As you read the reviews on Bookshop Talk, you'll notice that every review is positive. No, we're not a bunch of literary
pushovers who love everything we pick up; we just see no point in telling you about a book if we didn't like it.

May 25, 2015

WRITER TO WRITER: FROM THINK TO INK by Gail Carson Levine, 2014


Have you ever wanted to captivate readers with a great opening, create spectacular and fantastical creatures, make up an entire country, realize a dastardly villain, write an epic love story, or make your characters leap off the page? If you answered yes to any of these questions, Gail Carson Levine can help you achieve your goals. (Goodreads)

Reviewed by Julie, Children's lit enthusiast and pop culture geek

Gail Carson Levine's WRITER TO WRITER is a fascinating and useful guide for writers of all ages.  Particularly useful for writers of children's or YA works, "Writer to Writer" is divided into chapters dedicated to the burning questions authors have regarding how to craft their own works. Can't figure out how to make your main character jump alive from the page?  Do you start your writing strong, then venture into a foggy and uncertain end?  Are you simply not sure where to begin?  "Writer to Writer," a companion to Levine's previous guide "Writing Magic," can help to answer these questions and many more.

As a part-time teacher of writing (and, of course, children's literature enthusiast), I really enjoyed reading about Levine's own process and insight into writing and publishing.  Her advice is practical, clear, and insightful--as well as fun to read, due to her humor and easygoing writer's voice.  She approaches example works (including her own) with a helpful analytical approach that emphasizes the importance of reading, writing, and critiquing in order to become a better writer.  Ultimately, Levine strives to prepare writers for an audience, the exciting and scary real people who might one day read your work and post about it on a blog like Bookshop Talk.

That all sounds very dry (maybe it's the teacher in me), so on to the fun parts: Levine provides several examples of writing that will inspire you to read and write.  Further, she includes tons and tons of writing prompts throughout each chapter that will make you want to stop and create.  She even ventures into the subjects of poetry and blogging as outlets of self-expression.  Her advice at the end of every chapter is the same: "Have fun, and save what you write!"  Here, she emphasizes that, while writing can be a serious craft and career, it is also a really fun activity, and her own sense of fun and playfulness permeates the work.

This guide is meant to encourage and inspire writers everywhere, and it is the perfect read for anyone who is interested in writing for middle-grade or young adult readers.  Once you read it, check out Levine's personal blog for more: www.gailcarsonlevine.blogspot.com.

Market: Middle Grade or YA nonfiction "how to"--although the advice is practical for writers of all ages!
Violence: None
Language: None
Sensuality: None
Adult Themes: None, although considers both the analytical and business sides of writing as a craft

May 18, 2015

THE SILVER BOWL by Diane Stanley, 2011

Unwanted at home, Molly goes to work for the king of Westria as a humble scullery maid. She arrives at the castle with no education, no manners, and a very disturbing secret: She sees visions, and those visions always come true. (Goodreads)

Reviewed by Jaina, who spends most of her time reviewing books at Read Till Dawn

After my third or fourth reread, I've decided that THE SILVER BOWL officially goes on my all-time favorites list. It's got everything I love - magic, royalty, danger, and subtle humor - without falling into any of the tired cliches that characterize most books that involve royalty and magic. In fact, Molly, the kitchen girl, is the MC - not the cute royal prince she rescues. I love seeing her roll her eyes at the prince's clueless-ness in the real world when they're hiding - like, "gee, sure, give them your royal brooch in gratitude for helping you. I'm sure no one will think they stole it if they try to sell it for, you know, actual money to replace all the food and medicine they just used on you." Okay, she didn't phrase it like that - like I said, the humor is subtle - that's just my paraphrase.

Okay, characters. As I already wrote, Meg is awesome. She's smart, and clever, but not in that really cloying cliche way. She's a bit of a wild-child in the first few chapters, but we quickly watch her flash forward about ten years. Even though she's wild, as soon as she goes to work at the castle (at age seven) she catches on to the fact that she has to do anything people ask, and not get into any trouble, if she wants to keep her post. Her stubbornness is not a tool to show that she's a flawed character (but secretly not, because stubbornness just shows strength of character!). It's a part of her personality, but a part that she knows how to deny when she needs to.

