Posts Tagged ‘Jessica Topper’


You all know we love Jessica Topper over here. So of course we’re thrilled to host her today to add to our series of how our fictional rockers got their names.

Jess… take it away!

Rocktober – Name That Rocker!
Jessica Topper

I’ve got a dirty little secret to admit. I cannot name all the U.S. Presidents. Nope. Not in order, not in this lifetime. My brain just can’t seem to retain such information. But give me a rock band and I will name not only its entire current lineup, but also past members, nicknames – hell, maybe even their pets’ names. Talk about a trivial pursuit! Heaven help me if I ever end up on Jeopardy. They’d better have a “Rock Star Etymology” category, or I’m in big trouble.

Now that I write rock fiction, you can only imagine the field day I have with creating fake bands and their infamous members. It’s like being able to take that useless fountain of knowledge and create my own spectacular demented light and water show.

I love to play with words and I love double meanings, so it was no surprise my very first rocker character in Louder Than Love ended up with the name of Douglas Graves. Innocent and ordinary enough…until you start to think about it. He wisely chooses to use his middle name, Adrian, and explains his dilemma to Kat, the heroine in the story:

“You can imagine the delight the lads had in taking the piss out of me in school, with a name like Doug Graves.” He continued, smirking. “Go ahead, you can laugh.”

I shook my head and declined in polite protest, but couldn’t help myself when he admitted he had married a girl named Robyn. “Ah yes, Robyn Graves. It’s true, I’m afraid.” He laughed along with me. “Half the reason she probably divorced me, in the end.”

Adrian – also known as Digger – Graves is the illustrious lead guitarist for the defunct doom metal band, Corroded Corpse. (Hell, I know I will never have the talent or the cojones to be in my own metal band, but dammit, I’m going to have fun creating ludicrous names to rival some of the most popular groups to spring from the 80s heavy metal insurgence.)

At the helm of Corroded Corpse is front man Riff Rotten, who we meet briefly in Louder Than Love, but who grows to larger-than-life, rock star proportions in my latest novel, Softer Than Steel. Born Richard Rottenberg into a wealthy, educated Jewish family, he was re-born as Riff as soon as he learned to shred on the guitar – much to his family’s dismay. In Riff’s case, I was able to put my real rock name knowledge to use, in Adrian’s explanation of how the band’s manager came up a new last name for his up-and-coming client:

“It was Wren who suggested Rick shorten his somewhat ‘ethnic’ surname to Rotten. When we moaned that it sounded like a blatant rip-off of the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten, Wren pointed out, ‘Do you really think Chaim Witz would have gotten very far leading KISS?’

In their heyday, Digger Graves and Riff Rotten were like the Lennon/McCartney of the metal world, riding the wave of 80s British Heavy Metal like conquering heroes. But due to gross mismanagement and trademark issues, the band is no longer able to use its name when they finally (spoiler alert!) reunite by the end of Louder Than Love. So they begin to play stealth shows under a new moniker, The Rotten Graves Project. It makes total sense, as where else would you find a corroded corpse? In a rotten grave, of course.

Let the band play on!
Happy Rocktober!

I have to confess that I like Rotten Graves Project better than Corroded Corpse… as Jessica says, it’s awfully similar to that early-90s thrash band, Cannibal Corpse, and man, does that interfere with one’s reading!

Here’s Jessica’s website. As always, pick up her books. Read them. Leave reviews and tell your friends. They’re good things, so don’t miss out!

Softer Than Steel Teaser

I think by now, it’s well documented that I’m a huge fan of Jessica Topper. And her books, too.

So of course I got all excited when I heard of her follow-up to Louder than Love and Deeper than Dreams. And off to NetGalley I went.

Softer Than Steel, this new one is called, bucking the cliché that keeps trapping me (yes, I keep calling it Stronger and Jessica keeps correcting me). It’s the story of Rick Rottenberg—Riff Rotten to Corroded Corpse fans—and the woman who yanks him out of grief for his first wife. Her name is Sidra and right off the bat, I have a major complaint: I never got a good fix on the age difference between the two. There was something about Sidra that struck me as being in her twenties. Rick, of course, has kids that age. And among the issues that these two have to work through—Rick’s grief, his anxiety attacks, the band, Sidra’s ties to her life, past and present, and her ambition (or lack thereof) for herself—age isn’t one of them.

