One of my most anticipated releases of May this year was The Girl With Stars in Her Eyes by Xio Axelrod. I was pleasantly surprised when it was featured as one of Book of the Month‘s add-on picks in May, and you bet I added it to my box immediately. It’s exactly the kind of book I love, with themes of music (especially rock!), and although I was planning to read it along with several other books about music/musicians, I decided to bump it up a bit in my reading schedule. It ended up being a perfect late-summer romance.
|The Girl With Stars in Her Eyes by Xio Axelrod|
|Series||The Lillys (#1)|
|Genre||Contemporary Fiction; Romance; Music Fiction|
|Setting||Pennsylvania and New York, USA|
|Number of Pages||457|
|Format I Read||Hardcover (BOTM)|
|Original Publication Date||May 4, 2021|
They say the road to stardom is paved with broken dreams.
Growing up in dive bars all along the East Coast, Antonia “Toni” Bennette’s guitar was her only companion…until she met Sebastian Quick. Seb was a little older, a lot wiser, and before long, he was Toni’s way out, promising they’d escape their stifling small town together. Then Seb turned eighteen and split without looking back.
Now, Toni’s is all grown up and making a name for herself in Philadelphia’s indie music scene. When a friend suggests she try out for a hot new up-and-coming band, Toni decides to take a chance. Strong, feminist, and fiece as hell, Toni B and the Lillys are the perfect match… except Seb’s now moonlighting as their manager. Whatever. Toni can handle it. No problem. Or it wouldn’t be if Seb didn’t still hold a piece of her heart… not to mention the key to her future.
Right away, the prologue caught my attention with how musically technical The Girl With Stars in Her Eyes is. I’ve read plenty of books that discuss music, a love of music, and even musicianship more generally. However, Xio Axelrod – a professional musician herself, in addition to being an author – elevates this novel by getting specific on everything from the exact guitar Toni uses to fairly advanced chords she plays. I was continuously impressed and excited at all the musical technicalities that come into play throughout the story.
I love it because I’m obsessed with music, and I’m sort of a musician. Honestly, I wouldn’t really call myself a musician yet; I’m slowly but surely attempting to teach myself piano, but my knowledge and ability are still quite limited. However, my husband is truly a skilled guitarist, and he’s always talking about Diminished B chords and random guitar specs and whatnot. I’ll have to make him read The Girl With Stars in Her Eyes, tbh.
My husband and I met while earning our master’s degrees in Music Business, and that leads me to my next big observation about this novel: It gets really into the finer details of being a recording artist (including a session musician), the behind-the-scenes bureaucracy that can impede artists’ (creative) freedoms, and the more general management that works alongside bands. I loved getting into all of these elements. It harkened back to classes I took, jobs I’ve had (though unfortunately, I’ve never gotten to work with recording artists in any direct capacity), and career dreams I’ve harbored since I was a teenager.
Another thing I loved, and barely mentioned yet: The Girl With Stars in Her Eyes follows a rock group trying to make it big. I love that it highlights not only women in rock (a largely male-dominated genre), but also people of color in rock (a largely white-dominated genre). The main character, Toni, is a black woman, and although strangers would look at her and assume she likes, say, rap, she shows the she not only loves and knows a lot about rock music, she can also play guitar better than almost anyone. She faces a lot of sexism in the industry (an early scene will give you second-hand anger, I swear), but she has what it takes to rise up as a prominent guitarist in her own right.
I really love that she kept playing “Man in the Box” by Alice In Chains. First, I adore Alice In Chains, especially Layne Staley. Second, my favorite song by them might just be “Man in the Box” (it’s at least top five!), and I was genuinely excited every time the song came up. Which was at least three times.
From those first five paragraphs of gushing, it’s clear that The Girl With Stars in Her Eyes is primarily about music. I love the Lillys, the talent and drive they each have, and even the complicated drama within the band. Each of the band members is awesome in her own right, and I’m excited to explore them more in future books. (Have I mentioned that this is the first in a series? I’d had no idea until after I finished the book! The second book in The Lillys series, The Girl With Rhythm in Her Heart, will follow the drummer, Kayla.)
But beyond the band and all that goes with it, The Girl With Stars in Her Eyes is also a romance. Half a life ago, Toni was close friends with Seb, and they bonded over their shared love of music and guitar. But then he suddenly skipped town and they lost touch, and Toni is still (rightfully) angry at him for leaving her behind. Now, Seb is dealing with his own drama (not just professional, but also personal) when he and Toni unexpectedly reunite. She’s acting as the Lillys’ guitarist Candi’s replacement; Seb is the Lillys manager, and he and Candi have their own complicated history together. But with Seb and Toni suddenly back in each other’s lives, how can they reconcile the past? What kind of relationship can they have together now? This is a slow burn, second-chances love story. The romance does frequently feel secondary to the band plot, but it’s still quite important, and it’s portrayed in a heartfelt and realistic way.
Another theme here is toxic family dynamics, specifically with parents who can’t put their own child first or show love. Toni’s dad is physically present, but emotionally distant, and she feels like a burden to him throughout her childhood. Toni’s mother Mary, on the other hand, has been absent for more than a decade, and leads a whole separate life without her daughter. In fact, Toni’s mother’s personal issues seem to parallel those of Candi. Both “don’t know when to stop,” as the characters describe it. While Candi needs too much attention, and is evidently addicted to at least one substance, Mary can’t stop chasing fame and has a gambling addiction. These weightier issues – family trauma and addiction – add an extra layer of depth to the book.
The Girl With Stars in Her Eyes is an excellent novel that’s perfect for anyone who loves music, second-chance love stories, and underdogs making it in a tough industry. I read it as a standalone, and I was both shocked and elated to discover it’s actually the first in a series. The second installment, The Girl With Rhythm in Her Heart, is due out on March 1, 2022. I’m excited to get absorbed into Kayla’s story! Needless to say, I’ll be reading all of the Lillys series, and I look forward to getting into Xio Axelrod’s other books, too.
P.S. Check out this song recorded by The Lillys! (That is, Xio Axelrod and her band)
About the Author
Xio Axelrod [she/her] is a USA Today bestselling author. She writes different flavors of contemporary fiction, romance, and what she likes to call, “strange, twisted tales.”
Xio grew up in the recording industry and began performing at a very young age. As a result, her knowledge of the history of popular music is nearly encyclopedic. Seriously, look her up on quiz night. She might even be up for some karaoke!
A completely unapologetic, badge-wearing, fic-writing fangirl, Xio finds inspiration in everything around her. From her quirky neighbors to the lyrics of whatever song she currently has on repeat, to the latest clips from her favorite TV series, SKAM, Xio weaves her passions into her books.
(And if you’re curious about SKAM, ask her about it. Just be prepared to settle in for the long haul.)
When she isn’t working on the next story, Xio can be found behind a microphone in a studio, writing songs in her bedroom-turned-recording-booth, or occasionally performing under a different, not-so-secret name.
Xio is represented by Nalini Akolekar of Spencerhill Associates