Monday, May 4, 2015

The Gollywhopper Games: Friend or Foe by Jody Feldman, 2015

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Chock-full of puzzles, riddles, and challenges for the reader to solve along with the main characters, this companion to the first two Gollywhopper Games books offers readers plenty of action and fun. The perfect choice for fans of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Chasing Vermeer.
Zane is not that interested in the Gollywhopper Games. He'd rather play football and is sure that he's headed straight for the NFL. But when he gets his second concussion, his parents tell him, "No football for a year." Instead, to his surprise, he gets a chance to compete in the Gollywhopper Games. Zane's sense of strategy, his physical strength, and his competitive edge are all assets, and so is his ability to motivate his teammates and get them to work together. Zane becomes particularly close to Elijah, a young and scrawny genius who is friendly, awkward, and funny—Zane's polar opposite. These two unlikely friends end up head-to-head in the final challenge, where Elijah's quick thinking and Zane's physical strength make it a tough fight. This is a fun and fast-paced and interactive read for fans of The Mysterious Benedict Society.
(432 pages)

It's rather ironic that this third book is called "Friend or Foe," because the first two Gollywhopper books are much more cutthroat than this installment. Friend or Foe actually focuses more on the teamwork aspect of the Games than the sabotage, and while there is still a side plot of subterfuge, this time it's centered squarely on the administrative side and doesn't really involve the contestants.

The first book was awesome, full of adventures and puzzles in a Neverland-like atmosphere. What really made it great, though, was that there was an actual story underpinning the entire narrative; we don't just read it to find out who wins, we read it because we wanted Gil to get some justice from the company that wrongfully accused his father of thievery. The second book, The New Champion (click to read my review), continued this thread of fighting for something with the story of the under-valued Cameron competing against his superstar older brother. Friend or Foe follows this pattern as well, but this time Zane isn't facing any direct motivation from his family.

Well, he sort of is, but not really. His parents fight a lot and he thinks the money will make them reconcile. Deep down, I don't think he really believes this though. He just throws it in front of himself as a way to get himself absorbed in the Game. You see, he largely sees the Games as a distraction from the fact that he's not playing football that summer. Why is he not playing football, you ask? Well, because he had two concussions and his brain needs a break. He's terrified that his parents won't let him ever play again, and equally terrified that he'll get another concussion and his brain will turn to mush. He sees the Games as a way to avoid thinking about everything, and to just lose himself for a few days.

The irony I mentioned at the beginning of this review, about how the title belongs more to the other Gollywhopper Games books, actually runs deeper than the fact that sabotage doesn't take a front seat this time. You see, Zane quickly becomes best friends with fellow contestant and kid genius Elijah. As the Games continue Zane and Elijah stay realistic about the fact that they are competing against each other, but they never become nasty or overly competitive - in fact, they spend quite a bit of time commiserating over hard puzzles and complimenting each other when one of them did a great job. A lot of this comes from the fact that they both want to win, but aren't completely obsessed with the Games; they know how to step back, take a deep breath, and give each other a thumbs up. It was awesome, and their friendly dynamics were one of my favorite things about the book.

The biggest problem with this book is a lack of novelty, and that's really not its falt. Feldman has used the same basic premise three times now, and while she does a stellar job shaking things up as much as she can each time, it's just not possible to capture the same sort of excitement every single time. However, it's still a great book and a fun read, and I highly recommend it to fans of the first two books - or just puzzle books in general!

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