Sunday, February 24, 2008

Anthony Horowitz

by Anthony Horowitz
Recommended Age: 14+

This book begins a series of action-packed adventures about a 14-year-old spy named Alex Rider. Alex has been raised by his uncle, Ian Rider, never knowing that Ian was an MI6 agent until the uncle’s violent death. Before he quite understands what is going on, Alex himself is recruited to complete his late uncle’s last mission.

Blackmailed into service, subjected to two weeks of brutal training, equipped with a few teen-appropriate gadgets (such as a zit cream that dissolves metal), Alex is quickly plunged into a dangerous world of assassins, conspirators, and terrorists. He has only a few clues and his own resourcefulness, daring, and athleticism to help him crack a sinister plot. And he has precious little time to stop a disaster that could wipe out an entire generation of British schoolchildren.

The Alex Rider series has every sign of being a hit among young readers who are open to a different kind of fantasy: instead of sword and sorcery, it's full of high-tech weapons and see-it-to-believe-it spy capers, carried off by a Harry Potter-sized hero. A physical action-oriented hero whose quest to avenge his “Sirius Black” type figure begins on page 1 of the first book and continues, presumably, through the entire series. A hero who makes do with muscles instead of magic, gadgets instead of wands, brains instead of friends, and adult “spymasters” who are willing to put his life on the line – ON PURPOSE – to achieve their own, highly classified ends.

OK, it’s implausible. But so is magic. And though the kind of fantasy served by this series is one that distinctly appeals to boys, I can imagine a lot of girls developing a crush on young Alex. And oddly, for a light juvenile adventure that is consciously styled in the manner of the James Bond series, you may find that this series actually has a level of maturity that 007 lacks. Don’t believe me? See for yourself!

UPDATE: A not-too-successful 2006 movie was based on this book. And what I said about girls developing a crush on Alex Rider goes double for the actor who played him. I guess the film's failure proves the Highlander dictum: "There can be only one" - and Harry is it!

Point Blank
UK title: Point Blanc
by Anthony Horowitz
Recommended Age: 14+

This is the second adventure of teen spy Alex Rider, who in Stormbreaker was recruited by the British secret service to save the world as only a teenage spy could do. To be more precise, MI6 blackmailed Alex into joining them, but he had the talent and the world needed to be saved and what better secret weapon could they have than a kid like Alex? His uncle, now dead, didn’t so much raise him as train him to be a spy like himself. But Alex just wants to be a normal kid.

Tough luck, Alex. The world needs saving again, this time from something sinister going on at an exclusive school for troubled sons of the rich and famous. Alex goes into deep cover, donning a punk outfit and a bad attitude and a filthy rich family that really, really hates him. When he arrives at the Point Blanc Academy, high in the Alps, he encounters a sinister mystery. The school, accessible only by helicopter or skiing, is patrolled by guards armed with machine guns. All the other troubled rich kids are being turned into perfectly behaved scholars. Drones. Stepford children. Are they being drugged? Hypnotized? And who knows what plans the academy’s creepy headmaster, Dr. Grief, has in store for them?

Alex is there to find out. But as he does so, he must take dangerous risks – while MI6 lingers in the background, hesitant to come to his aid even when the boy’s spy caper turns into a desperate fight for survival.

Are you ready to take a break from boy wizards? Try a boy spy. The overall concept is basically the same: when adults can’t do it, send a kid! Alex is an engaging young hero, and his adventures are full of suspense, action, gadgetry, and teen sex appeal. Also as with Harry, you find yourself feeling concerned about how all this danger and violence is going to effect the heart and soul of the heroic boy. But most significantly, you’ll find yourself unable to wait long before reading the next book in the series, Skeleton Key.

Skeleton Key
by Anthony Horowitz
Recommended Age: 14+

Poor Alex Rider. He hasn’t had much time to come to terms with the death of his beloved Uncle Ian, who turns out to have been a spy for MI6 who was bringing up Alex to be a spy too. After two thrilling and dangerous missions for MI6, the 14-year-old spy and chronic savior-of-the-world just wants to go to school and be like the other kids. But MI6 won’t even give him that. The world needs saving again, and it can only be done with the help of their greatest secret weapon: a spy kid.

This time, the spy kid isn’t supposed to do any actual spying. He’s just part of the cover for a couple of CIA agents who need to look like tourists on a Cuban island called Cayo Esqueleto, or Skeleton Key. The American spooks want to know why a former Soviet army officer is buying weapons-grade uranium. They want to know what he plans to do when the president of Russia comes to visit him. And they want to know what the assassin who killed Ian Rider has to do with it.

Alex is only there to complete the cover for the American agents, but as usual, it all ends up depending on him. His luck, instincts, and fast reflexes help him to survive where older, more experienced agents perish. And the fact that he reminds the bad guy of his dead son – that a madman who is willing to sacrifice thousands of lives to save Russia, wants to adopt Alex as his own son – also puts the young hero in a position to find out what’s going on, and perhaps to stop it.

