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

May 26, 2013

SEAN GRISWOLD’S HEAD by Lindsey Leavitt, 2011

According to her guidance counselor, fifteen-year-old Payton Gritas needs a focus object-an item to concentrate her emotions on. It's supposed to be something inanimate, but Payton decides to use the thing she stares at during class: Sean Griswold's head. They've been linked since third grade (Griswold-Gritas-it's an alphabetical order thing), but she's never really known him. In this sweet story of first love, Lindsey Leavitt seamlessly balances heartfelt family moments, spot-on sarcastic humor, and a budding young romance. (Amazon)

Reviewed by Brooke—Wife, Mother, Reader

Sean Griswold's Head has all the typical flirty fun of newly discovered romance. I enjoy reading that. What I was not expecting was the depth of exploration of the main character's feelings regarding her father's illness. Not only did the author deal with the main character’s fears (and avoidance of them), but also how that affected her relationships with other family members and her best friend. I can relate to the main character's fear of the unknown.  I also appreciate that the author finds ways for the main character to work through her feelings, sometimes not as successfully as others. I also like that she found a physical outlet for her anxiety through exercise. That is something that I know realistically, but I always need reminding. I truly enjoyed this book.

Market: Young Adult
Language: None
Sensuality: Teenage flirting, mild kissing
Violence: None
Mature Themes:  Father has a serious illness

May 21, 2013

Spinning the Goldilocks Tale: Four Picture Books

Reviewed by Laura Madsen, mom & writer

My daughter’s kindergarten class has a parent read every week for “Fairy Tale Friday.” My assigned fairy tale is Goldilocks and the Three Bears. You all know the story: clueless and poorly supervised little girl invades the home of the innocent bears, eats their food, and breaks their stuff. I didn’t want to read the boring basic version but found some entertaining alternatives.

GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS by Caralyn Buehner and Mark Buehner, 2007. 

This is a relatively standard Goldilocks tale, but with some entertaining twists. The baby bear is inordinately worried about the intruder: “Something has eaten my porridge. I think it was an alien!” And Mark Buehner’s illustrations have many hidden images for kids to find.

THE THREE SNOW BEARS by Jan Brett, 2007 

This also follows the Goldilocks story fairly closely, but places it in a beautifully illustrated arctic setting. Aloo-ki, an Inuit girl, loses her team of sled dogs on the pack ice. She comes across an igloo and enters to find three bowls of soup, three pairs of furry boots, and three sets of sleeping furs. The three bears are a family of polar bears, and as the girl is busy messing up their igloo, they are shown (in small sidebar illustrations) to be rescuing the girl’s huskies. Jan Brett’s paintings are detailed and gorgeous, and feature a variety of arctic wildlife like fox, caribou and walrus.

GOLDILOCKS AND JUST ONE BEAR by Leigh Hodgkinson, 2011

This book turns the fairy tale upside-down, as a bear is lost in the city and takes refuge in a penthouse apartment. The illustrations are hilarious: “This porridge is too soggy” shows the bear drinking water from a goldfish bowl, and “This chair is too ouchy” shows the bear sitting on a potted cactus. The twist ending is that the mommy person and the bear are Goldilocks and Baby Bear, all grown-up and feeling regretful about their previous encounter.

This is a hysterically twisted version of Goldie’s tale. Three dinosaurs (Papa Dino, Mama Dino, and some random triceratops visiting from Norway) set up a trap, intending to have “chocolate-filled-little-girl-bonbons” for dessert. I always found Goldilocks very dumb, and Willems makes fun of her dumbness as she narrowly escapes being eaten. “Goldilocks was not the type of little girl who listened to anyone or anything. For example, Goldilocks never listened to warnings about the dangers of barging into strange, enormous houses. So as soon as Goldilocks came across a strange, enormous house, she barged right in.”

What are YOUR favorite fairy tale picture books?

As an exciting side note, our regular contributor, Laura Madsen, has recently published a children's fantasy novel of her own. So be sure to check out The Corgi Chronicles. Laura is also a veterinarian, so her insight on animals is better than the usual writer, which makes for a fun read. Congratulations, Laura!

May 16, 2013

An Introduction to Capstone Press's "Animal Weapons and Defenses" Series

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

Capstone Press is known for publishing quality nonfiction books for classrooms and school libraries, but any animal lover will enjoy reading the books reviewed in this post, all of which books are from Capstone's "Animal Weapons and Defenses" series, published under the "Blazers" imprint.  

Each book's intended audience is children about 6-9 years of age, though older readers (even adults) will enjoy the books.  They all contain gorgeous, vivid photographs and graphics and are written in a conversational tone suitable to their intended readership. Also, each book contains a "Fierce Facts" section, a helpful glossary and index, a "Read More" section (which lists other books of a subject similar to that which the book covers), and an "Internet Sites" section (which supplies readers with a code that, when entered into the kid-friendly FactHound web site, provides lists of other critter-loving web sites).

Because the books reviewed in this post are similar in theme, I've created only one "Content Table" for the books, which you can find at the bottom of these reviews.  If there is any content of note for an individual book, you'll find mention of it in its individual review.

In the fight for survival, poison and venom are deadly weapons. They can help animals defend themselves against predators or conquer unsuspecting prey. Find out which animals carry the deadliest toxins, and how poison and venom differ between species. You might want to stay clear of these animals! (Amazon)

Poisonous, venomous creatures can be found all over the world. They range from the poison arrow frog (which possesses enough poison in its brightly colored skin to be deadly to ten people) to the skunk (whose smelly spray can cause temporary blindness). Along with several other animals and insects, both the poison arrow frog and the skunk are discussed in this book.

In the game of survival, these animals take a bite out of the competition. Piercing teeth, sharp claws, and powerful jaws can fight off the most daunting enemy and help catch the cleverest prey. Learn about some of natures most fiercesome opponents. (Amazon)

In this animal-eat-animal world, strong jaws and sharp teeth and claws can mean the difference between being the predator and being the prey. Animals who possess these menacing features range from the hyena (whose jaws are stronger than a lion’s), to the pint-sized mantis shrimp (whose claws can shatter glass). Along with several other animals and insects, both the hyena and the mantis shrimp are highlighted in this book, which contains up-close-and-personal photographs, some of which are rather bloody and would be more suited to readers who are at the latter end of the book’s age-range. 

When these animals face a dangerous situation, they either run away, stay and fight, or hide from sight. Find out which of your favorite animals are masters of speed, strength, and stealth. (Amazon)

Many animals are strong and are quiet hunters. Still more can run and fly.  But only a few creatures possess extreme speed, strength, and stealth. Such creatures range from the peregrine falcon (who can dive to seize its prey at speeds of more than two hundred miles per hour), to the dung beetle (who can carry 850 times its own weight). Find out more about these animals and others in this interesting book!

When it comes to battle, some animals seem to be natural warriors. They may have spines or armor to fend off predators, or horns made to attack. Enemies that mess with these animals are in for an unpleasant surprise. (Amazon)

In days of yore, knights wore armor and carried swords. Though man-to-man jousting has long gone the way of the fabled Round Table, animal-to-animal battles rage daily—and many creatures come equipped with armor and spikes that would make the bravest knight quiver in fear. Such creatures range from the small sea urchin (whose spines are not only pointy, but can also contain venom), to the scimitar-horned oryx (a type of antelope whose long, curved horns look like—and are nearly as sharp as—scimitar swords). What is your favorite animal's prospect of survival in an all-out battle? Does size matter (as in the case of the sea urchin)? Find out all about animal armor in this book!

When it comes to survival, appearances are everything! A harmless animal can frighten predators away by appearing dangerous. A dangerous animal can lure prey by appearing harmless. Discover the disguises of some of your favorite animals. (Amazon)

Modern magicians may be able to make doves vanish up sleeves and rabbits appear inside top hats, but the animal kingdom has been performing such seemingly magical feats for millennia. Take, for example, the courageous bittern, which points its vulnerable neck and chest toward predators, because it is camouflaged in only those areas. There’s also the harmless scarlet king snake, which plays copycat (or copysnake) to a poisonous snake: The scarlet king snake’s body is striped in bands of color (black, red, black, then yellow), like the coral snake’s, though the coral snake’s bands are in a different order. Along with several other animals and insects, both the bittern and the scarlet king snake are highlighted in this book.

Sometimes being gross is an animals best bet for survival. Poop, slime, and vomit arent just nasty. They can save an animals life. Get the inside scoop on some of the most disgusting animal weapons and defenses. (Amazon)

When potential predators corner some creatures, the prey strikes out with sharp claws. Other prey, like hagfish and short-horned lizards, take a more...interesting approach to self-defense. The hagfish covers itself with a slime that clogs the gills of predators, and the short-horned lizard shoots blood (which stings the eyes of its enemies) from valves that are located near its eyes. These bizarre facts and more are contained in this book.

Market: Picture Books, Nonfiction
Violence: descriptions of how animals defend themselves (sometimes to the death)
Language: none
Sensuality: none
Adult themes: I wouldn't necessarily call animal violence an "adult" theme, but parents, teachers, and librarians should be aware that this is a major theme in these books. I didn't find the approach to this theme to be at all unsuitable, except, perhaps, in the TEETH, CLAWS, AND JAWS book.

May 11, 2013

DIRT CANDY by Amanda Cohen, Ryan Dunlavey, and Grady Hendrix

Amanda Cohen does not play by the rules. Her vegetable recipes are sophisticated and daring, beloved by omnivore, vegetarian, and vegan diners alike. Dirt Candy: A Cookbook shares the secrets to making her flavorful dishes—from indulgent Stone-Ground Grits with Pickled Shiitakes and Tempura Poached Egg, to hearty Smoked Cauliflower and Waffles with Horseradish Cream Sauce, to playfully addictive Popcorn Pudding with Caramel Popcorn. It also details Amanda’s crazy story of building a restaurant from the ground up to its currently being one of the hardest-to-get reservations in New York City—all illustrated as a brilliant graphic novel. Both a great read and a source of kitchen inspiration, Dirt Candy: A Cookbook is a must-have for any home cook looking to push the boundaries of vegetable cooking. (Amazon)

Reviewed by Megan Hutchins

Dirt Candy may be the oddest book I've ever read.  Half of it is a comic-book that folds memoir with history and how-to.  The other half consists of recipes, also illustrated comic-book style.

Reading this book gave me a look at opening a restaurant and the tortured relationship Americans have with vegetables -- and did it via samurai oil droplets attacking broccoli and corn with their nunchucks.  This book made me laugh out loud.  It's also the reason I'm very full at the moment.

The book, like the restaurant that shares its name, is all-vegetarian.  Amanda Cohen decided on the name Dirt Candy because "I wanted people to think of vegetables as a treat.  As something fun.  Like candy from the dirt."

And she manages to pack that fun from appetizer to dessert, ending with recipes like Red Pepper Velvet Cake and Fennel Funnel Cakes.  Yes?  Please? 

I love cookbooks that do more with vegetables than shove them to the side.  Why shouldn't broccoli get as much love as a chicken cutlet?  I hoped this book would show me some new culinary delights, and it delivered in spades.  My only regret is that I'm having a hard time finding maple chips, or I would have already smoked and then oven-candied/crisped long slices of butternut squash.  I may have drooled on the book.

Fair warning: the recipes are incredibly awesome, and with that awesome comes preparation time.  But it's worth the effort.  I never thought a meal of essentially carrots and rice could be delicious and filling, but the carrot risotto in here (topped with carrot dumplings and deep-fried carrot strips) is divine.

Read it like a book.  Cook out of it.  Whatever you like.  Dirt Candy is a volume bursting with fun.

Market: Nonfiction
Language: None
Sensuality: Mild?  There's a salad that wants to be sexy and a discussion of the historical notion of vegetarianism encouraging chaste behavior.
Violence: Mild. Mostly against vegetables.  And pickle fairies.
Mature Themes: Vegetables!

May 6, 2013

THE RAVEN BOYS by Maggie Stiefvater, 2012

Every year, Blue Sargent stands next to her clairvoyant mother as the soon-to-be dead walk past. Blue herself never sees them—not until this year, when a boy emerges from the dark and speaks directly to her. His name is Gansey, and Blue soon discovers that he is a rich student at Aglionby, the local private school. . . . For as long as she can remember, Blue has been warned that she will cause her true love to die. She never thought this would be a problem. But now, as her life becomes caught up in the strange and sinister world of the Raven Boys, she’s not so sure anymore. (Goodreads)

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

Confession #1:  Aside from this first installment in The Raven Cycle, the only other Maggie Stiefvater novel that I have read is THE SCORPIO RACES, which I loved with a passion (and which you can read a Bookshop Talk review of here). Keep Confession #1 in mind as you read Confession #2, which follows, because Confession #2 may not hold water upon reading Maggie's other books (I suspect it will, though).

Confession #2:  Maggie Stiefvater is one of very few authors whose books I don't dare to put down, for fear that I'll miss something crucial. Her writing makes me feel like the action is happening right now, as I read.

Have you ever had to go to the bathroom at the movie theater, but known that if you did go, you'd miss out on something really important? Yeah. That's how I felt about THE RAVEN BOYS and THE SCORPIO RACES. I had to devour them, because if I didn't, these books, which have a life all their own, would run off without me! What a feeling.

I finished THE RAVEN BOYS a couple of nights ago, and after laying in my bed for a while, all stunned, I recalled that the last time I had felt that "wait for me!" way about a book was a year earlier, when I was reading THE SCORPIO RACES. So yes, I really like Maggie Stiefvater's writing. I'll let you know how I feel about her books that came out before THE SCORPIO RACES once I've finished them. Even if I don't love them, let it be known that I do love THE SCORPIO RACES and THE RAVEN BOYS, and I can't wait until Book 2 of The Raven Cycle comes out!

Okay, enough of my gushing. On to the review.

When news about this book first started making the rounds, I have to admit that I cringed a bit. The synopsis sounded so...high school. Giggle at me now, if you like. I am well aware that reading YA fiction often means reading about high school and all the stuff that goes along with it. But reading YA fiction does not always mean reading about high school, and it's those YA non-high school books that I tend to enjoy more than the high school-ish ones. Don't get me wrong, I've read plenty of YA high school books that I've really liked. But as a general rule, I don't love contemporary angst. And that's what THE RAVEN BOYS sounded like, which, after reading and adoring THE SCORPIO RACES, made me feel kinda sad.

But. But.

Oh, friends, lemme tell you, this ain't no high school drama. Forget your preconceived notions (if you have any, like I did) about forbidden love and misunderstood rich kids, and get ready to be blown away by phenomenal characters. Sure, the plot is great. Super exciting, and all that. I mean, I didn't want to "leave the theater" to go potty for fear I'd miss out on something, right? But it wasn't just the plot I was afraid of missing out on--I was afraid to miss out on some crucial information about the characters. They were so real to me, even as I was constantly being surprised by them. Maggie writes such incredible characters. Especially the boys. Blue was really, really interesting, and I thought she was exactly the female lead this story needed, but it was the Aglionby boys who gripped my heart and jostled it a bit. Especially Ronan. Ah, Ronan. You scare me a whole lot, young man, but I like it.

At any rate, Maggie handles a huge cast of characters not just with skill, but with seeming ease. Every stinkin' one of her characters is different from the other, and they're all so believable. They all have super rich backstories, which we only get glimpses of, really, but you know those backstories are there, just under each page's skin. Because the characters are real people. No stock characters here, folks.

And that's all I want to say about this incredible book, because if I say anything else, I'll ruin the story for you. And I don't want to do that. Do yourself a favor, though, and read it! Also read THE SCORPIO RACES. While you're reading those, I'll read Maggie's other stuff.

Speaking of reading an author's complete works, have you ever done that? Whose? Did you love every book? Sound off in the comments!

Market: Young Adult, Fantasy
Language: Plentiful (lots of F-words)
Sensuality: Moderate (some references to the sexual activity of various characters)
Violence: Extreme (nothing graphic, but some bad stuff happens, including murder and physical abuse)
Mature Themes: death, murder, physical and psychological abuse, psychological trauma, magic (including tarot card-reading and seance-type stuff), prejudice, law-breaking (trespassing, speeding), etc.

May 3, 2013

World Book Night & FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury, 1953

A Gab Bag Post and Book Review by Laura Madsen, mom and writer

WorldBook Night is a neat organization that is “spreading the love of reading, from person to person.” It’s about encouraging people who don’t normally read books—because they’ve never read books for fun, because they’re incarcerated, or because they can’t afford books—to try one for free. It is celebrated on April 23, the birth and death day of William Shakespeare. Twenty thousand volunteers each give out twenty copies of a book they choose from a list of specially-published paperbacks. (The authors waive their royalties for the special edition, and the publishers cover the printing costs.) The book list this year includes old and new, children’s and adult, fiction and nonfiction, dramatic and comedic, and even Spanish and large-print versions. On April 23, 2013, volunteers gave out half a million free books across the United States and another half a million in the United Kingdom.

I received a copy of Ray Bradbury’s FAHRENHEIT 451 from an acquaintance who works at the King’s English Bookshop, a fantastic independent bookstore in Salt Lake City. Although I’m not the demographic that World Book Night is targeting (“light or non-readers”), I happily accepted it and am reading it. However, I will pass it on to someone else in fulfillment of its mission.

In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury's classic, frightening vision of the future, firemen don't put out fires--they start them in order to burn books. Bradbury's vividly painted society holds up the appearance of happiness as the highest goal—a place where trivial information is good, and knowledge and ideas are bad. (Amazon)

FAHRENHEIT451 was published in 1953. I recently read H. Beam Piper’s LITTLE FUZZY, a science fiction novel published in 1962 that’s really showing its age. It’s like MAD MEN in space: smoking in the office, drinking cocktails before noon, and having “the girl” (i.e., the secretary) place your calls. While LITTLE FUZZY is very dated, FAHRENHEIT 451 is still quite relevant today.

The title refers to the temperature at which paper catches fire: 451 degrees. The main character is Guy Montag. He’s a fireman—but not the job we think of when we think of firefighters. In Bradbury’s dystopic future, firemen ignite fires to burn books, which have been universally banned. However, Montag is intrigued by books and hides one in his jacket at a burning.

Montag’s fire chief explains how the burning started: “Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of paste pudding norm. Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more. Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought! School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored.” One wonders if Ray Bradbury was psychic to foresee Facebook, Twitter and text-speak!

The chief continues: “But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.” Books, being intellectual, are burned. So too is anything that offends anyone; any book that might upset a minority group is burned. “Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book.”

And: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. We [firemen] stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought. We have our fingers in the dike. Hold steady. Don’t let the torrent of melancholy and drear philosophy drown our world.”

Does this sound like our world sixty years after the book was published? For many Americans, the extent of their knowledge-seeking in a day is to check Facebook, click “Like” on silly kitty photos, respond to the posts of strangers with grammatically incorrect vitriol, tweet the inane details of their life to other strangers, and carry on. They ignore world news, disregard anything that might challenge their way of thinking, and reduce philosophical and political discussion to forgettable memes. Would those people miss anything if every single copy of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was burned? Would they even notice? The only difference between today and Bradbury’s world are that we ourselves—not the government—are cutting off the “torrent of melancholy and drear philosophy” that might make us think.

Books and knowledge and thinking are what World Book Night and FAHRENHEIT 451 are all about.

Market: adult fiction (dystopian/ science fiction)
Violence: moderate to high
Sensuality: minimal
Language: mild
Adult themes: book burning, arson, murder, betrayal, government oppression, censorship, revolution

What are YOUR thoughts on this topic?

May 1, 2013

A TALE DARK AND GRIMM and IN A GLASS GRIMMLY by Adam Gidwitz, 2010, 2012

A TALE DARK AND GRIMMIn this mischievous and utterly original debut, Hansel and Gretel walk out of their own story and into eight other classic Grimm-inspired tales. As readers follow the siblings through a forest brimming with menacing foes, they learn the true story behind (and beyond) the bread crumbs, edible houses, and outwitted witches Fairy tales have never been more irreverent or subversive as Hansel and Gretel learn to take charge of their destinies and become the clever architects of their own happily ever after. (Amazon).

IN A GLASS GRIMMLYMore Grimm tales await in the harrowing, hilarious companion to a beloved new classic. In this companion novel to Adam Gidwitz's widely acclaimed, award-winning debut, A Tale Dark & Grimm, Jack and Jill explore a new set of tales from the Brothers Grimm and others, including Jack and the Beanstalk and The Frog Prince. (Amazon)

Reviewed by Pica, avid bookworm

These books were fantastic and fun middle grade reads. I picked up A Tale Dark and Grimm during the Fairy Tale Readathon, and it was the perfect book to get me excited about reading during an extended readathon. When I finished A Tale Dark and Grimm, I immediately ran out for In A Glass Grimmly, because I wanted to continue with such a fun book. 

In each chapter, Gidwitz modifies an original Grimm tale (or sometimes another fairy tale) to create a flowing narrative which, in A Tale Dark and Grimm, follows Hansel and Gretel, and which, in In a Glass Grimmly, follows Jack and Jill. He uses both well-known and lesser-known tales, ranging from Faithful Johannes to Hansel and Gretel.

As much as I liked the fairy tales (and I did like them very much), the best part of these stories is the constant narrator commentary. The narrator inserts his (or her, but I'll assume his as the author is a man) thoughts every few pages, speaking directly to and even playing tricks on the reader. It reminded my a little bit of the Bartimaeus books, but without the footnotes. This narrator doesn't bother with footnotes. He sticks his thoughts right into the middle of the text. And it totally worked - it was hilarious.

In A Tale Dark and Grimm, I loved Hansel and Gretel, the main characters. They were excellent middle grade protagonists: clever, interesting, and proactive. In In a Glass Grimmly, Jack and Jill were not quite as fun. Although I enjoyed the narratorial comments just as much if not more in In a Glass Grimmly, I found the characters not quite as easy to connect to or sympathize with.

Overall Thoughts: I would happily recommend this to any middle grader who came my way, especially a middle grade boy who was in a reading slump. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I am proud to add these volumes to my collection of fairy tale retellings.

Market: Middle Grade
Language: Mild
Sensuality: Mild
Violence: Mild to moderate. The narrator makes a joke out of most of the violent bits, telling the reader to watch out or get all the kids out of the room.