Review: BENT HEAVENS by Daniel Kraus (2020)

Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction
Year Release: 2020
Source: Chicago Public Library

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Content warnings: Torture, PTSD, poverty, psychosis, blood, bullying

Liv Flemming retreated from all but her best friend Doug when her dad went missing two years prior to the start of the story. Lee Flemming claimed to have been captured by aliens, and his ensuing psychotic episodes made him a bit of a lost cause to the town’s authorities. But when an unidentified humanoid winds up in the woods behind her house, Liv will stop at nothing to find out what really happened to her father.

Pissed all the way off and horrifying, this book has twists and turns with a compelling character arc of understanding and the prices paid for the truth.

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Review: WHAT BEAUTY THERE IS by Cory Anderson (2021)

Genre: Young Adult Contemporary Thriller
Year Release: 2021
Source: Library Audiobook

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Listened to the audiobook
Content warning: Hanging, drug-related crimes and violence, meth, poverty, violence against children, emotional abuse, blood, death of mothers

This contemporary thriller follows brothers Jack and Matty, whose father is in jail and her mother had just died by suicide. With funds dwindling, older brother Jack choose money to keep himself and his brother out of the foster care system. Except for the fact that a scoundrel named Bardem chases after them. A detective also tries to make heads and tails of the trail of bodies, but everyone is hardly a half-step ahead of the others.

A book that makes great use of its wintery setting in theme and tone, this tale of brothers tugs at the heartstrings something fierce as they rely on each other and another fellow child to make it to the other side.


This book is as brutal as its prose is beautiful. There were times I had to pause the audiobook because a line or a turn of phrase stopped me in its place. Or, in the opposite direction, some absolutely bananas turn comes out and the reader scrambles as much as the characters to figure out the next step. It works on a character and plot-level. With break-neck pacing and deliberate pauses for character development, Anderson shows deft guidance but also lets the reader experience this fraught journey.

While Jack wears his heart on his sleeve, Ava is a mystery that slowly unravels. We know from her introduction that Bardem is her father, and he raised her to be as closed-off from the goodness in the world as he is. This book toes the line between survival and cruelty, especially in her POV. She could have abandoned the brothers at any turn, but stays to help. The tension can be cut with a knife. But there is so much tenderness, of kids recognizing the hurt in each other. It’s so beautifully done, it hurts.

For those who need it, there is a puppy in the final act, and he makes it to the end.

Review: UNDER THE KNIFE: A History of Surgery in 28 Remarkable Operations by Arnold Van de Laar (2018)

Genre: Adult Science Nonfiction
Year Release: 2018
Source: Library Audiobook

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Listened to the audiobook
Content warning: Infections, sutures, stitches, fatphobia (mentions of obesity), gore, blood, old-timey medicine

Clearly, my non-fiction reads have taken on a specific mood. We have more gross human anatomy and the things people have done to it. This time, it’s not about cadavers, but about the major turning points in development of the operational theater.

Van de Laar clearly has a passion for the work he does. He takes great care describing the importance of his work, but also contextualizing the attitudes and beliefs leading up to the pivotal changes.

My knowledge about medical history barely scratches the surface, so it feels disingenuous to say that I learned a lot. But I did! The histories told here are as interesting as the voyeurism of someone explaining medical procedures. Particular highlights include Bob Marley’s toe, Pope John Paul II’s bullet wound, and the number of times I whispered, “Oh no, don’t do that” while listening. Your mileage may vary depending on your squeamishness when it comes to infections and related.

Review: STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (2004)

Genre: Adult Sciene Nonfiction
Year Release: 2004
Source: Library Audiobook

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Listened to the audiobook
Content warning: Human remains, death, decapitation, cannibalism, old-timey medicine and related horrors

This book is not one for weak stomachs, no matter how much humor she injects between each grisly detail. Starting with a visit to the morgue, Roach meticulously goes through the history of how surgical preparation and practice came to be.

But the scope of the book also covers consumption of human flesh for medicinal purpose, human decomposition, the science of head transplants, crash test dummies, the Shroud of Turin, and much, much more.

It’s interesting and I would highly advise against eating this while eating. Ultimately, it’s strangely wholesome and about the ways the dead can bring people and cultures together.

