Sleights & Insights By John Carney
Review by Michael Close
By now, the name John Carney should be well known to you. He is an author, performer, sleight-of-hand virtuoso, actor, comedian, and Magic Castle multi-award winner. His material has been previously published in two books, Carneycopia by Stephen Minch and The Book of Secrets by John Carney. John has also written a small but valuable book on magic theory titled Magic by Design. All these books should be in your library. John has also offered material on DVDs and through streaming media.
It has been eighteen years since a big book of Carney magic has appeared, but the wait is over. Sleights and Insights is the type of book we expect from John Carney: commercial routines, fully worked out, accompanied with explanations of the reasons behind the decisions John made when constructing the routines. The reader, therefore, is provided with both the “how” and the “why.”
Understanding why certain decisions were made is the key to understanding how the creative process works. Most of time, these decisions are rooted in magic theory. It’s important to note that John has a particular approach to magic theory. He writes:
“‘Theory,’ if I may use that rather pretentious term, is useless unless the conclusions are drawn from practical experience. It should not be a rule, but a guide. I don’t want to be told what to think, or where to go, but it might be helpful to have a map of where someone has been, with clues and landmarks, so I can choose my own path, according to my own taste and needs.
“To grow, we need to challenge ourselves, and look for problems and discrepancies in our work. We need to spend as much (or maybe more) time thinking as we do practicing moves. Indeed, thinking should be part of our practice. Often, it is a revelation to magicians that they should think about their magic at all...Great sleight of hand doesn’t necessarily require raw, knuckle-busting skill. Technique is only one of our tools. Effective sleight of hand is more the result of a quality of thought, and the consideration we put into our routining...It is a process; not a single idea, but a chain forged of many small, subtle details.”
Developing a magic routine is an exercise in creative problem solving. Following along as John explains his process provides you the opportunity to internalize this information, and, perhaps, eventually utilize it when constructing your own routines. Even if you never add any of the routines in Sleights & Insights to your repertoire, you will have received value for your money.
When you get the book, you might want to jump ahead to the chapter “On the Shoulders of Giants” to get a feel for the magicians who have inspired John. There you will find some brief reminiscences of Charlie Miller, Al Flosso, Dai Vernon, Michael Skinner, Carl Ballentine, Johnny Thompson, and Ricky Jay. He summarizes this chapter with these words:
“One of the things all these magicians have in common is they didn’t follow trends of the day, doing the same material everyone else was doing. They studied what had been done in the past, so they could build on it. They had plenty of concepts and inspirations to inform their choices. They didn’t just ‘know secrets,’ they interpreted them in their own way. Theirs was not paint-by-number, plug-and-play, push-button magic. You can’t just click anywhere on the Internet and understand their real secrets.”
As far as the magic routines go, Sleights & Insights begins with the chapter “Broken and Restored.” Two routines are covered, a flashy and dramatic torn-and-restored paper streamer effect (which will play effectively in a large room) and a torn-and-restored string routine cloaked with an ingenious (and for me brand new) presentation. This is a great, practical, commercial routine.
The chapter “Coins Behaving Badly” contains two routines. The first is a multi-phase routine involving a purse frame, a copper coin, and a silver coin. The coins are magically produced from the frame. The coins change places, jump from hand to hand, penetrate the performer’s pocket, and finally vanish when placed back into the purse frame. Between the Electrons is John’s handling for a classic effect in which a marked coin wrapped in a piece of paper vanishes, penetrating through a plate into a clear glass. This is a wonderful routine that can be done impromptu by simply gathering a few necessary supplies.
“Seeing Familiar Things in New Ways” covers John’s handling of the Silent Mora Balls in the Net and (surprisingly) John’s various handlings for the Vanishing Birdcage. John enjoys experimenting with prop magic, but he approaches it differently – as a sleight-of-hand performer. John has developed a variety of handlings for this venerable prop, many of which do not involve the use of a pull.
“Visual Card Magic” contains just that – three eye-popping card routines. The first, Four Gone, is a stand-up routine inspired by the work of Ross Bertram and Cliff Green. Four Aces are magically produced; they vanish one at a time, and then magically reappear in the magician’s pockets. Back Home is a lovely handling of Fred Kaps’s Homing Card, and Visual Assemblage is John’s take on the Jennings Open Travelers plot. Regarding this last trick, I have spent a lot of time thinking about this effect. John has come up with some really clever ideas that were absolutely new to me.
“Considering Misdirection” features John’s handling of John Ramsay’s Coins in the Hat. John has added a great ending to this routine, which gives it the final punch it needs. In “Graceful Ghosts,” John explores three classic routines: the Magnetized Wand, Great Leon’s Haunted Doll House, and the Rising Wand in a Bottle. “Exploring a Classic” gives you all the work on John’s routine for the Cups and Balls using coffee cups. There is a wealth of valuable information here. In “Plucked from Obscurity,” John discusses a variety of routines that involve plucking objects from the air. Don’t overlook John’s routine for catching a signed, balled-up bill with a pair of chopsticks. I first saw this when John worked a comedy club in Indianapolis thirty-five years ago. It’s a great trick.
In the final section, “Between the Lines,” John offers ten useful study habits, including an explanation of three different types of practice methods.
So here’s the bottom line. In Sleights & Insights, John Carney has provided us with everything you want in a magic book: commercial, real-world routines for close-up and stand-up performances, worked out to the nth degree; discussions of the decision-making process, so you can understand the problem-solving behind the trick; and explanations of how magic theory principles were applied in specific situations. This is the type of book you will return to as you progress and grow in magic; each time you revisit it you’ll discover something valuable you missed the first time.
Just like Carneycopia, The Book of Secrets, and Magic by Design, Sleights & Insights gets my highest recommendation.
Available from www.carneymagic.com