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.

June 28, 2012

GREENLANDERS by Jane Smiley, 1988

Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders is an enthralling novel in the epic tradition of the old Norse sagas.Set in the fourteenth century in Europe’s most farflung outpost, a land of glittering fjords, blasting winds, sun-warmed meadows, and high, dark mountains, The Greenlanders is the story of one family–proud landowner Asgeir Gunnarsson; his daughter Margret, whose willful independence leads her into passionate adultery and exile; and his son Gunnar, whose quest for knowledge is at the compelling center of this unforgettable book. Jane Smiley takes us into this world of farmers, priests, and lawspeakers, of hunts and feasts and long-standing feuds, and by an act of literary magic, makes a remote time, place, and people not only real but dear to us. (Goodreads)

Reviewed by Jessica Day George, Author and Bookshop Talk Host

I would see this book around when I worked in a bookstore, and being a Scandinavia junkie, I would often look at it, feel the  cover, try to figure out what it was about.  It has a beautiful cover, very evocative . . . and also slightly obtuse as it doesn’t give you any solid information about the book.  And I didn’t read it.

Then I came across the title in an article about “Hard to Find Books That Should Be Classics.”  The Greenlanders, according to the author of the article, was one of the great works of historical fiction, as well as being beautiful written and was considered an inspiration by other authors of note.  And I didn’t read it.

Listen, the book is pretty thick, and has fairly small type.  There are no pictures, okay?  I knew eventually I would be in the mood for that book, I just didn’t know when.

So then I came across a like new copy at a library sale for a dollar, and I bought it and proudly put it on the shelf of my “fancy” book case alongside all my prettiest books.  And I still didn’t read it.

And then, suddenly, I WAS in the mood to read it, and it was there and I so totally read it.

And it was amazing.

For those of you who don’t know, the Norse settlement of Greenland lasted about 500 years.  They were cut off from the mainland most of the year, practically nothing grows there except lichen, the Skraelings (Inuit) were constantly attacking them, yet for five centuries they thrived . . . and then they suddenly didn’t.  The Norse settlement was almost entirely wiped out after 500 years, by a combination of famine, plague, and senseless murder, taking them from viable community to a wasteland in a matter of seasons.  Jane Smiley perfectly captures the ending of this society, viewed through the eyes of Margret Asgeirsdatter and her brother Gunnar. She shows us every aspect of life medieval Greenland: weddings, funerals, births, holidays, epidemics, extremes of weather and extremes of humanity.  There are crimes committed, family feuds, witch hunts and whale hunts.  It’s a big, sprawling epic in every sense of the word.

If you have any interest at all in Scandinavia, I urge you to read this book.  If you like historical fiction of any kind, I cannot recommend it highly enough.  If you like well-written, “literary” fiction, you should find a copy.  If you like to read books of ANY KIND, you need to try this book.  It was just so fabulous!

Market: Adult Historical Fiction
Language: None
Violence: Some, including swordfights, and people being killed by arrows or spears, none of it is graphic.
Sensuality: A bit of “rolling in the hay” (lichen, actually), not graphic.
Mature Themes: Adultery, unwed pregnancy, vengeance killings, losing children to starvation or illness.

Book formats:

June 23, 2012

OLIVIA by Julie Wright, 2012

The Robbins household looks perfect from the outside: no dust, no stains, no wrinkles. Yet a glimpse into its heart reveals no laughter, no closeness, no joy. Olivia thinks that if she keeps everything tidy and serves delicious meals on time, family life is bound to get better. But when her husband, Nick, misses their anniversary, she realizes no amount of domestic success will compensate for failure in their marriage, or for her own failure to develop her identity, always busy as a mother, wife, and neighbor, she has forgotten how to be a unique and vibrant individual. Determined to make a change, Olivia joins a local book club, where she nurtures new friendships and explores new ideas. But her growing confidence falters when Nick declares his independence, and while her new friends lovingly encircle her with support, only Olivia can reach into the depths of her fledgling self to find the faith, hope, and love her troubled family needs. (Goodreads)

Reviewed by Laura Madsen

OLIVIA, by Julie Wright, is the first of The Newport Ladies Book Club series, which consists of four books, written by four authors, following the stories of four women who are drawn together by their love of reading.

