I never daydreamed about running off to join the circus. I’d like to say it was because I was too practical and even-keeled, but truth be told, it’s because I was too lazy. (Still am.) Even daydreaming about doing anything that could be termed “exercise”—the trapeze, the tightrope, shoveling elephant manure—was (is still) wholly unattractive to me. Reading about someone else doing it, though, is more than completely fine, so reading J. J. Howard’s debut That Time I Joined the Circus was an entirely enjoyable experience.
When Lexi Ryan’s father dies suddenly, she has no one to turn to: Her best friends aren’t speaking to her and the headmistress of her school pretty much turns her out on her ear. While the executor of her father’s will doesn’t give her any good financial news, he’s the most helpful—it’s a really low bar—because he gives her a craptastic TracFone and an address for her long-absent mother. So, Lexi, a New Yorker through-and-through, spends her last few dollars on a bus ticket to rural Florida. When she gets to the address provided, she doesn’t find her mother...but she does find the Circus Europa, a job, and after some time, friends, romance and what begins to feel like a new family.
While it’s not a title that has inspired me to gush, it’s a solid debut and a solid book: I have absolutely no complaints. Lexi’s narration is clear and honest, her guilt about what happened back in New York is understandable and palpable, and the friendship storyline is given just as much weight as the romance. Howard shifts back and forth between past and present so smoothly that, by the time Lexi's past catches up with her, the groundwork has been laid to allow for a reaction worthy of one of her beloved Regency romances...while still being emotionally believable. It’s a nice little coming-of-age story, full stop.
More than once, That Time I Joined the Circus made me think of The Tree Shepherd’s Daughter, by Gillian Summers. It’s also about a girl whose single parent dies suddenly, requiring her to pull up stakes and move to an entirely alien environment: In her case, to live with her deadbeat dad at a Renaissance Faire. It reads a bit choppy in parts—possibly due to the fact that Gillian Summers is actually two people—but it’s a lot of fun.
As should be entirely obvious by now, I can find a way to work Laura Lam’s Pantomime into any conversation. I do love it so! But as we’re talking about circuses, it’s not even a stretch: If you only read one Run-Away-and-Join-the-Circus book this year, it should be that one. Atmospheric, thoughtful, emotionally and intellectually complex, it’s been on my ever-changing list of Top Five Favorites of the Year since I read it.
And finally, there’s Hannah Rodgers Barnaby’s Wonder Show, a book that I haven’t read yet, but that I’m dying to: According to the Kirkus review, it’s set in a “gothic, Depression-era Midwest,” so I suspect it’ll be right up my alley. If you’ve read Wonder Show, let me know if I should read it sooner rather than later and, as always, feel free to recommend others!
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy is probably mooning over Timothy Olyphant’s portrayal of Raylan Givens in Justified. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.