Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Young Houdini: The Magician's Fire

The Magician's Fire
Simon Nicholson
Sourcebooks, 2014  232 pgs
Grades 4-7
Historical Fiction/Mystery/Adventure
Young Houdini Series

Young Harry Houdini is a boy living in turn-of-the-century New York City and working as a shoe-shine boy.  He runs around the city with his two best friends: rich boy Arthur and street urchin Billie.  The three young people are a team, working to perfect Harry's tricks and drumming up an audience willing to support them.  Tragedy arrives as Harry's mentor and friend, Herbie, disappears in a cloud of purple smoke.  The three young friends vow to find Herbie and rescue him.  Meanwhile, public opinion thinks Herbie disappeared by supernatural means.  Harry thinks he has identified the culprit and tracks him down to a hotel in the city frequented by magicians.  Spying on the suspect involves cunning plans, tightrope work, and ingenuity. After disregarding and offending his friends the investigation leads Harry back to the theater where Herbie disappeared.  Harry lands in a mess of dangerous and life-threatening trouble, getting out of it only by his amazing athletic and gymnastic abilities, as well as his talents as a magician and escape artist.  Will Harry survive his dangerous predicament?  Will he make it up with his friends?  Will Herbie ever be found and rescued and who is responsible for his disappearance?  All the questions above, plus even more are answered by the books end.  A final question (who is the man following Harry and his friends and what does he want with them?) is left dangling at the end of the book leading readers to the next installment in the series, The Demon Curse, due out in May.

I love books set in New York City, especially during the turn-of-the-century and have always been obsessed with Harry Houdini.  I also love a solvable, yet not too easy mystery and a plot that never slows down.  I've had this series opener on my reading list since its release this past fall.  So why isn't it my new favorite book?  I often say that everything I know about the world is from reading fiction for young people.  The Young Houdini series is based on the real-life person Harry Houdini as a boy.  I count on my historical fiction being as accurate as possible.  Nicholson takes many liberties in developing his character, including turning him into an orphan, which he most certainly wasn't.  Maybe I'm being too picky about it.  Houdini is a recognizable name and may encourage children to pick up the book, more so than if a random aspiring magician was featured.  There isn't much in the way of character development in the story, but, again,its not that kind of a book.  The action never stops, the mystery is solid, including a major red-herring, and I love how Nicholson uses Harry's special abilities as both a gymnast and magician/escape artist to get himself out of scrapes.  My other complaint with this book is the author's choice to use poor grammar (such as "ain't") to indicate economically disadvantaged characters.  I always feel that bad grammar is a disservice to emerging readers (Hello, Junie B!) and isn't the best vehicle to use to get the point across for this age group.  Again, I may be "nit-picky" on this topic.  Young people seem to like poor grammar; it makes them feel smart.  The book reads quickly, will appeal to both boys and girls, and will be a slam-dunk for reluctant readers: especially those assigned to a dreaded historical fiction book report.  The cover is eye-catching and will appeal to young people.  Will I read on in the series? Probably not.  Will I recommend this book to young readers?  Yes, with a little hand-selling I predict that it will "disappear" from the shelves!

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