Book review: ‘Walking Backward’ by Catherine Austen

Grief is a tricky, tricky thing — particularly when you have no guidelines to help you through it.

Such is the case for 12-year-old Josh, a young man whose mother has just died in a car accident. Alone for the first time with his four-year-old brother Sammy, who has taken to sleeping in Josh’s bed and talking to his mother through a Power Ranger action figure, and his dad, who is now holed up in the basement watching home movies and working on a time machine, Josh is left to mourn his mother while simultaneously grappling with the fact that everything she once did — and was — has now vanished.

Catherine Austen’s Walking Backward is a quiet novel about grief and unanswered questions and, as you’d expect, it’s not exactly an uplifting read. The novel is Josh’s journal, told entirely from his perspective, as requested from the grief counselor the family has been seeing after his mom’s passing. Encompassing just a few months in the lives of one family, Josh is entirely preoccupied with determining the “right” way to grieve — and trying to find a method that works best for he and Sam. Austen’s explorations of the many world religions and how they mourn their dead was fascinating and, to me, the best part of the story.

Much of the book is about snakes, of course — because Josh’s mom died after suffering a severe panic attack while driving. A snake was found in her car, police determined, and his mother’s snake phobia was absolutely crippling. Working through the grieving process for Josh means figuring out how and why there was a serpent in the car; he remains absolutely convinced it didn’t just slither in on its own. He has to learn how this could have happened so he can move forward. And help everyone else move forward, too.

It’s hard for me to really examine my feelings on Walking Backward . . . I can’t say I “enjoyed” it, because it’s not really the sort of novel you enjoy — and I have to admit that it was, for me, painful to get through. Austen is a very nuanced writer; I absolutely believed I was reading the diary of a 12-year-old boy. But the subject matter is so, so tough, and who really wants to think about losing their mother? (I certainly don’t. And if you have, my heart is with you. And stay away from this one.)

My heart broke for Josh, Sammy and their dad, and I wanted nothing more than for their mother to run back in the house, laughing about the great prank she pulled on all of them — I mean, ha! Honestly! Thinking she’d died after seeing a snake. What a bunch of silly gooses!

But that didn’t happen, of course. Life never works that way. And all we could hope for, as readers, was that their small family would find some sort of peace and resolution — and that Josh, so perceptive and wise beyond his years, would help his little brother remember more of the mother they lost.

After finishing, I made myself a mug of hot tea, wiped away the tears and promptly listed this one on BookMooch. Children grappling with the loss of a parent would relate to Josh’s uncertainty and pain, and they’re the audience to which I would most recommend this novel. Everyone else? I’d steer clear unless you’re ready to feel your heart splinter all through your chest. But if you need a good cry, hey — Walking Backward is your book.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0786891084 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program

Book review: ‘If I Stay’ by Gayle Forman

if_i_staySettle in for a heartbreaker.

Once you hear the premise of Gayle Forman’s If I Stay, it doesn’t take long to realize this isn’t exactly going to be a feel-good read . . . but you’d be surprised how ultimately uplifting this tale can be.

Seventeen-year-old Mia is out for a car ride with her parents and little brother Teddy when the horrific happens: on a slick, snowy street, they’re struck by a truck. Her mother and father are killed instantly, Mia comes to realize . . . as she stands outside the vehicle, looking at her own crushed body and those of her loved ones. Everything happens as if in a dream; Mia watches it all unfold, powerless and voiceless.

After she’s transported to a hospital and her grandparents arrive, desperately trying to talk to her as she remains in a coma, our narrator realizes she has a choice: stay in this terrifying new world without her parents, but with her loving boyfriend Adam and extended friends and family, or leave — rejoining her family in whatever exists in the hereafter.

Forman’s small, sharp novel delves deep into what it means to be a family, including those attributes that both divide and unite us. Told over the course of just one day, If I Stay flashes back to Mia’s life in Oregon and shows us clearly the type of brilliant, focused and loving people her parents were. I loved learning about her dad’s rock star past and could definitely feel the fierce protective quality her mom had for those whom she cared about the most. Knowing, as we do, that neither of them survived the crash adds an entirely different dimension to the story . . . and makes the anecdotes all the more powerful. These recollections have shaped Mia into the person she was — and is — today.

My absolute favorite aspect of the story was definitely Mia and Adam’s love — the sweetness that was the beginning of their romance, and the understanding and compassion they had for one another as it deepened. Joined through their love of music, Mia worries before the accident that Adam’s band’s rocketing success will eventually drive them apart — especially considering Mia’s devotion to the cello (not exactly the most punk-rock of instruments). Forman does a remarkable job of capturing the innocence and obsession of first love, my most favorite of topics!

As you’d expect, themes of death and grief are certainly prevalent — and a few graphic passages didn’t sit well with me. I was definitely rooting for Mia and hoping she’d make the right call, but I don’t know what in the world I would do in her situation — and pray I never have to even go there. I guess that’s why the novel left me with a crater-wide pit in my stomach . . . the realism of the story was scary. Because this trauma? It could happen to anyone. And like the dystopian fiction I’ve been so fond of lately, this story could be our story. Any of us.

But overall, a deeply moving but understated novel that does more with less — and chooses to focus on the humanity of the characters — and all of us.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0525421033 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Copy purchased by Meg

Old dogs are the best dogs

If I were to wake up tomorrow on the set of a big-budget melodramatic film with a director standing by my bed — bullhorn in one hand, Starbucks cup in the other — demanding for me to summon every single tear I have in my body to cry — cry, cry, cry as though it would save my eternal soul — would I think about my first love, sitting across from me in a quiet restaurant, telling me he was leaving town (and leaving me) and was there really much left to say? Would I think about family illnesses or the loss of my youth, high school graduation or the death of a family member? Would I think about how fast time goes by and how we all, someday, have to face the consequences of the decisions we’ve made?


I would think of my dog.

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