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.

July 28, 2012


Every January 1, a quirky crowd storms out across North America for a spectacularly competitive event called a Big Year—a grand, expensive, and occasionally vicious 365-day marathon of birdwatching. For three men in particular, 1998 would become a grueling battle for a new North American birding record. Bouncing from coast to coast on frenetic pilgrimages for once-in-a-lifetime rarities, they brave broiling deserts, bug-infested swamps, and some of the lumpiest motel mattresses known to man. This unprecedented year of beat-the-clock adventures ultimately leads one man to a record so gigantic that it is unlikely ever to be bested. Here, prizewinning journalist Mark Obmascik creates a dazzling, fun narrative of the 275,000-mile odyssey of these three obsessives as they fight to win the greatest— or maybe worst—birding contest of all time. (Goodreads)

Reviewed by Sarah Hofhine, bibliophile and birder

I love it when great movies lead me to good books.  You may have seen or heard about last year’s release “The Big Year,” starring Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and Steve Martin, about a trio of birders (hard core bird-chasing fanatics) who are each pursuing a Big Year (an expensive, whirlwind of travel to see as many bird species in the continental U.S. and Canada as possible in a calendar year) and competing to get the distinction of being the best birder in the world (the one with the most number of species sighted).  It’s a fabulous movie (and rated PG!) which our whole family, including our preschoolers, enjoyed.  And then we found out it was based on a non-fiction book chronicling one actual, fateful big year.  OH MAN.

In 1987 Sandy Komito picked up a big year record of 721 species, beating the previous record by 10 species.  Several years later his record remained intact, although it had been severely challenged by a good friend of his.  He decided to do another big year in 1998 and attempt to beat his previous record.  As fate would have it, two other men had decided to do a big year and try for the record as well: Al Levantin, a wealthy and energetic retired executive, and Greg Miller, a 40-something divorced computer programmer working full-time to debug a nuclear plant before Y2K.  To their benefit, that year the extremely strong El Nino weather deposited “an unprecedented cornucopia of lost birds on the shores of North America,” leading to an astounding final count.

It’s a supremely interesting book.  Mark Obmascik performed hundreds of hours of interviews with the three contestants and a few dozen of their loved ones and fellow birders to recreate the events of that year (luckily for him, birders tend to keep detailed documentation of their birding trips).  And out of those interviews he crafted a narrative that is entertaining, amusing, and educational.  Interspersed with the narrative action is backstory on each of the contestants and a history of birding, our understanding of migration, and the Japanese occupation of the Attu island of Alaska during WWII (seriously, how could I not have been taught that in high school?).  Obmascik handles the often crazy antics of some of the world’s most obsessive birders with humor (he describes a path full of runners and cyclists as a “river of human Lycra”) and with sympathy; he’s a birder himself.

On a side note, the movie is not a direct lift from the book.  At the beginning of the movie it says “This is a true story; only the facts have been changed.”  What a brilliant and funny way to describe the genius of the adaptation.  The best part of taking in both the book and movie are figuring out what they changed and what they included from the book, sometimes in unexpected ways.  So go read the book and see the movie, or the other way around.  It might even inspire you to pick up a pair of binoculars and a field guide.

MARKET: Nonfiction 
VIOLENCE: None (I don't think a mention of birds being shot for scientific collection counts)

Seriously, I'd rate the book PG.

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July 23, 2012

PEACE LIKE A RIVER by Leif Enger, 2001

Once in a great while, we encounter a novel in our voluminous reading that begs to be read aloud. Leif Enger's debut, Peace Like a River, is one such work. His richly evocative novel, narrated by an asthmatic 11-year-old named Reuben Land, is the story of Reuben's unusual family and their journey across the frozen Badlands of the Dakotas in search of his fugitive older brother. Charged with the murder of two locals who terrorized their family, Davy has fled, understanding that the scales of justice will not weigh in his favor. But Reuben, his father, Jeremiah -- a man of faith so deep he has been known to produce miracles -- and Reuben's little sister, Swede, follow closely behind the fleeing Davy. (Goodreads)

Reviewed by Kim Harris Thacker, Writer, Mommy, and Bookshop Talk Host

When I was a little girl, I went with a group of my friends to the home of an elderly woman who lived across the field from me. She told us stories of her own childhood, and how her family had befriended the infamous outlaw, Butch Cassidy--or Robert LeRoy Parker, whom she described as well-mannered and very kind to her and her family. Before we left her home, she brought out a sheet of paper and showed us that it was sheet music, whereon a song called "Wild Desert Rose" had been written. Then she sang it to us. This song was written by Cassidy, who had composed it as a favor for a friend who used it to woo a girl.

