If you’re in the mood for a good treasure hunt, clever puzzles, or a mystery surrounding a would-be thief, one of my favorite books, The Puzzling World of Winston Breen by Eric Berlin, will go above and beyond to fulfill all three conditions.
For his sister Katie’s birthday, Winston Breen, a puzzle fanatic, almost forgets her gift, so he impulsively buys a jewelry box. As it turns out, four wooden pieces, each inscribed with an ordinary word, are hidden in the box’s false bottom. This starts a chain of events that leads up to a hunt for a bejeweled ring with three other people who own more of the pieces — the town librarian and two enigmatic men, one gentlemanly and the other brusque — a no-nonsense ex-policeman, and a reporter on whom Winston crushes. However, they need to uncover the ring before whoever is conniving to steal it gets ahead of them.
The story starts off on the right foot, showing us Winston’s unique ability to find puzzles out in the world in almost any form. In this case, he comes up with a pattern grid for the circles, triangles, and squares that cover a shred of wrapping paper. We go on to find out about the wooden pieces in the first few pages and become drawn into the mystery of just where the heck they came from. Be patient, since the treasure hunt doesn’t start until after the first half of the book. The pacing is good, save for a pre-treasure-hunt meeting that felt like it could have been compressed by half a page or so.
Cementing a trademark style with puzzles is a necessity, wittily accomplished by Berlin and others, including Jody Feldman (The Gollywhopper Games, The Seventh Level) and Chris Grabenstein (Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library series). The puzzles don’t solely include the treasure hunt; side brainteasers are strewn throughout the story, such as a riddle asking what a casino, a computer, and a sandwich shop have in common.
Aside from his singular devotion to puzzles, Winston is a fairly flat character. Generally, more entertainment can be found from one of his friends, Mal, a clownish bigmouth; the humorous humorlessness (full-on oxymoron alert) of Ray Marietta, the ex-policeman; and the enmity between the proper David North and the crusty Mickey Glowacka, both whom own some of the wooden pieces. Care has been put into the world-building as well, placing the events in the fictional town of Glenville. In fact, one of the co-founders, Walter Fredericks, gave the original pieces to his four estranged children as a plan to help them heal their rifts, which ultimately failed. A pizza parlor, the school library, the curio shop where Winston bought the jewelry box, and various other locations make Glenville as believable as anything you might read today in a YA sci-fi/fantasy title.
The similes in the narration add an imaginative touch to the writing, such as “And to see Marietta’s face, Glowacka had to angle his neck so drastically that he looked like a man considering the height of the mountain he was about to climb.” You’ll even find yourself chuckling at the many bits of dry humor. Minor plot holes and an occasionally hazy POV don’t detract much from the storyline as it progresses through the treasure hunt and then jacks up the tension near the end. I remember actually gaping at not one but two back-to-back plot twists the first time I read this book. And at the end, when you’re full with puzzles, the hunt wraps up nicely, with a funny bit right on the last page that gives Marietta, ironically, a chance to have the last laugh.
All in all, The Puzzling World of Winston Breen must be pushed to the top of your backlog of puzzly books, or really, most any books.
Windup score: 93/100