So these two meet in what has to be one of the best meet cutes in fiction, and let me tell you, Topper is a genius with the meet cute. Here, Sidra holds an elevator for a panicking Rick… and it’s just too good to believe. Best of all, they are nothing to each other, irritants: he’s a hustling somebody who seems to look down his nose at her; she’s going to hit up the rock star’s generosity. Right?

The mistaken identity doesn’t last long, just long enough for an awful lot of laughter at mostly Rick’s expense. But he’s troubled enough that before long, he’s found his way to Sidra’s yoga studio, desperate for relief from the demons that have spent fourteen years torturing him. Fourteen years of mourning his first wife? Really? We know Simone was a heck of a woman—there’s a song written about her, after all—but c’mon, Rotten. Time to let it go. I’m glad he found a way because dude. Getting whiny there.

By and large, that’s the whole plot. The story is one of the two coming together, and the first third is a bit problematic because it feels like every time things start to roll, the story has to come to a screeching stop so the backstory can be filled in. Backstory, I’ve learned as an editor, is a sneaky little bastard and always hard to wield effectively. But once we get that stop-and-start over with, as Rick’s yoga practice grows, so does the mindfulness of the narration and we are allowed to exist in the present moment more and more.

Is that kismet or technique? I’m not sure, and I haven’t asked Jessica. I should because it would be an interesting technique to take apart. It doesn’t entirely work, unfortunately—because I am not a fan of stop-and-start narrative or a lot of backstory, most of which we know from having read Louder. So the story keeps stopping for us to re-learn stuff we already know.

One more thing that doesn’t work as well in this one, and that’s that I felt Jessica herself didn’t know Rick and Sidra as well as she knows Adrian and Kat, the couple from Louder Than Love. (And yes, you Adrian lovers, he and Kat have plenty of well-earned time here.) Rick and Sidra take a lot longer to come to life on the page, and that works against the story—as it always does.

I almost wish the story had started later, or been framed by a flashback, so we could see them starting from that point when they stop being characters on a page and start being people we’re sorry we don’t know in real life. But if that had happened, we’d have missed the amazing first meeting. And if I’m still raving about it, you KNOW it’s good.

Now. Some things that work really really well. We know Jessica Topper is the queen of really awesome, quirky details. I have encountered very few authors who do it as well as she does, and while it’s more subtle than in Dictatorship of the Dress, it’s there. Sidra’s yoga studio is in the back of a record store, which is also an old building that used to be a bike repair shop. This place has history and has been in the Sullivan family forever, but the best revelation is that in Sidra’s studio, there is a light that she’s been ordered to leave on. Always. Don’t even try to turn it off.

Rick, good Jew that he is, recognizes the light as the ner tamid, the eternal light that shines in every Jewish synagogue—which, when you trace the building’s history back far enough, is what it, indeed, used to be. The idea of doing yoga in what used to be a sacred space for Jews is both deliciously heretical and absolutely perfect. Yoga, after all, is a way of worshipping the self, the body, the world. And Sidra and Rick find ways to worship each other under the unblinking, always watchful eye of the ner tamid. It lends a sacredness to their love, a preciousness that you don’t want to see end.

It’s also the crux of the conflict that tries to pull the two apart, and while the solution is patently obvious and not nearly clever enough to live up to Jessica’s own standards—don’t you hate setting the bar super high?—it’s the right solution. And sometimes, that trumps it all.

Overall, this isn’t quite as good as Louder than Love, but this isn’t a bad book or one to avoid or to think of as the failure in the series. Perish those thoughts! If anything, I feel like it was a premature baby, not quite ready for prime time yet but here it is, so sit back and enjoy. And, of course, since this is all about yoga and love and things eternal, remember to breathe.

Disclaimer stuff: As stated, my copy came from NetGalley, and we all know how that works. I get copy. I read copy. I review book. End of contract. Also, thanks to GossipGirls PR for including The Rock of Pages on Jessica’s book tour. We’d love to do more Rock Fiction features like this. Thanks again!

