February 10, 2020

Rob Rufus: "The Vinyl Underground" (ARC Review)

Title: The Vinyl Underground [on Amazon | on Goodreads]
Series: None
Author: Rob Rufus [Site | Goodreads]
Genres: Contemporary, Historical
Year: 2020
Age: 14+
Stars: 3.5/5
Pros: Vivid portrait of an era. Teen protagonists who feel real. Focus on friendship and coming of age (though there's some romance involved). Music fuels the story.
Cons: Messy parent-child dynamics and conveniently clueless adults.  Some inconsiderate choices.
WARNING! Verbal and physical abuse (racially charged, for the most part). Unchallenged drug use. Underage drinking.
Will appeal to: Those who appreciate a story walking the line between teen adventure and social/historical commentary.

Blurb: During the tumultuous year of 1968, four teens are drawn together: Ronnie Bingham, who is grieving his brother's death in Vietnam; Milo, Ronnie's bookish best friend; Ramrod, a star athlete who is secretly avoiding the draft; and Hana, the new girl, a half-Japanese badass rock-n-roller whose presence doesn't sit well with their segregated high school. The four outcasts find sanctuary in The Vinyl Underground, a record club where they spin music, joke, debate, and escape the stifling norms of their small southern town. But Ronnie's 18th birthday is looming. Together, they hatch a plan to keep Ronnie from being drafted. But when a horrific act of racial-charged violence rocks the gang to their core, they decide its time for an epic act of rebellion. (Amazon)

Review: First off...DISCLAIMER: I requested this title on NetGalley. Thanks to North Star Editions/Flux for providing a temporary ecopy. This didn't influence my review in any way. Also, please note that this is an uncorrected proof - I was able to spot some (genuine) typos that are most likely not to find their way into the final version 🙂.
Fun fact: to match the book, all the headers for this review are US song titles from the '60s.


1968 was a pivotal year in most of the Western countries, but there's no doubt that the US - with the Vietnam war draft, the still very much current segregation and Martin Luther King's assassination - were one of the hottest spots at the time. And probably more than anywhere else, music - rock music - embodied the spirit of protest of the young generation, or at least their restlessness. Now, I'm in no position to know firsthand, but it seems to me that TVU captures the feeling perfectly - that of a nation losing its (mostly fake, apparent at best) innocence, and being forced to come of age. Against the backdrop of the draft scare and of his uncertainty about the future, Ronnie - along with his friends - finally sees the bigger picture, and realises that not taking a stand against injustice is just as bad as being part of it. Music itself, for him and the whole Vinyl Underground, become less of a hiding place or a cure for heartbreak, and more of a rebellion flag and a way to make a statement. But it also plays a key role in the story...a role that, of course, I'm not going to spoil 😉. [...]


The four members of the Vinyl Underground feel undeniably real, though maybe Hana comes across a smidge too mature and knowledgeable for a 17 y.o. (even one who wants to be a journalist). They do brave things and foolish things, as they're expected to (sometimes those overlap), without realising their actions could end up in casualties. In a way, I admire that about them - which is the point of the book, I guess - and I applaud the author for creating teen characters who unapologetically embrace their age and all its quirks. On the other hand, as an adult and a former quiet chickenhearted teen with a penchant for overthinking (though I had the heart of a rebel), I can't help seeing the fault in their grand plan and feeling, you know, a TAD disconnected from them. (And don't get me started on the drug use - though of course it comes with the territory, because in a way, drugs had a sort of innocence about them back then - they didn't seem to pose more of a threat than your average smoke). The main problem, though, probably amounts to my liking these four kids, but not seeing myself - my teen self - reflected in any of them (and I'm not talking about the obvious - three of them being male). As I said, though, they feel real, which is what we're always swearing we want from book teens, so I guess that's a good thing. Let a jury of their pairs pronounce on that 🙂.


Now, the adults in this book - or some of them at least - are a different thing entirely. Of course they have to counteract the kids, to embody the status quo - but I find it difficult to believe that they can be so misguided, and frankly, one of the parents comes across as a dumb, self-centered asshole...until he pretty much does a 180. Physical abuse is NEVER OK, no matter how distraught you are. Then again, I suppose it's historically accurate to depict a parent like that, since (to the best of my knowledge) corporal punishments were still considered an educational method at the time - and probably not long ago, too...So we come full circle, back to the genuine feel this story has - despite some reservations on my part. All in all, I'm glad I got the chance to read it, and I would definitely recommend TVU to both teens and teens at heart, even if - in the first case - with a bit of supervision and/or historical context. It's an inspirational story, despite being set in the past, because no matter the era, there's always a battle to be fought - and especially nowadays, young people (and older ones too) can use the reminder.

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  1. I love the headers as songs to match the book <3. As you say, "Music fuels the story." Did you end up looking up songs to listen to them or just go with the flow of the book uninterrupted?

    1. Thank you! Nope - when I read, I may stop to look up a word that I'm not familiar with, but never to search for songs and/or listen to them. Of course, in this case, some I knew already (though I was just a toddler in the late '60s), but I have to admit I didn't go out of my way in order to listen to the other ones...

  2. Oh wow- I think I wanted to read this just from the blurb, before I even got to your review (and that of course cemented it). And it does sound timely even now, as you allude to. I love the idea of the music- rebellious as it was then- playing a central role as well. Sometimes I think certain music or cultural things happen at certain times for just the right reasons, and I'm sure the music of that era was no exception. Anyways sounds like a fabulous read!

    1. "Sometimes I think certain music or cultural things happen at certain times for just the right reasons".
      There probably wasn't a time when it happened more than in the '50/'60 (with the rise of rock'n'roll)! I hope you'll give this book a chance, since it sounds like it struck a cord (pun not intended LOL).

  3. It's a great time period to set a coming of age story, since there were so many big events to leverage. It's always good to hear that the teens seem authentic, and for me, I like to know that the story leans towards a hopeful, inspiring side.

    1. "It's a great time period to set a coming of age story".
      It is! I can see you reading this one, though the romance angle is small.

  4. (I still can't believe you read every book twice before reviewing it...) First of all, I love the cover for this book! It also seems like a pretty accurate representation based on the synopsis and your review. Second, I dislike it when the parents are unbelievably dumb. Like, you were a kid once, you have to know certain things!

    Lindsi @ Do You Dog-ear? 💬

    1. Haha! But I do! Except if I have a deadline and I'm REALLY pressed for time. That has happened, like, less than a handful of times in more than 7 years...

      The kids come up with a spectacular prank to avoid the draft, and especially given the kind of parent we're talking about, it's no surprise that this particular person can't see it coming.

  5. Didn't you read this last year?? I see that it's publication date is 2020 though. I remember you talking about it anyway and mentally marking it (or maybe a totally different book lol) to read.

    I've been hard on book teens and parents but when I reflect on my teen years I remember some doozy of parents. It's hard to believe they can be that clueless or horrible to their kids but they are.

    Karen @ For What It's worth

    1. Actually I did - I posted a batch of minis at the end of the year that featured this book, and now the long review.
      You sometimes mention your teen experiences (regarding your peers as well), and based on them, I think you would relate to this one.


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