Saturday, July 1, 2023

A Rom-Com That’s Dialed Up to Eleven: Charm City Rocks by Matthew Norman


Scott D. Parker

Note: I know this is not a mystery novel, but I haven't been this excited about a book in a long time so I thought I'd share here. 

How long has it been since you read a book in four days? For me, it’s been forever. But I’ve also not read a book quite like Charm City Rocks by Matthew Norman.

I follow the Writer Unboxed website and a recent Q&A landed this book on my radar. Being a huge fan of KISS, I instantly assumed the reference was a shout out to KISS’s “Detroit Rock City.” Whether or not that was how the author came up with the title of his novel, I don’t know, but that’s what got me in the door.

Oh, and the cool premise.

A single dad, Billy, is watching a rock and roll documentary with his high school senior son, Caleb, when the fictional band Burnt Flowers shows up. Billy, a piano teacher in Baltimore, confesses that he had a huge crush on the drummer, Margot Hammer, back in the day. With Caleb about to go off to college and with his mom married, he worries about his dad will be lonely when he moves away. One of those schools is Stanford, all the way across the country. When Caleb accidentally eats some “special” gummies, he sends an email to Margot who is a rock and roll recluse after a spectacular and public meltdown on stage two decades ago. Caleb invites Margot to come to Charm City Rocks, the record store in Baltimore over which his dad lives. He’s convinced that if the former rock star would just meet his dad, they’d hit it off.

But Caleb knows that Margot won’t just come down to Baltimore so he poses as if he’s a teenaged girl in an all-girl rock band. Margot’s publicist thinks it a great idea to get Margot’s name back out in the world and urges her to go. Reluctantly, she agrees, and then the truth hits the fan.

The Breezy Writing Style

I put the book on hold via the Libby app. The blog post made me curious, but I’d never read anything by Norman—heck, I’d never heard of him—so I thought I’d give the book a chance. I read chapter one at lunch and laughed out loud. Actually laughed out loud. Then I read chapter two before I had to get back to work. At the next day’s lunch I experienced a pull and a choice: I could write more words of my own book or read more chapters of Norman’s book. After I quickly finished my own daily writing, I read more about Billy and Margot, right up until the end of lunch. Holy cow, I was hooked.

The prose just flows, easily. I’m a writer myself so I understand the process: that what we read as a final product is not necessarily the same when the writer is behind a keyboard. But the results are so fluid, witty, and whimsical.

The characters jump off the page, fully formed, and easily understandable and relatable. In addition to Billy, Caleb, and Margot, we meet Robyn, Caleb’s mom, and her husband, Aaron, who has great hair. We get to know Lawson Daniel’s, Margot’s ex-husband, a supremely handsome British actor who is more famous than her. There’s Poppy, their daughter, as well as all the folks on the city block where Charm City Rocks is located. They all come alive in Norman’s experienced writing style and I happily and easily went along for the ride.

A Rom-Com That Feels Natural

I’ll admit: when Christmas season rolls around, the Hallmark Channel is often on the TV. I know they’re a formula, but I just love them. Still, sometimes, the formula is thin and I start doing something else. I mean, how many times can you have the big-city lady return to the small town and re-discover everything she’s missed?

There are elements of that in Norman’s book, but he remixes the pieces in such a way that it all feels fresh. The meet-cute section is incredibly charming and delightful and I was grinning from ear to ear during that section.

But the inevitable obstacles get in the way and cause havoc. What I particularly enjoyed was the comedy part of rom-com. As I already mentioned, I laughed in chapter one. I think I laughed out loud more reading this book than, in well, a long time. Here’s a line from Beth, a bartender, on what the best Neil Diamond song is.

“What are you talking about, you idiot? It’s ‘Sweet Caroline’ all the way. My sister threw her bra at Neil once while he was singing it at the Verizon Center down in D.C. Almost got us kicked out. Apparently, you’re not supposed to do that. Which is bullshit. I mean, how could you not toss your underwear at that man?”

Or how about this one

“I’d love a cup of tea, though,” says Lawson.
“Like, tea tea?” Robyn asks.
“Well, we Brits only say it once, but I suppose you can call it what you like.”

And I’m also fine when characters in a book react almost as if they’re watching the movie that they’re in. For example, here’s a quote from when Billy is talking to Margot:

“I know, and again, I’m sorry. I’ll buy you and Mr. Camera Guy a beer, too, to make up for it. What do you say? I just feel like if you drive off without me asking, I’ll regret it.”
“Damn,” whispers Todd. “That’s a decent line.”

Everything Gets Dialed Up to Eleven

Things just keep getting in the way for all the characters in this novel, and some of them are really fun and outrageous. The twists I thought unpredictable and happily went along for the ride.

But, again, it’s organic in its development. So, too, is the romance element. Norman switches POVs constantly so you get a sense of what everyone is thinking and why they’re doing what they’re doing. But the small moments really shine: the way a person’s kiss tastes, the warmth of a hand on an arm, the smell of pretzels and the memories they conjure. Norman’s observations on human nature are spot on. I imagine many guys who read this book will see themselves in Billy and wonder if they’d do the same thing. Or feel like he does at various stages of this story. And I also really liked the kind of dad he was to Caleb.

When You Discover Someone New

Like so many rom-coms, Charm City Rocks is a story of how two people meet and start to have feelings for each other and how those actions reverberate throughout their community. An excited newness permeates the air and you just want to be around them all the time.

There’s a similar vibe when you discover a new-to-you author. Matthew Norman is now on my radar thanks to this delightful novel. I’m looking forward to reading more by him, but Charm City Rocks will always be special, that first book.

I’ve already told so many folks about it. Now I’m telling you. Add Charm City Rocks to your summer reading list. Your smile will thank you.

1 comment:

Art Taylor said...

So nice to see the shout-out for Matt's new book here. He was in the MFA program at George Mason the same time I was--and, in fact, was in a writing group with two other Mason MFA alums who are now mystery writers: Tara Laskowski (my wife!) and John Copenhaver.
Small world!