Author Archives: Captain Awesome

About Captain Awesome

Captain Awesome was recently promoted from the rank of Lieutenant due to excellence in the field of Awesome. She likes stories about spies, thieves, and people with magical powers. If they also break out into song and/or dance, it's even better.

Fug or Fab: The Royal We

Look familiar?

It’s a classic story: regular girl and aristocratic boy meet, fall in love, have relationship issues due to the fact that the boy is second in line to the English throne, and then eventually get engaged. Who hasn’t heard that plot a million times? Actually, substitute a Duke or whatever, and I believe that is the plot for approximately 83% of regency-era historical romances. Anyway, authors Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan’s (aka The Fug Girls) first adult novel, The Royal We,  is heavily based on the Prince William/Kate Middleton romance. And they’re not subtle about it either. It’s been in all the promo copy and just look at that cover (which I love, by the way). In fact, I’m not even sure how much of a plot summary is necessary, but here we go.

American Rebecca Porter (aka Bex) arrives for her year abroad at Oxford and is surprised to find that Prince Nicholas, the aforementioned heir to the English throne, living down the hall from her dorm room. Though Nick is initially reserved and Bex is uninterested in the royal drama, they eventually bond over their insomnia fueled love of junk food and bad, supernatural teen soaps. And yes, they fall in love. Once out in the real world though, the pressure of royal expectations, invasive paparazzi, and the snooty British class system cause tension in their relationship and they eventually break up. Tragedy and twu luv eventually bring the two lovebirds back together, but a big secret threatens Bex and Nick’s happiness on the eve of the wedding of the century. Dun, dun ,DUN! Continue reading


Captain Awesome Finds the Clues

Finds the clues coverI think y’all all know the drill by now.  Let’s do this. You’re up, Encyclopedia Finds the Clues (Dutton 1966).

The Case of the Mysterious Tramp

The case: So Police Chief Brown comes home late for dinner because someone has beaten and robbed Mr. Clancy, the plumber. According to John Morgan, Clancy’s assistant,  Clancy’s truck broke down near a farm and when Clancy lifts the truck to check the radiator, a mysterious tramp dashes out of the woods, hits Clancy with a pipe, and steals his wallet. Sounds plausible. Chief Brown theorizes that the tramp then dashed over to the nearby railroad tracks and jumped a train. He’s upset because he thinks this means that they’ll never catch the bad guy, thus ruining his perfect crime-solving record. Or so I inferred. Encyclopedia tells him not to worry because John Morgan did it and made up the story about the tramp to cover his tracks. How did Encyclopedia know that he was lying?

My verdict: Aside from the fact that it’s ridiculous to think some hobo was hiding out in the woods with a pipe on the off chance that someone’s car would break down, I’m not sure. It probably has something to do with the car breaking down which I don’t get because I know nothing about cars and I just call AAA when mine breaks down.

Was I right?: Not really.  Clancy raises the hood when he checks the radiator, but Morgan says that after he sees the tramp attack, he gets out of the car to help Clancy. How did he see the attack if the hood was blocking the front windshield? This of course ignores the possibility that Morgan could have leaned out of the passenger window and to the shit go down, but yeah, it does raise suspicion about his statement.

Stray observations: At least two stories from every book involves the so-called victim or eye witness committing the crime but pinning the blame on someone else and the Chief falls for it EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. You’d think he would learn by now not to take every statement at face value. Also, Encyclopedia lies to his mom about why he’s late for dinner (he was helping one of his teachers to restart her stalled car) because he doesn’t like to talk about the help he gives grown-ups. Dude, helping a teacher with car trouble is a normal kid thing to do. At least in the age before cell phones. Lying to your mother because you don’t want to seem like you’re bragging is a dumb thing to do.

