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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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In a rock fiction book, I love it when the music lives and breathes, when the rock star character transcends cliché, and I give lots of bonus points for a take-charge, professional-woman heroine. You Really Got Me checked all my boxes, and for that, I award it 4.25 stars.

You Really Got Me

The book starts out with Emmie working as an A&R manager’s personal assistant (that’s the guy within a record label who discovers and works with bands). She’s hyper-competent, and from the first page, I loved the detail-oriented peek at exactly what machinations go on behind the curtain of managing bands. However, her boss won’t promote her to finding her own bands, so she says promote me or quit. He says, find me The Next Big Thing and we’ll talk. She moves in with her brother in his rock band’s shared house to cut her expenses while she searches Austin, Texas for a new band to sign.

While there, she becomes friends with the whole band, especially their soulful, manwhore-with-a-heart lead singer, Slater. She overhauls the band’s image, again giving us a cool look at what it takes (beyond the music) to make or break a band. The sexual tension between Emmie and Slater SCREAMS off the page, but she’s been hurt before and she’s not about to be the dumb girl who loses her heart to a rocker right before he goes off on tour and cheats on her.

Nothing new there, right? But like any good trope, it’s all about the execution, and Emmie and Slater breathe life and humanity into the setup, reminding us that this is a familiar story because it’s TRUE. It happens all the time in the musical world. I adored the friendship between Emmie and Slater, and I was dying for the consummation of their relationship almost as much as they were. Plus, once Slater falls for Emmie, he falls hard, and it’s so vicariously delicious to watch such an incredible specimen of a man be totally devoted to his woman. Plus, he doesn’t just play music and write songs, he fixes stuff and helps Emmie run errands and sue me, but that’s just hot. Give me a man with a tool box and a guitar and I need nothing else in life.

Drawbacks? Toward the end, Emmie’s reluctance started to feel a little contrived, like I’d seen too many exchanges of her distrust while Slater laid it all on the line for her. But just as I was thinking that, it wrapped up into a hilarious scene where she realized what she was screwing up. I also would have given it a few more fractions of a star if the rest of the band were filled out more on the page. There were five of them, and that’s a lot, but we didn’t get to know them and their friendship with Emmie as deeply as I would have liked. However, Emmie’s brother and his insecurities and backstory were very nicely filled out, so I’m excited for his book (up next in the series!) What I did love about this book? The realism of the conflict and characters, the mouthwatering sexual tension, the songwriting and performing scenes and oooh la la! The musical details of what it’s like to manage a band. Very cool. This author just won herself a place on my top 10 Rock Fic authors, and I’ll be checking out the rest of her books directly.

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Hey everyone! I’m back guest-blogging today because I just screamed through the pages of Rock by JA Huss—fast enough my Kindle froze twice from too-frequent page turns. As I said in my Coveting post about this book, I was really excited about this one, hoping it could finally be the rock fic book that grabbed a full five-star rating from me. So is this one the rocker book I’ve been waiting for? Yes and yes! And almost.

Rock cover

4.5 stars
ROCK was a whirlwind of suspense, sexy music-addicted rock star, heart-tugging love story, and a crazy rock-climbing and danger-filled climax!

This is the story of a rock star at the top of his game who loses his entire band to tragedy and returns to his hometown, where he once lost the love of his life as well. Once there, he encounters her identical twin sister and…I can’t tell you pretty much anything else without spoilers. But fear not, folks, I won’t leave you unsatisfied, and neither will JA Huss!

I look for two things in rock fic: the music (is it essential to the story, do the MCs feel like real rock stars, are the music details gobble-able?) and the love story.

So first, the music. This is a YES! Rock felt like a real rock star in all his battered glory. Music had hurt him so much, but you could feel the draw it had to him, how he was powerless to resist its magic, and I adored getting lost with him in the process of composing new songs. Music was a living, breathing, sobbing character in this book and I couldn’t get enough.

The romance: this was…tougher for me. In the beginning pages, I could feel Rock’s longing for his lost love as if it was my own arm that was missing. But once he and the heroine were together…I felt like I was in bed with a lot of great foreplay but I never quite got all the way there (hey, I’m a romance novelist. We can never resist a good sex simile). Rock and his girl were a four-star romance for me, and I think mostly it was because I was holding back, wary that at the very end there would be some horrible twin-swapping flip and the heroine wouldn’t be who I thought she was. I’m going to save the rest of you from this: the author doesn’t pull the romance rug out from under you at the end. It’s okay to relax and enjoy the love story! Perhaps if you go in with different expectations than me, it will sweep you away the way I wanted to be swept away.

Regardless of the romance, Rock himself took my heart. His POV felt like being inside the head of a real dude. Not a woman trying to convince you she’s writing from the male perspective by using the word dick and tits a lot (yes, I see this in romance all the time). Instead, Rock felt like an actual guy who was sometimes callous, sometimes self-centered, and had a deep decency and gentleness to his core. I could fall in love with a man like that (especially if he played the piano like Rock!). He could have carried the entire book just on the voice of the writing, but he didn’t have to, because holy crap, the plot!

The suspense and twists in this story are crazy. Huss kept me guessing on every page. I had no idea what was happening or what might come next. In the last half, the pacing was breakneck, but there was a lull for a while in the beginning. Still, I enjoyed the lull as a time to spend with the H/h, and it didn’t detract from the book. As for the supporting characters, there was such a great cast of people in this town, but I feel like I didn’t get to know them well enough to justify their importance in the story. They didn’t seem flat, like the author had half-assed them. Instead, it felt like they were real people but the author never gave them enough time on the page for us to really get to know them. Like this was a series and they were introduced in other books (which might be the case, but if so, I’m not aware of the rest of the series).

Another little bonus to this book was the rock climbing. It was kind of a subplot, but then the climax has lots of climbing action, which was fun for an old school climber like me. However, some of the smaller climbing details/terminology weren’t quite right. Not enough to spoil anything but just enough to tweak the eye of anybody who climbs a lot.

So my verdict? 4.5 stars. I was totally wrapped up in this character and this crazy, twisty story, and I snuggled up to all the beautiful music details and rock star atmostphere. It wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t far from it, and you better believe I’ll be snatching up more from this author ASAP.

As always, if you want to keep up with what’s new with me, and what I’m writing or reading, come find me at my website www.michellehazenbooks.com or on Twitter @michellehazen. I’d love to gab books with all you guys!