Book Review: Love is a Mix Tape-Life and Loss, One Song at a Time

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Just what is love? Philosophers, poets and song writers have been asking that question since the beginning of time. To music journalist Rob Sheffield, love is a mix tape. The author has chronicled the cross section of music and love in debut book called Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time.

Long before people downloaded music into their smart phones or other hand-held listening devices with their favorite music, they made mix tapes. Mix tapes were very personal. Not only did they reveal some of our favorite songs, they also revealed our hopes, desires and thoughts. Mix tapes were therapy on a magnetic strip.

Rob Sheffield is no different from every music obsessed Generation X-er. A total music geek, he found solace and a reason for being through his love of music. Starting as a young child, he DJ-ed at school dances, collected albums and tapes like baseball cards and debated the merits of different bands with his friends.

In the late 1980s, Sheffield met Renee. Renee couldn’t have been more different from Rob. He was tall; she was short. He was a shy geek from Boston. Renee was an extroverted Southerner. The only thing these two seemed to have in common was an intense love of music, and it seemed music was all they needed. The two soon fell in love and were married until Renee’s untimely death from a pulmonary embolism at the age of 31.

Sheffield deftly writes about his all too brief marriage to Renee and he does this with a catalog of different mix tapes he made. Each chapter starts with a different mix tape, complete with the names of songs and artists. Some tapes are for making out, some for dancing and some for falling asleep. Sheffield proves to be no music snob, mixing top-40 guilty pleasure pop with the alternative music of the 1980s and 1990s. Each lovingly crafted mix tape conveys an intricate detail of the sometimes loving, sometimes rocky, and all-too-human relationship between two very interesting and complex souls.

Love is a Mix Tape had me riveted. Sheffield is an amazing writer, handling his love of music and his love of Renee with tender loving care. He gives an intimate glimpse into his marriage without revealing too many intimate details. The marriage of Rob and Renee is never conveyed in a way that is too saccharine or maudlin. These are two very real people who seemed to leap off the page. Often when men write about the women in their lives they do it more as a reflection of their own egos rather than writing about these women as three-dimensional human beings. Sheffield does not fall into this trap. I really felt I knew Renee. In fact, I wish I knew Renee. She was an Appalachian Auntie Mame who told her husband to “Live, live, live!” and tells the reader to do the same.

And even though I began reading Love is a Mix Tape knowing of Renee’s death, I was still very shocked when it happened. How could this ebullient soul not be cavorting somewhere on the planet? And Sheffield’s grief was so palpable I felt a dull ache in my heart as he described existing as a young widower.

I highly recommend Love is Mix Tape to anyone who considers music as vital as breathing and knows only too well the ecstasy and heartbreak true love can bring. Rob Sheffield has written an amazing book. I hope he has more books in him.

To learn more about Rob’s affiliation to write about love and music please check out my review of his book Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke.

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Book Review: Mom, Have You Seen My Leather Pants? The Tale of a Teen Rock Wannabe Who Almost Was by Craig A. Williams

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Many a teen boy has dreamed of strapping on an electric guitar, joining a band, playing to cheering crowds, getting it on with groupies and achieving both fame and fortune. For most of them, this is just a dream. But for Craig A. Williams, this dream was nearly a reality, and he documents his experiences in his book, Mom, Have You Seen My Leather Pants?

While still in his teens, Williams played lead guitar in an LA-based heavy metal band, Onyxx (later, Onyxxx). Originally called Onyx, the band added the extra xx-s to avoid copyright infringement due to a hip-hop group also named Onyx. And perhaps because their band was just too much rock for one measly X. Managed by a Loni Anderson look-alike, Onyxxx journeyed from small school gigs to the hottest clubs on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip.

Williams first embraced his musical dreams when he wrote a song using his Casio keyboard. The seeds of musical greatness were sown, but Williams knew making music on a Casio keyboard was too dorky for words, so he picked up an electric guitar. Soon he joined forces with some high school chums — lead singer Tyler, bassist Sunil and drummer Kyle — and formed Onyxxx.

