Sometimes stars aren’t born. They’re made.
It’s the end of the disco era and London is burning. But queer, underground act Alekzandr is determined to make it even if his musical shortcomings are obvious to everyone.
Talent is a noble thing, but what Alekzandr quickly learns is that a willingness to do just about anything is what it takes to make it in the music industry. Whatever the obstacles.
Because the best pop stars don’t just make music. They make waves.
Book – Vinyl Tiger
Author – Dave Di Vito
Star rating – ★★★★★
No. of Pages – 560
Movie Potential – ★★★★☆ (It would need to be an epic.)
Ease of reading – very easy to read and follow
Would I read it again – Probably. But I’d set aside more time to read it.
** I WAS GIVEN THIS BOOK, BY THE AUTHOR, IN RETURN FOR AN HONEST REVIEW **
Reviewed for Divine Magazine
Vinyl Tiger is one of the most unusual books I’ve ever read. Written in a biographical style, of an outsider looking in, but somehow knowing the thoughts, feelings and actions of each person, it’s not a style of writing that I would normally like. However, there’s this fundamentally endearing quality to the words and the events that take place within the story.
The story is a tale of two halves. The first is the part where a lot goes on. Aleks’ life is in constant upheaval and there are adventures and changes around every corner. The second half is less hectic and a touch less interesting, because his life settles somewhat into a clear routine.
Sometimes we, the reader, are spoken to in the sense that the author is trying to impart a really important life lesson and I would normally hate that, but it feels appropriate in the way they write it. I also don’t mind the POV/tense, which isn’t omnipresent, though it’s 3rd person past tense, because the POV is more of an outsider looking in, seeing all angles. It reads a little like someone has sat down and scanned Aleks’ memories, to write a biographical account of his career, beginning with the unfortunate situation that kick-started it all. Think musical biography, where someone sits down and tracks every event of the singer’s life, from their roots to the progression of their music career, including insights from those who were important to them.
Our MC is Aleksandr, a really unique character. He’s unashamedly weird. He starts out a little naïve, going away with his lover, a Professor, and his wife to India on holiday. It’s a cushy arrangement, until his first week ends in the realisation that he’d been continually drugged and used as a sex slave, while unconscious or unable to fight back. The only time he has a lucid recollection of what’s going on, he discovers he’s been violently used by the Professor and a male friend, as well as urinated on, slapped and attacked when he didn’t want to comply with their needs. This sets him off on the story of his journey.
What grabs me about this plot element isn’t that it’s used to make Aleks appear vulnerable or strong. It’s that he goes through the horrible cycle that all victims of rape do. He begins with a horrible sense of being violated and humiliated. Then it progresses to an urgent need to escape the situation and be free. Cleansing himself of the act comes next. Then the worst part – the self blame. It’s actually a very stark and honest assessment of what most victims encounter, in the aftermath of the attack.
“He doubted whether or not this had all been one huge mistake on his part. Coming to India and leaving the room. Was he simply over reacting to a night that had gotten out of hand? Perhaps the problem was his. Perhaps he wasn’t as progressive and daring as he had thought he was. Maybe he had been naïve to not understand what the invitation had meant in the first place.”
All on its own, this quote broke my heart. It was very honest in its description of all the things that flew through Aleks’ head and how he blamed himself first for misunderstanding, then for possibly bringing it on himself because of his sexual appetite. Sadly, things that are said to rape victims all the time – if you drink, retract consent later, are drugged and have a history of sexual promiscuity, or all of the above, the first instinct of some victims and most of society, unfortunately, is to blame them for getting themselves into a situation they suddenly couldn’t handle.
What I also like about Aleks’ handling of this situation is that he doesn’t let it frighten him off physical intimacy or relationships. He deals with it, accepts it and tries his best to forget it happened. Though I’m disappointed he didn’t report it, I do understand the fear, as mentioned above, of having his past and recreational use of drugs/alcohol used against him.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s a loooong book. Amazon says it’s somewhere in the mid-600 pages, while Goodreads says it’s 560. Either way, it’s an epic story. But it’s an epic story of Aleks’ self discovery, where he grows from a naïve, innocent boy into a man who has the strength and work ethic to dream, then chase down those dreams to make them real.
