psychological

Review: The Euthanist

The Euthanist

Alex Dolan

In one of the most promising debuts since Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects and Alice Blanchard’s Darkness Peering, The EuthanistThe Euthanist strikes like a suckerpunch and never lets up. Seriously, this book is freakin’ relentless.

On most days, Pamela Wonnacott is a kind-hearted firefighter and EMT with a troubled past, but as Kali, she provides a different kind of public service as an end-of-life caregiver. She is attending to Leland, a terminal patient who has requested assisted euthanasia, but in the first of many twists, Leland turns out to be an undercover agent.

The opening chapter of The Euthanist left me breathless, only to be one-upped by chapter two. The pacing is spry and the narration is delightfully disorienting in the manner unique to first-person POV. There is nobody Kali can trust, and even her allies turn on her when she unwittingly brings the FBI to their door.

Dolan manages all of this well, avoiding the usual traps of first-person narration (he keeps Kali disoriented, but not clueless) and managing his twists and reveals organically. Most impressively, he doesn’t manufacture a ridiculous romantic angle or give us a cavity with overwrought sentimentality.

On the whole, this is masterful storytelling that lets the characters, and not convention, dictate their actions. There is only one scene that feels over the top, in which Kali’s costume serves a theatrical purpose rather than a practical one. Beyond that, the characters and their motivations are authentic, and the tension in this novel is intoxicating.

As Kali says, “Fear isn’t pain, but it is the expectation of it.” Except with Kali, Chekhov’s gun is replaced with a syringe.

The Euthanist is particularly relevant as right-to-die issues have gone from hushed whispers to appropriate dinner conversation. Dolan doesn’t beat us over the head with social commentary, but allows the conversation to play out between Kali and Leland.

This is an exciting debut, and I look forward to more of Alex Dolan’s writing.

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Best of 2014

Happy New Year, coming to you live from gate B-11 at Charlotte Douglas International Airport (en route from Pittsburgh to Denver).

Tis the season for arbitrary year-end best-of lists. Even the New York Times, with its battalion of bookworms, can’t cover and judge all new titles. I read more than 50 books this year, more than 30 of which were new releases. From this tiny sample, how can I present a definitive list of best books of the year? 

What I can do is highlight the finest books that reached my nightstand or my Nook. So here, in no particular ranking, are my top reads of 2014.

Spectacular Science Writing

The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things FunnyThe Humor Code

Joel Warner and Peter McGraw

“We’re here to explore the dark side of humor, how comedy can divide and degrade,” write Warner and McGraw. “Here,” in this case, is Denmark, but also Japan, Palestine, Peru and beyond. For more than two years, this odd couple of comedy—Warner a journalist (Westword, Wired, Slate) and McGraw a humor researcher/marketing instructor (at the University of Colorado at Boulder)—traveled the world to learn what incites nasal milk projectiles in other cultures.

Specifically, the intrepid twosome tested whether McGraw’s Benign-Violation Theory (BVT) of humor applied to an international audience.

For that, Warner and McGraw visit a humor science library in Japan; deliver clown therapy to a Peruvian barrio alongside Patch Adams; interview notorious Danish cartoonists; participate in laughter yoga (yes, that’s a thing); attend comedy festivals; and McGraw even gives stand-up comedy a try in Denver’s toughest room.

That’s a lot to fit into a single book, but you’ll want to read every word. The Humor Code is an engaging blend of science writing, travel writing and narrative nonfiction. This is one of the best books you will read this year, and it is deserving of major awards.

The Tale of the Dueling NeurosurgeonsThe Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons

Sam Kean

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons is a brisk and engrossing read, and Sam Kean’s most impressive yet. He digs deep into the archives of psychology to discover little-known and sometimes forgotten gems that have had a great impact on modern science. You will laugh. You will learn. At times you will pick your jaw off the floor and ask yourself, “That happened?”

If you’ve never read Sam Kean, start now. You will devour all three of his books in a week. If you’re a longtime fan, prepare to be wowed once again.

And if you’re a judge for any of the big literary prizes, in the name of all that is just and good, start etching Sam’s name into the trophy.

