A(nother) Book Review: Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

In between getting to read books that are coming out next year and trying to keep up with the incredible books that suddenly just appear on the shelves with no prior warning, sometimes I can miss a few hidden gems.

 

If I’m lucky, some of them will find their way back to me.

 

Occasionally, it’s just a passing conversation, but when someone goes to the effort of placing a copy on your desk – and another person tells you how good said book is – it feels like the great librarian in the sky is telling you to read it.

 

This is what happened with Shotgun Lovesongs.

 

First published in 2013, it shows us the lives of four men who grew up together in a small town in Wisconsin. We are first introduced to Hank – sometimes Henry – who introduces the reader to Lee, his childhood best friend who is now rock superstar Corvus.

 

Over the course of three weddings – Kip’s, Lee’s and Ronny’s – we learn how the four lives interact with each other over the various years.

 

There are obvious parallels for me to draw at this point between Shotgun Lovesongs and A Little Life.

 

They both concern themselves with the relationships between four male friends over a long period of their lives, but the trauma that we live through in A Little Life is a million miles away from the lives we observe in Shotgun Lovesongs.

 

Aside from four male leads, and the overall theme of love between male friends, the two are quite different.

 

A Little Life pulls you into the characters lives but the setting and even the time period of the story is unimportant, neglected even. That works for that book, though, because you are there with the characters. You are the fifth friend in the friendship group.

 

With Shotgun Lovesongs you are very aware of both the time and the place. It’s a neat trick for a writer to pull off when they can make you feel the temperature of a location in just a few sentences.

 

Nickolas Butler performs this trick with ease and it’s this sense of atmosphere that pulls you into the world of this small town America. The characters themselves are less well-drawn than those in Yanagihara’s opus, but the novel still works well.

 

Like A Little Life the main narrative is dominated by one particular relationship, however the conflict between the Lee and Henry is never fully resolved to this reader’s satisfaction.

 

Comparisons to A Little Life are difficult not to make – despite Shotgun Lovesongs being published first and any book would suffer for it, however this stands up admirably.

 

I just sort of wish I’d read it first – I think I would have enjoyed it even more than I did.

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A(nother) Review: The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

It’s lunchtime on a Sunday as I write this. That is where this blog post begins.

 

Except for you, it’s at least 2pm on Thursday, likely later than that, so maybe that’s where this blog post begins?

 

Or perhaps it started when a colleague – let’s call her Ginger Spice (again) – handed me a copy of The Fact of a Body by Alexandra Marzano-Lesnevich. Or when she first told me how great it was…

 

I could go on. And that’s the point.

 

The Fact of a Body is the true story of Marzano-Lesnevich’s mission to understand why Ricky Langley’s case struck a chord with her to the point that she couldn’t not investigate it.

 

Langley has been tried and convicted of killing six year old Jeremy Guillory and Marzano-Lesnevich first comes across him, when interning for a legal firm specializing in death-row appeals, she sees a video of Langley’s confession.

 

For her, that is where her story begins, but as she says herself, it also started elsewhere, some many years ago. Something that Marzano-Lesnevichrefers to herself in the introduction to the book, when she talks about an American legal case – Palsgraf v Long Island Railroad Co. The Palsgraf case is used to illustrate proximate cause.

 

Proximate cause refers to the start of a chain of events – which as we begin to discover, can sometimes be traced further and further back. The question becomes… when do you start that chain of events.

 

At first, I was expecting a legal investigation into Langley’s case, something along the lines of the podcast Serial, so I was slightly surprised when Marzano-Lesnevich started talking about her own childhood.

 

As we move through the book though, it becomes clear, this isn’t your typical straightforward exploration of a legal case. It’s a personal journey for the author, exploring what happened to her, at the same time, exploring why Langley did what he did.

 

I’m not sure what I think of this book. It’s page-turning, fascinating and structured in a way that more information is revealed as you go along – it’s never boring.

 

The Langley case is heartbreaking, and so thought provoking. The author does a good job of balancing both sides carefully. What Langley did to Jeremy is monstrous, but we learn more about Langley’s family history which in itself is inherently sad.

 

Where this doesn’t quite work for me is the author’s personal story. Horrible things occurred to her, but barring one or two times, I failed to connect to her emotionally.

 

The story was almost split three ways – Langley and his crime, young Alexandria and the crime that happened to her, and the older version of her who dominated much of the book. For me, it took too long for the relevance of all three parts to truly connect.

 

Having said that, I would definitely recommend this book – though it probably ought to come with a trigger warning.

 

This is the end of my review (Or is it?)

 

 

A(nother) Review: Sal by Mick Kitson

It’s that glorious time of the year for people in the business that is books… no, not my birthday, or the re-stocking of titles that are going onto the school reading lists for the next term.

 

No, better than that, publishers are starting to send out the first proofs of new books coming in 2018. Happy August!

 

Of course, I’ve already had a couple, notably Fear and White Bodies – and though I enjoyed both, this latest is probably my favourite. So far.

 

Sal has run away with her sister Peppa to live in the woods. She had planned her escape to get away from her mother’s abusive boyfriend for nearly a year, and we slowly learn how and more importantly why she planned this escape.

 

Sal is not a long novel, at just over two hundred pages long, however that is no bad thing. Our eponymous heroine drags us straight into the narrative with incredibly engaging descriptions of how she and her sister even begin to survive.

 

We’ve all listened to Desert Island Discs – A current obsession of mine, I’m not the only one who’s listening to everything in the archive am I? – and one of the questions original host Roy Plomley asked each guest was whether they would be able to survive on a desert island.

 

I am probably not alone in thinking that I would be able to give it a good go. I’m not deluded enough to think I’ll be the next Robinson Crusoe, however I’d lay money on lasting longer than the average.

 

And then I read Sal.

 

Thirteen year old Sal has been planning this for a year, and she’s very good, but, gosh is it complicated. She knows things that I wouldn’t have a clue about.

 

Turns out, living on my own in the wild, I would have likely died of some kind of infection fairly soon. However, I’m now confident I might last a day longer than I would have done previously.

 

This isn’t about me, though, it’s about how Sal and Peppa survive – and how long they survive.

 

Despite some of the subject matter, this is a very easy read, one that pulls you into the story, turning each page until you suddenly realise you’ve ready fifty pages more than you were intending to.

 

It’s all slightly implausible, but at the same time utterly believable – with the drama surrounding the two missing girls happening on the periphery of our attention.  This isn’t a book about the plot, though, it’s about the characters, how they grow when left in the wilds of Scotland away from all civilisation.

 

Sal and Peppa are two great characters, managing to swerve the trap of becoming annoying know-it-alls as characters of their age (thirteen and ten) are wont to be – however it is the elder character Ingrid, who comes complete with her own fascinating backstory that really grabs the attention.

 

While it might be possible to suspend disbelief that Sal and Peppa have managed to survive a day or two in the wild, Ingrid has been there years – and through learning her story, I’m more than willing to bet she probably has. Heck, she’s probably still out there somewhere.

 

Sal probably won’t end up being my favourite book of 2018, but I suspect it will make a few people’s top tens quite easily – and I will certainly be packing it as my book to take to that desert island, if only to help me survive an extra day or two.

Sal will be published by Canongate in early 2018