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That Time I Joined The Circus by J.J. Howard

Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Synopsis: Lexi Ryan just ran away to join the circus, but not on purpose. A music-obsessed, slightly snarky New York City girl, Lexi is on her own. After making a huge mistake--and facing a terrible tragedy--Lexi has no choice but to track down her long-absent mother. Rumor has it that Lexi's mom is somewhere in Florida with a traveling circus. When Lexi arrives at her new, three-ring reality, her mom isn't there . . . but her destiny might be. Surrounded by tigers, elephants, and trapeze artists, Lexi finds some surprising friends and an even more surprising chance at true love. She even lucks into a spot as the circus's fortune teller, reading tarot cards and making predictions. But then Lexi's ex-best friend from home shows up, and suddenly it's Lexi's own future that's thrown into question. With humor, wisdom, and a dazzlingly fresh voice, this debut reminds us of the magic of circus tents, city lights, first kisses, and the importance of an excellent playlist.

Review: First-time YA novelist J.J. Howard knows how to start a story. In the first and second pages alone of the prologue of That Time I Joined the Circus, we learn that Alex Ryan (who doesn't like her first name, and prefers to go by Xandra, or Lexi) is having a bad day that may not rank highly in all of literature's bad days, but it's still a bad day. She's "homeless as of around ten o'clock this morning," she lost her two best friends, Eli and Bailey, after she messed up something awful, and Gavin, her amiably irresponsible father, died, leaving what little money he had to his "crazy ex-wife," her mother, who ran off to join a circus. In Florida. Howard significantly throws down the gauntlet for herself, and has a lot to live up to for the reader.

As Howard gradually proves herself to be a YA novelist to watch, with Xandra’s swift introduction to circus life, she also lights up the pages like a circus midway with her bountiful love of ‘80s music, ‘90s music, last decade’s music, and today’s music, so accurately establishing the feeling of each chapter. At the beginning of chapter three, “The Sunshine State,” which marks Xandra’s arrival in Florida, at an empty field, at which Circus Europa arrives soon after and begins setting up, Howard chooses a lyric from “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)” by Florence + the Machine: “Here I am, a rabbit-hearted girl. Frozen in the headlights.” That’s Xandra. She’s nervous and scared, and about to experience a life she never knew before this moment. Even though over 20 years have passed, I still can’t clearly define the ‘90s, the decade I grew up in, let alone its music. But I bet Howard could ably take care of the music side. She has the kind of knowledge that not only makes Xandra more well-rounded and interesting, worthy of being the center of That Time I Joined the Circus, but so many of the references make a jump to Google necessary to see what Howard’s song choices are all about, especially “Fortune Days” by The Glitch Mob, being an electronic music fan but surprisingly never having heard of them. Howard also instinctively knows when there’s a time for music and a time for silence, such as with chapter 20, in which, in New York City long before the circus, Xandra learns what happened to her father. There is no song lyric under the chapter title, “Silence.” This is a somber time.

It’s not only that Howard has set the majority of this in my native Florida, with backstory in New York City, which makes me like what she has unfolded here like the scarf on a tarot card reader’s table. It’s that while Xandra is bewildered by everything that has happened to her in just one day, she soldiers on. She’s lost so much, yet she has to do something. She has to eat. She has to sleep. And so here is Circus Europa, where she first shovels animal poop, and then helps put up the circus tent, and works in the novelties wagon, and finally finds her niche as a fortune teller with tarot cards, which she memorized obsessively back in New York City. Howard captures the life of a traveling circus so well, and those who have harbored fantasies in childhood, or still do, about running away to join the circus, can see that there’s enormous responsibilities in being part of the circus, just like anything else in life. It all depends on where you fit in.

The different parts of Circus Europa, the performers and the crew, the trapeze artists and the ring crew, sit separately at breakfast, though not out of one group believing they’re better than any other. It’s just who they are. Trapeze artists would have things to discuss that would not likely interest the ring crew, different priorities, different tasks to work on. As Xandra walks between these different worlds within this world, she gets to know the Vrana family, led by Louis Vrana, the boss of Circus Europa, and his daughters, Lina and Eliska, who are at first cold toward Xandra, since she’s come out of nowhere and would seem to have no place here, but Xandra soon impresses them, Eliska quietly pleased at how Xandra teaches in the circus school until a new teacher comes to take over. Eliska finds a kindred soul in Xandra, being that she loves to read and she wants to go to college, even though Louie doesn’t want that because it would break up the trapeze act, in which Lina and Eliska perform.

 There is, of course, potential love to be found, first in Jamie, who works on the midway, and then Nicolae “Nick” Tarus, whose mother was the gypsy fortuneteller that Xandra has replaced after Nick’s mother left. Nick’s angry about it, and it’s definitely not what could be considered a meet-cute. There’s nothing cute about Nick’s presumptions, though after the misunderstandings are cleared away, she comes to really like Nick.

 Howard has created such a wonderful world here, a circus that actually costs less to read about than an average ticket to see a circus nowadays. But she doesn’t only give an overview of Circus Europa and leave it at that. She fills in the crevices, and leads you to what you probably don’t notice when you go to a circus, things you wouldn’t likely see since you aren’t a performer or a crew member. My favorite character appears ever so briefly, when Lina calls for the music for the trapeze act to be put on so she and Eliska and Eddie, the other performer, can swing and Xandra can see if anything in the act needs to be improved. His name is Ralph, a “tiny old man” who oversees the music for the circus. “Course, Miss Lina,” came his voice in soft reply,” as Howard writes it. And that’s it. That’s all we see of him. Same with the fire eater who explains to Xandra his origins and what a distraction of the female persuasion cost him when he was once doing his act.

It’s fun to imagine what J.J. Howard might write about next. The employees of an aquarium? An amusement park? A supermarket? She has the kind of curious and fun-seeking mind that is crucial to good YA novels, and That Time I Joined the Circus is the perfect book to open for an adventure not found often in the YA genre, a deeply felt one at that.

Reviewed by: Rory

Rating: 4/5 DIAMONDS
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