Continue reading

Tick Tock, Tick Tock, Tick Tock

Statistical Probability cover4 minutes. 17 year-old Hadley Sullivan misses her flight to London by a mere 4 minutes. Though Hadley’s only very reluctantly flying out to attend her estranged father’s wedding to a woman she’s never met, she’s still not overly anxious about getting stuck at the airport and possibly being late to the wedding. And then she meets a boy. A British boy. And they just happen to be seated in the same row! So in the darkened cabin on their redeye flight, Hadley and Oliver banter charmingly and reveal deep thoughts and it’s basically a less pretentious YA version of Before Sunrise. But then they’re cruelly separated at customs and Hadley is left feeling more adrift than ever. Will Hadley and Oliver ever see each other again? Probably. It would be a real bummer if they didn’t.

Between the title, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight (Poppy/Little Brown 2012) and the description, I was intrigued but worried that this would devolve into some kind of Twu Luv soulmate nonsense. I love a good romance as much as the next … romance lover, but I hate it when YA characters (or real teenagers for that matter) declare their undying love and act like they’re destined to be together forever. Quite frankly, I thought this was ridiculous when I was a teenager and I’m the daughter of two people who’ve been together since the ninth grade. Thankfully, there was nothing of the sort. The jacket copy makes it seem like the story is all about the romance (and to be fair, so did my description. I’m lazy that way), but this book is really about connection, whether that be familial, friendly, or romantic connection. What happens when you first meet someone you click with or when you drift away from someone you were once close with? How do you repair that connection and what do you do when you realize it’s too late? The story was at times adorable and hopeful while at other times melancholy and contemplative, but that’s part of what I liked about.

The characters are all flawed but likeable and interesting, which is good since this book is more character driven than plot driven. Hadley could have very easily wandered into obnoxious, whiny teenager mode, but she is a grounded and sympathetic character. Oliver is the perfect YA dreamboat in that he’s charming without being smarmy and wounded without being damaged. Hadley’s parents also feel very real and I appreciated that the dad’s fiancé wasn’t some kind of evil home-wrecking stereotype.

This book is also well written and well paced. The story sure does move, especially when you consider that it’s mostly just people talking for 300 pages. There are hardly even any shenanigans! There’s also a great sense of atmosphere, from the intimacy of the plane at night to the jumbled confusion of London streets. And as someone who’s had a few panic attacks in her day and does NOT like crowds, I appreciated how sensitively Smith handled Hadley’s burgeoning claustrophobia.

YA has been all about the dystopias, paranormals, and fantasies recently, so it’s nice to read a straight-up contemporary story. The plot is pretty low stakes, after all nobody’s saving the world or anything, but there’s a lovely universal quality to Hadley’s journey that I think a lot of teens (or former teens) can relate to. In fact, lovely is just how I’d describe the book overall. Check it out, if that’s your thing. As for me, I’m already looking forward to author Jennifer E. Smith’s next book which sounds like a cross between Notting Hill and You’ve Got Mail. Who doesn’t want to read that?

This is what I automatically think of when I hear anything about 4 minutes. I cant help it!

“I was in a cult for thirty-four years. Everyone else could see it. I don’t know why I couldn’t.”

