March 06, 2008


The Squad: Perfect Cover; Killer Spirit. By Jennifer Lynn Barnes. Laurel-Leaf. $6.99 each

      It probably sounds like damning with faint praise to call The Squad the best Charlie’s Angels successor to have come around in a long time. But that’s just what it is, and the praise, if flippant, is entirely in the spirit of this smart-cheerleaders-save-the-nation romp. Sure, there has been cartoonish stuff like this before – in fact, there’s actually a cartoon series with virtually the same premise, called Totally Spies! (three hot Beverly Hills high-school girls repeatedly save the world). But whether Jennifer Lynn Barnes has seen the show or not – in fact, whether or not she has seen Charlie’s Angels and similar shows (or the movie Bring It On, about the trials and tribulations of a cheerleading squad) – she has created something delightful here. It’s frothy and silly and filled with absurdity, but the characters are actually likable (except when they’re supposed to be unlikable), and the plots are so far out into absurdity that you wouldn’t take them seriously if you didn’t really care about the cheerleaders…which, surprisingly, you do.

      A series has to start somewhere, and this one starts with Perfect Cover, in which we meet the Bayport High varsity cheerleaders and a girl named Toby Klein, who narrates the book and wants to join the squad. One thing that works well here is the placement of high-school students in a real-world pecking order, with (for better or worse) cheerleaders and jocks at the top and nonconformists at the bottom. This lets Barnes cheerfully mix up stereotypes, as some cheerleaders (including Toby) turn out to be super-smart and play against type. But then they play to type when tracking down bad guys, which is part of the fun here: who would believe miniskirted, minibrained cheerleaders were smart enough to pull off some of these capers? There’s a touch of the Legally Blonde ethos in the whole world of The Squad: judge these girls by their looks alone and they’ll have you right where they want you.

      So Toby eventually makes it onto the squad, which leads to little bonding moments like this one: “The twins and I were sitting in the backseat of Chloe’s car, a chic little red number that totally wasn’t big enough for six people. Luckily, Bubbles and Lucy were so tiny that they only counted as two-thirds of a person each, and neither of them seemed to be the least bit put out that they were sharing the shotgun seat.” While riding, the girls discuss the right way to kick men. Oh…all this occurs in a chapter called “Code Word: Footsie” – every chapter starts with a different code word that more or less gives a hint about what’s going to happen (examples include “Gel Bra” – okay, that’s two words – and “Stud,” “Smile” and “Sexy”).

      After Perfect Cover establishes the series’ premise, Killer Spirit gets down to business with a story in which Toby has to use her computer-hacking and phony-flatulence skills to help figure out why four people connected with terrorism have all shown up in Bayport hotels. At the same time, she has to confront the possibility that she, of all people, will be nominated as homecoming queen – setting up a potentially lethal (or at least extremely embarrassing) confrontation with squad captain Brooke. Toby slogs through such chapter-heading code words as Practice, Kisses, Envy, Itchy and Issues on the way to some Answers (that’s a code word, too) that eventually put Toby into a “happy daze” and ready for the next mission. Happy days will surely be here again when it begins.

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