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Category: Beatles fiction

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.

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

Somewhere in the middle of Beatlebone (AMZ) the author squeezes in an interlude which explains the research that went into authenticating John Lennon’s voice for this story, and the history behind Dorinish Island as once owned by the singer. Once you get to this part of the book you may think one of two things: 1) Uh, shouldn’t something like this appear at the tail end of the story, like an Afterword?, or 2) Oh, thank God.

This is not to say the prose of Beatlebone will leave your eyes crossed. It’s a uniquely told, stream of conscious narrative married with rapid exchanges of dialogue, and given the focus of the book it’s an appropriate presentation. I think that Barry’s interlude in the middle works because it’s unexpected, much like the things John experiences in this story, and perhaps unconsciously Barry tipped toward a similar “intermission” gag in the movie Help!

So it’s 1978. Lennon hasn’t cut a record of original material in about four years. He has a toddler at home and an island on the Western coast of Ireland, bought in the late 60s. He gets the idea if he spends a few days on this deserted floating rock and employs some Primal Scream therapy and chain smoking he’ll rejuvenate his creativity. Getting there, though, is half the battle, most of the headache, and all over a trip more surreal than the back-masking on “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Seems some of the locals are in no hurry to help John get to where he wants to go. In his de facto guide Cornelius, John find camaraderie and irritation in the same package. Cornelius wants to feed John blood pudding (not on a macrobiotic’s menu) and drag him to a pub and help him dodge the press with a quick hideout in a hotel full of “ranters.”

John just wants to get to the “fucken” island. What happens from there, a lost “album” spilling from John’s mind like coming down from a magnificent high, is at once lyrical and bizarre. Makes you want to go back and find In His Own Write and Spaniard in the Works to see how they compare.

Barry writes in his interlude how he sees most Lennon-centric fiction as “character assassinations.” It’s easier to do when your subject can’t speak up, but Beatlebone aims for an introspective John who doesn’t treat everybody like crap. If you’re looking for a more traditional narrative this book might drive you nuts, but it’s worth the read if you can hold on.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively did get to cross Abbey Road, but doesn’t Scream.

Snodgrass and Other Illusions by Ian R. MacLeod

Snodgrass and Other Illusions by Ian R. MacLeod

I found Snodgrass and Other Illusions (AMZ / BN / KOBO / ITUNES) by accident. I had a credit to redeem for a free book on [defunct ebook site], and Open Road Media is one of the major publishers that accepts it. I’ve purchased a number of reprints from the house, and when this purple floating mirage of cartoon Lennon appeared on my screen I bit. This is a collection of stories from acclaimed author MacLeod, speculative and science fiction, yet Snodgrass is presented at the forefront not necessarily because of the Beatles link, but due to a recent UK television adaptation. For this review, as we’re a rock and roll book blog, I’m only reviewing this story.

Despite my trigger Buy Now finger, I remain wary of Beatles fiction. I’ve read some interesting takes and I’ve seen some shit. With the exception of John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe, everything I’ve read stays within the boundaries of band history. Some have classified Snodgrass as science fiction, but it’s more alternative history. It’s a What If that has a middle-aged Lennon – having missed the acorn planting, war is over if you want it phase – living hand to mouth in Birmingham. Cynthia and Julian exist, but you only hear of them in passing as John left them long ago. Them and the band. In this timeline, creative differences prompt John to quit The Beatles on the cusp of their international breakthrough. In 1990, Lennon can barely buy smokes and The Fabs have plugged along for decades, presumably with no Lennon versus McCartney tension to inspire a break-up.

It’s a bleak story, and after reading I still can’t decide who is worse off in this speculation: John for having left the band in 1962, or The Beatles for maintaining commercial popularity yet not achieving that level of influence that other bands can’t touch. Lennon comes off as grouchy and sardonic, a shell of the younger man whose dark sense of humor is legend.

I liked the story – it’s definitely one of the better Beatles fictions I’ve read. I’m slowly working through the rest of the book to see how other stories compare.

Rating: B