Who likes a little rock with their reading?
My friend Deyna recently mentioned revisiting Daisy Jones and the Six. I was thinking about all the great books I've read that have music at their hearts and how it always strikes me that it must be a uniquely difficult task to convey the power of fictitious music.
It feels like it would be especially challenging to draw readers into rock and roll- and band-centered stories, but luckily for us readers, I seem to be dead wrong, because so many authors are masters at this.
Here are six of my favorite fiction works that have to do with rock and roll, writing songs, performing, and the musician and band dynamics that keep it all wonderfully unpredictable and complicated and weird.
Still on my to-read list: the newish The Final Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton, the young adult book Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, and also Nick Hornby's High Fidelity--I was kind of shocked to realize I haven't read this one, which I don't believe has a band in it, but it's hyperfocused on music so it feels like it belongs with this group of books.
What other books should I add to this list?
01 Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell
In Utopia Avenue, Mitchell takes us through the twists and turns of a fictional psychedelic British '60s band on its rocky rise to popularity, particularly through exploring its members' crises, joys, fears, and triumphs.
It could have felt a little too abstract to read about the inspiration for made-up lyrics and melody, instrument technique, and imagined musical highlights on stage. (The fictional band focus reminded me, in a good way, of Daisy Jones & the Six, mentioned below.) But Mitchell handles all of this deftly and made me care about a singer connecting with an audience, the cathartic heartbreak-writing of songs, and the magic spark of a performance.
Utopia Avenue contains endless imagined cameos, fictional adventures, and gems of wisdom from real-life musicians, authors, and artists--not to mention wild parties, betrayals, leaps of faith, breakups, and tragedy. Mitchell expertly builds the four band members into rich characters you're rooting for through their individual ups and downs as well as through the triumphs and setbacks of the band.
If you like Mitchell's beautiful, offbeat, sometimes meandering and tough-to-pin-down stories, you'll likely love this almost 600-page book. He doesn't provide too easy or neat of an ending, but it feels fitting and left me satisfied. This was a really captivating story that kept me intrigued throughout.
02 The Happy Ever After Playlist by Abby Jimenez
On the surface, the main players in this light fiction story by Abby Jimenez are too outrageously beautiful, obscenely masculine or exquisitely feminine, with inordinately glamorous careers. One of them donated bone marrow to a stranger before becoming a burgeoning rock star. The other is a shockingly talented artist who abandoned the creation of new work after an incredibly painful loss. I worried that they would be insufferable martyrs I wouldn't believe in.
But Jimenez offers an excellent setup for a romantic comedy with enough heartache that your teeth don't hurt from the sweetness.
Jiminez provides the drama and angst and romance for picture-perfect escapism with a sexy center. I expected her to simply summarize the sexy parts, but no no no, she did not.
Each chapter begins with a song title, and if you like the music, you can listen to the mix on Spotify. The author’s note about her inspiration for the book’s initial setup is heartwarming.
For my full review of this book, see The Happy Ever After Playlist.
03 Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby
Annie is bored and living in a boring British town. Her love life with Duncan is about as uninspiring as her surroundings. Something has to give.
Meanwhile, Duncan is obsessed with a singer-songwriter who has largely disappeared from the spotlight. The reclusive artist's first released album in ages sends Duncan into fits, but Annie is inspired to publicly state her disdain for the music. This sets events into motion that none of the three could have anticipated.
After a slow start, the story pace picked up, and I was really curious to follow these characters to the ends of their interconnected stories. The book's ending is somewhat noncommittal but offers inklings about the direction in which things are going.
Nick Hornby is also the author of High Fidelity-- another fictional book about music that I could have included on this list, except that somehow I still haven't read it--as well as A Long Way Down, Slam, How to Be Good, About a Boy, and the memoir Fever Pitch.
04 Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
“You have these lines you won’t cross. But then you cross them. And suddenly you possess the very dangerous information that you can break the rule and the world won’t instantly come to an end. You’ve taken a big, black, bold line and you’ve made it a little bit gray. And now every time you cross it again, it just gets grayer and grayer until one day you look around and you think, There was a line here once, I think.”
In Daisy Jones & the Six, Reid offers a fictionalized account (written as fictional interviews) of the meteoric rise of a 1970s band, their mesmerizing lead singer Daisy, the group's complicated interpersonal conflicts, and the band's mysterious breakup, which broke hearts around the world.
I thought the interview format might possibly get tiresome, but Reid skillfully builds the story, the complex relationships, and the pushes and pulls of the characters’ lives. The structure allowed for fascinating point of view shifts, subtleties, and humor.
Daisy Jones and the Six explores multiple layers of love and heartbreak, all against a fantastic backdrop of rock and roll and the bonds and stresses of a band and a relentlessly grueling tour life.
I adored Camila and her love and faith and outlook on life, and I loved this book.
Taylor Jenkins Reid is also the author of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Maybe In Another Life, After I Do, and other books.
05 Thank You, Goodnight by Andy Abramowitz
In Thank You, Goodnight, Teddy Tremble, a likable, formerly famous musician meanders into an entertaining and unlikely career resurgence.
"It Feels Like a Lie" was Tremble's big 1990s hit, and he never had another success. He's almost 40, he works at a law firm, and he's given up his old dreams. But when an old friend calls, he's faced with the classic "getting the band back together" temptation. Could he really be getting a second chance at stardom?
Teddy's path isn't pat or too easy, Abramowitz's dialogue is sharp and funny, and watching Tremble finally grow into himself is satisfying.
I really had fun reading this. Abramowitz includes fun music references and nicely written scenes of the characters playing music. I imagine those could be tough to write in an engaging way when the reader obviously can't hear any of what the author is imagining. But he had me hooked.
06 This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales
“Sometimes people think they know you. They know a few facts about you, and they piece you together in a way that makes sense to them. And if you don't know yourself very well, you might even believe that they are right. But the truth is, that isn't you. That isn't you at all.”
In Leila Sales's young adult book This Song Could Save Your Life, main protagonist Elise doesn't fit in at her high school, she can't quite figure out social conventions, and she constantly feels at a loss.
But when she stumbles into a warehouse party full of misfits embracing their otherness, Elise begins to see that the world outside of her claustrophobic high school is enormous, strange, and possibly even wonderful. With the help of a new friend in a band, a disc jockey, a handful of free spirits, and her own newly discovered love of music, she begins to find her way.
The first half of this book started off so perfectly and wonderfully that I considered abandoning all commitments in order to hide away and read it straight through. Some too-easy moments marred a little of the book's perfection for me, but I absolutely adore this author's voice and vision and am hereby willing to read anything else she writes.