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Once There Was a Way: What if The Beatles Stayed Together? by Bryce Zabel

Once There Was a Way: What if The Beatles Stayed Together? by Bryce Zabel

Buy Once There Was A Way at Amazon.

Read author Zabel’s biography on Goodreads, and you’ll find an impressive resume steeped in sci-fi and speculative fiction, and it’s not limited to book format. Once There Was A Way is an alternative history, and while it is a work of fiction I hesitate to call it a novel. It’s not a narrative in the traditional sense, like previous Beatle-related fiction reviewed here. Ian R. MacLeod’s Snodgrass stands out in my mind because it also asks “what if?” That story followed John Lennon in a life of near squalor, having left The Beatles before reaching any level of international fame. Once offers not just a “what if” but “what could have been.”

The book begins in 1968 at the dawn of the Apple age, with John and Paul about to announce its genesis on The Tonight Show. Immediately the trajectory veers from actual history. Reality shows (or it would, if the full footage still existed) John and Paul had to settle that night for a substitute host, Joe Garagiola. Book John and Book Paul have enough sense to hold out for the real thing, and Carson jumps.

From there we’re treated to a story laid out in lengthy Behind The Music style as The Beatles flirt with divorce but ultimately agree to probationary periods of togetherness for the sake of keeping Apple viable and solvent. They agree to completing film and album commitments, yet take turns gazing longingly at the exit. Unlike bands that stay together for the paycheck despite passing their prime, The Beatles continue to spin gold.

Zabel threads in non-events ingrained in band lore (the invitation to Woodstock, the Lord of the Rings adaptation) and makes them happen. As the band’s life span lengthens, so some of the individual achievements in song become those of the group. Some moments in the story seem almost too far-fetched and Forrest Gump, even for speculative fiction, but as escapism it inspires a smile.

My big issue with the book was the style. Once I realized I didn’t have a straight narrative story I felt apprehensive about following through. The strength of Once There Was A Way comes in the characters. If you’re big on The Beatles you’re more likely to enjoy this than a non-fan. After getting through the initial chapter about The Tonight Show, I found my groove and finished this with good speed.

As for how long The Beatles remain together in this book, and who survives to the end, I won’t spoil it. I will say Zabel’s ending probably reflects the feelings of a number of fans who had hoped for more after 1970.

An ARC from Netgalley was received from the publisher for the purpose of this review.

Rating: B-

Kathryn Lively is looking for her next book to read.

The John Lennon Letters by Hunter Davies, ed.

The John Lennon Letters by Hunter Davies, ed.

I was fortunate enough to be in New York City when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame annex was still open and promoting their exhibit on John Lennon’s years in the city. Like the mother museum in Cleveland, the annex also forbade photography so I’m unable to share images other than what I can describe. One display that particularly struck me was a collection of John and Yoko’s writings. As my companion and I studied the entire case I noted with interest the snippets of Yoko’s short, instructive poetry. “Would you look at that,” I told my friend, “Yoko invented Twitter.”

I’ve also read somewhere, and perhaps Yoko said it, that were John alive today he would have embraced social media and made frequent use of it. We can only imagine (sorry) a verified Twitter account for John or a Facebook page he might use as a soapbox for political and social commentary. Maybe, too, like George Takei he’d push the occasional funny LOL Cat picture, having had a fondness for felines toward the end of his life. It would be fun to follow him, but after having gone through The John Lennon Letters one has to wonder how much we have lost since the social media boom. A co-worker recently complained that one problem with smart phones and the rise of texting and photo sharing is that this growing activity nurtures a society of people who won’t look each other in the eye. One could argue that a society that accepts information in 140 character increments may one day lose appreciation for the art of the letter, and conversation. This collection of Lennon’s correspondence does more than offer the fan a more complete picture of the Beatle and activist, but reintroduces us through Lennon a fading culture.

Within this thick book you’ll find an impressive collection of written history from Lennon’s point of view: everything from memos to doodles, and postcards and short notes to more thoughtful letters. Many are personal and many are professional – if you have read earlier bios of Lennon and the Beatles, you may have seen some before. A few that strike out in memory include Lennon’s early love letters to girlfriend/wife Cynthia Powell and a few scathing missives to Paul McCartney post-breakup.

Editor Davies, also a Beatles biographer and acquaintance of Lennon’s, includes with each entry what information he could find behind each entry. While perhaps not a complete collection, Davies gives us the full spectrum of Lennon era, from youth to middle age. Reading some of these letters will reintroduce you to Lennon’s quirky sense of humor while also showing a compassionate side other biographers don’t always showcase so well. Just when you think you’ve read everything about Lennon, too, a newer book tends to offer a surprise or two. Without going into detail, I will add I found especially interesting what Lennon had predicted about his older son, Julian, as well as a sense of loyalty to his mother’s relatives, with whom he corresponded when possible.

The John Lennon Letters has the look and feel of a coffee table book – you could probably jump back and forth reading the letters and notes, but reading all the way through creates a more rounded picture of Lennon by Lennon. If you are mostly a digital reader now, as I am, you’ll find the price for hardcover well worth the investment.

Rating: A

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and book blogger.

Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney by Howard Sounes

Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney by Howard Sounes

As I look back on all the Beatle-related books I have read over the years, I’m a bit shocked to find I tend to gravitate either toward books on theory and band history, or books solely about John. I know this can’t be attributed to a lack of material on the other three Beatles – surely there are as many biographies on Paul available now, and recently I learned of a new George bio due later this year. I suppose I’ve resisted all this time to read a Paul bio, at the very least, because he’s still kicking and apparently making news…therefore his story is far from over. As it is, I already have a backlist of just Beatles-related books to read, though the pile is shrinking. Paul is Undead, a zombie fantasy picked up out of sheer curiosity – however – has unfortunately been transferred to the DNF pile for now. My dissatisfaction with that book encouraged this most recent dive into non-fiction and an oft-heard story.

I chose Fab mainly for its length (an impressive 650+ pages in hardcover, which amounted to well over 900 in the eBook version I obtained) and its recent publication, this version in October of 2010. One won’t find the McCartney stamp of approval as given to the authorized tribute by Barry Miles, Many Years From Now, but the latter book misses out on the last decade of McCartney’s life – when his ill-fated second marriage provided the stuff of pre-Twitter tabloid dreams. Fab is rather exhaustive, chronicling an impressive life from McCartney’s birth to Jim and Mary in Liverpool, through the Beatle years and the flight of Wings and a predominantly happy and rural-toned marriage to Linda Eastman, finishing with his more recent and rejuvenated touring career and relationship with Nancy Shevell (their engagement was only announced this past spring).

It is the post-Beatles years that interested me most here. I wouldn’t exactly say that I followed Paul to Wings – I own Wingspan and a few solo McCartney albums – but the second phase of Paul’s career is no less fascinating, especially when you consider how it mirrors that of his friend and musical rival, John Lennon. Each sought to prove himself a superior songwriter on his own, even if unconsciously, and both incorporated their spouses into their business. Having gone through grade school at the height of Wings’ presence, I didn’t question Linda McCartney’s talents or lack thereof, though Sounes in Fab almost takes pleasure in pointing out her shortcomings as a musician as well as other personal faults. Opinion on Linda runs hot and cold here, with interviewees referring to her as either a bitch or a saint. The question of who pursued whom is also called into question: where Peter Brown’s The Love You Make affirms Linda as the aggressor in forging a relationship, Fab doesn’t commit one way or the other. It’s interesting to note, though, that Fab covers quite a bit of Paul’s romantic relationships, including an on/off fling with actress Peggy Lipton that even the authoritative Wikipedia doesn’t list.

In fact, you’ll find more personal than professional history in this book, which is peppered with stories of McCartney’s generosity toward friends and family (albeit at times reluctant, done more perhaps out of a sense of duty) and juicy Heather Mills gossip. One might suspect author Sounes writes with a thread of jealousy for his subject.

Reading Fab, you get the impression that the author is only a marginal admirer of McCartney, or else a jaded Beatles fan set out to prove that everything McCartney accomplished since pales greatly in comparison. The author comes off as highly opinionated with regards to which of McCartney’s compositions and projects are sublime and which are marginal at best, and interestingly enough omits notice of many of the musician’s honors awarded during and after the Beatles. You won’t hear about the Beatles’ Oscar for Let it Be, or McCartney’s two subsequent Best Song nominations for “Live and Let Die” and “Vanilla Sky,” nor any of his band or solo Grammy wins. In the author’s defense, though, two of McCartney’s more notable achievements – the Gershwin Prize and the Kennedy Center Honors – were awarded after publication.

Still, while Fab may be mainly factual, it doesn’t read as an objective piece. A song is mentioned, and the author delivers an off-handed comment about how lousy it was, or how this album wasn’t good, etc. While I don’t expect McCartney to have lived as a saint, the author appears to have taken great care to highlight moments where McCartney most visibly acted like an ass. Fab isn’t necessarily a character assassination piece, and while it need not read like a gushing love letter it seems as though the author put too much personal emotion into the work.

If you believe Macca can do no wrong, you’re probably not going to like this book. I expect a thorough biography to pull up the occasional scab, but there are moments in Fab where the author appears to take great pleasure in doing so. It’s off-putting, and given McCartney’s life and body of work, it is deserving of a more objective presentation.

Rating: C-

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author whose titles include Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop.