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Off the Shelves: ‘Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms’ malfunctions throughout

POSTED: April 8, 2012 7:00 a.m.

I often wonder if it is right for me, as an adult, to review a novel intended for children. The adult brain can be too demanding, or too scrutinizing of a novel that is simply meant to be fun, which is truly all a young reader would care about.

So I try to remind myself when I review a book meant for middle-schoolers, that I shouldn’t concern myself so much with the plot, but that it should be — above all else — entertaining.

While Lissa Evans’ debut novel, “Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms,” claims to be a “Willy Wonka-like adventure of a lifetime,” about a magician’s secret workshop full of dazzling theatrical illusions, fantastic machines and even some possible real-life magic, the only thing entertaining about this story is its misleading title.

Stuart Horten, a boy of smaller height than most 10-year-olds (much to his chagrin), has just moved into a quiet town where his great-uncle Tony used to reside and perform his magic acts.

When Stuart finds a message left behind by his great-uncle, it is the beginning of a trail of clues that Stuart begins to discover all over town, pointing the way toward a hidden place where Tony left behind all of his greatest mechanisms of magic, including the one that led to his disappearance years ago.

But Stuart’s clue hunt catches the attention of a few unwanted snoops, such as the next-door neighbor triplets April, May and June, and a business woman with a bumbling protégé, who want more than anything to get their hands on Tony’s most prized magical secrets.

If Stuart can find his great-uncle’s workshop, it will belong to him; if it falls into the wrong hands, whatever magic the mechanisms could hold may never be found again.

This promises everything a young reader would enjoy: a clue-gathering mystery, a determined and bold main character, quirky villains, and truly magical possibilities.

Unfortunately, what the story is, is boring. There seems to be little motivation for Stuart to find the workshop other than he has nothing better to do. Perhaps it is to learn more about his uncle, but it is never stated that Stuart is interested in his family history or has any fascination with magic (he, in fact, states that he does not believe in magic).

Many of the characters are superfluous, particularly May and June, since April is the only triplet who is given any character development and is the only one involved in Stuart’s quest.

But most disappointingly, the villains are lackluster, not threatening or at least humorous — and it is commonly the villain that makes or breaks a good children’s story.

The ingenuity and courage of our hero can only be tested by a truly challenging adversary.

As for the hoping this would be as whimsically bizarre as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” what made Willy Wonka’s factory so memorable was the adventure. Charlie didn’t spend the entire book looking for clues in his ordinary town, trying to find the factory.

If, as an adult, I thought the story dragged and saved its only good moments for the very end, how are middle school readers going to have the patience to slog through?

In a literary market that has an onslaught of stories about young wizards where magic is prevalent and impossible obstacles are constant, treasure-hunt quests that lead young adventurers around the world, battles to the death between teenaged heroes and the most wicked, world-conquering villains imaginable, “Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms” unfortunately comes up — much like its main character — just a little too short.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? Email her to tell her about it. Her column appears biweekly and on


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