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.

My Top 10 Books of 2015

For December, I’m taking a break from reviewing books. I’ve not stopped reading them, but in recent weeks, I’ve felt myself being a touch too critical of perfectly good books.

 

With that in mind, I’ve decided to follow the tradition that every other media outlet follows in December. Regurgitating old opinion, dusting off old content, covering it in a sprinkle of glitter and presenting it as a ‘Review of the Year’

 

Here are my Top 10 books of 2015 – there’s even some new content in here not previously on my blog!

 

  1. The One In a Million Boy by Monica Wood

 

This charming tale hasn’t been published yet, but the hardback is coming in April 2016, and it’s definitely one to keep an eye out for. My review when I first read it back in October comes across more critical than it should – but only because of the impossibly high standards I expect of books that are sent to me from the delightful @PublicityBooks at Headline publishing. More about her later.

 

  1. Losing It by Helen Lederer

 

I have a rule about the reviews I put on my blog. To avoid being accused of any kind of bias, if I’ve socially spent time with, or am in regular contact with an author then I don’t review their books. But that doesn’t mean I don’t read them.

 

This novel from funny-woman Helen Lederer about a middle-aged writer whose life seems to have stalled, while the lives of those around her flourish is the only book this year to make me snort with laughter on the underground, so earns it’s place on this list.

 

  1. Nothing But Trouble by Matt Cain

 

Another title – and the last – on the countdown that didn’t get a review of it’s own on the blog this year, but this look at the glamorous behind the scenes goings-on of popstar Lola Grant is funny and sexy as well as being so well-written, that I was shouting at the character’s as they made some dubious decisions. There was a strong anti-drugs streak through it and the main character as well, which is not the obvious route to go with a book like this.

 

  1. The Secrets We Keep by Jonathan Harvey

 

This is another one that I feel looking back I was too harsh on in my review. The acid tongue of Lynda La Hughes mixed with the plot twists of Coronation Street, what’s not to love? A pacy plot mixed with characters you actually care about makes up for the ever so slightly frustrating ending.

 

  1. My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh

 

I’ve never been to New Orleans, but this book made me feel as if I had. You can feel the humidity coming off the page and it’s that sense of place that really helps this coming-of-age story succeed.

 

  1. the long way to a small angry planet by Becky Chambers

 

This science fiction novel is like somebody decided to make a list of all the things needed to make a successful mix of Douglas Adams, Red Dwarf and Star Trek – but it works. A compelling cast of characters means not only do I want another book, but I want a TV series. The upcoming Star Trek television revival, would do well to have a look at the rough nature of life in space represented here.

 

  1. Moving by Jenny Eclair

 

I liked this more than I ever thought I would, and it’s only as I write this and consider the upcoming books in the list, that I realise it’s because it’s the story of someone’s life. There’s something incredibly voyeuristic to think that come the end of the book, only one person knows the truth about everything, and that’s us, the reader. What makes this book even better is that despite Eclair’s unique personality, she manages to reign it in, giving the character’s their own distinctive voices.

 

  1. I Let You Go by Claire Mackintosh

 

I nearly gave up on this book, despite it being well written, it seemed to be meandering early on. Then there’s a development that I wasn’t expecting and it shoots the book off into a completely different direction. Well worth a read.

 

  1. A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

 

I read this almost a year ago now, a copy of the book sent to me by @PublicityBooks – and I didn’t regret it. Harry Cane (not the footballer currently playing for Tottenham Hotspur) is a Victorian gent whose life is changed when he discovers the pleasures that other Victorian gents have to offer.

 

Like Moving, you’re fully invested in the characters, and like My Sunshine Away has a wonderful sense of place. An amazing book with a great cast of characters, this will be appearing in a lot of people’s best books of 2015 – not least the Costa Book prize who have shortlisted it in Novel category, the winner of which will be announced on 2nd January.

 

  1. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

 

There’s really not much more I can say about this book and I don’t think it will have come as any surprise to anyone that I’ve placed this at the top of the list. I’ll be re-reading it again soon, but the biggest pleasure I’ve gained from this book, is the sense of community it has engendered with other people who have read this book.

 

There’s a knowing look, a smile and a sympathetic pat on the back.

 

I always considered myself to be dead on the inside, but A Little Life had be sobbing like a child. If you don’t even squeeze out one tear while reading the ending of this, then you truly are emotionally dead.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

I’m about to do something I swore I wouldn’t ever do. So to past me, I must apologise.

However, to present me, future me and to you, whoever you are that happens to be reading this, I won’t apologise, because I have something to say.

I’m about to review a book that I only read forty pages or so of.

