Review: Bent Heavens – Horrific, Depressing, and Super Compelling

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Title: Bent Heavens
Author:
Daniel Kraus
Publisher:
Henry Holt and Co.

Genre(s): “YA” Horror, Contemporary
Subject(s): Alien abduction, torture

Release Date:
Feb 25th, 2020
Page Count: 304 (hardback)

Rating: 8.0/10

 

 

 

 

Liv Fleming’s father went missing more than two years ago, not long after he claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Liv has long accepted that he’s dead, though that doesn’t mean she has given up their traditions. Every Sunday, she and her lifelong friend Doug Monk trudge through the woods to check the traps Lee left behind, traps he set to catch the aliens he so desperately believed were after him.

But Liv is done with childhood fantasies. Done pretending she believes her father’s absurd theories. Done going through the motions for Doug’s sake. However, on the very day she chooses to destroy the traps, she discovers in one of them a creature so inhuman it can only be one thing. In that moment, she’s faced with a painful realization: her dad was telling the truth. And no one believed him.

Now, she and Doug have a choice to make. They can turn the alien over to the authorities…or they can take matters into their own hands.

CW: Depictions of physical torture, mutilation, (spoiler: human experimentation, body horror)

 

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Okay, listen.

This isn’t a nice book.

In fact, it’s a pretty damn depressing book.

It’s a book that roams the dark and shadowy place that Mufasa warns about. Nothing good can come of chasing it but death and singing hyenas.

Which is why I’m here, on my knees, asking you to chase read it.

Contradiction, thy name is Bent Heavens.

This is my third Daniel Kraus read (well, two and three-quarters–I still have to finish Zebulon Finch) and here’s what I’ve gathered about the guy so far: when you leaf through the pages of Dictionary: Daniel Kraus Edition, you’d find burnt holes under the entries “comfortable,” “pleasant,” and “simple.” Kraus doesn’t do soft. He doesn’t do pretty. Interpersonal horrors and intimate darkness–darkness made almost beautiful by its closeness–are spaces in which he thrives (which is why he works well with Guillermo del Toro, I suppose). He has a knack for taking discomfort and instinctual revulsion and turning them into compelling art.

Calling this book “art” might be an arguable point for some, but it is definitely compelling.

The first half is pretty slow, focused on the psychological ramifications of having a father who went missing and returned, telling everyone he’d been taken and experimented on by aliens, and then promptly disappeared again. It’s a stripped-down, realistic take of your typical abduction plotline; less of flashing lights and crop circles, and more of the abductee’s obsessions and fears and the toll they have on his family. It sets up the lonely and insulated environment for the main character quite well.

The second half is where things get truly heavy.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: this story has alien torture. Not as graphic as I’d thought it would be, but still pretty graphic. One of the characters quotes and takes inspiration from George W. Bush’s policies on torture of al Qaeda prisoners, and they become the springboard for everything that follows. And there’s a lot that follows: an exploration of prisoner/prison guard psychology; the ease with which people dehumanize and justify their dehumanization. What happens when tragedy meets anger in an echo chamber, Kraus asks, and then proceeds to muddy waters by slipping weariness into the mix. And more so than the anger, the latter is what really stuck with me. Atrocities you commit because you’ve been ground down and you’re exhausted and it’s easier to let someone else’s rage fuel you than to scrounge up your own and realize you’re not that angry–at least, not enough to brutalize. No. Much easier to give someone else the reins and follow.

I think passivity is a difficult trait to portray, as you’re fighting against reader expectations of what a protagonist should be, with popular media teaching us to love active characters and scoff at the inactive ones, but the author does a brilliant job of it. There are scenes that ride the edge of suffocation and frustration, and I would’ve hated them if they weren’t written so honestly. At the same time, I hated them because they were written so honestly.

The prose is the biggest complaint I have. I wish Kraus had used the first-person POV; it’s where he works best, and it would fits the narrative better, making the introspective scenes more, well, introspective. But maybe that’s exactly why he didn’t use it. Because he wanted a buffer between the readers and everything that happens with the characters. A deep dive into Liv’s emotions might have been too raw. Regardless, the third person POV combined with Kraus’ style–surplus descriptions and use of adjectives–has the unfortunate side effect of making things comically overdramatic at the wrong moments. And while the dialogue is mostly fine, sometimes it gets a little cringey:

“You’re a barrel of monkeys today.”
“I didn’t ask for this ride.”
“Will you take ten chill pills?”