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When Jessica Topper asked if I wanted a review copy of the next installment in Adrian and Kat’s story, begun in the most-excellent Louder Than Love, I am quite sure she could hear me scream in frustration that she hadn’t just gone ahead and sent it. Like she even needed to ask?

(Jessica has class. What can I say?)

This little novella is more like a dreamlike fairy tale than anything else. It takes place over 24 hours, maybe not even that long, and it brings the cast from Louder than Love back while introducing new characters, as well.

There’s not a huge amount of conflict here, and it’s almost entirely Kat’s internal struggle that fuels the story, even as it’s Adrian who fuels the action. He creates an amazing, dream-like fairy tale for Kat, and there’s no doubt that this man can make things happen.

The conflict lies in Kat, who worries about the future. What’s the status of Adrian and his band, whose first concert ended at the end of Louder Than Love, the echoes of which haven’t quite died as Deeper than Dreams opens? Can Adrian handle the rock and roll lifestyle again—and does he even want to? What about Kat? Is this a world she can fit into? Is she tough enough to fit in, or will the hard edges of rock and roll send her running back to her quiet life in her quiet little town? Does she even want to fit in?

What does the future hold for Kat and Adrian?

These are big questions, and they are dealt with in a very short space. Maybe too short; this novella feels more like a stolen moment in Adrian and Kat’s life than a complete work. The problem with this short length is that there’s a lot that Kat needs to uncover and come to terms with before we are convinced that the fairy tale ending’s promises will come true.

I’m not convinced, myself. Not yet. I need to see more growth in these two, more of them together handling the adversity that’s going to be thrown in their paths. There’s not a lot of character growth in a work this short; as I say to my editing clients, in a novella, something’s always gotta give. And yet, it is quite easy to write this off as a typical second installment in a trilogy—a bridge between the action-laden first and third volumes.

For the best reading experience, you’ll need to have read Louder first. Again, pretty typical for a second volume. The question is if there’s a third or not…

While we wait, you want to go back and read Louder Than Love. Otherwise, you’ll be lost as to who these people are, what their backstory is, and what’s going on.

Besides, Louder is one of my favorite books of the past few years. And now Deeper is one of my favorite novellas.

Because despite it all, we all want fairy tale days and experiences like Adrian gives Kat. We really do.

I can’t wait to read the third entry into this world. It’s not Adrian and Kat’s story, though! Stronger than Steel, it’s called, and it’s the story of one of Adrian’s bandmates. I can hardly wait; this guy’s intrigued me from the moment he stepped onto the page. And that impatience describes my need to read it. Riff, where are you, man?

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I don’t cry. I’m told it’s because of the trauma I’ve faced so far in life. Personally, I think it’s because I found a better outlet, one that doesn’t leave me with puffy, red eyes and ruined contacts.

So, yeah, I was mortified when I got to that scene in Jessica Topper’s The Dictatorship of the Dress and tears were streaming down my face. It wouldn’t have been so bad except I was sitting in a waiting room at the time. I had to put the book down and read some women’s magazine before the tears would stop.

I don’t routinely read women’s magazines.

Jessica Topper—who has become a friend of mine, our bond forged in rock and roll and its first cousin, Rock Fiction—can write. With a pointedness, a poignancy, a realness, and an honesty that takes my breath away. Which is exactly how I came to be sitting in a waiting room, bawling.

I take solace in the fact I wasn’t sobbing. I suspect if I’d been home alone, I might have been.

So. The story leading up to this point seems simple: Laney Hudson is taking her mother’s wedding dress to Hawaii. Her mother’s already there. The groom’s already there. The bridal party is already there and texting her pictures of their toes at the beach and by the pool. In short: it’s all set except for Laney and the dress.

Her mother doubts that Laney can accomplish this simple task, and in a homily to Jewish mothers everywhere, she lets Laney know it. As a result, Laney feels like the family fuck-up even though she’s had this amazing life until now. Still, she can’t see the good. Too much trauma.

I can relate.

Noah’s also got an amazing life, but he’s trapped, engaged to the boss’ daughter. He should be set for life, living the dream, and he is, but … he feels shunted aside. Something doesn’t feel right, and he’s not sure what it is. But she’s the boss’ daughter… and his life is good, right?

