January 2020, Nonfiction

Life Undercover by Amaryllis Fox

Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA by Amaryllis Fox. October 15, 2019. Alfred A. Knopf, 229 p. ISBN: 9780525654971.  Int Lvl: AD; Rdg Lvl: AD.

Amaryllis Fox’s riveting memoir tells the story of her ten years in the most elite clandestine ops unit of the CIA, hunting the world’s most dangerous terrorists in sixteen countries while marrying and giving birth to a daughter

Amaryllis Fox was in her last year as an undergraduate at Oxford studying theology and international law when her writing mentor Daniel Pearl was captured and beheaded. Galvanized by this brutality, Fox applied to a master’s program in conflict and terrorism at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, where she created an algorithm that predicted, with uncanny certainty, the likelihood of a terrorist cell arising in any village around the world. At twenty-one, she was recruited by the CIA. Her first assignment was reading and analyzing hundreds of classified cables a day from foreign governments and synthesizing them into daily briefs for the president. Her next assignment was at the Iraq desk in the Counterterrorism center. At twenty-two, she was fast-tracked into advanced operations training, sent from Langley to “the Farm,” where she lived for six months in a simulated world learning how to use a Glock, how to get out of flexicuffs while locked in the trunk of a car, how to withstand torture, and the best ways to commit suicide in case of captivity. At the end of this training she was deployed as a spy under non-official cover–the most difficult and coveted job in the field as an art dealer specializing in tribal and indigenous art and sent to infiltrate terrorist networks in remote areas of the Middle East and Asia.

Potentially Sensitive Areas: Harsh realities of war, Mild sexual themes, Strong language, Violence


Author Interview


Booklist starred (October 1, 2019 (Vol. 116, No. 3))
At the age of 18, Fox traveled to Burma, a country in the midst of antigovernment riots, and interviewed the leader of the opposition movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest. So begins Fox’s path to the CIA. For a decade, she works as an undercover agent abroad, fighting terrorism and countering nuclear proliferation—all without her friends or family knowing her reality. She and her husband, whom she met in the CIA, don’t even know the details of each other’s missions. It is a strange and lonely life, but Fox manages to find moments to share her truth and discovers that recruiting assets (like Jakab, an arms broker who steals every scene he is in) is aided not by fear but by finding their shared humanity. Fox’s clear, present-tense prose keeps readers in the action while maintaining the heft of reality, even in totally surreal situations. With loads of suspense and adrenaline, and a streaming series starring Brie Larson reportedly in the works, this insider’s view into how the CIA functions and what life is like for a covert agent will appeal to many, including readers who don’t normally stray from fiction thrillers.

Kirkus Reviews (August 15, 2019)
A journalist recounts her formative years in the CIA.Fox engagingly—and transparently—describes her work as an undercover agent for the CIA, which recruited the author while she was still in college. “What will happen if I tell the world the truth?” she asks, having returned to civilian life as a young single mother following the dissolution of a marriage that was all but arranged by the agency. Motherhood changed her perspective and priorities, and she now devotes herself to the cause of peace. In her fast-moving debut memoir, she seeks to “spill that most secret of secrets: that all we soldiers and spies, all the belching, booming armored juggernauts of war, all the terror groups and all the rogue states, that we’re all pretending to be fierce because we’re all on fire with fear.” The author’s life was extraordinary even during her childhood, as if she were being raised for a life in espionage. She often went “wild world-wandering” with her father, who consulted with foreign governments on matters she never quite understood. Fox was raised to invent elaborate fantasies to play with her brother, and her world of make-believe intrigue became real to her as she volunteered to aid refugees after high school and became immersed in global affairs during college. She came to the CIA as an idealist, and she found idealism and basic humanity within those who were apparently pitted against her. She also found that she had to keep the reality of her career a secret from everyone, even from family and friends. Throughout much of her remarkable life, secrecy was the norm, but by the time she left the agency, she’d had enough. A well-written account of a life lived under exceptional secrecy and pressure.

About the Author

Following her CIA career in the field, Amaryllis Foxhas covered current events and offered analysis for CNN, National Geographic, al Jazeera, BBC, and other global news outlets. She speaks at events and universities around the world on the topic of peacemaking. She is the co-host of History Channel’s series American Ripper and lives in Los Angeles, CA, with her husband and daughter.


Around the Web

Life Undercover on Amazon

Life Undercover on Barnes and Noble

Life Undercover on Goodreads

Life Undercover on LibraryThing

Life Undercover Publisher Page

December 2019, Graphic Novel, Nonfiction

The American Dream? by Shing Yin Khor

The American Dream?: A Journey on Route 66 Discovering Dinosaur Statues, Muffler Men, and the Perfect Breakfast Burrito by Shing Yin Khor. August 6, 2019. Zest Books, 160 p. ISBN: 9781541578524.  Int Lvl: YA; Rdg Lvl: YA.

As a child growing up in Malaysia, Shing Yin Khor had two very different ideas of what “America” meant. The first looked a lot like Hollywood, full of beautiful people, sunlight, and freeways. The second looked more like The Grapes of Wrath—a nightmare landscape filled with impoverished people, broken-down cars, barren landscapes, and broken dreams. This book chronicles Shing’s solo journey (small adventure-dog included) along the iconic Route 66, beginning in Santa Monica and ending up Chicago. What begins as a road trip ends up as something more like a pilgrimage in search of an American landscape that seems forever shifting and forever out of place.

Potentially Sensitive Areas: Racial insensitivity


Video Review


Booklist starred (July 2019 (Vol. 115, No. 21))
Grades 9-12. Malaysia-born, LA-dwelling Khor introduces the “two Americas” that were their obsessions growing up: a Los Angeles “full of beautiful people and sunlight and open roads” where 10 years of living has also added “lots and lots and lots of traffic,” and a landscape defined by Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, in which the Joad family desperately pursues the American Dream. Khor takes that “feeling of desperately searching for something better, for a new start,” and adapts it to their own “pilgrimage” as immigrant and artist traveling historic Route 66—“the part of America that my brain finds more American than anything else.” Traversing from LA to Chicago in their 2010 Honda Fit will require their “tiny adventure dog,” Bug, and the kindness of multiple friends and strangers en route, captured in whimsical full-color detail. The end-of-the-road realizations are (surprise!) not what they expected, but the rewards—of course!—are many. What lingers longest is Khor’s four-panel epilogue, revealing their trip was taken six months before the 2016 elections; in magnifier-necessary micro-font, the penultimate panel confesses, “This comic feels like a record of a time when a brown girl could drive America fearlessly.” Khor, with Bug’s support, refuses to “let those jerks keep us down”—an encouragement to all to also keep going.

Kirkus Reviews (June 1, 2019)
Artist Khor recounts their spring 2016 road trip from Los Angeles to Chicago in this graphic memoir. Growing up in Malaysia, Khor knew two versions of America: “The first was Los Angeles, full of beautiful people and sunlight and open roads,” and the other was the America in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, “filled with dusty roads and big hopes.” After living in the States for 10 years, they and Bug, their “tiny adventure dog,” embark on a journey along historic Route 66, hoping to better understand the American dream. Through bright, expressive watercolor illustrations, Khor portrays the memorable locations they pass through, including a former gold-mining town in Arizona where several Hollywood films were shot; Amarillo, Texas, which has become a haven for refugees; and kitschy attractions including dinosaur statues and the Blue Whale of Catoosa. They detail both the amusing (going to the bathroom outdoors) and emotional (loneliness and exhaustion) challenges of being a traveler. Khor’s pilgrimage is as much an exploration of themself as it is of nostalgic Americana. Their travels inspire them to share insights into their path to atheism, their anger with xenophobia and racism—which are provoked when they find a motel labeled “American owned”—and the meaning of “home.” Many of Khor’s observations will resonate with those who have questioned national identity and the sense of belonging. An informative graphic travel journal that offers important perspectives on being an immigrant and American identity. (Graphic memoir. 12-18)

About the Author

Shing Yin Khor is a cartoonist and installation artist. Her work has been published in The ToastThe NibUpworthyHuffington Post, and Bitch Magazine. She makes the road trip adventure comic Tiny Adventure Journal, and the tender queer science fiction comic Center for Otherworld Science. She is also the author of The American Dream? A Journey on Route 66 Discovering Dinosaur StatuesMuffler Men, and the Perfect Breakfast Burrito published by Zest Books.

She lives in Los Angeles. Her websites are www.sawdustbear.com and shingkhor.com

Teacher Resources

Route 66 preservation Lesson Plan

Route 66 Lesson Plan collection

Around the Web

The American Dream? on Amazon

The American Dream? on Barnes and Noble

The American Dream? on Goodreads

The American Dream? on LibraryThing

The American Dream? Publisher Page