Needless to say, I, like my elderly neighbor, have always had a soft place for Butch Cassidy--a soft place for all outlaws, really. Give me stories of gunslingers and train robbers with good hearts! Give me Robin Hood!
Because I love outlaw stories so much, I'm currently writing a Western-styled novel (with a fantasy twist, because outlaws are nothing if not superheroes). I've done lots of research on outlaws, and unfortunately, a suspicion I've held since I was a kid has been confirmed: Not all outlaws were good guys, or even conflicted. Some of them were just thieves and murderers. Still, I love outlaw stories.

PEACE LIKE A RIVER is a truly wonderful outlaw story with terrific characters. It takes place in the mid-20th century, so don't go into this thinking it's an "Old West" outlaw story. It certainly has elements of that, both in the writing style and in the nostalgia the characters exhibit toward the Old West.

The point-of-view character, Ruben, is so likable. He's so honest to the reader. He's also an asthmatic. Enger's writing of the scenes where Ruben's asthma acts up is truly incredible. In all of these scenes, I was so focused on my own breathing! I felt like Ruben, needing deep breaths. I was astounded by the power of this writing!

Another great character is Ruben's little sister, Swede, who has a penchant for epic outlaw poetry. The poem that Swede works on for much of the story adds a layer to the book in that in reading the poem's progression and Ruben's reaction to it, you get an idea of how Ruben wants the story to end. But it ends so differently from Swede's poem, but not so different that when it was all over, I didn't say, "Ah. Of course." You see, Swede's poem was the story, but not an exact copy of it.

Just read the book. You'll love it.

One more note: I found the ending of this book to be so surprising and so perfect. For me, that rarely happens. But when it does, it's such a great experience!

Market: Adult Fiction
Language: Mild
Sensuality: Mild (a very sweet courtship; also, at the beginning of the book, there is a near-rape scene; also one character is "raising" a wife--basically, he was given a child whom he has been raising as his daughter, but one day, he intends to make her his wife. Horrid.)
Violence: Moderate (mostly at the beginning)
Mature Themes: Running away from the law, family, justice, mercy, redemption, faith...and more

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July 18, 2012

I WANT MY HAT BACK by Jon Klassen, 2011

A picture-book delight by a rising talent tells a cumulative tale with a mischievous twist. The bear’s hat is gone, and he wants it back. Patiently and politely, he asks the animals he comes across, one by one, whether they have seen it. Each animal says no, some more elaborately than others. But just as the bear begins to despond, a deer comes by and asks a simple question that sparks the bear’s memory and renews his search with a vengeance. Told completely in dialogue, this delicious take on the classic repetitive tale plays out in sly illustrations laced with visual humor— and winks at the reader with a wry irreverence that will have kids of all ages thrilled to be in on the joke. (Goodreads)

Reviewed by Laura Madsen, mom, veterinarian & writer

I WANT MY HAT BACK is the funniest picture book I’ve read in a long time. It’s rather hard to write a review of a picture book that contains less than 200 words, but I’ll try!

The story is told entirely through dialogue and follows a big, fat bear as he asks other animals if they’ve seen his hat. He asks a fox, a frog, a rabbit (who is wearing a pointy red hat, has a devious expression on his face, and answers the bear evasively), a turtle, a snake and an armadillo. The poor bear collapses in despair, saying, “My poor hat. I miss it so much.” An elk wanders by and asks the bear, “What’s the matter?” The bear starts to describe his missing hat (red and pointy) and realizes, “I HAVE SEEN MY HAT.” I won’t spoil the ending by telling you what happens to the thieving rabbit, but kids will roll with laughter.

