Smoke & mirrors by Barry Jonsberg

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Grace isn’t much of a people-person but she’s a whizz at magic, and her new friend Simon has a scheme planned that will make them both some money from her talents.

However, Grace’s energy is divided between fighting her PTSD nightmares and trying to avoid confrontation with her alcoholic mother. In addition, she takes on the care of her terminally ill grandmother, but this is a labour of love, and the sharp wit and repartee they share is a joy to read.

This is a wonderfully multi-faceted and contemporary novel; Grace is easily recognisable as a slightly eccentric loner, the school and home settings are very familiar, and TikTok plays a big role. What sets this book apart are the descriptions and explanations of numerous magic tricks, and the information about the steps required to apply for voluntary assisted dying in the face of a terminal illness. While the latter might not seem immediately relevant or compelling to young teens, Jonsberg makes it so for Grace and so by extension, to his readers.

Smoke and Mirrors portrays a young girl dealing with the death of family members, an absent mother and her own grief and guilt. Supportive family and friends and regular therapy help see her through, to the extent that long-term misunderstandings are cleared up and she can begin to open up and trust others.

Although Jonsberg’s characters have been battered by trauma, their stories are not depressing; Grace is resilient and eventually open to change, Gran all the more endearing for her crotchetiness. Jonsberg writes with a lightness of touch and cleverly ties up many loose ends in just a few sentences that it would be easy to miss; the reason for Grace’s nightmares, her relationship with her brother, her uncle’s true intentions.

This is a delightful book, that deals with potentially heavy subjects in an engaging way. Highly recommended for 14-16 year olds, especially those who are dealing with any of these issues. Teaching notes are available.

Themes: Magic, Death, Cancer, VAD, Guilt, Trust, Friendship, Family, Mental health.

Margaret Crohn