Whoever wrote the teaser on the back of the book is brilliant:
Five delinquent Girl Scouts,
a million hungry rats,
one secret city beneath Manhattan,
and a butt-kicking girl superspy--welcome to the world of
I was hooked from the first paragraph. Our narrator is Ananka Fishbein:
Until the age of twelve, I led what most people would consider an unexceptional life. My activities on an average day could be boiled down to a flavorless mush: I went to school, I came home, I took a bath, and I went to bed. Though I'm certain I didn't realize it at the time, I must have been terribly bored.
As she tells it, one morning, she looked out of her bedroom window at the park across the street. Well, she looked at what used to be the park across the street. Overnight, the park had disappeared into a (what looked to be) bottomless sinkhole. As if that wasn't strange enough, she saw what looked like a "highly intelligent monkey or a troll of some sort" haul itself out of the hole, wave at her (with a cupped hand like British royalty) and scamper off into the mist:
Looking back, it's hard to imagine what my life might have become if I hadn't shoved my bare feet into a pair of furry pink snow boots, and run outside for a closer look. I've found that such opportunities are few and far between. If you miss them--or like most people simply fail to recognize them--there's no guarantee that another chance will ever come your way.
It doesn't take long for Ananka to team up with Kiki Strike and her band of delinquent Girl Scouts: Oona, the forger and lock-picker; DeeDee, the chemistry/explosives expert; Luz, the attitudinal electronics queen; and Betty, the team's mistress of disguise. (Are you thinking of Uma Thurman's monologue about "Fox Force Five" in Pulp Fiction? Because that's what I thought of -- except of course, these girls are twelve. Which just makes them that much cooler.)
Their adventure involves a secret network of tunnels and rooms under Manhattan, a bank robbery, very hungry (and murderous and huge) rats, loads of skeletons, a Chinese smuggling ring, a princess, kidnappings, explosions, a sack of gold doubloons, and a leader that they aren't sure they can entirely trust.
After my recent fun with Nancy Drew, this passage was especially welcome:
She handed Mrs. Young a business card. I almost laughed when I saw that it read: Kiki Strike, Detective.
"So you're a detective now?" I teased Kiki once we were inside the creaking elevator. "Like Nancy Drew?"
"Nancy Drew was just an amateur," Kiki sniffed, as if insulted by the comparison. "I'm the real thing."
It's super fun. The story is peppered with passage from Ananka's secret diaries -- there are instructions for everything from dealing with snakebites and frostbite to recognizing when someone is lying and how to actually lie effectively to planning an escape route to getting away from a kidnapper. With good reason, the publisher covers their butt on the verso page with a (strangely hilarious) disclaimer:
The advice given in this book, including first aid information, is meant as a literary device and an amusing sidebar. The author and publisher are not responsible for any accidents or injuries that may occur by following it. Refer instead to the American Red Cross.