REVIEW: Charm City Rocks by Matthew Norman
Billy Perkins is happy. And why wouldn’t he be? He loves his job as an independent music teacher and his apartment in Baltimore above a record shop called Charm City Rocks. Most of all, he loves his brainy teenage son, Caleb.
Margot Hammer, on the other hand, is far from happy. The former drummer of the once-famous band Burnt Flowers, she’s now a rock-and-roll recluse living alone in New York City. When a new music documentary puts Margot back in the spotlight, she realizes how much she misses her old band and the music that gave her life meaning.
Billy has always had a crush on Margot. But she’s a legitimate rock star—or, at least, she was—so he never thought he’d meet her. Until Caleb, worried that his easygoing dad might actually be lonely, cooks up a scheme to get Margot to perform at Charm City Rocks.
It’s the longest of long shots, but Margot’s label has made it clear that any publicity is an opportunity she can’t afford to miss. When their paths collide, Billy realizes that he maybe wasn’t as happy as he thought—and Margot learns that sometimes the sweetest music is a duet.
Dear Mr. Norman,
This just sounded so – for lack of a better word and using this deliberately – charming. From the outset, I realized I was in for a treat of sweetness, love, second chances, music, and a look at the city of Baltimore by people who love it.
Caleb’s dad Billy knows music – after all he’s a music teacher and owns a gorgeous Steinway. As they’re watching a Netflix documentary on the history of rock and roll, Caleb learns that his dad has had a crush on the drummer of Burnt Flowers for years. The band was once world famous before publically imploding but after Billy pulls out his cherished records (Billy isn’t a purist about his music but the best songs deserve to be heard on vinyl) and plays the iconic song that made the band famous, Caleb agrees that his dad is right. The band is good and the drummer – Margot Hammer – is fantastic.
Caleb is a growing seventeen year old and ready to eat anything and when he finds some gummy bears in the kitchen cabinet after his dad conks out on the sofa, Caleb doesn’t realize until too late that maybe the gummies were hidden behind the cereal box for a reason. A little dopey, Caleb does something he shouldn’t and before he realizes it, Margot’s record label has her show up in Baltimore expecting a wonderful experience that could get her image going viral. That … doesn’t happen quite as expected but long story short, Billy and Margot end up in a local bar, drinking terrible beer, and talking to the bartender who tells Margot that she’s pretty sure her son was conceived while listening to the iconic song Margot wrote. When Margot is urged to sit in with the cover band, she remembers what it’s like to play live music and rock the house. That is what goes viral.
Margot’s daughter Poppy – and damn near half the world now posting images of a smiling Margot in the bar – tells Margot she hasn’t seen her mum (famous actor dad Lawson Daniels is Black and British) this happy in ages. Margot makes a snap decision and heads back to Baltimore – or Balmer as the locals say it. Meanwhile Caleb is trying to decide on colleges (his heart wants Stanford but Hopkins is just down the street, a pretty good college, and he would be able to see his father and mother (never married because Billy didn’t go after Robyn – it’s a long story) all the time.
Margot ends up … staying in Baltimore living a weird sort-of-normal life with Billy albeit one that is recorded by lots of iPhones and posted all over social media. Women sigh over how nice Billy is and totally adore the relationship. Billy’s family and friends are amazed at what’s happening. Billy feels that he’s actually falling in love with the woman he’s had a crush on for twenty years but assures her that he loves her as she is now and not just as the ideal crush of his youth. But what if potential rock fame comes calling – a rare thing in that industry. Will Margot continue to be happy in Baltimore?
I’ll say straight off the bat that there is a romance in the book but I don’t see this as the main focus of the sometimes sprawling novel. There’s a lot more going on than I have mentioned. Caleb’s mom and her husband are having marital issues, Billy is missing the vibrant neighborhood he lived in before being ousted from his apartment for a coffee shop, Margot’s relationship with her ex-bandmates ended badly for Reasons one of which is her charismatic ex-husband who now regrets the woman he let get away. “Charm City Rocks” is more contemporary fiction than a romance.
The writing style is easy to sink into and I’d find myself 70-90 pages further along each time I put my ereader down.There are some things that happen along the way here that I kind of guessed how they’d play out (pun not really intended). These things were also fairly obviously included in order for the MCs to have learning experiences to help them decide what is or is not important to them. As I liked spending time with these characters, I ended up not minding as much as I would have otherwise.
I loved seeing the City of Baltimore shine and not be as “grim” as the visitors were expecting. In a book of a totally different genre I recently read, the author says that Baltimore is a mid sized city that feels cozy – or something near to that and that comes through in this book. The city is almost a character in the book at times. I also adore the relationship between Caleb and his parents. They might not have been able to make their relationship work but they’ve raised a great son – helped along by Billy’s “Dad’s Lessons in Art and Manhood” by which he tries to impart life lessons to Caleb so he won’t suck as a man and a human being. Caleb, his friends, and Margot’s daughter Poppy might look puzzled about some things and people their parents know but yay for the older relationships and MCs here. Billy and Margot, Robyn and Aaron, and Lawson are all in their mid forties. And though there are some famous characters in it, this is very much about ordinary people just living their lives.
“Charm City Rocks” is fun, funny, thoughtful, and maybe a little “you just have to go with it” (especially the scenes with Lawson) that flows along to an open ending that I found satisfying. I think it’s a wonderful beach/plane read and I mean that in the best sense of the phrase. B