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.

August 31, 2011

THE SHIFTER, by Janice Hardy, 2009

The Healing Wars: Book I: The ShifterNya is an orphan struggling for survival in a city crippled by war. She is also a Taker—with her touch, she can heal injuries, pulling pain from another person into her own body. But unlike her sister, Tali, and the other Takers who become Healers' League apprentices, Nya's skill is flawed: She can't push that pain into pynvium, the enchanted metal used to store it. All she can do is shift it into another person, a dangerous skill that she must keep hidden from forces occupying her city. If discovered, she'd be used as a human weapon against her own people. (Amazon)

Reviewed by Megan Hutchins

I knew I had to read The Shifter when I heard about the magic. Healing powers with a dark side? That's not something I'd seen before. Janice Hardy didn't disappoint.

Poor Nya, the girl with the gift, ended up in one wrenching, no-good-solution problem after another. Nya's also our first-person narrator and her entertaining voice hooked me on the first page. Despite her war-orphan history, Nya's brimming with optimism -- sometimes too much of it as she devises reckless plans to save the thing that matters most: her sister.

The plot dives forward in this book, with boatloads of twists to keep the reader guessing, worrying, and turning pages. The setting is beautiful -- a tropical city spread over a lake -- but the author masterfully sneaks these descriptive tidbits and the history of the war in as we go.

For any reluctant young reader who doesn't like "the boring parts," they're in luck. This book doesn't have any. I'm still biting my nails for the last book of this trilogy, Darkfall, to come out. The second book, Blue Fire, exceeded expectation by both upping the stakes and pulling a cool twist on a magic I thought I'd figured out.

Thoroughly enjoyable reading for middle grade on up.

Market: Middle Grade Fiction
Language: None
Sensuality: None
Violence: Mild-Moderate
Mature Themes: War, death, inflicting pain, ends versus means.

Book formats:

August 25, 2011

Food in Fiction

By Kim Harris Thacker, writer, mommy, and Bookshop Talk host

You’ve experienced it—the craving for a mugful of butterbeer when reading a Harry Potter novel, the irresistible need for Turkish Delight inspired by The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Reading Joanne Harris’s Chocolat results in a night-run to the convenience store and the settling for some waxy substance made with soy lethicin.  You sit down to your well-worn copy of Anne of Green Gables, get to the part where Diana Barry ends up drunk on the currant wine Anne mistook for raspberry cordial, and suddenly . . . you’re thirsty. 

Food brings people together.  And if there’s one thing an author wants to do, it is to connect to her audience.  What better way to do that than to describe loads of lovely, mouth-watering food?

Farmer Boy (Little House)My favorite foodie novel is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, which is about Almanzo Wilder, the little boy with a big appetite who would one day become Laura Ingalls’s husband.  How would it be to sit down to breakfast in the Wilder household?  Well, I hope you haven’t eaten in two weeks, because this is what you could expect:

“Mother was frying pancakes, and the big blue platter, keeping hot on the stove’s hearth, was full of plump brown sausage cakes in their brown gravy . . . . There was oatmeal with plenty of thick cream and maple sugar.  There were fried potatoes, and the golden buckwheat cakes, as many as Almanzo wanted to eat, with sausages and gravy or with butter and maple syrup.  There were preserves and jams and jellies and doughnuts.  But best of all Almanzo liked the spicy apple pie, with its thick, rich juice and its crumbly crust.”

What’s supper like?  Here you go:

“There were slabs of tempting cheese, there was a plate of quivering headcheese; there were glass dishes of jams and jellies and preserves, and a tall pitcher of milk, and a steaming pan of baked beans with a crisp bit of fat pork in the crumbling brown crust . . . . Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans.  He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth.  He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy.  He ate the ham.  He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust.  He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin.  Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist.  And he ate plum preserves, and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles.  He felt very comfortable inside.  Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie.”

And then there’s the after-supper popcorn:  

“When the big dishpan was heaping full of fluffy white popcorn, Alice poured melted butter over it, and stirred and salted it.  It was hot and crackling crisp, and deliciously buttery and salty, and everyone could eat all he wanted to . . . . Almanzo sat on a footstool by the stove, an apple in his hand, a bowl of popcorn by his side, and his mug of cider on the hearth by his feet.  He bit the juicy apply, then he ate some popcorn, then he took a drink of cider.  He thought about popcorn . . . . Then he thought that if he had some milk, he would have popcorn and milk.”

What’s that?  You’d like to be excused to the kitchen for a bit?  Of course.  I understand.  If you don’t mind, could you wipe the drool from your chin while you’re in there?

