Archive for June, 2014

This review was originally posted at West of Mars. It is being posted here, at its new permanent home.

Every now and then, a book comes along that, by the time you close the back cover, you know has changed you. It’s touched you in ways you hadn’t expected going in – or even halfway through.

How the Mistakes Were Made, written by Tyler McMahon, is one of those books. It’s now right up there with Fat Kid Rules the World as one of the best works of Rock Fiction. Ever.

I was desperate to read this book because of its similarities to the Courtney Love story. It’s set in Seattle, right as the grunge sound takes off. Laura had been in an influential, ground-breaking band with her brother, but something happened. It takes a long time for us to find out what.

That set her off, adrift in the world. She’s working in a coffee shop when the book opens, playing with a band called the Cooler Heads.

There’s a theme there. The Cooler Heads maybe should have prevailed, on both a literal and metaphorical sense. But, they don’t, and Laura quits the band and before she knows it, two kids she met at that final Cooler Heads show wind up on her doorstep. She takes them in and… before she knows it, she’s in a three-piece band called The Mistakes.

They’re the perfect combo, of course—if they weren’t, we wouldn’t have a book. So let’s overlook that coincidence and go beyond. Guitarist Sean has that disorder where you see colors, and that’s what powers his beauty and talent. Unfortunately, he’s also a lost soul with a self-destructive bent that first attracts Laura and then repels her. She’s got the same self-destructive need, after all, and it’s hard to tell if it’s rooted in her upbringing or just her general makeup. Or what she’s been through.

Nathan, Sean’s best friend and the other member of the Mistakes, is the conscience and the glue that holds everything together—although, on the surface, it’s Laura who does that. Laura with the experience and the know-how. Except… she doesn’t know how. Does she?

Three members of a band… there’s our triangle, right there. And a triangle it is, indeed. It’s not a static triangle, either. The players take on parts and change them, particularly Laura and Nathan. It’s an interesting transition, especially because it comes across as natural and seamless. As Sean’s self-destructive side emerges, Laura’s entire life is thrown into flux and she’s left wrestling with the legacy her brother left her: is it selling out if you have commercial success?

It’s Laura’s own need to self-destruct that causes the downfall of the Mistakes, and from the first page, she tells us that she’s the one to blame. I’d argue she doesn’t do this in the way she tells us she does. The basic problem with Laura is that she can’t commit. She’s got one foot out the door, and when you’re in that position, you really have nowhere to go but to follow where that foot’s led you. The idea of what you want becomes secondary to the tantalizing desire to escape.

If you haven’t caught on by now, this is one deep book. At the same time, though, it’s a book that’s super easy to read on the surface, for its story. Can you make comparisons to Courtney Love? Maybe. Maybe not. You’d need to know her story better than I do. Laura certainly lacks Courtney’s need to flip off the world; never once does Laura take the stage without panties on… that we know of.

The only spot in which the book stumbles is in the flashbacks. They are told in a second-person point of view. This is the hardest point of view to master—I say this as someone who studied points of view—and McMahon doesn’t quite pull it off. Just when we got to the point where I wish they’d go away and was wondering why they’d even been included, I get my answers. It’s both what I expected and much more powerful.

Laura’s been sitting on a secret, a big one, a haunting one, even as there’s something typical about it. I don’t think it shapes her the way she thinks it does; she’s managed to hide her sensitive, scared side with a foot-thick wall of Teflon before it happens. But once it comes out, an awful lot begins to make sense.

The other area I don’t completely buy is how and why the burden of the breakup of the Mistakes is put onto Laura. Things happen, and how that thing is immediately and widely connected to her is beyond me. Either I missed it in the reading or there was some logic gap I failed to make. I can’t say more without spoilers, and this isn’t the sort of book you want to spoil.

Rather, you want to savor it and its many lessons. The rich subtext isn’t something that reaches out and grabs you; I’d be surprised if many readers didn’t even know it was there.