Faith and Wisdom in Science

Tom McLeishfaith and wisdom in science

McLeish explores the history of both scientific discovery and biblical narrative, finding commonalities in the ways humans in each arena are awestruck and inspired by the natural world. There is room, he argues, for the sublime in science. The earliest scientific studies were not the cold, heavily controlled research we have today, he writes, but passionate probes of the natural world. There has since developed a rift between the science and humanities. Science got custody of the brain in the divorce, and humanities, the heart.

If you still feel the sublimity of mountain peaks, marvel at existence at the subatomic level or can be moved to tears by a sunrise, you’ll enjoy Faith and Wisdom in Science.

 

Dystopian Literature

Justice, Inc.

Dale Bridgesjustice-inc-cover

In the introduction to his short story collection, Justice, Inc., Bridges prepares us for the satirical rapture he is about to unleash: God, discouraged by his failed attempts to kill off the human race, comes to the realization that “…when left to their own devices, they appeared to do a fair job of exterminating themselves.”

And thus the chain catches on the death-coaster, drags it to the summit and lets that fucker drop.

Hang on.

These are masterful tales of human obsolescence, cruel absurdities and species self-deliverance. In Bridges’ world, justice is self-imposed, whether or not his characters realize it. You want the convenience and savings of a Wal-Mart? Fine, but you have no one else to blame when you wake up in a world controlled by Wal-Marts. Punishment fits the crime.

Justice, Inc. manages to be both observational and engaging, philosophical yet lyrical at the same time. You’ll find yourself caring as much for the characters and their plights as for the underlying philosophy within each tale.

Bridges writes not with a pen but a skewer, piercing the absurdity of our cosmic sitcom with clarity and humor. Justice, Inc. is philosophical satire in the vein of Vonnegut and George Saunders—fellow madmen who have stared into the abyss and come away laughing.

Ominous Realities

Eds. Anthony Rivera and Sharon LawsonOminous Realities

Once again, Grey Matter Press has delivered the anthology goods. Take “On the Threshold,” an eerie, Lovecraftian tale of science and madness from William Meikle. Keeping up the intensity is “Doyoshota,” by Ken Altabef, a haunting intersection of conspiracy and cacophony that makes tinnitus sound like a Beethoven sonata.

Eric Del Carlo’s “We Are Hale, We Are Whole” is deserving of any “best-of” anthology, a smart, thoughtful piece of writing that should be a must-read for anyone attempting to world-build within the confines of a short story. It also takes a philosophical bent about quality of life, aging, health care and sacrifice.

 

Best Biography

Happy Clouds, Happy Trees: The Bob Ross Phenomenon Happy Cloud, Happy Trees

Kristin G. Congdon, Doug Blandy and Danny Coeyman

Beloved painter Bob Ross is all the more mysterious for the minimal amount of unauthorized or paratextual materials surrounding him. Mostly, what we know of Ross comes from his TV program. The mystique of the painter’s life has fueled his cultish following, and the authors do a wonderful job of exploring the man, his devotees and that ineffable thrill of creation. Bob had a word for it.

He called it joy.

An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Arts of H.L. Mencken

Hal CrowtherAn Infuriating American

The tone of this extended essay is established up front by a quote from the subject himself, H.L. Mencken:

“To the extent that I am genuinely educated, I am suspicious of all the things that the average citizen believes and the average pedagogue teaches.”

Mencken, one of America’s finest journalists, was also a world-class iconoclast, and the tone and spirit of his work is captured wonderfully in this short study by Hal Crowther, himself an esteemed author (and 1992 recipient of the H.L. Mencken Award). Mencken should be required reading for everyone (particularly prospective journalists), and An Infuriating American is as good an introduction to the writer as you’ll find.

The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, The Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation

Harold SchechterThe Mad Sculptor

“You can certainly learn as much about a society by which crimes people are obsessed with at a particular time,” says Schechter. “I think, in a general way, the crimes that become national obsessions, that strike a deep communal chord, symbolize the particular cultural anxieties of the moment.”

In the 1920s it was poisoners; in the ’70s Charles Manson personified the worst fears of the counterculture; the ’80s had phantom Satanists and the ’90s belonged to the serial killer; and today we have the rampage shooter.

