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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Movie Review: Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher”

Published 12/30/14 by:

Foxcatcher Poster

  Eccentric millionaires seem to be a dime a dozen these days, but in the late 1980s, the general public was much less aware of their existence. So when John “Golden Eagle” du Pont (one of many heirs to the DuPont chemical manufacturing empire) requested the presence of 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist Mark Schultz (a freestyle wrestler from Palo Alto) at his Philadelphia estate, Mark understandably had to ask John who he was. And so, the strange legacy of Foxcatcher began.

    Mark, and his brother Dave Schultz, were both extremely decorated athletes. The brothers had dedicated their professional careers to coaching, and competing in the sport of wrestling. In 1986, Mark found himself in a financial lull, as Olympic wrestlers were not a hot commodity for lucrative sponsorships, or coaching positions. That’s when Mr. John du Pont called him. John was an avid athletic supporter, and thought that the sport of wrestling, and the wrestlers themselves, deserved bigger paychecks and more prestige than they currently were receiving in the United States. Mark was easily persuaded to move to Philadelphia and train at the first class facility John built for U.S. wrestlers to use. While Dave was invited back in 1986, he declined as he and his family were already established in the community he was coaching in. This left Mark (according to the film) in a vulnerable position, which is what the bizarre tale “Foxcatcher” focuses on.

    Steve Carell paints a haunting portrait of John’s essence: lonely, millionaire ornithologist. His awkward movements and gestures suggest someone who rarely leaves the comfort of his own estate, and is not used to hearing the word no from anyone. His obsession with winning, wrestling, and befriending Mark (ruthlessly portrayed by Channing Tatum) will make you cringe, but simultaneously sympathize with this peculiar man. It isn’t until Mark’s training gets derailed by John’s hard-partying ways, and insensitive outbursts that Dave Schultz (played by everyone’s favorite human teddy bear: Mark Ruffalo) finally arrives at Foxcatcher Farms.

    The dynamic between Carell, Ruffalo and Tatum is phenomenal. Carell is able to effortlessly demonstrate John’s sense of ownership over Mark, and the other wrestlers training at Foxcatcher, while Tatum flawlessly executes the psychosis of a fierce competitor being mentally toyed with by his mentor/proprietor. As the movie progresses towards its crescendo (the 1988 Olympics), we see Ruffalo’s ability to depict what a respectful coach and older brother should look like. While some moviegoers may deem the film as being too slow, or having the majority of the action in the last 40 minutes, Carell’s performance alone is worth seeing on the big screen.

Movie Grade: B-

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Tunes of the Week Edition No. 5

Published 6/20/14 by:

Well folks, school is out for the summer! I now have free time to peruse music at my leisure, and bestow upon you the tunes that are piquing my interest! During the hot weather I definitely find myself gravitating towards country music; I can’t help it, there’s just something about a chorus that includes margaritas, jean shorts and goodnight kisses. However, since I’m exactly one day into my student/camper-free summer, the tunes this week aren’t deep fried yet. Watch out for that next week. For now, please enjoy my eclectic choices, which demonstrate how chaotic life has been the past two weeks as I entered grades, data and a sauna of a classroom.

 

 

Deptford Goth‘s Feel Real – If you’re into Bloc Party or The Postal Service, I think you’ll dig this song. It’s catchy, and reminds me of night time car rides, and goosebumps. Especially goosebumps inspired by night time car rides with crushes. What? TMI? Deal.

 

 

Sugar and the Hi-Lows‘ Two Day High – This is a super duper duo comprised of Amy Stroup and Trent Dabbs, both of whom you may know from the multitude of television shows that their songs have graced while they were solo artists. They recently opened up for Ingrid Michaelson, which is where I encountered them, and now I’m obsessed. Their whole album is like one long jazzy dinner party that you never want to end. So, yeah, buy it already.

 

 

 

 

Tom Odell‘s Long Way Down – Tom Odell is like the long lost friend you never knew you were missing. This song is stark, beautiful, and builds to one hell of a crescendo. The song is featured on the soundtrack for The Fault In Our Stars, and I’m never turning back.

 

 

 

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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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