Of course, this being Rock Fiction, I have to comment on the authenticity of the rock and roll. Whoa, Nellie. It’s there. McMahon did his research, and I’d wager a lot of it was firsthand knowledge. He gets it.

Wrap it up and put a bow on it, and then give it to all your friends. This one’s a definite West of Mars Recommended Read.

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Susan and I were talking about this the other day. Rock Fiction is ripe for romance. She thinks that’s ’cause there’s still a romance attached to the rock and roll world.  She swears it’s not really that way.

I don’t want to believe her.

Anyway, I think any setting’s good for romance. All we need is good characters to relate to and root for and a plot I haven’t read a hundred million times. This book’s got at least a good set-up, and that counts in the “plot I haven’t read a hundred million times” category.

It’s called Country Heaven, and it was written by Ava Miles.

When famous-and infamous-country singer Rye Crenshaw saunters into the diner where she cooks, Tory Simmons is certain she’s got him pegged. He’s a bad boy who indulges himself in all things, women included. But while she couldn’t care less about country music or arrogant men, Rye makes her an offer she can’t refuse when he asks her to be his private chef on his multi-city concert tour. The job is the answer to all her prayers: it will clear out her debt and finance the fresh start she desperately needs.

Rye is certain his sassy new cook is the last woman who’d ever tempt him, but spending time with the wholesome girl next door will do wonders for his damaged public image, whether she likes being forced into the spotlight or not. Her food also happens to be the best he’s ever eaten, both comforting and seductive. But spending time with Tory on the road shows him a new side to her-one that’s as impossible to resist as her food. And when an emergency in his family whisks him home, he does the one thing he’s never risked: he lets a woman into his heart… Soon the emotions Rye faked for the tabloids become all too real, but will the country heaven he’s found in Tory’s arms survive in the real world?

I don’t know about anyone else, but I sure don’t read romances to find out the answer to that final question. I read ’em to find out what it takes to get there. That’s the fun.

Bring on the fun!

This review was originally posted at West of Mars. It is being posted here, at its new permanent home.

It’s been so long now that I can’t even remember how I came to pick up a copy of Joseph Garraty’s Voice. I can see that I got it at Smashwords, where it was listed as free as of the night I finished the book and sat down to write this rave.

And rave I must. I simply adored this story of a man who sells … well, maybe not his soul and maybe not to the devil, but that’s only the first of many riffs on the classic cliché. John does go down to the crossroads, but the trade he makes is great, unexpected fun that gives a clever nod to current—okay, maybe by this point, a bit passé—trends in literature. Saying more would spoil the read, and I have no intentions of spoiling anything. This is a book to share, not ruin.

As John’s bargain pays off both in a set of golden pipes and a decline as a man, his guitar player, the harsh, abrasive Case, is molting her own skin—in the opposite direction. Case learns how to be a friend, to take a chance, to allow herself to care. As John loses his humanity, Case finds hers.

While some may point to John and his alter ego Johnny as the heartbeat of the story, for me it was Case. I related to her.

Don’t forget, though, the other two members of the band: Quentin and Danny. Quentin’s the conscience around here, and, of course, whenever evil’s afoot, the conscience must pay. The way in which this happens is a bit … unorthodox, shall we say. Danny, though, flirts with the dark side. There’s betrayal, and a steep price for him, also. Too bad; Danny and Quentin both are likeable.

So, too, is Erin, Case’s friend who becomes the band’s one-woman PR maestro. She’s maybe too good to be true, but she’s also smart enough to make the hard but brave decisions.

As Ragman puts all these elements together—John’s new voice, the small hurricane that is Case on guitars, and Erin packing the clubs—and success follows, each of the five must figure out what price they are willing to pay for it all. They’re paying all right, and it’s a bill that comes due long before many of the clichéd Rock Fiction works would have you believe: not when they are headliners, but when they are paying their dues on the way up.

That’s how it usually works, after all, and Garraty shows it to us. Maybe it’s a bit exaggerated. But then again, is it?

