Note: I received an ebook copy of this book in return for an honest review.
RyLee’s career is over. After winning a national TV talent show and becoming a teen pop sensation, his fame and success has quickly been followed by addiction, media scrutiny, and career suicide. After a brief spell in rehab, 18-year-old Ryan has some rethinking to do.
His stepdad – music promoter and self-appointed creator of ‘RyLee’ – wants him at home and in school, and under his thumb. But after an argument descends into violence, Ryan decides to run away from his old life, his failed career, and his dysfunctional family.
When he meets the stunningly witty but distinctly average guitar-player Toni almost directly outside his front door, the opportunity to start afresh seems too good to pass up. Before long, he has arrived in a new city, joined Toni’s amazingly talented band, and reinvented himself under the name ‘Cal’. For the first time in his life Ryan has friends around him, he’s playing the music he’s always wanted to play, and – despite living in a hostel, busking for his wages, and living under a false identity – he’s finally happy.
But just when Ryan feels like he has truly started over, his past begins to catch up with him.
Dublin is where Street Song starts, but is very much based in Belfast, and as such shows off the vibrancy and atmosphere of modern-day Belfast, making it one of the stars of the book. Street Song follows a hypothesis of what happens after. After all the vacuous nonsense that makes up being a viral sensation, having your fifteen minutes of fame, and what next? It’s the headline that’s never written, in this case the tale of how RyLee figures out what he’s supposed to do with the next part of his life.
Music obviously plays a big part in Street Song too, with Sheena herself clearly having a passion for the feel and sound of music, and having learned guitar specifically for this book. The musical chemistry between Toni, Ryan (as Cal) and their bandmate Marysia is great to read about. It’s the one thing that Ryan feels comfortable doing and knows he’s good and the passages on playing music on stage and rehearsing are full of that energy and enthusiasm.
Sheena’s great strength again in Street Song, as in previous books, is in writing dialogue. She manages to incorporate various accents, most notably strong Belfast ones, while managing to show Ryan’s initial confusion and then liking of all the accents. In keeping with this, Sheena mentions the ever-present political backdrop, but perhaps wisely doesn’t get distracted from the main narrative. This seems to be a prevailing trend, as people of the Rory McIlroy generation move on from what happened years ago, and refuse to let it define them. So while the element of politics and the volatile past of Belfast are both present, Ryan’s struggle with staying clean and keeping a roof over his head are of much more concern to him.
Along with themes of substance and other abuses, Sheena Wilkinson also tackles the issue of homelessness and in particular the attitude of people towards homeless people. While Ryan’s money woes become increasingly worrying, he begins to think about sleeping rough and it gives an insight into how someone might find themselves homeless. The main message here is that every person is a person, to paraphrase Dr Seuss, and in this case, we’ve had the time to get to know Ryan and can understand his plight. That shouldn’t make us blind to the situations of thousands of other people who find themselves saddled with similar status.
There’s a lot of light touches throughout however, particularly with the adult characters in Ryan’s life, like Toni’s mother and Mervyn who runs the hostel Ryan stays in. This gives us a chance to see Ryan try to charm his way out of trouble, invariably channelling the charm of his popstar alter-ego ‘RyLee.’ There’s a great back and forth between the bandmates throughout as well, and it’s always great to see strong female characters in the narrative. Toni refuses to be defined by boys or her mother. She is determined to be a success in music and in her studies, but hasn’t managed to get out of her mother’s shadow just yet. She is clear on her own morals and her friendship with Marysia is particularly empowering, independent as it is from their relationship with Ryan. They support each other and look out for each other, which is of course brilliant to see in any friendship.
I was fortunate enough to have a sneak preview reading of an extract from Street Song by Sheena in February and was looking forward to reading it since. Another great YA book from a talented author.