"First novels aren't particularly known for their powerful writing; but from the first sentence, Mary Vensel White's The Qualities of Wood captivates and holds the reader: 'In the small, congested airport, Vivian didn't recognize her husband.'
Betty Gardiner's death leads her grandson and his young wife to take a break from city living and come to prepare her country house for sale, where her grandson envisions a peaceful cottage suitable for writing his mystery novel.
What isn't expected is the evolution of a real mystery when a local girl is discovered dead behind their house, involving wife and artist Vivian in an eventual search for truth despite police claims that the death was accidental.
Her search for this truth will involve her husband, their different artistic talents, and the background story of a girl whose choices in life lead to her death.
Slowly a small town's secrets come to light in a story that skits a fine line between mystery and psychological suspense as Vivian uncovers secrets that several residents are working so hard to keep hidden: 'First Katherine's behavior, she thought, and now this. Why did everyone act so uncomfortable when she brought up Nowell's father?'
One of the elements that keeps White's fiction realistic and involving is her ability to provide exact descriptions that paint sharp mental images of the entire town, its inhabitants, and its qualities: 'The restaurant was like a little house. The wooden shutters were painted white to match the lattice encircling a small front area landscaped with rosebushes and small trees. Strung through the branches and hanging from the awnings, tiny white lights dimly shone in the gray twilight. On the roof, green neon spelled Silvana's Ristorante in flowing, cursive letters.'
Besides the slowly-evolving protagonists and their individual mysteries, there's a sense of self and a sense of place that lend to an eerily absorbing atmosphere throughout.
The conclusion (no spoilers here) is a satisfying surprise, perfectly keyed to the novel's vivid progression."
—Diane Donovan, eBook Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
"In Mary Vensel White's debut novel, a young married couple moves to the country to help get a house ready for sale after a death in the family. Vivian joins her husband Nowell after he spends the first month alone and the day after she arrives, they learn that a dead girl has been found in the woods on their property.
The girl's death is ruled an accident, but this never fully satisfies Vivian. The small town they've moved to has its share of secrets and gossip and there's a lot of distrust to go around. The tension between the characters is extremely well portrayed and I especially loved the author's observations about memory and perspective and how it can alter one's concept of the truth. Here's one of my favorite lines:
'She wondered how her impressions could ever be reproduced, because the distance between perception and idea was like the space between two skyscrapers.'
I very much enjoyed this read and look forward to seeing more from this author."
—Katie O'Rourke, author of Monsoon Season
"The Qualities of Wood is a striking novel that moves leisurely through its story. Mary Vensel White cultivates a unique impression through beautiful prose, matching the expansive and unmarred countryside setting with her tranquil storytelling and thoughtful, intriguing characters. There's an element to the book that separates it from anything else the reader has ever known, offering an exciting reading experience that touches the heart and engages the spirit as it stimulates the mind.
With its strong focus on a potentially grizzly mystery and a backdrop of other mysteries to be explained, The Qualities of Wood kept me on my feet and had me in curious anticipation until its final pages, never giving me a moment to predict its true circumstances. I felt thoroughly engaged with the experience, and enriched by a story that holds a standard all its own."
—Casee Marie, Literary Inklings
"The story is told in Vivian's point of view, and we watch as her woman's intuition drives her to question her relationships, both old and new. But it isn't only her intuition that has unsettled her. Vivian is an artist at heart; she notices things that other people might not. She pays attention to detail. As the dirt road in front of the house is being paved and the black asphalt comes closer and closer to the house, so the tension builds.
Vivian proceeds to take on the arduous task of preparing the house for sale, while her husband stays locked away in his writing room. Soon, Vivian becomes resentful of the room, where her husband seems guarded and secretive. Other characters are introduced, and Vivian must sort out her relationship with all of them. She observes them, taking in details. Are her assumptions about them correct? She struggles to reconcile what she witnesses with what is the truth.
What I like most about this book is how the author evokes and sustains a mood. The author manages this by both the rhythm of her sentences and her words. I like reading atmospheric novels. If done well, the atmosphere can almost put the plot in second place. But, in this novel, we don't have to choose; it does both well. Even though there is an underlying mystery, as I stated above, this story is ultimately about relationships, about how perception (or perspective, in art) changes what we see, and ultimate feel, about an object, event, or person.
A comparison has been made between Mary Vensel White and Anne Tyler, and I agree with this assessment. It would not surprise me if Vensel White became an award-winning author one day. I will definitely take a look at the next novel written by this author."
—J.S. Colley, Booksquawk.com
"The Qualities of Wood is a masterly exposition of the writer's craft. The prose is mature, lyrically balanced and there is a natural progression of the plot helped by an expert use of pace. Precise language is used to conjure up evocative images in the reader's mind. This is done low key and without ostentatious or overt flair (for example, the tilted painting or strangely edited photo), and the passage setting the scene for Silvana's Ristorante was mesmerising (I could almost taste oregano). Literature at its best."
—Robert Davidson, author of The Tuzla Run
"Mary Vensel White is an accomplished and gifted writer. The Qualities of Wood take us into the backwaters, where Vivian and Nowell have recently moved. All appears well initially, until the body of a girl is found in the woods. Vensel White takes us on a journey that is crisply written with characters whom she has breathed real life into. The story takes you by surprise; it becomes one of those 'can't put down-able books,' where you wonder what's going on when you're driving to work, or doing the shopping. The Qualities of Wood is a book to recommend and to become an old favorite that takes its rightful place on your bookshelf."
—Sue Makender, author of Knowing Liam Riley
"The Qualities of Wood follows the mesmerizing journey of one woman as she discovers the truths around and within her. It is a novel written with poetic grace and gentle hand, with a message as strong as wood."
—Genevieve Graham, author of Under the Same Sky
"The Qualities of Wood is a quietly entrancing, enthralling read that will
keep readers guessing to the very end. Vensel White is brilliant at
creating atmosphere, rich, densely-layered characters and a stunning, understated narrative. Chilling and satisfying, The Qualities of Wood is literary fiction at its finest."
—Jessica L. Degarmo, author of Hooking Up
"The Qualities of Wood possesses the calm pulse and breath of our ordinary lives. But beneath the surface lies an ever present disquiet, like the telling shadows we'd rather ignore. The truth slowly pries its way into Vivian's and her husband, Nowell's, lives, the way neglect crept into the house which provides the setting for the story. The Qualities of Wood seems to put words to a story I know but didn't realize I knew. Perhaps I never had the right words for it."
—Rodney Jones, author of Greendale
"'In the small, congested airport, Vivian didn't recognize her husband.' From this opening line, we are hooked into this intriguing story. This is a very well written book, with an exciting plot and a lot of depth."
—Gerry McCullough, author of Belfast Girls
"The gentle rhythm in the opening paragraphs of The Qualities of Wood is like a door thrown open to the reader. It welcomes us. The clarity of the prose draws us into Vivian and Nowell's world as they arrive for a year in the American Midwest: 'fields of indecisive green, hills falling short of remarkable', a small white house elevated slightly, 'like a judge on his bench', peeling paint that 'gave the impression of something bursting its seams', 'a bluish shadow stretched, tongue-like down the front steps and onto the lawn'; dirt roads. The house has stood abandoned for three years. They have much to do. There's a light in the forest. We are enthralled.
Right from the start glimmers into the dynamics of Vivian and Nowell's relationship engage us. Nowell's proud of the house, Vivian realises. He's a writer; she's left a job in the city after seven years. We know this move to the country is huge, unsettling. He wants a baby, she's not ready. Loneliness hovers.
Tension is invisibly woven between clear, bare prose. A body is found in the forest. On Mr Stokes's land.
—Diana Robinson, author of Daisychains of Silence
"Quality writing of the very best order. Mary Vensel White uses mood, tone, light and darkness and delivers crisp dialogue. Each chapter leaves the reader with a cliffhanger—often subtle—making you want to turn to the next page immediately. An excellent read."
—Faith Mortimer, author of The Assassins' Village, Children of the Plantation, The Crossing and Echoes of Life and Love
"There are writers like Mary Vensel White who have the skill to open a portal to the world they create. As a reader you go for a visit to the location where the characters are interacting. Like an invisible participant in the story, you follow along and feel the emotions, the fear and even the joy that the characters are experiencing. It's a very voyeuristic activity.
At times, reading The Qualities of Wood, I felt breathless with what was taking place with Vivian. She went through so many trials in her mind over the mysteries that surrounded her, and I was there with her through it all."
—Mary Enck, author of A King in Time
"To read Mary Vensel White is to enter a world without history. Like science fiction her novels take place in a-temporal places yet unlike sci-fi her characters inspire a nostalgia for something that never was.
...it is in that dystopia that lies the enchantment.
Unlike period novels her characters evoke that universal impalpable that resists the encroachment that wording creates. Her narratives have a thriller undercurrent worthy of Hitchcock yet the denouement is procedural rather than psychoanalytic, distilled in a style that is both succinct and lyrical, the elegance of the phrase that admits no decoration yet sustains as only the poetic moment can.
To read Mary Vensel White is to enter a world were subtlety carries double meaning, the repetition of the inconsequential that creates the inner map. Her world is one of details thrown clandestine-like, to anesthetize the eye until the increments break into a revelation;
...a pointillism worthy of Seurat.
—David Breitling, author of Undo Redo
"The Qualities of Wood delves into themes we can all take to heart in different ways. From the beginning hook, the reader is left guessing. The writing is beautiful and it was a story I easily got lost in."
—Rebecca Hamilton, author of The Forever Girl
"Vensel White has the unique ability to capture simple, delicate details (e.g., soap suds, yellow drapes, and a house that splits at its seams), and use them to breathe life into her characters' world. Her book is truly remarkable."
—Charles Thompson, author of Aralen Dreams
"White avoids turning her characters into stereotypes. Lonnie could have been ridiculous, but she keeps him human and sympathetic. Vivian could have been a doormat, and Dot the cute-but-simpleminded relative, but the characters are none of these things. No one's a villain and no one's a saint in this book.
I like books that are mysteries but the main story isn't the mystery. The real story here is Vivian's struggle to make sense of her life, from her lack of a job to her worries about being a parent to her difficulty making a place for herself amidst her husband's family. She takes on the work of sorting out the Gardiner family without half as much complaint as I would have had, and yet at the young age of 28, clearly has a lot to figure out about herself.
I was impressed by the complexity in this book, especially coming from a first time novelist. In fact, this book kept me thinking for days."
—Deb, The Book Stop
"A very strong debut. A compelling back story tantalisingly woven into the novel in small snippets leaves the reader guessing right through to the end. We can feel the atmosphere as the heat of the summer builds up and family tensions fray. We smell the musty old well in the back yard and we fear what's outside in the dark of the woods. I'm sure that we'll see more of Mary Vensel White in the future."
"Haunting, delicate and utterly controlled. The Qualities of Wood is, quite simply, truly beautiful."
—Caroline Smailes, author of Black Boxes