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4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
Back Roads
Format: Paperback|Change

on 18 May 2017
I can't put it down - good story.
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on 16 April 2011
My eldest sister recommended this to me, and I was grabbed by her reference to The Catcher in the Rye, as she felt that Harley Altmyer, the 19-year-old who narrates the story in Back Roads, reminded her a lot of 17-year-old Holden Caulfield's in Salinger's novel. Having now read Back Roads, I could understand why she, and others, have made this connection: after all, both characters share a sense of being cut-off, feeling awkward, self-conscious and isolated; both feel frustration and a deep-felt pain, anger and anguish about their lives and circumstances; both are trapped and feel unable to escape; both, too, interestingly, tell their stories in the present tense, while in fact they are reflecting back on their lives from within the enclosure of an institution.

It is, without a doubt, an accomplished first novel: O'Dell has created, understood and convincingly portrayed the personality of a vulnerable, angry male adolescent in Harley (along with Amber, as a female psychological mirror to Harley's own pain and anguish). The themes are gritty, the family situation heartbreaking, the pace is gentle while the story is troubling and, if at times predictable, none the less the characters still remain with you long after closing the last page, so it is definitely worth reading. (And if you haven't read Salinger's novel, please, please do - it is a genuine modern classic of fiction that is beautifully written, sad and touching.)

But the qualitative difference between Back Roads and Catcher in the Rye, and the character Harley and Holden respectively, and generally in the novels themselves, is in the language the characters use to narrate, as well as, of course, the respective author's difference in the quality of their individual styles of writing. On this basis, it would be unfair in this regard to compare this, Tawni O'Dell's first novel, with J. D. Salinger's first, Catcher in the Rye, because the comparison sadly would mean failure for O'Dell. Stylistically Salinger's is without doubt far more accomplished; O'Dell, too, sometimes tries too hard with Harley's own use of language with certain uses of metaphors and similies that don't convince because they seem overly poetic and contrived set against the rest of his easy-going, natural voice; also, while Jody, the youngest (six years old) of one Harley's three sisters, is cute and charming, and does come across as a convincing child of that age, there are too many of what struck me as "cutsey" notes written by her with the always poor-spelling (the poor spelling, presumably, meaning to reinforce the reader's sense of her being so sweet, young and innocent, etc).

None the less, the two other sisters, Amber and Misty, are more compellingly drawn (probably because they are older and more troubled). On the plus side, too, structurally, O'Dell's novel is strong, and well-thought through, and just as good as Salinger's in this regard. And while one of the key plot outcomes - a trauma in the family separate from the murder, which I won't be explicit about in order not to spoil for new readers - struck me as predictable, the other major plotline, the actual circumstances of the killing of Harley's father, as it gradually built and became realised, was very well done.
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on 30 June 2005
The main Character in Mrs O'Dell's story is Harley Altmyer, an 18 year-old boy living in the small town of Laurel Falls. He has to look after his younger sisters, Jody, Misty and Amber, because their mother is serving a life sentence in prison since she killed their father. He works at a Shop Rite with two incompetent work mates, Bud and Church, under the command of the useless boss Rick. And he has a second part-time job at Barklay's Appliances. Their house is a permanent chaos and it is very difficult for Harley to make both ends meet. He is assigned a social worker and a psychoanalyst whom he both loathes. But he has no choice since he doesn't want his sisters to be officially declared orphans and be sent to foster families.
The strength of this novel is the fact that the events are seen through Harley's young mind. He is often confused because he is not mature enough to have two jobs and educate his younger sisters at the same time. They in turn consider him more as a brother than a father and as a result there are frequent rows between them, especially between Harley and the elder girl Amber who strives for independence. But Harley is very much concerned by the well being of the girls and his worries even once make him have a hallucinatory vision of finding them dead at home, piled up in a pool of blood.
At the same time he is looking for a girlfriend and wonders if it is possible to love someone without getting personally involved, without any mutual feeling or judgement. His first relationship is a confused one with a neighbour, Callie Mercer, wife of a bank manager and mother of two children. And Harley often recalls his father and how he used to ill treat his children.
His struggle in life is all the more impressive since he gets no support at all from any adult, not even his uncle Mike.
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on 18 September 2001
This is a stunning,challenging book. It tells the story of Harley, a teenager who brings up his three sisters singlehandedly, after his mother is imprisoned for killing their father. Harley not only struggles to support his family, but also grapples with a legacy of abuse, which we learn about gradually. Harley is one of the most complex characters in modern fiction. He is simultaneously heroic, pathetic, frightening, sympathetic and abhorrent. The increasingly tragic events in his life and the overwhelming responsibilities he faces demand our sympathy.
The novel explores difficult issues: child abuse, adultery, incest. Nevertheless, O'Dell is a compelling storyteller and does an excellent job of making you care about the characters, as they develop and grow. O'Dell's book is dark and raw, but contains much gritty humour. The end is satisfying, compelling and redemptive. Readers who liked White Oleander, by Janet Fitch, which also deals with a child left to fend alone after their sole parent is imprisoned, will love this book too. Incredibly well written, don't miss this one!
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on 6 September 2000
Brilliant book! It is well thought and written beautifully. Once you start, it is difficult to put down. This story has all the elements of a classic drama; lust, murder, betrayal, hope, anguish, love. When I finished the book, I had to take a deep breath and think how thankful I am that my life is 'normal'. If there is ever a sequal, I will be first in line to read it!
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on 8 November 2004
There were many hard hitting and harrowing storylines running through this novel. It didn't guard you from the horrors of these terrible things, but somehow it was touching and beautiful. How someone can write a story telling things that would normally turn your stomach but instead you understand the innocence in these things, is quite amazing. Due to the content of the book I'm not sure I could recommend it to everyone as not everybody is able to GET the same from books. But for those of you who are able to accept that this is not a crude book but a touching tale of what is most probably normal life for some people, you will hopefully find it as sad and lovely as I did.
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on 17 September 2000
This book is truly unique! Despite the numerous tragic events, the text is somehow not depressing. It is full of suspense and is truly well written. It also invites the reader to probe his/her thoughts on murder, incest and family relationships.
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on 11 January 2015
It didn’t really look like my kind of book. I’ve read a lot of different stuff over the years, from horror to thriller, from fantasy to, yes, Bridget Jones. But nothing quite like this. A colleague picked it up off my desk one morning and commented that it didn’t sound like the sort of thing I’d be reading. But by lunchtime I was entranced, and by the evening, I was completely sucked in.