Olivia is a forty-something wife and mother of four. Her husband, Nick, also has two grown children from a previous marriage but from whom he is estranged. Nick has grown distant from Olivia and their children, and she feels like her life is falling apart. Julie Wright perfectly captures the feelings of a deteriorating marriage: the subtle verbal jabs, the silence, the smothering tension in the home, the discomfort of being close, and the pain of being apart. After Nick fails to show up for their anniversary dinner, Olivia sees a flyer for a new women’s book club. She hesitates; she wants to join but feels like she can’t take the time away from her troubled family. After arguing with herself, she joins the club and meets the other women, Daisy, Paige and Athena, whose stories will be featured in the following books.

All of the women are in crisis, facing loneliness, divorce, an unexpected pregnancy, a mother’s death, and a father’s dementia. All are struggling, trying—as many women do—to bravely solve their problems without inconveniencing anyone, but they all need help. They reach out to each other, hesitantly at first but later with a fierce loyalty. They learn to trust each other and develop deep friendships.

The other books in the series will be released throughout 2012:

DAISY, by Josi S. Kilpack
PAIGE, by Annette Lyon
ATHENA, by Heather Moore

I’m looking forward to reading the other books in the series to learn the other women’s stories from their points of view.

Market: Adult fiction (women's lit)
Sensuality: minimal
Language: minimal
Violence: none
Adult themes: divorce, infidelity, death

Book formats:

June 18, 2012

LAST CHANCE TO SEE by Douglas Adams and Mark Cawardine, 1990

The best-selling science fiction humorist Douglas Adams accompanies a world-class zoologist on an around-the-world trip in search of exotic, endangered creatures. By turns hilarious and poignant, this is a treat for Adams fans and anyone who cares about Earth's wildlife. (Amazon)

Reviewed by Sarah Hofhine, conservationist and sci-fi fan

Last Chance to See chronicles the adventures of science-fiction comedy author Douglas Adams (yep, that Douglas Adams) and zoologist Mark Carwardine to see six of the world’s most endangered animals. 

In 1985 Douglas and Mark went to Madagascar to look for the elusive and incredibly endangered aye-aye lemur.  As Douglas says in the book, “This was the idea of the Observer Colour Magazine, to throw us all in the deep end.  Mark is an extremely experienced and knowledgeable zoologist…and his role, essentially, was to be the one who knew what he was talking about.  My role, and one for which I was entirely qualified, was to be an extremely ignorant non-zoologist to whom everything that happened would come as a complete surprise.”  That thrilling and eye-opening trip led to a joint venture three years later in 1988 to see if they could catch a glimpse of some of Earth’s most critically endangered species including the komodo dragon, northern white rhinoceros, kakapo (a large, flightless parrot from New Zealand), Yangtze river dolphin, and Rodrigues island flying fox (a type of bat).   Along the way they not only manage to see most of the animals on their list but also a large number of other endangered animals.

You might expect a book about animals teetering on the brink of extinction would be depressing, but Douglas Adams’ delightfully ‘ignorant non-zoologist’ musings on the subject are both fascinating and very, very funny.  Unfortunately, it’s the type of funny that takes a few paragraphs to set up, so it’s not necessarily worth it to attempt to share what’s so funny with your loved ones who want to know why you have doubled up amidst shrieks of laughter.  The best strategy is to offer to loan them the book once you are finished. 

It definitely also has its somber and mildly depressing moments – as he puts it, “It’s easy to think that as a result of the extinction of the dodo, we are now sadder and wiser, but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that we are merely sadder and better informed.”  By the time this book made its way to me in 2008 two of the species highlighted had not been seen in some time and have since been declared extinct or extinct in the wild, a sad and sobering postscript to the book.  Happily, the population of several of the species has increased significantly and the outlook is hopeful.

FYI: the language gets a bit salty.   It includes using the name of the Lord in vain and two instances of the big once, the inclusion of which would get a movie an R rating.  It also has sporadic milder epithets (conservationists can be a wild and wooly bunch sometimes).  In addition, although there are no sexual encounters, there are some bits of funny general innuendo: a bit about a possible explanation for why rhino horn is considered an aphrodisiac in traditional Chinese medicine, and the mention of a ‘delicate mime’ Douglas performs when trying to find a prophylactic to purchase for use in impromptu underwater sound recording in China.  (That piqued your interest, didn’t it?)