Meg also has this mysterious ability to sense the future, which isn't explained much in this book (the author delves a lot more into that in the second and third books, both of which are good but not quite as good as this one). I love how she's not going crazy with excitement about her powers: she actually sees them as a curse, not a blessing, and is deathly afraid of her visions through not only this book but actually most of the entire trilogy. She fears the burden that has been placed onto her.

Tobias is Meg's best friend, and a great character in his own right. A bit more cookie-cutter, he has all the usual side-kick bits: loyal, funny, smart, helps the MC catch her bearings in a new place (in this case the castle), and has a sad back-story to boot. However, you can't help but like Tobias. He's just so nice!

The prince doesn't actually get a huge amount of screen time in this book, because Molly the servant girl doesn't really get to interact much with Alaric the prince in the first half of the book, and then later he's pretty wounded and spends quite a bit of time unconscious. However, the bits that you do see give the bare outline of a compelling character. From the moment Meg (shamelessly eavesdropping) overhears him arguing with his parents as a child, you know that he's not going to be a cookie-cutter prince. Later, I love how strong he is. He still even keeps a bit of his humor! I won't go into it more than that, for fear of spoilers.

I can't really think of anything else to say, besides "read this book!" Like I said above, this is one of my all-time favorite books, and I recently bought it so I could cherish it forever. If it looks at all interesting to you, then you'll probably love it!

Market: Middle Grade/Young Adult 
Language: None/Very mild
Sensuality: None
Violence: Moderate (minor characters die by various mishaps including animal attacks, none of which are described in gratuitous detail)
Mature Themes: Dealing with the death of loved ones

May 5, 2015

DON'T PUT LIPSTICK ON THE CAT by Kersten Campbell

As a parent, sometimes you just have to laugh. The challenges of raising children can be daunting, so humor goes a long way towards smoothing out the rough times. Enjoy these funny, frank, and true stories from the front lines of parenthood. Don't Put Lipstick on the Cat is a perfect gift for moms, dads, neighbors, and friends. (Amazon)

Reviewed by Kim Harris Thacker: writer, mommy, and Bookshop Talk co-host

As I prepare to write this book review, the song, “I Love to Laugh,” from Disney’s Mary Poppins, runs through my head:

I love to laugh
Loud and long and clear.
I love to laugh
It’s getting worse ev’ry year!
The more I laugh,
The more I fill with glee.
And the more the glee,
The more I’m a merrier me!

Don’t Put Lipstick on the Cat: Humorous Tales of Motherhood, by Kersten Campbell, filled me with absolute glee. It has been a long time since I’ve read such a humorous book! I generally steer clear of books (and movies) that are touted as “comedies,” because I find that many of them are funny at the expense of others—which isn’t the kind of humor that strikes me as funny at all. But in Don’t Put Lipstick on the Cat, the author follows what I think of as the Golden Rule of Comedy—“Portray others as you would have others portray you”—in that she pokes fun at herself and at all the trouble she gets into in her efforts to follow the original Golden Rule. The Campbell in Don’t Put Lipstick on the Cat is a big-hearted, well-meaning, slightly devious mom who I would enjoy chatting with over Ramen Brûlée (Don’t ask—just read Chapter 11.). Of course, we would be interrupted by regular catastrophe, but what mom isn’t? Perhaps it’s the very notion that somebody out there has as many mishaps as me that makes me appreciate this book so much...

