Sometimes all you need is a book that is as far from the YA clichéd stereotype of “dark”, “problematic” and “depressing” as possible. On a bad day when you feel that even chocolate chip cookies can’t help you, what you need is a double dose of Amber Appleton.
Amber Appleton, the protagonist of Matthew Quick’s Sorta Like A Rock Star is an uncompromising hopeful despite the mishaps that life has thrown at her so far. At age 17 she lives with her mom in Hello Yellow, the school bus her (alcoholic) mom drives for a meager living. Her mom has left her nth boyfriend so they are now homeless – safe for Hello Yellow. Because Amber is the self-proclaimed spreader of hope – she teaches a bunch of Korean women English by letting them sing Supremes songs (the Korean Divas for Christ); she visits a bunch of old folks at the local retirement home battling a mean old bat called Joan of Old, all just to make her smile; and she has a deep faith in JC (yes, that’s Jesus Christ for you) – luckily she has a large support team: her dog, a puppy mutt she found and rescued called Bobby Big Boy; Frank’s Freak Force (named after Frank, her marketing teacher, consisting of herself and the 4 misfit boys she’s been friends with for a long time); Donna, Ricky Robert’s attorney mom who keeps Amber fed and makes sure she gets clean and can also feel like a girl at the same time ( make-up!); Father Chee, the Korean priest of the KDC; and a haiku-writing war veteran called Private Jackson. When tragedy hits Amber in the shins even more, that relentless optimism of hers gets the worst of blows and Amber slips into a depression so severe, that not just her hope falters, but her faith gets shaken at the same time. When Amber is at her lowest, and she asks Father Chee ‘why her’ in so many different ways, and he can’t really give her any satisfying answers, that is when you realize Quick has written that rare YA book that doesn’t avoid those unanswerable questions of faith.
Although it does have an oddball cast of characters in common with many other contemporary YA fiction, Sorta Like a Rock Star is like no other YA book you are likely to read. Dealing with JC and Christianity but not in a mocking, nor in a self-important type of way, this is not a Christian novel per se (there are also atheist characters, and probably also Buddhist characters if PJ’s attitude is anything to go by), but a novel about hope and faith and what it means to believe in other people, seeing the good in others even if they don’t see it themselves, and re-discovering what was driving you all along.
Sorta Like a Rock Star is also a novel driven by the fierce voice of its protagonist, one that you will find irresistible once she’s got you. True? True. She’s the type of character that faces all the challenges that come her way head-on, manages to reflect on them, but not be numbed by them. For her the glass is always truly still half-full. Matthew Quick has written Amber in a very convincing way: her voice is pure, strong, real and she’ll break your heart with it.
Amber Appleton doesn’t get drunk. She doesn’t do drugs. She doesn’t cut herself. She’s not anorexic. She’s not sarcastic. She doesn’t go around dressed all in black. Amber Appleton is lovable and hopeful and yes, sorta like a rock star. Sorta Like a Rock Star really is a compulsively readable book, and it actually has an upbeat message and such a streetwise yet totally innocent main character at the same time. If you can manage to set aside your self-serving distrust for optimism and hope just for one day, then let that day be today when you go out and buy and read Matthew Quick’s Sorta Like a Rock Star.