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Two books that follow professional stage magicians, or illusionists, top our week.
I was completely entranced by The Magician’s Lie, a terrific historical yarn that reads like a modern thriller. The title magician is a young woman, and the only woman making the circuit in the first decade of the 20th century. It is her life story as she tells it (and it’s difficult to know how much is truth and how much is fabricated to garner sympathy from her jailer), that is particularly suspenseful.
As I sat down to write this post, I thought it might be fun to come up with a list of books about magicians that teens enjoy. I mention The Night Circus and Water for Elephants in my review, and both of those work as readalikes for certain elements of The Magician’s Lie. Others books about magic we’ve reviewed here include Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (which won an Alex Award in 2011). I reviewed a fantasy novel last year that shares a few elements, but is much more for the fantasy crowd than this one–The Oversight by Charlie Fletcher. It includes a great contest between magicians that is very dramatic. We wrote a post reviewing three magical novels in 2013. And there’s The Prestige, which I haven’t read, but what a great movie.
The Disappearance Boy by Neil Bartlett is another for the list. (And note, it made the Booklist Editors’ Choice, Adult Books for Young Adults 2014 list a couple weeks ago.) Reggie is an outsider. Not only does he work on the fringes of society, but he is an orphan crippled by childhood polio and beginning to realize that he is gay. As a reading experience, this has a more old-fashioned feel. The narrator often addresses readers, as if to take them into his confidence. But, like many books about magic, there are secrets, surprises, twists and turns ahead.
It’s 1905 and famed illusionist, the Amazing Arden, is accused of killing her husband with an ax on stage during her most notorious act—the Halved Man. She is apprehended only hours later by Officer Virgil Holt, a serious and dedicated policeman in his early 20s (only a year or two older than Arden herself). He takes her to the station and interrogates her through the night. Ada (her real name) maintains her innocence, and insists on telling Virgil her life story from the beginning. She begins with her single mother’s marriage that moved them to rural Tennessee when she was 12. Her stepfather’s nephew, Raymond, had a fascination with hurting things—himself, animals, then Ada—so she ran away a few years later and found work at the Biltmore. There she met Clyde, who helped her get to New York City but broke her heart. She found work assisting the Great Madame Herrmann, who taught her about performing illusions before retiring and passing the company to Ada. Success and fate brought both men back into Ada’s life. The story of her past is so engrossing that the interruption by shorter chapters taking place in the present will make readers feel like they are emerging from a dream into harsh reality. The present has its own intensity, like a game of cat and mouse. Virgil struggles to maintain his disbelief and objectivity in the face of Ada’s magical storytelling. What should he (or readers) believe? This book is being hailed as Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus (Doubleday, 2011) meets Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (Algonquin, 2006), but Macallister combines the stagecraft of illusion with a passionate love story to concoct a fully new creation.—Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City
Title character Reggie Rainbow, 23, assists his magician boss, Mr. Brookes in “disappearing” the lovely assistant, Pamela, from a box on stage each night through a series of intricately designed steps. Orphaned and crippled by polio, Reggie’s life has been one of hardship and loneliness, exacerbated by the mean-spirited Mr. Brookes. It is 1953 and other forms of entertainment are replacing magic shows. Jobs come further and further apart so when they are given a longer run in Brighton, and an opportunity to highlight the new Queen’s coronation day, Mr. Brookes thinks that his luck may change. But for Reggie and Pamela, who have each fallen victim to the illusionist’s self-centered actions, this longer run, and the new act, may actually provide them with a new kind of future. Told by an unknown narrator who speaks in a spare voice that toggles between characters, this book could appeal to mature teens who like writing that holds back information, parsing it out in bits and pieces. A magician confuses his audience with “misdirection” and the narrator applies a bit of this too, taking readers into Reggie’s world of stage magic that appears to be headed in one direction only to end up in a completely different place. England in the 1950s is one with limits for those who are different, and readers will feel for Reggie because of the roadblocks placed his way. But in spite of his weaknesses, both physical and emotional, Reggie never shuts himself away from the possibility of a better future.—Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA
About Angela Carstensen
Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.
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