Contemporary Novels Historical Fiction Music


Strictly from a plot standpoint, this is a novel about two disastrous rock music gigs, 45 years apart. The first half of the book leads up to something called the “Rivington Showcase,” and, to Walton’s credit, though she lays the foreshadowing on thick, her evocation of that night’s events is as shocking as it is absolutely riveting.

The novel takes a sharp left turn at the end of part one (which I did not see coming, but instantly believed). The second half builds up to the (fictional) Derringdo Festival in 2016, and this climax is altogether of a different sort than the first.

Here’s the setup: Nev Charles, white, English, na├»ve, and impulsive, comes to the US in 1970 with the fixed idea of finding a Black female vocalist to add contrast to his first album (said album being contracted to the small and sleazy Rivington label). After a lengthy search, he discovers Opal Jewel (nee Robinson) singing at an amateur night in Detroit. He convinces her to throw in with him and move to New York. The session drummer on their record, Jimmy Curtis, also Black, and ten years older than Opal, begins an affair with her, despite the fact that Jimmy’s wife is pregnant.

All of this background comes with the perspective of the 2010s, delivered as an oral history with multiple, intercut eyewitness accounts. This oral history is edited by a young Black woman whose professional name is S. Sunny Shelton, but who is in fact the daughter of drummer Jimmy Curtis and his wife. Because Opal is notoriously close-mouthed, and Nev doesn’t give interviews at all, this project, in which Sunny is so deeply invested, is in trouble from the start.

Walton does a stunning job of giving each of the players an appropriate and convincing voice. Her choice of British vocabulary for Nev is note-perfect, down to such fine points as him saying “meant to” rather than “supposed to,” “ring” instead of “call,” and includes “chuffed” and “panto.” Opal fuses a sophisticated vocabulary to street grammar, making her speeches unmistakably her own. And, especially in the second half, Sunny’s “Editor’s Notes” get longer and more personal and begin to overshadow the interviews.

At various times the book reads like non-fiction–the music history is reliably accurate, the industry bigshots and hit records namechecked with authority. At times it feels a bit like last year’s DAISY JONES & THE SIX by Taylor Jenkins Reid, a little too smooth and superficial. The descriptions of the music got a bit impressionistic for me at times, as if they’d snuck in from a lesser novel. But page by page, Walton’s true purpose becomes increasingly clear. Though she obviously loves music, she is here to talk about racism of the most persistent and virulent kind, racism that destroyed the Rivington Showcase in 1971 and that rises again, with ugly inevitability, at the Derringdo Festival.

If OPAL & NEV feels too accomplished to be a debut novel, it may be because Walton was nearly 40 by the time she began it, still young enough to conjure Sunny’s youthful passion, but experienced enough to put power into Opal’s disillusionment and rage. This is one of the best music novels I’ve read.

Historical Fiction


Imagine Raymond Carver and Nick Hornby collaborating on an episode of PRIME SUSPECT set in 1968. Not (for the most part, anyway) in the Technicolor London of Carnaby Street and King’s Road, but in a grim, gray postwar London pockmarked with bomb sites and reeling from waves of immigration from Britain’s former colonies.

Shaw’s protagonist, Detective Sergeant Cathal “Paddy” Breen, is himself the son of Irish immigrants, and an outsider in nearly every way–unmarried, unambitious, alienated by the brutish, racist, and sexist behavior of his fellow CID officers, and a generation away from the glittering denizens of Swinging London. Stunned by the death of his father, whom he nursed through his long final illness, Breen finds himself behaving in unexpected ways–fleeing a crime scene, nauseated by violence, unable to control his emotions.

To redeem himself, Breen takes on the case of a murdered teenage girl who was found a few blocks away from EMI’s Abbey Road studios. Assigned to assist him is newly arrived Temporary Detective Constable Helen Tozer, whose status as a female detective is regarded by the rest of the squad as mildly ridiculous.

Tozer is talkative where Breen is laconic, tuned-in to pop culture where he is uninterested, energetic where he is plodding, rural where he is urban. Yet each recognizes in the other intelligence and curiosity and an eye for particulars. Their scenes together light up the page.

All the characters shine: Bailey, the hapless, intimidated CID superintendent; the surly owner of the bagel shop down the street from Breen’s flat; the aggrieved occupants of the housing block overlooking the crime scene. Even the most incidental characters are fully formed and carry the weight of their personal histories.

