Former almost-rock-star Brian "Brick" Smith thought his punk-rock days were behind him. He was wrong.
Before he became a mild-mannered English teacher, Brian was the songwriter and bass player for a one-hit-wonder punk band: Call Field. Two decades ago, Brian and his bandmates were on a stratospheric ascent through the music industry... until Call Field unexpectedly crash-landed and broke up.
Since then, Brian has been living a quiet white-collar life, teaching at a suburban California high school, and desperately trying to put his past behind him. Despite Brian's best attempts at anonymity, one of his star students, the precocious Veronica Jones, has stumbled upon his not-so-secret identity. After convincing Brian to relay the story of how he wrote his band's only hit song, Veronica is left with many, many unanswered questions. Why did the band break up? What happened to Call Field's other members? Why is Brian so reluctant to revisit his past? Veronica wants answers. All the answers.
Brian doesn't know it yet, but his incomplete music career isn't over. The tenacious Veronica Jones has a plan - and it's one that will bring together all the shattered pieces of Brian's jigsaw-puzzle life. Of course, with Veronica taking charge, almost anything can happen... including retired almost-rock-stars rising from the ashes and facing the music of their painful punk-rock past.
Levin again demonstrates a sure hand writing about music, inspiration, prickly band relationships, and the complexities of aging, all of which he renders in vivid, persuasive detail and prose as direct as good pop punk lyrics. He’s especially adept at charting the excitement and humiliations of the rock life, which comes up when Brian, stuck in a locked down high school, tells Veronica about the band’s breakup: the CD cover of a Call Field album with only the lead singer’s photo on it is hilarious yet painful, and a dismissive Rolling Stone review is pitch perfect. That protracted flashback, while engaging as it builds to a crisis at the Fillmore, slows the narrative momentum of a novel at first set firmly in Brian’s adult present of plodding jogs and dental travails (“As it turns out, I’m a bit long-winded,” Brian confesses, which is true of both books about him). But fans of spirited rock stories will love it.
Brian must face that flashback’s tragedy and trauma in the present when, inevitably, Call Field gets the call to give it another shot. Levin’s attention to stung to egos, unburied hatchets, and grown-up healing proves almost as exciting as his love for riffs, melodies, and hooks.
Takeaway: A punk rock novel about break ups, aging, and healing, bursting with energy and vivid detail.
Great for fans of: Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones & the Six, Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A
A California high school teacher reflects on his rock-star days and broods about reuniting his band.
In Levin’s follow-up to his novel Incomplete (2020), Brian Smith lives what some would consider an ordinary life. When he’s not teaching Advanced Placement English, he spends time with his wife and their Star Wars–loving 8-year-old daughter. But when his star pupil Veronica Jones interviews him, she dredges up memories of a past Brian abandoned two decades ago. He was once a member of the punk-rock group Call Field, a one-hit wonder from the early aughts. Back then, he and his band mates ecstatically signed a major-label deal. But it was Brian, bassist and chief songwriter, who practically lived at the studio to complete Call Field’s debut album. As with most fledgling music groups, both the label and fans tended to focus their attention on the frontman. In Call Field’s case, that was Steve Öken, a self-absorbed lead vocalist who tried exerting his dominance whenever he could, such as monopolizing the album cover. Not surprisingly, he butted heads with Brian—dissension that threatened the band even before its debut release. After Call Field’s ugly, animosity-laden split, Brian suffered physically and mentally. Yet when he dusts off his guitar 20 years later for his school’s talent show, he misses that exhilaration of playing music onstage. He has the chance to perform again for a benefit concert that Veronica is organizing. But she wants all five members of Call Field there. Brian and his band mates, who haven’t spoken in decades, will have to quell some bad feelings if they want to recapture that punk-rock magic they once had.
While Levin’s sequel centers on Call Field’s short-lived fame, the book is a starkly illuminating peek at the music industry. Brian, for example, toils for months on the album and plays multiple instruments on the tracks. But the record company, despite signing a punk-rock band, mixes the songs for a softer, more commercial sound, highlighting Steve’s vocals. It seems both the label and the lead singer are intent on seizing control of the tunes that Brian rightly considers his. Still, the story is not all scathing. Brian indisputably treasures music, as does the author, who drops in references to countless rock groups along with cameos by such six-stringed beauties as a Gibson SG and a Fender Stratocaster. In the tale’s family-oriented, present-day setting, Levin develops winsome, convincing relationships. Brian’s loving home life with his wife, Mel, and their daughter, Sam, has its ups and downs while good-naturedly brazen Veronica is his biggest fan and “something of a surrogate daughter.” The author, on occasion, shines too bright a spotlight on his metaphors. For example, Mel and a classroom of students separately analyze the oft-quoted lyrics to Call Field’s solitary hit, “Incomplete,” which unquestionably represents Brian’s past. But Levin more often hits the mark, as when Brian calms himself with a treadmill-inspired mantra that becomes the tale’s refrain: “Right foot. Left foot. Repeat.” Numerous uncredited artworks and photographs further elevate this enthralling story, with the standouts including Call Field’s startling album cover and flyers for the group’s appearances.
This dramatic tale of life in and outside the music industry hits all the right notes.
A Different Slant of Light by J.D. Levin builds on the epic musical narrative that began with Incomplete. Where the first installment provides an introduction and establishes the foundation, in the sequel Levin expands to include higher highs and lower lows, all building toward the present day.
Picking up where the first book ends, our lead character Brian Richard “Brick” Smith reflects upon recent conversations and recounts his group’s roller-coaster ride to fame. He branches out from the history of significant musical groups to include producers, record labels, and prominent venues in his most recent work. Readers gain insight into Lowercase Records, Jimmy Storforsen, the Gilman in Berkeley, and the Filmore in San Francisco.
Laboring through feelings of regret and sorrow, Brian recounts the production of the musical group’s first album, preparations for their first major tour, and the subsequent implosion on the eve of greatness. Readers dive deeper into the music industry and witness firsthand his struggle with mental health issues as he tries to balance school, love, musical infamy, and family responsibilities. Ultimately, the balancing act brings our main character tumbling down, leaving him feeling lost and alone.
He shares his rebirth and evolution through his physical and mental health journey to finally heal and find peace within himself. Brian relates valuable adages based on difficult, yet critical, life lessons. Passages such as “Some things are more important than rock and roll,” appear several times throughout the text. These sentiments will remind readers of conversations from the first book and yet reverberate so much more now.
In this piece of rock-and-roll historical fiction, Levin captures the bombshells that come up in life and derail well-laid plans. Our storyteller honestly shares the various ways he has responded, productively and painfully, to significant events sprinkled throughout a lifetime. Moreover, from this place of growth and reflection, Levin is able to provide the reader with thoughtful, objective insights into the complex turmoil of those around our protagonist. Everyone’s journey is an intricate mash-up of choices, circumstances, and responses that speak to their perspective and evolution on the way to finding fulfillment.
Brian guides the narrative to the present day, including personal responses to COVID-19 and the outbreak of the pandemic. Like the first volume, this work warmly garners five stars for its vivid portrayal of the music industry and brutally honest depiction of depression, social anxiety, and other related mental health issues. This work is raw and forthright in a manner that juvenile and mature readers alike will greatly appreciate. Levin does not disappoint! A Different Slant of Light will enrapture readers and leave them begging for more.
Star Count: 5/5