Fuse #8

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Review of the Day: The Puzzling World of Winston Breen

The Puzzling World of Winston Breen by Eric Berlin. G.P. Putnam’s Sons (a division of Penguin). $16.99.

I'm going to be honest here. Mr. Eric Berlin is no stranger to me. In 2006-07 he served on the judging committee of the Cybil Award's Middle Grade Novel category. He has a blog of note and I often steal his postings when they're particularly choice. It would logical for you to think then that because of all this I might be more inclined to like his book than I would that of your average anonymous joe. As far as I've been able to ascertain, however, the opposite is more often true. I have a very very hard time reviewing the books of anyone I've come into contact with. Certain authors and illustrators may publish and publish until they're old and grey but if I know them personally and don't think their work is superb, I will not immediately. A book must actually be good, if I know its creator beforehand. Hence, the following.

When adults start reminiscing about the books of their youth, they can grow eloquent in their praise. Amusingly, when those same adults starts comparing said books to the ones coming out today, they are in very great danger of suddenly contracting a case of Old Fogeyism. “Why when I was a kid we had GOOD mysteries. With lots of clues and puzzles and clever dialogue. We had ‘The Westing Game’!” (slams down cane) “I’d like to see you whippersnappers come up with a book like that today. Hah!” If that sounds like you (or, rather, the 108-year-old part of you that comes to life whenever the subject of “kids today” crops up) then I have good news. It's good news for actual honest-to-goodness child readers as well, now that I think about it. First-time newbie kidlit book author Eric Berlin (a crossword creator for The New York Times) is a fan of puzzles. Such a fan, in fact, that he’s worked them into the narrative of, “The Puzzling World of Winston Breen.” You have an old-fashioned treasure hunt on the one hand, puzzles galore on the other, and some fun dialogue, memorable characters, and an action sequence or two just for spice. Hard to resist.

Twelve-year-old Winston isn't like a lot of other kids out there. He loves him his puzzles. Mind games, riddles, crosswords, you name it. So it was only logical that when his little sister Katie discovered a hidden puzzle in the old antique box he bought her, she thought he put it in there on purpose. The two siblings soon learn, though, that there's more to these three wooden pieces than immediately meets the eye as they find themselves involved in a real life treasure hunt. Glenville's richest resident Walter Fredericks died years ago, and now his puzzles have reemerged. That means that Winston and Katie need to solve some puzzles alongside an ex-cop, a librarian, two untrustworthy hooligans, and a news reporter. The only problem is, someone else wants the reward at the end of this game. Someone who's willing to do almost anything to get it. Along the way, readers can solve puzzles alongside Winston, checking their answers in the back of the book.

I liked how the novel framed the book in such a way that Winston was trying to puzzle out the real life mystery (i.e. Who broke into a local librarian's home and threatened her?) alongside the real puzzles. It's kind of a pity that Winston doesn't figure out the villains before they reveal themselves. It's always good to have a proactive protagonist. Berlin makes up for this missing piece though by then allowing his hero the chance to solve the book's central mystery instead. Still, the last line of the book would have made a little more sense if Winston exhibited crime-solving as well as puzzle-solving skills. I do love that this is a book that requires that kids get actively invested. Besides the puzzles themselves, Berlin foreshadows his action nicely with a newspaper article near the beginning of the book that mentions various robberies that later turn out to be our villain's work. And I’m pleased to say that I didn’t see the real villain of this book coming until it was too too late. I don’t know if Mr. Berlin means to lead you astray, but a guy who can fool a child and an adult reader has his elements firmly in place.

Berlin's particularly good at keeping potentially dark elements kid-friendly. At one point the local librarian has an out-and-out breakdown when Winston shows her something by accident. But how do you justify that kind of a reaction without suggesting that the victim (in this case, a librarian) has had something terrible happen to her. Berlin instead explains that it would be easy to harass someone. "Phone calls in the middle of the night, notes left in the mailbox, perhaps a stone tossed through a window. Small, nasty things that individually would mean little, but taken all together could make someone very afraid." It's a clever way to convey darker elements without compromising the appropriateness of the narrative.

Now the stats. Total number of puzzles/riddles I successfully solved in this book: 3. Not that I tried to do every single one, but of the ones that I did try, I only got three. I liked the sheer variety of puzzles in this book, to be honest with you. Some are skewed easy and some are skewed very very hard. One puzzle on page 68 is "explained" in the back of the book, but the explanation ends up being just as difficult to understand as the original question itself. Still, the thing about the book is that it has something for everyone. True puzzle fans will be adequately challenged and for those kids who don't know the answers immediately there's at least one or two they might be able to stumble through. It's funny to say, but this book awakened a kind of visceral thrill whenever I flipped to the back to read the solution to one question or another. It was as if I was reading an old Encyclopedia Brown novel, with the answers just waiting to be looked at in the back. Visceral thrills such as this are not cheap.

Berlin's careful with his details too. It used to be that a villain could kidnap a hero and you'd truly feel the kid was in dire straits. Now we live in a cell phone age. Some authors ignore the contraptions. Others work solely in the genre of historical fiction. A cell phone is a recipe for disaster when it comes to dramatic tension. That's why clever authors work them into the plots, flukes, flaws, and all. For example, at one point Winston is in a bit of a pickle and he manages to get his hands on a cell. Unfortunately, he's underground at this point and that means he's not getting any reception. Slick storytelling uses these kinds of complications to their advantage.

A librarian’s motto mimics that of a Boy Scout. We try to be prepared. If someone comes up to me and asks for books that are similar to their favorites, I need to have a complex array of smart sounding titles in mind to recommend instantaneously. And until this moment in time I was empty in a particular area. If someone, a fan of Ellen Raskin’s, “The Westing Game”, came up to me and asked for similar books, I would have been stumped. Stumped and perhaps inclined against my will to recommend “Chasing Vermeer”. Berlin’s book maybe isn’t on the same level as Raskin’s, but it’s probably more fun to read anyway. Clever kids will adore it. Mediocre kids will enjoy the treasure hunt. And those children that only like non-fiction reads will probably skip all the narration and just solve the puzzles. Nothing wrong with that. This book offers quite a lot to an array of different readers. Definitely worth a peek.

On shelves September 20th.

Notes On the Cover: I'm going to give a thumbs up to this one. You may remember that artist Adam McCauley did the new Wayside School covers, so this seems an appropriate match. He's worked in elements of the book that are consistent with the narrative. Interestingly enough, I'm having a bit of trouble with the title, and I think I've pinpointed why. The phrase "The Puzzling World of Winston Breen" is not dissimilar from "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty". Which means that when I'm discussing this book in polite society, I have a tendency to refer to Winston as Walter. But that's just me.

Other Reviews By: Jen Robinson's Book Page.

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At 8:31 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Something about this book's combo cleverness & kid appeal reminds me of THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH. You've sold me, Fuse. I do want to check it out now...

At 11:44 AM , Blogger Jess said...

Another recent one with puzzles to solve is The Mysterious Benedict Society - that reminded me a bit of The Westing Game, too.


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