I had said in last week's post that today I'd be writing a Matt Phelan 'masterpost'. Typically this means that I cover 3+ books by a single author (or multiple authors writing together in a series). However, today I'm just going to talk about 2 books because honestly that's all I could get my hands on and so that's all I managed to read. :-) I picked up Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton and The Storm in the Barn with fairly high expectations based on the work I had seen by Phelan in the Comics Squad compilation I read and reviewed not too long ago. On the one hand, I was not at all disappointed. The illustration style is most definitely up my street. He is excellent at drawing evocative expressions on people's faces. I think where I was let down was on the overall reading experience. Let me take each of the books separately so that I can (hopefully) explain what I mean.
I read Bluffton first because it featured a circus and I am all about that circus lifestyle. Firstly, when I grabbed this book I somehow missed the subtitle and therefore was shocked to discover that one of the main characters in this book is that famous star of vaudeville, Buster Keaton. Secondly, I went into this book expecting a rollicking good time and instead got a somewhat borderline depressing narrative of what the childhood of Buster would have entailed since he was a performer from infancy. It's about the expectations that a parent has for their child and how those might be vastly different from the aspirations that the child holds for themselves. It's also about the nature of friendship and jealousy (especially when one of the friends is an itinerant performer). It's a coming of age tale that paints a rather grim picture of child stardom and how the experiences of our youth shape us into the adults that we will one day become.
Then there was The Storm in the Barn which I can only categorize as a Debbie Downer type of book. I'm not sure that this falls under any one genre. It's most certainly historical fiction as it depicts a little boy, his family, and his community as they struggle during the time of the Dust Bowl in Kansas circa 1937. However, it also contains fantasy elements of which I can't really go into without spoiling the plot... It's certainly rooted in reality because Phelan does not shy away from the harsh conditions that these characters face (don't even get me started on the rabbits). He covers bullying from both peers and parents. The protagonist is forced to watch a beloved sister struggle with a possibly fatal illness. The entire plot is fraught with tension and a dark cloud seems to hover over every page. What I'm trying to say is that if you're looking for a light read to send your tots to sleep at night then you should probably keep looking. BUT if you wanted to teach your kids about an era of history that's not usually dwelt upon in the classroom then this might indeed be the right selection for you.
I'd rate both books about the same. In terms of imagery and writing, they're both 10/10. The issue is that I held expectations about these books (as readers do from time to time) and I finished both of these feeling somewhat let down. I understand that not all books are going to be rosy, sweet, and fun. I know that not every book has a happy ending. And yet when these two books delivered hardship, sadness, and loss I was ill prepared and disgruntled. I can't honestly flaw these books and say that from a reviewer's standpoint they were faulty...but I still find it difficult to give them full marks just the same. Does this make sense? I guess my point is that a book can tick off all the boxes and still fall short based on the assumptions of the reader and/or their relative mood when they picked up the book. ¯_(ツ)_/¯