February 27, 2014


Road Rash. By Mark Huntley Parsons. Knopf. $16.99.

Love Me: A Starstruck Novel. By Rachel Shukert. Delacorte Press. $17.99.

Just Grace, Star on Stage. By Charise Mericle Harper. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $5.99.

     Ah, the lures of fame! They include money, notoriety, sex, money, independence, an entourage, money, and did we mention money? Mark Huntley Parsons, a recording-studio owner who has played drums with various club bands, creates a coming-of-age novel built around a band’s quest for fame in Road Rash. It has every element readers will expect: stagings, group dynamics, relationship issues, travel, finding-out-who-you-are situations, and there’s even some music in there somewhere – although it is scarcely the focus of the book. Zach, the book’s central character, writes songs that help him cope with life’s usual reverses and which imply that his difficulties are somehow special but at the same time universal (typical for popular music). He loves drumming: “There’s something about playing the drums that’s different from any other instrument. Maybe it’s the physical part. I man, you’re generating sounds by hitting things. …It’s just so – primal.” He doesn’t love audiences that fail to respond to his band’s original music and prefer tunes they already know. He also doesn’t love being dumped by his band and needing to find another, although when he does find one and starts on a summer road trip, things are pretty cool. Until, inevitably, they aren’t. But sometimes they are, as when Zach sends a song that a fellow band member has shot down to a radio station for a second opinion, and it gets picked up for a compilation CD. There’s plenty of “in-sounding” rock-music writing here: “So I set up a microphone while he got his Strat and his little Fender practice amp. He dialed up the perfect tone – dark, dirty-sweet, drenched in spring reverb, with a little tremolo added, set to pulse in time with the eighth notes.” And there are the usual girl-back-home vs. girl-on-the-road complications, and the entirely unsurprising “Rock ‘N Roll Fantasy” (a real chapter title) climax, and everything is so all-fired great and wonderful that every garage-band member reading Road Rash will be convinced again, if additional convincing is needed, that he (or she) is destined to be the next rock god. It is all total nonsense, but feel-good nonsense, and feeling good is what the book is all about.

     Not so Love Me, sequel to Rachel Shukert’s Starstruck, in which the yearning for stardom and money and love and sex and, yes, money, takes place in Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age, where three teenage girls are trying to claw their way to the top. And “claw” is the operative word, since everyone is out to scratch, grab and attach herself to film fame by any means necessary, heartbreak and trouble notwithstanding. Margo is the girl who is closest to living this wholly evanescent dream, being talked about as a possible Oscar contender for her very first film role (the book is a fantasy, remember). Amanda has broken up with a writer named Harry Gordon and is thoroughly miserable, sure that she can get him back and show him that she is the one for him, if he will only listen. And then there is Gabby, who is well on the way to becoming an alcoholic, busily drinking when she is not popping pills. As the book’s title hints, Amanda is not the only protagonist with man issues: Margo and Gabby actually have men in their lives, too. Margo is living with Dane Forest, and everything about that is great except that it is important for her image and his that the public not find out. And Gabby has her sights set on a musician named Eddie Sharp, who is every bit as unreliable as she is, which makes them so not a perfect pair. The writing here is the sort of breathlessly silly type associated with old-fashioned Hollywood romances: “He cares. The words thrummed through Amanda over and over again, like a heartbeat. Harry still cares.” “He held out his hand to her. A little shiver went up Gabby’s spine at his touch.” “Margo drank the rest of her brandy in one gulp and reached forward to pour herself another very small one. She was beginning to feel better. …The lights of Hollywood receded as the limo began the slow climb into the hills.” “Everything in the hushed lobby of the Waldorf Astoria, from the crystal chandeliers to the giant potted ferns to the exquisitely arranged groupings of antique gilt furniture, screamed money.” Trials, traumas and trouble abound here – well, of course – and portentous comments such as, “There was too much sparkling chaos in Hollywood. When you looked up, you couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t.” You can, however, tell what is real in Love Me – exactly nothing, including a conclusion that sets up the next book in this sequence for the starstruck.

     Younger and more innocent readers can, of course, be starstruck as well, and they are the target audience for Charise Mericle Harper’s Just Grace, Star on Stage. Harper fills the book with cute illustrations that nicely complement writing of this sort: “If someone is behaving perfectly good on the outside, there’s nothing you can do about what they are doing on their insides.” It is a bit hard to tell whether the grammatical and expressive errors in the book are accidental or intended by Harper to reflect third-grader Grace’s first-person narration – sometimes they seem to partake of both reasons. The plot of this ninth book about Grace, which was originally published in 2012 and is now available in paperback, involves a class play in which Grace is determined to be the capital-s Star. Grace, however, does not get the Fairy Queen part that she wants, but she does get an important part – the play’s narrator – and comments, “Why I am an even better actress than everyone knows: I went to the play practice and did an excellent job of pretending that nothing was wrong” (a statement that Harper neatly illustrates with “what I look like on the outside” and “what I feel like on the inside” drawings). The book meanders through play rehearsals, not-too-serious pettiness and jealousy, and eventually a surprise that puts Grace on stage in a way she never expected – leading to a successful performance that everyone enjoys, in spite of (or because of) some unanticipated  elements. The Just Grace books are unfailingly pleasant and upbeat and are easy to read, with the many illustrations and frequent all-capitals headings and subheads breaking up the narrative into small, easily digestible bits (“The Play Invitation,” “What Had Never Happened Before,” “What I Was Knowing,” “The Good Idea to Fix It,” “What Is Really Fun to Do,” and many more). The incessant cheerfulness can be a bit much to take, but certainly fans of the first eight books will enjoy this ninth entry as well as those to come: Grace is, within her small universe, a star that shines brightly.

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