By Jason Goldberg
It feels like my birthday a few times each year when I receive a new box filled with what producers hope will be the “latest and greatest,” the creations they want to share with the magic fraternity. Sometimes they are great, and sometimes they turn out like that sweater we all want to exchange.
The new wonders that become available to magicians, and their audiences, each year is staggering. Since I became Associate Editor in August 2007, The Linking Ring has received over seven hundred books, DVDs, tricks, and utility items to review in "Hocus in Focus." We make a sincere attempt to review everything we receive to help you determine how to spend your hard-earned dollars, euros, or whatever other currency you prefer. Our mission is to help I.B.M. members identify new magic items in the market that they will enjoy learning and using. Indirectly, we also celebrate the good and take the bad to task. But, you may wonder, who are the reviewers and what are they thinking about when they write a review?
The I.B.M. Review Team is comprised of about thirty individuals with a wide range of experience. Many of us are from Ring 50 in the Washington, D.C. area, where I’m based, though several others are involved to bring a wide range of experience to the table. We have full-time professionals like Eric Henning, part-time pros like Mike Taggert, and hobbyists such as Arnie Levin. There has never been a book test invented that Dick Christian doesn’t know about. Performers such as Louis Meyer and Larry Lipman can make children roar with laughter, and I know I can rely on Rolando Santos for close-up and the bizarre. There’s also Paul Lelekis, a cardman with a keen mind who otherwise defies description (I’ve tried). The others all bring their own unique blend of talents.
Our experience is wide-ranging -- from history and mentalism to gospel and comedy magic; from close-up and parlor, to stage and illusions -- making it easier to ensure that whatever product comes in, someone is qualified to review it. If an item is targeted at beginners, I ask a beginner to review it with assistance given as needed to help ensure it isn’t a rip-off. If it’s clearly aimed at the working professional, then someone of that caliber analyzes it. While everyone has certain biases about what makes good magic, we do strive for objectivity. Hocus in Focus therefore requires that reviewers do not have a close personal or professional relationship with the producer of the item they’re reviewing.
While we do try to be timely, Hocus in Focus is a monthly publication and cannot be your best source for reviews on items that just came out this week. It takes two to three months for items to be distributed to the Review Team once they arrive at I.B.M. headquarters. Team members then have three months to really work over an item and write their review. After that, reviews enter the publication queue. So, it can be anywhere from three to six months, sometimes even longer, from the time we receive an item to its publication in The Linking Ring. On the other hand, producers are reaching out to a wider audience than they might be able to otherwise, and readers are getting objective reviews on items they might not otherwise have heard about or considered. In addition, while we sometimes receive items before they are available to the general market, sometimes we receive items a year or two after they have been introduced. At times we write reviews for items we don’t receive, but our first priority is to keep space for the items we are sent for review.
Given space limitations, each review has to be less than one thousand words. Fast Focus reviews are two hundred fifty words and allow us to squeeze a few more reviews into each column. Each review needs to answer the same general questions. Is this something magicians will perform or enjoy learning? What type of performing style, venue, and experience is it appropriate for? Are the instructions clear? If a trick or gimmick needs to be constructed, how easy and inexpensive is it? Has the producer attempted to research the item’s history? Is it a copy of a former effect, a modification, or something completely new? Are the props durable and made to last or inexpensively replaceable? Is the production quality of the DVD high? If someone has written a book, have they taken time to edit it? If someone is talking about magic history or theory, do they present a good argument for their ideas that are clear, consistent, and well researched?
Shades of gray are possible with each question, of course. A sleight may take hours, or even months, to master, but the end result could be beyond astonishing. One-trick DVDs are a persistent source of contention among the Review Team; some find them more objectionable than others. All reviews are ranked according to one of four categories: Highly recommended, Recommended, Neutral, or Not recommended. A product’s ranking depends on each reviewer’s preferences. I noticed that a review in another well-respected magic publication rated one item very highly, while I thought the item in question wasn’t worth the money. Both of our rationales were sound, but there was an honest disagreement in opinion. The best we can do is describe why we like (or don’t like) something, and let you decide for yourself.
In general, “Highly recommended” items are top-notch. They define their genre or are otherwise an exceptional value, and we’re still trying to figure out why producers of those items aren’t asking twice as much for them as we anxiously await their next product. “Recommended” items are a good value, and you’ll find the item interesting and useful. “Not recommended” means the item needs to be sent back to the drawing board, is a good idea but just far too expensive (e.g., those pesky one-trick, fifteen-minute DVDs again!), or otherwise has another significant problem. We try to avoid “Neutral” reviews, but they turn up from time to time. We liked the item but thought there was something “iffy” about it. Our reviewers also sometimes add “as noted” as a clarifier. In those cases, the item may be more suitable for a particular audience, or details noted in the review need to be understood.
Our advice is not to use our reviews as the final word on a product. If it catches your attention, check other sources and ask your friends what they think.
Working on product reviews can be a lot of fun but also downright painful at times. Negative reviews in particular are always tough. As one of my reviewers has noted, “It is great fun and easy to write a highly recommended review, while it is very difficult and not much fun to write a review of an item that ends up not being recommended.” As someone who once spent eight hours writing five hundred words for a negative review, I agree.
Hocus in Focus, at the end of the day, is only possible because there are magic innovators willing to keep exploring the boundaries of our art. Working on this column has certainly helped me better understand what makes good magic, as well as what doesn’t. It’s helped me to appreciate and admire the original inventors working today, as well as the copy of Tarbell on my bookshelf. I sincerely want to thank the Review Team for their efforts. If one of our reviews has helped you decide what to buy and aided your performance or otherwise benefited your experience in magic, then we’ve accomplished our goals. Thank you for letting us share our opinions with you.