Since the Alex Rider series doesn’t end with this book, there isn’t much question whether Alex will succeed or survive. Still, it’s touch-and-go at times, and the danger builds in intensity to the hair-raising climax. Through it all, you want to protect Alex from the horrors he must witness – yet you admire his nerve, and enjoy his high-spirited, teen-007 exploits. And when the adventure ends and Alex wants to go back to being a normal kid again, you can’t wait to read about the next time that becomes impossible. But you don’t have to wait. The next book in the series is called Eagle Strike.

Eagle Strike
by Anthony Horowitz
Recommended Age: 14+

Sir Damian Cray is a super-rich pop-music singer, a political activist, and a video-game magnate. Alex Rider is a 14-year-old kid who has missed a lot of school since his uncle’s recent death in the line of service for MI6. Ordinarily they would have nothing to do with each other, until Alex recognizes the assassin who killed his uncle while vacationing with a friend in the south of France. Then the assassin blows up his friend’s father, and Alex narrowly escapes from becoming another victim, and a dropped cell phone leads him to suspect that Sir Damian Cray ordered the bomb.

MI6 isn’t interested in hearing what Alex suspects. So the talented young spy, who has already saved the world three times in a matter of weeks, sets out on his own to learn what Cray is planning to do. Naturally, he finds himself running down a thin line between life and death, including a spell inside a lethal, life-size version of a “Tomb Raider” type video game. Meanwhile, Alex learns that Cray has a plan to end the world’s drug problem...a plan that will cost millions of lives and possibly destroy the entire planet!

What can an orphan, acting alone, do against a billionaire who can do anything he wants, no matter how evil, while believing that he is doing good? What can a boy do against the assassin who killed the only father he ever knew – and who knows something about Alex’s real father that MI6 never told him? How are you going to find out the answers to these questions until you read Eagle Strike? But beware: some disturbing questions remain unanswered at the end of this book. You know that the next book, Scorpia, will take young Alex’s adventures to a whole new level of seriousness and danger. But once you get to the end of this book, you’ll be along for the ride.

by Anthony Horowitz
Recommended Age: 14+

If there wasn’t another Alex Rider book coming out (Ark Angel), I would be very depressed after reading this book. The very end of this fifth Alex Rider adventure seems to bring that promising, 14-year-old spy’s adventures to an abrupt and ruthless end. I’ve seen some cliffhangers in my time, but the way this biggest, most exciting, and most deadly serious of Alex Rider’s adventures ends, is more like watching the hero plunge right off the cliff with nothing but sharp rocks and white water below. It’s the kind of ending that makes you think, “There had #$&-well better be another book after this, or Anthony Horowitz is going to be SORRY.”

But as I said, it’s a big, exciting, serious adventure, and that ending is only the smallest part of it. The rest of it involves a boy’s quest for the truth about his dead father, his search for his own destiny, and the ultimate test of what he is made of – good or evil. For after saving the world’s sorry butt four times, with hardly a thank you from Britain’s MI6 secret service, Alex Rider learns that his father was part of a worldwide terrorist organization called Scorpia. An organization that kills people for money. And worse, the spymasters who have been sending Alex into danger for his country, may be the very people responsible for his father’s death. So Alex follows the advice of a dying assassin...he joins Scorpia and begins his training as a killer.

What, no more saving the world?

Well, that remains to be seen. For Scorpia hasn’t told Alex all the facts...including the fact that its current mission is to kill all the 12- and 13-year-old kids in London. Unwittingly, Alex becomes part of that plan. Then they put the boy’s not-very-promising “killer instincts” to the test. His first mission: to kill his own contact at MI6. His choice, fueled by grief and anger, is very simple: turn toward evil, once and for all...or die.

This is an example of the kind of suspense novel where you worry more about whether the main character ends up good or evil, than whether he lives or dies. Though, as I may have mentioned before, it is the living-or-dying bit that is going to leave you breathless with need to read Ark Angel.

Ark Angel
by Anthony Horowitz
Recommended Age: 14+

The sixth caper by 14-year-old British super-spy Alex Rider begins by letting you off the hook that book 5, Scorpia, set in you. For clearly, Alex did not die in the assassination attempt at the end of that book. He just barely survived. His friends at MI6 sent him to a luxury hospital to recuperate. Which puts him in the perfect position to stop a gang of murdering thugs from kidnapping the kid in the room next door. I almost said it was a lucky thing Alex was there, but luck had nothing to do with it. Even recovering from a near-fatal bullet wound can be part of his assignment!

