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review 2017-11-17 16:58
Fathers and sons in America: A Matt Phelan Masterpost
Bluffton - Matt Phelan
The Storm in the Barn - Matt Phelan

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)_/¯

 

Now let's take a look at Buster from Bluffton followed by a page from The Storm in the Barn:

 

Source: YouTube

 

 

Source: books4school

 

What's Up Next: Ghost Waltz: A Family Memoir by Ingeborg Day

 

What I'm Currently Reading: Kid Authors: True Tales of Childhood from Famous Writers by David Stabler

Source: readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com
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review 2014-10-06 00:00
Bluffton
Bluffton - Matt Phelan Beautifully done.
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review 2013-09-27 00:00
Bluffton
Bluffton - Matt Phelan

My first experience with Matt Phelan and now I think he and I shall be very good friends indeed. This is a very sweet historical fiction graphic novel based on the real life Buster Keaton and the childhood summers he spent in Bluffton - located between Lake Michigan and Muskegon Lake.

I really like it when authors choose a small moment in time of a famous person's life to explore vs. a full length biography. I think you convey a lot about a person and his/her times with this technique. It works really well here for sure. Also, I love all things vaudeville/classic film related so this was really a treat.

I have one stupid, minor little complaint. I really dislike the print used for the text! I think it really clashes with the beautiful gauzy illustrations. I wish he'd use a more organic looking font. Silly, I know, but it really stood out to me.

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review 2013-09-14 00:00
Bluffton - Matt Phelan I could not get into it. The soft color palate and historical time frame might appeal to history buffs---but it did not invoke a sense of interest in me. I felt it was informative about the time period and you learn a little bit about how the entertainment industry has evolved from the early 1900s. I think a lot of parents that are interested in their kids learning about Michigan history will want to read this book.
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review 2013-07-05 00:00
Bluffton - Matt Phelan 4.5 stars

Gentle, coming of age story with history sprinkled in for good measure.

Full review

I don’t think that I’ve read anything by Matt Phelan before I picked up Bluffton, but now that I’m aware of him, I’ll be trolling his backlist. I wanted to read this book because I saw that it took place in Muskegon, Michigan in the early 1900s. That’s the only reason. I didn’t realize until I started reading it that it’s about Buster Keaton’s childhood. Doh! While I have heard of Buster Keaton, I didn’t really know anything about him, so this book was informative as well as a visual treat.

Bluffton is the story of Henry Harrison and his magical summers in Bluffton. Once the vaudeville performers, led by Joe Keaton, begin vacationing in the sleepy town near his home in Muskegon, Henry’s life will never be the same. He quickly makes friends with Buster, but along with their friendship is envy and a longing for a more exciting life. Henry is envious of Buster’s talent and the constant attention sent his way. Buster, on the other hand, longs for a more normal childhood. He wants to play baseball, and if asked, which he never is, he’d prefer to be a civil engineer than a vaudeville star. When pretty Sally shows an interest in Buster, the boys friendship is put to the test.

This was a perfect summer weekend read. It’s an engaging coming of age story, and it manages to sneak in some history, seamlessly and compellingly, at the same time. Henry has to come to terms with his normal, though happily ordinary, life, while watching Buster’s star blaze brighter and brighter. The only thing that keeps Buster from being unlikable is that he, unlike Henry, has no real choice for his future. His father has honed his stage presence since he was a young boy, and nothing is going to change the course of his life. Not the authorities seeking to take Buster away from his parents under the suspicion of abuse, and certainly not Buster himself, who longs to have a say in who he is and what he does.

Bluffton is a heartwarming, slice of life story, about two boys and their unlikely friendship. It’s a gentle story of summers gone by, and wistful dreams for the future. While Henry woefully lacked any talent for entertaining, he made his dreams come true in his own way.

Grade: B+
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