Book Review: Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen by Donna Gephart

The only kind of music I remember Mom and Dad making together was loud fighting.

Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen
Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen by Donna Gephart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Until her dad moved to California two years ago, Olivia Bean watched Jeopardy! with him every night. Now she watches it on her own, unless Mom’s annoying boyfriend insists on watching, too. Olivia dreams of competing on Kids’ Week; besides the money she could win, the trip to the taping would give her a chance to visit her dad. But even if she makes it, will her dad manage to make time to spend with her?

This sweet middle-grade contemporary takes on Parents Behaving Badly. Olivia adores her father, but it’s clear from the first chapter that he is not quite the man she wants him to be. She remembers how, when she was learning violin in the fourth grade, he would ask her to play “Over the Mountains and Far Away”, then says, “It took a bit of research to learn that Dad was teasing about my screechy playing. There is no song called ‘Over the Mountains and Far Away’; it was Dad’s fun way of asking me to practice somewhere else.” And when her father tells her that she “wouldn’t do well” on Jeopardy! because it would have “a ton of geography questions, and geography just isn’t your thing”, her reaction, even years later, is, “Dad was right, of course.” She follows her statement, “I am lousy at geography”, with her hope that she can overcome her weakness with lots of studying, but it remains painfully clear that she has taken her father’s careless comment to heart. Gephart slyly reveals the real character of Olivia’s father through these small observations over the course of the novel, and Olivia takes a long time getting to the realization that readers will have probably already reached.

Olivia gets a little help along the way to that conclusion from Neil, her mom’s live-in boyfriend, who provides an excellent foil for the absentee father. Gephart does an admirable job creating a realistic blended family dealing with familiar problems. The story is peppered with trivia factoids (including tidbits about Jeopardy! itself), a treat for readers who share Olivia’s passion. A light romantic subplot also helps leaven the mood. The only real weaknesses lie in some clunky narration and in the pacing, which occasionally drags before picking up again. Olivia repeatedly refers to an “unfortunate hula hoop incident”; by the time the details are revealed near the end of the novel, it seems like a let-down.

On shelves March 13, 2012.

Final Word:
Despite some clunky narrative and pacing, the realistic characters and situations make this sweet contemporary novel a good choice for grades 4-7.

e-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request

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