Consider the delightful beginning of Chapter Six, “Rub-a-Dub-Dub, Six Kids in a Tub”:

When you are a mother in charge of a family, every day is fraught with perilous dilemmas and burning questions that only you, through your amazing wit and marvelous ingenuity have the wisdom to solve. You, as a mother, are required to crack mysteries and solve riddles that are so tough, so astounding, and so mind boggling, they would catapult even the most exceptional detective mind into everlasting lunacy. No amateur mind could solve riddles such as these startling questions you face every day: How did your husband’s underwear get in the freezer? Who stuck spaghetti all over the cat? What happened to the Thanksgiving turkey that was sitting on the table a few minutes ago? If your son didn’t go to the bathroom in the potty, where did he go to the bathroom? And last but not least, how in the world can you get ten children bathed, brushed, and ready for church in less than ten minutes? This was the burning question facing me during a visit to my sister-in-law’s house after we woke up late one Sunday morning.

“What are we going to do?” screeched my sister-in-law Sue, cracking her knuckles and pacing in front of the clock. “I’ve only got one bathroom.”

My sister-in-law is your basic nervous person. This is unfortunate because I am allergic to nervous people. The allergic reaction I have doesn’t make me sneeze, it makes me suddenly calm, as if nothing in the world matters, especially not being late for church. The more nervous my sister-in-law became, the slower my heart beat until I had to check my breathing to make sure I was still alive.

“Don’t worry,” I said with confidence. “I’ve got the perfect solution. Let’s do a cousin bath assembly line.”

I won’t continue to quote the chapter. Suffice it to say that things do not go according to plan (A seventh character may suddenly join the six kids in the tub, and its name starts and ends with p.).

Um.

Let’s talk about the writing nitty-gritty, shall we?

Campbell’s writing is wonderfully wry and also highly visual. The events in each vignette are described so vividly that the reader is immediately drawn into the story, as if he or she is actually a nosy neighbor who was disturbed by the commotion next door and so decided to pop in to make sure everything was okay—and then decided to pop right back out again, because while things were obviously not okay, no one was in immediate mortal danger.

Although Don’t Put Lipstick on the Cat is based on Campbell’s real-life experiences, she uses made-up names for each of her characters. This not only protects the identities of the (ahem) innocent, but it also allows Campbell to get at the personalities of her characters without making extensive explanations for their behavior. “Scoot,” for example, has a knack for scooting out of the trouble his antics frequently get him into.

Another thing worth noting: The Library of Congress Cataloging In-Publication Data lists this book’s topics as “Families—Humor,” and “Mormon Families—Humor,” but the hilarity that ensues in each chapter of the book is something that everyone can relate to—particularly if the reader has ever tried to run a self-propelled lawn mower or has had a kid in violin lessons, that is. The vignettes are reminiscent of those found in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, by Jean Kerr and Cheaper by the Dozen, by Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. They celebrate family life and motherhood and would make the perfect gift for Mother’s Day—which is only a week away! It’s available in paperback or in a Kindle edition.

Market: adult humor, memoir, creative nonfiction (suitable for any age, though more suited for adults)
Language: none
Sensuality: the parents kiss
Violence: a rampaging lawn mower takes a bite out of a cherry tree
Mature Themes: none

May 4, 2015

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel, 2014


One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur's chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them. Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave. Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. (Amazon)

Reviewed by Jessica Day George: author and Bookshop Talk host

This is a perfect novel. A masterpiece. I’m quite hard pressed to tell you anything else about it, except that you should read it. All of you. Any of you. It doesn’t matter what kind of book you normally like, if you like good writing, you will like this.

No, you’ll love it. You’ll love the characters both in spite of, and because of, their flaws. You’ll love the various settings, and the various timelines: past, present, and future. STATION ELEVEN is, quite simply, perfect. The characters, the shifts in time, the different plotlines, all come together in the end to form one perfect tapestry, a tapestry that tells a heartbreaking story of humanity that will stay with you long after you close the book.

Market: Adult fiction, but I highly recommend it for older teens as well.
Language: Some, including the f-word, but it’s not ubiquitous or gratuitous.
Sensuality: Mild
Violence: Mild
Adult themes: death (mostly from a pandemic, not graphic), adultery (happens “off-screen”), a religious cult.

