Tag Archives: spies!

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.


Spies and Thieves

Double CrossedI believe I’ve mentioned my love of stories about spies and thieves before. In fact, one might say that I’ve discussed it incessantly. It should be no surprise then that Ally Carter is one of my favorite YA authors. I mean she has one series about teenaged spies and another series about teenaged thieves. What’s not to love? Now in anticipation of new books coming out in BOTH series in 2013, Ally Carter has put out the holy grail for obsessive fans like me: a crossover story.  And the best part is that it’s free!

Double Crossed (Disney/Hyperion 2013) finds Gallagher Girl Macey McHenry and Heist Society’s W.W. Hale V meeting up at a fancy society charity gala.  Both were born into immense privilege and both can tell that the other has more going on beneath the surface. So naturally when a group of thieves crash the party and hold everyone hostage, Macey and Hale have to team up to save the day, with a little outside help from master thief Kat Bishop and super-agent Aunt Abby. Yay!

The plot is kind of beside the point here. I mean all I really ask in a crossover story is that there be a legitimate reason for the characters to cross paths.  And of all the characters from both series, Macey (who is my favorite Gallagher Girl, by the way) and Hale make the most sense. Not only were they both born into that uber-rich world, but they both use that world to hide their true badass selves. There are lots of fun “why is that billionaire boy pick-pocketing the mayor (because he can)” and  “why does that socialite know Albanian (because it was for extra credit) kind of moments. The heist plot makes enough sense and it’s satisfying when they inevitably take the bad guys down.

Double Crossed is a treat for the fans. Not to get too greedy, but it made me want a whole bunch of stand-alone crossover novels, like those Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys specials from when I was a kid. You don’t need to have read the previous books to understand the story though. And since it also contains the first three chapters of Heist Society and I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You, it’s a good way for readers to sample Ally Carter’s world. The story is only available electronically, but you can read it at SpiesAndThieves.com if you do not have an e-reader.  And only a few more weeks until the next book!

Band of Misfits

You know, one can not live on YA, chick-lit, and stories about people with magical powers alone.  Sometimes you have to mix it up a bit and cleanse your literary palate.  Sometimes you have to read …  a grown-up book.  About history. I know, I know, it’s a radical concept, but stay with me for a moment.  This book has adventure!  Intrigue!  And SPIES! I can’t venture too far out of my comfort zone after all. There have been many, many books about World War II and D-Day, but  Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies (Crown 2012) by Ben Macintyre tells the story of the British intelligence division that specialized in turning German spies into double agents.  Employing some of the last people that you’d want the fate of the free world to depend on — a shady Serbian playboy, a bisexual Peruvian party girl, a fanatical Polish patriot, an eccentric Spaniard with a degree in chicken farming, and a petty Frenchwoman who almost ruined the whole thing because of her stupid dog — the Double Cross spies and their handlers were at the heart of the massive deception that sought to keep as many German troops from the Normandy coast for as long as possible, thus saving thousands of Allied soldiers lives.

Macintyre writes in an appealing style that is perfect for the average layperson (someone who is not the biggest history buff, but who does have an interest and a certain amount of knowledge about a particular subject, in this case, World War II), but backs up his story with exhaustive research through MI5’s recently declassified wartime intelligence files and other sources.  It helps that the subject is so inherently intriguing and that the characters, both the spies themselves and their handlers, are so colorful, but I think it takes skill to marry all that raw data into a cohesive and engaging narrative. The thing I was most impressed with though is that Macintyre manages to weave actual tension and suspense into the story considering WE KNOW HOW D-DAY TURNS OUT.  Spoiler alert: it worked.  And yet I found myself really anxious if so-an-so was going to get caught or if the Germans were suspecting anything.  Well played, sir.

A few more observations and/or favorite bits:

  • Though I think Macintyre hits this point too hard occasionally, the most amazing thing about this whole double agent enterprise was how fragile it was.  If just one spy was caught in a lie or discovered then the Germans would suspect that ALL spies could be compromised.  And if they knew that the intel they were being fed was faulty, then the Germans would be able to guess the real plans more easily.  Plus, with one exception, it’s not like these double agents were of sterling moral character. Their unpredictability gave their handlers a lot of sleepless nights.
  • On a related note, we’re really lucky that the Germans were so gullible and in some cases corrupt! They believed some ridiculous whoppers.  And several of the German handlers were taking cuts of the money that the Nazis were paying the spies, so even if they suspected anything, they had a financial incentive not to turn the spies in.
  • My favorite spy featured in the story is Juan Pujol Garcia, the Spanish chicken farmer, because he decided that he wanted to spy for the British but at first they were all, “hmm, we’re good,” so he just started pretending to spy for the Germans and made stuff up.  Only he didn’t really know much about England and some of the stuff he came up with made no sense but the Germans still bought it (see the above bullet point), so MI-5 ended up recruiting him anyway so at the very least he didn’t accidentally reveal real military plans.  And the entire rest of the war Pujol sat in a room in England and made shit up. He invented an entire fake spy ring with a cast of hundreds of pretend spies who each had their own fake occupations and fake motivations.  I mean, he was essentially writing his own spy soap opera.  At one point they worried that the Germans would realize that it was physically impossible for one person to be gathering all that info, but no, the Nazis LOVED him.  They awarded him the Iron Cross for extraordinary merits!
  • On a critical note, I feel like the two female double agents get the short shrift in this book.  I’m not sure if it’s because their stories were less showy than their male counterparts or if, due to the sexism of the time, there were just less records about them, but I would have liked to have delved into their stories more.