At it’s length, I would never buy this book. I’d be intimidated just by looking at the number of pages. I don’t mind over 400+ pages in an anthology or those Greatest Hits collections you find, but for a novel, it would scare me. I honestly only agreed to review this because it needed reviewed and I’m a quick reader.
I’m glad I did.
The story is often philosophical, as Aleks’ journeys through years of struggle, hardship and perseverance to reach his goals. Starving, being an escort, modelling, taking menial jobs – nothing is too low for him and he’s never ashamed of the depths he sinks to, in order to survive and make his dreams a reality. I do kind of love that, after being so horribly used and humiliated by the Professor, his first act is to run. That shows strength. He also steals the men’s money, which is his right after what they did to him. The fact that he uses their money to run and only showers, to rid himself of their stink once safely at the train station and having secured a ticket, shows that he’s a survivor and he’ll do whatever it takes. That attitude never falters, no matter what lows or highs he reaches in the story.
When it comes to the writing, sometimes the amount of “he” usage makes it a little difficult to figure out who is being talked about. A lot of the time, Aleks is referred to as other things – the young man, the singer, etc – and other people often have extensive use of just their first name and just their second name being used in reference to them, which can be confusing if you’re not paying attention. Aleks himself has many people calling him many things – Alekz, Lekke, Alè, Aleks, Alex and more.
There are a few small spelling/grammar issues, where the wrong words are used or are misspelled into something else – slagging becomes slanging and kinds becomes kids etc. But these are few and far between and I can easily ignore them.
You can tell from reading this story that a heck of a lot of research went into it. Not only in 80’s, 90’s and 00’s music and what/who was popular in what years (as the author is often quite specific about months and years) but also into music magazines and TV shows, like MTV. The information is very detailed and never once comes across as inaccurate. The music band/acts references all feel genuine and more about pinpointing the competition than about showing off how much the author knows about that period.
Despite the very strange style of storytelling, I connected with Aleks early on – though it took about 3% for us to learn his name and it’s not always used – and I understood him as a person from the start. He makes no bones about who he is or what he is. He’s a very sexual being, right from the start. Which is obvious from the fact that he begins by having an affair with a married man (whose wife knows about him) only to continue by being the unknown ‘other man’ in another marriage, being a side helping to an already established couple as well as many attempts at disastrous relationships. He never hides the fact that he’s often unfaithful to his lovers, which I can accept better than if they never knew.
When it comes to side characters, Ben affected me the most. Every element of his relationship with Aleks had me either smiling or near to tears. I was gutted when Aleks found out about his secrets – both the one early on in the story and the one about 30% through – but I also loved the way he kept putting Aleks first and taking care of him, even if he wasn’t going to stick around to see it through. Whatever they shared, it made Aleks stronger, each time he was left alone.
I can’t say the same for Athena, the only woman that we’re told Aleks has a relationship with. I find her very unhealthy for Aleks and agree with Michael – another male that I loved seeing with Aleks – in the sense that Athena is pointless! So was their entire relationship. In particular, the therapist scene really ticked me off, because Athena never once stopped to ask what Aleks wanted or think about what he might say. She demanded that he give up his lucrative career, after everything he’d suffered to get that far, just because she was fed up and wanted to settle down. What she was asking of him was ridiculous and selfish. Calling him flippant and insensitive for admitting how pointless their relationship was and that he wouldn’t give up his career for anyone, not even her, was stupid too. All he was doing was being honest. If he’d ever once led her on about their relationship, I’d overlook this, but Athena went into this with her eyes open about who and what he was and what Aleks wanted. That’s what I love about him – his need to be honest about who and what he is, no matter the consequences.
I really liked Michael and his complicated relationship with Aleks, how it was sometimes tender and grew into something neither of them wanted or expected. But, in the end, it was clear Aleks wouldn’t settle down. He’s too much of a restless spirit. Even his relationship with Ferris was hot tempered and fiery, just like both of them. Aleks is far too independent and free-spirited to ever be tied down, unless he wants to be. This is proven during his following relationships with Diego, Thomas, Roman and many more flings that are left nameless.
His soul searching moments – both driving through California and his numerous escapes from life to find himself – are heartbreaking. Through the writing, even when it’s not your typical 3rd person or even 1st, you can feel every ounce of grief and pain that Aleks feels.
I really liked Paula, Celia and Köji. They kept Aleks on track, grounded and functioning at work, regardless of what was going on at home, as did his good friends Jasper and Xavier.