More than that, they carry the weight of the historical moment, from the rise of the counterculture to the civil war in Biafra, from assassinations in the US to government scandal in Britain. Shaw makes these cultural conflicts personal for all of his characters, adding political heft that takes the novel beyond mere entertainment. And, speaking of the historical moment, his period details are flawless.

The writing throughout is restrained and focused on specifics, as in this description of the squad room: “The morning light filtered through the canvas blinds. Olivetti typewriters filled with triplicate forms, white on top, yellow in the middle and pink underneath. The picture of the Queen. Blackstone’s Police Manual and Butterworth’s Police Procedure. Green enamel lampshades hanging from the ceiling, comfortably coated in dust.” And the dialog is even better. Sharp, rapid fire, full of double entendre and personal quirks, frequently going in multiple directions at once.

The novel is brutally realistic in language and events, and the constant twists and turns of the plot make for relentless suspense. As the mood shifted from dark comedy to heartbreak and back again, my emotions were as fully engaged as my intellect. SHE’S LEAVING HOME is ultimately satisfying as a mystery while leaving the fates of Breen and Tozer unresolved. The last two paragraphs, in fact, were so ineffably sad that I was only consoled by the knowledge that this is the start–and what a start–of a series.

Thanks and a tip of the auld titfer to Steve Pease, a man who knows his way around a novel or a guitar.

Contemporary Novels

THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas

I have a troubled relationship with Young Adult fiction. I didn’t take to Harry Potter, and I’ve struggled through a number of first-person present-tense peppy novels where the threats are never that dire and the outcome never in doubt. To be clear, there are some YA novels I love, like the brilliant STRAYDOG by Kathe Koja and FENDER LIZARDS by Joe Lansdale (and that’s not even counting Lansdale’s many novels with teen protagonists that aren’t marketed as YA, such as THE BOTTOMS, THE THICKET, EDGE OF DARK WATER, A FINE DARK LINE, etc.). It’s not so much that the books I like are bleak or depressing, but rather that you don’t sense the author hovering over them like a benign deity, warding off anything that might really upset you. These books are more like life and less like a sitcom.

Sitcom elements are certainly part of Angie Thomas’s THE HATE U GIVE (2017)–the 16-year-old narrator, Starr, is obsessed with THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR; scenes of her parents trying to dance to hip-hop are intentionally comic; the dialog flirts at times with preciousness. Starr’s first-person present-tense voice, full of slang and pop-culture references might, in some other novel, seem to be pandering to its teenage audience. In this novel, the voice sets you up for one visceral shock after another, starting fewer than 25 pages into it, when one of the characters is shot to death as Starr helplessly looks on.

Starr’s parents love her unconditionally and demonstratively. But they have their own complicated issues, and you never know when a bantering argument between them is going to turn personal and hurtful. Friendships sour and don’t recover. Innocence is lost, and dreams die.

This is a novel about racism in Anytown, USA.

When it really counts, Thomas does not pull her punches. Rather than a benign deity, she is a righteous recording angel with an attitude, as if asking the reader over and over, “You got a problem with that?”

Case in point: There are a number of true heroes in THE HATE U GIVE, but none more complex or intriguing than Starr’s father, Maverick. He is massive, tattooed, a former gang member, a former drug dealer, and an ex-convict. He reveres Malcolm X and teaches his kids the ten-point program of the Black Panther party. (And may I just say what a pleasure it is to see the Panthers, possibly the most misunderstood and misrepresented political group in history, portrayed so positively?) He keeps his Glock close at hand and has no qualms about using it in self-defense. He is not a character intended to sit comfortably with mainstream white America.

The plot of the book could not be more timely: a white cop has shot a young, unarmed Black man in the back. Thomas shows us a good cop in Starr’s Uncle Carlos, but she doesn’t pretend he’s representative. When word gets out about the shooting, there are riots, and there are Black people in those riots who smash windows and loot TV sets. But Thomas takes the time to tell us why.

The violence at the climax of the book is harrowing, all the more so because Thomas has let us know that anything can happen. And if the ending is perhaps a little neat, the losses are not forgotten or downplayed.

Thomas’s rendering of dialect (see my review of WENCH) is superb–understated, but rhythmic, colorful, and convincing. She has a genuine gift for delineating fully rounded characters through a few well-chosen details and through the words they speak.

I love the feeling of being deep in a book that has taken over my consciousness, that makes me pause during the day and look forward to getting back to it, to going over what I’ve just read as I fall asleep, to wanting to talk about it with my friends. THE HATE U GIVE is that kind of book. And more–it might just be essential reading.

Thanks, and a tip of the cappello, to Seba Pezzani for the recommendation.