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Alex Rider is a name well known to English teachers, so it was high time that I tried reading at least one book in this popular series to find out just what all the fuss was about. 'Crocodile Tears', nominated for this year's Berkshire Book Award and described as 'Alex's most action-packed adventure yet' seemed like a fair place to start, especially as I needed to read it in order to lead a book group on it! For those of you not familiar with him, Alex Rider is the 14 year old hero of a series of books developed by popular author of teenage fiction, Anthony Horowitz. This is the eighth in the series and, based on my research online, follows a similar pattern to previous books. Alex is a heroic spy, sent into dangerous situations by M16, who ends up having to save himself and others from dire situations. So, in summary, this would be every boy's dream, right? Summoned up by M16, given deadly tools to experiment with, knowing that you've saved the country/ your family/ your friends from near certain torture/ agony/ death. If only he didn't still have to attend school and do homework between bouts of international crime fighting. However, in this book at least, Alex is unhappy about the risks he is taking and is trying to move away from his life as a spy. Of course, he can't succeed if the fans are going to be kept happy, and he doesn't.
As always when reviewing fiction aimed at teenagers, I feel it is important to state at the outset that I am not the target audience, so my views should not necessarily be taken as representative, although I always endeavour to be fair.
== The plot ==
The crocodile eye on the front cover seemed suitably threatening for an adventure/spy story, but how could the adventures of a teenage boy potentially result in 'the destruction of an entire East African country'?
Alex Rider, reluctant teenage spy for M16, is enjoying a peaceful visit to a castle in Scotland for New Year's Eve (as you do) when he is drawn into a game of poker with an internationally renowned business man (as can so easily happen). Being a magnet for trouble, it is not long before Alex is attempting to rescue himself and his companions from near certain death. But could this possibly have anything to do with the poker game?
Amusingly, the blurb states that 'things get worse when he is confronted by a journalist who threatens to publish the truth about his life as a teenage spy'. Firstly, I'd have thought few things could be considered a greater concern than almost dying - although this doesn't exactly happen to me on a daily basis, so who knows? Maybe those who regularly escape the reaper begin to find it all a bit routine and long for something a bit tamer to vary the pace. Secondly, who doesn't want to be rich and famous? Actually, I suppose that could be rather bad news if your career choice depended upon people not knowing who you are...
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the journalist does turn out to be rather less of a threat than the suave business man with the chequered past. Despite resolving not to get involved, Alex is soon evading poisonous plants, stealing life threatening chemicals and running for his life through the wilds of Africa. On the way he deploys an arsenal of inventive gadgets, courtesy of a man whose name is Smithers, (but who should surely be called Q,) jumps, runs and generally puts his body through the equivalent of at least ten days worth of army training. A lesser boy would give up hope, collapse and wait for it all to end, but Alex is made of sterner, nigh on invincible, stuff.
Ultimately, as always, Alex is forced to rely on himself to save the day. Can he manage to evade man eating crocodiles, man shooting hunters and a megalomaniac businessman intent on destroying a continent for profit? Can he do this while simultaneously saving Africa? Come on; he's Alex Rider! He can do all this...right?
== First impressions ==
My first impressions, sadly, were not good. The prologue, entitled 'Fire Star', was almost impressively dull to read, considering that it included plotting, betrayal, mass murder and a nuclear power plant. The written style is very factual and incorporates a great deal of technical description at points. The technical description is not difficult to follow, but it is fairly dry. Horowitz skims over the death and destruction, focusing, apparently bizarrely, on the amount of money raised by charity to deal with the fallout. The chapter ends on the note that, 'of course, if the disaster had been any greater, they would have raised much, much more'. This seems like an odd conclusion - especially as it is framed to sound slightly ominous - to a dramatic incident, but actually has great relevance later on. However, the prologue as a whole was un-engaging. Perhaps, knowing that these characters and their disaster is purely set-up, Horowitz did not care about engaging readers at this point, but simply wanted to get information across that would be relevant later on. Perhaps he simply handled it in too much of a low key manner for my taste. Either way, I was reluctant to read on.
