Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Brainteaser: The Potato Chip Puzzle by Eric Berlin

The principal's office was down a short hallway, ending in a door you never wanted to open. Winston had never had a reason to knock on this door, and that was fine with him. He was still trying to figure out some way he might be in trouble. He took a keep breath and knocked softly. "Come in," said a brusque voice. Winston creaked the door open.

Principal Unger was not behind his desk. He was up and pacing. "Ah, Winston. Good. You're still the puzzle person, right? I want you to take a look at this. Here!" Mr. Unger thrust a paper into Winston's hands.

This was not at all what he had expected from a visit to the principal's office. "What is this?" asked Winston.

"I was hoping you could tell me."

Before him Winston Breen sees what is obviously an alphanumeric code of some sort, C3, J5, S2...., as his principal waits impatiently. Can Winston crack this code? And if he does, what does it mean for Principal Unger, Walter Fredericks Jr. High, and its most famous puzzle fan?

Winston Breen, hero of Eric Berlin's first book in this series, The Puzzling World of Winston Breen, again finds himself and his friends Mal and Jake involved in a cerebral mystery. Winston does unlock the code, revealing a local phone number, and when Mr. Unger calls, he learns that by solving the first test, his school has qualified to compete in a day of competitive puzzling sponsored by the eccentric millionaire entrepreneur, inventor of the square potato chip, who is offering a $50,000 prize to the winning team from those local middle schools who qualify by puzzling out the mysterious invitation. Only a handful of schools qualify, and when the day of the contest arrives, Winston finds himself for the first time among his puzzler peers, particularly the over-zealous Brendan Root, who falls all over himself to meet his idol, Winston, whose puzzle expertise in locating a local treasure trove has made him famous in his town.

But extricating himself from the lugubrious Brendan is only the beginning of Winston's problems. Not only is their chaperon, the controlling math teacher Mr. Garvey, consumed with his need to best a rival math teacher whose whizkid teams consistently smash Walter Frederick's math competitors, but the other teams are obviously filled with puzzle wizards and coaches who are equally determined to win by almost any means.

Then things turn take a turn for the worst. Mr. Garvey's car has a flat tire as they set for for the Planetarium to solve their first test, and it turns out that a glass-shard filled bottle was wedged behind their tire to make sure that their team would fall behind the others. Then other teams run into similar tricks: signs are reversed and a critical door locked to slow down another team; one team has a member locked in a bathroom, a handheld device with which each team reports the solution to each puzzle is stolen, at an amusement park the Ferris wheel with the puzzle clues aboard is locked in motion so that members of several teams are stuck aboard until another key can be found, and when Mal pursues a fleeing figure at the scene, he is injured in the scuffle which results in a black eye but in his grabbing a bag with incriminating evidence when the malefactor escapes.

It is obvious that one team is definitely guilty of malice aforethought in its determination to win the contest. Now Winston has two problems to solve: how to help his team complete the list of puzzles first and how to find out and foil the cheaters along the way.

Puzzle/mystery aficionados will find this second in the Winston Breen series, The Potato Chip Puzzles: The Puzzling World of Winston Breen, (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2009) just as exciting and even a bit more menacing than its predecessor. Fans of the riddle-based books in Trenton Stewart's best-selling The Mysterious Benedict Society or The 39 Clues, a popular ongoing series each sequel of which is intriguingly written by a different famous author, or Pseudonymous Bosch's quirky Secret Series which includes cryptic best-selling titles such as The Name of this Book Is Secret (Secret Series),If You're Reading This, It's Too Late (Secret Series), and This Book Is Not Good For You (Secret Series) will surely find the brainy and likable Winston Breen their man.

In addition to the puzzles embedded in the plot of The Potato Chip Puzzles: The Puzzling World of Winston Breen, which readers can solve along with the characters, the solutions to these and many more puzzles are contained in the back matter, and if those aren't enough to keep fans going through the long winter nights ahead, there is a companion website with plenty more here to keep the puzzle addict satisfied.

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