I’m not a big history buff or a big non-fiction reader, but I really enjoyed Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies.  It takes a subject that’s been discussed to death and tells it in a new and interesting way. It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of spy stories, but to read details about how real people accomplished amazing things not using crazy disguise or fancy martial arts, but through sheer balls is inspiring.  If you are into World War II or spies at all, I’d recommend checking it out.

I Don’t Know What I Did Last Summer

Warning: There will be spoilers for earlier books in the series in the review below.  Read at your own risk!

When we last saw our heroine, Cammie Morgan (aka The Chameleon) had just narrowly escaped the clutches of the nefarious Circle of Cavan during an attack that had left suspected double agent (but in reality triple agent) Joe Solomon in a coma.  Knowing that she was endangering everyone she loved, Cammie ran away determined to find out why the Circle wanted her and what they had done to her father five years earlier.  Out of Sight, Out of Mind (Disney Hyperion Books 2012) picks up 4 months later when Cammie wakes up in an isolated Austrian convent with her oddly emaciated body covered in bruises and various other injuries, her hair cut short and dyed, and oh yeah…NO MEMORY.  Oh God, it’s just like the third season of Alias!  Which granted, was not the best season of that show, but I blame the convoluted Rimbaldi mythology and Melissa George’s craptastic acting “skills” rather than the amnesia plot.

Oh sorry, I just had to spend an hour watching Alias clips on You Tube, but I’m back now. ANYWAY, once she returns to The Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women (you know, the spy school for girls), nothing is the same. For one, her friends, who are pissed that she left without them, don’t seem that happy to see her.  Their reactions range from falsely cheerful to downright hostile.  Also, it seems like her sorta-boyfriend, Zach, has gotten quite close to her best friend over the summer.  The CIA and school trustees aren’t entirely sure that Cammie should be trusted, and for good reason.  She’s behaving erratically, losing time, and seems to have picked up a few new … skill sets during her time away.  With the help of new faculty member, Dr. Steve, Cammie and her friends try to piece together what happened over summer vacation.

This story is the darkest installment to the Gallagher Girls series yet and I loved every second of it.  So I decided, in true Cammie Morgan style, to make a PRO/CON list detailing my feelings about this book.


(A list by Captain Awesome)

PRO: Amneeeeesia!  I wasn’t kidding in our 2012 preview post that my love of amnesia stories stems from a lifetime of watching daytime television.  And yes, it can be kind of a cheesy cliche on the soaps, but there’s something fundamentally terrifying about losing your memory.  We are who we are because of a culmination of our life experiences and if you can’t remember those experiences, then I’d imagine that would be pretty disconcerting.  In Cammie’s case, she’s clearly undergone some kind of physical trauma, most likely torture, and her Mom is urging her NOT to try and remember the pain.  It makes for some pretty great drama.

CON: Because of the amnesia, the reader only gets the same bits and pieces that Cammie herself remembers.  While this brings a lovely tension to the narrative, it also means that we never find out everything that happened over the summer.  A part of me thinks that this is a really interesting stylistic choice, but the rest of me wants to know EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENED RIGHT NOW DAMNIT!

PRO:  Ahh, the unreliable narrator: a classic literary trope.  I love it because it always keeps the reader guessing.  Is Cammie just traumatized or has she gone crazy? Or is she even working for the enemy?  I don’t know and it’s fantastic.

CON: Because Ally Carter has done such a good job of making us care about Cammie over the four previous books, it’s difficult to watch her go through such hell in this one.  I just want to give her a hug.  And as some of you know, I am not normally a hugger.

PRO: One of Ally Carter’s strengths is writing relatable teenage girls in unrelatable circumstances. Despite the whole spy thing, Cammie and her friends feel very much like real teenage girls.

CON: Real teenage girls can be really annoying. Hey Bex, I understand that you’re mad at Cammie for leaving without you, but she’s been tortured.  Cut her some slack!  And Cammie, yelling at your mother because she didn’t find you when you specifically did everything you could to keep that from happening, makes me want to smack you.

PRO: Zach is now a Gallagher Girl!  As another target of the the Circle Cavan, it makes sense that he would only be safe at the Gallagher Academy, but the idea of Zach in his little uniform, taking classes and eating breakfast with all the other girls really amuses me.  Plus since all of his secrets are now out, he’s dropped that cryptic yet smirky facade and now has a haunted protector thing going for him that I’m sure will make all the teenaged girls swoon.

CON: I am not a teenager, so even though I like the Zach character quite a lot, I did not swoon.  The romance angle aspect of the story is fine, but not the most interesting part of the series for me.

