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Loved it! 😍

Smokin' & Cryin' is a cute and easy to read book! The writing style is simple and smooth and the themes very interesting. Worth reading :-)


August 27, 1972. Robin Chelsea, teenage lead singer of Smoky Topaz, disappears into the Atlantic Ocean mere weeks before the group’s double album, Smokin’ & Cryin’, is released. Recorded over one blistering Savannah summer in the dungeon of an antebellum mansion, it’s threaded with candid snippets of the band members’ dirty secrets, bitter arguments, and deepest fears.

In the wake of Robin’s disappearance, Smokin’ & Cryin’ flies off store shelves and dominates radio airwaves to become the obsession of a generation of music lovers. But what really happened to Robin Chelsea?

More than four decades later, the discovery of Robin’s candid writings—juxtaposed with news clippings, legal documents, reviews, letters, personal notes, and interviews—make it possible to finally piece together the tangled truth behind this mysterious rock and roll legend.

Smokin’ & Cryin’ isn’t Grace Ombry’s first book, but it is for me as I hadn’t read anything by her before. I randomly found out about it through Reedsy Discovery, and you can bet I am so glad this happened, as I truly loved the book and thought I was so lucky to read it before anyone else and also for free.

This book is about Robin Chelsea, a fairly normal teenager who ends up becoming the lead singer of American rock band Smoky Topaz in the 1970s. This is an interesting storyline as I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel that was so focused on music before, or specifically on the happenings of a band on the rise. It’s a bit of a documentary novel, as it’s filled with poems, pop culture references, documents, letters and interviews which make it more realistic but also more of a young adult novel. I have nothing against that, but I guess some people might. The language and writing style are also very simple and smooth, which make this book feel young, laidback and fresh.

Set in the 70s, the themes of music, being young, family and love come together with sadder themes such as death, addiction, the Vietnam war and the fact that teen boys were sent there to die. In fact, three of the members of Smoky Topaz are veterans from the Vietnam War and Robin himself joined the band to avoid recruitment, which obviously adds a layer to their personalities and interactions. I really liked the funny dynamic between the band members, as their egos clash and as they bond show after show. I also liked the fact that two of the band members, Robin and Arthur, are half-brothers, as it’s not often that I’ve found such a good representation of sibling dynamic in a book.

Even if this book deals with heavy themes and interesting concepts, even conspiracy theories, the part of the novel that deals with the rise of Smoky Topaz is so upbeat and fun that I think on the whole the book is a happy one. I can’t reveal much about the ending, but just know you will be surprised by unexpected twists as you read about what happens to the members of Smoky Topaz as they record their second album, Smokin’ & Cryin’.

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I am a neuroscience student but I have always been a passionate reader and I have read many different book genres. I also write and have done for a very long time. I would definitely say reading and writing are two of my favourite activities, and I don't think this will change anytime soon.

Purple Heart

All I was searching for in Dad’s dresser drawer was loose change to take to the barbershop. Why should I spend my lawn-mowing money when a punishment haircut was the last thing I wanted?

Instead, I found a consent for enlistment form postdated for my 16th birthday. Even with parental approval, I’d have to be 17 to enlist. Along with the form was my birth certificate, now altered to make it look like I’d been born in 1953 instead of ’54. He planned to ship me off to Vietnam when I turned 16. Five months.

Dad and Bev, my stepmother, had been fighting ever since her son Arthur returned from the war. She wanted him to stay at our house, but dad argued my older stepbrother was a bad influence on me and Lisa because he smoked too much, drank, did drugs, swore nonstop, consorted with married women, wore his hair too long and played electric guitar. Never mind that he’d been awarded a Purple Heart medal.

When I’d sided with Bev, Dad grounded me and demanded I get a brush cut. And with my hair grown out past my collar, too.

The tires of Dad’s Impala crunched on our gravel driveway and I hurried to stuff the enlistment papers into my back pocket. That’s when I spotted something with no business in Dad’s drawer: the only pair of earrings my mother had ever worn. They should have been buried with her. She’d had them on in the casket. Yet here they lay jumbled with his cuff links, tie tacks, and the ugly class ring he wore to impress people.

I cradled the small, golden brown gemstones in my palm. Smoky topaz. She’d once told me she chose them because they matched the color of our eyes. The day she got her ears pierced Dad flew into a rage, saying she’d mutilated his property. My mother refused to take them out. She knew he was cheating with Bev from across the street. Those earrings were her declaration of independence. And now they would be mine.

I stuffed them in my pocket and slammed the drawer shut. No way was I getting a stupid brush cut. I didn’t care if Dad grounded me forever.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Dad loomed in the doorway.

Downstairs, the phone rang.

“I told you, get that shaggy mop taken care of,” he said. “You’re turning into a goddamn reprobate like your stepbrother.”

Bev called to me from the kitchen, “Robin? Telephone.”

Grabbing the excuse to get away from Dad, I pounded down the steps, rounded the corner and snatched the receiver from my stepmother.

“I told him you can’t go over there tonight,” she said. “We’re having dinner at the Elks Club, your father and I, and we need you to stay here and babysit Lisa.”

Arthur was on the line. Since his return from Vietnam, I’d seen him only twice. He was a terrific guitar player. While he was gone, I’d taught myself to play and written a bunch of songs. It took the dull ache out of his absence. My hip stepbrother was the one good thing that came out of Dad’s affair, the divorce, and his remarriage.

“Just listen for a second,” Arthur said. “A few of us are getting together to jam tonight at Deuce’s pad. Come on up. You can sing for us. Or bring the Gibson. Or both.”


