Plot: The sometimes cartoonish, sometimes sleazy, always strange Coney Island, described here in vivid detail, is an ideal backdrop for the action, which meanders a bit on its way to a slightly-too-neat conclusion. But overall, it's a weird, wonderful journey.
Prose: Brooklyn's voice is fully believable as a child relaying a story; her unreliable narration adds to the uncertainty about whether the action can be taken at face value or as the manifestations of an child's overactive imagination.
Originality: The seamless interweaving of multicultural folklore, blues music, and an urban coming-of-age story makes for a fresh, compelling read.
Character Development: From evil Aunt Suzie to the mysterious old lady who rents rooms to the kindly bluesman who helps her find her voice, Brooklyn's world is populated with fascinating, quirky characters (even if some occasionally fall into stereotypes).
Blurb: A strange, dark, whimsical journey that overlays a smorgasbord of death-related mythology onto the tale of a young girl coming of age in 1950s Brooklyn.
Date Submitted: March 02, 2017
“Coney Island in the summer of 1957—what time or place could be more magical? Sheila Martin has concocted a semi-mystical, very real, and beautifully illustrated tale of growing up in America's playground. A story that lives on the edge of dreams, where the water meets the sand and the sky.”
—Kevin Baker, author of The New York Times bestseller Paradise Ally, Dreamland, and Luna Park, among many other books.
Martin’s debut novel matches a tale of magic, death, and childhood in 1957 Coney Island with 40 color illustrations. Young Sarah’s turbulent Jewish family in Brooklyn’s Coney Island is intimately involved with the neighborhood’s various institutions. Her mother was once Miss Coney Island, her father maintains amusement park rides, and her ex-gangster uncle owns an unsavory boardwalk saloon. Sarah becomes convinced that suave Lenny, a performer at the saloon, and mysterious “Mississippi,” a drifter blues musician, are putting hidden “warnings” in their songs. Already reeling from the death of her grandmother, Sarah (who soon renames herself “Brooklyn”) tries to wheedle an explanation from the musicians. She eventually learns that the approaching threat may be Molech ha-Movess, the Angel of Death. Meanwhile, she also tries to get to know her family’s oddball tenant (an elderly hoarder) and help her cousin evade her unhinged “Evil Aunt Suzie.” The novel extensively references both Jewish folklore and blues music. Martin, a Coney Island native herself, evocatively describes a childhood spent freely roaming boardwalks, seedy clubs, and amusement parks. One of the book’s strongest elements is its depiction of Sarah’s family members. Although it portrays questionable or even abusive parenting, it also hints that the imperfect adults in Sarah’s life face multiple pressures; for example, her father barely sees his family during the busy season, and her mother suffers from depression and anorexia.(These pressures may even be supernatural—“Evil” Aunt Suzie, for instance, may be possessed by a dybbuk, a lost and angry soul.) The meandering plot structure generally serves the subject matter well, allowing Sarah to investigate different corners of her world. However, the novel struggles to maintain a sense of forward motion, as the central Angel-of-Death plotline gets lost among numerous others. The character of Mississippi could also have been developed further, as he struggles to transcend the wise, friendly, African-American blues musician stereotype. The book’s illustrations, though, are wonderfully colorful, evocative, and slightly creepy, and they go well with Martin’s playful, gothic text.
A flawed but often enjoyable magical-realist novel of Brooklyn.
I Recommend This Book
Last updated on 27 Mar 2017
The Coney Island Book of the Dead is a thrilling and fascinating read. I loved this book. All the characters have so many different layers. Their back stories are each intriguing and appear to be able to be developed into their own mini-series, if the author decided to later on. The book starts out describing Coney Island during a time where life was somewhat carefree and light-hearted. The main character is a young girl that is full of adventure and rebellion. Her best friend/cousin can be just as rebellious but they both have somewhat good reason at times.The adventures that "Brooklyn" goes on and the things she learns are genuinely creative and full of enough details that you could imagine watching her do it. Even though the book does have a good/evil type theme, it is in a totally different concept and more along the lines of good guy Vs. guy that thinks he is doing good even though both are doing the same job. Their perspectives about the approach is what sets them apart. Another aspect of this book is that it touches lightly on the mother's eating disorder. As the story progresses, the physical description tells you what is happening and then at the end, gives you some insight into the character's futures. The author also touches lightly on racism. One of the leading men in the story has to gently explain to a naive Brooklyn that she isn't supposed to be in his house alone or behind closed doors with him. He implies that it is because he is black and she is white. He talks about his younger life in which he grew up on a plantation and why he left. This book is multi-faceted. It has many layers that get more complex as it goes but not so deep down the rabbit hole that the reader begins to lose interest.
Winner of the 2016 McLaughlin-Esstman-Stearns First Novel Prize.