Monday, July 15, 2013

BLOG TOUR/GUEST POST/GIVEAWAY: Playing with Fire by Bruce Hale


Max Segredo, tossed out by yet another foster family, has finally come to the end of the line. After being wrongly accused of setting a fire, he is sent to the Merry Sunshine Orphanage — on his thirteenth birthday, no less.

But what kind of group home offers classes in surveillance techniques, lock picking, and mixed martial arts? When the staff announces a “field trip” that involves breaking and entering, Max knows this is no ordinary orphanage.

Yet Max has something more important on his mind. Someone has slipped him a message stating that his father is still alive. Max is eager to find Simon Segredo, even though it might mean betraying everyone at Merry Sunshine. Because when it comes to family, blood is what counts. Right?


According to best available information, Bruce Hale grew up on the outskirts of Los Angeles, raised either by a businessman and his wife, or by wolves. After childhood exposure to the book, TARZAN OF THE APES, he decided he wanted to become an author. (Or a pirate. Reports differ.)

As a youth, Bruce loved mysteries and spy stories, including The Man From U.N.C.L.E., James Bond movies, Get Smart, and Our Man Flint. Analysts suspect this may have planted the seeds for future involvement in SCHOOL FOR S.P.I.E.S.

After college, Bruce assumed various identities — gardener, DJ, cartoonist, magazine editor, actor, and corporate lackey. But always in the back of his mind was a return to writing.

Today, Bruce has written and illustrated nearly 30 books for young readers, including the Chet Gecko Mysteries, the Underwhere graphic novels, and Snoring Beauty. He claims no direct knowledge of code-breaking, disguise, or wiretapping techniques.

Some of his more suspicious claims — that he appeared in a movie, won the Nobel Peace Prize, hiked the Himalayas, and won an Olympic gold medal for the Underwater Nerf Ball event — are still being investigated.

Bruce was last seen on the streets of Santa Barbara. Approach with caution — suspect is armed with a wicked sense of humor.

Known aliases:

Agent X
Rico Suave



How to send a secret message
By Bruce Hale
One of the great pleasures of writing a spy book is getting to do the research. And one of the most interesting things for me to research was secret codes. I remember, as a sixth-grader, I was envious of those two girls in my class who knew American Sign Language and could “talk” during class with impunity, while those of us who sent wadded-up notes were usually busted by the teacher.

I haven’t gotten around to learning ASL yet, but during my book research, I did manage to pick up a couple of codes that your average exasperated teacher might not crack.
Shopping List Code

Simple, but effective. Create a normal-looking shopping list. Your partner will decode it by taking the first letter of each line on the list. But if there’s a number in front of that word, then you take whatever letter the number tells you to.

For example: 4 apples means to use the l from that word, but just the word apples means to use the a. Got it? Go ahead, try to decipher the shopping list message below.
5 papayas
2 honeydews
udon noodles
6 breadfruit
2 figs
7 cherimoyas
paper towels
6 boysenberries
And even if your partner doesn’t decipher the message, you’ll have the makings for a truly disgusting smoothie. 

[Message reads: your fly is open.]
Caesar Cipher

One of the oldest codes in the world is the Caesar Cipher, named after the famous salad dressing. I jest. It was actually named after Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, who used it in his private letters when he didn’t want nosy folks to grasp his meaning.

This simple encryption technique relies on substitution. Each letter in the plaintext (original message) is replaced by a letter some fixed number of positions down (or up) the alphabet. For instance, with a shift of 2, A would be replaced by C, B would become D, and so forth.

This code is easily broken, especially in our computer age. However, in Caesar’s day, when many people could barely read, it proved effective enough in protecting his military messages from prying eyes. This is an excellent cipher for the beginner. (Note: Despite what some sources tell you, you don’t need to be wearing a toga to use it.)
To encode a message in Caesar Cipher, first align two alphabets; the cipher alphabet being the plain alphabet shifted left or right by a designated number of spaces. For instance, here is a Caesar Cipher using a right rotation of two places:
When you’re encrypting a message, look up each letter in the “plain” line and replace it with the corresponding letter in the cipher line, like so:
Ciphertext:    UCR ZGPBQ DJW QMSRF
Plaintext:       wet     birds   fly      south
To enable deciphering, tell your contact person the key—the number of spaces shifted left or right—and they will perform the process in reverse. The idea, of course, is to make sure that the key doesn’t fall into anyone’s hands but the intended recipient’s.

Otherwise, your teacher will decipher it easily, and you’ll wish you’d learned American Sign Language instead.


I quite enjoyed this book with its spy school and great characters. Max is definitely a sympathetic character, starting at the beginning where he is accused by his foster father of starting the fire that burns down their  house, which he didn't do apparently.  When Max ends up at the spy school he meets Hantai Annie Wong who runs the school, the half-Chinese lady who speaks Japanese and barely English.  He is baffled by the classes he takes that introduce him to dodging flying projectiles and picking locks.  He eventually learns that this so-called orphanage is really a school for spies.  But the only thing Max is really interested in is finding his father, who he learned from a secret coded message is still alive, and he doesn't care who he has to hurt to find him.

I enjoyed the diversity inherent in the story, Max is half Thai and half Caucasian (I strongly suspect of British origins judging by some of his slang). Wyatt, who Max recruits to help him find his father is Australian and his slang is quite entertaining, not to mention a bit baffling.  This book would be great for teaching kids about how different the same language can be.  I also liked the underlying theme of family being where we find it and not depending on blood. And the metaphors and similes are fun.  Here are some examples:

"A shaggy black-and-brown dog the size of a Shetland pony sat by the long table, watching every bite, ropes of drool dangling from its mouth.  When Max passed by, it growled, rumbling like a distant avalanche." 
 Bottom-heavy and block-headed, they resembled a pair of angry Russian nesting dolls.
Mostly though this book is an entertaining story with great characters and an adventuresome plot. Recommended.


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