But in the 1930s, it was the sexual deviant that haunted and titillated the public.

Enter Robert George Irwin, the subject of Schechter’s new book.

Irwin was a troubled and talented artist whose stunted psychosexual development (and religious obsession) fueled romantic fixations, violent outbursts, numerous hospitalizations and an attempted self-castration. It climaxed with a vicious triple murder in 1937, made all the more newsworthy because one of the victims, Veronica Gedeon, was a pulp magazine cover girl.

 

Notable Nonfiction

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League

Ian PlenderleithRock n Roll Soccer

The groundwork for today’s soccer popularity was laid by the North American Soccer League, the subject of Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer. Plenderleith documents the folly, effrontery and ultimate failure of the NASL—an impressively thorough tome that benefits from solid research and a witty outsider’s perspective (though now living in America, Plenderleith is British and brings a European’s passion and insight to football writing).

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is an excellent work of sports journalism and, regardless of whether you follow football or futbol (or both), it is worthy of any fans’ bookshelf.

The Perfect KillThe Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins

Robert Baer

It was not hard to get me to pick up The Perfect Kill. Advice on how to pull off a flawless assassination? From a CIA insider? Sign me up. But before you begin stockpiling your arsenal, don’t think of this as a modern-day Anarchist Cookbook, but rather an engaging work of military history—an insider’s view of the Middle East through the eyes of an assassin.

While the subject matter alone is interesting, Baer’s writing makes this a thrilling read from start to finish. He has a narrative voice that is concise, informative and though he occasionally drifts toward the conspiratorial (which isn’t a bad thing), he tempers it by clearly defining what is fact and what is conjecture.

 

Illuminating Lit

Beautiful You

Chuck PalahniukBeautiful You

Palahniuk took on male malaise with Fight Club and mocked cultural over-consumption with Choke. Snuff (ostensibly a novel about pornography) lampooned self-destructive excess and exploitation in a manner that could very well have served as a hyper-sexualized predictor of the impending financial crisis of 2008.

In Beautiful You, he wanted to write what he calls gonzo erotica, and in the process has penned an anthem for an overstimulated, multi-tasking, computer-coma society.

Penny Harrigan is a nice Nebraskan girl working in New York City when she catches the eye of the world’s richest man, C. Linus Maxwell. Next thing you know, Penny is the talk of the tabloids and the envy of her coworkers.

Behind closed doors, however, is where Penny is truly transformed. Maxwell introduces her to a world of unimagined, if clinical pleasure. Penny has her reasons to question Maxwell’s motives (especially after a bizarre bathroom tryst with his bitter ex-lover), but is too enraptured with her new-found fame and sexuality.

Oozing with plot twists only Palahniuk’s sardonic tone could make palatable, Beautiful You aspires to remarkable levels of absurdity, but is it any more absurd than the daily inundation of product and marketing? Many reviewers have criticized the gratuitous satire in this novel, but is the idea of world domination via dildo really that far-fetched in a culture that has financially sustained multiple cable shopping channels for three decades?

We are a culture of instant gratification. We are a culture of distraction. We are the lab rats hammering away at the pleasure bar for a taste of sweet, sweet oblivion.

And much like Maxwell, Palahniuk is there wearing a lab coat, taking copious notes and holding up a funhouse mirror to our cage, so that we might catch a distorted glimpse of what we’ve become.

The Children ActThe Children Act

Ian McEwan

Fiona Maye is an experienced judge on the cusp of old age who is questioning her lifetime of restraint (as well as her decision not to reproduce). We enter her story mid-conversation to discover Fiona reeling from her husband’s proposed (and possibly in-progress) infidelity, just as she’s preparing for a high-profile case with a child’s life in the balance.

Cut to the courtroom, where a precocious teenager is refusing a blood transfusion on the grounds of being a Jehovah’s Witness. Invoking the Children Act of 1989, Fiona gives her ruling, the consequences of which ultimately lead to a spontaneous, classically McEwan mistake, one that risks undoing her marriage, her career and a lifetime of calculated decision-making.