My daughters, ages 5 and 7, ask for this book every night at story time. They laugh hysterically, especially at the end. Highly recommended for kids in the four-to-eight-year-old range. Younger kids probably won’t understand the twist ending but will enjoy the pictures.

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July 13, 2012

SHOGUN by James Clavell, 1975

A bold English adventurer. An invincible Japanese warlord. A beautiful woman torn between two ways of life, two ways of love. All brought together in a mighty saga of a time and place aflame with conflict, passion, ambition, lust, and the struggle for power. (Goodreads)

Reviewed by Jessica Day George, Author and Bookshop Talk Host

I’ve been aware of this book most of my life.  My dad had a battered paperback he’d picked up on a business trip and read.  My mom got all into the miniseries (starring the woefully miscast Richard Chamberlain!) when it was on TV.  It really never occurred to me to read it.  But then Lucy joined my book club.  Lucy, avid fantasy reader, Star Wars junkie, could not believe that I hadn’t read Shogun.  She told me fervently how it had changed her life the first time she read it, how she’d been so involved in the Japanese culture, as described by the book, that’d she’d accidentally bowed to people, and said “Hai!” instead of “Yes!”  I promised her I would read it . . . sometime.  A few months later, at the book club Christmas paperback exchange, I picked up a nice, chunky, wrapped book . . . and found myself the proud owner of a copy of Shogun, thanks to Lucy.  By now other friends had recommended it, and I could avoid it no longer.  I dove in.

Reading Shogun is a commitment, I won’t deny it.  It clocks in at around 1,200 pages, pages with narrow margins and very tiny print.  But tackle those dense pages and you will be rewarded.  You’ll come away from this book with a new understanding of Japanese culture, a true respect for anyone who dared to brave sailing around the globe back in ye olden days, and a violent hatred of the Jesuits.  Okay, possibly the last bit was just me. 

Anyway!  Moving on!  Clavell has meticulously researched Japanese life and politics in the 16th century, as well as the culture and politics of Europe at that time.  The contrast in the two cultures is fascinating.  Japanese people at that time were cleaner, healthier, better educated, and lived decades longer than Europeans.  And at any time they could be ordered to commit suicide by their leader, and they would do so.  Even women and children could find their lives forfeit if a husband or father displeased the authorities.  Through the eyes of Blackthorne, an English pilot working for the Dutch, we see the good and bad of this way of life versus what he knew in Europe.  As Blackthorne is initiated in the ways of the samurai, the reader is also treated to an inside view of bushido.  And with Blackthorne we are caught up in a desperate power struggle as feuding warlords vie for control.  An intricate, thrilling look at Japanese history, put the enormous page count out of your mind and dive in!

Market: Adult Historical Fiction
Language: Mild
Violence: Some scenes of sword fighting and battle, nothing graphic, beatings, and discussion of suicide
Sensuality: Some PG-13 type “love scenes,” two rather frank descriptions of, ahem, adult toys.
Adult themes: suicide, adultery, divorce, religious prejudice, geishas.

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July 8, 2012


Reviewed by Natalie Gorna, book and movie reviewer for

We all know world history.  It’s the course in high school we hate taking, because there is just so much information to memorize in such a short period of time and most of it is so BORING.  Endless dates, a plethora of facts and events, the impact of humans and their actions on the world around them.  History can really put you to sleep.  However, it goes without saying that there are countless unsolved mysteries in the midst of all that real-life drama called history.  It’s finding the interesting tidbits kept out of the history books that make reading historical fiction and historical disclosures so savory.  That is exactly why Strange Stories, Amazing Facts is such a pleasure to peruse. 

Although Reader’s Digest designed the book to be more of an encyclopedia of informative topics than a storybook, the highlight of Strange Stories, Amazing Facts is its diverse content and the way it is grouped into individual “stories.” From modern cases of identity theft and forgery to grotesque murders and disappearances, the crimes of many centuries compose a serious journal of forgotten crime and punishment, an illustrative example of corrupted systems of justice around the world and (let’s face it) the criminals who never got caught...or were clever enough to escape.  One of these was the case of “Jack the Ripper,” a brutal murderer in the late nineteenth century who was never caught and whose “methods” still drive chills through Londoners walking home late at night.  Another dramatic area of Strange Stories, Amazing Facts is its analysis of the paranormal, mysterious ghosts who avenge murders and the invisible handiwork of restless spirits in ordinary houses.  Is this a ghost story book as well, you ask?  Yes, it is.  And some of the best tales are hidden right in the middle.

