Feature Image Credit: @bookswithjams
Music can reach us, surprise us, and offer a story of its own in the most unexpected places. The ways in which writers employ music vary immensely, from an entire work chronicling the life of a virtuoso, to a single song serving as a strategic backdrop to a scene. They may use works that already exist, reimagine or recontextualize them, or create them anew; that’s the beauty of combining two amazing influential arts such as music and writing! We love books that inspire and stimulate the creative senses, so with that in mind, here’s a list of our favorite must-read novels for music lovers.
The Sound Between the Notes by Barbara Probst
Told through the unique perspective of a musician who puts artistic passion on the backburner to raise a family, The Sound Between the Notes draws the reader deep into the question: Who am I, and where do I belong? An adoptee who’s never forgiven her birth mother for not putting her first, Susannah vowed to put her own child first—and she did. Her career as a pianist has been on hold for sixteen years, ever since her son was born. But when the chance of a lifetime occurs to audition into an elite tier of musicians, she realizes somewhere along the way she lost the power and magic that used to be hers at the keyboard. Soon Susannah learns that she has a progressive hereditary disease that’s making her fingers cramp and curl―a curse waiting in her genes, legacy of an unknown birth family. Now, as the most important concert of her life approaches, Susannah feels disconnected from her husband and son, catapulted back to memories she’s never been able to purge―and her musical and emotional quest turns out to have a cost she couldn’t have anticipated. And if you’re a fan of art, don’t miss the author’s award-winning debut Queen of the Owls!
Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie
If you liked Alexie’s, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and you are a blues lover, then you’ll definitely enjoy this musical fiction masterpiece. Many may remember the tale of Robert Johnson, the musician who sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for being the best blues guitarist around. What many may not know is that after this tragic deal in Mississippi, Johnson ended up in a small town on the Spokane Indian reservation in Washington state—at least that’s how author Sherman Alexie tells it.In his new book Reservation Blues, Alexie spins the fictional tale of Johnson’s adventure at a new crossroads, this one in a small town called Wellpinit. It is here that he comes to seek out Big Mom, a local medicine woman, and, in so doing, leaves his famous guitar in the hands of misfit storyteller Thomas Builds-the-Fire.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Terrorists raid a party in Argentina held in honor of a wealthy and powerful Japanese businessman, where renowned American soprano Roxane Coss has been hired to perform. The story, with Stockholm syndrome at its core, accelerates at a surprising clip while offering wonderful insights and lines about music: “Never had he thought, never once, that such a woman existed, one who stood so close to God that God’s own voice poured from her.” It’s romantic, tense and utterly compelling, plus it uses opera as a device to bring everyone together: the title, Bel Canto, even means ‘beautiful singing’. Patchett’s a stunning writer: even if you’ve never been interested in opera, you’ll want to listen to an aria—or ten—after reading this one.
The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
Music and graffiti are the two main topics here: Dylan Ebdus grows up in Brooklyn, hanging out with best mate, Mingus Rude and Mingus’s dad, Barret Rude Jr, a soul singer who introduces Dylan to jazz, soul, R& B, funk and hip-hop. While the book has all kinds of weird and wonderful reference points—the Superman nod in the title, the magic ring the kids find, numerous riffs on graffiti culture—music is at the heart of it, and it’ll have particular resonance for anyone who grew up in or near Brooklyn, as it traces the gentrification of Gowanus from the seventies through to the nineties.
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
This fantastic coming-of-age story is soaked in 1960’s nostalgia, music and ethos, of a man coming to terms with his hopeless and heroic first love. Named after the character/narrator Toru Watanabe’s favorite Beatles song, this debut launched author Murakami into the literary scene. Toru, a serious young college student in Tokyo, is devoted to the beautiful Naoko; but their passion is marked by the traumatic death of their best friend years prior. When Toru happens to hear an orchestral version many years later, the melody transports him back to the days of student revolt in the 1960s, and the reader will find each character sharing their own memories of their music-centered younger days.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
This book tackles themes of class, creativity, talent and ambition, moving from London to the US to Africa, focused on how two girls’ love of the golden age of musicals drives their life paths. In interviews, Smith has spoken about her own love of singing and dancing in her younger years, as well as the musical pursuits of her family members, and it’s great fun to see these personal interests come to life in her fiction.