The Children Act is a short, but dense novel, as is usually the case with McEwan. The man is a master of reflection and interiority. The opening chapter encompasses but a moment in a 30-year marriage, but lays bare its successes, failings and a lifetime of insecurities and second-guessing. The tragedies unfold in slow motion and a lifetime of torment is distilled into a bitter, lingering moment.

 

Quality Quickies

We Should All Be Feminists

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichiechimamanda-ngozi-adichie-we-should-all-be-feminists

This brief and brilliant essay (it comes in around 20 pages) from the celebrated author of Half of a Yellow Sun, is one of the most interesting pieces I’ve read all year. “Feminist” is a word long-since stripped of its original meaning: politicized, glorified, demonized. It’s got more ill-fitting baggage than an overhead compartment. Adichie cuts through the connotations to get at the core value of feminism and how it celebrates and benefits both men women.

It’s a call to arms to imagine a generation of children raised without the biases that, consciously and unconsciously, perpetuate gender norms. It’s a call to rethink masculinity so that the next crop of men grow up healthier than the last. It’s a call for all of us to “do better.”

The essay may be short, but the conversation it generates is long and important.

Legion: Skin Deep

Brandon SandersonLegion

StephenLeeds is afflicted with a mental disturbance wherein he has imaginary friends who enable him to solve crimes. His mental manifestations, which he calls “aspects,” have names, back-stories and seemingly a life of their own, though they are bound by the limits of Leeds’ finite knowledge and experience.

In Skin Deep, the second novella in the series, Leeds is coerced into locating the corpse of a tech worker who was in possession of dangerous information—while at the same time outwitting a devious businessman and avoiding the strike of a first-rate assassin.

What makes the Legion books so amazing is not so much the outer conflicts, but the inner ones. Who are we? How do we define who we are? Would we all be better served to, ahem, use our illusions? These are the deeper strings Sanderson plucks in the Legion series.

May there be many, many more.

 

Horrific Hits

The Winter People

Jennifer McMahonWinter People

What is it about New England that inspires isolated, small-town horror tales in which the blood runs as cold as the weather? I’m not sure what it is exactly, but having spent many a wintry a night in Maine, I am familiar with that feeling. And I can’t get enough of it.

Jennifer McMahon captures that frostbite feeling perfectly in this heartbreaker of haunted legends and legacies, curses and karma, and, more than anything, unendurable loss.

The Winter People is well-written and bursting with heart. There are mysteries at every turn, and reminders that grief can be deadly. Or worse. Like a modern retelling of “The Monkey’s Paw,” there are consequences for disrupting the dead, and The Winter People reminds that despair can drive even the most sensible among us to dangerous depths.

Ten Short Tales About Ghosts

K.C. Parton10 Short Tales About Ghosts

Typically, the hallmark of a great ghost story is that it unsettles the reader. When reading K.C. Parton’s collection of English ghost stories, however, one is filled not with dread, but comfort. These 10 tales are reminiscent of the kind my father would tell me over campfires—and those, of course, will always be my favorites.

Parton’s stories have that same appeal. These are not tales of terror, but subtle chillers made all the more spooky for their familiarity. Stories that make you think twice before cutting through the graveyard, not to avoid falling prey to a Saw-like killer, but for that abstract fear that tickles as much as it terrifies.

A big draw for me is that most of the stories have an industrial setting. Growing up in the Rust Belt, I was exposed to the real-life horror of the steel mills, and I found much ghostly inspiration in the rusted machinery, secluded warehouses and the imaginative possibilities of the graveyard shift. Parton’s stories fit that mold, which shouldn’t be surprising, as he came of age in England’s post-war factories.

These stories tap into that primal need for campfire tales—the kind that give goosebumps, sure, but leave you smiling in the end.

The Cutting Room

Ellen Datlow, editorThe Cutting Room

“With no dreams left to search for, I have only nightmares to anticipate.”

This is one of the most haunting lines from the tremendous opening story, “The Cutter,” by Edward Bryant. It sets the tone for all the delicious horror in Ellen Datlow’s latest anthology. Disturbing images and the blurring of reality is a common theme in this collection. Stephen Graham Jones’ chilling “Tenderizer,” for example, David Morrell’s “Dead Image” and the wonderfully titled “Filming the Making of the Film of the Making of Fitzcarraldo” by Garry Kilworth.

