Friday, March 25, 2011

Bent Road by Lori Roy (review)

In a season of remarkable debuts it is often difficult to choose which new novel to pick-up. Do I want a thriller? A tear-jerker? A literary tour de force? It can prove to be nearly impossible to choose the “right” debut. As a lover of the dark and edgy I tend toward the debuts that are a little less literary and a little grittier, but despite my love of the sinister, I found myself pulled into debut novelist Lori Roy’s Bent Road.

While I would hesitate to call Bent Road a psychological suspense or even a dedicated mystery, I can say that it is an engrossing read. This new novel brilliantly captures the small town aura of 1960’s Kansas. Flitting between the 3rd person narratives of four characters; Celia, her two youngest children Daniel and Eve-ee, and her sister-in-law Ruth, the novel manages to be both literary in its encapsulation of small town life and prejudice and intriguing in it’s presentation of two mystery subplots, the unexplained death of Eve (Celia’s sister-in-law) decades before, and the sudden disappearance of a young girl. I say subplots because while both are essentially the blood in the veins of this story, their strength in terms of plot falls in comparison to the infinitely more interesting character study that this novel becomes. It is easy to become sucked into the world of these characters, to feel sorrow with them, fear for them, and to be angered by their actions. One becomes far more concerned with the thoughts and actions of these individuals than the (to my mind) less interesting mystery-plot. The ability of Roy to elicit this response from a reader as a first time novelist says a lot about her writing prowess. In this period of phenomenal debuts, I would highly recommend this new novel to lovers of solid character-driven fiction.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Are You Seth? vol.12

Alright, so it's been awhile since I posted a review of any kind on the Warwick's blog - in fact, the last volume of "Are You Seth?" was posted in July 2010 and was for Anthony Doerr's Memory Wall. I mention this because Doerr just recently won the 2011 Story Prize for that very same collection - clearly I was on to something! So, in an effort to breathe new life into the blog - which we think could really use a better name & are open to suggestions - here are 2 new books that I think you should read.

Wait, no, you HAVE to read these.

We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
First of all, feast your eyes on that beautiful jacket art. (Illustrated by Joe McLaren, jacket design by Susanne Dean, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.) If this isn't reason enough to keep books in a physical format, I don't know what is. (The artwork is definitely the reason I picked this up in the first place.) I really have nothing against eBooks, but this is the sort of thing we lose when we go all-digital. I'm just sayin'.

Even better, it's a gorgeous novel on the inside as well. Originally published in Danish in 2006, it won the highest literary prize in Denmark and was picked as the best Danish novel of the last 25 years by the readers of the country's largest newspaper. Spanning the years & generations from 1848 to 1945, We follows the sailors of Marstal - a tiny island town & the center of Danish seafaring pride - as they travel the oceans of the world - from Samoa to Newfoundland, Australia to London, Casablanca to Dakar, Murmansk to Greenland, and back home to Marstal. Always back to Marstal, where the women wait, worry, and grieve.

Through the years, as Marstal's place in the world evolves, a different narrator escorts us across the globe and back to Denmark again. As each narrative voice moves on, another from their life picks up the tale & makes it their own. When on dry land, the people of Marstal tell the story in a collective “we” – a narrative device that Jensen wields with majestic clarity & grace. Funny & poignant, heartwarming & powerful, yet dark & foreboding in a way that only the events of our own world can actually be. After 674 pages, I was still blown away by the final, heart-rending page. One of the best books I've ever read.

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht
This is already turning into the hot book of the year, so forgive me if you've already heard about it. (Seriously, it's huge right now - Random House has already gone back to press at least three times, even though it's only been on sale for a week.) Last summer, Obreht - at the tender age of 24! - was named one of the New Yorker's 20 Under 40 and this is her subsequent stellar debut novel. She had this to say to the New York Times this week about her new fame:
"I still haven’t taken it all in. It already seems like such a long time from the moment when I said to myself, ‘Somebody likes it, somebody bought it, and it’s going to have a cover!’ The other evening I gave a reading, and someone came up to me afterwards and said, ‘The Deathless Man is my favorite character.’ My immediate reaction was: how do you know about the Deathless Man? When you’re writing, you’re working on this private world that becomes more and more real to you, but it’s still your own. And then to discover that suddenly other people can access it - in a way that really shocks me."
The rundown: Natalia is a young doctor on a diplomatic mission across the border of her war torn Balkan homeland to deliver vaccines to an orphanage. While there, she learns that her beloved grandfather has died in a remote village far from his home. Knowing that he was gravely ill & never would never have travelled without a reason, she becomes convinced that he was in search of "the deathless man" - a longstanding, mysterious figure from the stories he told her as a child. As Natalia sets out to uncover the mystery of her grandfather's final days, she learns more about herself, her family's past, and her country than she ever though possible and finds that all the answers she seeks lie within the stories of her grandfather.

Obreht mixes together Natalia's contemporary story of life in her ravaged homeland (she was born in the former Yugoslavia, herself) with her grandfather's incredible stories of "the deathless man" and "the tiger's wife," to create a fantastical world grounded in the harsh reality of a region recovering from decades of war.  Foreign, yet familiar; impossible, yet true; unsentimental, yet emotional - the elements that she has managed to cull together here are melded absolutely perfectly. A stunning, stunning debut, and one that will stick in your head for long after you've turned that final page, I guarantee it.