My second complaint isn’t really a complaint, just another rendition of Why the Hell Is This Marketed As YA. I’ve looked at Kraus’s books in the past and thought, “I’m not sure what age group this belongs to,” and that feeling is doubled here. It’s very mature, despite the high school characters, and the themes would feel more at home in an adult horror/thriller.

If nothing else, though, I recommend it for the ending because it’s probably the most bonkers thing I’ve read in a while. I’d call it entertaining if I didn’t feel bad about finding it entertaining. Horrifically delightful? Delightfully horrific? It’s like watching a train plummet straight into a ravine, and then seeing a land kraken erupt out of nowhere and bash the locomotive to pieces. And you can only laugh at the chaos inbetween whispers of “What the fuck.”

So yeah. Not a nice book.

It’s twisted and claustrophobic and heartbreaking and–

And I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

So, come on, Simba. Take a walk on the dark side.

 

(Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review)

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DNF Reviews: Tarnished are the Stars & The Good Luck Girls – Why does YA Hate Me? (I’m Open to Suggestions)

Here’s a fun stat for you: I DNFed 5 books in the past month and a half, and four of them were YA SFF. And I’m pretty sure they’re at least 60% responsible for the reading slump I’m currently in.

Conclusion?

1) Recent YA SFF is just missing a lot of the stuff I crave. Also, I should be more selective about the books that I request, and for god’s sake, read some reviews beforehand.

or

2) I’ve been (VERY UNFAIRLY) cursed by the bookish gods and now I must travel to the heart of the Northern Canadian woods to capture a Wendigo and make an offering–

Yeah, clearly 2 is the way to go.

 

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(Stopping point: ~45%)

You say “steampunk” and “divided loyalties” and “cat and mouse” and “queer”; I say,  “Please–I offer you my first born.”

Well, I hope the bookish gods accept cancellations because Tarnished are the Stars is definitely not worth my first born. Or any of my born for that matter.

I always say that I can forgive poor worldbuildng if I’m able to connect with the characters. But there’s a limit to that. And my limit is this book. I found the writing to be so sparse of detail to the point where it felt like a slice-of-life contemporary than a sci-fi–heavy with dialogue and a vague sense of setting, which isn’t at all helped by how short each POV chapter is.

And a slice-of-life-esque worldbuilding is fine if the story itself is slice-of-life. This book? Nothing close to that. It’s a steampunk space opera with intrigue and a organics-versus-technology plotline, and therefore I want to see something more than Scene A – generic store, Scene B – generic mansion, and Scene C – generic field.

 

 


Now, this next book has the exact OPPOSITE problem. So at least my DNF reads were…varied? Yay?

The Good Luck Girls

(Stopping point: ~38%)

ME: So, it’s kind of weird how there are no characters in The Good Luck Girls…but at least the setting is neat!

*vague whisperings in brain cavity*

ME: Uh, what do you mean I’m looking at the characters?

Ah yes. The good old problem of “interesting worldbuilding, flat/invisible characters.” This is a more familiar territory for me.

Let’s get to the positive first: the worldbuilding and the general premise of the story is super fascinating. There are two groups of people who live in Arketta, dustbloods and fairbloods, and they’re more or less alike in appearance minus one little detail: dustbloods don’t cast shadows. And while fairbloods are offered privileges and opportunities, dustbloods are forced to live in indentured servitude–as prostitutes, for example, which is what the Good Luck Girls are.

The writing itself is really solid and descriptive, and all the little details about the setting are a nice touch. Also, copious descriptions of food equal a very happy Kathy.

All of this was negated by the characters. Holy friggin’ coconuts, the characters. You have this cool western setting–rich and dusty and unforgiving–and it’s somehow populated with characters with less personality and depth than the back of a cereal box. They were just…blank. And eerily so. I couldn’t find myself caring about any of them, or their predicament, and well, that was that.

