Sunday, December 09, 2012

The Right Sort of Boy: Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms by Lissa Evans

I have to go away, and I may not be able to get back. If I don’t return, then my workshop and all it contains is yours if you can find it--and if you can find it, then you’re the right sort of boy to have it.

Your uncle Tony

P.S. Start in the telephone booth on Main Street.

And Stuart Horten is the right sort of boy for that challenge. To start, he’s got a lot of time on his hands. Recently uprooted from his hometown and moved to the his father’s old family seat in the town of Beeton, Stuart, given the unfortunate name of S. Horten, easily contracted to Shorten, is ten but no more than the size of a small eight year-old, not the sort of boy who is going to find instant popularity in a new neighborhood. To make it worse, it’s the beginning of summer, so there isn’t even school to occupy his fertile mind. The only kids around are the annoyingly nosey triplets–April, May, and June next door--who fancy themselves investigative journalists and make the new boy the focus of their efforts.

Dodging the triplets, though, Stuart soon stumbles upon an intriguing mystery. Strolling with his  dorky dad, whose only passion is fashioning crossword puzzles, Stuart comes upon the abandoned and boarded-up house of his great-uncle Tony, a magician who disappeared decades ago without a trace. His dad gives Stuart a tin money box left to him by Uncle Tony, which he has unimaginatively relegated to holding paper clips:

Stuart weighted the tin in his hand. The bottom felt heavier than the top. “It’s a trick box,” he declared with sudden certainty. “Great-Uncle Tony was a magician, and he  gave you a puzzle to solve. But unfortunately, not a crossword puzzle,” Stuart added under his breath.

But Stuart is the right sort of boy for a puzzle, and he quickly finds a false bottom containing a quantity of old threepence pieces. And when Stuart experimentally drops one into the coinbox of a dilapidated telephone booth, he receives a puzzling phone call, puzzling because as he discovers as he answers, the cord to the receiver has been cut.

"Is this a Mr. Horten?”

“...Yes,” answered Stuart, feebly.

“This is Beeton Public Library,. We have the book.”

“The what?”

“The book of photographs that you requested.”

And in that yellowed old book from the 1920s, Horten finds photographs of assorted metal mechanisms–first, the telephone booth, then a weighing machine, a turnstile at a swimming pool, a movie theatre, a gas station, and bandstand in a park. And somewhere in each blurry photo there is a small boy, a very short boy, whom Stuart realizes instantly, is his Uncle Tony, “Teeny-Tiny Tony Horten,” the magician who has left his a series of puzzles to be solved, Now all Stuart has to do is find each of these mechanisms and put one of those magical coins in their slots to discover what Uncle Tony was about. At least that's what Stuart thinks at first.

Lissa Evans’ Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms: A Magic, Mystery, & a Very Strange Adventure (Sterling, 2012) has all the essential elements of a magical mystery tour– a clever boy, an even cleverer girl, April of the investigative triplet clan, an evil and avaricious antagonist, and another magical world which the children discover just beneath the surface of modern-day Beeton.

Nominated for Britain’s Carnegie Medal (analogous to our Newbery Award), this book and its recently published sequel, Horten's Incredible Illusions: Magic, Mystery & Another Very Strange Adventure, has all the essential elements of Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society particularly the latest prequel, The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict (The Mysterious Benedict Society), as well as followers of Pseudonymous Bosch’s  The Secret Series (See my review of the first book in the Secret Series here,) and Eric Berlin's The Puzzling World of Winston Breen and will suit their dedicated readers to a P (for Puzzler).

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