ATLANTIA by Ally Condie, 2014

For as long as she can remember, Rio has dreamt of the sand and sky Above—of life beyond her underwater city of Atlantia. But in a single moment, all her plans for the future are thwarted when her twin sister, Bay, makes an unexpected decision, stranding Rio Below. Alone, ripped away from the last person who knew Rio’s true self—and the powerful siren voice she has long hidden—she has nothing left to lose. Guided by a dangerous and unlikely mentor, Rio formulates a plan that leads to increasingly treacherous questions about her mother’s death, her own destiny, and the complex system constructed to govern the divide between land and sea. Her life and her city depend on Rio to listen to the voices of the past and to speak long-hidden truths. (Goodreads)

Reviewd by Rosalyn E.

I really enjoyed Ally Condie's latest, ATLANTIA, which has a quiet, restrained beauty to it. The language is spare but lovely, and the plot is quiet but moving. Readers who come to this expecting something fast paced--or about mermaids--are likely to be disappointed, but I thought it was well done.

Rio Conwys is a twin, and she has spent her whole life in Below knowing two things: one, that when it's her turn to choose Above or Below, she will choose the world above, and two, that she has to always conceal her siren voice. In Atlantia, the world Below is a carefully engineered underwater city to house humans who fled from the terrible pollution above. But some have remained above, to grow the crops that sustain those below. And each year, those who reach 17 can choose whether to stay Below or go Above--but only one can go from each family. So when Rio's sister Bay chooses to go above, trapping her below to deal with Bay's loss while still grieving the recent death or their mother, Rio doesn't know what to think or do.

Much of the early part of the novel is spent with Rio trying to find her new place in the city and to find a way to reach Bay in the world Above. She tries racing for money, and meets True, a warm-hearted boy who constructs clever machines to attract more viewers (and money) in her races. At the same time, Rio tries to avoid her aunt, a siren who may or may not have been responsible for her mother's death. But the more Rio  learns about the politics of Above and Below, the more she begins to question what she's always known, and what her true role is.

I think what I liked most about this book is that, in it's heart, it's not about the romance, but about the relationship between sisters: between Rio and Bay and between her aunt and her mother. And I liked that the slower pace allowed it to be more character driven--the readers see Rio coming into her true voice in more ways than one. There were some things about the world-building I would have liked to understand better, but ultimately, I thought it was lovely.


Market: Young Adult
Language: very mild
Sensuality: very mild (kissing only)
Violence: some
Mature Themes: the plot deals with grief, loss, separation and untrustworthy leaders

April 27, 2015

ELEPHANT COMPANY by Vicki Constantine Croke, 2014


The remarkable story of James Howard “Billy” Williams, whose uncanny rapport with the world’s largest land animals transformed him from a carefree young man into the charismatic war hero known as Elephant Bill. Part biography, part war epic, and part wildlife adventure, Elephant Company is an inspirational narrative that illuminates a little-known chapter in the annals of wartime heroism. (Goodreads)

Reviewed by Katie Rice - Mama

This book is 'real-life Tarzan'.  Billy Williams went to Burma in the 1920's for work.  He became an elephant expert.  He was their teacher, doctor, advocate and friend.  Throughout his life he interacts with them and learns from them.  He experiences a career, a family, and even war while maintaining a friendship with these animals.

Elephants are incredible.  Did you know they only sleep two to three hours each day?  With all the little narratives from William's life there are fascinating things to learn about elephants.  They take on a super-human role.  This is the sort of book an animal lover loves.

I could put ELEPHANT COMPANY down, and come back to a few days later and still be impressed with the world.  It's an adventure that made me think about my own real-life adventures and how I treat the people and living creatures around me.

Market: Nonfiction for adults, though an easy read
Language: Maybe a couple naughty words
Sensuality: Sexuality is talked about, though no graphic scenes
Violence: There is a war.  The most graphic scene is when Williams helps to clean out a bloated elephant (yuck, right?)
Mature Themes: war, bachelorhood, racial inequality (underlying)

April 20, 2015

MIDWINTERBLOOD by Marcus Sedgwick, 2011

In 2073 on the remote and secretive island of Blessed, where rumour has it that no one ages and no children are born, a visiting journalist, Eric Seven, and a young local woman known as Merle are ritually slain. Their deaths echo a moment ten centuries before, when, in the dark of the moon, a king was slain, tragically torn from his queen. Their souls search to be reunited, and as mother and son, artist and child, forbidden lovers, victims of a vampire they come close to finding what they've lost. In a novel comprising seven parts, each influenced by a moon - the flower moon, the harvest moon, the hunter's moon, the blood moon - this is the story of Eric and Merle whose souls have been searching for each other since their untimely parting. (Goodreads)

Reviewed by Jessica Day George: author and Bookshop Talk host

This was the 2014 Printz Award Winner, and I had never heard of it. Several other books had been bandied about as possible candidates, and when I heard this one announced my reaction was, basically, “What?” But I was in a mood to do some online shopping, so I went ahead and ordered all the award winners, but actually preordered this one in paperback, because I quite frankly hated the cover, and the soon-to-be-released paperback had a great cover. So I went on with my life and then a few weeks later my book came with its fancy new cover with a shiny gold medal sticker on it, and I thought, Well, isn’t that nice?

Then I read it.

And my reaction was, once again, “What?” Only it was because I was thinking, What are people thinking, not reading this book? Why is everyone not raving about this book? MIDWINTERBLOOD is amazing! It’s actually seven books, or stories, in one. Each story is set in a different time and is a different style. There’s future sci fi, WWII thriller, gothic horror, even a vampire story, but they all tie together as the same souls are born and reborn, and try to find each other. Who were they, originally? Why were they separated? The stories go back in time until the last story, which is also the first, which may have been my favorite, though I loved them all. The book is beautifully written, I mean, just beautiful. Absolutely a work of art. And so gripping that I after I finished it I realized that I had been sitting in an awkward position on the couch for so long one of my knees had locked up, and I had one shoe on and one off… I just couldn’t stop! If I ever made a movie, it would be based on this book. I want to see it done with a small cast, less than a dozen actors, and they’d all rotate around to the different parts in each story. Read it, you’ll see what I mean!

Market: YA, but really anyone
Language: mild
Sensuality: mild
Violence: mild
Adult themes: Human sacrifice. Ghosts. Vampires. Hallucinogens. None of this is graphic.

April 13, 2015

THE STORY KEEPER by Lisa Wingate, 2014


When successful New York editor Jen Gibbs discovers a decaying slush-pile manuscript on her desk, she has no idea that the story of Sarra, a young mixed-race woman trapped in Appalachia at the turn of the twentieth century, will both take her on a journey and change her forever. Happy with her life in the city, and at the top of her career with a new job at Vida House Publishing, Jen has left her Appalachian past and twisted family ties far behind. But the search for the rest of the manuscript, and Jen's suspicions about the identity of its unnamed author, will draw her into a mystery that leads back to the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains . . . and quite possibly through the doors she thought she had closed forever. (Goodreads)

Review by Griperang

I am so glad that I got picked as one of the sisters in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Book by Lisa. THE STORY KEEPER was every bit as good as the first book that I read by her (The Prayer Box). The fact that there was a story within a story in this book is an added bonus in my opinion. Jen is such a strong character in this book, she new she needed to leave home at a young age to get away from her past but with the drop of manuscript on her desk she finds the past is not as far away as it seemed. I enjoyed meeting some other characters along the way like sweet Hannanh - I found myself feeling sorry for her and Evan - who is not who he seems at the beginning. I did not care for Jen's dad or sister Mirah as they just did not seem nice to me but then again it is a whole different world where they live and how they choose to survive. There is a mystery in this book and some twists that kept me turning the pages long into the night. I must admit that I read a little over half of this book in one day and I don't do that often. I give this book 5 stars and would recommend it to everyone.

Market: Adult Fiction
Language: None
Sensuality: None
Violence: None
Mature Themes: Depression