A definite West of Mars Recommended Read.

This review was originally posted at West of Mars. It is being posted here, at its new permanent home.

Karina Bliss’ What the Librarian Did is one of those books EVERYONE is talking about right now. It’s getting quite a bit of positive buzz. That was enough to pique my interest. But then something else popped up and I had to read this book.

The male hero is a rock star. Therefore, I had to pick up a copy via PaperbackSwap.com and see if this rock star dude meets MY standards. Does What The Librarian Did qualify for inclusion my list of Best Rock Fiction?

Devin does earn his spot… and he doesn’t.

For starters, let’s talk about the book. I like the triangle here. There’s more than just a rock star and a librarian, cliched opposites fighting their attraction to each other. There’s a son who doesn’t know he’s met his mother, and a mother who’s not sure how to tell him. Or how to act around him. Or… well, pretty much everything. Rachel has a real challenge put in front of her, and it’s a personal, introspective one. I like this twist. It potentially allows for some serious personal growth.

This subplot rules the plot. Heck, it’s the reason for the title. I like Mark, the son who found out only recently that he’d been put up for adoption at birth. I wish he’d been a bit more rounded out and a bit more real, but … what can you do in 300 pages? He does serve as a nice buffer for Rachel and Devin, and he more than earns his spot in the story. I like how he reacts to hearing the news of his parentage. How he gets two truths but still doesn’t understand the how or why of it. It is very real.

I had a few quibbles with Rachel, our librarian. I’d have liked to get to know her better; she’s got a mountain bike and she quite self-consciously refers to it (threatening to shove it up parts of Devin’s quite experienced anatomy), but I never see her as the mountain bike type. (I say this as a mountain bike owner, myself, even if I’m not one who’s first in line for the singletrack.) A mountain bike conveys a sense of adventure, a seeking of danger, and a confidence that your wheels can handle it all. Rachel never onces gives off this sort of vibe. At most, she bucks trends and wears vintage clothes that seem more frumpy and frilly than the left-of-center expectation opened up by that bike.

Now, here’s the real thing about the mountain bike: I’m grousing on it so much because it just doesn’t fit. Contradictions in a character make a character come alive, my writing professors often said. But this contradiction seems more planted by the author than demanded by the character. (All you writers will immediately get what I mean. You readers, when you read this book, think about it and you’ll get it, too.)

Back to Rachel: I have one big issue with her, and that’s that she’s shut off. We never get to see her open up, how Devin brings out the best in her and inspires her to take a chance. This is sad. We’re told about some changes, but … we don’t get to experience them with her. It creates a distance and since we don’t get to see it, when the final scene happens and Rachel takes a HUGE chance that leads to her happily ever after, it seems out of character. We need to see her take other chances along the way (and no, I don’t think riding on Devin’s motorcycle is an example of her doing exactly that. She’s too matter-of-fact about it for me to believe she’s stretching herself.).

Now. Devin. Our rocker. Yeah, I can buy a guy who’s about to literally drink himself to death who wakes up and realizes not only does he need to sober up, he could benefit from being a student. I can buy a rock star who moves halfway around the world to take care of his mom.

Know what I’m missing here? A difficulty adapting to this new, not-outrageous world he’s been forced into. Chagrin over his past antics. Mistakes made as he tries to fit in — real mistakes, like where he can’t figure out why he has to pay for food in the cafeteria; it’s not provided by catering and paid for by the tour manager. He adapts too easily. He’s not a fish out of water, and he should be.

I found myself longing for a hint of where he wants his life to go now that he’s been forced into this change. It’s not something he chose, not if he wants to stay alive. So where’s his mixed emotions? Where’s the longing to make music again? To be on that stage, under those lights? For the gritty side of the life? For the glamour? Like Rachel, he’s on a very even keel. Maybe too even.