I was never sure about Thomas, who entered Aleks’ life in a whirlwind and left it in the same way. I never liked him but I did love that Aleks was able to feel comfortable finally settling down, offering a monogamous relationship and getting broody enough to want a baby and have one. It was a real turning point from young man to adult. When we found out what he did to Aleks, it hurt. I was gutted that he’d lashed out so physically at Aleks, who really hadn’t deserved it, and was disappointed that he gave their relationship a second try. But, at the same time, he again had the same victim mentality of a lot of abused spouses. He was unsure of his decision, but did it for his son, Søren, and because of his history with Thomas. Saying that, Aleks’ emotions always tug at my heart strings, so when he and Thomas called it off, it was almost as sad as his break up with Ben. Except that I actually liked Ben.
What was worse was that the physical attack on Aleks bore ugly scars and reminded him of that violent event. It almost had me crying again, which was only fought against by the small, adorable snippets of Søren that I loved to read about.
The way that Aleks learned to mistrust monogamy and relationships was sad, especially when Diego came along and he was afraid to offer him anything serious. But when he acted out the way he did, I was glad for that reticence, because although it didn’t protect Aleks from getting his heart broken, I think it was one of the defining moments when he realised that Diego was the ‘love of his life’ as he later stated. I loved that Diego came back and was strong enough to give Aleks time to get his anti-monogamy ideas out of his head, while taking care of Søren and Analia. I didn’t much like the interlude Aleks had with Willem, but it was true to his character to question and doubt, especially when he thought he was getting too old for his chosen career.
In that same vein, I love that Aleks visibly matures throughout the book (even if he gets more vain with age) and constantly seeks equality with his partners, though he doesn’t often get it. He tries to follow his heart wherever it may lead, even when it doesn’t work out.
There’s only one final thing I need to say. It’s about the orchestra recording session – I cried. Quite simply, the memory of Ben nearly killed me.
In essence, this is a biographical account of one man’s trials and tribulations as he stumbles through life, searching for meaning. He travels the world, tries a multitude of jobs and finally finds and pursues his dreams. Amid a whirlwind of relationship dramas, we see his strength appear. He’s a man not afraid of hard work or graft, new situations or new people. Whatever he does, he puts his heart and soul into it and, along the way, although he breaks hearts, that’s never his intention. He’s simply a soul that needs to be loved wholeheartedly and he never really finds the right person who can give him that until he realises that person was right under his nose all along. And it might very well have been Ben.
The story is a stark, real and brutal look behind the curtain at what it entails to become a star, even when that isn’t the main aim. It’s the story of a normal guy, who works his butt off to make his dreams a reality. It includes happy, ugly, beautiful and sad truths; comings and goings of lovers; an emotional rollercoaster for the reader and Aleks, as well as the inclusion of users, drug use, loss, pain and that monumental complication in life – love.
The story can ultimately be summed up by Aleks’ own thoughts:
“He was someone who’d set out to follow his heart and live an interesting life.”
Putting the events and personalities in this story behind, if you’re ever in the need for a journey of self discovery, give this a read and mark down the names of all the authors Aleks reads, the music that inspires him and that he listens to. The one thing that I can say is missing from this story is the Recommended Reading List and Recommended Listening List at the end of the book, detailing these influences. I already have some of the books Aleks was engrossed in, but I was so engrossed in this book that I never stopped to list them for my future reading. I will definitely be doing that next time.
If you’re wondering at the five stars, perhaps because of another person who didn’t “get” this story the way I did, let me run it down in simple terms of the stars I gave it and why I gave them:
1 – the characters. The ones I loved, hated, loathed and was disinterested in. Any story that can make me feel so strongly about the characters deserves high praise.
2 – the many times that I did or almost cried. I don’t need to explain why that’s important.
3 – the hard hitting issues the story tackles in various way and stages of Aleks’ life – AIDS/HIV, natural disasters, ageism in the music industry, commercialism, rape, victimisation, domestic abuse and so much more.
4 – the extensive detail and thorough research this book must have required. All important events are noted as months and specific years, around real world events and with the kind of inside knowledge that I’d never even imagined before.
5 – for being so God damned unique! I’ve never read anything like it and doubt I will again, so I think that deserves some recognition.
“From the beginning Ben did what few others in Alekz’s wide circles of friends were able to. He breathed fresh air into Alekz’s life.”