PRO: Ally Carter manages to tie together the events of the first book, I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You, to the main series arc. Aside from setting up Gallagher Academy and the main characters, the first book has always seemed different in tone to me and almost unconnected to the books that followed, so it’s nice to see how it fits with the series as a whole.

CON: It’s a really small connection and I kind of wish that she’d gone all out with it instead.  Like maybe have the whole town of Roseville be spies for the Circle or something.  Oh God, it’s possible that I really have been watching too much Alias, isn’t it?

PRO: I seriously think that this is one of the best designed series in YA.  I mean between the school uniform plaid and the ransom note style lettering, you know exactly what the basic premise of the series is.  Genius.  And this one is no exception. The darker cover definitely reflects the darker tone of the story and will look so pretty on my bookshelf next to the others in the series.  And that’s really what’s most important.

CON:  There’s one of those headless girls on the cover, which I know bothers some people, but I’m ok with it.

PRO: Ally Carter wraps up the story for this book quite nicely, but also clearly sets up the premise for the 6th and final book of the series.  And it’s going to be good, guys!

CON: We’ll probably have to wait like a year for the next book.  Boo.

PRO: “‘You know,’ I whispered, ‘some girls might think it’s creepy having a boy watch them sleep.'” (pg. 282)  Bless you, Cammie Morgan.

 And now, just because, a clip from Alias:


And the book trailer:

The Play’s the Thing

Augustus Whittlesby has been a spy for a very long time.  He’s spent a decade in Paris posing as the world’s worst poet and sending secret information back to England hidden in hideous poems.  Augustus is starting to tire of the spying game–after all he’s starting to rhyme and alliterate even in his thoughts and everyday speech–when he hears of a device that Napolean has acquired to invade England.  Not knowing what the device is or really any details whatsoever, Augustus needs to infiltrate the soon-to-be Emperor’s court.  Enter Emma Delgardie, American ex-pat and a close friend of Napolean’s wife and step-daughter.  Since being widowed 4 years prior, Emma has spent her days floating from party to party and criticizing Augustus’s terrible poetry.  Faced with the option of staying in France or returning to America, Emma agrees to write a masque for the Bonaparte’s upcoming house party in order to postpone having to make any decision at all.  Augustus sees his way in and soon the two are collaborating on the most ridiculous play that France will ever see.  Seriously, there’s a character named Americanus, and a pirate queen, and I don’t know what else.  Of course, Augustus and Emma grow a lot closer while writing their masque which leads to all sorts of complications.  Will Augustus be able to let down his long-held guard and save England?  Will Emma be able to let go of her comfortable life and forgive Augustus for the fact that he’s been using her when she inevitably finds out about his true identity?  Probably.  This is a fluffy romance, after all. And I mean that in the best possible way.

As the ninth (!) book in the Pink Carnation series, The Garden Intrigue (Dutton 2012) could have been stale or a rehash of the older books.  Luckily, Lauren Willig is able to keep things fresh by varying the locations, spy plots, and most importantly: the main couple in each novel. A boring central couple (ROBERT AND CHARLOTTE) can really drag down the whole novel, but Augustus and Emma are intriguing characters, both separately and together. They both have a world-weary, been-around-the-block thing going on that I personally find so much more interesting than a gee-whiz, puppy love type relationship.  The dialogue sparks between the two characters, but also deepens as Augustus and Emma start to shed the pretenses they put up for the rest of the world.  And they’re both amusing rather than mushy, which is always appreciated.

The spy plot was perhaps not quite as actiony as I prefer, but still good nonetheless.  The mysterious device actually was dangerous and there were lots of eavesdropping of conversations and tension-filled coded messages.  Jane and Ms. Gwen both popped up, though there wasn’t NEARLY enough of the latter.  Seriously, she didn’t get to hit anyone with her parasol or blow something up once.  I’m only mollified by the fact that Ms. Gwen will be the heroine of the next novel in the series.  Spoiler.

And of course, I shouldn’t neglect poor Colin Selwick and Eloise Kelly.  Eloise is a Harvard grad student doing archival research in England on Napoleanic era spies and Colin is the descendant of the Pink Carnation who possesses said archives.  Colin and Eloise only get 6 chapters per book so they not only provide the framing device for the main narrative (it involves the characters Eloise are currently researching), but their little story usually parallels the historical plot.  I think that this novel actually contains the strongest Colin and Eloise story in awhile.  They haven’t been terribly interesting ever since the two started dating, but The Garden Intrigue has some good Selwick family drama as well as a classic boyfriend vs. career dilemma for Eloise.  At the book signing that we attended two weeks ago, Willig revealed that she’s ending the series with the eleventh book (which I think is smart), and I could definitely see hints of Colin and Eloise’s story wrapping up.  For the first time since book 3, I’m actually interested to see where these two go next.

The Garden Intrigue is another strong entry to this funny, adventurous, romantic, and clever series.  If any of that interests you, start at the beginning and check out The Secret History of the Pink Carnation. You can thank us later. Or not.  It’s entirely up to you.