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.

September 28, 2015

SPLITTING AN ORDER by Ted Kooser, 2014

Pulitzer Prize winner and best selling poet Ted Kooser calls attention to the intimacies of life through commonplace objects and occurrences: an elderly couple sharing a sandwich is a study in transcendent love, while a tattered packet of spinach seeds calls forth innate human potential. This long-awaited collection from the former U.S. Poet Laureate—ten years in the making—is rich with quiet and profound magnificence. (Goodreads)

Julie, children's literature enthusiast and pop culture geek

For even the most avid reader, the word "poetry" might evoke shudders and horrible memories of deciphering rhyme schemes and interpreting hazy symbols.  But poetry can be a lot more accessible than readers might think.  When the focus is on beautiful language, used to immortalize everyday events, poetry is a lot more palatable and, dare I say, even a thrill to read.  One of my favorite recent works is SPLITTING AN ORDER by Ted Kooser, Pulitzer Prize winner and former Poet Laureate of the United States.

SPLITTING AN ORDER succeeds in the way it takes seemingly small, mundane events--and makes them beautiful.  Kooser is a master of language, and he uses it as a tool to take the average and make it evocative.  For example, in "Two Men on an Errand," a normal man transforms into "a balloon of a man . .  . with some of the life let out of him" who "sags" in a car repair shop's waiting room, although his fists, "white boulders, alabaster," show hints of remaining strength.  Here, Kooser shows that condensed language can still tell--or at least, suggest--a fantastic story.  The poems' titles hint at the variety of subjects and inspirations: "At Arby's, At Noon," "110th Birthday," "The Woman Whose Husband Was Dying," and "Painting the Barn," among others.  Each one can be quickly devoured and easily digested, but I recommend slow, thorough savoring.

My favorite piece in SPLITTING AN ORDER is not actually a poem, but a short essay called "Small Rooms in Time."  In this piece, Kooser reflects on a crime, the murder of a fifteen-year-old boy in a house where Kooser himself had previously lived.  What follows is a moving, honest examination of violence intruding upon safety, as well as nostalgia's lasting influence throughout periods of change.  The combination of these two ideas results in a jarring, emotional piece in which Kooser urges us to "think about the way in which the rooms we inhabit, if only for a time, become unchanging places within us, complete with detail.

Check out SPLITTING AN ORDER for a short, but satisfying read.  Kooser's works always help remind me why I love language.

Market: Adult poetry--appropriate for YA too
Violence:  Aside from the crime in the essay referenced above, none
Language:  Appropriate and beautiful
Sensuality:  Moments of romance, nothing overtly sensual
Adult Themes:  Love, aging

September 21, 2015

THE ARCHIVED by Victoria Schwab, 2013

The dead rest on shelves like books. Each body has a story to tell, a life in pictures only Librarians can read. The dead, called 'Histories', rest in the Archive. Da first brought Mackenzie Bishop here four years ago, when she was twelve years old, frightened but determined to prove herself. Now Da is dead, and Mac has grown into what he once was, a ruthless Keeper, tasked with stopping often—violent Histories from waking up and getting out. Because of her job, she lies to the people she loves, and she knows fear for what it is: a tool for staying alive. (Goodreads)

Reviewed by Valette M.

Ooo, where to start on these delicious characters? Mackenzie, or Mac, Bishop is the heir to a great and powerful legacy left by her beloved grandfather. Mac has been a Keeper, a highly skilled hunter of the histories that wake up, since she was young, and she considers herself very good at what she does. Her blunt, determined attitude and her almost complete lack of angst made her a very appealing character. In juxtaposition we have Wes, the goth, charismatic and strangely intriguing boy from who knows how many blocks over. Where Mac was silent and held her thoughts private, Wes went out with his personality on full display. But he too has experiences that have weathered him, and I look forward to exploring his depth in future books.

I feel like this book could be classified as a 'ghost' book, but I hesitate to label it as such. It's not about spirits, and, technically speaking, the histories stored, though they appear human, are not the humans who have passed on. But this compelling world and the situations created certainly leave no room to put the book down. While Mac grapples with the grief of losing her brother and struggles to hold her desolate family together, her world inside the narrows, collecting and returning the lost histories gradually falls apart. As the mysteries in her world and the eerie inbetween of the Narrows collide, she must decide whom she can trust and which friends to hold closer. Schwab skillfully weaves foreboding into a story rife with inner and outer turmoil, not to mention playing with the psychological aspect of being shelved after you're dead. The plot twists were not as twisty as I feel they were meant to be (In other words, I guessed them. And if I guessed them . . .), but they were still exciting and made for a very good story.

If I had to pick the one thing I liked best about THE ARCHIVED it would be the unsettling, uncanny atmosphere Schwab created in the Narrows. It sent shivers up my spine and nothing too creepy even happened there! And on a final note, Schwab is very good at pacing. The plot reveals weren't particularly dramatic, but she drew them out just enough for the intensity to build and played them soon enough that no scenes felt stalled. Overall I found it a very original and enjoyable read.

Market: Young Adult
Language: Mild if any
Sensuality: Mild
Violence: Mild
Mature Themes: Death

September 14, 2015

OUT OF THE EASY by Ruta Sepetys, 2013

It’s 1950, and as the French Quarter of New Orleans simmers with secrets, seventeen-year-old Josie Moraine is silently stirring a pot of her own. Known among locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie wants more out of life than the Big Easy has to offer. She devises a plan to get out, but a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an investigation that will challenge her allegiance to her mother, her conscience, and Willie Woodley, the brusque madam on Conti Street. Josie is caught between the dream of an elite college and a clandestine underworld. New Orleans lures her in her quest for truth, dangling temptation at every turn, and escalating to the ultimate test. (Goodreads)

Reviewed by Valette M.

Once in a while a great book comes along that makes everything afterward seem watered-down and flimsy. And so I scramble frantically for another good book until I am so desperate for story that I begin to settle for lesser literature. A poor book is now okay. And an okay book is suddenly good. Once in a while I will dream of the great book I read and wonder if there will every be anything like it again. Then suddenly, out of the blue, a really good book, perhaps not great, but one that comes close to touching reality in ways most books don't, falls into my lap and slams things into perspective. And suddenly I realize I've been reading tosh this entire time.

Jo was layered and insightful with depth and dreams and a good bit of practicality. I loved the determination she displayed in fighting for her dreams. She understood they were far above her and pretty much impossible, but that didn't keep her from trying her hardest. This story is Jo's; however, it is also Patrick's and Willie's and Jesse's and many, many other characters'. Everyone Jo encounters is written with such flavor that they continue to exist after their part in Jo's life is over. We follow Jo's story line, but she is not the only main character.

Though not set out as an action novel, this book has plenty of rough and tumble in a totally plausible way for Jo's world. Don't expect full on flash and fire gun fights. Do expect hold-ups, death threats, blackmails, betrayal, etc. I did feel that the ending was fairly rushed and didn't provide the closure I was looking for, but regardless, this was Historical Fiction at its finest. Jo's struggle to break free from the web of the Big Easy explores corrupted people on all levels of society and good people on all levels of society.

Ruta Sepetys has mastered the art of storytelling by detail. With a sidelong mention of an object, she can call to mind a new understanding of the situation. OUT OF THE EASY displays considerable knowledge of the culture and circumstances present in New Orleans in the 1950's. This is a well textured tale that feels strikingly realistic.

Market: Young Adult or Adult
Language: Mild
Sensuality: Mild to Moderate
Violence: None
Mature Themes: Prostitution (she lives as a maid in a brothel), Corruption, Criminal Underworld

September 7, 2015

CONJURED by Sarah Beth Durst, 2013

Eve has a new home, a new face, and a new name—but no memories of her past. She’s been told that she's in a witness protection program. That she escaped a dangerous magic-wielding serial killer who still hunts her. The only thing she knows for sure is that there is something horrifying in her memories the people hiding her want to access—and there is nothing they won’t say—or do—to her to get her to remember. (Goodreads)

Reviewed by Valette M.

The main character has amnesia. Yep. This means she had no background to build her up or give us a sense of who she is. And she is brilliant! Sarah Beth Durst did not take the easy way out in forming Eve. Breaking through the now cliché kick-butt, sassy, heroine mold, Eve starts the book as a confused, quiet character. As the story unfolds however, her core of iron is revealed. She is strong and smart, not wasting time on disbelief when something is on the line. She takes help when help is needed, she gives it too. (On a side note, it was refreshing to have a character that was nice, not just to the people she liked, but as a general rule, caring of others. This almost seems frowned upon in YA. Anyone know why?) She's a character to root for even though, at first, the reader has no idea which side she comes from. Or if she's even human. Or even real. However impressed I was by Eve, the villain impressed me more. Introduced and developed only vaguely through Eve's flashbacks and comments, he is terrifying, yet understandable. Though he only appears in person towards the end of the book, his actions and words are so descriptive of who he is that he gained depth with very little face time. Such a disturbingly twisted man does not deserve sympathy, yet its' garnered nonetheless.

This was another one of those books that gets the badge of being read straight through. The plot itself unfolded in the form of a knot with just as many seemingly unrelated strands– starting in the middle and slowly being picked apart until the whole tale was clear. As Eve experiences deeply haunting visions, we begin to get a sense that we know nothing at all. And we don't. But the story proceeds with tantalizing hints and gradually zooms out to get the big picture. Eve experiences flashes of amnesia, or memory resets. She comes to herself with no memory of the weeks or months she's lived between. The uncertainty and fear keeps the reader in a very shaky place and then buffets them too and fro with Eve. I had no idea how things would conclude in one book, without selling short. It defied expectations. (Which, come on, this is Sarah Beth Durst so expectations were already pretty high to begin with.) It ended with a satisfactory umph, but left much more to explore.

CONJURED was darker and more gruesome than I usually read (or would want to read again), bordering on the macabre. But the writing itself was beautiful with glittering descriptions and elegant language. It flowed smoothly, not straining, not presumptuous. It was unlike Sarah Beth Durst's other books in overall feel, and proves just how versatile we can expect her writing to be. She is absolutely getting added to the list of Authors to Watch For.

Market: Young Adults
Language: Mild if any
Sensuality: Mild
Violence: Moderate to heavy
Mature Themes: Corruption