|DREAMLAND SOCIAL CLUB
Tara Altebrando is a master of setting and this is seen best of all in her latest novel, Dreamland Social Club, where the Coney Island setting seems to become a character itself. From the island's run-down current state to its former glory to the freak-filled school, there's a rich and fully-explored sense of setting. Jane nearly instantly becomes enamored with the island and its history, hoping to learn more about her carny grandparents (her grandmother was a "bird woman" while her grandfather was on display as part of a "preemie" exhibition when he was born) and her mother who escaped the island before Jane or her brother were born. The memories she has of her mom are mostly of games played when she was young and as Jane learns more about the island's history, she discovers that many of these games (and the songs that went along with them) were based on Coney Island attractions. The flashbacks of Jane's childhood memories, though short, were some of the best and most evocative scenes in the book.
Soon after arriving in Coney, Jane meets a beautiful tattooed boy named Leo, who she is inexplicably drawn to. As she uncovers more of her family's past, mingled with the history of the island itself, she's even more drawn to Leo and the current state of Coney Island he's intent on protecting. Throughout the novel there's a huge theme of past v. present as Coney Island residents take opposing sides -- there are those (like Leo) who want Coney to stay as it is, run-down bars and all, and those (like Jane's father) who'd like the island to return to its days of roller-coaster-and-attractions glory. Jane finds herself in the middle of everything, torn between her father's success and the wishes of the boy she's falling for.
As richly as this book and its setting are developed, I felt distanced from many of the characters, most notably Jane and Leo. I loved Jane's journey, but her personality was a bit flat for me; aside from the sudden fascination with Coney Island, I had no idea who she was. Aside from the memories of her mother, there was no sense of the girl she was pre-Coney Island and there was a lack of spark that really held the book back in my opinion. As much as I wanted to love Jane, I instead found her boring and was even more distanced from her because of the book's third-person POV. And this lack of spark carried over into her sometimes-sweet-sometimes-sour relationship with Leo. I wanted so much to cheer these characters on, but I found it difficult to do so and found myself bored by them more often than I would have liked. For me, the blandness of the characters was a huge stumbling block that I found impossible to overcome even as the setting was wonderful and fully drawn.