These two wind up sitting next to each other in an airplane bound for Chicago. Even before their connecting flights are cancelled due to a snowstorm, their situation has become like the proverbial snowball barreling down a hill.

It’s how lighthearted this novel is, despite its serious points, that makes it such a poignant read. Noah makes a nest in the Jacuzzi tub when he and Laney have to share a hotel room. Laney wears Noah’s Converse shoes when she realizes throwing away the boots with the broken heel wasn’t such a smart move.

But there’s a deep point to all this. Throwing those precious boots away when they no longer function is the start of Laney’s facing her past and the things she’s lost – and the things she can’t let go of. Noah makes due in the sort of luxury he should be enjoying properly. But maybe Noah and proper aren’t meant to be.

And then there’s the elephant in the room. Allen Burnside, the tour de force who used to oppose Laney’s mother in the battle over Laney’s soul. Allen had wanted to set her free, she was convinced of it, until he up and died, breaking their engagement before he did so because, as he said, she would make a lousy widow.

How can Noah compete? He’s Allen’s opposite… or is he? As the snowball that is the Noah and Laney Chronicles gains momentum, each layer of snow gathering on that ball is really the stripping away of layers of self-preservation, self-deception, and the growing self-awareness that lets both Laney and Noah move forward in life.

They learn, they grow, they risk it all.

I dare you not to cry.

So one question left: Topper is one of my favorite Rock Fiction authors after her amazing debut, Louder than Love. Neither Laney nor Noah are rockers… why am I even bringing up the question of Rock Fiction?

Let’s revisit Allen Burnside. Drummer for Three on a Match, one of the best band names I’ve encountered recently. It’s got a ring to it, a rhythm. Go on, say it out loud. Feel how it rolls off the tongue. It really is a shame this band doesn’t get more time on the page, but Topper’s no slouch. If there’s a story, she’ll tell it. Or she’ll answer to me.

But back to Allen Burnside. Allen, who is the ultimate rocker in that he takes over and dominates the story. There is no Laney and Noah without Allen there, overshadowing things, looming over it all. He’s pulling the puppet strings; there’s no doubt about it. So yeah, Dictatorship of the Dress becomes Rock Fiction. Rock and Roll will never die, right?


Allen’s got a friend, too. A Scary one, and he’s the reason for my tears. I’ll let you discover what that means, exactly. Keep the tissues handy, as this is one of the rawest, most poignant scenes I’ve ever read. It’s also really the penultimate scene in the book even though so much happens after it. It’s not a climax in the traditional sense of a climax in a story, and it’s good that Topper’s not afraid to push the boundaries. You could even argue that the plot’s climax happens later, but this scene is definitely The Moment for Laney on her emotional journey.

Aww, just go pick up a copy. Yes, the situation with Noah’s life is a bit too pat, but … hey, you can’t get every single element right, can you? Besides, the way he handles the fallout from the choices he makes shows real class. Laney’s mother is going to love this boy. Even his Italian side. What is it with Italians and Jews, anyway?

Pick up a copy. Keep the tissues handy and take your contacts out. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Thanks to Jessica for putting a copy aside for me. What an incredible read.

Out of the blue, Kevin R Doyle dropped into my inbox, asking if I’d review his short piece, One Helluva Gig. I was right on the tip of launching The Rock of Pages, but he was willing to wait for me to switch things over.

What a treat, to have something brand new to review – and in a timely fashion, too! – for my brand-new home of Rock Fiction.

I hope this is a sign of things to come because I absolutely adored One Helluva Gig. Kevin sent it over and, knowing I’d have time to kill while I waited for my kids, I loaded it onto my e-reader and devoured it in less than an hour, including interruptions. Jett never stood a chance with this one!

In other words: this isn’t a long read (I want to say it’s 14,000 words), but man, is it a good one.

In a nutshell, it’s the story of Frank Peters, a reporter whose career takes off when he writes a review of a band playing his college campus. The band is fronted by a charismatic guy named Rob Jeffers.

