Bourke's Bookshelf: Imagine what's never been

This week's reads include "The Secret Life of Bees" by Sue monk Kidd, "Madhouse at the End of the Earth" by Julian Sancton," "Why All the Skulls are Grinning" by Joe Pawlowski" and "The Big Island" by Julian May.

Stack of books on a bookshelf
This week's reads include "The Secret Life of Bees" by Sue monk Kidd, "Madhouse at the End of the Earth" by Julian Sancton," "Why All the Skulls are Grinning" by Joe Pawlowski" and "The Big Island" by Julian May.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
Theresa Bourke headshot

All of this week’s reads are vastly different, each with their own distinct style and story.

There’s some nonfiction, some supernatural, some hard life lessons and even a little bit of romance, so hopefully every reader can find something to their liking amongst my most recent picks.

‘Why All the Skulls are Grinning’ by Joe Pawlowski

I haven’t read much in the way of short stories, but when I happen to get my hands on a brand new copy of a book with a brightly colored skull reminiscent of a Día de los Muertos decoration and the promise of something thrilling, it’s hard not to take a look.

Why All the Skulls are Grinning

“Why All the Skulls are Grinning” is the fifth book from retired journalist and New Hope author Joe Pawlowski. It’s a collection of nine suspenseful short stories, most set in Minnesota and all unique, enticing tales with supernatural elements.

Among the curious cast of characters are a con man who gets more than he bargains for in his latest scheme, an old man desperate to encounter spirits, an escaped convict who happens upon a disturbing scene in the woods, and a couple lured into a dark, drug-infused night they’d want to forget if only they could remember what happened.


Some scenes reminded me of a darker, more warped version of Alice’s journey into Wonderland, with nonsensical musings and puzzling illusions that could surely only be hallucinations if it weren’t for their very real implications.

Sinister, unexpected endings kept me on the edge of my seat and left me with my mouth hanging open, trying to make sense of what I just read. If you’re craving something completely original, totally twisted and perplexingly peculiar, “Why All the Skulls are Grinning” is the perfect thing.

‘The Secret Life of Bees’ by Sue Monk Kidd

I didn’t know what to expect going into “The Secret Life of Bees.” I picked a copy up at a library book sale a while back because I’d heard of the title and figured it would be a good read. What I encountered was a deep, moving and tragically beautiful story about a young girl’s search for answers about her mom.

The Secret Life of Bees

It’s the summer of 1964 in South Carolina, and President Lyndon B. Johnson just signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Rosaleen Daise has practiced her signature over and over and is ready to register to vote for the first time. White teenager Lily Owens, who was put under Rosaleen’s care 10 years ago after her mom died, accompanies the Black woman into town for the momentous occasion, if only to get away from abusive dad T. Ray for a few hours.

But when Rosaleen offends three violent racists on the way and gets herself thrown in jail, Lily decides it’s time to do something drastic.

After springing Rosaleen from jail the two embark to the only place Lily can think of — Tiburon, South Carolina. She found the name on the back of an item belonging to her late mother and hopes the city will provide the answers she seeks, like the true circumstances of her mom’s death and whether her father’s disturbing account can be corroborated.

She didn’t expect those answers — or a whole slew of life lessons — to lie in the beehives surrounding a bright pink house owned by three Black beekeeping sisters who teach her about a mother’s love.

‘Madhouse at the End of the Earth’ by Julian Sancton

I don’t tend to read a lot of nonfiction, but “Madhouse at the End of the Earth” reads more like a thrilling action/adventure novel than a historical account.


Madhouse at the End of the Earth

One of the lesser known Antarctic expeditions, the Belgica set sail from Antwerp, Belgium, Aug. 16, 1897 with Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery at the helm. Seeking glory for himself and his homeland, de Gerlache assembled the best team he could find. The ragtag group of primarily Belgians and Norwegians set out to find the magnetic South Pole but ended up instead with a different feat to their name: the first people to winter south of the Antarctic Circle.

When de Gerlache throws caution to the wind and ultimately traps his crew in the unforgiving Antarctic ice for a year, madness ensues. The sun sets in mid-May 1898 and doesn’t rise again for 70 days.

No one signed up for this. No one is prepared for this, except perhaps for the burly Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who would go on to make a name for himself in his own right.

But how many will die before the ice lets up? How many of his comrades did de Gerlach condemn to the icy waters, and will the commandant himself last through the winter?

Through detailed diaries many of the crew members kept, Julian Sancton takes his readers on a chilling journey into the minds of men whose thirst for adventure is long gone, replaced with disease, insanity and gnawing dread that they’ll never make it back to civilization.

Kids pick: ‘The Big Island’ by Julian May

Originally published in 1968, “The Big Island: The story of Isle Royale” was reprinted in 2021 with a new note by renowned wolf expert L. David Mech.

The Big Island

The short story, beautifully illustrated by John Schoenherr, outlines the basics of ecological balance on Lake Superior’s Isle Royale through its depiction of the predator-prey relationship among moose, wolves and other animals on the island.

The rustic designs paired with the simple, outdoorsy story, is the perfect tale for little Minnesotans — or any curious young readers. But parents should be prepared for their little ones to request a trip to Isle Royale National Park when they’re done.


THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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