Book Review: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #5 – The Black Circle

Title: The Black Circle
Author: Patrick Carman
Year of Publication: 2009
The 39 Clues: The Clue Hunt
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Plot Description: At the behest of a mysterious contact who claims to have known their grandmother, Amy and Dan Cahill travel to Russia to unravel a series of clues connected to the Lucian stronghold there, and also solve the mystery of whether Anastasia Romanova did really survive the assassination of the Tsar’s family.  And thus we come to my least favourite book in the entire series.

Over the course of the books so far, it has become clear that the clues they’re searching for are ingredients to an unknown compound. In Korea, Dan and Amy theorize that they may be searching for the Philosopher’s Stone. Gideon Cahill was an alchemist, but in the course of his efforts to find a cure for the Black Plague, he discovered a solution that would enhance the human body – intelligence, physique, artistic capabilities, ingenuity… When all the ingredients are combined, the Master Serum is formed, with the ability to transform any human being into something far beyond human.

The Black Circle does nothing new in terms of storytelling – the highlight of the book is perhaps the official alliance the Cahills form with the Holt family as they simultaneously search for clues in various Russian cities. But where the other books maintain a passable facade of being socially equitable, Carman manages to infuriate me by introducing some unnecessarily gendered rubbish.

Presumably as part of the Cahill kids’ character development, Carman has them driving vehicles through Moscow (thanks to fake IDs that establish them as being more than five years older than they are). Dan drives a motorcycle, and Amy drives the car. Now this… This! These roles could just as easily have been reversed. Now, I come from a country where women drive cars and scooters (like the Vespa). But if one were to take a census of the women who ride motorcycles in the country with the second largest population in the world, one would find that the number was so miniscule as to be practically invisible. I’ve been fighting numerous, numerous obstacles to be able to learn how to ride for a decade, and my younger brother practically had the lessons and the bikes handed to him on a silver platter.

No such obstructions exist in Dan and Amy’s world. It is a fictional world. It wouldn’t have killed anybody to have those roles reversed, and yet it seems to not have fucking occurred to them.

These things matter.

Next in this Series: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #6 – In Too Deep


Book Review: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #4 – Beyond the Grave

Title: Beyond the Grave
Author: Jude Watson
Year of Publication: 2009
The 39 Clues: The Clue Hunt
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Plot Description:  The Cahills are in Egypt, being clueless tourists and searching for statues of Al-Sakhet. Amy is still moping about Ian’s betrayal, which is silly, because there’s so much more betrayal to look forward to. (In relationships in general, as it is with the Clue Hunt in particular.)

It was revealed early on the books that the Cahill family consists of four distinct lineages descended from the four original siblings: Luke, Thomas, Katherine and Jane Cahill. Each branch specializes in something or the other – the Lucians are cunning and well versed in cold logic, ruthlessness and spycraft. The Tomas are athletic, and possessed of a slow and reliable intelligence. The Ekats are inventors possessed of great ingenuity. The Janus are the artsy ones. Amy and Dan are the only ones who are unaware of what branch they come from – their beloved grandmother Grace did not deign to tell them anything about the Cahill family, let alone what branch they’re descended from.

In each book, a new stronghold is discovered – and promptly broken into. It was Lucian in the first, Janus in the second, an ancient Tomas stronghold in the third, and now Ekat in Egypt. Amy and Dan’s dismay at not knowing their lineage only grows with each book, as they rue the number of disadvantages they’re saddled with as a consequence.

“It had been a seven-year string of bad luck, ever since their parents died in that house fire. How were Amy and Dan supposed to do this alone? The Kabras had money. Their parents supported them. Plus, they were working with Irina. The Holts were a whole family. Jonah Wizard had his dad planning every moment of his life. It was Amy and Dan against… families. Teams. Generations. They didn’t stand a chance.”
– The Sword Thief, Peter Lerangis, The Clue Hunt #3

Then there is the phrase they heard right in the first book: “Beware the Madrigals.”

Who the mysterious Madrigals are is unclear, nor is it particularly explained why they are so dangerous. But Amy and Dan finally get a firsthand look at Madrigal handiwork when they find that the clue they’re hunting in this book has been defaced and destroyed.

An interesting aspect of plot development is that every betrayal or otherwise act of violence perpetrated by one of the teams actually becomes a significant pivot that enables their characters to feel remorseful, and therefore take a 180 degree turn by the end of the series. Redemption is on the cards for (almost) all of them.

It would have, however, been great if Irina Spazky’s redemption wasn’t based on the latent maternal instincts that Amy and Dan evoke in her. Yes, truly, it would be nice to have a bloodthirsty Russian spy who switches sides because of some reason other than that she’d been a mother once upon a time. Also, Irina’s “spiritual experience” inside Nefertiti’s tomb sounds hella weird, and once again, smacks of the Oriental mysticism trope to me.