It takes a couple of years, but the two cross paths again. Again, Frank writes a review. Again, it gets noticed and he moves up the journalistic ladder, finally hitting his peak at the LA Times.

While he’s doing that, Jeffers is also climbing the ranks.

This is no fairy tale, with Jeffers riding high and Frank just so magically happening to do the same. Jeffers loses his hair and resorts to a comb-over. His waist expands beyond a middle-age spread. In a sense, there’s a feel of Elvis about his destruction, which Frank acknowledges. But there’s more, and it’s this more that sets this novella apart from so many other works of Rock Fiction.

It’s the contrast between Jeffers’ public and private personas. Author Doyle has succeeded in creating a very real private person, one who is vastly different from the person we’d like him to be. Yes, we’ve seen this person before; the scene with Frank and Jeffers during Jeffers’ birthday party isn’t new. It’s what Doyle does with it, the kinship between the two men and their acceptance of their lives that is this story’s selling point.

These two understand each other on an intuitive level. They’re men who have realized their dream, only discover it’s different from what they’d hoped for. And while that sounds depressing and pathetic, in Doyle’s hands, it’s not. It’s real, and it’s touching, and it’s the sort of thing that lingers with a girl long after she puts the e-reader down and steps back into her life, a life that somehow seems rosier and yet diminished, all at the same time.


A West of Mars Recommended Read that brings to mind Adrian in Jessica Topper’s Louder than Love, Merle in Michael Neil Smith’s The Drummer, and Darrell in Dan Schell’s The Road to Fluffer – and all for different reasons. Check it out.


One final note: Doyle says this is a departure from his regular fiction. So don’t pick up his other titles expecting more Rock Fiction. But you can — and should — expect more of the great writing and character building.

This review was originally posted at West of Mars. It is being posted here, at its new permanent home.

Everyone, it seemed, was talking about Jessica Topper’s Louder Than Love coming into Rocktober 2013. There were a lot of raves about it—along with some criticisms, as well. Those balanced reviews made it totally irresistible, and when author Topper got in touch with me, I was over the moon.

That was before I started reading, even, and I’m pleased to say the book lives up to the hype. I loved Louder than Love. Yes, the beginning is slowed by too much backstory—which I told Jessica I’d have beaten out of her if we’d worked together before she sent it to her editor (and you should have seen my face when I realized who the acquiring editor at her publisher is, too. Let’s just say she’s someone who edits some of my other friends and acquaintances, and I hold her in very high esteem).

The story is that of Katrina Lewis, a widow who’s been grieving for her husband for long, it’s become a part of her. Pete died years ago, but she’s still trying to put her life together when we meet her. She’s got a young daughter, and it’s in her quest to put together a program for this daughter—and the other kids at the library Tree volunteers with—that she meets obscure singer Adrian Graves.

Blond, tattooed, and sexy as anything, he’s also drunk when he shows up for the kiddie program, and Tree’s not really sure what she’s gotten herself into.

All’s not what it seems, and that’s the jist of the story. Adrian and Tree—Kat, he calls her—navigate her friends, his past … and finally, they reach the point where Kat has to acknowledge her past and make the overdue commitment to move forward to a new life, one without her precious Pete. Can she, or can’t she? That’s what the book ultimately hinges on.

At its heart, Louder than Love is a romance, so right there, you know how it’ll end. But what is worth mentioning—and what makes the book so darn good—is that beyond the slow, backstory-filled start, this is a fabulously crafted book. I can’t tell you how many times I set it down and thought about the structure, the pacing, the clever building of the characters.

Now, you can counter by saying Adrian’s past is hardly a shocker. Or that the only unexpected twist to the storyline is that he doesn’t relapse into heroin use. Yeah, I’d agree with both those statements.

But I’ll also argue that some of the best books work the formula in such a way that you don’t really realize you’re reading formula until you think back over what you’ve read. That’s the mark of a good writer, one who sweeps you along in the story, who creates characters who you wish were real, who makes you turn off your critical thinking skills and instead react emotionally.

I can’t wait to see more from Topper. And I have to confess that I hope her invite for me to join her at a Buffalo RWA meeting holds true. That would be one heck of a fun day, and I suspect I’d learn just as much as the people I’ve been casually asked to present to.