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Kirkus Review  - 2014, October

Irwin debuts with movingly rendered literary fiction about love and loss, youth and maturity, ambition and its cost. Rob Carrey is a champion. He’s won prizes propelling a single-seat racing scull with two oars.

Carrey’s been recruited for a "post-graduate" high school year by the Fenton School, a posh private Connecticut academy. Carrey, a working-class boy, is alien among legacy children and intends to continue his quest for solitary medals. Instead, he’s drafted to fill a slot in the four-man racing crew. His father’s ambition is that the Fenton sojourn will earn his son entrance to an elite university. There is a second narrative thread with Carrey, in his 30s, no college degree, turned documentary filmmaker. He’s in love with Carolyn, a film editor. Carolyn was once pregnant with Carrey’s child, a baby miscarried while he filmed in Africa. Left shattered by Carrey's response, Carolyn wants to end their relationship just as Carrey confronts the suicide of one of his former racing crew. The narrative segment following young Carrey’s Fenton year is a powerful study of the muddled, stumbling steps from youth into adulthood, a time when Carrey learns "You will lose things....When you do, there will be no river to run to." Other characters shine: Connor, best of the Fenton rowers, scion of wealth, never able to fulfill his family’s ambitions, beautiful and damned in the fashion of a Hemingway hero; Ruth, coxswain, first female to drive the boat, petite, ambitious, focused, yet another boarding-school–rich-family throwaway. Irwin’s descriptions are observant and intimate—"as if the boat had found some kind of grace, like a giant bird expanding its wings." Readers become immersed in the Darwinian cruelty of the young reflected against the loneliness of a lost, jaded teacher, then confront a man finding purpose, and close the book after bathing in a deeply evocative, hope-filled conclusion.

An elegy to love and loss and reconciliation.

White Rhino Review - 2014, September
A Memorable and Moving First Novel by Ron Irwin: Review of "Flat Water Tuesday"

Ron Irwin has written a remarkable first novel, "Flat Water Tuesday," that is more than just a coming of age saga. Speaking largely through a combination of flashbacks to his prep school days at Fenton School and real time struggles in New York and on location in Africa, narrator Rob Carrey recounts his post-graduate year rowing for the Fenton "God Four" varsity boat. It was a tumultuous and life-changing year for each member of the crew - Carrey, John "Jumbo" Perry, Connor, Wadsworth and Ruth - the only female coxswain in the history of Fenton rowing.

The tone and substance of the piece reminded me a bit of several books I have treasured over the years that also have sought to capture something of the ethos and tensions of prep school life: "The Art of Fielding," "A Prayer For Owen Meany," and "A Separate Peace." Irwin has composed a piece the fleshes out quite well the characters of Carey, Connor, Perry, Ruth and their crusty coach, the enigmatic and inscrutable Channing. These were individuals similar to ones I had come to know during my own prep school days. The author captures the below-the-surface undercurrents and tensions that exist within the typical prep school community. The reader feels the divide that can never be truly crossed between the privileged Ivy league legacy kids who fly off to Aspen for the weekend, and the working class stiffs who have been invited to the party because they excel in academics or an particular sport that is valued in the Ivies. Crew is one such sport.

Although I could sense the tragedies that lurked just around the next bend in the narrative, I read voraciously to see what would happen to characters whose fates I had come to care about and identify with. The feel of Irwin's beautiful prose is in evidence in this passage near the end of the story. Carrey has gone for a run by himself at the end of his class's 15th reunion - a weekend that includes a memorial service for a fallen classmate and member of the God Four crew.:

"And then a miracle. A boat was making its way down to me. A small skull, the oars pressing into the water evenly, rhythmically, driven by a good hand. I waited to hear the sounds of the oarlocks, hear the exhalation of the rower, the backsplash of the blades, but it moved in silence.

It wasn't a sculler. It was a bird flying out of the sun and over the surface of the water, skimming it, just touching before lifting up and out of the river valley. I watched it fly over the mountains, wings beating. I looked once again at the river, but the sunlight had shifted and the surface had become a cool shadow. And I knew for sure that the bird would continue on and make its way to the ocean. On its journey it would fly over millions of us. It would soar over broken hearts and broken bodies and ended relationships and new beginnings and sons and daughters and parents and rivers and boats and schools and kids free for the summer and it would just keep going. It would fly over cemeteries and cars and houses and fields and roads and highways and then into the clouds, through shame and longing and regret and grief and forgiveness and laughter and childless love." (page 305)

Wow! That pretty much sums up much of this lovely book and the arc of many of our lives.



Hear the Boat Sing Review - 2014, May

Book Review: Flat Water Tuesday by Ron Irwin

The year 2013 was a good year for rowing books. In August, for example, Olympic champion Katharine Grainger came out with her autobiography Dreams do come True. One rowing book, which was published in June, has frequently come up on this website, Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, which we reviewed on 19 August. Brown’s book was nominated for the prestigious British award the 2013 William Hill Sports Book of the Year, which HTBS’s Tim Koch wrote about on 27 November. Tim stated that whether The Boys in the Boat won this award or not ‘it is already the HTBS Book of the Year’ – unfortunately, Brown’s book did not win the William Hill Sports Book award, instead, it went to Doped by Jamie Reid.

Of course, I agree with Tim, but would like to make a small adjustment, or should I say, addition, because while The Boys in the Boat for sure is the best non-fiction rowing book of 2013, the award for the best fiction rowing book of that year would, without question, go to the novel Flat Water Tuesday by Ron Irwin.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, Flat Water Tuesday, which also came out in hard cover in June 2013, will be released in a paperback edition in the U.S. High time for a HTBS review of the book.

Flat Water Tuesday is about Rob Carrey, a teenager from a working-class background, who arrives at the posh private school Fenton School in Connecticut, on a rowing scholarship. For many years this elite school has rowed against its rival school, Warwick, in a coxed four race on a Tuesday afternoon. Despite being a champion sculler – and in the beginning of the school year, Rob naively believes that he will continue to scull for Fenton School – he has been picked for a seat in the so called ‘God Four’, as the crew for a couple of years has lost this, the most important, race of the year to Warwick.

But there are tensions within the crew and already from the start there is rivalry, almost enmity, between Rob and the team captain Connor Payne, who comes from a wealthy family, whose high expectations of him can only lead to disaster. Not only do the young men fight (and they very soon actually get themselves into a fist fight) each other in whatever their rowing coach, Canning, is throwing at them – and that is a lot – there is also a rivalry between them for the crew’s female coxswain, Ruth, who is more focused on her job in the cox seat than her actual school work. The closer the crew gets to the Tuesday race against Warwick, the more they display an unhealthy competitive spirit, especially by Connor.

Author Ron Irwin rowed at high school in Buffalo, NY, at Kent School, CT, and at Trinity College, CT, and it is a great pleasure to see how he is guiding both the rowing-knowledge and the non-rowing readers through the chapters of the narrative that have the ‘rowing scenes’. Anyone who is interested in the sport of rowing will be glad to read how accurate our beautiful sport is told. While I vividly still remember the horrid tests on the ergs, I had totally repressed the bench pulls – till I read Irwin’s novel. However, while we rowers would happily be content with a novel about the God Four and its struggles before, during, and after their race against Warwick, the readers who do not share our love for rowing might easily have got tired of these parts of Irwin’s story, if they alone formed the entire novel. Well, they do not. Flat Water Tuesday has two ‘levels’, or two time periods, following two threads. Irwin is cleverly telling two parallel stories, one of the young Rob’s rowing at Fenton School, and one fifteen years later, when Rob is in his 30s, being a successful documentary filmmaker who is travelling the world.

It is after a film shoot in Eastern Africa, on his way to his girlfriend’s flat in New York, Rob is reading a letter from one of his teammates in the God Four. Later he is reached by the news that the letter writer has jumped from a bridge and killed himself. He receives a phone call from Ruth pleading with him to attend their class 15-year reunion at Fenton. Rob knows that if he goes, he will have to confront the many demons that grew out of his year at Fenton, and at the same time deal with the looming break-up with his girlfriend Carolyn, who at one time was pregnant with Rob’s child. When she had a miscarriage, Rob was unreachable on a film shoot in Africa, and she still blames him for not contacting her during her pregnancy.

If, for a short while, I would put myself back in my literary studies at Lund University in Sweden, and remember what my professors back then would ask from us students; to perform a close-reading or dissection of the text and count up the different themes in the novel, I would come up with themes like rich and poor; happiness and tragedy; victory and defeat; youth and maturity; and love and lost love – all the great themes in our lives and in great novels. And Flat Water Tuesday is a marvelous novel, not only for rowers, but also for everyone who enjoys a well-written story. Irwin’s language is beautiful, even poetic in certain parts, and it carries us readers, uneasy at times, to the end that will reveal what happened one tragic evening at Fenton and which forever would change the lives of the young members of the God Four. But at the end there might be hope and reconciliation.

Flat Water Tuesday is an amazing novel.

Word Joy Review - 2014, February

Book Look: Flat Water Tuesday

There is a whole library of books about outsiders at exclusive prep schools. I went to public school, but I am fascinated by the pecking order, the rituals, and the pedigree required for some prestigious schools.

In Ron Irwin's FLAT WATER TUESDAY, the story of Rob Carrey brings in the added arena of competitive rowing. Rob has won a singles title, and Fenton School decides he is the man to bring back the glory days of their crew program.

Rob will have to repeat his senior year to attend, but he has nothing waiting for him anyway. He takes the chance.

When he gets to Fenton, he finds that he is to row in a 4-man crew. He wants to row singles. It is not going to happen. He throws himself into competing with the team's superstar, Cameron. Cameron has the same kind of charisma as Finny from A SEPARATE PEACE. Rob cannot beat Cameron at anything, not a footrace, not an erg test, not a singles challenge. He has much to learn about being a team player.

The story unfolds in chapters of prep school (crew practice as opposed to class sessions) contrasted with his current adult life as a maker of documentaries. His relationship with Carolyn is on the rocks. He has been gone so much as she endures painful experiences on her own. Will she ever take him back to make things right between them? He doesn't know as he flies in from South Africa.

Irwin offers exquisite details of the pain of training for crew, the blisters, the winded lungs, the aching backs. He renders the same insight into a fallen relationship, the way we can turn away from love and pretend we will go on just fine.

New Jersey Online Review -

2014, January

What Fran's Reading: Best books of 2013

I wasn’t even going to do a best-of-2013 roundup. But I find certain books still linger in memory, which to me is as good a test as any for recommended reading. So here are my own ten best:

Shoot the Woman First, by Wallace Stroby (Minotaur, 304 pp., $24.99) I’m far from first to label Stroby “the real deal,” but it’s an accurate description of the noir novelist. His sixth, the third in his Chrissa Stone series, hooks you from the first page. Stone, a professional thief, has a messed-up life. Her preference is jobs that will haul in real money, and the people she works with – well, you wouldn’t want them at your annual picnic. You might invite Chrissa, though, because Stroby has masterfully crafted her with a complex personality that renders her simultaneously scary and vulnerable.

The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro
(Algonquin, 384 pp., $14.95)
First published in hardcover in 2012, I caught up with this novel last May, when the paperback edition came out. It’s based on the still-unsolved heist at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum a quarter century ago. Thanks to having been deceived years earlier, the name of gifted Boston artist Claire Roth has been tainted, and she cannot get a showing of her work. So when a high-profile gallery owner promises her a solo show in exchange for making an exact copy of a painting, she agrees. The painting that arrives at her studio turns out to be one of the Degas canvases stolen from the museum. But as she begins to create her forgery, she starts suspecting the “original” she is copying is itself a forgery.

Archipelago,by Monique Roffey
(Penguin, 384, $16 paperback)
A year after the loss of his infant son in a mudslide and the continued mental devastation of his wife, who now lives with her mother, Gavin Weald decides to flee his troubling Trinidad surroundings by taking his young daughter and their dog on a sailing voyage. Six-year-old Ocean still suffers from night terrors, and Gavin hopes to distract them both with a sojourn through nearby islands. Gavin hasn’t sailed for years and they get off to an uncertain (and frightening) start. But as Gavin’s confidence in his sailing skills returns, he decides on a longer journey – to the Galapagos Islands. There isn’t a relaxed moment in Roffey’s story, whose undertones of a warm father-daughter experience are constantly imperiled by the forces of Nature and otherwise.

Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes
(Penguin, 400 pp., $16 paperback)
An out-of-work waitress and a quadriplegic are the central personae in this story – but don’t be quick to judge. This is a very different romance between an indifferent a young woman who takes a care-giving job (nothing else is available and her family needs her wages) and a depressed and surly young man whose irrevocably-altered life has taken away his will to live. Their reluctant but developing mutual attraction is beautifully handled. Keep a box of Kleenex near at hand.

Flatwater Tuesday, by Ron Irwin
(Macmillan, 9 CDs, $39.99)
Last July, when I reviewed Irwin’s debut novel, I proclaimed it the best audio book of 2013. None I’ve listened to since has changed my mind. Told in chapters alternating past and present, it is the story of a rowing team at an exclusive private school to which scholarship student Rob Carrey has been awarded a post-grad year. His working-class family believes it to be his ticket to college and a good life. But years later he is still haunted by events that happened there, and their consequences follow him. Irwin is a gifted writer whose description of the demands of rowing are palpable. His ability to maintain tension throughout is further enhanced by Holter Graham’s incomparable reading.

Tomorrow City, by Kirk Kjeldsen
(Signal 8 Press, 202 pp., $15.95 paperback)
Despite his efforts to go straight, ex-con Brendan Lavin’s bakery is in financial straits. Desperate, he succumbs to the temptation of “just one job” when approached by his former partners in crime. It all goes wrong, and Lavin is forced to escape from New York to China. Years later, his old “partners” show up in Shanghai. Under threat that his girlfriend and young daughter will be harmed if he refuses, he is pressed into another heist. Beautifully plotted and wonderfully written, Kjeldsen’s story will linger long after you’ve left the last page.

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Limpuri
(Knopf, 352 pp., $27.95)
Born just 15 months apart, Subhash and Udayan are as inseparable as twins, playing and studying together, sharing every thought. As scholars, they are high achievers, but their personality differences (Subhash, the elder, is contemplative and cautious, while Udayan is impulsive and passionate) lead them in different directions when they are in college. Subhash fears for Udayan when the younger brother becomes involved in the Maoist cause that led to uprisings in Calcutta in the 1960s. By the time they are considering graduate school, Udayan is fully committed to the revolution and chooses to study in Calcutta. Subhash decides on the Univ. of Rhode Island, and in his absence a tragedy occurs that will pull him back to India and change the course of his life. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Limpuri delivers a strong, psychologically complex story.

Life After Life, by Jill McCorkle
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $24.95
No, this is not one by Kate Atkinson that got so much ink when it came out, but the book of the same title by this North Carolina author whose sixth novel got less attention than it deserved. No doubt that was due to the subject matter; one simply cannot say it’s a story with an ensemble cast of residents in an assisted living facility and expect the average book buyer will snap it up and carry it to the cash register. And yet McCorkle’s story is an insightful foray into the varied personae of her elderly subjects, the perspectives of two women who help care for them and, perhaps most engagingly of all, of the fragile 12-year-old who escapes from her unhappy home next door to spend time with this assortment of adopted grandparents. It is a warm story filled with love, pathos, tension and the changing view of the world known only to those who have lived a long time.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler
Macmillan Audio, 12.5 hours, $29.99
There are F. Scott Fitzgerald fans who will tell you this is not an entirely accurate portrait of his wife Zelda, that she was a bonafide head case who was in part responsible not only for the author’s alcoholism but for his long, non-writing spells. But there’s enough inarguable fact here to render this sympathetic novel a worthy story. I prefer to hold that every story has two sides, and this one is sufficiently well-told to make any reader pause and consider the life Zelda entered when she married Scott. Zelda’s personality, vivaciousness and, often, bewilderment and sadness are beautifully conveyed by reader Jenna Lamia.

Longbourn, by Jo Baker
Knopf, 352 pp., $25.95
At this point, Jane Austen fans have read “Pride and Prejudice” from several points of view. Take it on faith this is a worthy entry in the annals of the author’s interpreters. It’s the decidedly unglamorous life of Sarah, an overworked downstairs maid only just in her 20s who suffers from sore feet, backaches and chilblains. When James, the new footman, arrives, she is simultaneously attracted to and put off by him. Mutual attraction prevails, but Sarah can’t shake the sense he harbors a secret. As well represented as they are in Baker’s story, the Bennet sisters and their parents, as well as the aloof Mr. Darcy and repulsive Mr. Wickham, are decidedly the supporting cast here. You’ll find yourself accompanying Sarah’s side every step of the way in a story that is a must for Austen fans, but a worthwhile love story even for those with no previous frame of reference.

Fran Wood is a retired columnist and books editor for The Star-Ledger

The Daily News Journal Review - 2013, December

Gentle Reader book review: 'Flat Water Tuesday' more than just another sports novel

We’ve all seen the movie if we haven’t read the book: young athletes mature into adulthood as they push themselves to the brink of greatness.

Ron Irwin’s “Flat Water Tuesday” transcends the genre.

I listened to the audio book version of the novel on my short commute to work and found myself taking the long way each day just to hear a few more words of the beautifully told story.

The novel’s protagonist is Rob Carrey, a successful documentary filmmaker whose memories of his year on the God Four, a prestigious prep school rowing team, are interspersed with narrative from his life 15 years later. He’s just back from filming in Africa and going through a heartbreaking split with his girlfriend, Carolyn, when he gets a call from a former school mate.

A member of the God Four has ended his life. He’s jumped off a bridge. The timing coincides with a reunion at the school, so a memorial for the teammate is planned. Carrey decides to go, hoping to put to rest some ghosts and give himself time to figure out what to do with his life without Carolyn.

Carrey is not your typical prep school grad. He earned a one-year scholarship to row for the Fenton prep school on the Hudson. He’s already graduated from public school, but this one-year post-graduate admission to Fenton will put him on track for an Ivy League college scholarship.

He’s intent on rowing alone, however, but upon arrival at Fenton, he learns that rowing without a team is not an option.

He’s groomed instead for the God Four, a team with a proud record of winning and a guaranteed Harvard scholarship if they beat rival Warwick.

Rich boy Connor Payne has captained the God Four the last couple of years to losses against Warwick, leaving him disgraced and determined to win.

The fiercely competitive Payne pushes Carrey, but not as hard as he does himself, undergoing grueling workouts that walk a dangerous tightrope that leaves them heaving from the pain of burning muscles.

But for Payne, the real damage has already been done as he pushes himself harder and harder to please an indifferent family.

“And each triumph for him, I knew, would mean less and less,” Carrey muses, “until that day when he stood alone with his laurels, all the cheering and applause forever silenced by an adulthood which was closing in upon him; the searching, relentless bow of a boat he could never leave in the golden wake of his glorious youth.”

The language in the book is lovely and lyrical as it pushes the young adults across the water toward the realization that “the luster of victory wears off quickly,” and they are left searching for forgiveness.

Tulsa Book Review - 2013, September

Flat Water Tuesday: A Novel

By Ron Irwin

Thomas Dunne Books, $24.99, 368 pages

Robert Carrey, a documentary filmmaker for National Geographic, receives a letter from an old friend named John Perry while on assignment in South Africa. On a plane back to New York, he reads Perry’s letter and is forced to revisit his past as one of the best rowers on the Fenton School Boat Club. He looks back on the lessons he learned from his team in his transition from a single sculler to a team rower. Juxtaposed against his life in the present, we are taken back to Rob’s days at Fenton and what happened in that year that he and his teammates locked away as a secret of the past.

Being able to live vicariously through the characters, to experience their dedication to rowing and to the importance of team bonding, was one of the things that made Flat Water Tuesday a great read. Irwin tells a good story, and the transitions between past and present were smooth. The flashbacks to Robert’s times at Fenton School were my favorite parts of the novel, and though it was somewhat sad in nature, I enjoyed the writing all the way through to the end.

Reviewed by Lenna S

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