The next chapter didn't really improve matters. In self reflective mode, our hero examines his appearance and reflects on his experiences over the past few years, including how they have changed him. I felt that this was useful in terms of establishing who Alex was and what his life was like, but once again it failed to really interest me and seemed too obviously a case of the author feeding me the character's history. Perhaps this would have felt more natural if it had been expressed in dialogue rather than self inspection in a mirror. Still, it is handled fairly briefly and is not likely to bore readers who are familiar with Alex's history. Indeed, I thought it was nice to see that Alex had a human side, as this becomes somewhat less evident later on.
These early chapters also introduce two characters who seem to be involved purely to facilitate Alex's meeting with the enemy and allow him to handle a life-or-death situation within the first five chapters of the story. Sabina and Edward Pleasure have presumably featured in earlier books, as Alex is able to reflect that last time he saw them he had to save their lives, but they have little function in this book except as plot facilitators. I was hoping that Sabina might provide a romantic interest, but she is not seen again after the initial chapters. The early dramatic incident was gripping, and I felt that this was far better written than the opening chapter, allowing me to really feel concern for Alex's predicament.
As the story progresses, Alex moves from scrape to scrape, getting bruised and shaken along the way. Although none of his later exploits quite match the intensity of his initial brush with death, he endures a variety of adventures before the final show down with the enemy. The storyline is fairly predictable and I was often one or two steps ahead of Alex which meant that the story lacked some excitement, but it was fairly well paced and no one scene dragged on or dominated. I wasn't desperate to pick it up and start reading, but when I was reading it was easy to pick up the plot and become involved in the storyline.
The chapters are well developed and end with nicely dramatic turns while (usually) avoiding ostentatious cliff hangers. I liked being able to close the book at the end of each chapter without feeling forced to read on and find out what would happen next. However, I always felt that there was something to find out; there were no 'gaps' in the narrative. Overall, it was a more satisfactory read than I had expected.
== A very conventional story ==
While it has a teenage boy in the role of super spy, Horowitz appears to 'borrow' a great many other details from the literature of spy history. Several critics have noted that the poker scene early on is very similar to a scene in James Bond - indeed, before the scene, Alex compares himself to Bond. As mentioned earlier, the gadgets are also highly typical of the genre, although obviously, as a mere 14 year old, Alex doesn't get to drive a super car. Although Alex is quite excited by his pencil case full of gadgets, I wasn't.
The villain is another problem: he is thoroughly black hearted and his love interest is unconvincing. Yawn. The final show down with this supposedly evil man is another 'motive declaration' special. Why do killers never simply kill? There'd be fewer heroes left in the world if the villains could stop talking and just start shooting. I found the obligatory showdown between Alex and the villain unconvincing, which rather spoilt the ending.
Another staple of the adventure genre is unbelievable escapes. In 'Crocodile Tears' there are a great many daring escapes which Horowitz insists are possible in his acknowledgements, but which sound highly implausible. Still, these are well described and suitably tense, even if there is a slight sense of inevitability about Alex's great escapes (after all, you can't kill off the main character with two hundred pages still to go).
== Conclusions ==
There is nothing new here and some critics have suggested that now, eight books in, the series is getting rather tired. I cannot comment on this because I have not read the previous books, but it seems likely that you would enjoy this book more if you had read the previous books in the series and had grown to care about Alex.
I found that it was very difficult to connect with Alex, as he does not seem to connect with anyone else. He kills people without concern, without even a backward glance. He causes the death of others, deliberately and inadvertently, without a tear shed or even a remorseful shake of the head. Towards the end of the novel, his housekeeper, Jack, worries about what Alex's experiences might be doing to him psychologically, so it may be that this coldness is a new aspect of Alex's personality intended to show the effect of his adventures. Horowitz has stated in interviews that this is the 'darkest' and 'most damaged' incarnation of Alex yet. Even if this is the case, it seemed unrealistic that killing people would provoke no emotional response at all - not even relief.
