Fuse #8

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Review of the Day: Kiki Strike

You know a book’s gonna be good when you’ve hit a caveat on just the publication page. “The advice given in this book, including first aid information, is meant as a literary device and an amusing sidebar. The author and publisher are not responsible for any accidents or injuries that may occur by following it. Refer instead to the American Red Cross.” I read this to my boss and he immediately set about clucking like a chicken re: Bloomsbury's cowardice at publishing this book unaccompanied by adult warnings. Apparently the publisher is expecting the literary equivalent of those kids who watch “Jackass”. Only in this case, instead of allowing large crabs to clamp onto their tongues, kids might start acting like hi-tech super spies of great skill and intelligence. And yet somehow I can’t see this as a particularly bad thing. If you've a child who reads this book and then wants to defeat villains in undiscovered buried cities, I can think of worse fates in this world. Fates like never having read "Kiki Strike" in the first place. That's an existence I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.

Ananka Fishbein is just your average kid attending a high-end private school in Manhattan. There is nothing outwardly extraordinary about Ananka. Nothing that would make you think she’d be capable of attracting the attention of someone like Kiki Strike. Kiki’s like no one Ananka’s ever seen before. She’s twelve-years-old, practically an albino, short, dangerous, sly, and she can disappear without a trace if she thinks she’s being followed. Before Ananka fully realizes it, she’s been recruited by Kiki to join the Irregulars, a group of four genius former Girl Scouts. Meet Betty Bent – master of disguise, DeeDee Morlock – chemicals and explosives, Luz Lopez - mechanics, and Oona Wong – forger and lockpick extraordinaire. Together these girls are going to explore a hidden city buried deep below the lowest depths of NYC. While they do so, however, they may find that Kiki Strike may not be all that she seems. They knew that she was mysterious. They never dreamed she might also be murderous.

Like every sane woman over the age of twelve or so, I have serious problems with the term “Girl Power”. However, the English language has yet to provide me with a way of describing a book in which girls kick quite as much butt as they do here. Girl-centric, maybe. Whatever the case, this is a great example of female empowerment (another term I hesitate to use) in all its myriad forms. First of all, one of the first statements of fact in this book is the sentence: “While boys must be constantly monitored and are always the first suspects when anything goes wrong, everyone expects girls to do what they’re told.” Also, “...low expectations can be a blessing in disguise.” How true. Of course, Miller is not above giving Ananka a makeover in the course of the novel. But with the exception of both that and some peculiar attention paid to handbags (am I the only woman in NYC who doesn’t understand their use?) this is by and large a progressive little book. And if the Girl Scouts of America have any marketing skills AT ALL, they should latch onto this book and promote it heavily. Sure it doesn’t show the organization in the strongest light in the world, but I’ve never read better Girl Scout advertising than that which I’ve seen here.

Really, when I heard that Kirsten Miller was a first time novelist and former advertising executive, I was wary. What won me over? The book’s details. Miller’s so free with them that a person could be forgiven for thinking this was the author’s ninth or tenth book rather than her first. Some of my favorites include the fact that Ananka Fishbein’s parents are in college for life thanks to a trust fund her grandfather left them that states that they only have access to his fortune for when they attend school. Other interesting details include a section that shows the villain’s bedroom, decked out with a painting that seems to be of Circe (though how that ties into the plot may remain to be seen in future books). Or howzabout the fact that the girls in this book belong to the Bank Street Irregulars? Clever, eh? Actually, Miller is a true NYC homegirl. She makes copious references to New York landmarks and places with a more than deft hand. Just off the top of my head I know that she mentions Con Edison, Gourmet Garage, and a great great section called “How To Experience the Real New York”, where she takes note of the 300-year-old elm that used to hang people in Washington Square Park.

And then there’s the fact that the writing itself is good. I mean, the plot is hopping but with enough down time to allow the reader to catch his or her own breath. Then sentences like, “Against my better judgment, I threw up on the principal’s shoes”, cannot be improved upon. Characters are somewhat stereotypical, but this is a spy thriller we’re dealing with here. Do you read “Casino Royale” and then complain that the villains are too two-dimensional or that Bond doesn’t cry about his mother more? No! This is a genre, consarn it. And Miller knows just how to fit her heroines into it. Some people have been calling this book a high-tech Nancy Drew. Don’t believe a word of it. This is a modernized youthified (not a word, I know) Modesty Blaise. Look it up, if you don’t believe me.

