Growing Bookworms Newsletter: Election Day Edition
Tacky the Penguin: Helen Lester

The Squad: Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Books: Perfect Cover and Killer Spirit, Books 1 and 2 of The Squad
Author: Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Pages: ~300
Age Range: 13 and up

Perfect CoverLast week I read the first two books in Jennifer Lynn Barnes' new series: The Squad, Perfect Cover and Killer Spirit. The Squad books are light and fun and perfect for fans of girl-focused teen mystery and spy books (Ally Carter's Gallagher Girls books, Meg Cabot's 1-800-Where-R-You series, etc.). They would be an excellent next series for middle school fans of the Kiki Strike books (if, that is, they are ready to interject a bit of romance into their crime fiction). 

The premise of the Squad books is that the cheerleading squad at Bayport High is actually an elite, highly trained team of government operatives. Though some might find this premise difficult to swallow, the author actually makes some good points. Who better to go undercover than people whom no one would ever take seriously as a threat? What better way for a group of covert operatives to stay fit than cheerleading practice? Who better to present the world with a calculated illusion than those who look happy and peppy, no matter what tragedy might strike their personal lives? Who better to distract bad guys than attractive high school girls? Sound entertaining? Read on. Sound ridiculous? Well, these books might not be for you.

The series begins with Perfect Cover, in which high school sophomore Toby Klein, rebellious loner, new kid, and talented computer hacker, is recruited to become part of the God Squad (the varsity cheerleading team). Toby thinks that the whole thing is ridiculous, of course (and maybe even a cruel joke), until she learns that she's been selected because of her hacking and karate skills. And then she can't resist the challenge.

The first book is mainly about Toby's transformation to popular kid (involving a serious makeover), and her very brief training period before she is dropped into a mission. There is subterfuge, hacking, and, oh yes, an assignment to distract a particular boy who has connections to the bad guys. A boy who just happens to be both attractive and intelligent. Yes, this is perfect high school escapism.

Killer SpiritThe second book, Killer Spirit, picks up right after the conclusion of the first. The Squad is assigned to keep tabs on four Terrorist Connected Individuals (TCI) who have, for reasons unknown, all arrived in Bayport. Things become serious pretty quickly, when one of the TCIs is killed. Even more disturbing is the fact that Toby herself seems to be a target. All of this is set against a backdrop of people at the school voting for Homecoming Queen. Tensions mount within the Squad when sophomore Toby, thanks to the efforts of her pesky younger brother, appears to be a contender.

I had a bit of trouble keeping all of the cheerleaders straight while reading the first book, but I had them all down by the middle of second title. And by the end of the second book, I was completely ready for more (though there aren't any more books, at least at this point). What makes both of these books work is the inherent conflict between Toby's rebellious, loner nature and her immersion into a group of hyper-popular, perfectly groomed cheerleaders. She fights back, but also finds herself seduced by the power, and the satisfaction of being part of a team. Even when the premise is ridiculous, Toby's personal struggles feel real. Not to mention being highly entertaining.

Here are a couple of quotes to give you a feel for Toby. She goes from this:

"My (locker) combination was an anagram of a six-digit prime number. The fact that I knew that should tell you a little bit about me." (Page 6, Book 1)

"I admit it. I'm not the nicest person. I have been known, on occasion, to use my sharp wit and clever puns for evil, rather than good. I don't smile at people just because they smiled at me first, and if I have something to say to someone, I say it to their face. I am, in other words, the anti-cheerleader."(Page 13, Book 1)

to this:

"Apparently, I'd missed the part of my cheerleading training the involved synchronized awwwwwing. Given that pesky gag reflex of mine, this was probably a good thing." (Page 34, Book 2)

"Less than an hour ago, all I'd wanted was detention. Now, I was nominated for homecoming court and going to the big dance with the hottest guy in school. Somewhere out there, God was laughing at me. I was sure of it." (Page 46, Book 2)

Seriously, shouldn't this be a TV show on the CW? Or is it too much like some Buffy/Veronica Mars hybrid? Or perhaps this generation's Charlie's Angels (a parallel that Toby herself draws repeatedly through the books)? Regardless, I had a lot of fun reading both books, and I will certainly seek out any other installments to the series. Recommended for middle school and high school girls who like a blend of danger and romance in their reading.

Publisher: Laurel Leaf Publishing (Random House) 
Publication Date: February 12, 2008, original mass market paperbacks
Source of Book: Review copies from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Bookluver-Carol's Reviews, Laura Bowers, Book~Adorer, Books4Ever, The Book Brat, Abby (the) Librarian
Author Interviews: Girlfriends' Cyber Circuit, Words of an Author

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.