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
“‘The thing with the new world,’ the tuba had said once, ‘is it’s just horrifically short on elegance.’” In Station Eleven members of the Traveling Symphony roam a post-apocalyptic world performing Shakespeare and musical numbers for the remaining humans. The book opens with a scene from King Lear and uses classic motifs throughout. It is a wonderfully bizarre and haunting tribute to the endurance of art in the face of an unrecognisable world. An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
The 13 chapters of this book loosely follows the adventures of a group of folks involved with the San Francisco music scene, and are told from different perspectives and non-chronologically, vivid and precise slice-of-life stories mostly about the lives of Bennie, an aging record producer, and Sasha, his kleptomaniac assistant. The whole book explores the passage of time and the bonds that bind us to one another, for better or for worse; an absolutely rocking read spanning several decades, from the sixties to the near future, and leaping from Africa to Europe and back to the States. There’s one section that’s told as a PowerPoint presentation and riffs on the mysteries of great rock’n’roll pauses, and another that’s about a music producer who sprinkles gold flakes into his coffee in an attempt to get his mojo going.
Nocturnes by Kazou Ishiguro
Nocturnes focuses on a fragile, once famous singer, turning his back on the one thing he loves; a music junky with little else to offer his friends but opinion; a songwriter who inadvertently breaks up a marriage; a jazz musician who thinks the answer to his career lies in changing his physical appearance; and a young cellist whose tutor has devised a remarkable way to foster his talent. For each, music is a central part of their lives and, in one way or another, delivers them to an epiphany.
Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan
Developed into a hit film with Michael Cera and Kat Dennings, this YA novel tells of one sleepless night of adventure in Manhattan. Left broken-hearted, Nick scavenges the city’s indie rock scene. Meanwhile, Norah’s questioning all of her world views and assumptions. The pair share nothing in common except their taste in music—so of course, they then join forces to locate a legendary band’s secret show.
Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje
Set in vibrant New Orleans, Coming Through Slaughter introduces the story of Buddy Bolden, one of America’s first great trumpeters. Lyrical prose tells the colorful life of this unrecorded “Father of Jazz.” Based on historical facts, the book’s pages focus on the music pioneer’s last months of sanity in the early 1900s. With photographer E.J. Bellocq, Ondaatje shows the correlative relationship between artistry and self-destruction.
If I Stay by Gayle Forman
Adapted into a hit film with Chloe Moretz, If I Stay portrays a talented 17-year-old cellist named Mia. The last memory Mia can remember is being tended to by paramedics after a deadly car accident. Now she’s stuck in limbo between life and death. Stories are told as flashbacks from Mia’s hospital bed. Can the power of strong family bonds, love with her partner Adam, and classical music keep Mia holding on?
An Equal Music by Vikram Seth
Set against the backdrop of Venice and Vienna, this is one for the deeply romantic; a tale of two gifted musicians. Talented violinist Michael Holmes is haunted by the memory of his former love, a pianist named Julia he loved and left ten years earlier. Now, Julia’s married and a mother, but when she reenters his life, romance flames again. The two must confront the music that divides them, both their truths and secrets. This is a great painting of the international music scene.
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
Now a Hulu TV series starring Zoë Kravitz, this is a wise and hilarious novel about love, heartbreak and rock and roll. London record-store owner/pop music junkie Rob has just been dumped by his girlfriend for the guy upstairs. Rob seeks refuge in the company of the offbeat clerks at his store, who endlessly review their top five films; top five Elvis Costello songs; top five episodes of Cheers. Seeking understanding and redemption, he makes a list of his five worst break-ups and hunts down the women to quiz them on why it all went wrong. Full of music references, this’ll be a trip down memory lane for any heartbroken wanna-be DJ.
Paint it Black by Janet Fitch
If you’re looking for another atmospheric, set-in-L.A.-music-scene book like Daisy Jones and the Six, try Paint It Black. This is part love story, part tragic death, part complicated relationship. As Josie grows closer to her dead lover’s mother, their relationship becomes muddled and confusing, with both women relying on and distrusting each other.
Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Set during the late sixties and seventies, the story follows the lives of Daisy and a band called The Six, led by Billy Dunne. Their paths eventually cross when they join together until they mysteriously break up. Told in a series of interviews, Daisy Jones and the Six explores the lives and stories of the various members of the band and what led to their eventual breakup. Oh, and did we mention it’s also being turned into a limited Amazon series by Reese Witherspoon herself? This is one you won’t want to miss.
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton
Sunny Shelton, a music journalist, is set on interviewing Opal and Nev about their rumored reunion that is set to happen in 2016. Opal and Nev, an unlikely pair, formed a band with unique funk and flair in the 1970s. However, when Opal protests against a rival band’s showcase of the Confederate flag, it sets off a chain reaction of changes and repercussions, especially for Opal, a Black woman. So, decades later, Shelton tries to dive deeper into their history through a series of interviews.