The circus has long been a refuge for society’s misfits; for some, it is the inherent danger of the acts that offers a welcome escape from reality. Faith—the heroine of the first novel by the late Amanda Davis, Wonder When You'll Miss Me—runs away from her high school, her mother, and the police and remakes herself as Annabelle, the elephant-dung mucker for a traveling circus troupe. Psychologically disjointed (she is trailed at all times by her imaginary alter ego), Annabelle seeks solace in acrobatics. “I wanted to tell her about the woman on the trapeze. How I’d held my breath and how my heart had pounded,” Davis writes. “How I’d seen a whole world up there in the air, and the one down here had disappeared.”
Ascension, a novel by Steve Galloway, focuses on the travails of a wire walker named Salvo Ursari. As a child, his parents were killed by Transylvanian villagers; forty-five years later, during the family act on the high wire, his twin daughters plunge to their death. But while Ursari is on the wire, all that matters is the next step. “Immediately everything receded. All his fears, all his memories, all he loved and all he loathed,” Galloway writes.
The eponymous heroine (based on a real-life tiger trainer) of Robert Hough’s The Final Confession of Mabel Stark joins the circus after escaping from a psychiatric ward, where she was committed for refusing to fulfill her wifely duties. For Mabel, life with her big cats reminds her that happiness always has its dark side: “No matter how well things’re going, you always know it’s only a matter of time before a claw catches, or a tooth snags, or a forepaw lashes, and your contentment feels bearable again.”
The novel's captivating depiction of circus life is matched by Hough's furious plotting -- every few pages bring the hint of a secret, a riled tiger, a handsome stranger, a career twist or the surprise reappearance of a past friend or foe. — Laura Jamison
It's no surprise that Robert Hough's rollicking debut novel, The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, has already been snapped up by Hollywood. The book, a fictional memoir of the greatest female tiger trainer of all time, is filled to the brim with cinematic moments and larger-than-life characters. Mabel Stark is the largest of them all, a nurse turned stripper turned tiger trainer who performed in a series of death-defying cat acts during her heyday in the 1920s. On stage, Mabel was known for her charm and daring, and her personal life was no less adventurous. She married six times -- once for love, five times for convenience -- but her most enduring affair was with Rajah, the 500-lb. Bengal tiger she raised from birth. — Jenny Offill
This ribald, rough-hewn debut novel by a prize-winning Canadian writer is based on the flamboyant career of Mabel Stark, arguably the greatest (certainly the greatest female) tiger trainer of all time. Recounted as Stark is turning 80 in 1968, the faux memoir follows her path to superstardom through the 1910s and '20s as she learns to tame tigers and men, and finally tours with the famous Ringling Brothers Circus. Stark, born Mary Haynie, is a teenage Louisville, Ky., nurse, when she is committed to a mental hospital after rebelling against her brutish husband's insensitivity. Aided by a smitten psychiatrist, she escapes to Tennessee, where she becomes Little Egypt, a headliner belly dancer with the Great Parker Carnival. Another marriage and another gig as a "cooch dancer" follow, until she is rescued at the age of 23 by Al G. Barnes, a carny pal, lately owner of a small circus. When the show's animal trainer falls for her, he teaches her how to work with tigers and a new career is launched. Famous for the act in which she wrestles Rajah, a 500-pound Bengal tiger she's raised from a cub, she is also known for her brazenness, multiple marriages ("My men. Whew. Had a slew of them") and black leather jumpsuit. Rich in the atmosphere of circus life, this graphic, slangy fictional reminiscence also offers some surprising, deft metafictional touches. Agent, Ron Eckel, Westwood Creative Artists. (Apr.) Forecast: Hough's debut is a natural sell to fans of Carter Beats the Devil and should attract an even wider readership if the film version-set to star Kate Winslet-comes off. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
As Mabel Stark, the first female tiger trainer in circus history, is turning 80 in 1968, she begins to recount her flamboyant career. Committed to a mental hospital for rebelling against her husband, young Mabel escapes and joins the Great Parker Carnival as a belly dancer. She marries again and is rescued this time by a pal who owns a small circus where she learns to work with tigers when the show's animal trainer falls for her. She endures life's inevitable ups and downs, goes through more husbands, and eventually becomes a circus superstar with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus, where she wrestled a 500-pound tiger. Hough based this book on details from Stark's journals and letters, weaving together fact and his fiction to produce a humorous yet compelling story. Betty Bobbitt's reading helps set the atmosphere for this entertaining tale. Owing to the adult nature of some of the content, this audiobook is recommended for appropriate collections.-Denise A. Garofalo, Astor Home for Children, Rhinebeck, NY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
A marvelous debut, winner of a Canadian literary prize, about the life and amazing adventures of the greatest female tiger trainer in circus history are narrated with delicious humor and warmth. The story's presented as the somewhat discordant autobiography-in-progress ("there'll be times when I take liberties with this thing called order") of "Mabel Stark." Born Mary Haynie in Kentucky to a family of luckless tobacco farmers, Mabel is orphaned early in life, trained as a nurse, and married young (to a patient who's particularly needy sexually). She recounts the ordeal of the mental hospital that husband Dimitri Aganosticus has her committed to, her escape and experiences (as a "cooch dancer") with a traveling carnival, another failed marriage, and the discovery of her true calling with the Al G. Barnes Wild Animal Circus-where she learns to "work" the big cats, marries lion tamer Louis Roth, and meets the real love of her life: a stunningly beautiful Bengal tiger cub that grows into her 550-pound partner, Rajah, in a world-famous "wrestling act." Tales of success and fame with Ringling Brothers are juxtaposed with grimmer accounts of Mabel's declining years at a moribund animal park ("Jungleland"). All, though, is told in a vivid and cantankerous comic voice (reminiscent of the voice of Jack Crabb in Thomas Berger's Little Big Man) alive with self-deprecating wit and truculent cussedness. The Ringling years are brilliantly detailed, as is the story of Mabel's happy but cruelly brief fifth marriage to part-Indian ex-con "ménage boss" Art Rooney. The descriptions of animals and of in-the-ring routines are equally irresistible. And Rajah is a glorious character: a regal presence, given toadolescent moodiness, with a forceful personality and a very considerable sexual presence. Just about perfect. One of the most entertaining novels in many a year. Film rights to Tailor-Made Films, UK
“First novelist Roberty Hough pulls together fact and fiction to unfurl a life that invites sheer, slack-jawed fascination. High brings this fiery, bawdy and wildly courageous perfomer vividly and intimately to life and in the process narrates a life story too unbelievable to be anything but true…In this book, [Hough] has created one of the most remarkablem sympathetic and finely rendered characters I have come across anywhere. He gives Stark a distinctive, believable first-person voice with the earthy, no-nonsense attitude one cold expect only from a woman who had spent her life criss-crossing the continent in the company of freaks, grifters, thieves and wild animals…No one’s life sotry — not even Mabel Stark’s — could be so compelling without the deft hadn of a pretty great writer, Robert Hough is himself a very impressive act.” —Lynn Coady, Time