For the adventurous (and those still with a crush on Indiana Jones), there is a lot of discussion about hidden treasures that were never found and the explorers who attempted to recover them.  Then there is the comedic, the hoaxes played by professional con-artists which tricked the world into self-doubt.  A good example is the article about an uneducated man who took on several reliable professions under an assumed name and diploma, or the one-time forgery of one-dollar bills in the U.S. that took years to be detected.  Last but not least, most of these “reports” are decidedly factual and include many historical figures and side episodes that history books (obviously) chose to ignore.  Translation: you get a good story AND the historical facts in one bite, not to mention the tempting idea of trying to solve some of these “unsolved mysteries” yourself in the near future.  All accounts relate events with commentary (like a fast-paced, condensed newspaper report) and are very fascinating with the book’s underlying mixture of irony and enigma in all the “tales” it exposes.  Whether read in chronological order or by random selection, Strange Stories, Amazing Facts holds a treasure trove of intriguing world history that is almost written like a fairy tale—enthralling, frightening, and incredible. And did I mention it makes great bedtime reading?

Market: Non-fiction
Language: None
Sensuality: None
Violence: Moderate (as can be expected with crime reports)
Mature Themes: death, abuse, abandonment, prejudice, insanity, deception, conspiracy

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July 3, 2012


The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, land of djenn and ghuls, holy warriors and heretics, Khalifs and killers, is at the boiling point of a power struggle between the iron-fisted Khalif and the mysterious master thief known as the Falcon Prince. In the midst of this brewing rebellion a series of brutal supernatural murders strikes at the heart of the Kingdoms. It is up to a handful of heroes to learn the truth behind these killings. When they learn that the murders and the Falcon Prince's brewing revolution are connected, the companions must race against time--and struggle against their own misgivings--to save the life of a vicious despot. In so doing they discover a plot for the Throne of the Crescent Moon that threatens to turn Dhamsawaat, and the world itself, into a blood-soaked ruin. (Goodreads)

Reviewed by Megan Hutchins

Throne of the Crescent Moon is an adventure with a heap of mystery in a rich, Arabian-inspired fantasy setting.  That alone was enough to hook me.

There's plenty of good things to say about this book -- clear prose, tight plotting, and an epic story tucked into a slim 274 pages.  But I loved this book because of the characters.  Specifically, the young helpers of our main character, a world-weary ghoul hunter named Adoulla.

Raseed has been Adoulla's assistant for some time.  He's a member of an order of holy warriors and, refreshingly, he's anything but a hypocrite.  I cringed through this book as moral dilemmas presented themselves.  Watching him struggle to hold to his piety while doubting himself endeared me greatly.  I almost wanted him to take the low road that would make his life easier at the moment -- but if he did, he wouldn't be Raseed and I wouldn't adore him half so much.

Zamia, a young woman who can take lion-shape, falls into Adoulla's group early in the book.  Like Raseed, she puts duty before herself.  In her case, this means avenging her band, who were all slaughtered by the monster Adoulla hunts.  In the back of her mind, she knows her band isn't entirely dead; she's alive, after all.  If she survives, she could have children and keep the band alive.  Her eyes drift to Raseed (there's some drifting back) but refreshingly, she never pines or complains.  She has her duty; everything else can wait.

Self-doubting perfectionism and unflinching dedication to family?  I'm sure it wasn't the author's intent, but this describes a lot of the moms I know.  These characters resonated strongly with me.  They hit a sweet spot.  I loved it.

Market: Adult Fantasy
Language: I don't recall any swear words, but there are plenty of highly creative insults not meant for little ears.
Violence: Lots.  The most graphic parts are contained in a handful of chapters from the villain's point of view, so for the squeamish, the bulk of it is easy to skim over.
Sensuality: Everything in-scene is mild, but there are those creative curses and prostitutes do exist in the city.
Mature Themes: torture, war, duty

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