Posted in Female Author, KidLit, Male Author, Nonfiction, Novella

Mini Reviews, Vol. 11

alt text Baker Street By-Ways by James Edward Holroyd

I found this slim paperback at Book Vault, out in Mesa. I didn’t realize that Otto Penzler, whom I know as an editor of mystery anthologies, had put together a collection of Sherlockania in the mid-90s. I’d be interested in other volumes even though this one was a little uneven.

Originally published in 1959, the tone is very “boys-club.” Holroyd grumbles repeatedly about how fed-up his and his friends’ wives are with their Sherlock hobby.  He also doesn’t bother to attribute a quote to an “American woman writer.” Perhaps I should know who he means, but not even Goggle could come up with the mother of the quote.

There are a few good crunchy bits, mostly concerning London geography. The book could have used a few more maps though.


alt text The Box Jumper by Lisa Mannetti

My interest in this novelette featuring Houdini was stoked when it was nominated in 2015 for a Shirley Jackson Award. Houdini and “psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic“? Yes, please!

Alas, it mostly didn’t work for me. The story is told through eyes  of Leona, an assistant to Houdini. She’s not the most reliable narrator and that always bugs me. Still, several of the scenes were quite unsettling.

alt text Anything But Ordinary Addie by Mara Rockliff (Author), Iacopo Bruno (Illustrations)

One of my favorite books of last year was Adelaide Herrmann: Queen of Magic, edited by  Margaret B. Steele. This book was directly inspired by that biography. It is a beautiful over-sized picture book for young readers. I’m not super keen on every book needing to be a mirror for the reader, but I would have loved a book about a red-haired female magician. The excitement and empowerment is amped up for a younger audience, but it certainly captures the spirit of Adelaide Herrmann.


Posted in Female Author, KidLit, Male Author

Super Retro Review ~ Spooky Tricks

Cover via Goodreads

Spooky Tricks by by Rose Wyler, Gerald Ames, Talivaldis Stubis (Illustrator)

Learn the secrets of these dazzling tricks and put on a Halloween show that’s sure to bewitch your friends. You will be able to make cards rise, a girl disappear, and a boy float! (via Goodreads)

I’m always a little tickled when I’m browsing Open Library and I come across a book I owned as a kid. I’m not big on nostalgia, but I’ve spent a lot of time reading  throughout my life. Finding an old book that I’m familiar with takes me back like nothing else can. Spooky Tricks was probably purchased through a Scholastic Books flyer. For me, those flyers were as good at the Sear Christmas catalog.

Though it obviously hit my sweet spot for things creepy and magical, Spooky Tricks pretty much marks the beginning and end of my ambitions toward magic. I tried out a few of the tricks to little success. As a kid, I chalked it up to not having supplies. Who has matchboxes lying around? Or stilts with shoes? Or an over abundance of black thread? As an adult, and one who had studies a little about magic, I see things differently.

1.) Most of the tricks in this book are not that good. Or rather, maybe if you’re a kid and you’re showing these tricks once to a particularly sympathetic adult, you might get a good reaction.

2.) I’ve always been disinclined to read directions if you give me illustrations. Which is great when you’re assembling an Ikea bookshelf, but crappy when you’re trying to learn magic.

3.) I’ve always been an overly skeptical person and I’m terrible at being deceptive. Even as a kid, I didn’t buy that anyone would believe these tricks. I certainly knew that *I* couldn’t pull them off. Maybe if I had realized that magic requires a level of showmanship… Nope, I still wouldn’t be able to convincingly lie about where my thumb might be, or whose names I wrote down for the X-ray eyes trick, or whether there is one piece of black thread or two. But none of this means that I dodn’t appreciate it when professionals do magic!

Publishing info, my copy: scanned, Scholastic Inc, 1968
Acquired: Open Library
Genre: nonfiction

Penn & Teller (as their 8 year-old selves) with a piece of R.I.P. appropriate magic:

Posted in KidLit, Male Author

Review ~ Curiosity

Cover via Goodreads

Curiosity by Gary L. Blackwood

Philadelphia, PA, 1835. Rufus, a twelve-year-old chess prodigy, is recruited by a shady showman named Maelzel to secretly operate a mechanical chess player called the Turk. The Turk wows ticket-paying audience members and players, who do not realize that Rufus, the true chess master, is hidden inside the contraption. But Rufus’s job working the automaton must be kept secret, and he fears he may never be able to escape his unscrupulous master. And what has happened to the previous operators of the Turk, who seem to disappear as soon as Maelzel no longer needs them? Creeping suspense, plenty of mystery, and cameos from Edgar Allan Poe and P. T. Barnum mark Gary Blackwood’s triumphant return to middle grade fiction. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
When I’m at the library, I do subject searches just to see what might come up. On this particular occasion, I searched for “mechanical Turk.” The mechanical Turk and automata in general are something I’ve been interested in since reading about Joseffy’s mechanical creations. Anyway, the search lead to my finding Curiosity, a historical fiction about the Turk. I was game…even if it was middle grade fiction.