Laying the groundwork for rock and roll stardom, Onyxxx went from playing for their classmates in suburban LA to less than enthusiastic audiences at seedy dives. Despite these humble beginnings, Onyxxx’s manager believed they could make it big, and be the New Kids on the Block of glam heavy metal. It was the pre-grunge days where Guns ‘n Roses, Poison and Motley Crue were MTV staples. Before long Onyxxx were playing shows at such notable venues like the Troubadour and the Roxy. Their shows garnered them a sizable fan-base, including some very willing groupies. Williams thought he had reached the pinnacle of rock and roll paradise when he autographed a girl’s breast for the very first time.

But like lots of other rock bands on the verge of fame, Onyxxx had to deal with their share of problems. Tyler, though a charismatic frontman, was often a total jerk to those who crossed his path. Sunil was frequently bullied due to his East Indian heritage. And despite being a drummer, Kyle didn’t have the best sense of rhythm. Onyxxx also dealt with trials familiar to anyone who has seen at least one episode of VH-1′s “Behind the Music,” including rampant drug use, unsavory club managers, psycho fans and fighting among band members.

But Williams had other issues that probably weren’t bothering Axl Rose or Tommy Lee at the time: the life of a teenaged boy. When he wasn’t rockin’ out on-stage, Williams argued with his parents about doing his chores and his homework, studied for exams, and tried to maneuver the halls of his high school. Williams lived in two very different worlds, which kind of made him the Hannah Montana of glam heavy metal (egad, remember a time when Miley Cyrus was known as Hannah Montana and not a girl who uses a foam finger the way the inventor never intended?).

Sadly, Onyxxx was not meant to be. Even without the drug use, mismanagement and squabbles among the band members, glam heavy metal was about to be toppled by flannel-clad grunge bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots. By their senior year, Onyxxx was on the verge of breaking up. They were also on the verge of adulthood, which included college, jobs and other not exactly glamorous responsibilities.

Onyxxx’s loss is our gain. Williams proves himself to be an entertaining writer. He is able to look at his rock and roll past with both insight and humor. He’s self-deprecating and at the same time he is truly proud of almost grabbing the brass ring of stardom. Any rock fan who treasures his or her copy of Appetite for Destruction will get misty-eyed over days gone by. And kids who think of Bret Michaels as a reality TV star, not the lead singer of Poison, will be able to relate to a teenage Williams’ desire for freedom and fun. Williams is a fresh new voice, and has written a very honest book about the music industry. Mom, Have You Seen My Leather Pants? is a head bangin’ good time.

Retro Review: Slaves of New York by Tama Janowitz

slaves-of-new-yorkHas it really been thirty years since Tama Janowitz’s collection of short stories Slaves of New York was released? I read it a several years after its initial release, and to me, a young girl who grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, Slaves of New York and Janowitz just defined the Big Apple to me, the way her WASPy peers Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney and their literary offerings never did. But then again, as a dorky, most definitely non-WASPy kind of girl, this shouldn’t surprise me.

Imagine a Pre-Guiliani New York of the 1980s. This was before Times Square was completely cleaned-up and Disney-fied, Donald Trump was just a loud and tacky business man, not the GOP candidate for president (yes, a much kinder, simpler time), “greed is good” was the mantra of every yuppie sporting slicked back hair and suspenders, the World Trade Center defined the Manhattan skyline and “Sex and The City” and “Girls” weren’t notions in the heads of Sarah Jessica Parker and Lena Dunham.

Slaves of New York is a collection of intermingled stories of struggling and hustling painters, designers, performance artists, writers, and other creative types. One creative type we meet is Eleanor who is in her late twenties and trying to make it as a jewelry designer. She lives with her boyfriend, Stash, who is a graffiti artist, temperamental and only fleetingly devoted to Eleanor, sometimes going for days without speaking to her for some minor infraction on her part.

As a jewelry designer, Eleanor feels she is a failure and is frustrated by her lack of artistic and professional success. Furthermore, she desires more of a commitment from Stash, marriage, but that is isn’t about to happen any time soon.

And even though Eleanor knows she should fully break free from Stash, find someone better and concentrate more on her jewelry designs she doesn’t. Her relationship with Stash isn’t just about love; it’s also about having a place to live. Eleanor can’t afford to pay rent all on her own; yes, the rent is too damn high!

