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.

February 27, 2012

BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY by Ruta Sepetys, 2011


Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they've known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin's orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions. Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously - and at great risk - documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father's prison camp to let him know they are still alive. (Goodreads)

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


Some books are easy to review, some books are hard. This one falls into the latter category.  It was a heart-wrenching read.  But it was also chock full of hope and beauty.

About a year or so ago, I read Elie Weisel's NIGHT, which is a memoir about his experience enduring and surviving the Holocaust.  It was horrifying, but I didn't begrudge Weisel's desire to relate the blunt horrors he experienced.  I would never presume to say that it's not important to talk about things as they really are or were, without any "stage makeup" hiding all the ugliness.  And perhaps people need to be shocked out of their comfort zones in order to comprehend things that have actually happened.  I'm not sure, though after reading BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY, I think that's probably not the case. But I do know that it hurts my heart to read books like NIGHT.  I had a very, very difficult time with that book.  When I opened BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY, which, though it is about the effects of Josef Stalin's Reign of Terror upon the people of the Baltic region, feels quite similar to a Holocaust story, I didn't expect a heartwarming tale. I did hope for one.


Generally, with fiction, I feel like I'm a step away from the things I witness in the story. I'm a "safe" distance from conflict.  But with non-fiction or memoir, I feel like I'm in the thick of things, and this can be a very uncomfortable feeling.  Because BEWEEN SHADES OF GRAY is based on history, I felt like I was somewhere in the middle.  I love historical fiction, and I believe that it's so very important to read literary works that are birthed from history.  I enjoyed the book much more than I would have enjoyed it had it been autobiographical, because I wasn't so absorbed in the book that it affected my life (yes, I love books that much).  I knew that it was an important book--one that told a story that might not ever be told, otherwise.
Until 1991, people in the Baltic region who had suffered from the effects of the Soviet occupation couldn't openly speak about what they had endured, because they could be imprisoned.  This is an important book.  Something is being said (in the guise of fiction) to a young adult audience about the deportation and genocide of so many millions of people--a people that were basically forgotten for fifty years.  I think it's beautiful that this is a YA novel.  It closes with these words:
Evil will rule until good men or women choose to act....This testimony was written to create an absolute record, to speak in a world where our voices have been extinguished.  These writings may shock or horrify you, but that is not my intention. It is my greatest hope that [these] pages...stir your deepest well of human compassion.  I hope they prompt you to do something, to tell someone.  Only then can we ensure that this kind of evil is never allowed to repeat itself.
Though this quote comes in the form of a letter that is discovered by a character who appears at the end of the book, it is as though the author is speaking to her reader--her YA audience (or the old gals like me who read and love YA).  Don't be fooled by where this book is shelved in your library.  Though it's fiction, it's truth.
I've spent a lot of time in this review on the plot of the book and on the history behind the plot, but let me also say that the writing is wonderful.  And the characters are wonderful.  At one point, a little girl in the story whose doll has been "murdered" by Soviet soldiers, tells the other characters that her doll speaks to her from heaven and then proceeds to say and do things that would be impossible unless that were actually true.  It's that kind of character-writing that brings these wonderful, suffering people (one of whom is actually a "bad guy" throughout most of the novel) into the heart of the reader.
Here are a couple of favorite passages that show how amazing these characters are:
(After the little girl in the story claims her doll showed her a dead owl that could be hidden and eaten, and the main character hides the owl under her thin coat)
People I didn't know formed a circle around me, sheltering me from view.  They escorted me safely back to our jurta [hut], undetected.  They didn't ask for anything.  They were happy to help someone, to succeed at something, even if they weren't to benefit.  We'd been trying to touch the sky from the bottom of the ocean.  I realized that if we boosted one another, maybe we'd get a little closer.
(The mother of the main character reprimands her daughter for speaking unkindly about a fellow deportee who has been mean to everyone for many, many months)
"Lina, think of what your father would say.  A wrongdoing doesn't give us the right to do wrong.  You know that."
Please don't think that these "feel good" passages aren't deserved.  There is so much of suffering in this story.  Any glimmer of hope or any kind word is so, so heart-felt and so needed.  It's really lovely writing, and the characters are just amazing.
I recommend this book to mature audiences (YA and up--there is some violence and a lot of death), particularly teachers and homeschooling parents, or anyone else who wishes to guide young people to learn more about the past.  Also, I recommend reading this book in combination with Eugene Yelchin's BREAKING STALIN'S NOSE, which is about a young man growing up in Moscow during the Reign of Terror.
A final note:  Ruta Sepetys was a recent finalist for the William C. Morris award, "for a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens."  She was Cybils(Children's and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Awards) award finalist in 2011 for BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY, and she also received a General Work-in-Progress Grantfrom the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators in 2007.