Anticipate many nightmares within these pages.

Review: Legion: Skin Deep

Brandon Sanderson

Legion: Skin Deep

Not long ago, I sang the praises of Sanderson’s novella Legion (https://ensuingchapters.com/2013/01/03/review-legion/), a mystery tale centered around the brilliant, unquiet mind of Stephen Leeds.Legion

Leeds is afflicted with a mental disturbance wherein he has imaginary friends with benefits (no, not that kind, pervo, though two of his manifestations are going through a difficult breakup in this installment). His mental manifestations, which he calls “aspects,” have names, back-stories and seemingly a life of their own, though they are bound by the limits of Leeds’ finite knowledge and experience.

Consider it a cross between schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder and unconscious cognition.

Put simply, like all of us, Leeds can access a limited portion of the information he receives from external stimuli, but he’s also able to access the subconscious bits via imaginary personalities. The result is a skill set unmatched by any other detective in literature. (Leeds isn’t a detective per se, but like fellow troubled genius, Sherlock Holmes, often finds himself consulting on cases).

In Skin Deep, the second novella in the series, Leeds is coerced into locating the corpse of a tech worker who was in possession of dangerous information—while at the same time outwitting a devious businessman and avoiding the strike of a first-rate assassin.

As before, the plotting and character development is astounding. I listened to the audio version, and devoured it in two sittings (it would have only been one were it not for work). Once again, Oliver Wyman’s narration is poetry. He inhabits all of Leeds’ imaginary allies as well as his very real adversaries, shifting seamlessly and convincingly through various genders, races and personalities.

But this is more than a groovy mystery; Sanderson uses Leeds as a launch-pad for theological debate. I believe he handled the religious discussion better in the first Legion story, while in Skin Deep, the tone is didactic. Leeds describes himself as “15 percent atheist,” aggregating the beliefs of his various aspects. This is a clever way of exploring the inner conflict between doubt and faith, illustrating our tenuous grasp of knowledge and belief.

What makes the Legion books so amazing is not so much the outer conflicts, but the inner ones. I never subscribed to the academic taboo on having characters with mental illness (because it’s reductive, or some other scholarly jargon). Leeds cannot be reduced to any one of his aspects, just as his consciousness is more than the sum of his personalities. He is capable of change. We see it both within and between the books.

Perhaps Leeds’ greatest fear is that he will someday be free of his aspects, because I think he’d be lost without them. In his more existential moments, Leeds wonders whether he is simply someone else’s aspect, eliciting that dissociative tingle we’ve all felt at various times.

Who are we? How do we define who we are? Would we all be better served to, ahem, use our illusions? These are the deeper strings Sanderson plucks in the Legion series.

May there be many, many more.

Review: Kinder Than Solitude

Kinder Than Solitude

Yiyun Li

This is a book that will break your heart. From the uncomfortable opening scene at the Li_Kinder-Than-Solitudecrematorium, across continents and decades, this is a longitudinal gut-punch of a novel dealing with loss, guilt, terror and fragility.

The person being burned to ashes in the beginning is Shaoai, a childhood friend of the three main characters who was poisoned (perhaps deliberately, perhaps not) in her youth. She has finally passed after two decades in a coma, and her death brings together our lead trio—Moran, Ruyu and Boyang.

From here, the journey turns inward.

Li pens exquisite prose, with beautifully crafted sentences as philosophical as they are proficient. If I have one critique it is that the language, however beautiful, can sometimes stand in the way of the storytelling. Li is able to meditate on moments, which can subsume the reader into the novel, but at times can also push them out.

This is literary mystery, so of course there’s more to it than solving the crime. This is as much about Shaoai’s poisoner as Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer is about catching a serial killer. What matters isn’t revealing what happened, but exploring the intersection of the lives touched by Shaoai’s coma and death—inhabiting the grief and guilt harbored by the three survivors.

We all have childhood regrets, and we’ve all known someone who never made it to adulthood (though not necessarily linked the way they are here). There are things we would like to change. There are times we wonder why we’re still here and someone else isn’t.

