Dead Rock Stars by Guy Mankowski


‘The first page of my sister’s diary was a picture of Frances Farmer, facing a drawing of Ophelia. My sister’s psychic accomplices were all tragic figures…’

Emma Imrie was a Plath-obsessed, self-taught teenage musician dreaming of fame, from a remote village on the Isle of Wight. She found it too, briefly becoming a star of the nineties Camden music scene. But then she died in mysterious circumstances.

In the aftermath of Emma’s death, her younger brother, Jeff, is forced by their parents to stay at the opulent home of childhood friends on the island.

During a wild summer of beach parties and music, Jeff faces up to the challenges that come with young love, youthful ambition and unresolved grief. His sister’s prodigious advice from beyond the grave becomes the only weapon he has against an indifferent world.

As well as the only place where the answers he craves might exist…


Musically, my nineties consisted of The Spice Girls, a fascination with Peter Andre and an obsession with learning all the dance moves to Steps latest hits. Being ‘cool’ was never something I was accused of….and funnily enough some things never change. My point, being rather more frothy pop than hard rock, I wasn’t sure if I would find the either the common ground or the emotional connection with the characters in this book for it to really get under my skin. Would it be a bit too beyond what I know?

Emma Imrie, a rising star in nineties band Cherub, dies suddenly and somewhat mysteriously one night leaving her brother Jeff devastated over the loss of his big sister. Dead Rock Stars focuses on the summer following her death, during which Jeff grapples with grief, finally bringing himself to read Emma’s diary, in which he begins to understand his sister in a way he never has before. From the very beginning where Jeff watches his sister perform at a Camden music venue, it is clear that she is on a pedestal for him, and what follows is the disassembling of a myth to enable a true understanding of the person she really was.

I absolutely loved this book. During a time where reading has been less of a priority, and where many books have failed to grab me in a way I’d like, this really took me by surprise. It’s not a shocking, rollercoaster read of plot twists, it’s far more internal and subtle and yet I found myself reaching for ‘just one more page’ until my bedtime reading melted into the next day without my noticing.

Most successful is the authenticity of Emma. Her presence from the beyond the grave, in the memories of Jeff, through her words in her diary and even her lasting legacy through her music, create such impact and are so wonderfully effective in creating her as a full blown character in the mind of the reader. She inhabits the book, overshadows Jeff and I found myself instantly drawn to her. She’s a complex young woman, her ambition and talent colliding with her insecurities. I challenge any young person reading this not to find a piece of themselves somewhere within Emma.

It is a ‘coming of age’ book, and it’s one that resonates. In searching for the truth about his sister and confronting some harsh realities, Jeff begins to shed the innocence of childhood. Left alone to cope with his overwhelming emotions, his relationship with Ruth begins to develop. For me, this pairing was a real highlight, I enjoyed the tender scenes between the two which encourage him to explore his emotions and embrace who he is.

I also enjoyed the strong sense of place throughout, whether it be the idyll of the Isle of Wight, the family’s home, or the buzzing London music scene. I lived in London for several years, and my husband lived in Camden for a while, and I found these scenes in particular to be so vividly accurate, a wordy attack on the senses, that I felt sucked into the action as if I was there. The duality of place works so well and serves to further enhance the already strong characterisations.

Dead Rock Stars is without doubt a book I’ll be re-reading, as I feel as if I got so swept away by the story and the characters, that I missed so much else that this novel has to offer. The language, particularly in terms of the music, is gorgeous and then there were the passages that I read, and then had to immediately re-read because the words offered a certain kind of clarity or a fresh perspective. It is unapologetically a book about pain, loss and grief. But it also offers hope.

The book that has officially broken my reading slump; I cannot recommend highly enough.

Dead Rock Stars is available to buy now via Amazon

About the Author

Guy Mankowski has lectured at Northumbria, Sunderland and Edinburgh universities. He has published a range of fiction, academia and journalism about music. His first novel, ‘The Intimates’ was named as a ‘Must Read Title’ by New Writing North’s Read Regional Campaign. His second novel, ‘Letters from Yelena’ won an Arts Council Literature Grant, was used in GCSE training material by Osiris Educational and was been adapted for the stage. His novel ‘How I Left the National Grid’ was written as part of a PhD at Northumbria University and was published in the UK, US and Canada. His fourth novel, ‘An Honest Deceit’ (Urbane Books) was published in 2016 and republished in 2019. It was the winner of an Arts Council Literature Award, was named as a 2019 New Writing North Read Regional title and was adapted for Audible.

‘Albion’s Secret History: Snapshots of England’s Pop Rebels and Outsiders’ to be published by Zer0 Books in 2020.

He is a Fellow of the Higher Education Authority. From September he lectures full time at Lincoln University.

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2 thoughts on “Dead Rock Stars by Guy Mankowski

  1. I haven’t read Daisy Jones & the Six. But I think this is what I would HOPE it was like. Your review of Dead Rock Stars resonates so much more interest in me than the aforementioned hyped book, so I think I will be keeping an eye out. Loved the read!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have Daisy Jones and the Six, but I haven’t read it yet….I’ve heard it’s best in audio format?
      I hope you decide to give Dead Rock Stars a read, if you do I’d love to know how you get on!


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