As they so often do, one thing leads to another. Saving a powerful tycoon’s son from having his fingers cut off and mailed to Daddy leads to meeting the tycoon himself. Alex is soon the guest of a man whose plan to build a hotel in space is a joint venture with the British government. But when father, son, and guest land in New York as part of their whirlwind vacation – during which Alex is supposed to recuperate – the CIA takes him aside and tells him that the father, Mr. Drevin, is the head of a criminal empire that is about to be taken down. Suddenly Alex is on assignment again.

This time, all he is supposed to do is keep an eye out for signs that Drevin is preparing to escape from the long arm of the law. But things quickly get way more complicated. It turns out the billionaire has a monstrous plan to sacrifice thousands of lives to save his own fortune. No problem; with an alert, resourceful kid like Alex on the job, you know the situation will be handled. No one can survive fiendish attempts on his life like Alex; and no one can improvise a niftier way to foil the bad guy, using only a couple of gadgets and whatever happens to be lying around. The real problem is that, to save the Eastern U.S. from catastrophe, someone has to fly into outerspace and neutralize a timebomb. And only two available candidates will fit in the rocket: an orangutan...and Alex.

It’s nice to see Alex back again, along with all his spook associates, having another thrilling adventure with over-the-top villains, zany gadgets, unusual forms of transportation, and above all, a teen James Bond who just wants to be a normal kid.

UPDATE: A new Alex Rider adventure is already in bookstores: Snakehead.

The Falcon’s Malteser
by Anthony Horowitz
Recommended Age: 12+

The same Anthony Horowitz who brought us the adventures of a 14-year-old spy named Alex Rider, also wrote a series of juvenile hardboiled-detective novels starting in the 1980s. This book is one of these “Diamond Brothers Mysteries” – I’m not sure what order they were written in, because at this writing I haven’t got hold of all of them. But thanks to the dedication of this book’s 1995 reissue, and the miracle of internet research, I have learned that there was a TV movie and a six-episode series on the BBC in the early 1990s. (Tragically, but interestingly, the book is dedicated to actor Dursley McLinden, who played elder brother Tim Diamond in the movie and series, before his 1995 death at age 30.)

What, you may ask, besides a connection to an actor named Dursley, should make this book appeal to Harry Potter fans? Lots of things, I may answer. Let me name a few of them. First, show me 10 kids who have made-believe they were wizards, and I will show you 12 who made-believe they were detectives (or spies, for that matter). I myself was a big-time mystery buff when I was in the age range targeted by the Diamond Brothers series – I didn’t get into fantasy so much until I was an adult. Part of that may be that juvenile fantasy has only really taken off in a big way since J.K. Rowling opened the field; young readers’ mystery is as old as the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. To say nothing of Encyclopedia Brown...

Second, to continue my argumentative streak and further delay telling you about this book, the Diamond Brothers mysteries deliver many of the same kinds of pleasure as the Harry Potter books. At age 13, Nick Diamond (whose real last name is Simple) is practically an orphan – bearing in mind, of course, that his parents are still alive. They were moving to Australia, but he ditched them at the airport and went back to live with his considerably older brother Tim (whose real first name is Herbert). He is a clever, brave boy who has no one to rely on but himself, and he is used to hardship. He is also witty, resourceful, and possessed of a happy combination of a strong will to survive and a talent for doing so in the most perilous situations you can imagine.

Third, did I mention that one of the ambiguous adult figures in Nick’s life – a police detective who is not altogether friend, nor altogether enemy – is named SNAPE?

Cha-ching. Look out, Amazon. They’re coming for the Diamond Brothers.

And now, a bit about the actual book. For those of you who missed it, The Falcon’s Malteser is a pun on The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Americans wouldn’t necessarily know this, but Maltesers are like the British equivalent of the candy known as Whoppers in the U.S. [EDIT: I've actually eaten Maltesers since I wrote this. They are a bit different from Whoppers after all.] From the pun on the title page, the book relentlessly spoofs (in a good-natured way) the whole genre of hard-boiled fiction and film noir. It features a master criminal known as the Fat Man (who is actually skeletally thin), a cabaret singer named Lauren Bacardi, and a flamboyantly deadly couple named Gott and Himmell. There are hidden diamonds, a secret key, assassination attempts, a couple of dead bodies (including a dwarf), cops who show up just on time to catch the good guys looking guilty, a couple of Casablanca in-jokes, and a frantic chase through Selfridge’s.

And to say that the Diamond Brothers are on the case would be exaggerating. Older brother Tim, who is actually a Private Eye, is the bumblingest detective who ever got gum stuck to his shoe. All the brains in the family went to Nick – and all the guts, too. He’ll need to use both if he wants to keep them intact — and keep Tim alive too — and have a chance at a $5 million payoff.

My only quibble is that, for some mysterious reason, the characters keep talking about “dollars” rather than “pounds” – though the story is both written and set in London. Either Mr. Horowitz or his American editor should trust their American readers more. If we can make change in sickles and knuts, we can surely cope with pounds.