How do we go on with this knowledge? Li doesn’t necessarily answer that question, but she gives us a disarming portrait of three childhood friends coming to terms with a past they can’t quite shake and a mystery that will both intertwine them and isolate them forever.

Review: The Ghost of the Mary Celeste

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste

Valerie Martin’s new novel, The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, is a bit like a star-studded variety show. It’s got a little bit of everything: maritime mystery, historical figures, 06book "The Ghost of the Mary Celeste" by Valerie Martin.supernatural subterfuge and… Sherlock Holmes?

The oddest part about the above description is that this book is more fact than fantasy.

Martin is a prize-winning master of historical fiction (Mary Reilly, Property), and this time around, she takes on the legendary ghost ship Mary Celeste, which was discovered abandoned, though still seaworthy, in 1872, her crew never to be seen again. This true-life mystery caught the attention of Martin, as well as another author (a young Arthur Conan Doyle published a fictionalized account of the ghost ship).

The terror is subtle in this novel. Martin makes use of found documents—journals, diaries, articles—to blend the factual with the fantastic. She meanders through time, takes on the social norms and issues of the day, and makes use of historical record real and imagined. She thrills us, certainly, but unfortunately leaves us with a tangled knot of loose ends.

There is no doubting the quality of the writing. Martin is a master storyteller, and her opening chapter is as harrowing as anything I’ve read this year. She places us in the heart of the Mary Celeste as it sails toward its destiny. Her words, like the storm, encroach, terrorize and ultimately consume, and after finishing the first chapter, I had to set the book aside for a while.

With equal skill, Martin details the lives of those left behind following the tragedy. There is heartbreak, romance and more tragedy on land. Every scene, every line of dialogue, every description is near perfect.

This is, however, a challenging book, not in content but in structure. I’m usually a fan of difficult reads—I take it as a sign of respect when an author, such as Martin, asks more of her readership than passive engagement. The narrative shifts through time, location and point of view. Indeed, there is a clever chronology, as the shipwreck segues to the survivor story segues to Doyle’s voyage segues to spiritualism. However, though they’re all linked by the Mary Celeste, the narratives feel more like vignettes. I found myself invested in each storyline, only to have it pulled out from under me with every new section. Nothing felt complete. As much as the writing drew me in, the shifting narrative pushed me away in equal measure.

This is just one reader’s opinion. Martin’s body of work speaks for itself. She is a gifted writer and storyteller, an astute chronicler of history with a great imagination. To any reader looking for a challenge, I say go for it. Get yourself a copy and enjoy the ride. For me, though, the novel is a bit like the Mary Celeste—seaworthy, but somehow I got lost along the way.

Review: Backwards

Backwards

By Todd Mitchell

Did you know there is no adjective form of the word “integrity”? Look it up. I was going Backwardsto open this review with a declaration of how integritous we are here at Ensuing Chapters. Or is the word I’m looking for integrian? Integrilicious?

None of the above.

Nevertheless, that’s my silly way to introduce a serious (and seriously good) book with the requisite disclaimer: I have known Todd Mitchell, the author of the young adult novel, Backwards, for about three years, studied under him and served as his teaching assistant in a nonfiction writing class. It’s important to establish this up front, because this will be a glowing review, and I can say with all integrity that the praise is deserved, not spooned out because I know the author.

And with that out of the way, let’s jump to the end. Or rather the beginning. Sort of.

Backwards begins with a teenaged boy, Dan, dead in the bathtub from an apparent suicide. Standing over the scene is our narrator, a Rider (a kind of immaterial wandering soul) who isn’t sure where he is, who he is or how he got there. It doesn’t take him long to realize that he is experiencing time in reverse. We observe Dan’s suicide and his preparations, his daily habits and behaviors, and once we meet pre-dead Dan, it’s easy to diagnose his terminal condition.

I believe the clinical term for it is: He’s an asshole.

But as time bends backward, we pick up more and more fragments of Dan’s life. Yeah, he’s an asshole, but he’s a teenager. Is that so odd? And maybe there’s something dark and vulnerable driving his bad behavior. Indeed there is, but he is also supported with love and encouraging voices, which he silences through self-deliverance.

