on top of her books. She's had problems with her parents over her grades, which were very good - too good for her parents to believe. Macey's response to this is to go into study overdrive to get even better grades to freak her parents out even more.

As they're about to exit the library, Macey and Cam overhear Cam's mom and the delicious Mr Solomon discussing a secret operation Blackthorne about which Cam's mom did something whilst Cam was being debriefed at Langley. Cam's name is mentioned as in 'does Cam suspect anything?' which, of course, piques the interest not only of Cam and Macey, but also of the other two when they learn about it later.

All of their best research efforts reveal nothing about Blackthorne. Not a one of them thinks for even a minute that it could be something as simple as a surprise party for Cam or something along those lines. The other three prevail upon Cam to spy (spy cam?) on her own mother when she has her weekly Sunday night meal in her mom's office. Cam goes armed with a spy cam (told you!) in her watch and surreptitiously searches her mom's desk, but the only thing of note that she finds is a secreted photograph of her dad with Mr Solomon.

As she's about to leave, she spots her three friends bugging the hell out of the hallway in order to survey Cam's mom, so she quickly closes the door and engages mom in further conversation, but there's a knock on the door, and she opens it to find Mr Solomon, who hands a plain brown envelope to her mom, upon which is written the words: Blackthorne!

Now they know they have to break into the East Wing!. But before they do, they are taken on another field exercise. This time they have to shake their tail. That's not the same as shaking your booty. Trust me on this. Carter makes another slight faux pas here by describing their trip to DC in a helicopter. She describes the take-off, watching their school shrink down in size until it looks like it's a model in a snow globe; then in the very next sentence, they're zooming along at tree-top height! Which is it? I've lived in Virginia, and they have some beautiful trees there, but nothing five hundred feet or more! I'll put this on the shelf next to descending down the stairs!

Their field op is at the Mall - the Mall in Washington, District of Columbia, home of the Washington monument and the White House. Cam is teamed with Bex and they start spotting their tails and trying to shake them. Eventually, in the subway, they split up and Cam starts making tracks for the Smithsonian, where she's supposed to arrive sans tail. She meets a guy, and becomes moderately friendly with him as she's making tracks to her destination, confident her tail is lost. He sweetly offers to walk her to where she's going since it's dark and he would feel more comfortable if she wasn't alone. She tells him shes's only going to the Ruby Slippers exhibit in the museum, and so he leaves her. But of course, he was her tail and he meets her at the exhibit, thereby humiliating her.

Next it turns out that the rumors are true: there is a boys equivalent of the Gallagher Girls, and some of them are coming to stay at the school. Hence the changes in the East Wing. And who should be one of the boys but Zach, Cam's tail from DC. We know, since she's determined to avoid him, that the two will be thrown endlessly together, even as she pines for sweet Josh, whom she learns is now dating DeeDee. This is a teen romance, so who's going to win: sweet Josh, or mean, tough, distant, mocking, devil-may-care Zach? Yes, nice guys finish last and this novel is going to be a cliché, At least, that's how it looks so far.

Of course, the next op is a school ball, to be attended by all staff and students, including the boys, and Cam's mom buys her a beautiful strapless dress. But as the ball goes on, and Cam has to leave because her bra broke, there is a Code Black called and an immediate lock-down. Someone has tried to breech the walls of the Gallagher Girls school! And now Cam's mom wants to know where can was when the lights went out!

I finished CMHAHTD last night and I have to say, in the word of Kevin Kline's character in A Fish Called Wanda: "Disappointed!". This novel was not as funny as the first and was far more buried in goofy teen angst that really rendered it not very entertaining for me. It was passable, but I can’t give it a 'worthy' rating this time. And yes, I know it's not written for me, and clearly people are buying these since Carter has several volumes in play, but the fact remains that I know she can do better because I've read vol 1! Hopefully vol 3 will be better, but meanwhile I'm taking a break from YA, and reading an adult-oriented novel before I tackle the next vol in this series.

So, to wind this up: after the lock-down and the over-the-top 'Code Black', Cam is now suspected by everyone of trying to bust out of the school again to go to the dance that's being held in the village, where she knows Josh will be. But she didn’t do it!

The novel then descends (down the stairs!) into a boring repetition of the first volume, where the action takes place in the warehouse district - like a small town like that has a warehouse district! - where the action took place in the first vol! Dr Steve, the head of the boys contingent, is the bad guy, intent upon stealing 'the disk' containing the names of all Gallagher Girl Graduates - the GGGs. Again with the disk? Like super secret agencies keep one convenient CD, ready for stealing, which contains compromising top secret data? And no-one could figure out that it's a spy school and get a list of students attending? Honestly?

And then it turns out that this was all a training exercise to see if the Gallagher Girls and the Bitchin' Boys (about whom we’ve learned nothing, just as we’ve learned nothing of Cam's dad's fate) can overcome their… what? Lust? Antagonism (of which there's been none except between Cam and Zach)? Poor Plotting?! - and work together as a team.

No, this wasn't an epic fail, but it was a tired reworking of the plot of the original volume, and I'm disappointed in Carter, having seen that she can do much better. I know series novels are, by their very nature, formulaic, and they are so because undiscriminating readers seem to want that predictability, but I really don’t! I want to read about well conceived characters again, but I don’t want to read the same story again with (in this case) just the hot guy's name changed out as a substitute for actual variety! If I had not already picked up the next vol from the library, I’d be reconsidering right now whether I want to read any more of these.

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