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

By Megan Love Literature Art & Reason @meganm922
15843281   That Time I Joined the Circus   by J. J. Howard
Summary: 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.

Source: I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I was so excited to read That Time I Joined the Circus. The synopsis hooked from from the first sentence and I wanted desperately the read a sort of coming of age YA book mixed with the fun of a circus and great music. I thought it would be a mixture of something like Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist mixed with a modern day Water for Elephants based on the summary. And to some readers, I suppose it was. Unfortunately, That Time I Joined the Circus didn’t work for me and it fell flat.
That Time I Joined the Circus was told from two different time periods: before Lexi joined the circus when she was attending prep school in NYC and after Lexi joined the circus and her life fell apart. The reader doesn’t really know what the major catalyst, besides her father’s death, was in the “before” part, so we find out along the way. Before the circus, Lexi lived with her beatnik father, attended a prep school he worked hard to pay for, and hung out with her best friend Eli, until he became enamored with a girl named Bailey, or “Adventure Barbie” as Lexi refers to her. The three of them were a tricky group after Bailey came and shook up the dynamics. And something happened around Lexi’s father’s death and inability to pay for prep school between them and Lexi found herself alone. Her last resort was to find the mother who ran out on her and joined the circus. The circus ended up changing Lexi’s life and made her a better person, which was sort of the point. She met interesting people, grew up, gained confidence, etc.
I felt like That Time I Joined the Circus has the perfect formula for a great story. The added element of Lexi’s life at the circus had tons of potential and Lexi even became a temporary fortune teller due to the need for the position and her ability to read tarot cards. Each chapter had a quote from some sort of song, which I liked, especially because music was so important to Lexi. And of course, between Lexi’s unhealthy attachment to her best guy friend and then losing everything only to gain new confidence in the circus makes for a great story. But somehow, all of these elements weren’t executed to the best of their abilities.
I didn’t connect with any of the characters and Lexi’s own growth was too obvious. She was obviously a doormat in prep school, except she had no idea it had more to do with her attitude and less to do with circumstances and she played the whole “woe is me” card without trying very hard to fix anything. She had this whole warped perspective about how guys only talk to girls like Bailey and ignore her, even as guys were coming up to her. But, of course, that was only because they felt bad for her. Or whatever her issue was. It just drove me crazy. And of course, the entire growth of her character was based on her realizing her own potential and she took forever to do it. The whole internal conflict was just too obvious and induced too much eye rolling from my perspective.  The rest of the characters were pretty flat, too. I wanted more of everyone, especially the friends Lexi made at the circus. Lina and Liska could have been awesome, but I felt like I didn’t get enough of them to really care about them. Even after so much of Eli in all of the before sections, when the time came to meet him, I wasn’t sure who I met. No one stood out to me. And it made all of the conflict a bit underwhelming.
And then there was Nick. Lexi fell for him pretty quickly and I loved the banter between them, except it was short. And then for some reason they couldn’t be together and that was the conflict and she tried to prove him wrong. I’m still not really sure what the problem was. I hate this type of conflict, thought.” We can’t be together because our lives aren’t going in the same direction even though I love you” isn’t a conflict that works for me immediately after falling for someone. If the character’s have been together awhile, I feel like it’s believable because life gets in the way of love sometimes. Or if one of them is like… a demon and the other kills demons for a living. Something like that. But as a rule, if you love someone, you try. And if you don’t try, I don’t believe you are in love. So this whole relationship didn’t work for me either.
Mildly Spoilerish:

Finding out the major catalyst between Before and After was so incredibly underwhelming that I wasn’t sure why it was even written the way it was. I felt like the whole flash back to the past and forward to the present was supposed to make the conflict stand out when it wasn’t anything close to being worth the suspense. Especially not in comparison to her father’s death! And then the rest of the book didn’t work for me because I didn’t agree with Lexi’s decisions and I didn’t like how things came full circle. I should have guessed from the title that joining the circus would change her, but it would still be just a thing in her past. You know, that time when she took that one really big risk. Still, the end was even more underwhelming than the rest of the book.

End of Mild Spoiler

I didn’t care for the writing, either. Lexi’s point of view lacked descriptions. I can’t even really explain the circus because it wasn’t described to its full potential. Perhaps this was the biggest problem of all. Between Lexi’s point of view, the lack of character depth and development, and the lack of world building, I felt like I was left with a mediocre story. Lexi’s adventures at the circus, when described in detail, reminded me so much of Jacob’s story in Water for Elephants (minus the time period difference) that I didn’t feel like I was gaining anything new by hearing Lexi’s story. I wanted more newness, more circus, more enchantment. And because the little descriptions I got reminded me so much of Water for Elephants, I couldn't help but notice the elephant performer's name was Marina (and it was Marlena in Water for Elephants) and I just cringed. It was too much.
I feel horrible for giving such a negative review because I wanted to love it so much. It had elements that should have worked for me and had me falling in love with it. I think it would be the perfect story if it was better executed or it was marketed more as a coming of age for Lexi than an adventure involving a circus. If I expected more of a story about a girl in a prep school who had her life turned upside down and had to deal with losing her parent and her friends at the same time rather than a girl who joins a circus (which imply two very different forms of conflict in my opinion), I would have loved it more. Perhaps someone without such high expectations would enjoy it. But as a lover of both Water for Elephants and The Night Circus, I wanted something of that caliber and that’s not what I got.
That Time I Joined the Circus released on April 1, 2013. It has an average of 4 out of 5 stars, so don't just take my word for it!

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