Nevertheless, this is a funny, action-packed, thrill-a-minute book with heroes you will like and villains you will love to hate. The mystery may or may not keep you guessing to the end; after following Harry Potter for a while, you’re probably pretty good at reading clues. But the humor, the characters, and the action will keep you turning pages and leave you wanting to read the next Diamond Brothers Mystery you can get your hands on.

Public Enemy Number Two
by Anthony Horowitz
Recommended Age: 12+

This book is one of the Diamond Brothers Mysteries that came out of the 1980s from the creator of teen spy Alex Rider. I’m not sure what order the books go in, since at this writing I’ve only gotten two of them; but this book definitely came after The Falcon’s Malteser. There are also a couple of other books in the series, including South by Southeast. In the 1990s there was a made-for-TV movie ("Just Ask for Diamond") and a six-episode teleseries (based on South by Southeast), both broadcast on the BBC. You draw your own conclusions...then read this book.

Thirteen-year-old Nicholas Simple, also sometimes known as Nick Diamond, lives alone with his older brother Herbert, also known as Tim Diamond. Tim is the worst private investigator in Greater London, if not the world. When it comes to brains, Tim is good-looking. When it comes to courage, ditto. Fortunately, he has Nick, who gave up a chance to move to Australia with their parents in order to live in Tim’s Fulham flat and eat beans-on-toast at every meal. Nick is a magnet for trouble, but he’s also a crime-solving genius. And he’ll need to be.

As this story opens, business at the Tim Diamond Detective Agency is not good. Then, just as Tim is hired to find a priceless stolen vase, Nick gets arrested on trumped-up charges and sent to a special prison for hard-case juvenile offenders. He should have seen it coming. Chief Inspector Snape of Scotland Yard (yes, you read that right), and his neckless, reckless partner Boyle, have been pressuring Nick to help them with a case. Now Nick has no choice, because he is sharing his prison cell with the target of Snape and Boyle’s investigation.

The name of the target is Johnny Powers: a sociopathic, if not psychotic, teen gangster whose Ma is even worse. After Nick gains Johnny’s trust, he is swept along in a daring jailbreak and finds himself and his gormless brother in the crossfire between rival criminal empires. All this to find the mastermind behind all the burglaries and robberies in England, a mysterious underworld figure known as the Fence.

At first, as you get caught up in the adventure, you find yourself leaving nailmarks on everything you touch, because you don’t know how a nice kid like Nick could live through all the deathtraps the evil adults set for him. After a while you sort of pity the evil adults who have made an enemy of Nick Diamond. And you come to admire the author who has managed to translate both James Bond and Philip Marlowe into teen heroes.

These are action-packed mystery-adventures full of humor, suspense, and good clean fun. If you have enjoyed Alex Rider, you must get to know the Diamond Brothers!

South By Southeast
by Anthony Horowitz
Recommended Age: 12+

Once again, Anthony Horowitz proves his wizardry at writing young-reader spoofs of classic adult genres. Like the other Diamond Brothers mysteries, South by Southeast features London’s most handsome, cowardly, and totally gormless Private Eye, Tim Diamond, as well as his thirteen-year-old crime-solving brother, Nick.

Not only does this story spoof hardboiled mystery novels and Alfred Hitchcock movies, it also gives us an early glimpse of Horowitz’s later teen-spy thrillers à la Alex Rider. For even though Nick’s nemesis, Scotland Yard Inspector Snape, is involved, the present mystery has more to do with secret agents and international intrigues than the average "whodunit."

For in his last moments of life, a murder victim named McGuffin reveals to the Diamond brothers that a Russian diplomat is in danger of being assassinated. The only clues he leaves, as to how this tragedy can be stopped, include a ticket to a Dutch ice-skating rink and a cryptic, dying remark that sounds like “south by southeast.”

Fans of Hammett, Hitchcock, and their ilk will enjoy the opportunity to catch loads of cleverly placed puns and in-jokes. Fans of mystery and adventure will thrill to the dangers, betrayals, clues, and red herrings that fill this book. Fans of Alex Rider will be intrigued to see what may be an early stage in their hero’s evolution. And anybody who likes a bit of fun will be tickled by Tim’s hapless, hilarious patter, and Nick’s old-for-his-years, hard-bitten bravado.

I believe this is the third book-length mystery featuring the Diamond Brothers, following Public Enemy Number Two and The Falcon’s Malteser. There is also a book of Diamond Brothers novellas titled Three of Diamonds. It would be a shame if the series went no further. Do you hear that, Mr. Horowitz? If you ever need a break from writing Alex Rider, your fans would welcome another Diamond Brothers novel.

UPDATE: I have obtained, but not yet read (same old story), another title in this series: Three of Diamonds, a collection of short stories featuring Tim and Nick.

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