The actual, and very well-fed, Almanzo Wilder
Now, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy isn’t the only fabulous foodie fiction.  I crave soup when I read Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux, and a rich cream tea when I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory makes my sweet-tooth truly contumacious, and I long, oh! how I long for a “proper big mug of tea, and some biscuits” when I read Robin McKinley’s Beauty: A Re-telling of the Story of Beauty & the Beast.

Now I’m drooling... 

Do you have any favorite foodie-books?

Butterbeer for all! Cheers!

August 21, 2011

DEALING WITH DRAGONS by Patricia C. Wrede, 1990

Dealing with Dragons: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Book OneCimorene is everything a princess is not supposed to be: headstrong, tomboyish, smart. . . . and bored. So bored that she runs away to live with a dragon . . . and finds the family and excitement she's been looking for. (Amazon)

Reviewed by Megan Hutchins

Cimorene is not a normal princess. She knows a bit of magic, Latin, fencing, and a great recipe for chocolate mousse. When her parents decide to marry her off to a dim-witted prince, she runs away and volunteers to be a dragon's princess. Soon, she's dealing with knights and princes that want to rescue her and wizards who are plotting something else entirely.

This book is a light, fast, funny read that screams "fractured fairy tale." I adore books that play with fairy tales, and Patricia C. Wrede is a master at it. The novel is young adult, but it's accessible to younger kids, too. I used to keep my nine-year-old brothers up too late on school nights reading chapters to them. Cimorene is a clever, confident heroine that appeals to both male and female readers -- there wasn't enough "mushy" here to make even my squeamish brothers run away.

The rest of the series (Searching for Dragons, Calling on Dragons, and Talking to Dragons) is refreshingly as good as the first. I actually read the last book first, and I'm tempted to recommend it. The last book takes place some fifteen years after the third book, with a character in over his head with doing he doesn't understand. I spent the book being mystified, horrified, and thrilled right along with him. If you read the other books first, you'll bite your nails and fruitlessly shout advice instead. Either way, it's an enjoyable reading experience -- my copies are well-creased.

Market: Young Adult Fiction
Language: None
Sensuality: None
Violence: Mild
Mature Themes: Arranged marriage

Book formats:

August 16, 2011

THE MAP OF TIME, by Félix J. Palma, 2011

The Map of Time: A Novel
Set in Victorian London with characters real and imagined, The Map of Time boasts a triple-play of intertwined plots in which a skeptical H.G. Wells is called upon to investigate purported incidents of time travel and thereby save the lives of an aristocrat in love with a murdered prostitute from the past; of a woman bent on fleeing the strictures of Victorian society; and of his very own wife, who may have become a pawn in a 4th-dimensional plot to murder the authors of Dracula, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, in order to alter their identities and steal their fictional creations. . . . Mingling fictional characters with real ones, Palma weaves a historical fantasy as imaginative as it is exciting, a story full of love and adventure that also pays homage to the roots of science fiction while transporting its readers to a fascinating Victorian London for their own taste of time travel. (Amazon)

Review by Laura Madsen, mom, veterinarian and writer

THE MAP OF TIME is set in Victorian London and follows several interlacing story lines, all of which center on time travel, both real and imagined. Inspired by H.G. Wells’ novel, THE TIME MACHINE, the concept of time travel is the latest rage among fashionable members of British high society.

Cousins Andrew Harrington and Charles Winslow are aristocratic twenty-somethings living in indolent splendor. Andrew falls in love with a poor Whitechapel prostitute who is subsequently murdered by the infamous Jack the Ripper. On the anniversary of her death, Andrew is on the verge of committing suicide when Charles interrupts to propose a visit to the past, by way of Wells’ attic, to stop the Ripper before he can murder Andrew’s mistress.

Elsewhere in London, a firm alleges to have located a time portal to the year 2000, when humans battle steam-powered automatons in a steampunk version of Terminator, and offers guided expeditions to the future. Claire Haggerty hates the life set out for a Victorian young woman of social standing (“she loathed those corsets apparently designed by the devil himself, she longed to be able to use her brain the way any man could, and she was not the slightest bit interested in marrying any of the young men hovering around her”). She daydreams of defecting to the year 2000 to be with the human hero of the war against the robots.

And finally, Inspector Colin Garrett of Scotland Yard investigates a series of murders which can only have been perpetrated by a traveler from the future with advanced weapon technology. Authors H.G. Wells, Bram Stoker and Henry James are among the intended victims.

Sprinkled throughout the novel are interesting discussions about the nature of time (“the elasticity of time, its ability to expand or contract like an accordion regardless of clocks”), parallel universes (“if the grass in next door’s garden was always greener, how much more luxuriantly verdant must it be in the neighboring universe?”) and the paradoxes inherent in discussion of time travel.

The point of view is third-person omniscient with occasional direct comments from the narrator to the reader, as in this passage:

“And so Andrew rode on, seized by a wild impulse, overwhelmed for the first time by a burning, pulsating sensation, which might reasonably be described as happiness. And, prey to the effects of such a violent infatuation, everything in the universe he rode past appeared to sparkle, as though each of its elements—the paths strewn with dead leaves, the rocks, the trees, even the squirrels leaping from branch to branch—were lit up by an inner glow. But have no fear, I shall not become bogged down in lengthy descriptions of acres of impassioned, practically luminous parkland because, not only do I have no taste for it, but it would be untrue, for despite Andrew’s altered vision, the landscape clearly did not undergo any real transformation, not even the squirrels, which are well known as creatures who pursue their own interests.”

The novel was written in Spanish by Félix J. Palma and translated to English by Nick Caistor. The English is occasionally clunky; however I read an ARC (advance reading copy), and presumably the wrinkles will be ironed out for the official printing.

Market: Adult fiction (steampunk/ science fiction/ alternate history)
Language: mild
Sensuality: mild
Violence: moderate
Adult themes: prostitution, murder, fraud, betrayal, theft, coercion

Book formats:

August 12, 2011


The Tattooed Potato and Other CluesReview by Jessica Day George, Author and Bookshop Talk Host

I just went to write a review of this book lamenting the fact that it has been out of print for many years, when I discovered to my joy that it was just rereleased in a pretty new cover!  What a wonderful, wonderful surprise!  I have a battered used copy (two, in fact, just in case one disintegrates), but I cannot wait to buy the new edition!

Ellen Raskin is mostly known for her Newbery winning book THE WESTING GAME, one of my all-time favorite books, but her other books are just as brilliant.  In fact, I am hard-pressed to decide which I love more: THE TATTOOED POTATO or THE WESTING GAME.  But let’s just talk about POTATO, shall we?

Okay, now I have to figure out how to describe this story, the story of an art student named Dickory Dock, who lives with her brother, Donald Dock, since the murder of their parents in their pawn shop (Dock’s Hock Shop).  Dickory has just gone to work for a slick, popular portrait painter named Garson, who lives in a strange old house divided into apartments and insists that she describe everyone who comes to the door using only one word.  (Blonde. Shrimps. Greasy.)  And the people who come to Garson’s door are unusual to say the least: Mafia thugs, police detectives, vengeful bald women, and a chipper socialite named Cookie Panzpresser are frequent visitors.  And so mystery piles upon mystery.  Why does Garson insist that Dickory describe every visitor, even if they are coming to see his tenants?  Why does the detective keep asking him for helping solving various (and hilarious) crimes?  Why are there two easels in the studio, one always kept covered next to a bizarrely dressed mannequin?  And why does Garson sometimes arrive in disguise to his own home?

Raskin deftly weaves together a brilliant story, rich with unusual clues that even the most discerning reader may not catch until the very end.  And, despite supposedly being intended for a younger audience, Raskin does not pull any punches.  Dickory’s parents were murdered, and the murderers never found.  Garson may be a murderer himself, and has a strange connection to a brain-damaged man who lives in the basement of his house.  But there is a great deal of humor in the mix, as well as a tinge of romance. 

But what truly makes this story a standout is the amazing cast of characters, from the haunted Dickory, the enigmatic Garson, to his portrait subjects in all their vain, yet vulnerable, glory.  After my first reading of this book, I fell madly in love with Garson.  A second reading made me truly adore and admire Dickory, which led me to notice how much her brother Donald resembles my brother Jeff . . . and so on until I have to admit to a crush on pretty much all the characters!

So go to it, my friends!  Discover the secret of THE TATTOOED POTATO!  And while you’re at it, you should try THE WESTING GAME, if you haven’t already.  And I see that FIGGS & PHANTOMS and THE MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF LEON (I MEAN NOEL)are also back in print, and it’s about darn time!

Market: Middle Grade
Language: Mild
Sensuality: None
Violence: Some, PG-13 level
Mature Themes: Financial struggles, mention of murder and a serious car accident, lying, stealing, and the mafia, but nothing graphic or unsuitable for younger readers.

