River City Reading: March

Spring has sprung so spend it skimming these new releases.

Shotgun Lovesongs

by Nickolas Butler; March 11

Little Wing, Wisconsin was nothing more than empty space on a map until singer-songwriter Corvus’ album Shotgun Lovesongs is recorded in a Little Wing chicken coop and shoots the town to stardom. But regardless of the money he makes or the actress he marries, Corvus will always be Leland to Hank, Kip, and Ronny, the friends he grew up with, all suddenly converged back in their hometown. At various stages in their lives and careers, the friends discover changes in the bond they once shared and uncover secrets they have tried to keep hidden for years.

Shotgun Lovesongs drips Midwest. I grew up in a suburb of Detroit, closer to Kip’s Chicago highrise than Little Wing, but I still felt a certain closeness to Butler’s characters and their situations. I’ve seen the reunions, the weddings, the far-strung friends that circle back and attempt to fall into place like they never left. Though the characters in his novel inch toward stereotypical, Butler captures the essence of those friendships and emotions in each one.

Winter in Wisconsin is the ideal time to avoid someone because our garments grow even larger, even thicker, and we go about the frozen world insulated beneath knit caps and mittens, our feet clad in mukluks or boots. How many times after that wedding did I wave to Kip with a mittened hand, when beneath the crocheted wool only my middle finger waved?

There’s more than one layer to Shotgun Lovesongs. The book’s story is told from several perspectives, and not just those of Leland, Hank, Kip, and Ronny. Woven into the narrative is Hank’s wife Beth, who becomes both a catalyst for much of the novel’s conflict and an olive branch for mending it. Compared to their male counterparts, Beth and the other female characters in Shotgun Lovesongs feel slightly two-dimensional, as some of their story lines are touched on but don’t feel fully explored.

Perhaps it’s sentimental or just a longing for home, but I found myself overlooking flaws in Nickolas Butler’s novel that I would have found distracting in other books–easily swept up in the characters and story. Though some readers without a connection to the Midwest may not feel so forgiving, Shotgun Lovesongs is a deeply truthful, personal reading experience that gets to the core of friendship and love.

The Wives of Los Alamos

by TaraShea Nesbit; February 25

While the rest of the country prepared itself for war, women from across the United States and the world gathered their families, belongings, and willingness to adapt in order to support their husbands in New Mexico. For years, these women were living under a shroud of mystery, slowly building a community among strangers, sharing little but their common bond of life behind an unknown bomb.

The Wives of Los Alamos is filled with a chorus of we. There is no I or me, no protagonist. Though the extended use of first person plural feels like it’s breaking literary rules at first, it soon begins to make sense as a form for representing a group so cut off and secluded from society that they nearly become one. Together, they navigate the world of the foreign desert, adapting to life in a closed community and, eventually, one another.

Our attire took on the drab camouflage of the surroundings; the beige and muted tones of the desert became our wardrobe–and we could see how this attire appeared to an outsider, to the newly arrived. There was the sunlight’s skill at color and though we were subtle, though we often blended into the background, we left our red lips on one another’s coffee cups and highball glasses.

As the novel unfolds, the magic in Nesbit’s technique becomes clear: hidden within the collective narrative are individual stories that highlight unique experiences. They were working as mail carriers or switchboard operators, sobbing under the hum of the vacuum, leaving the hospital with an apology instead of a child. Debut novelist TaraShea Nesbit has set aside convention in favor of a refreshing style that brings The Wives of Los Alamos to life in an unexpected, incredibly believable way.

The Accident

by Chris Pavone; March 11

Literary agent Isabel Reed knows her career is about to change as she pours through the pages of The Accident, a manuscript written by an anonymous author and mysteriously dropped by her office. Filled with secrets about a powerful media mogul, Isabel is sure the book has the potential to bring both money and acclaim to the agent, editor and publishing house that puts it in the hands of readers. But as she reaches out to friends to help her bring the publication together, placing the manuscript into the hands of those around her, she triggers a series of events that will reveal the story’s true details over the next 24-hours.

Though I didn’t read Pavone’s debut, The Expats, which was incredibly well received, I was drawn to the literary premise of his latest. And that is exactly what makes it such a stand out novel. The major trajectory of The Accident could have easily fallen into the usual plotting of a legal or political thriller, even with the theme centered around the story of the manuscript. But Pavone’s decision to shift toward the world of publishing gives the novel a completely different, fresh perspective.

Though I was able to unravel many of the twists before the ending, I found it to be an incredibly engaging, tough to put town read. Especially for those interested in the hidden world behind books, The Accident is one to add to that (ever growing) list.

The Free

by Willy Vlautin; February 4

Following an attack by a roadside bomb, Iraq War veteran Leroy Kervin is seriously injured and living in a group home for disabled men. In a moment of realization and fear, Leroy attempts suicide, leaving him in intensive care at a nearby hospital. Freddie McCall is on duty at the group home when Leroy is injured and adds daily hospital visits to his rotating schedule of two jobs, which he works in hopes of paying off medical bills for his young daughter. Pauline Hawkins is the well-liked ICU nurse who cares for Leroy and the other patients on her floor, including a heroin addict who she works desperately to help.

The Free‘s main characters are connected through their relationship with Leroy, but the hurdles in their lives branch out to touch on topics much broader than the Iraq War.
Vlautin’s stark writing is his strength, as the novel has a distinct drag in Leroy’s more abstract dream sequences. With his added ability to write realistic dialogue, marked with clipped sentences and full pauses, Vlautin fills The Free with moments of true insight into the lives of everyday Americans.

While it can be a difficult read at times, as it will certainly touch too close to home for some, The Free shines with bits of hope over despair. Though he paints a clear picture of American crisis, Vlautin also gives readers reason to carry on.

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Shannon Nemer

Shannon is a reader, teacher, and professional Australian Shepherd entertainer.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. I’ve been seeing “The Free” pop up in a lot of unexpected places. Admittedly, I know I’m going to have trouble with the dream sequences, I always do. But I think it might be worth it. I’m glad you included it here!

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