But, again, we have that 300 page issue. You can only do so much and ultimately, this is a romance, not some of my beloved rock and roll fiction.
I have a question, too. We’re told Devin was sixteen when he joined his brother’s band. Did he graduate high school? If not, how’d he get into college? Yes, he gave the school a boatload of money, but was that enough to get them to overlook the small matter of an unearned diploma?

And then there’s Zander, his big brother, the stereotypic prick. Nope. I didn’t buy him for an instant, even though I’ve met his type more than a few times. I especially didn’t buy the bit about the jobs. I don’t mean the job he tries to strong-arm Devin into. The other one. It’s a nice gesture, but you know what? I don’t buy it. It’s too convenient — and too much of a break from the stereotypic character we’re shown. Again, this is an instance where contradiction seems forced.

You’ll have to read the book to see what jobs I’m talking about. I’m trying really hard not to spoil things.

Or am I? I mean, I said I liked this book, and now I’ve popped up with a whole slew of complaints.

What it gets down to, you see, is this book is packed full of the fun of a romance. No matter how you try to spin it, a good chase is a good chase, and both Rachel and Devin have deliciously wicked tongues and quick comebacks. Plus, I really got the sense that author Bliss knows her romance-writing stuff. She’s smart. It shows. I appreciate that. And I love the idea of the dragon tattoo on Devin’s arm, its tongue licking his knuckle… What an image. What a concept. I wish it had gotten more play.

Sort of like that mountain bike of Rachel’s.

Overall, yeah. I’d suggest you ought to read this book. But how I rank it as Rock Fiction? It falls a bit short of my standard — but then again, my standard is freaking high.

Read it. Set your own standard.

Here’s another one I came on pretty randomly, but the good news for random searching is that it’s the first in a series. Always good to start with the first, right?

It’s a mystery about what happens when police psychologist starts to investigate the death of a rocker chick, Maggi O’Kane. Mayhem ensues, as it always does in these sorts of books — they are mysteries and thrillers for a reason, right? Just as romances follow a rough formula, so do mysteries and thrillers.

Three of my Rock Fiction loving friends reviewed this already (sheesh. Thanks for sharing the love!), and all three had great things to say about it.

Hopefully, my  turn is next. Maybe? Please?

This review was first posted at West of Mars. It’s being reposted here, at its new permanent home.

I’d heard good things about Cecil Castellucci’s Beige, so I attempted extra lengths to get my hands on it. A copy popped up at Paperbackswap.com before I could get to a bookstore and wouldn’t you know, but it’s the latest in a year-long epidemic of books showing up with water stains (despite my clear request that these sorts of books NOT be sent my way. Sigh).

Still, a little water will only prevent me from re-listing the book at PaperBackSwap. It won’t prevent me from reading it… with a canister of albuterol handy. Water damage invites mold into a book, people!

It was hard to put Beige on the Read Soon pile (as opposed to the ToBeRead mountain range in my office). It didn’t linger long, a scant two months. Maybe two and a half.

In the end, I have to say I was disappointed with Beige. It’s not that it’s not a good book. It is. It’s not that you can’t feel the music in these pages. You can.

It’s that it reminds me so much of one of my all-time favorite books, Fat Kid Rules the Earth, that Beige seems like a derivative female version of the same story.

Oh, there are differences: Katy comes to LA, expecting to spend two weeks with her father the legendary punk rocker. She meets a cast of characters who should have been vibrant and wonderful, but didn’t live and breathe as much as I’d have liked them to. I left this book wanting to know more about Garth. More about Trixie, and her relationship to The Rat. And I left it hoping that Lake would become less of the cliche she is in these pages. Leo, too. Talk about the perfect jock who’s into one-night stands before he loses his virginity.

Still, if you either can’t draw the comparison with Fat Kid or if you don’t want to, the way Castellucci draws the music for the reader is well done. As Katy begins to understand it, so do we. It’s a slow surrender, a slow realization of what music is and how it operates. And why it’s so important to so many of us.