Do you know how it feels? To be a nineteen year old boy living in a run down place in Pennsylvania? To be working two jobs just to make ends meet as you have to care for your three younger sisters? To watch your sixteen year old sister go off the rails by giving herself to any man who wants her? To know that you’re looking after your sisters because your mother is in jail for murder? To know that your father isn’t coming home because it’s his murder your mother has been jailed for? No? Well, neither did I.

But now I think I do. And that is possibly the greatest compliment I can pay Tawni O’Dell. You don’t just read about Harley’s life, you live it alongside him. At some points, it reads almost like a stream of consciousness, at others almost as he is merely observing his own life from the outside, somehow disconnected from it. O’Dell’s writing style when you’re inside Harley’s thoughts is one of short sentences, sometimes merely fragments, occasionally jumping, as if you’re inside his head. This serves only to drag you in deeper.

Harley Altmeyer is nineteen. He has been left along with his three sisters, sixteen year old Amber, who resents Harley spoiling all her fun, which generally involves trying to act grown up by having sex with anyone who offers. Twelve year old Misty, who hates him, and six year old Jody, who seems like any normal six year old. Annoying as heck, in other words. He has to see a psychiatrist, who wants him to talk about things that Harley isn’t really ready to face just now. He works days delivering electrical goods, and nights in a supermarket.

He is full of hate, but can’t express it physically, by striking out, as that’s never been his way. It was his father’s way, and memories of childhood beatings suffered both by him and his sisters prevent him from hurting his sisters, as he doesn’t want to be like his father. Amber has dealt with this by sleeping around, but Harley can’t do this either. He’s still a virgin, and believes that sex and love should go together.

He has found himself in an unplanned, unexpected situation, and is doing his best to cope with it but isn’t, it must be said, doing terribly well. He seems to alienate everyone he comes across in one way or another. He’s almost on a path to self-destruction, but more subtly than most people. The feeling you get is that he doesn’t really enjoy being with people, and would much rather be on his own. Whilst his mother is in a prison built for keeping people in, Harley seems to want to construct a prison for himself, to stop people getting in and getting too close to him. He makes no real attempt to stay in touch with his childhood friend, who is now away at college. He doesn’t answer the questions his psychiatrist wants him to. He fails to bathe, he fails to relate to his boss, he doesn’t want to go to see his mother in jail. He is intimidated by Amber, and barely speaks to Misty. He does his best with Jody, but is restricted by his efforts at keeping two jobs.

It seems that no day goes past without incident. He eventually finds himself in a sexual relationship with Callie Mercer, the mother of one of Jody’s friends. The relationship is beautifully described, starting off as a feeling of love, from the point of view of someone who doesn’t really know what love should feel like. This turns into infatuation, followed by lust once the relationship has progressed into sexual areas. Again, he nearly throws away the only real happiness he has by being too demanding of the time of a woman already trying to juggle a husband and two young children.

Betty, his psychiatrist keeps telling him that he needs to see his mother, to get the answers to the questions that are driving him mad. However, his first visit there proves too much for him, and he finds himself going crazier than before. On his second visit, he finds the truth. And finds that the truth is more than he could handle. From this point on, he’s on a downward spiral, leading to the climax of the book.

Tawni O’Dell’s style grips you. This is by no means a pleasant story. It’s a couple of years in the life of a man who life has treated badly. His growing insanity, his feelings of unexpressed rage, his ultimately hopeless relationship with Callie leave you failing to feel sympathy for him, despite the events that have placed him in this situation. Harley is not a hero, as he fails to cope, and fails to fight back. He’s not a figure for your sympathy as he never does anything to try to change his situation. If he’d tried and failed, you might feel sorry for him, but instead he merely fails without trying. He doesn’t even seem to know how to try.

Despite the subject matter, this book is pretty near impossible to put down. Maybe some of it is schadenfreude, wanting to see how Harley will fail next time. But mostly, it’s just a case of needing to know what life can do to him next. Can things get worse? And they can. The ending is as gripping as any thriller, and has more twists than the back roads of the title. I can’t say anything that won’t give away something important, so I’ll avoid it!

I never really expected to enjoy this book, but I did. The writing flows, and the story takes you on a step at a time, before you realise you’ve walked for miles. The blurb on the covers that always calls a book of this type “captivating” and “beautifully written” is present, but you look at it again having read the story and realise that it is in no way an understatement.

There are only a couple of things that worry me about this book. The first is that someone will read it and try to turn it into a film. Having seen what a mess some books become on screen, to attempt to do so with “Back Roads” is almost doomed to failure. The complexity of events, and the pathway towards disaster of Harley’s life cannot accurately be shown on a screen. The second is to wonder where O’Dell goes from here. Can she ever burnt his brightly again? It seems that many creative artists, both writers and musicians, hit a peak and then try to spend the rest of their careers striving to hit those same heights again. I am not sure that there is another book this good in O’Dell or, indeed, in anyone. I hope that she does not try to write “Back Roads 2”, but leaves Harley well enough alone, and moves on in a way he couldn’t. Only time will tell but I, for one, will be looking out eagerly for her next book.

In the meantime, we must settle for this, which is no means a poor thing. I would urge everyone to read this. Borrow it, beg it, buy it. It will run you through many emotions, and leave you drained by the end. But this is a great thing, and this is a great modern novel. And I am off to start reading it again.

This review may also have appeared under my name at any of [...], [...] or www.amazon.co.uk
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on 21 May 2015
This book has been on my wish list for a while. I'd chosen it because I like writers who give insight into communities and lives that are vastly different from my own experience. It's my way of 'travelling the world'.

Tawni O'Dell's stamping ground is rural Pennsylvania and it's grim - a backwater with a legacy of coal mining, poverty, hunting and domestic violence. The central character is Hartley, 18 years old, who is desperately trying to keep his family together after the worst of events: his mother shot his father in the family home. With his mother now in prison, Hartley has become both breadwinner and parent to his three sisters. The story focusses on his worries, his cares and the way that he vacillates between extreme maturity and extreme immaturity: it's a confusing and harsh world for a boy who is barely a man, a boy who has next to no adult support.

I'm very glad that I finally got around to reading this book. Through Harley, O'Dell offers an exploration of the way in which environment and expectations have as much ability to destroy a person as to make a person. A very thoughtful and sensitive piece of writing.
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on 7 January 2001
I first heard of this book in March 2000 on Oprah Winfrey's Book Club. Having enjoyed others in her book club series - and having seen an interview with the author i felt i HAD to read this book.
The book tells an emotive and complicated tale of a family whose parents legacy lives on inside each of them.
The story is narrated by Harley Altymer, a 19 year old living in a mining town of west Pennsylvania.
Harley is stuck. With his father dead, his mother in jail for murder, and with three sisters to care for, his life is hard. Add to that a libido with a mind of it's own - one could say that Harley's existence is one of explosive hormones and emotional pits.
When Harley becomes involved with a mother of two children it gives him hope. However this new world comes crumbling down when he is forced to face the truth of his reality.
As I previously said this book is highly emotive - it is also heartbreaking and humorous. Sad and joyous... a contradiction of itself.
This book is one that most will enjoy, and one that i couldn't put down. A good book to buy as you may feel you NEED to read it again.
The book also lets you make your own mind up about certain things... but i have it on good authority that Harley and a certain person did do the thing that the book hints at... (read the book and you'll understand that!!)
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