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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Book Review: Lauren Oliver’s “Rooms”

Published 12/21/14 by:

Rooms Book Jacket

 

 

“This is how we grow: not up, but out, like trees – swelling to encompass all these stories, the promises and lies and bribes and habits.” (Excerpted from “Rooms”)

I won’t lie to you, I was not totally enthused about a novel in which ghosts are the narrators. It’s not that I’m prejudiced against ghosts, or people who believe in them, but I just wasn’t convinced that this wouldn’t be another gimmick to make the plot seem more enticing than it actually is. However, in the case of Lauren Oliver’s latest novel “Rooms”, I was pleasantly surprised, and my assumptions were quickly squashed.

So why did I buy a book that initially didn’t seem appealing to me? Well, for starters, I’ve read quite a few of Oliver’s books, and I’ve enjoyed her storytelling. Additionally, I am a total sucker for entertaining dysfunctional families (see Tropper’s “This Is Where I Leave You”), so “Rooms” had some pull in that department. While my readership is constantly being driven by how many fascinating characters a novel is advertising, “Rooms” did not have that immediate draw. In fact, very little is revealed about the two ghost narrators, while the family whose house they’re inhabiting takes center stage.

As you delve into the book you’re immersed in a chaotic family event: the oft-ignored patriarch of the family, Richard Walker, has passed away. His adult daughter Minna, ex-wife Caroline, teenage son Trenton, and his granddaughter all flock to his home to get organized and hear his will. As a result of the divorce, the alternating narrator ghosts Alice and Sandra have not seen the rest of the Walker clan in years, and are quickly trying to brush up on what this quirky family has been up to. In hearing the ooos and ahhs of the Walkers’ arrival, as told by Sandra and Alice, you learn that the two ghosts have been putting up with each other for years, and do not particularly get along. It’s not until much later in the novel that you understand the complexity of their living and non-living relationship.

Most of us are aware of ghost lore, and how we’re to assume that ghosts exist because they’re in an “in-between” state – with unfinished business, or unresolved issues around their death. Oliver plays into this well-established notion, and expertly weaves revelations about the two ghosts’ pasts, as they attempt to use the vulnerable Trenton as a scapegoat for their issues. Ultimately, they’re hoping to get rid of the Walkers, but in a way that also expels them from the home they’ve been forced to haunt.

As the reader becomes more aware of the feelings and histories of Alice and Sandra, you’re also drawn in to how they function daily. There’s no escape from the home they’re attached to, and whatever naughty behaviors Caroline, Minna and Trenton are up to, they are subjected to it. This reality (if I may) is both curious and depressing, and as a reader I was drawn to how they negotiate their way into the lives of the Walkers, who have chosen not to “hear” Alice and Sandra for years.

At one point the ghosts refer to themselves as “the endless swells” who “carry the crests of his voice to her mouth”, and I couldn’t help but gasp at the thought of this all being real. Lauren Oliver’s debut novel for adults is a haunting tale, not because it has ghosts, but because the ghosts perhaps know how to live better than the humans they haunt.

Book Grade: B+

 

 

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Book Review: John Corey Whaley’s “Noggin”

Published 6/17/14 by:

Noggin Cover

 

 

Have you ever thought about what it would be like to come back to life? Have you ever considered what it would be like to have your fairly perfect life taken away from you at the peak of your teenage existence? Sarcastic, charming and earnest narrator Travis Coates is living an absurd and unbelievably lucky life. And it’s his second go at it.

 

When we meet Travis he’s 21-years-old chronologically speaking, but in reality, he died at the age of sixteen because of cancer, and five years later is back from the dead. No, this is not a supernatural thriller; It’s really the most unique coming of age story I’ve ever read. Travis was living a very ordinary teenage life. It got cut short, and now he gets to live an extraordinary teenage life, but with someone else’s body from the neck down.  Allow me to explain: Travis volunteered for a cutting edge (pun intended) medical trial in which his head (which was perfectly healthy and cancer-free) was extracted from his dying body, and frozen. Doctors made no promises to his family as to how soon science would catch up to Travis’ frosted skull, and so everyone was left in a hopeful limbo. Travis’ quirky, thoughtful girlfriend Cate, his (very in the closet) best friend Kyle, his mom, and his dad waited patiently for Travis to maybe return to the living, but five years is a long time, and people move on. Then, Travis woke up.

 

Imagine waking up and being an actual walking modern miracle. That’s Travis’ new existence. Now imagine what it’s like to see what your death did to the people you loved. Then try to wrap your head around (so punny) the fact that your death eventually was a catalyst for your favorite people to move on. Travis was not forgotten, but his remembering, and the way he wants things to be, are very much in the past for his friends and family. Meanwhile he feels like he’s only been asleep for about ten minutes.

“Up until that point, any time someone said my story ‘inspired’ them, I cringed and I wanted to tell them all the reasons why missing everyone’s lives and coming back and being the only one who was the same was the most terrifying thing I could ever imagine.” (Whaley, 293)

 

This is a novel that explores what second chances are, how difficult growing up can be once, and the struggles of it happening a second time without your friends. Travis’ relentlessness in refusing to let go of the past, which to him, unfortunately, still feels like the present, is both heartbreaking and frustrating. His love for Cate never wavers, but time is a beast even a modern miracle like Travis can’t tame:

“They say you can fall out of love with someone just as easily as you fall into it. But is that also the case when the person you love dies? Do you have to fall out of love with them so you can fall in love with someone else?” (Whaley, 247)

 

I was captivated by both the concept of this book, as well as the narrator. Travis has the ability to be reflective, and wise, but his teenage spirit is evoked when his opinions clash with Cate and Kyle. Herein lies the rub: being resurrected ain’t easy.

Book Grade: A-

 

 

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Book Review: Lauren Oliver’s “Before I Fall”

Published 3/8/14 by:

Before I fall Cover

“There’s always going to be a person laughing and somebody getting laughed at. It happens every day, in every school, in every town in America – probably in the world, for all I know. the whole point of growing up is learning to stay on the laughing side.” (Oliver, 5)

 

You’re not going to like Samantha Kingston. Although she’s the protagonist in Lauren Oliver’s thought-provoking young adult novel “Before I Fall”, she’s difficult to root for. Why? Because she’s one of the “top four” most popular girls in her Connecticut high school, and the entire novel takes place on one day: February 12th, also known as “Cupid Day”. While some of you may remember Valentine’s Day in high school as a lonesome celebration that reminded you of how uncool you were, for Samantha Kingston and her BFFs, it’s the day where their peers become painfully aware of their popularity in a very visible way – by how many roses are sent to them. Perhaps you’re having flashbacks to “Mean Girls”, or perhaps you’re already turned off by the setting of this YA novel, but I can tell you this: “Before I Fall” will have you reconsidering most of the moves you made as a teenager, and maybe even some you’ve made as an adult.

 

On February 12th Samantha Kingston dies. This isn’t a spoiler because you’re made aware of this fact within the first page of the novel. What you soon find out is that Sam has to relive this day seven times, each time becoming more drastically different than the one before. This is where I, as a reader, became fascinated. There have been plenty of films, novels, shorts stories etc. that have tackled this idea of if you could relive one day how would you do it, what mistakes would you continue to make, and why? Lauren Oliver is making her mark on this existentialist’s dilemma by having her female protagonist, Sam, be a selfish, beautiful senior in high school, who continues to not get it right on her second, third, fourth and even fifth attempt at the same 24 hour period of time. This is a protagonist with flaws. Sam, as the narrator, makes the assertion that “Popularity’s a weird thing. You can’t really define it, and it’s not cool to talk about it, but you know it when you see it. Like a lazy eye, or porn.” (Oliver, 17)  Sam starts to question everything that she worked towards in terms of popularity, but she still makes lousy decisions time and time again. Some of those choices are a result of her being angry that she’s dead, while some of her choices become increasingly self-destructive and wild because, well, the consequence will never change.

 

As I plowed through this novel I considered what I was like at seventeen, and whether or not I would push the limits of what I could get away with, if I knew I was dead the next day no matter what. Would I unashamedly kiss the boy I always had a crush on? Would I go for cheap thrills like cheating on a test, skipping class, smoking in the school bathroom, or speeding recklessly? Would I become sentimental and incessantly tell my favorite people how much I love them, just to ensure they know before I am gone? I honestly don’t know. What I do know, is that as a seventeen-year-old I did not face the dilemmas or drama that Sam tackles in her seven tangos with February 12th, which made her moments of clarity and stupidity that much more compelling.

 

Book Grade: B+

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Book Review: Robyn Schneider’s “The Beginning of Everything”

Published 1/12/14 by:

Beginning of Everything Book Cover

My high school didn’t have a Prom King or Queen. We didn’t have a homecoming weekend, or a valedictorian, and we most certainly did not have a cafe that sold lattes on campus. These are all driving forces at Eastwood High where (protagonist and narrator) Ezra Faulkner has just begun his senior year. It never occurred to me that it was odd that my alma mater didn’t succumb to these traditions until I got to college. Then, for whatever inexplicable reason, I decided to covet said traditions. I retroactively wanted to know what all of those things would’ve been like, and who would’ve secured those heavily anticipated social statuses. I honestly couldn’t tell you who would’ve won Prom King in my class, because frankly, I don’t know what the criteria is, or who would’ve even bothered to vote. I can tell you this: Ezra Faulkner sounds like the kind of guy who would’ve won over everyone at my school, even after his accident.

Yes, Robyn Schneider’s “The Beginning of Everything” starts with beloved tennis prodigy Ezra Faulkner getting into a car accident that shatters his knee. The accident takes place immediately after he finds out his potential Prom Queen girlfriend, Charlotte, has been cheating on him. Thus ensues Ezra’s demise back into the group of brainy friends he had in middle school. He reluctantly joins the debate team, falls for a girl who quotes Foucault, and rekindles his best friendship with the eccentric, bow-tie toting Toby. The high school milestones and social class divisions were originally what sucked me into this novel.  What kept me reading was Ezra’s realization that his accident could be the catalyst for something great, perhaps something even better than the jock table, and tennis scholarships. Additionally, Ezra Faulkner’s likability (as a narrator) stems from his earnestness and wit. He can banter about beer pong, but his Volvo is nicknamed Voldemort. When he shows up without a costume to a Halloween party, people assume he’s dressed as a teenage vampire, because unbeknownst to him, his leather jacket and dirty hair are exuding that “look”. Essentially he’s a teenage boy trying to figure it out, and I appreciated that as a reader.

While some of the plot twists, and character development leave something to be desired, for the most part “The Beginning of Everything” offers an interesting (and hopeful) perspective for current teenagers. For those of us that are over the age of eighteen, “The Beginning of Everything” presents an opportunity to reminisce on the restrictiveness of high school, while allowing us to revel in first love, and other teenage debauchery.

 

Book Grade: B

 

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