Pet Peeve: Also, can I just say that Saladin is the most unrealistic cat, ever? He behaves more like a dog than a cat. None of the cats I know would pass up the opportunity to take off once they’re anywhere in the great outdoors (with or without a healthy dose of panic on the side.)

Next Review: The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rineheart

Next in this Series: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #5 – The Black Circle

Book Review: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #3 – The Sword Thief

Title: The Sword Thief
Peter Lerangis
Year of Publication: 
The 39 Clues: The Clue Hunt
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the sword thief

Plot Description: Dan and Amy head to Tokyo, and then Korea in the footsteps of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. I’m guessing the antics of a brutal warlord are diluted because it’s supposed to be a book for children – one of the first things written about Toyotomi in his Wikipedia entry is the fact that he once ordered the death by crucifixion of 26 Christians.

I do not appreciate Peter Lerangis’ skill in writing, primarily because he seems to think that being a child means to be incredibly childish – indeed, he takes this to nonsensical levels:

I’m figuring maybe the subway was built into the already existing tunnels!”
The Holts shut up at once.
“Dan — ” Amy warned. “You’re telling this to them!”
Dan looked up, bewildered. “I was telling Uncle Alistair.”
“But we-ee-ee heard you,” Reagan sang in a taunt, and stuck out her tongue.

– The Sword Thief, The 39 Clues #3 by Peter Lerangis (emphasis mine)

Take the above exchange. They’re all sitting in a small car. Your typical 11-year old is not, in fact, incapable of understanding that sitting in the same car means that the people next to you can hear what you say.  Whoa. Did I just blow your mind, Lerangis?

I have absolutely no explanation for this passage, why the author thought it a good idea to include it, why the editors let it pass, and so on. None whatsoever.

This book is the big one for alliances. Irina and the Kabras are working together. Alistair and the Cahills are working together. And then Alistair, the Cahills and the Kabras all join forces so they can discover a clue in a cave… After Ian spends like, half the book flirting with Amy, the Kabras promptly betray the Cahills once the clue is found, and Alistair promptly abandons them so Amy is left holding onto all sorts of unresolved feelings.

There, there, Amy. Lack of closure thanks to unreliable males in your life is something I can assuredly relate to.

Fortunately for them, the Cahills are beginning to get with the program. Dan gives the Kabras the wrong clue, sending them haring off in the wrong direction.

Between alliances, a hint as to the real objective of the quest, continuous betrayals, and the Cahills beginning to understand that they really shouldn’t be trusting their opponents, plot development seems to take a few steps forward. Sadly, the book is very badly, childishly and unrealistically written, and the Ian-Amy angle reminds me that they are in fact cousins. Certainly, enough generations have passed since the first set of Cahill siblings for it to not matter much, but it’s still kind of icky.

Pet Peeve: “Schist” is mentioned – a joke that also appears in Riordan’s Son of Neptune. I wonder whether he asked Lerangis to put it in here, or whether Lerangis inspired him… If it’s the latter, let the record state that I’ve always thought that joke to be in bad taste.

“Schist,” said an angry voice from the grass.
Hazel raised her eyebrows. “Excuse me?”
“Schist! Big pile of schist!”
– Son of Neptune, Rick Riordan (Heroes of Olympus #2)

Next in this Series: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #4 – Beyond the Grave

Book Review: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #2 – One False Note

Title: One False Note
Gordon Korman
Year of Publication: 
The 39 Clues: The Clue Hunt
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One False Note

With 11 books and half a dozen authors, The 39 Clues: The Clue Hunt is a big series to review all at once. However, it’s also a children’s series, complete with interactive gameplay. The plot is actually quite simple and to the point, and each book is filled with adventures meant to spread the experience over a number of instalments.

Plot Description: The Cahills are apparently a great and influential family that has produced pretty much every famous person you’ve ever heard of – and even some you’ve never heard of. They have a family secret that will lend great power to whoever knows how to use it, and the 39 clues to that secret are spread across the world. Unfortunately, the family (which is divided into branches of descendants of the original Cahill siblings) is consumed by infighting and an utter lack of co-operation.
After their adventures in Paris, Amy and Dan Cahill, their au pair Nellie and Saladin, their grandmother’s cat, journey to Vienna, Austria – to the birthplace of Nannerl Mozart and her famous brother Wolfgang.

I appreciate the efforts to hammer home the idea that Nannerl, despite her talent being equal to (or greater than) that of her brother, lost out on the opportunities for fame and success due to her gender.  However, this fact is put across so repeatedly and bluntly that even the most understanding of readers will tire of it. It smacks of overcompensation.

And with good reason, because this shallow and ham handed attempt at feminism is as good as it gets. Nellie and Amy are shown to be very upset about the unfairness surrounding Nannerl Mozart, which is great, but I’d have deeply appreciated it if Dan was shown as having some reaction to their revelations other than eye rolling and dismissing it as “Boring girl stuff.” Spouting feminist content is no good unless little white 11 year old boys understand why it’s important, the significance of it.

