Author: Chris Russell
Publisher: Hodder Children’s Books
Publication date: 28 July 2016
Series or standalone?: Series
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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Charlie Bloom is happiest behind the camera and out of the limelight. But when she’s asked to take photographs for music sensations Fire&Lights, she can’t pass up the chance.
Catapulted into a whirlwind of music, ardent fans and scheming paparazzi, Charlie soon realizes that a life on tour isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There’s far more to the boys of Fire&Lights than fame, but even an expensive backdrop can’t hide the strain being put on their friendship. As bickering bubbles and rivalries simmer, Charlie is drawn to gorgeous, damaged frontman Gabriel and boy-next-door bandmate Olly Samson – but they’re the least of her problems when she stumbles on a mind-blowing secret, hidden in the lyrics of their songs.
Throw in friendship disasters and the realities of her own life, which haven’t gone away while she’s been hanging out with the most famous boys in the country, and Charlie finds herself caught in a tug-of-war between what she’s always known and what might one day be.
Songs About a Girl is the latest addition to a phenomenon which has come to be known as #boybandlit. For the uninitiated, #boybandlit seeks to capitalise on the popularity of boybands, particularly among those most passionate of fans, teenagers, specifically teenage girls, by merging the ever-so-slightly-out-of-reach daydreams of fandom with the skill of the professional pen. You heard it right, boyband fans: Larry fanfic is making its way to a bookshelf near you!
Sort of. Larry fanfic is a bit niche for mainstream YA, so for now the central paradigm for boybandlit requires a heroine – usually a teenager, always ordinary, often not hugely interested in catchily-named fandoms (it’s cooler for when they need to form coherent non-starstruck sentences later on) – to run into the most famous band on the planet in a way which distinguishes her from the screaming masses – by tripping over right in front of them, by being able to see them as people etc etc – before discovering that one of them is likely the love of her life (alas, it seems it is too soon for polyamory to have kicked in). For added drama there may be a love triangle, or she’ll be the shoulder to cry on as the bandmates reveal all their deepest secrets to her.(If this sounds cynical, it’s because well, I am. But I have good things to say, too. I am large, I contain multitudes…)
Songs About a Girl starts out by following some of these tropes, but there are twists and turns which take it off the beaten track. Charlie has a family life, school problems, backstory and a clear motivation: she’s a good, but not perfect, photographer who wants to get better at what she does. Her life doesn’t stop just because she’s met a vaguely handsome boyband. There are subplots, social struggles and mysteries to be solved. As long as boyband lit respects teenage girls and continues to twine the skills of solid storytelling with the concept of the genre, then it’s fine by me. It helps that I like this book’s title: it’s simple, straightforward and most importantly sounds like an actual album. (I wasn’t quite sure why at first, but then I played Maroon 5’s Songs About Jane all through reading the book and writing this review.)
It’s driven by a fairly basic plot which sees secrets unravel and Charlie’s world turn upside down, and I have to say, it’s more page-turning than you’d expect. It’s occasionally predictable, and I found I’d guessed a major twist early on, but it’s all very dramatic. There are revelations and betrayals galore (including when one of the boys opens the door to Charlie and it seems he’s been leading her on while HAVING A FLING WITH A FAMOUS PERSON!). One twist had me like this:
Charlie’s a likeable heroine. Friendly Olly and bad boy Gabriel are touted as the book’s big stars but Yuki and Aiden, who’s Irish, get considerable time on the page too. Back at school, Charlie faces the highs and lows of best friendship with Melissa, who’s definitely hiding something from her, and taunts when her involvement with Fire&Lights hits the schoolyard as well as the gossip columns. The book’s portrayal of band life is a definite strength. It’s occasionally sanitised for a young audience, but it’s full of details and strives to at least blend realism with the admittedly unlikely premise of a teenager being plucked from obscurity to become an eyewitness to the fracturing relationships behind the nation’s favourite band. There are two sequels planned and the book ends on a cliffhanger which should keep readers on their toes.
Unfortunately, the characters are mostly two-dimensional. Charlie is sixteen, but the book is aimed at a younger audience, certainly in terms of tone and unchallenging prose. It doesn’t deal with issues brilliantly or in depth, which makes some of its scenes problematic. The dialogue isn’t great; it lacks sharpness and the intuitive, natural style of books like London Belongs to Us by Sarra Manning or Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins.
Songs About a Girl isn’t amazing, particularly as it has a plain writing style and a fairly basic set-up, but it’s easy to keep reading this short, page-turning take on #boybandlit.