Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Review: Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John

So...it's music week on Bookish Blather!

Well, not really, since I don't have another music-related title for Friday, but I've sure gone through a bit of a music spell the last few weeks, with Janis Joplin, 50 women in rock songs, and now a high school hard rock band with a deaf manager.

Five Flavors of DumbWhen the winners of the local Teen Battle of the Bands put on a show on the school's front steps that literally sets their amps on fire, Piper is fascinated. In a moment of recklessness, she volunteers to be their manager, betting that she can get them a paying gig within a month. The move shocks her friends and family; Piper is a quiet student who doesn't know the first thing about music - and she can hardly hear Dumb anyway. Piper is profoundly deaf and can only hear with the assistance of the Barbie-pink hearing aids she's been saddled with since she was 6.

But Piper is determined to prove herself as a capable manager - and she's desperate for the money, any money, after she learns her parents have plundered her college fund in order to pay for the cochlear implants of her deaf baby sister. Home life is stressful with the new baby and the constant reminders that even as a toddler Grace can hear more than Piper ever will - so Piper is willing to do anything and everything to get Dumb the publicity they need so she can restore her college funds and escape to the elite Gallaudet University with its extensive programs for the deaf. But the members of Dumb aren't always willing to play nice - members are alternately apathetic, diva-licious, angry, shy and outright incompetent. Piper has her work cut out for her as she tries to meld the five distinct flavors of Dumb into one harmonious sound.

I love pretty much everything in this book. For one thing, it doesn't follow the "standard" band storyline I've seen in so many movies. You know how it goes - band experiences sky rocketing fame, then falls into the temptations of sex, drugs and rock and roll, before diving into a self-destructive spiral that only ends when everyone hates each other and/or someone is dead. Instead, Dumb starts as dysfunctional - they only know three songs, and they're all covers. The band consists of a lead singer, a bassist, and a guitarist who only knows three chords. So first Piper recruits a drummer. Then the lead singer insists on bringing the school's resident hot chick into the mix - even though she has no discernible talent. It's a complete and absolute mess all around, but Piper - driven by desperation for money and approval - keeps on going.

Piper is far from perfect. She is not Inspirationally Disadvantaged, nor is she the Disabled Snarker or any number of other tropes for the disabled that pop up often in the media. Yes, Piper is deaf, and this has clearly profoundly affected her life. Sometimes she's bitter about it - or at least bitter that her sister is able to benefit from her treatment in ways Piper never could have. She's clearly not a saint, and pulls some really crummy moves in her desperate attempts at achieving stardom for Dumb. She is the very definition of a well-rounded character, and it's wonderful to watch her grow as a character throughout the story.

Five Flavors of Dumb also gets major bonus points for the subtle "Girl Power" message. Dumb ends up with two female band members, and they absolutely don't get along initially - but it's also because one doesn't respect the other's ability, not out of any catfighting scenario. And the two band members and Piper end up banding together at a crucial moment to offer each other support. John doesn't call explicit attention to these moments, but I've seen so many stories where girls have superficial friendships, or no female friendships at all, that's it's just fantastic to see these complex relationships play out in a totally natural way.

More bonus points, coming from this non-music person: John weaves a mini-lecture on the Seattle music scene into the story. Seattle, of course, has been home to some of American music's most influential players, and Piper is introduced to two of them via a mysterious scavenger hunt: Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix. The scenes that play out around the search for Hendrix's childhood home are especially moving.

And I know this review is getting long, but one last comment - what an AWESOME cover! It totally embodies the rock and roll feeling of the novel. I have so much love for this one, I'm surprised that I only found out about it through my library's "Teen Scene" newsletter - usually by the time that arrives in my mailbox I've read or requested every title! So thanks, Queens Library, for pointing this one out!

6 comments:

Antony John said...

Thanks for the wonderful (and extremely thorough) review, Angela! I really appreciate you reading DUMB and taking the time to share your thoughts. Happy new year!

Kristen den Hartog said...

Nice to see such a meaty review on a blog. Sounds like a great read.

Jackie Parker said...

I was already pretty curious about this book, but adding a Seattle angle to it makes it a must-read! Thanks!

Kelly said...

Great review and thanks for the recommendation. I hadn't heard of this book and I love rock themed stories so will add this to my TBR list! Thanks!

sit-a-while said...

This sounds like a great book!

Madigan McGillicuddy said...

Fantastic review! I shall have to check this one out. I like what you said, that it seems like the main character is not the part of an ABC AfterSchool Special (if you know what I mean) but has a lot of her own emotional journey going on.

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