Another slave of New York is Marley Mantello, the protagonist of five of Janowitz’s tales. Marley fashions himself of a genius painter, on the verge of being the “next big thing.” What he lacks in actual talent and skill, he makes up in sheer bravado and being a legend in his own mind. He pays no mind to those who merely orbit his universe. Yes, Marley is unbelievably obnoxious and best to be ignored if one runs into him. But there are times when tragedy befalls him, and he shows a true humanity that makes you feel a smidge of compassion, like when his sister commits suicide.

Other stories between the covers of Slaves of New York include a man who claims to be rich and takes unsuspecting women “jewelry shopping “at Tiffany’s. Why he does this, he can’t quite explain. Maybe it’s just easier to pose as an eccentric man of considerable means, rather actually be the poor guy he actually is.

Other tales told include one of man, Victor, who suffers from a cocktail of ailments, neuroses and acid reflux being just a couple of them. Cora gets involved with Ray, not for love, but through him she can a cop a decent meal now and then and some free furniture for her new apartment. She should feel guilty, especially considering she’s graduate student of women’ studies; but hey, she’s just trying to survive. And in another tale, a spoiled, rich girl, after getting expelled from college and enduring a brief marriage, dabbles in prostitution and heroin (haven’t we all?).

But for me, Slaves of New York, is Eleanor’s story. Like me, Eleanor is from a small town, both befuddled and in wonderment the city and all it has to offer. She’s desperate to fit into the artistic, creative, madcap world that surrounds her, but finds herself coming up short. She’s such a naïve lass that she doesn’t realize a fashion designer she has coffee with is gay, which reminded me how shocked I was the first time I saw two guys making out at a party even though I had no problem with gay people. And I can only imagine the look on my face when I saw some ladies snorting coke in at a dance club bathroom; I’d seen Scarface on cable, for goodness sake! And aside to my mother, I have never done coke, okay?

We now live in very different time that existed in 1986. Business moguls are now rock stars, and rock stars aspire to be moguls. Google is a verb, people don’t want to be artists, but instead they want to be brands, and we let our social media define us. Yet, Eleanor’s tale is eternal. We want to be independent, desire success, express ourselves in a creative matter, and still want the stability and security we think only a marriage will offer. Sure, at times Slaves of New York is sentimental, dated read, but I still found it entertaining and can still relate to Janowitz’s debut.

 

Book Review: The Importance of Music to Girls by Lavinia Greenlaw

the importance of music to girlsMusic. It’s a life force for so many people. Music forms our ideas, passions and opinions. A song on the radio makes us recall a distinct moment in our lives. A song can inspire us to change ourselves or change the world. A song is there when we fall in love or when our hearts our broken. Music is so much more than “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.”

But when music is discussed in these terms, it’s usually done by the boys. Nick Hornby and Chuck Klosterman can obsess over bands, discuss guitar solos and argue over the importance of lyrics. Girls gossip over the cuteness of the band members or service roadies in hope to meet their favorite musicians. They shake their barely-clad butts in videos. If they are lucky, they might inspire a song. When it comes to music, girls have to fit very narrow stereotypes-groupie, muse or slut.

But British poet Lavinia Greenlaw knows girls and music add up to a lot more, and she tries to explain this in her memoir The Importance of Music to Girls.

In The Importance of Music to Girls, Greenlaw captures what music meant to her as a young girl in 56 brief essays. Greenlaw, who came of age in 1970s Britain, uses the soundtrack of pop, disco and punk to describe the sometimes mortifying and often thrilling act of growing from girl to woman.

The Importance of Music to Girls starts with the vague memories of early childhood. Music comes in bits and pieces-her mom singing folk songs, learning how to play piano and classical music filling the family home. But Greenlaw ached for a different type of music.

This music came to her once she got older. Like lots a young girls, she squealed and got crushes on baby-faced pop idols like Donny Osmond, hanging posters of Donny and his toothy grin on her bedroom walls. Any young woman who felt the same way over other teen idols whether they be David Cassidy, Duran Duran, New Kids on the Block or (someday) One Direction will nod their heads in recognition.

