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Undertow by Michael BuckleyIn Michael Buckley’s gripping new YA novel Undertow, Coney Island is a dystopia known as “the Zone, the DMZ and Fish City.” Its famed amusement parks and Mermaid Parade are long abandoned. The neighborhood has been fenced off from the rest of New York City and turned into a militarized zone since a warrior race of sea people called the Alpha swam ashore and raised a tent city on the beach.

The book’s narrator is Lyric Walker, a feisty 16-year-old Coney Islander who is thrust into the spotlight when her high school is opened to six Alpha teens. A movie version of the story would be a dream job for a make-up department: “Many have scales. Others have jagged rows of teeth, and mouths like open wounds,” Lyric says of the Alpha students who have to be escorted past violent protestors by soldiers, cops and FBI agents. “One of them is a teenaged mountain of power, a slightly smaller version of the giant warriors who led the way. He has sunken eyes and tiny spikes on his neck, shoulders and forearms.” There’s also a girl with gelatinous skin through which her veins and bones can be seen and a golden god with a bruised face and serrated knives that pop out of his arms.

The golden god is the Alpha prince Fathom, who does battle nightly on the beach with his father’s challengers and wears his bruises like trophies. A mutual attraction develops between the charismatic prince and Lyric when the principal assigns her to be his tutor and meet with him privately every day. When their meetings incur the wrath of the xenophobic governor, the safety of Lyric’s family, who have been harboring a secret from their friends and neighbors, is put in jeopardy.

Lyric Walker is an engaging protagonist, as are the other characters in the book, including her parents, making it a great summer read for both teens and adults. Undertow climaxes with an epic battle on the beach in which Lyric literally learns to make waves. Readers rooting for a human-Alpha romance will be happy to know this is the first novel of a trilogy.

In an interview, Buckley says that Undertow took its inspiration from a refugee crisis that made headlines last year. Tens of thousands of children fled Central America and came to the U.S. where they were imprisoned while elected officials called for electrified fences at the border, similar to the ones in his novel. The Brooklyn resident’s best-selling middle grade series the Sisters Grimm and NERDS have sold more than four million copies and appear in 22 languages.

On Tuesday, May 19, BookCourt at 163 Court Street in Brooklyn is hosting an author reading, audience Q & A and book signing at 7pm.

Undertow by Michael Buckley. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. Hardcover, $18.99

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June 14, 2011: Coney Island Summer Reading: Dreamland Social Club

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oldest

The Oldest Inhabitant of Coney Island from The History of Coney Island, 1878. Picture Collection of the New York Public Library

Coney Island’s Dancing Clams are older than the Switchback, the world’s first roller coaster (1884), and George C. Tilyou’s Steeplechase Park (1897). In fact, the frolicking mollusks are Coney’s oldest inhabitants, ATZ learned from a droll history of the seaside resort published in 1878. “The History of Coney Island from its first discovery in 4, 11, 44, down to last night, in rhyme” is a 47-page book with whimsical sketches of the summer scene from Coney’s western end at Norton’s Point to Brighton and Manhattan Beach. We also discovered that this rare volume was digitized by the Library of Congress and can be read online or downloaded to your Kindle.

chowder party

A Chowder Party: Vegetables and fish gathering around a pot of chowder from The History of Coney Island,1878. Picture Collection of the New York Public Library

Written and illustrated by I.F. Eaton, the book was “adapted for all children under age 85, with notes by the editor (promissory ones), with maps and sketches in water color, drawings of bier, and many dry cuts.” There are a great many humorous sketches of beach-goers, including bathing beauties in Victorian dress and a mermaid startling a man digging for clams. It’s interesting to see that Coney’s Dancing Clams were not yet wearing top hats and trousers in 1878.

Last month, ATZ posted Lindsay Wengler’s photos documenting Gyro Corner Clam Bar’s hand-painted signs of top-hatted clam waiters serving clams on the half shell. Reader Beth Greenberg posted the comment “That’s one classy clam: look at his top hat and white gloves. That’s Coney Island!” Indeed, it is. Feltman’s Restaurant, where the hot dog was invented, had a famous ad in the 1900s called “The Epicure’s Parade” featuring both a top-hatted clam and a hot dog, as well as a strolling lobster, corn on the cob and mug of beer. Gregory & Paul’s, now Paul’s Daughter, has their own quirky version painted by Catherine Gavalas about 20 years ago, but my fave is their top-hatted Mr. Shrimp. Artist Richard Eagan, the co-founder of the Coney Island Hysterical Society, paid homage to the Feltman’s original with an architectural portrait of polychromed canvas and wood in 1997 and recently completed a limited handmade edition of ten.

In “The History of Coney Island,” the rhymes are as delightful as the drawings:

The hard-shell crab goes sideling by,
With murder in his little eye.
All sorts and sizes here you view,
Of those you eat and that eat you;
And you can see, in this strange spot.
How fish look ere they go to pot.

Prices were very reasonable in Coney Island back in the day: Tilyou’s Bathing Establishment, Bathing Suit and Clam Chowder, 25 cents. Bathing suit without Chowder, 15 cents. Donkey ride on the Beach, 10 cents. Clams, 5 cents. “The History of Coney Island,” 20 cents.

mermaid

Mermaid startling man digging for clams, Coney Island, N.Y. from The History of Coney Island,1878. Picture Collection of the New York Public Library

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November 3, 2011: Scoop: Randazzo’s Clam Bar Eyeing Coney Island Boardwalk

October 14, 2011: Photo of the Day: Vernacular Signage by Lindsay Wengler

June 19, 2011: Coney Island Summer Reading: The Wonder City

December 8, 2010: Children’s Book Tells Coney Island Carousel Carver’s Story

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