Capture the Flag

Rats.  I really wanted to like this one.  Unfortunately, if I had to give you an elevator pitch, it would be: "dull 39 Clues wannabe."

That was way harsh, Pam.

I know.  And I'm sorry.  The author seems so nice.  She's a teacher, for pete's sake.  Yay teachers!  But this just did not work for me.  I found myself skimming, and it's not even a long book.

In the beginning, there's a heist.  It's vaguely Ocean's Eleven, vaguely Mission Impossible, but it was mostly just sadly improbable.  At the Smithsonian, there's a gala underway.  The original flag that inspired Frances Scott Key's The Star-Spangled Banner has been undergoing intensive restoration work and will soon be unveiled to the public.  For now, though, it's in a vault.  A Prominent Individual arrives at the museum and requests a special viewing.  Because the director of the museum does not want to get on the wrong side of this Prominent Individual, she agrees that a group of four may go down to see the flag.  However, the staff member who takes the group down notices that there are five people in the group.  This is, again, explained away by POWER and PRESTIGE.  Through a series of more improbable mix-ups, one man manages to hide in the room and not set off any pressure, temperature, infrared, or (insert spy-type thingy) alarms.  He escapes the museum with the flag rolled up.

Cut to the next day.  Three kids at the D.C. airport are fighting over a wall socket.  Anna is the kind of character who sets my teeth on edge.  Overprivileged and underexperienced, she doesn't learn much over the course of the story.  Her father is a Congressman from Vermont, and she wants to be a top reporter, so it's totally normal for her to barrel up to people and ask them questions in order to "get the story."  Fine.  Whatever.  José is there because his mom is the main textile historian working on the flag, and he and his meteorologist father are flying back home.  José loves books--especially Harry Potter--and he also quotes way more famous people than a middle schooler should even know existed.  Finally, there's Henry (confession: I completely forgot his name and I just read the book yesterday).  Henry's the least memorable of all the characters (see above).  He's constantly playing his GamePrism and likening real-life situations to some game that he's played before.

Because the Annas of this world have to be bothering somebody at all times, she tries to interview the U.S. Senator and Presidential Candidate, (confession #2: I can't remember his name either) Smarmybottom.  It's something-bottom, anyway.  I think.  He keeps Tootsie Rolls in his cowboy hat and is losing in the polls to the governor of Vermont, who bakes cobbler to stop politicians from fighting.  If only life were that easy.

Then, suddenly, doo-doo-doot-de-doo-doo-doot!  Newsflash!  The Star-Spangled Banner has been stolen! Egads!  Anna decides that the thieves must be snowed in at the airport just like everyone else (because when you plan a heist involving a national icon, worrying about a plan B is just too much dang work).  She rousts Henry and José from their huddle around the electrical outlet and they set off to find the flag.

Over the course of their roamings, they encounter: a man with a snake tattoo, a large poodle named Hammurabi, an international music group, a young Pakistani boy, oddly chatty luggage handlers, and lots of suitcases.  They do not encounter responsible adults.

I don't want to rain on anyone's parade, but I'm going to anyway, because neener-neener-neener, I can.  Absent Parent Syndrome is a serious issue affecting tween and teen lit.  I understand it if a character's parents have died and he/she needs to deal with their deaths, or if they are unable, for some reason, to be fully present for their children, but giving Anna the Careless Workaholic Politician Dad and José the Spacey Meteorologist Dad doesn't do them any favors.  I can't believe that a parent would totally forget about his child during a massive weather crisis at an airport.  Isn't that when you strap your kids to your body because the zombies are going to attack now?  Am I in the wrong book?

For all of the action in the latter two-thirds of the book, it's surprisingly boring action (is that an oxymoron?).  I found myself skimming through it because you could really just sum it up in: "They rode a lot of conveyor belts and almost got caught lots of times, but for convenience's sake, none of the adults really mind three children sneaking around the airport."

Yes, The 39 Clues had exotic locales and slightly over-the-top villains, but it was engagingly written and the action never let up.  Amy and Dan Cahill emotionally go through a lot after losing their parents and their Aunt Grace, and they do have an adult chaperone (hee).

Another aspect that really drove me up the wall (hi, I'm typing this from the ceiling because I'm not quite sure how to get back down) was the barrage of references to other books and films.  J.K. Rowling should get a cut of the royalties for this because José quotes her work constantly.  It's "Harry Potter" this and "Dumbledore" that.  At one point, Anna says that their life is just like National Treasure!  No, honey.  As much as I dislike Nicholas Cage (except for in Raising Arizona), National Treasure was a fun romp through history with a hefty dose of secret societies and Jon Voight.  Maybe this book needed more Jon Voight...

Finally, I need to address the use of race and culture in the narrative.  Anna, who is the super-awesome-leader-girl, is white.  José is part white and part Mexican.  Henry is African-American (or mixed, I can't quite remember which).  So, it seems like the diversity super team.  Anna's dad agrees with the goofy senator on immigration reform, which prompts an interesting little dialogue between Anna and José.  She, of course, "doesn't think" about how that would make José feel, and patronizingly tells him that her dad only doesn't want to let in the "bad" Mexicans.  José's basically like, "Um, no."  And that's it!  Anna never learns anything else!  There's never any other dialogue about it!  We also learn that Henry's "famous ancestor" (oh yes, each of the children are descendants of a famous figure in American history) was a freed slave who helped sew the flag.  There was some comment made like, "Yay, she was free in the North!"  That also felt awkward.

There's also an excessively silly secret society in the book, but it's so silly that I can't even go there.  It's so silly it's inexplicable.

Needless to say, I'm definitely not reading the sequel.  That felt like the longest 240 pages-with-large-font-and-needless-drawings I've read in a long time.


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