Book formats: 

August 8, 2011


The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own MakingTwelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. (Amazon)

Review by Steve Diamond, host of Elitist Book Reviews

This was my first foray into the works of Cathrynne M. Valente. It seems like whenever I would turn around someone (usually our resident reviewer, Shawn) would be saying how incredible a storyteller and writer Valente is. A guy like me can only take so much of that kind of hype before he gives in. Unfortunately reading an author's work based off that kind hype can also lead to letdowns--it has happened to me more times than I can count. I was worried. Luckily for me (and for all you discerning readers out there), it seems that everything people are saying about Valente is true. She is amazing.

With THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING (originally an online-only work), I knew within two pages that I was going to love the book. It's just one of those things, and I know that other people have experienced this just like I have. With THE GIRL WHO..., I automatically felt like I was reading a comfortable, classic fairytale. I was reminded of Grim's Fairytales, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland all at once.

THE GIRL WHO... is about a twelve year-old girl named September who is whisked away to Fairyland. Her initial quest is to retrieve a witch's spoon from Fairyland's new dictator, the Marquess. As the story progresses, however, September questions what kind of fairytale she is actually in. She questions what part she is actually playing in the story.

I'll be honest here, I feel completely inadequate even attempting to explain how amazing of a writer Valente is. After the first page, I wanted to read this book aloud--just the style of if makes me want to rush out and buy an audio version. Not only does Valente's writing make 95% of the other authors in the world seem downright average, but the voice she gives to the narrator of the story is absolutely perfect. I am still a bit stunned by just the way the novel was told, and by how clever the writing is in THE GIRL WHO... She can switch effortlessly from whimsical to disturbing. This Fairyland isn't all gumdrops and kisses. It has that Grim's Fairy Tales dark undercurrent.

And the thing is, this is supposedly a YA novel.

If THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING really is YA, it is probably the most well written YA novel ever, and probably the best YA novel I have ever read. I personally felt like this was an adult novel hiding behind the best YA disguise ever created. And really, doesn't that kind of appeal make this novel even better? This is a novel that instantly makes you want to curl up in your favorite chair, drink some hot chocolate, and completely lose yourself.

I wish more than anything that I could talk about the ending of this story. I think it is the ending that really shows Valente's skill for writing. This isn't just a fairytale. It is so much more than that. Treat yourself to a hardcover copy of THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING, and put it right next to those classic works of Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum.

Will I read another novel by Valente? Yes. All of them.

Market: Young Adult...kinda.  Adult...kinda.  Everyone should read it.
Language: None
Violence: True fairy tales have some grim and disturbing stuff in them. Valente's fairytale is no different
Sensuality: None
Mature Themes: Self-acceptance, running away, abandonment

Book formats:

August 1, 2011


By Kim Harris Thacker, writer, mommy, and Bookshop Talk host

You know what I love? Books. Surprise! I especially love books with wonderful settings. Give me L.M. Montgomery’s Avonlea, please, or J.K. Rowling’s Hogsmeade! Give me the cozy cabin in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Big Woods of Wisconsin, or a crowded assembly room in Jane Austen’s Meryton. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Yorkshire moors thrill me, and the very thought of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland gives me a headache and makes me crave mini cakes frosted in violent shades of pink and yellow.

If a book has fascinating settings, chances are, I will devour it, pink frosting and all.
In her book, ONE WRITER’S BEGINNINGS (Harvard University Press, 1984), Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eudora Welty wrote, “Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else… Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?…”

Think of your favorite novel. Does it take place in Forks, Washington? Middle Earth? Panem? Could you possibly transfer that favorite story to another location and have it work as well? Or does the setting play an integral role in the construction of the story? I believe that truly captivating fiction utilizes setting almost as a character. The setting is essential to the telling of the story. The sites I listed above (Forks, Middle Earth, Panem) are overall settings of novels that are somewhat action-based. But even seemingly “gentle” novels utilize powerful settings.

Moon Over ManifestThe recent Newbery-winning novel, MOON OVER MANIFEST, by Clare Vanderpool, is a work of historical fiction about Abilene Tucker, a young girl who is sent by her drifter father to live in Manifest, Kansas (a fictional location), while he finds work. Manifest is a melting-pot for immigrants from all over Europe; and Abilene, who seeks to find her own place in the world, meshes with the residents of this dusty Kansas town right well.

What are your favorite novels? Do they utilize a powerful setting or two? Remember, a setting isn’t just the overall location of a story–it can be the location of a scene, or even a character’s mental landscape. We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!