Going Clear coverDue to secretive, controversial beliefs and high-profile celebrity members (and the whacked-out behavior of said celebrity members), the Church of Scientology has been a source of fascination for several decades now. However, because of its reputation for aggressive harassment and lawsuits, few journalists or academics have investigated or researched the mysterious religion. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, Lawrence Wright, interviewed over 200 hundred current and former members and studied archival research to uncover the inner workings of Scientology in Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief (Alfred A. Knopf 2013). He details the origins, beliefs, policies, and clergy of the religion, plus the histories of mythic founder, L. Ron Hubbard, and current leader, David Miscavige. The books also examines the church’s relationship with Hollywood and the psychological hold it has over its members. Plus, it has a LOT of juicy stories.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve always considered Scientology to be a crazypants cult. It’s not because of the out-there beliefs that defy logic and science, although that whole Xenu thing is really weird. After all, most religions are based on stories or beliefs that can’t be definitively proven, though. I don’t particularly care what you believe, as long as it doesn’t hurt you or anyone else and you don’t try to push your religious beliefs onto me, particularly in a legislative capacity. HOWEVER, I don’t think a true religion makes you pay for enlightenment. The only way to move up and learn the secrets of Scientology is to pay for auditing and classes that costs THOUSANDS of dollars. Scientologists who work their way up the bridge, will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to the church in their lifetime. That screams cult to me. And though I thought the members and probably most of the clergy were sincere in there beliefs, the people at the top were knowingly and cynically bilking people out of their fortunes. A couple of years ago though, a resignation letter from the church by Oscar winning writer Paul Haggis leaked online and all sorts of crazy allegations of abuse, treachery, and slave-like working conditions made by many high-ranking former members of the Sea Org (the clergy) emerged. The church denied all allegations, but my feeling is that when there’s that much smoke, there has to be fire somewhere and even if only 10% of the accusations were true, then they were beyond horrible and corrupt. So  needless to say, I was NOT an unbiased reader going in. Just a heads up and thanks for indulging me since you probably don’t care about MY feelings.

Anyway, THE BOOK. Lawrence Wright takes a very measured, even-handed approach to the material. He tries to show both sides of the story–though the church doesn’t give him much access beyond blanket denials of abuse–but he doesn’t let the church off the hook. The book is thoroughly researched and detailed, which is probably necessary when writing about a group that’s as notoriously litigious as this one. The writing is simple and straightforward, and the tone is very matter-of-fact, which keeps the reader from feeling like they’re reading US Weekly. Don’t get me wrong, I love the occasional US Weekly, but the celebrity stories and out-there tales are a part of the Scientology story as a whole, and not just there for some salacious gossip. Although it’s some really good gossip. I found his extensive research into the life of L. Ron Hubbard particularly interesting because I’d not heard much about him and the official church biography is understandably skewed. It turns out he was ALLEGEDLY a pathological liar, bigamist, abuser, narcissist, and also a bit brilliant. He had some keen insights into human behavior, which have been obscured by the more outlandish elements of his teachings.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief ultimately didn’t really alter my views about Scientology. In fact, I already knew a lot of the material from recent articles and online sources. However, I found it extremely insightful in answering two questions about Scientology that I was always curious about: why would a person join and why would a person stay. If you’re looking for a comprehensive view on Scientology, this book is and excellent place to start.

*The post title is a quote by Paul Haggis on page 362 of the book.

The Right Stuff

Packing CoverI don’t like science. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in science (and I don’t think you get to pick and choose which science you believe in based on what’s convenient for you) and am grateful that others have devoted their lives to studying the subject as I would hate to live in a world without penicillin or DVRs. But on the whole, I don’t really get science or find it interesting, so I discovered something surprising a few years ago when I was watching the BEA author’s breakfast on CSPAN. For those of those of you who don’t know (or care), BEA is the major publishing trade show for the retail market and the author’s breakfast always features some high profile writers there to hawk their newest release. I had tuned in because Jon Stewart (one of my long-standing TV boyfriends) was the emcee, but science writer Mary Roach was there plugging her new book, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (W.W. Norton 2010). Normally I would probably have fast-forwarded past her to get back to my boyfriend, but she starting about space toilets and was so funny and charming that I watched her whole speech. Even stranger, I actually wanted to read the book. Three years later, I finally got around to it and long story short (not really), I really liked it!

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void is all about the kind of people, preparation, and stuff you need to go to space. What kind of person can handle the pressures of space the best? What does that kind of confinement do to a person? How does someone maintain personal hygiene without gravity or the ability to go outside? Or go to the bathroom? Or have sex (should the opportunity arise, so to speak)? What kind of food will provide the nutrition astronauts need while not being SO awful that it makes them want to kill themselves? And how does NASA (or any other space agency) get the answers to those questions? By testing, and retesting, and testing again any possible solution. Mary Roach interviews hundreds of astronauts and scientists who tackle those questions every day and gets behind the scenes in a world that very few people know about.