Review: THE ICE MAN: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer by Philip Carlo (2006)

Genre: Adult True Crime Nonfiction
Year Release: 2006
Source: Library Audiobook

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Listened to the audiobook
Content warning: Consumption by rats, mafia violence, murder, gore, dismemberment, child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic abuse, spousal abuse, drug use, alcoholism

I got here via The Last Podcast on the Left series on Richard Kuklinski. It covers most of what happens in this book. The abridged version is ridiculous. But the unabridged account of Richard Kuklinski and his career as a mafia contract killer borders on fictional. Taking place in the tri-state area from the later 50’s to the late 80’s, this book uncovers a grisly piece of New York City history. The mafia was at their peak of activity, and the New York Police Department worked to take down the vast networks of associates and core family members. But Richard “The Ice Man” Kuklinski served several families and largely stayed off the NYPD’s radar.

This biography is about as rounded as you can get when examining the life and crimes of a killer who managed to hide his work from his family.

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Review: ENDURANCE: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing (1959)

Genre: Adult Historical Nonfiction
Year Release: 1959
Source: Library Audiobook

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Listened to the audiobook
Content warning: Frostbite, graphic descriptions of amputations, hunting, consumption of pets, gangrene

Spoiler alert: they all survive this one.

Told with rich contextualization of the available technology and understanding of wilderness survival in the early 1900’s, Endurance covers the harrowing adventure of Ernest Shackleton and his crew attempting to reach the South Pole. With fantastic characterizations and attention-to-detail, Lansing’s account captures all the trials and tribulations. Ultimately, it shows what a difference exploring a place with a landmass rather than strictly unpredictable ice floes and pack ice can make on the success of a journey. Though they failed in reaching their destination, there is this story to be told in all its rugged excitement.

As it always is with me and these types of stories, I wanna go to the South Pole at the end of the day.

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Review: FATHOMS: The World in the Whale by Rebecca Giggs (2020)

Genre: Adult Science Nonfiction
Year Release: 2020
Source: Library Audiobook

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Listened to the audiobook
Content warning: Decomposition, animal death, climate change, animal cruelty

Whales will always be my favorite thing. So large, so unaware of their size. Such a strange route to evolution, where the progenitor whale went back into the sea, rather than staying in the ocean depths.

The angle this book takes isn’t one that’s strictly about whales. It’s about these gentle giants in concert with both the human world and the natural world. How much we can learn about climate change can also be elucidated from examining their biology. Captivating, anecdotal, and quite funny in places at the absurdity of man, I learn a little bit more with each new whale book I read.

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Review: THE GRIP OF IT by Jac Jemc (2017)

Genre: Adult Horror
Year Release: 2017
Source: Library Audiobook

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Listened to the audiobook
Content warning: Vomiting, menstruation, cervical injury, stalking, gaslighting

A couple finally gets their shit together, buys a house, and move in. But there’s no evidence of the realtor. Their neighbor stalks them and goes missing. There are teeth in the walls. This quick read is creepy, atmospheric, and makes you question reality along with Julie and James.

The simplicity of the prose in this one was what got me. The details and terrors are presented so plainly, there’s no attempt at using metaphor to describe what’s going on, it’s brilliant. The house just has teeth in the walls and secret doors everywhere, it’s not a big deal.

The other edge of the blade that makes this novel work really well is the almost literary presentation of Julie and James’ relationship. He has been keeping a gambling addiction from her. She resorts to the comforts of friends who only have platitudes to offer. When the hauntings move to physical ailments and distortions in reality’s fabric, the house almost becomes a Dorian-Gray-esque reflection of the couple’s inner turmoil.

Getting your life together seems like a terrible idea.

Review: WE KEEP THE DEAD CLOSE: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence by Becky Cooper

Genre: Adult True Crime Nonfiction
Year Release: 2020
Source: Library Audiobook

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Listened to the audiobook
Content warning: Murder, sexual harassment, power imbalance, work place harassment, sexual assault

A murder at Harvard that’s been left unsolved for decades, the murder of Jane Britton is passed around as a bit of a ghost story, a poltergeist haunting the archaeology department. One undergrad, writer Becky Cooper, doesn’t want to leave it at that, and embarks on a quest to find the truth behind this brutal murder.

What unfolds in a eye-widening exploration of misogyny in academia, silencing on an institutional level, and frightening parallels between gender equality in the late 60’s/early 70’s and in the 2000’s.

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Review: THE LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE by Valeria Luiselli (2019)

Genre: Adult Literary Fiction
Year Release: 2019
Source: Library Audiobook

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Listened to the audiobook
Content warning: American border crisis, missing children

A family goes on a road trip to record voices and sounds, but as the trip moves south, the husband becomes obsessed with following the story of the Apaches, while the wife seeks to unravel the mystery of a Mexican friend’s two missing children. All while their own kids watch their parents’ marriage dissolve in real time.

An effective demonstration of the power of multi-media story-telling, this moving and inventive novel makes great use of shifting perspectives to tell a deeply personal story that works so well in its framing narrative.

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