I loved, too, the idea of the pool as the gathering place. In fact, I wish the final group scene had been set down at the pool. It became a strong metaphor for Katy’s transformation. But not just Katy’s. Her friends, such as they are, transform also, as the best characters in the best books do. Lake grows. Garth changes, although he’s still too much an enigma. I want more Garth! (I can easily see him holding court in his own book, in fact.)

In a switch from most plots aimed at kids and teens, I honestly thought there was one adult who stole the show: The Rat. Man, the visual I drew of him was of Tommy Lee, all skinny arms and legs and tattoos. But he’s also a man struggling with a past that continues to stalk him, a past that he built his legacy on. It can stalk him all it wants; he’s going to continue to find ways to work it. His band wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan. They’re coming back.

And still, The Rat bangs his drums to deal with his addiction cravings. He bangs his drums because he doesn’t get his own daughter. He wants, he needs, he can’t wash his dishes.

Here is one point where Castellucci doesn’t sink into the cliche: Katy doesn’t clean up The Rat’s apartment. She finds a way to dwell in the filth — and
eventually, it stops bothering her. Maybe she even grows comfortable in it.

Fat Kid definitely ruined this book for me. The two are very similar; there’s no doubt about it. Overall, I think the themes of acceptance within an often ill-regarded subculture were better done by KL Going. But there’s plenty going on within Beige to recommend it, also. This is one of those books that could spin off sequels and series entries — although part of its magic is that it’s complete as is. We close the cover and wonder what’s ahead for these people. And we hope it’s all good.

One last note: Yep, I recommend this book, despite finding it falls short. I’ve been talking about it since I finished it, I’ve been thinking about it. Above all else, that is what sets the great books apart.

Author MJ Kane was kind enough to send me a copy of A Heart Not Easily Broken, even though she insisted it’s not Rock Fiction.

And despite some waffling on my part, she’s right. But it’s close, especially because there’s no way Brian could have any other career.

Let me back up. A Heart Not Easily Broken is the story of Ebony, a black woman who is very driven to succeed in life, and Brian, a white man who is very driven to succeed in life, on his own terms. I like these people. They work hard, they are focused and dedicated.

At first meeting, Ebony makes it clear she’s not interested. Brian’s not her type – he’s not black, he’s not beefy. But he’s … something. And it’s that something that catches her interest that he picks up on. He pursues her, even when she keeps saying no. But he’s cute about it, totally not threatening, and showing up on her front doorstep is truly kismet. How can she resist?

It’s nice to see a couple who are so good for each other – and to each other. And to their friends, family, and coworkers, too. This is wholesome, heartwarming stuff, and it doesn’t shy away from the sexy, either. What a great balance. I like Ms. Kane’s worldview.

But then Brian’s creepy roommate decides to lord his power over Ebony. Because let’s face it: that’s what rape is. It’s not about sex. It’s about power, and Javan may be a player, but there’s a line between a player and disturbed, and he crosses that line with Ebony. And, like every person drunk on his own power, he’s convinced nothing bad will happen to him.

Other reviewers commented that the book didn’t seem real at this point. I disagree. I thought Ebony’s reaction was very real. I could relate to her, to her need to keep things a secret, her fear that this one event would ruin so many lives.

It was when she finally told Brian that I began to have a problem. That’s because he doesn’t believe her, even though he has known Javan for years. I can understand if there was shock and an unwillingness to believe the entire scenario – no one wants to hear something so heinous about a person they have such a long history with, and that the woman they love has had to endure something so life-changing. But once Brian comes around, I bought back in.

The next snag I hit was over Javan’s personal fallout. It was too easy, and the statement that he knew how to manipulate people because he was a psychologist just hit me the wrong way. I don’t doubt there are people who do behave this way, but in Javan’s case, I think his issue is that he’s just a sociopath. The dude has problems, and as with every other character in the book, he’s not all bad. He’s a fleshed-out character, by and large, and his mental issues are well drawn.