Problems with the book: Oh, don’t look at me like that. Even if you’re the biggest fan in the world of this story, there’s definitely a flaw here and there. For example, I have a personal beef with this book that I’d like to discuss with the author. If you readers could just step outside for a moment I’ll discuss it with her. Ahem. Hello. Now, we are both residents of New York City. I like to think we’ve been to the same haunts, perused the same bookstores, and even drunk at the same coffee shops. And hey, here’s a fun little fact. I used to be the children’s librarian of the Greenwich Village branch, the Jefferson Market Library. Fun, huh? Yeah. It’s funny, but for years now I’ve been searching desperately for a children’s book to make mention of this branch. I mean, it was built in the late 1800s and looks like a friggin’ castle. Who wouldn’t want to put it in a book? And I got really excited when one of your characters in “Kiki Strike” got put into the hospital at St. Vincent’s. Cause you know what St. Vincent’s is near? It’s near the Jefferson Market branch, sweetie. And then when Ananka decided to go inside a library I nearly cried with joy. But WHAT library did you have her enter? My ancient mysterious one with the gargoyles, stone owls, and carved lilies? No, you made up the fictional “Abingdon Branch” instead and had her go in that. Dude, you SO did not have to do that! Yes, I know that there is a connection between “Abingdon” and Greenwich Village. Abingdon Square and all that. Look, you may make this ridiculous misuse of power up to me when you write the sequel to this story. Be sure you put in lots and lots of Jefferson Market references. I want people rappelling off the tower, if needs be. Hrmph.

Okay. You guys can come back now. I’m ready to talk about some of the other mini flaws in the book. By and large, Miller knows how to pull off pretty much any sentence. Then, once in a rare while, you come across a statement like, “... there’s a peculiar form of ESP known as women’s intuition. Every female on earth is born with it.” Uh-oh, thinketh I. This seems more appropriate for chick-lit than intelligent girl spy-fare. Then we hear that Luz is a refugee of Cuba and that the government there took hold of all her possessions. But do you really want to weigh down a peppy book like this with politics that confuse the narrative far more than they clarify anything? Which isn’t to say the book isn’t worth reading. You just have to be prepared for the occasional slip up.

Now who’s this book for? New York Public Library’s teen librarians snatched “Kiki Strike” up the moment it hit the bookshelves and for a while I was willing to leave it at that. Then I started reading it on my own and I was struck by how kid-friendly the whole venture was. Quality spy books for kids are few and far between. I mean, we all love “Harriet the Spy”, but that’s more of a literary work of art than a step-by-step spy novella. When I was a kid one of my favorite book’s was something called “Murder Ink”. I think I read that book until it was nothing but coverless pulp since in it a reader could learn all the same spying tricks of the trade that Miller describes here. You see, after almost every other chapter in "Kiki Strike", Miller offers great little pieces of info that discuss everything from How To Take Advantage of Being a Girl to tips on stalking, disguise, lying, detecting lying, etc. So though some people might claim this was a teen book through and through, I disagree heartily. There are hoards of kids out there that would kill to read about a superspy. Add in the fact that this book has a particularly kid-friendly feel (a.k.a. no torture, bloodshed onscreen, or swearing), as well as heroes who are twelve and fourteen (they age) and you’ve got yourself children’s fare through and through.

Maybe it was the fact that Ananka was basically just a glorified librarian in this book. Maybe that was why I loved it. But just look at the testimonials for this book on Amazon.com by kids who really love it for its own merits and you’ll have to agree with me that “Kiki Strike” has a lot going for it above and beyond reasons. It runs fast and shows a female heroine of an entirely different stripe. This is a book about girls who use their heads rather than their boobs. You won’t see any Clinique ads in THIS girl book, no sir. A fabulous offering and a wonderful title.

Notes About the Cover: Good work, Bloomsbury. In spite of the rave reviews I saw of this book on other children’s literature blogs, I don’t know if I would have necessarily picked it up unless it had some kind of particularly compelling image to accompany the action. The cover’s great with a perfectly rendered Kiki Strike and a great color scheme (that’ll admittedly date in about 15 years) to match. I’ve a quibble with the fact that Ananka doesn’t have so much as a drop of babyfat on her, but I suppose that’s okay. The four other members of the Irregulars are on the back cover and by and large they look okay. Oona seems about right. Ditto Betty. I had assumed from the book that DeeDee was black, so the face's pale complexion caught me off-guard a tad. And Luz looks like a gorgeous beauty contestant. Not exactly my view of her, but I quibble. High marks all around for being pleasant to the eye AND having kid-friendly appeal.

Check out the Kiki Strike website as well as a rather interesting blog.


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