Rock On by Denise Vega
Current Mood: thirsty
Current Song: Beautiful Girl by Sara Bareilles
Rock On: A Story of Guitars, Gigs, Girls, and a Brother (Not Necessarily in That Order) by Denise Vega lives up to its title. Here's why.
Ori has a band. A band without a name.
Ori has an older brother named Del. The boys were very close until Del went away to college, only to return home unexpectedly, with a chip on his shoulder.
Ori has a guitar. It's a loaner. He's working at a music store and saving up for a sweet Les Paul.
Ori has friends. Good ones. And together, they make good music.
What Ori doesn't have - yet - is the confidence that he needs to lead the group, and to walk out of his brother's shadow and forge his own path. But maybe, if he lets out the music that's in his head, his heart, and his fingertips, he'll get there.
You've got to love a lead vocalist and songwriter who is searching for the right things to say and the right notes to play. Ori's just that. I think he'd get along well with Nick from Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan.
"Blunt honesty and constant grief. And you're supposed to be my friends." - Ori to the others on Page 125
I really enjoyed the scenes with Ori's friends. The group's dynamics are great. When they get together, whether it's to make music or just to hang out, they are comfortable with one another. They are solid friends, and their dialogue sounds authentic. None of the main characters are profane or inane, and every person in the group is important to that group. No one in the band tries to be the star or upstage anyone else; each member is good at what they do, and they just want to play music. They are getting their feet wet by performing at local venues and preparing for a Battle of the Bands competition for high school groups.
It's a welcome relief to have a girl and a boy in a book be true friends, just friends, strictly platonic, period. Life-long friends Ori and Alli (the band's "chronicler," destined to become their manager and/or publicist) know each other so well that she can read him with a look. It's characters like these that make you either grateful for your best friend or make you wish you had a best friend. These two are going to be in touch for their entire lives. Alli is like a sister to Ori, without ever rivaling his real-life sister, Vela.
Vela, an eighth-grader, is rightfully adorable in her own way. When commenting on things, most notably during family arguments, her honesty and innocence is both endearing and poignant. She is Del's biggest fan, and she is Ori's biggest fan.
Ori, however, is no longer a fan of Del. Ori used to look up to Del, but now Del seems to be looking down on him. Though Del was popular and cool, he always looked out for his kid brother and included him in things. During the short time he was away at college, something changed. Now, Ori sometimes sees a flicker of the brother he used to know, but most of the time, it's like Del's a complete stranger. He used to be supportive of Ori's efforts; he's now critical. He used to smile and joke around with Ori; now he's cold, if not rude. He's also messing up Ori's potential relationship with a girl. The brothers' feud builds throughout the book and boils over realistically.
This book also features a well-adjusted teen couple. Troy (second guitar and backup vocals) and Alli are happy together from the start of the book until the finish without ever being 1) sitcom gooey-sweet; 2) prime-time naughty; or 3) soap opera drama/daytime talk show scandalous. Imagine that! They're dating, they're happy, and everyone around them is cool with them dating.
Meanwhile, drummer and percussionist Nick tries to catch the eye of a girl or two. When the guys get groupies, Alli explains her theory of RSB, short for Rock Star Blindness:
"Most girls go wild for musicians no matter what they look like or how they act. Something about the music completely blinds them to reality. Historical Exhibit A: Mick Jagger." She nodded. "For most girls, it wears off pretty quickly. When the music is over, they see you're nothing special." She looked at Troy. "Except you, of course. You're special." - Page 74
In other words, the audience may go crazy for you during and right after a concert, but they are pretty much over you by the next day, so don't let it go to your head.
The band is in need of a bass guitarist for the first quarter of the book. SPOILERS AHEAD! After holding auditions, they decide on Gwyn, who was hands-down the best musician there. Later, at rehearsal, they are surprised to find out that she's hearing-impaired, but that doesn't change their minds.
"Cool!" Nick was grinning like he'd just won the lottery on something. "You're like Evelyn Glennie, except on bass." - Page 127
Her gender wasn't a factor in their decision, either. She was the best player, so she got the job. She fits nicely into the group, both musically and personally.
Gwyn was accompanied to the auditions by her friend, Jane. Without giving too much away here, let's just say you might already know Jane by the time you officially meet her. I know she's described as blonde, but due to her gentle disposition and how naturally her friendship with Ori developed, I kept picturing her as a teenaged Pam Beesly (three cheers for Jenna Fischer!) from the TV show The Office.
The narrative is written in first-person past-tense from Ori's point of view. On occasion, Ori has a flashback, a memory, which is written in third-person. The band has an online profile at a site called Colorado Rocks, and updates about the band are shared there every so often, with comments added from some anonymous and not-so-anonymous listeners/readers. There are a few emails, chats, and text messages sprinkled throughout the book, and these are thankfully treated just as they should be, as methods of communication just like phone calls, rather than attempts to keep the writing or the characters hip and trendy.
Does the band ever get a name? Do they win Battle of the Bands? You know what I'm going to say - you're going to have to read the book to find out!
This review was cross-posted at GuysLitWire.
I liked reading Ori's song lyrics, which were shared as he wrote them and as he performed them, and I liked seeing how his songs changed as the book progressed. I particularly liked Halyn's poem entitled Who I Am, which appears on page 116. The poem then evolves into a song, a collaborative effort between Halyn and Ori.
Click here to read Who I Am, which I shared during Poetry Friday.
Other Related Posts at Bildungsroman
Book Review: Fact of Life #31 by Denise Vega
Author Interview: Denise Vega
Booklist: I'm With the Band
If you liked Rock On, you should read So Punk Rock (and Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother) by Micol Ostow with art by David Ostow. These two books go together so well(1) that I want to sell them as a boxed set. They compliment each other that well.
(1) I'd say they go together like peanut butter and jelly, but I don't like jelly.