 

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So. What books should I pack for my Wendigo-hunting trip? And what’s your go-to remedy for bookish curses?

(I’ve been a BIT sleep-deprived this week–I don’t know if you can tell??)

Review: The Infinite Noise – Fine with a Dash of Soft & Sweet and a Landing that Doesn’t Stick

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Title: The Infinite Noise
Author: Lauren Shippen
Publisher: TorTeen
Release Date: September 24th 2019
Genre(s): YA Sci-Fi
Subjects and Themes: LGBTQIAP+, Mental Health, Superpowers
Page Count: 336 (hardback)

Rating: 6.0/10

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Caleb Michaels is a sixteen-year-old champion running back. Other than that his life is pretty normal. But when Caleb starts experiencing mood swings that are out of the ordinary for even a teenager, his life moves beyond “typical.”

Caleb is an Atypical, an individual with enhanced abilities. Which sounds pretty cool except Caleb’s ability is extreme empathy―he feels the emotions of everyone around him. Being an empath in high school would be hard enough, but Caleb’s life becomes even more complicated when he keeps getting pulled into the emotional orbit of one of his classmates, Adam. Adam’s feelings are big and all-consuming, but they fit together with Caleb’s feelings in a way that he can’t quite understand.

Caleb’s therapist, Dr. Bright, encourages Caleb to explore this connection by befriending Adam. As he and Adam grow closer, Caleb learns more about his ability, himself, his therapist―who seems to know a lot more than she lets on―and just how dangerous being an Atypical can be.

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First of all, if you haven’t check out the The Bright Sessions podcast, please please please do so. From a bird’s eye view, it’s a story about superpowered people attending therapy, but really it’s so much more than that.

Second of all, I highly, highly recommend listening to the audiobook for this (narrated by the VA’s who play Caleb and Adam in the podcast). That might be presumptuous, seeing as how I haven’t even tried the audiobook version yet, but…. *whispering* Shippen’s prose just isn’t as engaging in print form as it is in audio form (TBS fans can skewer me for that). I mean, it’s fine–very casual and conversational, which fits her teenage characters–but it’s also kind of plain, and I had a hard time differentiating between Caleb and Adam’s narration. And a multi first-person POV book in which the narrators blend together is Kiss of Death territory for me.

Well, at least it would be if it weren’t for the fact that (1) this is a Bright Sessions story, and (2) this is a Bright Sessions story. And TBS at its core has always been about the power of empathy and human connections, which remains very true in this adaptation.

Caleb is the jockish empath with the heart of gold, kind in a way that obliterates the typical jockish stereotype (I would go to war for him), and Adam is the quiet bookish boy who’s dealing with more mundane but still very real demons of his own. It was nice to see a more in-depth look at their relationship that we don’t get in the podcast. Shippen nails the messiness of being a teenager, psychic or otherwise, and her descriptions of anxiety and depression are some of the best I’ve seen.

It’s not dark, it’s…the absence of light. Like some sort of void. It doesn’t weigh down on me, suffocate me. It’s empty–just total nothingness. But it’s sucking me in and I feel like if I go inside of it I’ll stop existing entirely, and that scares me but at the same time it would be a relief. 

The Infinite Noise talks about feelings–their shape, their depth, their colour–probably more than any other speculative book I’ve read. And I so, so appreciate that, not only because rifling through emotions and assigning imagery to them is something I always do (because that makes it easier for me to process them), but also because it goes such a long way towards normalizing vulnerable masculinity in media.

So the majority of the story is slow-burn relationship building with bits of sci-fi elements, which is good. The last 10% or so is really where things fall apart for me. And most of that has to do with the structure of the podcast, and how some of it doesn’t translate to a two-POV book environment. Sequences that are interesting and well-paced in the podcast come across as incredibly abrupt and jarring here, and…I don’t know, I just think the book could have benefited from an extra 40-50 pages to flesh things out.

Overall, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. It was nice to revisit these characters in novel form, but I don’t think if it brought anything majorly new and exciting to the table that the podcast didn’t. That being said, I…still recommend checking it out. I think it’s a fine intro to the TBS universe for newcomers, and the way I see it, any story that champions kindness and empathy is worth at least a quick browse.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review