Sunday, June 16, 2013

Are You Experienced by Jordan Sonnenblick

304 p. Feiwel & Friends, September 3, 2013. 9781250025647. (Review from Netgalley e-arc courtesy of publisher)

Fifteen-year-old Rich Barber awakens, kind of, in a hospital bed, attached to a variety of monitors and eavesdrops on a conversation his parents are having - not about him, but about an event that occurred 45 years earlier, an event that he, improbably, just attended.

Wait. What? In chapters which alternate between now, well, October, 2014, and then, Rich tells us about growing up as the overly protected only child of much older parents. Rich's dad lost his brother to a drug overdose when he was fifteen and never got over it. In fact, each year, around the anniversary of his brother's death, Rich's father gets depressed and locks himself in his study. Rich understands that this drives his parents' overbearing strictness but he's still angry about it.

Naturally, Rich chafes and rebels. His latest rebellion takes the form of a guitar performance at a protest rally. He really doesn't know what the rally is protesting. His girlfriend asked him to perform and that's enough, but he gets a bit of clue when the police as well as his dad show up. Isn't getting arrested and sharing a jail cell with your dad a great opportunity for bonding? After dressing down Rich for lying, sneaking out and getting arrested, his dad retreats to his study to commune with mementos from his past - one memento, a signed Jimi Hendrix guitar, accompanied by a cryptic note, turns out to be Rich's ticket to August 15 - 17, 1969.

Imagine meeting your fifteen-year-old father, the eighteen-year-old uncle you never met because he was (will be?) dead a few months later, and attending Woodstock! Well, meeting your fifteen-year-old father might be a bit traumatizing, especially when he's with a girl who's not your mother, but being at Woodstock would be amazing.

Rich is a likable main character. He's bright, a bit over-analytical and prone to over-use the word, "super." He's also a talented musician and devoted music scholar. His knowledge of the concert is impressive and re-inforces his 1969 friends' view that he is indeed an angel when he unwittingly blurts out what's coming up next despite what the program says.

I don't ordinarily love, or even like time-travel books. They require a leap of faith that I'm usually not willing to take. The concept is just too twisty mind-bending for my simple mind to wrap around. I liked loved this one. The time-travel trigger was brilliant. The world-building at Woodstock was vivid, given Rich's encyclopedic knowledge of rock and the event. Teens who are classic rock aficionados will love the setting. Those who are not will still enjoy it and are likely to request the documentary referenced by Rich from their local libraries. I know I want to view it. 

I was not old enough to attend Woodstock, but remember how newsworthy it was. I also love the music of the 60s and 70s but am by no means a scholar. So when I emailed the author to say how much I loved the book, I had to ask about the title. I admitted that I didn't get it. He graciously responded and I learned that, Are You Experienced? is the name of Jimi Hendrix's first album (face/palm) and it also referenced  passages that weren't in the galley, but will be in the final copy. (Hence the request by publishers to arc reviewers to note in reviews that the copy is not finished.) (And a good argument for rereading the final copy.)

I also must admit that were it not for the author (I am a huge Sonnenblick fan), given the combo of time-travel and that, IMHO, god-awful cover, I would've passed. I hear that the cover is not final. Hopefully, it will be changed. I find that my students are not attracted to psychedelic art on books. I have to sell them hard and even then, I'm more often waved away. Not only that, but given the prominence of Jimi Hendrix in the story, what's with the white rocker-dude on the cover?

Please change the cover. Fans of the author will ignore it and devour the book, especially fans who have grown up with the author, cutting their late elementary/ early middle grade teeth on his Dodger and Me trilogy, then moving on to his older middle grade offerings, Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie; its companion After Ever After; Notes from a Midnight Driver; Zen and the Art of Faking It; and Curveball. 

The author wades a bit deeper into the YA pool what with Woodstock commonly thought of as the epitome of "sex, drugs and rock & roll." He handles it (mostly) cleanly, matter-of-factly and with his trademark humor. Still, drinks are drunk, (acid) trips are taken, heroin is shot and questionable choices are made. It's edgier than his earlier books, but that's okay. His fan base is aging (!) and ready for edgy. Are You Experienced? might be a bit lonely sitting all by itself over on my YA shelf (grade 7 & 8), but hopefully it will have some company soon.


  1. Yes! I agree with everything you said! I DO love time travel books, and this captured the time period spot on. You and I discussed the cover earlier, and "god-awful" was the same adjective I used to describe it-- it will indeed make it a hard sell to middle school kids. I did, however, already sell the story to one of my 8th graders who also explained the title to me. Looking forward to adding it to the collection at my school, where Jordan's books are always a hit.

  2. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment, Ms. Russell! You have a smart 8th grader there. I think I will take some time this week to book talk it to my eighth graders and poll if anyone gets the reference.