The third thing you need to know about Spectacular Specs is that if you try to read it before reading Super-Secret Plans, you’ll probably be able to follow the basic plot, but there will be a lot that you look at and say, “Wait… What?” Fortunately, upon discovering this for myself, I ended up buying and reading the first book, as well, so I can now provide at least a semi-cogent review.
In the first book, 11-year-old Samantha Spinner’s Uncle Paul disappeared suddenly, leaving their family with gifts in his absence. His gift to her was a rusty umbrella, which had an intricate map drawn on the inside of secret doors and passageways that literally connect the entire world. There’s a high-speed train underground connecting Seattle and Paris, a pneumatic tube to Italy, an underground, international waterslide, and more. Unfortunately, the Royal Academy of International Ninjas (the RAIN) are after Samantha to steal her fantastic umbrella, so she and her little brother Nipper need to find a way to stop them and, hopefully, bring Uncle Paul home. At the end of the book, Uncle Paul is still missing, but he does send her another gift: a strange pair of purple sunglasses that let her see hidden messages.
All that is backstory for the second book. Spectacular Specs picks up a few weeks later, as Samantha and Nipper try to get to New York, where they believe Uncle Paul is posing as a major Broadway producer and helping their stuck-up older sister mount a ridiculous play—and where they hope Uncle Paul has also left more clues for them to follow. These clues lead them to even more secret doors and passageways, and even more adventures around the world, as well as a warning about a new group, the SUN. But, will the clues ultimately lead to Uncle Paul? And also, how will they deal with the 12 dozen chinchillas that Nipper accidentally had sent to their home?
The main appeal of this book is the clues and puzzles. Every message they find has a hidden meaning, and often more than one, if our heroes can only figure out what it is. In fact, even on top of the clues in the book, there are even more puzzles hidden throughout. The images at the top of each chapter, and even some of the book’s page numbers are secret codes that spell out hidden messages to the reader.
While the codes and puzzles are very complex, the actual story can be fairly simplistic at times. Aside from our two protagonists, Samantha and Nipper, the characters tend to be two dimensional, over-the-top caricatures. They generally have one defining personality trait, and everything they say and do serves mainly to reinforce that one trait in extreme ways.
For instance, their older sister Buffy is selfish and egotistical. She spends the fabulous wealth she received from Uncle Paul in the previous book buying castles and mounting the most extravagant Broadway show you can imagine—but when she flies her brother and sister out to see her, she books them ultra-cheap tickets that require them to sit in the bathroom the entire trip and then forces them to sleep in the stables instead of in any of the rooms in her actual, literal castle.
Particularly when the over-the-top character trait is something negative like that, it can weigh down the story; however, that’s not to say the book as a whole isn’t still entertaining. Kids in particular will love the adventures that Sam and Nipper go on and the descriptions of various famous places and landmarks around the world. I have to admit, reading this book made me want to do a bit of traveling myself.
If you have a grade school-age child who loves silly, over-the-top adventures and/or clever puzzles and codes, then Samantha Spinner and the Super-Secret Plans and Samantha Spinner and the Spectacular Specs will both be right up their alley. Older kids and adults may find it a bit immature but still good fun overall.
Creative Team: Russell Ginns (author), Barbara Fisinger (illustrator)
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Click here to purchase.