“My mom already said you have to babysit. It’s cool with me if Lisa tags along. Just don’t let our parents find out. Now, tell me Sorry, I can’t make it.

“I really want to but I have to watch Lisa.”

“Perfect. All right, baby bro. See you around 8 o’clock.”

“Sure, man. We’ll get together some other time.”

40. PARENT/GUARDIAN STATEMENT(S) (Line out portions not applicable) a. I/we certify that (Enter name of applicant) Robin James Chelsea has no legal guardian other than me/us and I/we consent to his/her enlistment in the United States (Enter Branch of Service) Army.
I/we acknowledge/understand that he/she may be required upon order to serve in combat or other hazardous situations. I/we certify that no promises of any kind have been made to me/us concerning assignment to duty, training, or promotion during his/her enlistment as an inducement to me/us to sign this consent.
Parent or Legal Guardian: Vernon R. Chelsea
Witness: Beverly Ann Chelsea
Date: December 6, 1970

AT SUNSET, I PEDALED my bike across the Third Street Bridge to Deuce Fitch’s pad, Lisa balanced on the handlebars. Fearsome drums and searing guitar poured from the windows above the pharmacy, echoing off the brick buildings along Midland Street. Arthur’s band in high school had been tight, but this was something else. While I propped my Schwinn against a parking sign, Lisa danced barefoot on the sidewalk to Susie Q in her flowered baby doll pajamas.

I gave her a piggyback ride up the long staircase, her sticky arms around my throat.

Deuce’s apartment had more P.A. equipment than furniture. The tall windows were flung open with their moth-eaten blanket curtains shoved aside. Lisa wasted no time knocking the empty beer cans off the windowsill to make a stage and reenact an episode of I Dream of Jeannie with her Kiddle dolls.

I’d never jammed with a group before. Arthur had borrowed a cheap electric guitar after scouring the local pawn shops for his old Les Paul sunburst, which my dad had pawned, and coming up empty-handed. The drummer, a small, cheerful guy called Waverly, brought along only a few pieces of his drum kit. The bass player never showed up. I didn’t have the J200 with me, so I just sang. Singing was my bag, what the kids at Central High knew me for: belting out songs in the hallways between classes, embarrassing my locker partner, ticking off the teachers, making the girls roll their eyes.

Arthur set his guitar aside. “We sound half-baked.” He sat on the floor and Lisa plunked herself onto his lap. They shared the same serious eyes and square jawlines. Lisa had Bev’s dark hair, while Arthur’s was dishwater blond, grazing his broad shoulders.

“There’s what we ought to call our group,” Deuce said. Built like a bulldog, he’d moved amps here and there and fiddled with the knobs on a soundboard. Like any of it mattered with no one except Lisa and random passersby on the street below to hear us.

“I dig it,” Waverly said. “Half Baked. The Half-Baked Band.”

“Holtzapple and the Half Baked. Holtzapple Upside Down Cake,” Deuce said.

“No way. Forget putting my name on it. That’s not my trip.” Arthur cracked open a can of beer. “Anyway, I’m sick of food names. Vanilla Fudge, Hot Tuna, Cream. I’m not fussing over a name when we haven’t even landed our bass player.”

“Perry will come through, you’ll see,” Waverly said.

“You don’t know Perry,” Arthur said.

“Sweet Studio Perry.” Deuce rubbed the back of his own neck. “I’ll land him. Trust me.”

I didn’t butt in about a band name or Perry, whoever he was. Eleventh grade started in a few weeks, and Arthur was good enough to get anyone to sing for him. He was being nice by inviting me to do it. I stuffed my hands into the pockets of my cutoffs. An earring poked my fingertip. “Hey, anyone know where I could get my ear pierced?” I pulled out the earrings to show them.

“Weren’t those Caroline’s?” Arthur asked.


“So, the funeral director gave them to you?”

I decided not to complicate things by letting Arthur in on the fact I’d stolen them from my dad. “Sort of. I want to do both of them in one ear.”

“Groovy,” Arthur said.

“Do you have a potato lying around here somewhere?” Waverly asked Deuce. “And ice cubes? Sewing needle?”

Deuce scoffed. “What do I look like? Suzy Homemaker?” Still, he managed to find a safety pin, an apple, and a freezer-burned carton of spinach.

Waverly used the spinach box to numb my earlobe, sterilized the safety pin with vodka, held the apple behind my ear and shoved the pin through my flesh with an audible pop

I yelped. Chills swooshed over the left side of my body. The second piercing hurt worse because I knew what was coming. My eyes watered. Lisa jumped on Waverly’s back to pull him away from me. Arthur scooped her up and carried her off so Waverly could finish.

I sang my heart out to distract from my throbbing earlobe. Sometime after midnight, I biked home shirtless with my ear bleeding. Lisa, riding the handlebars, wore my T-shirt over her pajamas to keep warm. I stopped on the bridge and shredded the enlistment documents and altered birth certificate, letting the pieces drift away on the Saginaw River current.

I made Lisa swear not to tell anyone where we’d been.

“Shit man. Ear poke,” she said. “I not tell.”

Offer bigger share of group earnings
Bow down to his superior musicianship
Buy him a B3 (soon as we can)
Convince him of our potential & discretion
Need a miracle

Undated personal note, courtesy of the Holtzapple Family

About the author

Grace Ombry has lived in Bay City, Mich. since 1971. She graduated from Central Michigan University with a journalism major and a great love for writing. She's the managing editor of Epoxyworks Magazine. Grace has written two pop-culture novels: Smokin' & Cryin' and State of Love & Trust. view profile

Published on December 17, 2018

90000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Genre: Coming of age

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