When she wasn’t pinning posters of pop stars on her walls, Greenlaw was attending local youth discos, watching the iconic music show Top of the Pops on TV and trying to maneuver the tricky world of the opposite sex. Despite the fun of dancing and dressing up in her finest, Greenlaw felt awkward, like she didn’t fit in.

Fortunately, she discovered punk. Punk’s promise of rebellion liberated Greenlaw. She wore garbage bags in a declaration of anti-fashion and dyed many of her clothes pitch black. She spiked her hair and put on bondage pants. Suddenly, Greenlaw felt free from the shackles of acceptable femininity. She writes, “Punk had nothing to do with being a girl. It neutralized, rejected and released me. I made myself strange because I felt strange and now I had something to belong to, for which my isolation and oddness were credentials.”

Punk was more than just a pose; it was the music that truly spoke to Greenlaw. And the songs of the Sex Pistols and Joy Division became a part of her DNA. Punk was more than music; it completely altered her life and her sense of aesthetics. Greenlaw found herself dissecting lyrics and taking passionate positions on different bands.

However, punk didn’t mean girls had become truly liberated. Greenlaw wanted her ideas on music to be taken seriously. She wanted to discuss music on the same level as the boys. But the boys just wanted to make out and take off her clothes. And often her obsession with punk was off-putting to her peers who just considered music a good time and nothing more. Still, it was punk that gave her life meaning.

Despite Greenlaw’s teenage allegiance to the brashness of punk, her writing is muted. It takes a while for The Importance of Music to Girls to gain steam. The early chapters seem to be barely- focused, perhaps this is due to Greenlaw’s young age at the time. Who has exact clarity as a three-year-old? However, once the book arrives at Greenlaw’s early adolescence, it becomes more gripping. Greenlaw’s descriptions of smoky, sweaty discos, the acidic pink and yellow cover of the Sex Pistol’s album Never Mind the Bollocks and the roving hands of pimply teen boys are written with poetic explicitness. And youthful diary entries and school reports give the reader a sympathetic look at a teenage Greenlaw. Who can’t relate to embarrassing scribblings in a diary or less than flattering comments from a teacher?

If I have one problem with the book, it’s the title. The Importance of Music to Girls is too broad of a title for one young women’s experience in the trenches of pop, disco and punk. A book about the importance of music to girls of all generations, races, experiences and favorite musical styles still needs to be written. But fortunately, we have Lavinia Greenlaw to show us that music to one girl was very important indeed.

 

Book Reviews: Cassette from My Ex-Stories and Soundtracks of Lost Loves edited by Jason Bitner

cassetteI recently saw a news piece on how cassette tapes are making a bit of a comeback and are quite popular amongst music lovers. And not only are they popular with nostalgic with Generation X, who have fond memories of creating their own cassette tapes. They are also gaining popularity amongst teens and twenty-somethings. Inspired by this new found tidbit, I just had to post the following review I published for an old blog of mine.

Co-creator of Found magazine Jason Bitner was cleaning out his basement when he came across a mix tape from an old girlfriend. Intrigued by this musical part of his past, he created a blog and asked some of his friends to submit stories about the mix tapes they received from former boyfriends and girlfriends. Now he has gathered around 60 of these stories and published them in Cassette from My Ex: Stories and Soundtracks of Lost Loves.

Long before we burned CDs and way before we downloaded songs into our iPods, people made mix tapes. We used these lovingly-crafted compilations to express our feelings or just to show off our musical taste. And though iPods are convenient, mix tapes had a human quality that mp3 players lack. Perhaps, it was the warm hiss a cassette made when it was played in a boom box, or the handwritten labels that adorned them. Either way, the essays truly convey how much these simple tapes meant to the writers.

You’re probably already familiar with book’s essayists that include Maxim‘s editor- in-chief Joe Levy, Bust magazine managing editor Emily Rems and Claudia Gonson of the Magnetic Fields, all contributed. Former Rolling Stone writer Jancee Dunn is also included and music journalist Rob Sheffield (who wrote the ultimate musical memoir with “Love Is a Mix Tape”) has also written an essay.