So… in the end, this is a great read. The publisher could benefit from a better copy editor; there were too many mistakes to overlook, and not mistakes of the stylistic kind, either. Some misused words, semicolons that had no business being there… it’s a shame when a publisher doesn’t make an author look her best, and MJ Kane is an author worth making look good.

I’m grateful to MJ for sending me a review copy. Rock Fiction it ain’t, but it’s a rockin’ good read.

Want to see what you think? I’ve still got those two copies to give away, thanks to MJ. Leave me a comment and I’ll draw a winner.

This review was originally posted at West of Mars. It is being posted here, at its new permanent home.

If I’m going to count Jacqueline Luckett’s Waiting for Tina Turner on the rock book list, I suppose I ought to include Laura Lippman’s In Big Trouble, too.

This was my first book written by Ms. Lippman. I have to say, I don’t think I’ll be revisiting this series.

Our series heroine, Tess, had a certain blandness to her. I don’t know… she just lacked zing. So did our bass player, the mysterious Crow. Or Ed. Or Eddie. He went by all three in the book, although to Ms. Lippman’s credit, it never got confusing.

Tess takes off in search of Crow. She winds up in Texas, where Crow — now Eddie — has gotten involved with a mysterious woman who may or may not be up to anything good. He’s also gotten involved with this woman’s band.

The music never pulsates off the page, though. Whereas the spirit of Tina Turner permeated the pages of Ms. Luckett’s book, it’s lacking here. Now, one could argue that since this music setting is a mere part of a bigger series, there’s no need for the pages to vibrate. I’d buy that.

But I still missed it. And as a result, as a rock and roll novel, this failed for me. As part of a series, I thought it was okay but lacked any real distinction or any compelling reason to keep reading. Maybe you guys can convince me otherwise; it won’t be the first series that I put down after the first encounter and said, “Meh,” to. I’ve kept going with plenty other series. So go on. Convert me.

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Jett here. I’m taking over because, well, Susan hogs this place and that’s gotta end. She brought me in to take over for her ’cause she’s so busy, after all.

And really, when she’s coming up with books like this one, you gotta wonder why I’m not just running the show myself, don’t you? Category Harlequin?

Oh, sure, she’s read some good ones. Not all the reviews are up, so I can’t link to them, but ask if you’re curious. That’s what comment forms are for.

This one’s called Pregnant By Morning, and it’s about a one-night stand that’s just too good to end after one night. It’s a romance, so of course there’s problems. One of ’em is the heroine, Evangeline. She used to sing (that’s what makes this Rock Fiction, after all), but some quackety-quack destroyed her voice.

On this one, Susan’s right. When she sent me the link, she said she wasn’t sure she’d buy that part.

Guess we gotta read it. And I have a bad feeling this is another one I’m going to have to share.

Originally posted at West of Mars, this review is being posted to its new home here at The Rock of Pages.

I love used book sales. I’m such a fan of them, though, that I’ve had to institute a few rules.

1. I’m only allowed to buy it if I know for certain it’s on my wishlist. “For certain” is key; there are over 2300 books on my wishlist. Yes, I’ve bought the same book more than once… more than once.

2. I’m only allowed to buy it if it was written by a friend of mine. I’ve been known to pick up books from friends for the mere purpose of passing them on to new homes, in fact. So it’s always worth making friends with me.

3. I’m only allowed to buy it if it has Rock Novel elements.

That last rule is the one that led me to pick up Ruth Ryan Langan’s All that Glitters. In today’s world, a publication date of 1994 makes this book ancient, but whatever. It probably cost me a dime — I picked it up at a bag sale. According to the back of the book, the main heroine has two loves — her brother and her singing career.

Slam dunk, right?

Not so much.

One of the mistakes many Rock Novel writers make is falling into clichés. The cute but stupid drummer. The egotistical lead singer.

In All that Glitters, we had all sorts of other clichés — the kind you’d find in a Danielle Steel novel. Those big romance tropes, the ones that have so very wrongly defined the genre for so many people.

I never got to the parts where the music mattered. The clichés bothered me too much.

On to the next.