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Book Review: AcaPolitics by Stephen Harrison

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Ambition. Shared purpose. Compromise. Alliances, come and gone. These are but a few of the factors that color the world of politics. In his debut novel, AcaPolitics, Stephen Harrison demonstrates the a cappella world can be every bit as complicated, treacherous, and prone to turmoil as any other political sphere. At the same time, Harrison also reveals the collegiate a cappella universe to be one of unparalleled hope, community, and love.

AcaPolitics opens on freshman move-in day at an activities fair in which representatives of rival a cappella groups engage in an unspoken battle to lure top first-year talent to their auditions. The 290 pages to follow present us with a full year of the a cappella experience, from listening to groups sing for the first time, to auditions, to first solos, to competition season and beyond.

The novel benefits from a rich diversity of characters and motivations. Harrison walks a tight-rope between overwhelming his readers and accurately portraying the complexity of the constituencies that make the a cappella world. Consider that the characters range from a “legacy” of sorts whose grandfather sang for one of the groups; to a diver with Olympic ambitions whose parents scoff at her wasting time on the college “glee club;” to a pair of star-crossed freshman would-be lovers, torn asunder when they’re drafted to competing a cappella groups. It’s a lot to absorb, but these characters do function as realistic college students in realistic a cappella groups.

One of the keys to the success of AcaPolitics is that, far more often than not, Harrison succeeds at making us care about his characters. Dani is exactly the sort of driven, type-A megalomaniac so many of us have known, who is just as likely to be loved as hated—and the novel’s treatment of her gives both perspectives a fair shake. Taylor is just the kind of nervous goody-two-shoes who we all know could succeed if he could only be confident enough to trust his own abilities—and as readers, we do, ultimately, stress out right alongside him, as we root for him to do the right thing at the novel’s climax.

Above all else, AcaPolitics is clearly a love letter from a collegiate a cappella alum to the community from which he has recently graduated. As such, the narrative carries a real authenticity, between a respect for the intricacies of music, and a love for the rich body of quirky traditions that one could never truly separate from the a cappella world. Yes, this is a first novel, and no, it’s not perfect. The rapid-fire changes in point of view will leave even the most careful reader’s head spinning in the early chapters, and the insistence on identifying characters based on vocal part, rather than conventional pronouns (“the petite soprano” in place of she) is going to leave some readers shaking their heads. For these reasons, as much as the general content matter, I can’t necessarily recommend this book to a reader who doesn’t already care for a cappella. But, for those who have spent any length of time singing a cappella themselves, supporting a family member or friend’s group, or otherwise drinking in every “boom-sss-kuttt” from the sidelines, this book is going to be a real pleasure.

As I hope I’ve already made clear: I loved AcaPolitics. And the best news of all about this book? It’s the first in a series. Visit the official website to learn more about the book and keep up to date on where the project is headed next.

Reviewer’s Note: I received a free copy of AcaPolitics for the purpose of writing a review. Please rest assured that, per a standing agreement with the author, that did not affect my evaluation of the book.

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