I know what you’re thinking. That was either a completely life changing forty pages, or… they were a bit shit.

Actually, neither.

I’ll admit to being a bit biased before I (attempted to) read A Brief History of Seven Killings, for two reasons, both of which are A Little Life.

 

Now, even I’m starting to get bored with how much I bang on about A Little Life so I’m going to try and soon write a blog that doesn’t reference it, but here the reference is relevant.

It was indirectly recommended to me on twitter by someone claiming it to be better than A Little Life, and it also beat the Hanya Yanagihara tome to this year’s Booker Prize (which was not a huge surprise since the favourite never wins).

I felt obliged to give it a go, and I was hooked by the premise of multiple characters crossing oceans and years to tell the story.

My first issue was a small one – the paper of the pages was not of great quality. Thin pages, mean hard to turn pages and I kept skipping pages without realising it.

However, the reason I didn’t realise I was skipping pages was because the language used in the book was so hard for to follow, told in many places in the dialect of the character speaking.

Jamaican Patois is not something I’m hugely familiar with, it’s not something that crops up all that regularly in deepest Wiltshire, and so I found it hard to inhabit the mindset of the characters. It left me detached and uncaring.

What it did make me realise however, is how alienating most fiction can be to ethnic minorities. Most things are written in a formal English, one that most people don’t speak on a day-to-day basis, but is close enough to traditional spoken English that it is accessible.

I wonder how easy someone who regularly speaks Patois would find it to inhabit the characters of A Little Life or A Place Called Winter. Perhaps the limitation is mine and mine alone and it wouldn’t be a problem.

There’s an interesting study to be done here on ethnicity and reading habits, and it’s probably one that already exists if I cared enough to seek it out. But it strikes me as suddenly very obvious why there are some cultures where literacy is low – they’re under-represented in fiction, the fun part of being able to read.

I did find that if I read the passages aloud (in a very bad attempt at a Jamaican accent) there was a wonderful lyrical, almost poetic quality to the writing. This isn’t a book that was written, it was carefully crafted, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to listen to my own voice for nearly seven hundred pages.

From what I read, it certainly deserved to win the Booker Prize (a prize that is traditionally given to books that most people struggle to get into) and I would recommend it to anyone who doesn’t struggle with dialects.

I, however, will seek out an audio version so that I can listen to someone much better at reading out loud tell me the tale.

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

It’s not often that I’m wrong, it’s an even more infrequent occurrence that I admit that I’m wrong. But I was.

Earlier this year, I read A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale and I wouldn’t stop raving about it. I even, what now seems a touch prematurely, considering it was January, billed it as my book of 2015.

I was wrong.

And that’s not to do down A Place Called Winter, it’s still within my top five books of all time, and most other years, would easily win the book of the year title.

But, a few months ago, a book by Hanya Yanagihara landed on my desk at work. It’s a big brick of a book, over seven hundred pages, and I knew nothing about it. I hadn’t even read the blurb, but I was told by a colleague that I would enjoy it. Mostly because he knew I enjoyed The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

So what was I expecting? The great American novel. A bit of a saga. Not much else.

The blurb tells us it is the tale of four friends, JB, Malcolm, Willem and Jude. But really, it is the story of Willem and Jude. But REALLY, it is the story of Jude.

We meet them when they’ve first moved to New York and Willem and Jude are looking for a place to live together. It is made clear at the very beginning, they are not a couple, nor are they brothers. They are simply friends. Best friends.

And that is what the story is about; the importance of friendship, how it effects our lives and how it can be bigger, yet more uncategorised than romantic love, than sexual love.

A Little Life is the story of love between men. It explores all aspects of it, and it does so beautifully, and yet so tragically.

It’s very difficult to talk about this novel without giving anything away, or indeed without going on for pages about the tiny point that you want to talk about, so perhaps the best thing to do is to tell you about the structure of the book.

The titular little life in question is that of Jude St Francis, and it is through a non-linear construction that we learn about it. He is mysterious, and reluctant to talk about his past, to the point that his friends, his closest friends know nothing of him, except not to ask.

It is over seven hundred pages long, but each section, each chapter, feels like its own book. We learn in them the stories of all four characters to varying degrees, and though some of the chapters are as long as eighty pages, the prose and the characters are so elegantly drawn, it is impossible not to get swept away.

Cathy Rentzenbrink wrote in the Bookseller that she read the book in one night. This is unbelievable, believable, and unbelievable again all at once.

Initially, the size of the book is off-putting. It certainly doesn’t strike you as a quick read and the first thirty to forty pages are confusing. There are so many male twenty-something characters that it is difficult to tell them apart.