Though thoroughly researched and sourced, Roach’s almost conversational writing style makes the material very accessible. She has a knack for explaining sciencey things to the layperson in a way that’s understandable, entertaining, and really funny. Though my eyes did glaze over in a few spots, I put the blame on my severe science deficiency, not her. Roach also exhibits palpable excitement and enthusiasm towards her subjects, which makes the book even more fun. I mean, any writer that puts THAT much time into researching a topic has to be at least somewhat interested in the subject, but Roach seems to delight in the absurd, ridiculous, and downright gross aspects of space travel. Did you know there was such a thing called fecal popcorn? Well now I do as it was described in gleefully exhaustive detail.

I wasn’t inspired to run off and join the space program (if anything, science aptitude aside, it confirmed how ill-suited to the profession I would be) or even read more about the astronauts, but I was satisfied to learn more about a subject that I didn’t normally care for and be entertained at the same time. Well done, Ms. Roach. That is no easy feat.

This PSA has been stuck in my head for days since reading this book. Everybody sing along! “Astronomy, biology, chemistry, zoology. Science and technology … it’s fun, you’ll see!” Nice try, PSA.

Captain Awesome Strikes Again

There have been many, many different covers for this book, but this is the cover for the one I checked out of the library. Plus it has Sally beating up that punk, Percy.

There have been many, many different covers for this book, but this is the cover for the one I checked out of the library. Plus it has Sally beating up that punk, Percy.

It’s time for another thrilling installment of Captain Awesome solves mysteries originally written for children! Yay! Up next: Encyclopdia Brown and the Case of the Secret Pitch (Dutton 1965). For those unfamiliar with the series, boy genius Encyclopedia Brown (neé Leroy) solves crimes and his Police Chief dad takes all the credit. He also opened his own detective agency for the kids (and occasionally the desperate and/or cheap adults) in the neighborhood. Other recurring characters include Encyclopedia’s partner, bodyguard, and kick-ass feminst icon, Sally Kimball; nemesis Bugs Meany; and teeth fetishist and future serial killer, Charlie Stewart. Now, on with the mystery solving!

The Case of the Secret Pitch

The case: Speedy Flanagan bet Bugs Meany his baseball bat (which was his first mistake) that Bugs couldn’t sell superstar Yankees pitcher, Spike Browning, a new pitch. Bugs shows Speedy and Encyclopedia a letter allegedly from Browning, dated June 31st, stating he was going to win 30 games with this new pitch. Encyclopedia calls bullshit and demands that Bugs give Speedy his baseball bat since he lost the bet. How did Encyclopedia know that Bugs was lying?

My verdict: Well at first I thought the answer stemmed from baseball knowledge. Do pitchers even pitch 30 games a season? And there were less games in the 60s, right? Maybe? But then I realized that the letter was dated June 31st and there is no June 31st.

Was I right?: Yes. Bugs might have gotten away with it if he wasn’t such an idiot.

Other Observations: Why do kids even make deals with Bugs anymore? Quite frankly I think Encyclopedia should just let them get scammed. It’s the only way they’ll learn.

Continue reading

Master of Disguise

Master of DisguiseThough I LOVE the Oscars (pretty dresses, montages, earnest acceptance speeches. What’s not to like?) I don’t often see the big award contenders before the ceremony. Shockingly enough, most of the Oscar-bait movies tend to be really depressing and do not contain big song and dance numbers or stuff blowing up. This year however, I managed to catch eventual Best Picture winner, Argo, just in time for the show. I left the theater thoroughly entertained and wanting to know more about the main man played by Ben Affleck and his rocking ’70s beard. I knew that the real-life Antonio J. Mendez had published a book solely about the Argo mission to coincide with the release of the movie, but I decided to check out his earlier memoir originally published in 1999 instead. Written with journalist Malcolm McConnell, The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA (William Morrow) details Tony Mendez’s 25 year career with the CIA’s Office of Technical Service division. It’s a fascinating look into a secretive world that’s often glamorized, but rarely shown accurately.

