Book Review: Nickolas Butler’s “Shotgun Lovesongs”

Published 7/8/15 by:

Shotgun Lovesongs Cover


“I came back here and I found my voice, like something that had fallen out of my pocket, like a souvenir long forgotten. And every time I come back here I am surrounded by people who love me, who care for me, who protect me like a tent of warmth. Here, I can hear things, the world throbs differently, silence thrums like a chord strummed eons ago…”


This is the genuine sentiment of the five narrators who encompass Nickolas Butler’s debut novel “Shotgun Lovesongs”. Kip, Lee, Henry, Beth and Ronny all grew up together in the rolling farmlands of Little Wing Wisconsin. While some of them stayed after high school, others moved on to bigger cities, bigger lives, bigger dreams. It turns out bigger isn’t always better, and sometimes dreams fulfilled don’t warm your heart the way loyalty and a brisk Wisconsin winter can.

As the novel moves through each narrator’s perspective as to why they’ve arrived back in Little Wing, or for some, why they’re still there, the reader is enthralled with how diverse the lives and interests of these five folks are. Despite the smallness of their community, and the fierce sense of camaraderie they feel in their small group of friends, each of the narrators have had very different adventures. As the group approaches their mid-thirties, it appears that the only commonality they have left is Little Wing, but over time some secrets, business ventures, career flops, injuries and other maladies bring the group together, and tear some apart.

Perhaps the most interesting storyline is that of Lee and Henry’s enduring friendship. Henry stays behind to take over his father’s farm and marry his high school sweetheart Beth, while Lee takes his songs on the road and becomes a huge star in the same vein as a Bruce Springsteen. Lee returns to Little Wing often and is received as a hometown hero, but it’s his brotherhood with Henry that captivates, as Henry earnestly ignores the success of his life-long best friend and just feels lucky to be reunited with his good pal Leland. That brotherhood gets tested multiple times throughout the novel, and is what catapults the story into a page-turner.

Fans of Kent Haruf, Willa Cather, and John Steinbeck will love the sprawling landscape that’s deliciously laid out for them in Butler’s midwestern perspective. This novel delicately intertwines things that every hometown friendship needs: love letters, beer, jukebox tunes, fist-fights, and underdogs. I finished reading “Shotgun Lovesongs” weeks ago, and am still wondering what escapades Henry and Lee are up to now.

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Interview with Stephanie Blackburn, author of “Kissing Frogs”

Published 1/20/15 by:

Kissing Frogs Cover



Avid readers are aware that the current book market is saturated with young adult novels, mysteries, romances and coming of age stories. It’s easy for people to identify what they see a lot of. What’s harder to do is identify what’s missing. Up and coming author Stephanie Blackburn has a knack for locating the missing pieces of what could potentially be a very popular genre: Tales of the Twenty-Something. In her latest self-published novel “Kissing Frogs”, Blackburn captures that awkward period of time when you sign your first apartment lease, have your first post-college romantic rendezvous, and navigate a new city independently while trying to maintain your lousy first job. Most people over this hump would sentimentally refer to it as the best worst time they’ve ever had. Blackburn’s narrator 24-year-old narrator Elliot Roux is attempting to have the time of her life, while being moderately broke, single and living with three gals who may or may not have great judgment. Their dating escapades and Elliot’s erupting family life lead the reader through an experience that will ring true with many folks who are currently navigating their twenty-somethings, or just recovered from them.

I was lucky enough to chat with Stephanie about her latest novel. I’d love to hear your feedback on the book as well, so please snag it here, and fill me in on your thoughts in the comments!


KM: While most of us have had a slew of bad dates in our lifetimes, what inspired you to write a book about it? Some of us would rather pretend those awkward moments never existed, while you seem to relish in reminiscing about them.

SB: Often we think that bad dates are only happening to us, that our friends meet a guy and hit it off and it seems like we are just unlucky in love. I wanted to highlight bad dates so readers could think, No way! I had an equally bad date. This one time… I wanted to start a dialogue so readers don’t feel alone in the land of terrible dates. Trust me, there are a lot of us there. And hopefully, as is the case with me, you put a little distance between yourself and the bad date and can look back on it and just laugh. I think that’s key.

KM: As a writer, how important do you think setting is? You chose Boston as your backdrop, which is obviously where you currently reside, but you could’ve chosen anywhere. Did you think it was important to tell those stories where they occurred, or was it a comfortability with already knowing how to describe these places?

SB: I choose places I know. “I Want To Hold Your Hand” took place on the New Hampshire/Massachusetts border because that’s where I grew up and I know the landscape intimately. With “Kissing Frogs” I chose Boston because I’ve lived here all of my adult life and I know the landscape – the different neighborhoods, places to get certain types of food, how amazing Fall feels in the Public Garden, etc. I wanted to stick with what I know and can describe without having to look something up on the internet. Also, I remember watching Sex & The City and falling in love with New York because of how integral the setting was – like a character. I think a lot of viewers did and I thought in a way that it was a love letter to New York. Well, I adore Boston and I wanted to create my own sort of love letter where readers could fall in love with this amazing city. Hopefully that was achieved.

KM: How do you create your characters? I heard from a little bird that you might have created some of the male characters based on real people. How do you navigate this slippery slope?

SB: In fairness, I may have borrowed some dating stories from people I know. Sometimes you’re sitting at brunch with girlfriends and they tell a really juicy story and you think (or at least I do) This is too good not to be shared! Some stories are just so outrageous – for example the guy who tasered himself for fun – that it doesn’t seem real, but I have a feeling there are more guys in the world who do stuff like that to entertain themselves. As for the female characters, I knew that Elliott was going to be trying to figure herself out, her dating life, and her family situation. And since she’d be all over the place in terms of actions and emotions I needed characters that were having equally dramatic experiences (Dylan and Shea) and other characters (Morgan, Alex and Sasha)  to maintain a sense of calm. As for the mother and Gram, I needed them to be so drastically opposite to balance each other out. Gram is like Elliott’s moral center and her mother unmoors her.

KM: I’ve been told that “Kissing Frogs” is book one of a trilogy. Could you speak to the process of deciding that, and what you see as exciting or potentially aggravating about sticking with these characters for three books?

SB: So the story goes that I came up with the concept for this series about six years ago. I talked about it with friends for so long that it got annoying. And then a little over a year ago I decided it was time to finally start writing them (mostly because my friends weren’t excited about reading my YA manuscripts). I actually started by writing a chapter that happens in the middle of the second book. And after that I wrote a chapter that happens in the third book. I sent both of them to a couple of friends and they got so excited about it and kept asking for me that I thought, Well, I guess I’d better start from the beginning. I’ve spent so much time contemplating the characters that the entire plot is done, it’s just a matter of writing every chapter out. I knew the ending before I even put my fingers to the keyboard. It does feel a bit daunting, knowing how many words are left to write, but in all honesty, it’s fun writing about these characters and their dating drama so I don’t think I’ll get sick of it before it’s complete. Fingers crossed!

KM: The subject matter in this book can be fairly scandalous, but then you have such tender moments between the narrator Elliot, and her grandmother. So who is your intended audience for “Kissing Frogs”?

SB: I had a couple of weeks right before publishing “Kissing Frogs” in which I had quite a bit of anxiety, solely based on the “scandalous” content. Both of my grandmothers have read my two previous novels and I didn’t want them to look at me differently if they read this one. They are not my intended audience, which I would say is twenty and thirty-somethings. But I knew that family would likely read it and I worried about their reactions.

Excluding the saucy stuff, I think that any age group can relate to the moments between friends, drama between family, trying to figure out who you are and your place in the world. One of my grandmothers did end up reading it (I should note that she also read the Fifty Shades trilogy so I wasn’t too worried about her) and said that while she wished I didn’t have such knowledge regarding sexual content, that the story made her laugh and cry. That’s what I hope for. Not necessarily to harp on the dating snafus, but to make the reader feel something in regards to the female relationships. Connect with the roommate situation and the girlfriends or the family drama or going to that person who puts you back on your feet when you feel out of sorts. If I make people laugh and cry then I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. And if I shock them with the story of Pokerface that’s just an added bonus. I would probably add that if you can’t get into a Rated R movie then you shouldn’t be reading this book.


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Book Review: Domenica Ruta’s “With Or Without You”

Published 11/8/13 by:

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Memoir is a genre that lends itself to being criticized for seeming embellished, self-accolading or an over-share. These are only three of a myriad of insults and criticisms that the memoir author faces. Well, guess what? Domenica Ruta could care less. Her brutally honest memoir entitled “With Or Without You” chronicles two decades of surviving with her drug addicted mother Kathi, in a place filled with townies Kathi is either related to, owes money to, or both. In her debut, Ruta has established herself as someone with talent, humility, and unadulterated honesty. It’s my sincere hope that she’s an author here to stay.

Despite her best efforts, Ruta’s faithfulness to her hometown of Danvers, Massachusetts is embedded in her. Her parents, both townies, and teenagers when she was born, never leave, and she’s often left wondering if she’s capable of getting out. She identifies so much of her heritage by living in an apartment on the family “compound” alongside her grandmother by the river: “These animals, this river – it all belonged to us. I decided this the way that only children and dictators assume things, by pointing a finger and saying it is so.” Ruta mockingly remembers her grandmother thinking they were “just like the Kennedys” and it’s this type of lack of awareness and identity that I think makes her story so compelling. Ruta grew up in an apartment with her mother in a place that had trash piled so high it made the front porch concave. For her grandmother to compare her self-proclaimed trashy family to the Kennedys just makes you smirk. What made this smirk-worth to me, is that I know these people. I know their pride, and how its foundation really has no connection to reality. In Massachusetts, these folks exist, and while they may have many faults, they can be quite charming in their approach.

One aspect of “With Or Without You” that made the story that much more compelling to me, was Domenica’s desperation for knowledge, despite having no so-called “academic mentors” in her life. She admits whole-heartedly that “if it had been possible to lap words off an aluminum can spilled out of a dumpster, I would shamelessly have gotten down on all fours.” And I believe her. While Domenica’s academic prospects seem hopeless, her drive lands her a scholarship in the most unlikely of places. This scholarship makes Kathi feel like she’s hit the social climber lottery. Throughout the memoir I felt like Domenica was directly addressing Kathi, and admitting to her that she worshiped her and pined for her love for so long, but everyone has to grow up. By the end of the novel the reader is made aware of their relationship status, and you experience how much Domenica has grown since she thought that her “mother was the one who called in the tides” of the Porter River.

This book will strike you in moving ways. It will appall you. It will remind you. It will irritate you. It will challenge you, and it will motivate you. You may end up dreaming of having a daughter that blindly adores you the way Domenica adores Kathi, but you also may vow to never have someone like Kathi poison anyone in your circle of family and friends. Domenica Ruta is a writing force, and her tornado winds? Well, she got them from Kathi.

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