All the characters are bluntly outlined caricatures. Amy and Dan are, of course, the best fleshed out, but even they fit the tropes of orphaned, lonely youngsters with pluck and spirit. I also don’t understand the concept of writing sibling rivalry in terms of “Cooties” and calling each other names. My siblings and I fought a lot, but there was no fundamental conception of each other as a “dweeb” or “Sisterus Dorkus” or anything else for that matter. We were who we were, and we were too young to try and quantify that with name-calling.

The other teams are: the Holts – a family of people built like “Neanderthals” (book’s words, not mine), obsessed with behaving like they’re a military unit, and excelling at athletics; the Kabras – a pair of siblings the same age as Dan and Amy, but who are rich, intelligent and cunning; Alistair Oh, an older Korean man with a flair for fancy clothing and enigma; the Starlings – incredibly intelligent and capable triplets; Jonah Wizard, a child hip hop star and Irina Spasky, a former KGB agent.

Irina speaks in what I suppose is “A Russian accent” – having never heard an actual Russian accent, I cannot judge, but it does seem to be a good approximation of the accents stereotypically heard on TV. In fact, Irina’s English reminds me of Anatoly Knyazev on Arrow.


Irina isn’t the only to be typecast – Jonah Wizard and Alistair Oh are a mess as well. As a hip-hop star, Jonah frequently refers to his homies, says “yo” or “word…” The fact that he’s a spoilt, rich kid pointedly clashes with his appearance and mannerisms, all of which faithfully follow the hip-hop image. He’s eventually shown to be a fan of Shakespeare, a fact that he tries to hide because he’d “lose his street cred.” I think that’s a pretty problematic description, since it equates “hip hop” with “lack of culture” (as culture is conventionally defined). I don’t think being a hip hop artist precludes anyone from enjoying Shakespeare or other classic English literature, and to imply otherwise is super messed up. The authors are so self-satisfied with their inclusionary antics that they overlook the deeper analysis of the dynamics of racism, and subtly end up implying that somehow Shakespeare (and speaking “Standard English”) are better than hip hop and AAVE.

Similarly, Alistair Oh being Korean means he must act in as “oriental” a manner as possible.

An Asian man with a placid smile, dressed in a silk suit with white gloves and a bowler hat.
“Greetings, my elusive relatives,” purred Alistair Oh.” – One False Note, The 39 Clues #2 (Gordon Korman).

Next in this Series: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #3 – The Sword Thief



Book Review: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #1 – The Maze of Bones

Title: The Maze of Bones
Author: Rick Riordan
Year of Publication: 2008
Series: The 39 Clues: The Clue Hunt
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.83
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

maze of bones

Plot Description: Orphaned at an early age, Amy and Dan Cahill developed a very close bond with their grandmother Grace. Now at her funeral, her will gives her relatives a choice between choosing a million dollars or a clue that will set them off on a curious quest for 39 different clues. Determined to honour Grace’s memory, Amy and Dan accept the quest that will pit them against various family members who all seem to be much better prepared and knowledgeable than the kids themselves are.

In the course of my reading of this series, I have frequently been given to consider the question of precisely what constitutes a good children’s book, and what a good review of a children’s book. It is obvious that the older you are, the less you are likely to relate to a book meant for kids. And it also goes without saying that all this makes reviewing an extremely difficult process.

What complicates this series even further is that each book is written by a different author. Of these, Rick Riordan and Gordon Korman are the only ones I’ve known of beforehand. The writing styles are therefore different, and there are inconsistencies in the tone, and in what kind of subliminal messages are prioritized.

Although I enjoy Riordan’s writing on the whole, in this case, I found that it grated. Particularly in the opening chapter, characterization seemed loud and unnecessarily bratty. Carter and Sadie Kane were a much better written pair of siblings than are Dan and Amy Cahill. Moreover, Riordan’s trademark humour seemed – at least to me – to be missing from this book. His comic timing has always helped me sail through his books before (indeed, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the single greatest thing about The Kane Chronicles).

As far as adventures go, this series seems to follow more along the lines of Katherine Applegate’s writing (or that of Lemony Snicket) than Riordan’s. While Percy Jackson and his cohorts also run into  (and out of) dangerous situations with alarming frequency, those situations seem much more natural and light hearted. Applegate and Snicket, on the other hand, seem to exist solely to bring misery to the lives of their child characters. I suppose The 39 Clues falls somewhere in the middle.

Pet Peeve: Unnecessary use of the world “spaz”, used apparently as a nickname for Irina Spazky, a Russian KGB agent and member of the Lucian branch of the Cahill family. Irina suffers from some neurological damage that gives her an involuntary eyeball twitch, but is never referred to by this particular nickname by anyone in the book. It’s just part of her introductory paragraph, serves no purpose whatsoever, and should really just have been left in the trash during editing.

Next Review: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #2 – One False Note