But then, something clicks and you’re not just able to tell the characters apart, but they have started to become part of you. The book starts to become part of you and although you kind of broadly know what’s going to happen, you have to read on. And that’s when you understand how it’s possible to have read it one night.

The desire to read on is strong, but what I can’t understand, is how anyone can be emotionally stable enough to read it in one sitting. There is a point about a third of the way through – and I don’t think this spoils anything – where the tragic background of Jude starts to become clear, and you realise that this is a book that’s going to break your heart.

That’s not to say it is filled with unrelenting misery. I read A Little Life at the same time that I downloaded Will Young’s latest album 85% Proof. It’s a typical Will Young album, cracking vocals, a little bit dance-y but quite melancholy, but I had it playing in the background as I read parts of the book, and every song on it seemed to fit the plot.

Three songs stand out:

Thank You – a song from Jude to Caleb

Blue – a song from Willem to Jude, that actually contains the line “We live a little life”

And Joy – a song that is melodically upbeat and happy, but is lyrically about hope. “Nothing really matters, we’ve got everything we need, take a big leap and we will feel joy.”

It’s a song about daring to hope that things are going to work out, and that is the pervading feeling that you get from this book. Life is miserable, bad things happen, but the characters in this book are not just living little lives, they’re living great ones, because of the relationships and friendships that they form with each other.

There’s a whole section of the book in the last third called “The Happy Years” and by the time you get there and you see the heading, your heart sinks, because you know that nothing is going to stay happy, by this point, you know it’s a book that’s not only going to break your heart, it’s going to shatter it and use the bits to create itself a home.

And there are moments during The Happy Years where you’re screaming at the characters, urging them to just… well, I shan’t say. But you are. They’re making themselves miserable and it’s unbearable.

Then, at the end of The Happy Years, at their happiest, something happens, in the last three to four paragraphs. I had to put the book down and walk away.

It was a Sunday afternoon, and there were maybe a hundred pages or so left. I had time to finish it before going for dinner at my mum’s, but by this point, I knew that I would not be in any state come the end of the book, where I would be able to be around people, let alone make small talk with my granddad and mum.

I came back in the evening, curled up on the sofa with a glass of wine and began to read.

I started with Will Young playing in the background, but it became clear after just one page that the music wasn’t suitable. Not because it didn’t match, but because I was being sucked into this world. Into Jude’s world.

It doesn’t spoil anything to say that first part of the last section is told from Jude’s point of view – as I’ve already said, the book is told in a non-linear structure – and I started to cry.

I’m not a big crier. I’m not emotional. But sometimes when watching a film, or a TV program, a small tear will escape. It happens more often with books, where one or two tears will trickle down my face. It last happened with A Place Called Winter, and previously to that it happened with the book that I won’t name (I’ve mentioned this book before, but it’s becoming less and less important to me that I don’t share it, perhaps one day, I will).

In the space of 98 pages, I cried four times. A trickle or two of a tear. Maybe on one occasion three tears, because I really screwed up my face and squeezed that third one out. This was surprising enough to me, to know that A Little Life had truly affected me, but then…

The last section of the book is a letter from Harold – Jude’s adoptive father, and it had made a tear escape already once. And then there is the payoff to a moment three or four hundred pages earlier and I immediately started to sob.

Big, unmanly, tears misting my eyes, properly crying.

I had to put the book down, two pages from the end, because I couldn’t see to read. I had to compose myself before I could bring myself to carry on any further.

There are many more things I could say about A Little Life, and I could probably talk about it and digest it and analyse it forever, and I probably will, but for the purpose of this blog post, I’ll just add these last few points:

  • It’s taken me a week to even contemplate writing this post, such did it effect me that I couldn’t face thinking about it.
  • I’ve many more books in my ‘To Read’ pile, but I’ve regressed to Harry Potter. I need to cleanse my pallet so to speak, before I move on to anything else, and I know that the JK Rowling series will not be diminished by what has been read before.
  • To my sister – who will likely be one of the few people to read this review. This is my Moulin Rouge.

To people who want more than plot from their books, the kind of person who might enjoy The Goldfinch, then I would ask you to please read this book, to stick with it past that first confusing section (which by the way, I think is intentional, because it seems ridiculous now, that one could confuse any of these characters).

I was wrong when I said A Place Called Winter was my book of the year. It’s still a very good book, one of the best. But, if there’s a book better than A Little Life, I don’t have the emotional strength to read it for at least six months, and so I am crowning A Little Life my book of 2015.

It’s probably the book of my life.
A Little Life is published on August 13th 2015