Timy reviews Songs in Ursa Major, Emma Brodie‘s debut Historical Fiction/Romance novel, published by HarperCollins on June 24, 2021.
An eARC was provided by the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange of an honest review. Thank you for the opportunity!
|Series: stand alone||Genre: Romance, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction|
|Date of Publishing: June 22, 2021||Trigger Warnings: Drugs, mental illness|
|Page count: 336||Publisher: HarperCollins|
The year is 1969, and the Bayleen Island Folk Fest is abuzz with one name: Jesse Reid. Tall and soft-spoken, with eyes blue as stone-washed denim, Jesse Reid’s intricate guitar riffs and supple baritone are poised to tip from fame to legend with this one headlining performance. That is, until his motorcycle crashes on the way to the show.
Jane Quinn is a Bayleen Island local whose music flows as naturally as her long blond hair. When she and her bandmates are asked to play in Jesse Reid’s place at the festival, it almost doesn’t seem real. But Jane plants her bare feet on the Main Stage and delivers the performance of a lifetime, stopping Jesse’s disappointed fans in their tracks: A star is born.
Jesse stays on the island to recover from his near-fatal accident and he strikes up a friendship with Jane, coaching her through the production of her first record. As Jane contends with the music industry’s sexism, Jesse becomes her advocate, and what starts as a shared calling soon becomes a passionate love affair. On tour with Jesse, Jane is so captivated by the giant stadiums, the late nights, the wild parties, and the media attention, that she is blind-sided when she stumbles on the dark secret beneath Jesse’s music. With nowhere to turn, Jane must reckon with the shadows of her own past; what follows is the birth of one of most iconic albums of all time.
Shot through with the lyrics, the icons, the lore, the adrenaline of the early 70s music scene, Songs in Ursa Major pulses with romantic longing and asks the question so many female artists must face: What are we willing to sacrifice for our dreams?
“Jane, we can’t pick and choose who we are,” said Elsie. “The best chance any of us has is to embrace the whole picture and try to make some sense of it. If you cut yourself off from your mother’s bad traits, you will cut yourself off from her good ones as well. You can’t tear a light from its darkness.”
“That would be a real shame,” said Elsie. “Because, in reality, they’re all your traits. You’re your own person, Jane. You don’t need the band to prove it. I think you’ll find that sometimes the things we think are protecting us are really holding us back.”
Well, it was pretty clear that Songs in Ursa Major has to get a song by Joni Mitchell. Eventually, I picked All I Want from her album, Blue, which I think might have been an inspiration for Brodie. Also, I think the lyrics are fitting for Jane.
Ever since the cover first appeared on my radar, I knew I wanted to read Songs in Ursa Major. It sounded like something absolutely up my alley and something that would fill in my craving for a book similar to Daisy Jones & The Six. My persistence at requesting to review the book on different platforms finally paid off, and I got my grabby hands on an eARC.
Songs in Ursa Major is slightly based on Joni Mitchell and James Taylor’s affair around the same time this novel takes place. Now, I admit I know nothing of these people as this era is not really in my interest musically, so I looked them up on Wikipedia and sure enough, there are some clear parallels, though you don’t have to be familiar with their lives to absolutely enjoy the book. And if you are here because you want to read Historical Fiction based on these people, then you might be disappointed – but once again, I’m really not the right judge for that.
Songs in Ursa Major is the story of Jane Quinn, a folk rock singer from an island, with some troubled past, a strong connection to her family and friends and an iron will that helps her to reach all of her dreams. The story takes place between summer of 1969 and 1972/3. It’s about romance, music, the industry, mental health and the consequences of our decisions.
Writing: My reading habits changed from daily to a few times a week, and so, when I did sit down to read, I could hardly put Songs in Ursa Major down. Brodie just sucked me right into the era, into Jane’s life and struggles. I couldn’t help but crave more, to know what’s going to happen next. It’s an utterly engaging read from the first line to the last. I really loved the descriptions of Jane’s island home, and the portrayal of the music industry, which I believe is pretty accurate.
Plot: The plot is not too complicated – the focus is on Jane, her career as a musician going from the lead singer of a band into a solo artist, and her love life including folk superstar, Jesse Reid. Naturally, there are twists and turns, even if they are not too surprising. Brodie finds a fine balance between the romance and highlighting Jane’s path toward fame and stardom. Yes, there is romance, and emotions and everything in between, but it’s not overpowering and not superior to the plot itself.
Feminism: Songs in Ursa Major is a love letter to feminism. Jane is constantly fighting for being treated equally in an industry that shuns her and only sees her as a pretty eye candy they can control to do whatever they think she should do. But she has none of it – she constantly stands up for herself and for her band, consequences be damned, because she believes she has what it takes to work herself on the top of the food chain, without the help of powerful men, and without being boxed into a role. And then, maybe, she bites a bit more than she can actually chew and sooner or later has to face the consequences of her decisions. And even if I did not agree with some of her actions, I admired her for being through to herself through it all.
Writing: Well, not necessarily bad, but I couldn’t help feeling that it would have done a lot of good to the book, if it was written not only from Jane’s POV, but if we’ve got to see the events through Jesse’s eyes. I found it hard to connect with him and wanted to have more from him, you know. We barely get to glimpse his personality and we only know the bare minimum about him in relevance for Jane’s story. I felt like that he should have gotten more spotlight. I was also quite underwhelmed by the ending. Sure, we get an epilogue to find out how every characters’ life turned out, which was nice, but the main story ended a bit abruptly for my liking. Then again, I’m not sure what would have been an appropriate ending, so there.
Characters: As I mentioned, I loved Jane, for the first half of the book, then I had doubts, but she remained a strongly realized character. The others, in comparison, fell a bit flat for me. I also liked Willy, her manager, who also had to face some hard truth on his own. I also liked the rest of the cast – well, except maybe Maggie and Morgan, but then I’m not sure they were supposed to be likeable anyway. But sometimes I struggled with saying the guys in The Breaker apart from each other. Some of them had so much more depth to them I wanted to examine.
Heavy topics: Songs in Ursa Major touches upon topics such as drug abuse, mental illnesses, homosexuality – something that you probably didn’t really talk about openly in the 1970s, although it probably wasn’t such a secret also. But the problem here is that they are only touched upon. They are there, they are mentioned, but not really explored further. Maybe mental illness gets more attention due to a plotline, and I think it gives back really well how these things were handled at the time – keep it secret, don’t talk about it, and then it maybe will go away. But there was still something missing, something that it would have made this book an emotionally cutting one.
And The (Ugly) Truth
Despite some of my criticism, Songs in Ursa Major is a perfect choice for a hot summer day. Emma Brodie’s debut novel transports us back into the ’70s, in the age where folk were supposedly dying and only love burned hotter than the sun. It’s nothing groundbreaking and it has a few missed opportunities, but don’t let that hinder you. If you are looking for a book with a plot revolving around music, sprinkled with romance, and led by a strong female character, Songs in Ursa Major is the one you should read.