What Didn’t Work
What didn’t work for me is the usual stuff that doesn’t work for me when I’m reading fiction aimed at young people. There is often a lack of depth to the plot and themes. The clean-slate “Who am I in this world?” questions don’t generally hold my interest.

What Worked
Despite my reservations, I really enjoyed Curiosity because it was very well done. There are other plot devices in this story that sometimes go awry, but Blackwood uses them with such a light touch.

Rufus is a chess prodigy.  Sometimes I find the kid genius trope hard to swallow because it ends up being a child with a whole suite of specialized skills. Being really good at one thing at a young age (like chess or a musical instrument) is a lot easier for me to believe than being something like a child assassin, which would involve talent and training in many different areas. Rufus’s skills are pretty limited to chess. At all other things, he’s pretty much just a twelve year-old.

I also didn’t realize when I picked up this book that Edgar Allan Poe would have as large of a part in the narrative. If I had, it might have been the thing to make me leave it on the shelf. After reading a few books involving fictional Poes, I decided that they were not a good idea for me. Poe for me is something of a sacred cow: I’m going to get grumpy when an author’s idea of Poe doesn’t match my idea of Poe. Again, Blackwood surprised me with a really good rendering of a slightly obsessed Poe.

The history? Also solid. Sure, there is some literary license taken, but the Turk is done right and I can see Maelzel being villainous.

This was another perfect read for the Readathon. Great pacing and setting, decent mystery, believable young character.

Publishing info, my copy: hardback, Dial Books for Young Readers, 2014
Acquired: Tempe Public Library
Genre: historical fiction

Posted in Female Author, KidLit, Readathons-Challenges-Memes, Short Story

Spring into Horror Wrap-Up and Mini-Reviews


Never got into a good reading groove last week. Maybe it was starting out with a DNF, maybe it was trying to push through an anthology, maybe it was starting a new writing project. I don’t know. I bounced from book to book; nothing ever sat particularly well with me. Read 359 pages, about twice as many as I might have read otherwise.


First a mention: I read part of Pandemonium: Further Explorations into the World of Clive Barker. It consisted mostly of interviews with Barker, an author I’ve read a little of and know even less about. The timing of the book puts it after Nightbreed came out. Nightbreed is a movie that everyone wishes was better than it is and Barker alludes to his dissatisfaction.

Illustration by Edel Rodriguez.Mini-Review: “The Man in the Woods” by Shirley Jackson

A week ago, The New Yorker magazine printed a previously unpublished story by Shirley Jackson. “The Man in the Woods” is unsettling. Jackson always presents a world that is askew of our own. Her stories *could* be, but we hope they aren’t. This story has a fairy tale tinge to it. The action takes place in a house in the woods, and our main character Christopher is  a student who decided to wander rather than study. He is strangely afraid when confronted with books of history shown to him by the inhabitants of the house. That fear of knowledge struck me as the most interesting aspect of the story.

Mini-Review: Abracadanger by Tracey West

While wandering the shelves, both physical and virtual, trying to find a book to amuse me, I ended up doing a horror/magic search at Open Library. Abracadanger caught my attention by being a choose-your-own-adventure, a style of book that I enjoyed in my youth. This one was fun, filled with giant rabbits, mad scientists, and the ghost of Dr. Presto. My only beef with it is that, while obviously written for a fairly young audience, the writing itself could have been better.

Posted in KidLit, Male Author

Rewind ~ The Rope Trick


The Rope Trick by Lloyd Alexander

Cover via Goodreads

Lidi is a brilliant magician, able to perform all manner of astonishing illusions. But one trick eludes her, the greatest in the world: the rope trick. And only one person can teach it to her: the legendary magician Ferramondo. On her quest to find him, she joins up with Daniella, an orphan with true prophetic powers; a handsome outlaw with a price on his head; and a circus owner with a troupe of dancing pigs. But when Daniella is kidnapped by men who want to use her gift for their own ends, Lidi must abandon her quest and summon all of her resources and magic-working to save herself. (via Goodreads)

Original review of The Rope Trick, newly imported from my LJ to The Writerly Reader (12/29/2007):

I nabbed this book via PaperbackSwap. I was interested in what Lloyd Alexander could do with a female protagonist after reading pieces of his more “boy-oriented” Pyrdain and Westmark series. What I got was a hardback in near perfect condition and really lovely tale. There are maybe one too many narrative coincidences, maybe one too many tales told by one character about other characters, but I forgive that, as I often do with this kind of book. None of the characters are particularly detailed, but our protagonist, Lidi, is determined and a little stubborn, and there’s enough romance that, well, *I* would have liked it as 10 year old.

Posted in KidLit, Male Author, Novel

Double Review ~ The Houdini Box & Now You See It

The Houdini Box by Brian Selznick

Cover via Goodreads

Victor is forever trying to escape from locked trunks, walk through walls, and perform any number of Houdini’s astonishing magic tricks…without success. Then — amazingly — he actually meets his idol, and begs Houdini to explain himself. A mysterious locked box is the magician’s only answer, and Victor is left to wonder: Does the box contain the secrets to the most famous magic tricks ever performed? (via Goodreads)

Brian Selznick made me cry over my least favorite magician.*

This is the first Brian Selznick book I’ve read. I’ve been strongly encouraged to read Hugo and I will. I will! I swear! I came across The Houdini Box at Open Library and figured I’d give it a no-risk try.

It’s a lovely little book. It’s for kids, but there’s a little something for adults in it as well as a grown up Victor remembers to enjoy the things he did as a child. The illustrations are evocative and humorous. There is obvious love for the subject matter, everything is tinged with just a little bit of fantasy. Maybe I’ll buy this for one of my nephews for Christmas sometime, if they take any inclination toward magic.

* (How can Houdini be my least favorite magician? Strangely, I’ve never been much of a fan. I appreciate his talent, as an escape artist and more so as a self publicist, but there might be two reasons for my…dislike is too strong a word. “Least favorite” is probably too strong too. Let me put it this way: If I were making a list of my top twenty magicians, Houdini would be #20, but he’d never get knocked out of the twentieth spot.

First, I don’t care much for magic that is trumped up as being dangerous. I know that, generally, it’s not. If a magician says, “I’m going to do this very dangerous trick; I could die during it.” The focus is not on the trick, it’s the potential fatality. If a magician let’s me sketch in the amount of danger he or she may be in, just the facts, I’ll probably believe myself more.

Second, I recently realized that I have this awkwardness about Houdini. It comes from, I think, the fact that the initial photos that I saw of Harry Houdini, probably from a fairly general book on magic history written for 8-year-olds, are of him undressed and in chains. I’m not a prude, but it didn’t seem that, as a kid, I should be taking interest in an undressed man in chains! Deep seated, totally irrational; I like Houdini more now that I’ve gotten that out of the way.)

Genre: KitLit
Why did I choose to read this book? It was short, it was free, I hadn’t read any Brian Selznick.
Did I finish this book? (If not, why?) Yes.
Craft Lessons: Take a little license sometimes, when it makes the story better.
Format: Online browser-based scan.
Procurement: Open Library

Now You See It . . . by Richard Matheson

Cover via Goodreads

Maximillian Delacorte was once the world’s greatest stage magician. Now a recluse, suffering from a mysterious disease, he lures his family and associates to his lonely estate for an afternoon of magic, madness, and revenge. Bodies appear and disappear without warning, severed heads speak words of hate, and nothing is ever quite what it appears. As grisly tricks lead to ever more surprising twists, not even the Great Delacorte can tell where illusion ends—and murder begins. (via Goodreads)

Hadn’t realized that this was an Open Library book too. Obviously, I’m availing myself of the service.

I’ve been looking around for other magician novel and I was surprised to find that Richard Matheson had written one. Further, I was intrigued by his concept of a magician’s mystery house–a home, literally, tricked out with secret passages, hidden rooms, and other setups for illusions. I realized that, from my Scooby Doo watching days onward, I’ve unabashedly loved this kind of thing.

Being pretty much a “one-set,” this novel would have made a great William Castle film. It has all the over-the-top ghoulishness and back-stabbing reversals of something like The House on Haunted Hill. Unfortunately, I found the ending really weak. It’s a rather short novel, and it felt like Matheson was under a page count crunch. I wish there had been another fifty pages and a proper ending.

Genre: Mystery
Why did I choose to read this book? Intrigued by a Matheson magician mystery.
Did I finish this book? (If not, why?) Yes.
Craft Lessons: Don’t rush your endings.
Format: Online browser-based scan.
Procurement: Open Library

Posted in KidLit, Male Author

Book #21

Odd and the Frost Giants by by Neil Gaiman (Goodreads Author), Mark Buckingham (Illustrator)

A kid’s book, but a fun read. I found it witty enough and a nice nod to Norse mythology in its tone. From what I know about Norse mythology, which admittedly isn’t much currently.

I do know one thing: Loki *always* steals the show.

Not sure if the Kindle version (read via the Cloud app) did justice to the illustrations.

Gaiman’s next five books were announced last week and an Odd sequel was among them. It’s nice to know there’s some enchanting children’s fiction in existence and in the works. Now, if I could just find more adult versions…

Format: Kindle Cloud
Procurement: Greater Phoenix Digital Library