MARKET: YA Historical Fiction
LANGUAGE: Mild
VIOLENCE: Moderate-Extreme (Nothing you wouldn't expect from a novel with this subject matter.)
SENSUALITY: Moderate (Without giving anything away, there is a character who agrees to prostitute herself in order to protect others.  Also, some guards treat some of the women rather badly.  Nothing is explicit.)
MATURE THEMES: Everything.  This is not subject matter for young children.  There is genocide, slave labor under the worst of circumstances, murder, physical and mental abuse, prostitution, etc.  But please note that for all that, this is a book about human goodness and hope.

Book formats:
Hardcover
e-book

February 25, 2012

WORLD WAR Z by Max Brooks, 2006


The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Max Brooks, driven by the urgency of preserving the acid-etched first-hand experiences of the survivors from those apocalyptic years, traveled across the United States of America and throughout the world, from decimated cities that once teemed with upwards of thirty million souls to the most remote and inhospitable areas of the planet. He recorded the testimony of men, women, and sometimes children who came face-to-face with the living, or at least the undead, hell of that dreadful time. World War Z is the result. Never before have we had access to a document that so powerfully conveys the depth of fear and horror, and also the ineradicable spirit of resistance, that gripped human society through the plague years. (Goodreads)

Review by Laura Madsen: mom, veterinarian and writer


In the aftermath of a global zombie apocalypse, the anonymous narrator travels the world, collecting stories from human survivors: soldiers and doctors, housewives and mercenaries, politicians and survivalists. Each chapter is the recollections of a different person, assembled into chronological order.

As I read the book the night before Halloween, my husband asked, “Is it scary?” I answered, “Not scary in the traditional sense of horror, but scary in the sense that you can totally see everything happening, the way governments respond—everything is completely plausible.”

Disregard for now the zombies. Just think of any virulent, lethal, previously unknown infectious disease. The virus spreads rapidly around the globe, transferred not only by international commerce and travel, but also by the rampant black-market trade in human organs. Some governments cover up outbreaks. Other governments mobilize their armies—targeting civilians as well as the infected. Society breaks down. A few intelligence officers figure out what’s happening and hand-deliver an “Eyes Only” report to the White House, which is ignored and relegated to a bottom desk drawer in a remote field office. A sensationalized, televised battle between humans and zombies fails spectacularly when the army shows up with fabulously expensive, high-tech weaponry that has no effect against the enemy. Millions die after evacuating their homes—not from the infection but from violence or starvation or exposure. Desperation. Panic. Religious fervor. Nukes.

So, yes, it’s scary.

Max Brooks has clearly done his homework, and the novel is well-written. The voice of each survivor comes through clearly and their terror is evident, both in what they say and in what is left unsaid, as in these passages:

From a soldier who was witness to one of the first outbreaks:
Beyond them, in the first chamber, we saw our first evidence of a one-sided firefight, one-sided because only one wall of the cavern was pockmarked by small arms. Opposite that wall were the shooters. They’d been torn apart. Their limbs, their bones, shredded and gnawed…some still clutching their weapons, one of those severed hands with an old Makarov still in the grip. The hand was missing a finger. I found it across the room, along with the body of another unarmed man who’d been hit over a hundred times. Several rounds had taken the top of his head off. The finger was still stuck between his teeth.

From a girl who evacuated with her family to the woods of northern Canada:

I was a pretty heavy kid. I never played sports, I lived on fast food and snacks. I was only a little bit thinner when we arrived in August. By November, I was like a skeleton. […] One time, around Thanksgiving…I couldn’t get out of my sleeping bag. My belly was swollen and I had these sores on my mouth and nose. There was this smell coming from the neighbor’s RV. They were cooking something, meat, it smelled really good. Mom and Dad were outside arguing. Mom said “it” was the only way. I didn’t know what “it” was. She said “it” wasn’t “that bad” because the neighbors, not us, had been the ones to actually “do it.”

Recommended for anyone who has wondered, “What if?”

Market: Adult fiction (post-apocalyptic/ sci-fi)
Language: moderate
Sensuality: none
Violence: explicit (zombies eating people, people bashing in the zombies’ brains)
Mature themes: war, pandemic, abandonment, nuclear bombs, oblique references to cannibalism and prostitution.

Book formats:

February 22, 2012

EVERY OTHER DAY, by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, 2011


Every other day, Kali D'Angelo is a normal sixteen-year-old girl. She goes to public high school. She attends pep rallies. She's human. And then every day in between . . . She's something else entirely. Though she still looks like herself, every twenty-four hours predatory instincts take over and Kali becomes a feared demon-hunter with the undeniable urge to hunt, trap, and kill zombies, hellhounds, and other supernatural creatures. Kali has no idea why she is the way she is, but she gives in to instinct anyway. . . . With the help of a few new friends, Kali . . . learns the secrets of her mysterious condition. (Goodreads)




Review by Emily (EMS)



I was intrigued by the Goodreads description on this one. It sounded like a very typical YA Paranormal, but I liked the twist on things. The idea of a character shifting from human to paranormal every 24 hours seemed like a good one.

The good news? I felt like it delivered. It was fast-paced, but not dizzying; interesting with the way the paranormal creatures were used, and overall, a really fun book to dig into.

I liked that I saw a lot of character growth...but not from the character I was expecting. I thought for sure that Kali would have some huge life-altering thing happen, she'd be a better person, blah blah blah. Well, I didn't think so. She did experience some growth, but the one who really surprised me was Bethany. She's the typical YA rival to start out with, but she ends up being the one that I thought went through the most growth. Interesting, and refreshing.

For each moment that I thought I had things all nicely wrapped up, another thing would pop up to shock me. There were plenty of those. I like being kept guessing because it keeps the book from becoming predictable. I think Barnes did a lovely job of keeping her book alive for me.

Of course, fans of paranormal will dig into this one and enjoy it a lot. Even better, I think that fans of YA in general would like it too. I'm giving it a 'Pick Me' rating. It's one that I wouldn't mind reading again!

Market: (Young Adult)
Language: (mild)
Sensuality: (mild)
Violence: (between moderate and extreme-not sure what to call that)
Mature Themes: (Death, abandonment, loss)

Book Formats:


February 19, 2012

RAPUNZEL’S REVENGE & CALAMITY JACK, by Shannon Hale, Dean Hale, and Nathan Hale, 2008, 2010

Once upon a time, in a land you only think you know, lived a little girl and her mother . . . or the woman she thought was her mother. . . . Newbery Honor-winning author Shannon Hale teams up with husband Dean Hale and brilliant artist Nathan Hale (no relation) to bring readers a swashbuckling and hilarious twist on the classic story as you’ve never seen it before. Watch as Rapunzel and her amazing hair team up with Jack (of beanstalk fame) to gallop around the wild and western landscape, changing lives, righting wrongs, and bringing joy to every soul they encounter. (Amazon)


Jack likes to think of himself as a criminal mastermind…with an unfortunate amount of bad luck. A schemer, plotter, planner, trickster, swindler...maybe even thief? One fine day Jack picks a target a little more giant than the usual, and one little bean turns into a great big building-destroying beanstalk.  With help from Rapunzel (and her trusty braids), a pixie from Jack’s past, and a man with inventions from the future, they just might out-swindle the evil giants and put his beloved city back in the hands of good people ....while catapulting themselves and readers into another fantastical adventure. (Goodreads)

Reviewed by Pica, avid bookworm


I cannot come up with words to describe how much I love these two books. They are my comfort books, the ones I turn to when I've had hard day. They're the books I recommend to absolutely everyone, whether they're in elementary school or have kids out of school.

Both books are twists on classic fairytales. Rapunzel's Revenge takes the tale of Rapunzel and sticks it in the Old West, with a totally awesome heroine instead of the good-for-nothing girl from the original story. She uses her braids as a whip and lasso, and sets off with her sidekick (and plan-maker) Jack. Together they set off through the West toward Gothel's villa to save Rapunzel's mother and stop Gothel once and for all.

Calamity Jack takes place after Rapunzel's Revenge and focuses on Jack's character and backstory. Jack and Raupunzel cook up a plan to expose the giant Blunderboar, who has taken control of the city.

Both are illustrated in full color by the wonderful Nathan Hale (http://spacestationnathan.blogspot.com), both are hilarious, full of action and adventure, and both are perfect to read when you're feeling a little overwhelmed, or if you just want something fun. I gave them to my cousin last December for the holidays, and she didn't put them down for days, except for when her younger brother, still learning to read, borrowed them.

A highlight is the witty banter between Jack and Punzie. Both books are chock-full of jokes, which, I am told, Dean takes all the credit for, although Shannon swears that at least half are hers.

Another highlight is the illustration. The Hales have created a unique and new Rapunzel/Jack and the Beanstalk story, and Nathan Hale's illustrations clearly show that. Also, the books are written to focus on the visuals. As Nathan phrases it, there was no need to write a graphic novel that looked like a low-budget movie. He could draw anything. And he certainly does. In Rapunzel's Revenge alone, out heroes face a rampaging boar, a pack of coyotes, and a giant water snake, not to mention Rapunzel being locked in a giant tree.

These are the type of book you can read over and over and never get tired of. Even though I make a point of writing down every book I read, I rarely write down Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack anymore, simply because I pick them up so often. Often, I'll flip to a random page, read a bit, and put it back on the shelf. That's all I need to cheer me up.

If you're going to read any books on my recommendation, pick up these two. You will not be disappointed.

Market: Elementary, Middle Grade, Young Adult, Adult - Everyone!
Language: "Well, I'll be swigger-jiggered and hung out to dry"
Sensuality: None
Violence: Mild
Mature Themes: good vs. evil

And, a bonus! Nathan Hale has made Rapunzel and Jack paper dolls. The Rapunzel ones are here here (as a PDF) and the Jack ones are here (as a series of blog posts - scroll down a bit for the paper dolls).

February 17, 2012

The UNDERDOGS Series, by Markus Zusak, 1999

Boys are like dogs - ready to bite, bark and beg to be given a chance to show their value.. "I vowed that if I ever got a girl I would treat her right and never be bad or dirty to her or hurt her, ever." Cameron Wolfe is a dirty boy. He knows it. His brother Rube knows it, because he's one too. they could change - but what would it take? (Goodreads)

Review by Jessica Day George, Author and Bookshop Talk Host


Magnificent! I know THE BOOK THIEF is Zusak's novel that all kiddies rave about, and don't get me wrong: that is a brilliant book and I love it.  But then I discovered GETTING THE GIRL, which led me to find FIGHTING RUBEN WOLFE, which brings us here, to the first US publication of THE UNDERDOG, contained in this omnibus of all three Wolfe brothers books.  If you don't, from the first chapter of THE UNDERDOG (or any of the other two, really), fall madly in love with the endearingly awkward and yet strangely beautiful Cameron Wolfe, then something is terribly wrong with you.  Cameron's voice is so clear, so poetic, and so raw, that I could literally read about him all day, every day.  Cameron feels like a friend, an intimate friend, like your brother even.  The things that happen in these books are heartbreaking, yet not without humor, and not without (most importantly) hope.  So many authors (particularly in YA) don't seem to understand that human beings need that ray of hope to carry on.  The characters need it to feel real, and like their lives will continue beyond the pages of the book, and the reader needs it in order to feel good about the book after they close the covers.



These books are proof that Zusak is a born writer.  Each book here is separate, and yet each is a part of the same magnificent story.  THE UNDERDOG, has a beautiful, clear naivete.  FIGHTING RUBEN WOLFE is raw and powerful, and GETTING THE GIRL is like a burst of light.  Read them separately, read them all at once, I don't care!  JUST READ THEM!


And if I ever start a band, our name is going to be Bloody Miffy.

MARKET: Contemporary YA
LANGUAGE: The Wolfe brothers talk rough, things like calling each other “bastard” and “wanker”, and they use “bloody” a lot.  But that’s the extent of it.
VIOLENCE: Organized boxing and fistfights.
SENSUALITY: Teenage boys fantasize about girls, but nothing graphic.
MATURE THEMES: Poverty, threats of violence/beatings, some mild gambling, having inappropriate thoughts about the opposite sex.

Book formats:

February 16, 2012

POSSESSION, Elana Johnson, 2011


Vi knows the Rule: Girls don't walk with boys, and they never even think about kissing them. But no one makes Vi want to break the Rules more than Zenn...and since the Thinkers have chosen him as Vi's future match, how much trouble can one kiss cause? The Thinkers may have brainwashed the rest of the population, but Vi is determined to think for herself. (Goodreads)



Reviewed by Emily (EMS)


I've been wanting to read this one for a long time, ever since I read a review praising it up and down. I wish I could remember where that was, because I'd totally give that blogger a shout-out.

I'm really starting to think that dystopia might be my new favorite genre. I'd abandoned it a long time ago, after such high school gems as Animal Farm,Brave New World, and 1984. (I'm going to go back and revisit those, by the way, now that I'm a mature adult.)

In Possession, Elana Johnson creates a Society dominated by the Thinkers, who control the populace. In the Goodlands, you can get arrested for something as simple as walking with a boy. If you're out after curfew, well, you might not like the consequences. Everywhere you go, there are sensors that read your iris patterns (which are as distinct as fingerprints, did you know that? I didn't until just recently.) and Mechs that read bar codes. If you happen to have been tagged, you're pretty much fodder for the scanners.

Violet, of course, is a rule breaker. She's even gone as far as chopping off her hair into a sweet spiky do, and then dyed it jet black. Nice! Violet is my kind of girl, I tell you. I'm pretty sure that at some point in the future, I'll have that haircut too...

Besides the fact that she has awesome hair, Violet rocks. She's STRONG. And she's strong without needing a guy to come to the rescue. She does just fine on her own, though she does prefer the company of one certain young man. Not that I blame her even a little bit. He's HOT. And by hot, I mean WHOA. I'd totally date him.

Plot-wise, loved it. The Society is so brilliantly crafted that it made me a little bit afraid of my cell phone. Seriously. I had to stare at it for a minute because I started wondering if it was going to randomly tase me or something. You never know with technology. Tech is at the forefront of the battle being fought between the Association and the Resistance. It's amazing, the types of things that Johnson has created here. I'd like her on my invention team.

The creativity displayed here blows my mind in a lot of ways. Sure, some of the tech has been seen before in the likes of Star Trek, but it's used fantastically here. Didn't feel like a cop-out, even a little bit.

You know what? I'm seriously about to drop some major spoilers, so I'll quit while I'm ahead and just tell y'all to GO READ THIS BOOK. It's SO worth it.

It gets a 'Pick Me' rating for sheer awesomeness.

Market: Young Adult
Language: Mild
Sensuality: None
Violence: Moderate
Mature Themes: dystopia

Book Formats:

February 14, 2012

GUEST BLOGGER, Lauren Gardner, on Falling for FICTIONAL HUNKS

Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet
To celebrate Valentine's Day, we're reposting one of our most popular Gab Bag topics! Enjoy!


Guest Blogger, Lauren Gardner

Not everyone has experienced love at first sight, but plenty of ladies have experienced love at first read. It may sound crazy because it is a lot like having an imaginary friend, but girls everywhere seem to develop a profound love toward fictional characters. So, who are the sweetest and most desired fictional characters? In my opinion, there are just too many to name, but I can think of a few that are worth mentioning.

One of my first literary crushes was Oliver Wood in J.K Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." He was not even that prominent a character, but the moment his character made an appearance, he seemed like a charmer. What made Wood so attractive was his passion for the ultimate sport, Quidditch. How many guys can handle flying on a broomstick while two heavy balls are sporadically trying to knock you out of the air? Sure, Harry Potter is supposedly the best player Hogwarts has ever seen, but come on, Oliver Wood has a better name.


Ron Weasley is another male character who has caught my attention. (I have a thing for redheads.) He is Harry's best friend. Sure, he has his moments of jealousy, but he is there for Harry through thick and thin. He is the comic relief, and we can all relate to him. One example is in the movie "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets." The famous trio is sent into the Forbidden Forrest where they were told to follow the spiders. "Follow the spiders," Ron whines. "Why couldn't it be follow the butterflies?" Ah yes, why couldn't it have been butterflies? Well, the answer is simple, Ron. Butterflies are just not as entertaining as spiders.

Also, if I had to choose one character from "Lord of the Rings" (No, I would NOT choose Gollum!), I would choose the beautiful blonde elf, Legolas. Why, you ask? Well, why not?! He can see far, hear the softest sound, and sense when someone is coming. He's also very fast and light-footed. His archery skills are second to none. And he is an ELF - need I say more?


I have always been a Jane Austen fan, and "Pride and Prejudice" is my favorite because Austen is so skilled at capturing the desires of the female heart. At first, Mr. Darcy might seem like the haughty and pompous jerk who doesn't care a wit about others, but in reality, he is just misunderstood. Mr. Darcy is a classic gentleman. He has the perfect combination of subdued arrogance and aloofness mixed with pride and loyalty, and has the capacity for deep and meaningful love. Another thing that makes him appealing is his flaws. Because of those flaws, girls can relate to him. He is human. On the flipside, there are characters who aren't human at all who hold an enormous sway over young ladies.

After Mr. Darcy, a certain fictional vampire caught my complete attention and still holds a special place in my heart. What is it about Edward Cullen, as opposed to Wood or Darcy or any of the other hunks who have captivated almost every girl from Atlanta to Anchorage? Could it be his smoldering topaz eyes or his superhuman strength? Is it his cold marble skin or his ability to read minds? I have heard oodles of guys asking the question, "What is it about Edward Cullen that makes girls fall head over heels?"Gentlemen, the answer is simple: all of the above. Bella, like most girls, sees herself as average and has little self-confidence. Readers find it easy to relate to her and identify themselves with aspects of her character. So, when Edward falls madly in love with her, it is understandable for girls reading the book to feel a connection with the romance. She is not the popular girl or anything special, so when there is a story of a common girl finding true love, it gives us hope.


Typically, girls are always searching for love and looking for the person they believe will complete them. Every girl who has read any of these books yearns for that same feeling. I am not saying that good men don't exist because they most definitely do. Even so, we yearn for some sort of fairytale ending at some point in time, and these characters fit the image for our own perceived happily ever afters.


So . . . Readers of Bookshop Talk, let's TALK! Which fictional hunks have won your heart?

Let us know by leaving a comment . . .

February 13, 2012

PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTNING THIEF by Rick Riordan, 2005


After getting expelled from yet another school for yet another clash with mythological monsters only he can see, twelve-year-old Percy Jackson is taken to Camp Half-Blood, where he finally learns the truth about his unique abilities: He is a demigod, half human, half immortal. Even more stunning: His father is the Greek god Poseidon, ruler of the sea, making Percy one of the most powerful demigods alive. There's little time to process this news. All too soon, a cryptic prophecy from the Oracle sends Percy on his first quest, a mission to the Underworld to prevent a war among the gods of Olympus. (Goodreads)

Review by Laura Madsen, Writer and Veterinarian



I was hesitant to read THE LIGHTNING THIEF; in my mind I had lumped it with other recent, wildly popular, boy-appeal, urban fantasy series which were, frankly, underwhelming. But I was pleasantly surprised by this fun, well-written story.

Percy Jackson is a likable hero. He has dyslexia and ADHD, but doesn’t use the diagnoses as excuses. He’s twelve years old and is about to be kicked out of the sixth school in as many years. The only people at school who like him are Mr. Brunner, the Latin and Greek teacher, and his best friend, Grover, a scrawny kid with a muscle disorder. Percy loves his mom, and believes her story that his father was lost at sea. We later learn that Percy’s father wasn’t so much lost at sea but returned to the sea.

Strange things start happening to Percy, beginning with his pre-algebra teacher’s scary transformation into a vicious Fury from Greek mythology. Other supposedly mythical monsters and heroes crop up, and Percy soon finds himself at a summer camp for demigods (the offspring of gods and mortals). Ares’s kids are big and ugly and warlike; Athena’s kids are grey-eyed and wise. The camp is run by Dionysus, who is perpetually grumpy because he’s been ordered by Zeus to abstain from wine and must settle for Diet Coke.

Percy learns that he is the prime suspect in the theft of Zeus’s master lightning bolt (“a two-foot-long cylinder of high-grade celestial bronze, capped on both ends with god-level explosives”) and sets off on a quest to retrieve it, accompanied by Grover (who turns out not to be a kid with a muscle disorder) and Annabeth, daughter of Athena.

Rick Riordan’s writing is spot-on, with snappy dialogue, as in this scene:

Mr. Brunner pointed to one of the pictures on the stele. “Perhaps you’ll tell us what this picture represents?”

I looked at the carving, and felt a flush of relief, because I actually recognized it. “That’s Kronos eating his kids, right?”

“Yes,” Mr. Brunner said, obviously not satisfied. “And he did this because…”

“Well…” I racked my brain to remember. “Kronos was the king god, and—”

“God?” Mr. Brunner asked.

“Titan,” I corrected myself. “And… he didn’t trust his kids, who were the gods. So, um, Kronos ate them, right? But his wife hid baby Zeus, and gave Kronos a rock to eat instead. And later, when Zeus grew up, he tricked his dad, Kronos, into barfing up his brothers and sisters—”

“Eeew!” said one of the girls behind me.

“—and so there was this big fight between the gods and the Titans,” I continued, “and the gods won.”

The characters are interesting, and there are bits of humor interspersed (the Naiads enjoy underwater basketweaving, and the Minotaur wears nothing but bright white Fruit of the Loom underpants). Overall, a very entertaining read, and may have a side-effect of encouraging kids to learn about Greek mythology.

Market: young adult
Language: minimal
Sensuality: none
Violence: moderate (Greek mythological monsters come to life)
Adult themes: betrayal, love affairs between gods and mortals, attempted murder, death and the Underworld

Book formats:

February 10, 2012

THE CHOSEN by Chaim Potok, 1969

It is the now-classic story of two fathers and two sons and the pressures on all of them to pursue the religion they share in the way that is best suited to each. And as the boys grow into young men, they discover in the other a lost spiritual brother, and a link to an unexplored world that neither had ever considered before. In effect, they exchange places, and find the peace that neither will ever retreat from again.... (Goodreads)


Review by Kim Harris Thacker, writer, mommy, and Bookshop Talk Host

I have never struggled so hard with writing a book review. Chaim Potok’s THE CHOSEN is the kind of book you want to recommend to everyone, complete strangers included, because it’s so remarkable; but while it’s an essential read, its themes and lessons are so subtle as to make a review of it almost impossible without completely divulging all those wonderful details that make a gentle book like this one worth reading.

So. I’m going to do this review a little differently than I’ve done other reviews. I’m going to pick some key components of the novel and address those components.

Characters: I absolutely love every single character in this story—except one. Him, I feel very sorry for. These characters are so vivid. So real. I want to hang out with Reuven and hug Danny. Reuven’s dad wins the “Best Dad Ever” prize.

Setting: I swear I could smell the tea and the Shabbat meals, and though I’ve never set foot in a New York brownstone, I saw the layout in my mind’s eye.