Stories run the gamut from funny to heartbreaking and everything in between. Arthur Jones has difficulty getting it on with his girlfriend because her music of choice was Pearl Jam at the time. Nina Katchadourian remembers a tape she got from a boyfriend while she spent a summer in France. Rick Moody and Stacey Richter share their memories of their cassettes via letters to each other. Anne Jensen finds out she is the receiver of a hand-me-down tape. And sadly, Starlee Kline’s old mix tape brings up memories of her college boyfriend who got cancer.

Interspersed throughout Cassette from My Ex are a few tidbits about making mix tapes. One segment tells us about the types of mixes people traded and the “dos” and “don’ts” to making a mix tape. Do use your own music collection. But don’t forget the track listing. Not everyone is psychic and is going to know every song you include on a tape.

I do have a few reservations about this book. The demographics of the writers are mostly white, college-educated and middle to upper-middle class. There is plenty of talk of traveling throughout Europe and exotic locations. Also, a majority of the writers work in creative fields-media, film, design, etc. I think it would have been interesting to read stories by people who didn’t go to college or who have more working class backgrounds. And as much as I adore creative people, accountants, police officers and nurses also love music. And I bet a lot of them can write, too.

But for the most part, this was a great read. In fact, I got so nostalgic that I dug through some of my old cassettes and played a few of my own mixes. I often refrained from making tapes for the guys I dated; far too many of them looked down on my musical taste. So I made them for my girlfriends instead, usually when they suffered a bad break-up. Somehow, I’ve always been able to find the right songs to go with heartbreak.

If you’re looking for a way to travel down a musical memory lane, you can’t go wrong with Cassette from my Ex.

Shelf Discovery-The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading by Lizzie Skurnick

shelf discovery“We Must, We Must, We Must Increase Our Bust”

In her “Fine Lines” column on the website Jezebel, Lizzie Skurnick re-read many of the novels she loved as a young girl, looking at them through the eyes of an adult. Now many of these (somewhat altered) essays are in book form in Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. Ms. Skurnick is no stranger to young adult books. Not only is she a reader but she’s also a writer of some of the Sweet Valley High books. She also brings along writers like Meg Cabot, Jennifer Weiner and Cecily von Ziegesar for the ride down memory lane.

Shelf Discovery does not cover the books we had to read for school, books by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eyre and Austen. No, this book covers the books that weren’t on any teacher-approved reading list. These are the books that kept us up long after our bed time or the books we hid behind our text books during social studies. These are the books we loaned to our friends only to get them back with tattered covers and dog-eared pages. Well, at least this happened to me when I loaned my copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by uber-goddess Judy Blume to all my friends in Miss Wilson’s fifth grade class.

Not surprisingly, Judy Blume’s books are reviewed in Shelf Discovery as are the Little House books. Skurnick also takes a look back at books like A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene, The Cat Ate My Gym Suit by Paula Danziger and I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier. Shelf Discovery covers books that were considered too old for us but we read them anyway like Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear and VC Andrew’s My Sweet Audrina. And books that I thought only I had read like To All My Fans With Love, From Sylvie by Ellen Conford and To Take a Dare by Paul Zindel and Crescent Dragonwagon are also covered.

These essays are thoughtful, reflective and funny, and brought back a lot of memories. Not only of reading these books, but also how they made me feel and how they inspired talk among my gaggle of girlfriends. I loved reading the Little House books, feeling some cheesehead pride because Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in Wisconsin. And I was quite comforted to know I wasn’t only the one who found Laura’s sister Mary an insufferable prissy-pants though I never went as far as to call her a “fucking bitch” like Skurnick does.

And where would we be without Judy Blume? Sure, some people want to ban her books, but to most of us, we loved Judy Blume because she introduced us to characters we could actually relate to. These were characters who experienced divorce or the death of a parent. They dealt with sexism, favored siblings and peer pressue. They questioned religion. They also dealt with the difficulties of growing up, physically, mentally and emotionally. Blume did not hesitate to make her main characters somewhat unlikable such as the protagonist in Blubber, Jill, who bullies Linda for being fat. And then there was Tony from Then Again, Maybe I Won’t who spied on his friend’s hot sister with his binoculars. What a perv!!!

