Michelle Reviews Start with the Backbeat by Garine Isassi

Posted: July 23, 2016 in Recommended Read, Reviews
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This book is chick lit with a big sense of humor and 1989 hairsprayed bangs.

Start with backbeat cover

I spotted Start with the Backbeat by Garine Isassi on a Coveting post on this blog, and was intrigued by the setting—1989, a girl attempting to discover Gangsta rap bands—and the fact that it billed itself as “A Musical Novel” not a romance. I love a rock star romance, but I’ve seen the gritty gangster beginnings of the rap industry in Straight Outta Compton, and I thought this had potential to be a nuanced discussion of a cool epoch in musical history, which it turned out it kinda was.

It was also chick lit, which I didn’t expect. The genre’s a bit out of vogue these days, so that’s probably why it isn’t labeled as such, but it has all the hallmarks: the romance is a subplot rather than a main plot to make room for more challenges with the MC’s career and friends and family. There are lots of disasters, lots of comedy, and a would-be young professional girl sort of thrashing her way to where she wants to be. I loved all these features of chick lit, and it occurs to me in a lot of ways, it was the precursor of New Adult.

I came for the 80s setting and I wasn’t disappointed. Cassette tapes, a music industry in an entirely different time. Plus, it was just painful to watch Jill and her other white middle-class co-workers tiptoe into some rough NYC neighborhoods, looking for “gangstas” to sign, while trying not to get mugged and trying to judge what might be “authentic.” The class and racial lines here are shows with a wince-worthy comedy of errors rather than a preachy tone, which makes for the kind of read that makes you cringe and nod as you recognize real life.

The supporting characters are fun, from the sprawling Armenian family to the sleazy company vice president, and all the very different officemates who end up very loyal to each other. I will say LaKeisha seemed a touch stereotypical to me, but other than that, I enjoyed the variety of personalities all whirled together.

The romance was fun too—Jill ends up going after a computer geek named Alejandro, whose name no one ever gets right, and whom she wasn’t attracted to at all at first (I blame the khaki office pants. I mean, whose ass DOESN’T look saggy in those things?). Seems like everybody starts romances these days with OOH-he’s-so-hot and I have a great time when it starts a little rougher. Alejandro was truly a gentleman, and it showed despite their many missteps.

Where this book really shines (other than the 1980s details and band references, which I LOVED) is in all the moments where you can’t help but recognize real life. The suburban mom crying off her eyeliner because she wants her husband to help more around the house, but he doesn’t do the dishes quite right, so she can’t let him do that, and she can’t leave for the night because of course he couldn’t take care of their baby the way she can and…yeah. So familiar. And Jill’s boyfriend at the beginning of the book, the sound guy that can get them in the backdoor of every club, but who disappears when he’s on the road with a band, even though he SWEARS he’s being faithful.

This has a fun, romantic comedy feel with an 80s twist and a gangsta rap punchline, with amazing lyrics and characters throughout. Four stars.

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