Plot: The plot is, on the outset, what a reader might call “slow.” This is a very character-driven novel, though there are plenty of physical events that move the plot forward, too. Be patient with this story, because once it gets going (or maybe I should say, once you get going—because you’ll realize the story has always been going, actually), it builds and builds and builds until you’d think you were reading a bestselling thriller.

How the author relates to the work: Chaim Potok was born into a Hasidic Jewish community in the Bronx in 1929. His Talmudic scholarship is evident in the pages of THE CHOSEN, where there are numerous passages devoted to explanations of Jewish culture (and sub-cultures) and beliefs. But these passages don’t slow the story down; rather, they enrich it. They are necessary and so intriguing!
I hope you’ll read this book along with your other World War II novels. It will broaden your understanding of the effects of the Holocaust on American Jews.

Market: adult (though I would recommend it to a mature younger reader), historical fiction
Language: mild
Sensuality: none
Violence: moderate (eye trauma; reference to the horrors of the Holocaust; poor health)
Mature Themes: bigotry, psychological abuse


Book formats:
Paperback

February 7, 2012

ODYSSEY, by Homer. Translated by Stanley Lombardo, 2000


The Odyssey is literature's grandest evocation of everyman's journey through life. In the myths and legends that are retold here, renowned translator Robert Fagles has captured the energy and poetry of Homer's original in a bold, contemporary idiom and given us an Odyssey to read aloud, to savor, and to treasure for its sheer lyrical mastery. This is an Odyssey to delight both the classicist and the general reader, and to captivate a new generation of Homer's students. (Goodreads)


Review by Megan, reader and writer wannabee

I love Homer’s Odyssey! It has all the elements of an epic adventure story: a boy seeking to become a man, a hero struggling to return home and a woman who has had to fend for herself for a very long time. The stories of these three characters – Telemachus, son of Odysseus, Odysseus himself and Penelope, wife of Odysseus – comprise the Odyssey, which was a surprise for someone who thought it only contained Odysseus’ adventures.


I loved every moment of it! I thrilled as Telemachus searches for people who can tell him about the father he never knew, people like Menelaus and Nestor, old acquaintances from the Iliad, which I had just finished. I nearly jumped up and down shouting “Oh, oh, I know him, Telemachus! He fought with you father at Troy! Oh, oh, ask him about this!” I cried with Penelope as she wept for her husband and applauded her efforts to keep her disgusting suitors at bay. Penelope is possibly my favorite girl in Greek mythology, since she uses her brain AND manages to live happily ever after. And, of course, there was Odysseus. I rode the waves beside him, cursing those who kept him from home, groaning as yet another crewmember did something stupid, or occasionally *cough Cyclopes cough* groaning as Odysseus did something below his usual level of intelligence. That is perhaps the most striking thing about Odysseus. Whereas most Greek heroes tend to be fixated on killing and “winning glory”, Odysseus uses his brain. Oh, he likes beating up bad-guys and earning glory too, but he is cleverer when he goes about it. And he wants to go home, so much so that he turns down Calypso’s offer of immortality (most heroes would’ve jumped for this) and King Alcinous’ offer of marriage to his daughter (again, not the heroic norm). This loyalty to Penelope and his home is both striking and refreshing in an Ancient Greek Hero.


The end is good too. There’s lots of fighting, and the routing of the disgusting suitors I spent most of the book longing to smack; everyone gets their just desserts, and the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope is tender and beautiful.

Overall, it was a wonderful read that pulled me from one page to the next with its stunning visuals, excitement and drama – none of it overdone. I will warn you that the idea of expendable crewmen was invented by Homer, so don’t get attached to Odysseus’ crew: none of them make it back.

Market: I wouldn’t give it to anyone under the age of 14 or 15.
Language: Mr. Lombardo translates such that if the characters swear in Greek, he uses a close equivalent in English. Beware!
Sensuality: Nothing is described, but is acknowledged that it happens. PG-13
Violence: There is some gore, especially at the end.
Mature Themes: finding lost identity, punishing of criminals in the Ancient Greek style, murder, raising ghosts with barley and wine, Odysseus being with a couple ladies (Calypso and Circe), etc.


Book formats:
Paperback
e-book