The moral ground is very simple here, but even so, there are some innocent casualties who go un-mourned. Violence is extreme, albeit not graphic, and there are no indications that any other method would be preferable: the villains must die. Preferably, they will die horribly. Perhaps it is asking a lot for a teen read, but I would prefer a hero who showed some capacity for empathy, remorse and human connection. I suppose it that were the case, though, the following for the series would probably be halved as the style of the books would be quite different.
If you are already an Alex Rider fan, then this is probably worth a read, especially as Horowitz has hinted that this may be the final instalment in the series. If not, it may be worth starting at the beginning to help build up a connection with the main character, although this is not essential if you're simply looking for a quick paced action adventure starring a supremely capable teenage boy. As for me, I don't quite understand the mass appeal this series has, but it was definitely more enjoyable than reading Jacqueline Wilson!
Crocodile Tears, the eighth book in the Alex Rider series, begins with an act of sabotage on a nuclear power station in India. Although casualties from the actual explosion are low, many are injured during the panic that follows. The first of the aid agencies on the scene is First Aid, a British charity which manages to get there - with the appropriate anti-radiation sickness medicine - remarkably quickly. In the timeline of the series, this event takes place during the third book, Skeleton Key, as Alex remarks that he heard about the incident while he was undercover as a ball boy at Wimbledon.
Back in the present, the fourteen-year-old spy is spending New Year in Scotland with his will-they-won't-they friend Sabina Pleasure and her parents. They attend a Hogmanay fundraiser at the castle home of the Reverend Desmond McCain, a former boxer who was ordained while in prison for insurance fraud, now the head of First Aid and the subject of a soon-to-be-published magazine article by Sabina's father. Alex manages to get on his bad side by beating him at cards, and later when he is talking to Sabina's father about an upcoming school project on GM crops, he notices that McCain has overheard him and is not looking pleased. On their way home, they have a car accident from which they only narrowly escape with their lives. Alex has reason to suspect that McCain had a hand in it - but why?
Back in London, Alex is approached by a journalist who has found out more than Alex would like about his double life. Alex goes to MI6 who say that of course they can stop the journalist from blowing the whistle, if he would just help them with one little thing...
This is a typically action-filled, location-hopping Alex Rider adventure, but it is refreshingly straightforward, a classic spy story, with much more in common with the early books of the series than the more recent, which I found variously too dark (Scorpia), too gruesome (Snakehead) and just plain silly (Ark Angel).
There are the usual slight niggles - most of the characters appear only fleetingly, and the bad guys are mostly one-dimensional (on the plus side, there is some small character development of Alan Blunt and Mrs Jones, which is long overdue). Horowitz has also not cracked the skill of knowing when detailed description of surroundings and machinery helps the reader to visualise the action, and when it merely slows the story down. But these are minor distractions, and adult readers have to bear in mind that these are children's books and have to be judged as such.
The action builds well, to a gripping and fast-paced finale (is there any way of saying that without it sounding like a horrible cliché?) and the final act is a stunner. It's not my absolute favourite of the series - that, I suspect, will always be Eagle Strike - but it is right up there with the best of them. Five stars.
I was recommended this book by a friend who loves action, and they suggested this one due to its fast moving pace and exciting. I was ready to be blown away by Alex Rider, a fourteen year old boy who works for M16.
The book throws you straight into the action, as right at the start a bomb explodes in a nuclear station in India. Alex is in Scotland at the time, partying with Desmond McCain, a big shot who arouses Alex's suspicions at once. When he narrowly avoids a car accident, Alex is convinced McCain is up to no good. Back in London, Alex learns that a journalist is about to reveal who he is, and has to fight to save the day before the bad guys find him.
I have to admit that I was disappointed by this book. Some of the scenes were very similar to other books, such as the poker game, and I'm not sure who its target audience was. While written as if aimed at children, there is a surprising amount of violence, and Alex does kill some people without showing any remorse. There is a lack of female characters with any relevance, they are all emotionless drones who work typical jobs, such as receptionists.
I believe this was the last in the series, and unfortunately I think the series could have done without this. I won't be reading any more.