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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Beach Reads: Dreamland Social Club

Beach Reads is a summer meme, posted here every
weekend.  It consists of quick, light reviews about books that
make good beach or backyard reading.   Find out more here,
and feel free to post your own Beach Reads and enjoy the summer right!

Dreamland Social Club
Tara Altebrando

Jane has traveled the world with her father and brother, but it's not until her fractured family-still silently suffering from the loss of Jane's mother many years before-inherits a house and a history in Coney Island that she finally begins to find a home. With the help of a new community of friends, a mermaid's secrets, and a tattooed love interest with traffic-stopping good looks, the once plain Jane begins to blossom and gains the courage to explore the secrets of her mother's past.

Colorful characters, beautiful writing, and a vibrant, embattled beachfront backdrop make this the perfect summer read for anyone who has ever tried to find true love or a place to call home.

I think this book may have been the genesis for the Beach Reads idea. I took one look at the cover, with it's bright colors, boardwalk and mermaid, and I had this yearning to be at the beach.  (Minus the boardwalk craziness, though a mermaid would be cool.  But still; you get what I'm saying.)  It seemed like sort of the perfect beach read.  And the thing is -- it is.  The beach, the boardwalk, Coney Island - the scene become a palpable character, just as much as any of the others.  But more than that, it's a quintessential "let your freak flag fly" type of story, done with heart and understanding.

I've never been a huge contemporary reader.  For whatever reason, I'm always convinced contemporary books are going to be either sappy-romantic or Gossip Girl.  Couldn't tell you why that is, because I have read some damn good contemporary, and I know that it exists.  Like this one.  I connected to this story, to Jane's quest to find her place and her past.  And I connected to the freaks that people the story, and their passion and boldness and lack of fear in being who they are.  I found myself missing them when I was done, in the way that book characters sometimes feel like they're your friends.  I wanted to pick up the phone and call them, or visit Coney and chat.  There came a moment in the day after I'd finished the book where I realized it was over and I felt a little bereft.

And the thing is, it's not that anything amazing ever happens.  I mean, it's all pretty amazing, from the pov that it's full of circusy freakishness and over-the-topness, but it's not the type of story to really wow you with some dramatic event or unbelievablt effecting writing.    But there's just something about it that makes it feel comfortable and real, and I enjoy that when I find it.   I feel like I'm being a little rambly, so I'm going to move on from this, but I just want to say, this book felt like a friend, and I liked that.

I think Altebrando understands characterization really well, too.  There is a good mix of characters in this, and sometimes I mean Characters-capital-C, and they worked together believably for their age and for the setting.  Seeing everything through the eyes of Jane, the uber-normal newbie on the scene, provided a lot of opportunities to connect with the characters and allow them to grow on the reader.  Even though you're plunged in a bit, there's still a slow-reveal style, and the opportunity to let characters unfold.  Readers are given the chance to let things grow on them, and see the real person beneath the tattoos or missing limbs or bearded female faces.  Altebrando, through Jane, gets to the humanness of everyone involved, even many of the minor characters, and she does it with understanding and love.  Jane's quest to understand her mother allows her to understand everyone else.  I appreciated that.

But I think what sold me the most on the story as a whole was Altebrando's subtlety.  It's hard to be subtle when your characters are all over-the-top.  It would have been really easy to pigeon-hole everyone and let them remain stock characters, OR to be very, very didactic and admonish the reader against judging a book by its cover and a lady by her beard.  Altebrando skillfully avoided both, letting the reader make their own decisions about the characters, and using Jane to help us love them, despite or because of things that make those around them do double-takes.  It was nice to have them just be, and have the love and acceptance just be, and not feel like it was being used for A Lesson of Great Importance.

So though it's never a super fast-paced read, and it didn't necessarily leave me breathless or make me cry, in the end I was left pretty impressed - Dreamland Social Club is one I think I will remember.

On a related note: I did a reading of the "mermaid auditions" from Dreamland Social Club for A Bakcwards Story's Splash Into Summer mermaid event.  You can check it out here!


  1. I don't read a lot of contemporary either, but I really wanted to read this book, b/c it takes place in Coney Island & I love the whole circus/carnival/sideshow "thing"...then I read a negative review so I let it slide. I think I'll have to check this out and judge for myself.

  2. I love the cover. So glad you enjoyed it. You've got awesome taste!


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