Genres: Europe, Girls & Women, People & Places, Young Adult
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It's 1993, and Generation X pulses to the beat of Kurt Cobain and the grunge movement. Sixteen-year-old Maggie Lynch is uprooted from big-city Chicago to a windswept town on the Irish Sea. Surviving on care packages of Spin magazine and Twizzlers from her rocker uncle Kevin, she wonders if she'll ever find her place in this new world. When first love and sudden death simultaneously strike, a naive but determined Maggie embarks on a forbidden pilgrimage that will take her to a seedy part of Dublin and on to a life- altering night in Rome to fulfill a dying wish. Through it all, Maggie discovers an untapped inner strength to do the most difficult but rewarding thing of all, live. The Carnival at Bray is an evocative ode to the Smells Like Teen Spirit Generation and a heartfelt exploration of tragedy, first love, and the transformative power of music. The book won the 2014 Helen Sheehan YA Book Prize.
In The Carnival at Bray, Maggie moves from Chicago to a small town in Ireland when her mother remarries. It’s 1993 and the height of grunge, and Maggie is obsessed with Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and Pearl Jam thanks to her beloved uncle’s influence. Now she’s on her own in a new country and trying to find her way. Her sister easily makes friends, while she hasn’t found her niche yet. Maggie falls for a boy in town, and when tragedy strikes she makes some reckless and life-changing decisions. The Carnival at Bray rocks and is an addictive, passionate read.
I remember falling instantly in love with Nirvana in 1991 (Though I never got to see them live unfortunately) and I could definitely relate to Maggie’s passion for music. This book takes place in 1993-1994 at the end of Nirvana’s career and references one of their last concerts in Rome. Music is a lifeline in high school and it’s a constant in Maggie’s life. There are song references and concert scenes that will leave you nostalgic for that Seattle sound.
The 90s is the last time period before the explosion of social media, and the setting emphasizes Maggie’s feeling of isolation. It’s not so easy to keep in touch with her Chicago friends and family, and there’s no texting with her crush Eoin. With not a lot of options, Maggie ends up befriending an older neighbor who lends an ear and offers up warm alcoholic beverages.
Family is another theme of the book. Maggie has tension with her mother over her uncle Kevin, and her mother’s drinking and romantic choices. She mouths off to her a bit, and their rocky relationship is painfully realistic. I also loved the scenes between Kevin and Maggie.
Maggie falls hard for Eoin, a boy in the neighborhood. She even asks her older friend for advice to get him to kiss her. Their chemistry crackles off the page and their international adventures and romance reminded me of one of my favorites- Gayle Forman’s Just One Day.
Jessie Ann Foley’s debut gets the teenage voice right and the story is messy, heartfelt and realistic. I devoured it in almost one sitting.
Since this book bleeds music you may want to listen to the author’s playlist while you read:
There are also extras in the book including “Uncle Kevin’s Reading Recommendations to Keep Young Niece’s Off the Streets” with categories such as “Excellent Books with Excellent Sex Scenes” and “Just Because Your Teacher Assigned It Doesn’t Mean it Sucks.” There is also an Author Q&A and discussion guide. The chapter numbers are marked with guitar picks to tie the theme together.
If you love music-based stories, realistic YA, and stories set a little in the past (yes, the 90s is historical fiction, sigh) then pick up The Carnival at Bray. The Carnival at Bray is a finalist for the William C. Morris Award for debut YA fiction.