Long before Gossip Girl, the books covered in Shelf Discovery introduced us to the world of S.E.X! Forever proved a girl could have sex and not get pregnant the first time or become a raving lunatic. It also kept generations of women from naming their male offspring Ralph. Wifey totally had a dirty mind. Flowers in the Attic introduced us the idea of brother/sister sex long before the Jerry Springer Show. And Katy Perry may have thought she was so lesbian chic when she sang, “I Kissed a Girl” but Jaret and Peggy were getting it on thirty years earlier in Sandra Scoppetone’s Happy Endings Are All Alike.

I’m not familiar with all of the books featured in Shelf-Discovery, but many of you might be. And I’m also not a fan of some of the books I did read. I wanted to fling Go Ask Alice across my teen-age bedroom. Even back then I knew it was a load of shite, and Go Ask Alice, which was allegedly based on the real diary of a teen girl messed up on drugs, was debunked several years ago.

I was also amazed to find out that many of the books we enjoyed as kids are now being enjoyed by today’s kids. Sure, kids have their Harry Potter and their Twilight books, but Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret also resonates with them. While visiting Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, Meg Cabot sheepishly tells the girls she is re-reading the Judy Blume classic. She expected blank stares from the students, but instead she got thunderous applause and cheers. Even though these girls live half a world away from suburban New Jersey, they totally adore Margaret. I still adore Margaret.

Reading Shelf Discovery reminded me why books always meant so much to me growing up (and still do). How fun was Sally J Freedman? And was I the only one who though Rosemary from Sister of the Bride was way too young to get married? But at least my mom and dad never sent me off to boarding school to die like the awful parents in The Grounding of Group 6. If you’re looking for a literary walk down memory lane and more than “seven minutes in heaven” you can’t go wrong with Shelf Discovery.

Book Reviews: Don’t You Forget About Me by Jancee Dunn

25153512Former staff writer for Rolling Stone and author of the rock and roll memoir, But Enough About Me, Jancee Dunn has turned her considerable writing talents to fiction, and the result is the poignant and endearing novel, Don’t You Forget About Me.

Don’t You Forget About Me is about Lillian Curtis. At 38, Lillian seems to a have a pretty good life. She works as a producer of the talk show Tell Me Everything! featuring old Hollywood star, Vivian Barbour. Lillian lives in New York City with her husband, and though their marriage is no longer passionate, Lillian is content. However, her husband feels differently. He wants a divorce. Not surprisingly, Lillian is completely shocked.

Vivian (who I saw as a combination of Auntie Mame and Betty White) convinces Lillian to take a sabbatical from producing the show. And Lillian ends up going home to New Jersey where her parents welcome her back. Back in her old bedroom, surrounded by posters of Duran Duran and Squeeze, Lillian has no idea where her marriage went wrong and wonders what to do next.

Then she receives an invitation to her 20th year high school reunion. This brings up a flood of memories, which include her ex-boyfriend Christian Somers. Lillian becomes obsessed with Christian, replaying their high school romance from first kiss to break up in her mind. She wonders what he’s up to, if he’ll remember her and if he still thinks about her the way she still thinks about him.

Though she’s closing in on forty, Lillian begins to relive her teen years. She listens to old mix tapes, reads faded notes sent in her classes (remember this was before text messaging) and re-connects with her old high school chums. One of these friends includes Dawn, a girl Lillian viciously betrayed when she became part of the popular crowd. And even though it’s been twenty years since graduation, Dawn isn’t so willing to forgive and forget.

Feeling like a big loser in her thirties, Lillian believes high school glory will make her feel much better. But she soon realizes the “best years” of her life weren’t really that great and there is a reason why we call the past, the past. And there is also a reason why our ex-boyfriends are our ex-boyfriends. Lillian knows she has to move forward with her life

Don’t You Forget Me is written in an engaging style that immediately grabs you. Lillian is a character that most of us can relate to even if you didn’t graduate during the era of acid wash jeans and big hair. Lillian can be frustrating, but at the same time you totally root for her. Don’t You Forget Me is a fun read with characters that stayed with me after I read the last sentence. If you’re looking for an entertaining summer read that won’t make you lose brain cells, pick up Don’t You Forget About Me.