 On their 1988-1989 trip they were accompanied by a BBC producer, and a radio programme about the adventure was recorded and later broadcast.  In 2010 the BBC produced a video follow-up in which Mark Carwardine revisited the animals with Stephen Fry, comedian and close personal friend of Douglas Adams (who died in 2001).  I just could not share Last Chance to See the book without also trumpeting the amazing genius that is the BBC video series.  It’s pretty much perfect.  Just make sure you read the book before you see the videos so you get the backstory.

Market: Non-fiction
Language: moderate – see above
Sensuality: mild – again, see above
Violence: none
Adult themes: extinction

Book formats:

June 13, 2012

BREAKING STALIN'S NOSE by Eugene Yelchin, 2011

Sasha Zaichik has known the laws of the Soviet Young Pioneers since the age of six: The Young Pioneer is devoted to Comrade Stalin, the Communist Party, and Communism. A Young Pioneer is a reliable comrade and always acts according to conscience. A Young Pioneer has a right to criticize shortcomings. But now that it is finally time to join the Young Pioneers, the day Sasha has awaited for so long, everything seems to go awry. He breaks a classmate's glasses with a snowball. He accidentally damages a bust of Stalin in the school hallway.  And worst of all, his father, the best Communist he knows, was arrested just last night.  This moving story of a ten-year-old boy's world shattering is masterful in its simplicity, powerful in its message, and heartbreaking in its plausibility. (Goodreads)

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

BREAKING STALIN'S NOSE is the story of two days in the life of Sasha Zaichick, a young man who, at the beginning of the book, looks forward to tomorrow, when he will become a Soviet Young Pioneer--an avowed communist--just like his father, who is a member of Stalin's Secret Police.  However, the night before the ceremony, Sasha's father is forcibly taken from their communal home, by other members of the Secret Police, leaving Sasha entirely alone.  Sasha believes some terrible mistake has been made--a mistake that needs only to be called to the attention of Comrade Stalin for it to be cleared up entirely.

So begins Sasha's story, and so the reader witnesses Sasha's world begin to turn upside down.  But BREAKING STALIN'S NOSE is not a story without hope.  Dark things are thrown into the light, and while Sasha endures so much, he does so with bravery and humor.  And he is not the only character worth loving.
My favorite part of the story is when Sasha is forced by his teacher, Nina Petrovna, to move from the front of his classroom, where he sat as a honored pupil, to the back of the classroom with other "unreliables"--pupils who are the children of those who were arrested for fighting against communism.  Sasha's reaction to this move shows his changing view of communism.
[The pupils who will take the vow of the Young Pioneers] bugle, drum, and march around Nina Petrovna's desk.  From the back row, the classroom looks different.  I'm here with the otherunreliables, and I can see much better from here.  Now I can see the whole room.
The story is told entirely from Sasha's point of view, and Yelchin did a wonderful job keeping the voice consistent and believable, in spite of earth-shattering changes that take place over the small period of time in which the story is told.  BREAKING STALIN'S NOSE is also based on an event that took place in Yelchin's life.  The "back matter" of the book tells about this event, and also contains details about the "Reign of Terror"--a horrifying period of time in which "Stalin's State Security [the same Secret Police of which Sasha's father was a member] executed, imprisoned, or exiled over twenty million people."
I highly recommend this quick read (there are lots of amazing illustrations, also done by the author) to anyone who wishes to learn about this period of Russia's history.  In particular, I recommend it to teachers and homeschooling parents who wish to combine lessons in world history and literature.  Not only is this a very informative work of historical fiction, it is also a great example of quality children's literature.  It recently won a Newbery Honor from the American Library Association.
I also suggest that you visit Eugene Yelchin's website, where you can learn more about Sasha's Moscow.

