Review: Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby

Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Title: Wonder Show
Genre: young-adult, historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 288 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: March 20, 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, friends and neighbors, allow me to change your lives! Step inside Mosco’s Traveling Wonder Show! You’ve read about them in magazines, these so-called human curiosities, this tribe of misfits—now come and see for yourselves. We’ve got a gent as tall as a tree, a lady with a beard, and don’t miss your chance to see the Wild Albinos of Bora Bora! Ask Madame Doula to peer into your future (only two dollars more if you want to know how you’re going to die).

And between these covers behold the greatest act of our display—Portia Remini, the strangest of the menagerie because she’s a ‘normal’ among the freaks, searching for a new beginning on the bally, far away from McGreavey’s Home for Wayward Girls, where Mister watches and waits. He said he would always find Portia, said she could never leave . . .

Oh, it’s not for the faint of heart folks. If you’re prone to nightmares or you’ve got a weak ticker, you’d best move on. Within these pages lies a tale of abandonment, loss, misfortune for the rich and glory for the poor (and a little murder doesn’t hurt). It’s a story for the ages, but be warned: once you enter the Wonder Show you will never be the same.

I knew pretty early on that I was really going to enjoy this fairly short novel - and I was repeatedly proven right while reading this charming debut. Though Hannah Barnaby and therefore Portia's tale is a bit short on action and long on character (like another recently released circus themed novel...), I was hooked from chapter one and Portia herself. I felt that the final conflict lacked a bit of emotional pull or immediacy but nearly everything else from this look into Mosco's Traveling Wonder Show was pure fun to read. I'm happy to say that Hannah Barnaby emerges from her first novel as a solid and compelling storyteller with a flair for the dramatic and the unique - just like her indomitable lead.

Portia is a flawed but very likeable protagonist; though her story is mostly told in third-person omniscient and occasionally oddly features other first-person perspective important characters, Portia is the strongest, most developed character of the lot. While I truly disliked the shifts between first and third perspectives it's easy to fall into any narrative in the story, be it P's or the Jackal, or Gideon or even Mosco. Portia made me laugh, but mostly and most importantly, Portia made me care about her story; made me invest in her happiness and actively cheer for her success and lament over her losses. Her inquisitive nature and love of words ("Stories came easily to Portia. Lies came even more easily and more often." - p. 13 ARC) endeared her to me rather quickly and her adventures with Aunt Sophie and subsequent misadventures at the McGreavey Home for Wayward Girls only impressed me with her spirit and liveliness.

While the 'freaks' advertised for the Gallery of Human Oddities didn't quite live up to the hype of the synopsis and blurb, I am not disappointed; rather instead, I believe that is the whole point of Wonder Show - that those who society considers freaks are really just people like us, living the hand they are dealt. In fact, the only truly freakish character within the entirety of Wonder Show is The Mister - someone not hidden away and hated on principle but someone trusted with power and the futures of young girls. The other characters, thoguh they don't compel like Portia or creep you out like Mister, each have believable and distinct voices. Like Portia, the population of the Wonder Show is at large on the run from something/time/one they'd like to forget, or change. While no two characters plot was the same  outside of Portia I found the Jackal and the deteriorating Marvel family to be the most accessible. In fact, while I was far from a fan of the weirdly switching POV's used to alternate character inner monologues (not person to person but 3rd omniscient to 1st), I wouldn't have hated an even longer look into those characters.

Though I was expecting to be more involved and invested in the ending, I felt it was solid but very much not the climactic, epic tête-à-tête I had been craving because Mister needed his ass kicked anticipating. And I have to admit that though this is a middle-grade novel, it doesn't read like one and I feel that people of all ages would enjoy the adventures and marvels that make Wonder Show so fun to read in the first place. This is a quick read with a large reward for your minimal efforts; full of charm and adventures, Wonder Show is welll... quite wonderful indeed.

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