Here are my thoughts:

  • Let’s just get the less interesting stuff out of the way. The book is competently written, but has a lot of the problems that you’d expect from one that’s written by someone who’s not a professional writer. The transitions are often awkward or sloppy and the recreated dialogue doesn’t always resemble how people actually speak. Mendez also starts each chapter in media res, but the device gets repetitive and unnecessarily dramatic, especially when the subject is so inherently dramatic anyway. There’s also a lot of jargon involved, you know acronyms and code names and such. Mendez does a good job explaining them (when he can, some of the stuff is still classified) and there’s a glossary in the back, but it was still confusing to follow at times. Given the subject though, I’m not sure if that could have been avoided. For me though, I’m fine with the writing being merely adequate in nonfiction as long as the subject is interesting enough to compensate.
  • Though Mendez goes into great details about his successful operations over the years, he tends to gloss over the CIA failures and dirty deeds. So if you’re looking for a real expose, this isn’t it. Mendez is very much a company man.
  • Ok, now onto the more fun stuff.  I got the impression after watching the movie and by the title of the book, that Mendez was a full-on field agent like James Bond or Sydney Bristow. As it turns out, Mendex was much more of a Q type, albeit one who spent a lot of time out in the field. He started out in the graphics department forging travel documents and designing propaganda materials before eventually earning his way out into the field. He wasn’t planting bugs or tailing terrorists, but his job was to provide all of the “stuff”, whether that be passports, clothing, or props to make an agent’s cover believable. There have been lots of spy stories about the James Bond types, but I’ve never read or seen anything that delves into the Q side of the world and it’s fascinating. In stories it’s like, here are some random gadgets that will magically be relevant to the plot. I mean you don’t give someone a passenger ejector seat, if the bad guy is not going to be sitting in it in Act III. In real life, every prop or technique they developed was in response to a real life problem and Tony goes into the whys and hows of the various things they came up with.
  • Though he started out in the CIA as a graphic artist and forger, Mendez’s biggest contribution was how he revolutionized disguises. He worked with legendary Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (who he calls Jerome Calloway in the book since his identity was still a secret when it was originally published) in adapting make-up techniques that could completely change someone’s appearance to be used in the field. He also developed ways that agents could quickly don and get rid of disguises in order to escape the omnipresence of the KGB in Moscow in order to meet with their assets undetected. These methods are still used today, so Mendez is understandably vague about the details, but it’s very impressive. Plus, it’s a little mind-blowing to learn that the ridiculous Mission Impossible-style mask is not so far off from reality.
  • The CIA has the best job titles. At one point, Tony is named Chief of Disguises and there’s also a Chief of the Questioned Documents Laboratory. How awesome would it be to have either of those titles on your business cards? You know, if CIA agents could actually have business cards.
  • I’ve become obsessed with the new show The Americans on FX, which is about two Russian spies who have been posing as a suburban Washington DC married couple for YEARS and all the emotional baggage that comes with it. It’s awesome and Keri Russell gets to have fabulous hair and kick a lot of ass. ANYWAY, one of the things that struck me about the show AND this book (see, there had to be a connection eventually) is how low tech the spy business was back then. No cell phones, no facial recognition, no scanning of any kind. There were listening devices, and cameras, and microdots, and radios, for crying out loud. Electronics were really only starting to be more prominent at the end of Mendez’s tenure in the late 80s and there was apparently some resistance and skepticism at first. The advances in technology have to have changed the intelligence business drastically, but I wonder if it’s made it easier or more difficult.

I’ve been thinking recently about why I’m so fascinated by spy stories. Sure, there tends to be heroes, villains, action, adventure, danger, and the appeal of doing something bad or shifty for the greater good. But I think the biggest draw is peeking into a world that, by necessity, is so secretive and unknown. Tony Mendez pulls back the curtain a bit and it’s a fascinating glimpse into a very real man involved in some extraordinary circumstances.