MARKET: MG Historical Fiction


VIOLENCE: moderate (implied, more than anything)
MATURE THEMES: everything you would expect in a novel about Stalin's Reign of Terror:  death, families torn apart, hunger, human suffering, brainwashing...though nothing is inappropriate for a middle grade audience

Book formats:

June 10, 2012

OATH OF OFFICE by Michael Palmer, 2012

What if a well respected doctor inexplicably goes on a murderous rampage?  When Dr. John Meacham goes on a shooting spree . . . the blame falls on Dr. Lou Welcome.  Welcome worked with Meacham years before as a counselor after John's medical license had been revoked for drug addiction.  Lou knew that John was an excellent doctor and deserved to be practicing medicine and fought hard for his license to be restored.  After hearing the news of the violent outburst, Lou is in shock like everyone else, but mostly he's incredulous.  And when he begins to look into it further, the terrifying evidence he finds takes him down a path to an unspeakable conspiracy that seems to lead directly to the White House and those in the highest positions of power. (Amazon)

Reviewed by Emily (Ems)

At first glance, it's easy to think that maybe this is just another conspiracy book and *yawn* on that.

But NOPE. If you dismiss this because of that, you're in for a grave disappointment. Trust me.

Remember how I used to be a huge Robin Cook fan? Well, Oath of Office reminds me of the days when I loved Robin Cook, but without all the medical jargon to confuse me. It was AWESOME.

The action starts right off the bat with the prologue. I really liked getting the situation from Dr. Meacham's POV to start with. It made him a very sympathetic character for me and made me wonder immediately if there wasn't something rotten going on. He didn't act like I'd expect someone deranged and about to go on a killing spree to act. There was definitely something going on.

Enter Dr. Lou Welcome, an emergency physician and assistant director of the Physician's Wellness Organization. He's been overseeing Dr. Meacham's case, so naturally, the blame for the killings falls on Dr. Welcome. He's seeing some patterns around the area, so he's got to get out and investigate.

I was stunned at the outcome. Seriously stunned. When things started to come together, I'll admit that I expected some plot holes. SURELY, with a conspiracy of this magnitude, there would be some holes. There would be SOMETHING that just didn't fit. I didn't expect things to mesh together so well.

Readers, I WAS SO WRONG!! There wasn't a hole to be found, not anywhere. It was woven seamlessly. It fit together like a good puzzle should. It riveted me. I had to force myself to read something else, because I was determined to give all my currently reading books some page time, but I shouldn't have bothered. I couldn't concentrate on any of them until I'd finished this one!

One thing I really appreciated was that the science and medicine were explained in terms that a layperson would easily understand, without putting on airs that it was 'dumbed down'. Dr. Palmer (yes, he's a doctor!) never once stooped to condescending to the reader. He never once made me feel like I was too stupid to be reading his book.

This is one of those books that will suck you in from the beginning and never let you go. It'll keep you on the edge of your seat and it'll keep your heartrate WAY up. You'll think you have things figured out and then BAM. You'll be off in a different direction. I promise you, you're in for a serious treat when you pick it up. I'm giving Oath of Office a 'Pick Me' rating because I think you should all take my advice and pick it up!

Market: Adult
Language: Moderate (some strong language in 1 or 2 chapters).
Sensuality: Brief & moderate
Violence: Lots (a shooting rampage, after all, plus the aftermath)
Mature Themes: murder, conspiracy, affairs, divorce

(After looking at that, one could wonder why it's even worth picking up. But it is worth's like any action movie with regards to the violence-I didn't find it to be too much at all, considering the topic.)

Book formats:

June 6, 2012

THE LOST HERO (Heroes of Olympus, Book 1) by Rick Riordan, 2010

After saving Olympus from the evil Titan lord, Kronos, Percy and friends have rebuilt their beloved Camp Half-Blood, where the next generation of demigods must now prepare for a chilling prophecy of their own . . . in a brand-new series from blockbuster best-selling author Rick Riordan, fans return to the world of Camp Half-Blood. Here, a new group of heroes will inherit a quest. But to survive the journey, they’ll need the help of some familiar demigods. (Amazon)

Reviewed by Megan, reader and writer wannabe

Like many of you, I’m a Percy Jackson and the Olympians fan.  But while I like the Ancient Greeks and their mythology, I am mildly obsessed with all things Roman.  So when I heard that Mr. Riordan had started a series dealing with Roman demigods, well!  I got my hands on the first book as fast as I could!  It did not disappoint.  

