Great to see the first review of my ebook RAMBLE ON... posted to Amazon.
Sex, Drugs & Rock 'N' Roll, review by Nathan Beauchamp
RAMBLE ON... promises a story saturated with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll and boy does it deliver on all counts! This is a hard-edged, hard-hitting story about a tough kid making his way in the world as a high school athlete, part-time drug dealer, and ladies' man. Jessie Cayne isn't your typical protagonist--he's not shy about his views on drug use, his womanizing ways, or his violations of the law. He's a Harley riding bad boy. Unrepentant, and at times, unlikable.
That's the biggest two-edged sword in RAMBLE ON.... Jessie Cayne will probably rub some folks the wrong way. He strays toward unlikable because of his rampant drug use, views about women, and strong ambivalence for the law. Personally, I didn't mind him as I don't think protagonists all have to be cut from the same cloth. Especially considering author John Stuart goes to great lengths to show Jessie's troubled youth, his absentee / control freak father, his gambling addict mother, and the sort of life imposed on him as an Army Brat. Jessie IS believable. Very believable. But he's not the sort of protagonist that many will like or relate to.
Jessie does have a tragic plot arc, which is also realistic for his character. I give the author major credit for making that aspect of his story realistic. You can't live like Jessie (who ironically shares a first name with another pop culture drug dealer icon, Jessie Pinkman from BREAKING BAD) without suffering some consequences, and Jessie definitely does suffer some major consequences.
From a plot standpoint, Stuart uses a pretty advanced story telling model--that of a "nested" story. Basically the story starts with Jessie as an accomplished middle-aged writer, who because of plot complications, must recount his sordid youth in an act of binge writing over a twenty-four hour period. That's a very interesting setup, though I did feel it took a bit too long to develop, a bit too long to get to the main thrust of the story, Jessie's time in high school.
Jessie hasn't changed much from high school to now, and except for at a few points in the last few chapters of the book, seems to have about the same beliefs and attitudes that he did in his youth. In real life, people rarely change that much--at least not easily or without a ton of work. In stories, characters are expected to have "arcs" that make them "round." They are changed by circumstances, choices they make, and relationships with others.
Jessie is realistic in the sense that he's the same dude in middle age as he was in high school. But I wanted to see him reflecting on his past in a more adult way. At one point he does talk about how stupid and selfish he was in high school, but overall his retelling of his past feels far more like an idealized high school experience saturated with fast cars, fast women, and a never-ending drug and booze supply. He's absent the sort of self-reflection that would make him more likable. That's okay, as I said, people in real life don't often change much, but it would have made the story palatable to more readers if he was reflective and was different now vs. the past.
That leads to the other major weakness in the story: for the middle third of the book, Jessie pretty much gets what he wants without much effort or risk on his part. He doesn't have real obstacles in his path. He gets connected to a Mexican drug cartel, lands a starting position on the football team, makes friends with the local millionaire's son, and lands his love interest Mary (who of course is the most beautiful woman ever) all without much trouble. Things are far too easy for him. Only Mary takes some effort on his part, but their interactions are more physical than emotional. It takes a lot of time for Mary to start to look like a character comprised by more than "hungry buns" and tits.
When the action finally does really start to rise in the last third of the book, it's pretty great. A nice love triangle, a bit of THE GREAT GATSBY thrown in, Jimmy Dean references, car crashes, legal situations, high school hijinks--the book becomes VERY entertaining. It's that middle third that lost me, mainly because other than getting high and bedding Mary, I wasn't sure what the hell Jessie really wanted or what was stopping him from getting it.
The information Stuart builds into the story about the way drug dealing works (or worked in the 80s) is compelling, interesting, and believable. I enjoyed reading those parts of the story as there's nothing better than giving the reader the chance to feel smart--like they're learning something new, and (for me at least) from a different world than the one they occupy.
The writing in RAMBLE ON... is really pretty clean, pretty decent. This isn't your typical self-published title overflowing with sentences that don't make sense or major grammar issues. The book clips along, is easy to read, and while it does have a few typos, it isn't distracting. Kudos to Stuart for hiring an editor or being a pretty darned good copy editor himself.
Stuart also uses musical references throughout the book. Chapters are each headed with a song title and band name that have something to do with what takes place in that chapter. They're also sprinkled through the chapters themselves, a bit too frequently at times. The connection between song title and the action gets tangential here and there. I do LOVE the way the songs work to ground the story in place and time. They work much the way the TV show COLD CASE employed music to create mood and atmosphere as well as set the time for the story being told. I could hear INXS's "Never Tear Us Apart" and LED ZEPPELIN's "What Is and What Should Never Be," and "Taking Care of Business" by BACHMAN TURNER OVERDRIVE playing in my head just by reading the song titles. Those cultural touchstones enhance the story and were one of my favorite aspects of craft.
Stuart goes out of his way to provide detailed histories for a number of his characters. However, they're more "showing than telling" and while interesting, read like biography more than compelling scenes. The worst offender comes right at the climactic action of the book, right when crap is about to REALLY hit the fan for Jessie. We get a long (though interesting) history for a love interest that stalls the story out at a point where it should be accelerating. It's not that this material has no value, more that its timing slows me down when I should be speeding up.
Overall, RAMBLE ON... does what it promises: gives the reader a gritty, real, and honest portrayal of a "Dark Passenger," as Dexter would say. The story had some terrific elements, and I like the bravery of picking an unlikable protagonist for the novel. I found the ending satisfying, and the final third of the book moves with a brisk pace that I wish was present in the middle third. This isn't a perfect book, but it does entertain, and I suspect that its target demographic (men in their thirties to fifties is my guess) will love it.
Recommended for those that like gritty stories of Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'N' Roll.