This is a difficult book to describe, and I’m sure far more difficult to write. Mitchell, however, pulls it off. He taps a mainline to those cringe-worthy cafeteria moments when every little thing was life or death. High school was uncomfortable the first time, and doesn’t seem much better the second time around.

At least not at first.

The narrator, who is living Dan’s life in reverse, provides the wide-angle view that teenagers tend to lack. Actually, it’s a comforting vantage point, and if Dan could’ve seen his life from this perspective, he probably wouldn’t have ended up in the bathtub.

As I’ve often told youth groups as an addictions counselor: Teenagers aren’t stupid. Teenagers just do stupid things. That’s an important distinction, which becomes clear as we watch Dan try to make the right choices, but stumble along in that ham-handed manner that I recognize from my own high school memories. There are missed opportunities, mixed signals, mistaken intentions, the right words left unspoken and the worst ones screamed out loud.

Sound familiar?

That’s the beauty of Backwards. Though the time-manipulated narrative can be disorienting, we are grounded in the familiarity of Dan’s world. Sure, the fashion has changed, but the angst is the same as it always was and will be—and even that elicits a weird nostalgia. Even someone like me, who hated high school and all its cliques, will appreciate its stabilizing force within this chaos.

I also appreciate that the novel isn’t preachy. Of course, the message is clearly against suicide, but Mitchell isn’t talking us off the ledge with niceties. The truth can be vicious, and the author doesn’t recoil from the abyss. Through the character of the Rider, he digs into the horrors of high school and tries to come to terms with the trauma.

Is the Rider successful? The better question is, does it even matter? I’m not well-versed in literary theory, but at its core, Backwards, despite a dash of the spiritual realm, is an existentialist anthem.

Longtime readers know my affinity for existentialist anthems.

My point is that perhaps understanding your awkward years is better than changing them. By revisiting our past, we can be struck by how small everything looks in comparison. If only Dan could’ve seen what the Rider sees.

At least that’s the view from my early 40s. I’m not sure how a young adult would read it, but there’s no doubting the importance of Backwards for its intended audience. But I would argue that Backwards is as much, if not more, of a must-read for adults.

And I’d bet my integritude on that.

Review: The Last Whisper in the Dark

There are not enough superlatives when discussing Tom Piccirilli. The man is a brilliantWhisper and diverse writer: He’s won awards for his horror, fantasy, thrillers and even poetry—bagging the prestigious Bram Stoker award on four occasions.

Previous novels, such as Shards, A Choir of Ill Children and November Mourns, have shocked and terrified, but with his new release, The Last Whisper in the Dark, Piccirilli takes us to a far more tender place.

A tender place, it turns out, just as disarming as his nightmares.

I’ll sum it up this way: I was shedding tears by page three. I think the only other book that has ever had me crying this early in the narrative is Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Piccirilli has a knack for character development and storytelling, and The Last Whisper in the Dark, a sequel to 2012’s The Last Kind Words, may be his deepest work yet.

Concerning Terrier (Terry) Rand, a young thief from a family of small-time criminals, Piccirilli has given us a protagonist as sympathetic as he is fearless. On the surface, the story is about the disappearance of Terry’s friend Chub and the ensuing search that drives him head on into gangsters, killers and a femme fatale.

But on a deeper level, this is a tale of honor and family and the clumsy way we go about expressing our feelings to the ones we love. The Rands are a proud and tragic clan, with dementia and criminality in their blood—as well as an outlaw tendency that keeps them on the fringes of society.

But their strongest trait is honor. Terry is loyal to an estranged friend who stole the only woman he ever loved. He quietly looks out for his sister, even as she rebels against him and helps desecrate their dead brother’s grave. He remains devoted to a family that can occasionally be distant and dysfunctional, but always has each other’s backs.

You can mess with Terry, but you’d best not fuck with his family.

You’ll fall in love with Terry by the end of the first chapter, and you’ll be cheering him on the rest of the novel. And when it’s done, you’ll applaud Piccirilli for this tender bit of noir literature.

Piccirilli is an established icon within the horror realm, but he has yet to crack through to the mainstream, which is unfortunate. This is a writer worthy of notice, and hopefully this book is the one that reaps him the exposure and attention he deserves.