Everything that made me love Percy Jackson, from the loyalty to the original myths and the cultures they sprang from to the colorful and exciting settings, to the hilarious and accurate portrayals of ADHDers is present in this new series. 

But some of the things I liked the most were about the characters.  Specifically: Jason Grace.  Mr. Riordan faced an interesting challenge in writing Jason: how to show the Roman equivalent of Percy without showing anything he’s done, without even Jason’s own memories to help us know what kind of person he is.  Mr. Riordan not only succeeded but excelled in this, because Jason isn’t just Percy’s equivalent, he is Percy’s Roman equivalent, and the Romans are not Greeks.  Romans are unique, and anyone who has studied Roman history can see that Jason is every inch a Roman “dux” (commander or general).

Anyone who enjoyed Percy Jackson will enjoy this new series, as will anyone interested in Roman mythology and culture.

Market: young adult
Language: mild
Sensuality: mild
Violence: moderate (action/adventure stuff)
Mature Themes: modern demigods, amnesia, the barrier to the 'underworld' breaking down

Book formats:

June 3, 2012

GEEK WISDOM: THE SACRED TEACHINGS OF GEEK CULTURE by Genevieve Valentine, Eric San Juan, Stephen H. Segal, N.K. Jemisin, and Zaki Hasan, 2011

THE GEEKS HAVE INHERITED THE EARTH. Computer nerds are our titans of industry; comic-book superheroes are our Hollywood idols; the Internet is our night on the town. Clearly, geeks know something about life in the 21st century that other folks don’t—something we all can learn from. Geek Wisdom takes as gospel some 200 of the most powerful and oft-cited quotes from movies (“Where we’re going, we don’t need roads”), television (“Now we know—and knowing is half the battle”), literature (“All that is gold does not glitter”), games, science, the Internet, and more. Now these beloved pearls of modern-day culture have been painstakingly interpreted by a diverse team of hardcore nerds with their imaginations turned up to 11. Yes, this collection of mini-essays is by, for, and about geeks—but it’s just so surprisingly profound, the rest of us would have to be dorks not to read it. So say we all. (Amazon)

Reviewed by Sarah, proud geek, wife of geek, and mom to 4 geeks-in-training

Now hold on, before you get all up in arms about whether Voltron can really be considered a sacred text, you must know one thing:

This book is awesome. 

When I borrowed this from the library (Digitally!  On my new kindle!  And I’m still geeking out about it!)  I didn’t know quite what to expect…but when a dust cover synopsis ends with a quote from Battlestar Galactica you just get it and hope and pray the book is as amusing as the cover snippet.  It did not disappoint.

It’s HILARIOUS.  Some of my favorite bits:

“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”

Regarding the exclusivity of Fight Club: “Didn’t Facebook lose some of its luster when you got that friend request from your great-aunt Polly?” (Sorry, aunt Polly…)

And for all you computer programmer geeks out there: “There are 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary, and those who don’t.”

It’s also pretty deep.  In the intro the author (which one of the five?  Doesn’t really matter) shares that the book was spawned by a conversation that went like this: “What was your religion when you were growing up?” to which their response was “Uh, science fiction, pretty much.”  That initially joking response led to a realization of how science fiction (and the myriad other beautiful facets of geek culture) create the essence of religion: “a framework of ideas…that’s intended to guide us toward maturity by helping us ask and answer the big, cosmic questions about existence.”

As a proud geek who loves to analyze all art forms (I once spent about 2 hours deconstructing the genius of Finding Nemo with my husband in an attempt to help him realize exactly why it is the Best.Movie.Ever) but rarely has time to read anything outside the bathroom I love that they take all these iconic quotes and go deep, in about 2 pages.  Perfect bathroom length.  Yet you can also spend an hour buried in it without coming up (the kids watched Diego; and the geek baton gets passed on to the next generation). 

If you are a geek and proud of it: run get this book.  Extra geek points for getting it in a digital format. And be ready to laugh, cry, and laugh until you cry, all while strolling down geek memory lane.

Market: Non-fiction
Language:  Moderate (there are a few entries on Clerks…)
Sensuality: None
Violence: None
Mature Themes: race relations, gender relations, religion, whether the ending of Lost was brilliant or painful

Book formats: