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.

March 30, 2011

BALLET SHOES by Noel Streatfeild, 1937

Ballet Shoes (The Shoe Books)
In the tradition of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Little Princess come Noel Streatfeild’s tales of triumph. In this story, three orphan girls vow to make a name for themselves and find their own special talents. With hard work, fame just may be in the stars! Originally published in 1937. (Amazon)
Reviewed by Debbie, theater patron
Orphans appear frequently in children’s literature. Sara Crewe. Anne of Green Gables. Harry Potter. Ballet Shoes features three of my favorites. Great-Uncle Matthew (Gum), a famous fossil collector, starts collecting orphans after getting too old to climb around after fossils, and over a period of years, he brings home Pauline, Petrova and Posy to his great-niece Sylvia and her nurse, Nana, at his house on Cromwell Road in 1930s London.
After Gum sends Posy, he leaves for a 5-year trip, although Sylvia and Nana know this really means he’ll be gone for 10. When their money runs out, they take in some boarders who end up changing their lives. One is a dance teacher who arranges for the girls to attend her school, The Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training (which later appears in several other Streatfeild books). Pauline ends up excelling at acting, while Posy is a born dancer. Petrova becomes a competent enough performer, but her heart lies elsewhere.
What I really like about Noel Streatfeild’s novels is that they take me to this unfamiliar (to me) world of life on the stage. Ballet Shoes in particular introduced me to dance in general and also to specific plays: Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Bluebird and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Richard the Third. I was anxious with Pauline at her first audition, and I was excited with Petrova when she learned that they were going to fly on the stage. One of the best things about reading is going to a new world, and Streatfeild’s world of performing arts is fascinating.
In Ballet Shoes, it is also peopled by wonderful, generous characters who become Pauline, Petrova and Posy’s extended family. In addition to Theo, the dance teacher, the boarders include Mr. and Mrs. Simpson and two lady doctors, Dr. Jakes and Dr. Smith. Mr. Simpson shares Petrova’s automotive interests and lets her help take care of his car. With two sisters who love performing, Petrova finds talking cars and mechanics with Mr. Simpson a relief. Dr. Jakes and Dr. Smith are academic coaches, and they end up educating the girls when money for school runs out. It is Dr. Jakes, the literature specialist, who first seriously encourages Pauline to act and who gets Petrova through when she lands a role in a play that is very difficult for her.
Although Pauline really enjoys acting for itself, she also appreciates that it provides a way to earn money to help her family. The only reason Petrova stays at the school is that she can start earning money at it at age 12, whereas any other profession she’d be interested in wouldn’t allow her to start earning until years later. Money worries run through this book, which makes the girls’ eventual success all the sweeter. (The small math nerd in me wrote down all the parts about money so I could figure out how many shillings were in a pound. This was before the Internet, so I couldn’t just look it up.)
A couple of years ago, a new movie version of Ballet Shoes was made, starring Emma Watson (aka Hermione). I enjoyed it, even though they changed some of the story to add some romance (which I couldn’t exactly argue with). In the movie “You’ve Got Mail,” Meg Ryan’s character shares her love of the Shoe books, which is one of the reasons I like that movie so much.
In the US, only four or five of the Shoe books are still in print, but if you can find it, I also really like The Children on the Top Floor.
Market: Middle Grade
Language: None
Sensuality: None
Violence: None
Mature Themes: Poverty

Book  formats:

March 28, 2011

Winners of the Infarrently Creative Book Giveaway

Hi Everyone! A great blog that you should all check out,, hosted a book giveaway for their readers last week, and we are announcing the winners over here on Bookshop Talk.

So . . . drumroll, please, the winners are:

Ang, who wins BENEATH A MARBLE SKY! And . . . 
Danielle N. who wants THREE CUPS OF TEA.

CONGRATULATIONS to you both. Please email us at with your mailing address so we can send these books off right away.

For the rest of you, start getting some book reviews ready! We'll soon be posting a giveaway and you'll get one entry for every book review that you send to Bookshop Talk! Be sure to check out our Review Policy if you've never sent us a review before.

Thank you!

JUST ELLA by Margaret Peterson Haddix, 1999

Just EllaIn Just Ella, Margaret Peterson Haddix puts a spin on the traditional tale of the glass slippers. In her version, Ella (sans "Cinder") finds her own way to the ball (there was no fairy godmother, despite the rumors) and wins the heart of the prince. But now she is finding that life at the palace as Prince Charming's betrothed is not as great as she thought it was going to be. In fact, it's downright boring for a self-reliant and active girl to do needlework all day or listen to instructions on court etiquette from the strict and cold Madame Bisset. Worst of all, Ella is beginning to suspect that Charming's beautiful blue eyes and golden hair are attached to a head with nothing in it. Her young tutor Jed, however, talks with her about serious things that really matter. (Amazon)

Review by Natalie Gorna, Writer for the Fresno Examiner

Cinderella is, undoubtedly, one of the most popular and well known fairy tales in the literary world. However, its most famous characteristics all are magically related.  What could the story be like without any fairy godmother or magic to help out the heroine?  Moreover, what about Prince Charming?  What was his real personality, and did Cinderella really have a true love match with him, living "happily ever after" beyond the conclusion of the original narrative?  These are all logical questions that arise when analyzing the simply storyline of Cinderella—questions that I even asked myself when re-reading the original.  The puzzling features inside Cinderella are exactly what make Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix a delightful rebirth of the classic.  Forget about magic—Cinderella is completely dependent on her own wits and strength in order to survive realistic problems in a very realistic world. 

Beginning the story in media res, the author backtracks to the origins of her heroine, fifteen year-old Ella Brown.  Providing reasonable explanations and practical solutions to enigmas, Cinderella's new traits could not be more appropriate for her mentality.  Determined and strong-willed, Ella's temperament is supported by her intelligence, her passion for books, and her motivation to acquire knowledge.  However, the time frame is set after the famous ball; Ella is waiting through her engagement until she can finally marry Prince Charming (his actual name), the heir to the throne of the kingdom Fridesia.  

Having escaped the clutches of her evil stepmother and stepsisters, Ella is relieved by her changed status quo.  She is now a princess who dreams of living "happily ever after" with her prince and true love.  On the other hand, the longer Ella lives in Charming's castle, the sooner she realizes the truth.  Her newfound freedom from domination and extortion is non-existent in an environment where she is constantly supervised and told what to do or say. She also begins to doubt her romance with the prince when she discovers that they can't even have a few minutes conversation together.  All the ideals and hopes she treasured from her books and her past are only kept alive by her new friendships with a clever servant girl and her intellectual tutor, Jed.

When Ella finally understands the extent of her mistake and the restrained course her life is headed toward, she must fight her despair, her fears, her painful memories of her beloved father, and her inward confusion.  She must decide to once again take her destiny into her own hands and choose what future she wants—to either be the unhappy prisoner of an idiotic man for the rest of her life, or a scholar and the independent woman she is meant to be. 

Just Ella is truly a unique visualization of Cinderella because its author included so many ideas and themes in the same story, connecting them to create the scintillating expression of a very interesting and well developed character like Ella.  The meaningless war between Fridesia and the neighboring kingdom of Suala is another way that Haddix brings war's futility and the value of a single human life to the foreground of Just Ella together with the issues of servitude, class division, prejudice, superficiality, and independence to the foreground.

I like the way society's preoccupation with outward appearances is contrasted with Ella's analysis and commentary on how concern for inward appearances is seriously needed by people instead. Along with the many surprises and twists in the storyline, there are also many human stereotypes to be found among the story's characters, especially in the royal household of Fridesia and Ella's family.  Haddix demonstrates the step-by-step process of how a simple story could be transformed into a fantastical fairy tale without any facts.  The "history" of Cinderella, her nickname, and her family relationships are all taken into account in Just Ella in place of magic.  In fact, the author substitutes the magical elements in the plot with serious topics and discussions about marriage, love, religion, faith, and propriety.

Just Ella is an amazing novel and is certainly on my list of favorites.  Although the book contains serious content worthy of contemplation, Haddix presents her material in an informative and humorous manner.  I became thoroughly involved in Ella's personal journey, her love for literature, her resolve, and her underlying quest for finding happiness.  Ella's past, present, and future expand a thrilling adventure and stimulating first-person narrative that is greater in scope and details than its predecessor.  Comprehensive and still romantic, Just Ella is the extraordinary result of how a writer re-envisioned a know story like Cinderella with pragmatism.

Market: Young Adult
Language: Mild
Sensuality: Mild
Violence: Mild
Mature Themes: identity, relationships, death, war, marriage, prejudice, servitude

Book formats:

To learn more about the author, visit: Margaret Peterson Haddix

March 26, 2011

THE BOOK OF LOST TALES by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1983

The Book of Lost Tales 1(The History of Middle-Earth, Vol. 1)THE BOOK OF LOST TALES, I, stands at the beginning of the entire conception of Middle-earth and Valinor. Here is the whole, glorious history of Middle-earth that J.R.R. Tolkien brought to mythic and dramatic life with his classic fantasy novels of the Ring Cycle . . . [The] second part of THE BOOK OF LOST TALES includes the tale of Beneren and Luthien, Turin and the Dragon, Necklace of the Dwarves, and the Fall of Gondolin. Each tale is followed by a commentary in the form of a short essay, together with the texts of associated poems, as well as information on names and vocabulary in the earliest Elvish languages. (Amazon)

A companion post for the review of THE HOBBIT:

Review by Emily, bibliophile and high school student

For anyone who has ever wondered how much back-story Tolkien put into "The Lord of the Rings", the answer is in this book: A lot!

Basically, The Book of Lost Tales is split into volumes, otherwise it would be a veritable tome. In it is contained most of Tolkien's mythology of how Middle Earth came to be created. He details how the sun and the moon came to be, and the rise and fall of Numenor, and just about everything else that anyone could possibly have questions about after reading The Lord of the Rings. I particularly liked his explanation of what Gandalf and his fellow wizards are, what their purpose was, and how they got to Middle Earth. His lyrical language makes the tales quite vividly clear in my head as I read, and I love the beautiful landscapes he paints with his vast palette of words. His attention to the details is clearly evident throughout the various stories.

I was absolutely fascinated by these stories, and they remain some of my favorites to read on rainy days.
Market: Adult fiction

Language: None

Sensuality: Mild

Violence: Moderate

Mature Themes: Destruction, death

Book formats:

March 25, 2011

THE HOBBIT, by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1937

The Hobbit: 70th Anniversary EditionBilbo Baggins, the hobbit, is a peaceful sort of cozy hole in the Shire, a place where adventures are uncommon and rather unwanted. So when the wizard Gandalf whisks him away on a treasure hunting expedition with a troop of rowdy dwarves, he's not entirely thrilled. Encountering ruthless trolls, beastly orcs, gigantic spiders, and hungry wolves, Bilbo discovers within himself astonishing strength and courage. (Amazon)

Review by Laura Madsen, mom, veterinarian and writer

THE HOBBIT is one of those marvelous stories you can read over and over. If you’ve gotten bogged down trying to read other pieces by Tolkien, like THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy or THE SILMARILLION, don’t despair—HOBBIT is written with a lighter tone and is easy to read.

HOBBIT begins with one of the best opening paragraphs in modern literature:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

I want to be a hobbit—wouldn’t it be great to spend every day cozily reading books and eating?

Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit. One night a flock of dwarves arrive unexpectedly at his hobbit-hole to convince him to join them on a quest to recover a cache of treasure guarded by Smaug the dragon. Bilbo reluctantly agrees and they set off. After encounters with hungry trolls, giant spiders, goblins, and the creepy, treacherous, schizophrenic Gollum, they reach the dragon’s mountain. Clever Bilbo figures out how to enter the mountain and confronts the dragon with his wit. The scene between Bilbo and Smaug is brilliant.

First Bilbo flatters the dragon:
“Truly songs and tales fall utterly short of the reality, O Smaug the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities.”

Then he engages the dragon in a game of riddles:
“I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I was chosen for the lucky number.”

Then Bilbo tricks the dragon into showing its belly, revealing a critical weak spot:
“I have always understood,” said Bilbo is a frightened squeak, “that dragons were softer underneath, especially in the region of the—er—chest; but doubtless one so fortified has thought of that… Truly there can nowhere be found the equal of Lord Smaug the Impenetrable. What magnificence to possess a waistcoat of fine diamonds!”

Neither Bilbo nor the dwarves kill the dragon in the end; he is dispatched by a human who has been alerted to the weak spot on the belly. Bilbo and the dwarves pack up their treasure and return home. Bilbo spends the rest of his days reading and writing, eating and drinking, enjoying his wealth in his comfy hobbit-hole.

Market: Adult fiction (fantasy) although appropriate for teens and tweens
Sensuality: none
Violence: moderate
Language: none
Adult themes: scary creatures, thievery

Book formats:
70th Anniversary Special Edition

March 23, 2011

SHANGHAI GIRLS by Lisa See, 2009

Shanghai Girls: A NovelMay and Pearl, two sisters living in Shanghai in the mid-1930s, are beautiful, sophisticated, and well-educated, but their family is on the verge of bankruptcy. Hoping to improve their social standing, May and Pearl’s parents arrange for their daughters to marry “Gold Mountain men” who have come from Los Angeles to find brides. But when the sisters leave China and arrive at Angel’s Island (the Ellis Island of the West)--where they are detained, interrogated, and humiliated for months--they feel the harsh reality of leaving home. And when May discovers she’s pregnant the situation becomes even more desperate. The sisters make a pact that no one can ever know. (Amazon)

Reviewed by Kathleen Bossenbroek, High School English Teacher

Lisa See is also the author of Snowflower and the Secret Fan. I've never read that one, but hear it is good. The novel starts off in Shanghai right before the Japanese invade during WWII. The protagonist and her sister are spoiled in "the Paris of the East." Their father (you're not going to like this guy) changes their fates very quickly.

By the end of the novel, they are in California during the Red Scare. Not only did I enjoy the time period the book was set in, but the characters are so captivating. The dynamic between sisters definitely hit home.If you have a sister, you will understand what I mean. After you read it, let me know if you are a May or a Pearl. It also explores the dynamic between mothers and daughters. I truly enjoyed Shanghai Girls. Like Dr. Seuss says, "a person's a person, no matter how small," or what race or gender or socioeconomic status.

You have to read this book (with tissues nearby). 

Market: Adult Fiction
Language: Mild
Sensuality: Mild
Violence: Moderate to "Keep a Trash Can Nearby"
Mature Themes: death, abuse

Book formats:

To learn more about the author, visit: Lisa See

March 22, 2011

THE SHADOWS by Jacqueline West, 2010

The Shadows (The Books of Elsewhere, Vol. 1)When eleven-year-old Olive moves into the crumbling old mansion on Linden Street, she's right to think there's something weird about the place, especially the walls covered in creepy antique paintings. But when she finds a pair of old-fashioned glasses in a dusty drawer, she discovers the most peculiar thing yet -- She can travel inside these paintings to Elsewhere, a world that's strangely quiet . . . and eerily sinister. Olive soon finds that Elsewhere has secrets to hide--and the most annoying of them is Morton, a small boy with a big temper. As he and Olive form an uneasy alliance, Olive finds herself caught in a plan darker and more dangerous than she could have imagined, confronting a power that wants to be rid of her by any means necessary. It's up to her to save the house from the shadows, before the lights go out for good. (Amazon)

Review by Laura Madsen, mom, veterinarian and writer

THE SHADOWS, a middle-grade paranormal novel, opens with a great line: “Ms. McMartin was definitely dead.” The decedent leaves behind a huge old pile of a mansion, and as her nearest relative has just died in Shanghai of “a severe allergic reaction to a bowl of turtle and arsenic soup,” the house is put on the market. Mr. and Mrs. Dunwoody, a pair of university mathematicians, buy the house and move in with their eleven-year-old daughter, Olive. Olive’s parents are loving, but tend to consider her slow as she hasn’t inherited their mathematical genius.

Olive is largely left to her own devices and begins to explore the mansion. The house is full of spooky noises, dusty cobwebs, and creepy paintings. “Olive had never been anywhere—not even the doctor’s office, not even gym class—that made her feel so out of place, or so alone.” (The reference to feeling out of place in gym class resonates strongly with me!)

Paintings hang all through the house and Mrs. Dunwoody finds they are impossible to remove from the walls. Olive notices a flicker of movement in one painting, a sinister moonlit forest scene. Later, while playing in an upstairs bedroom for antique jewelry, lace and gloves, she finds a pair of old spectacles. She puts them on and all the paintings come alive: Grecian girls dancing, men mortaring a stone wall, a woman serving tea—and a scared child ducking for cover in the sinister forest.

Olive peers closer and closer at the canvas, and discovers that while wearing the enchanted spectacles she can push her way into the scene. After safety-testing with her teddy bear, she hops through the portal into the sinister moonlit forest. She locates the frightened child, a boy named Morton, who explains his fear of the Bad Man.

Olive continues to investigate the mysteries of the house: Who built it? Who is the Bad Man? Who created the living paintings? Where did Morton come from? What is buried in the creepy basement?

I won’t spoil the story by answering the questions, but suffice it to say that the story is enjoyable and should appeal to readers of middle-grade fantasies like HARRY POTTER, SEPTIMUS HEAP or LEVEN THUMPS. Ms. West writes with an authentic, entertaining voice.

THE SHADOWS is the first book in a new series, The Books of Elsewhere.

Market: Middle Grade (fantasy/ paranormal/ spooky)
Language: none
Sensuality: none
Violence: mild/moderate (creepy bad guys, witchcraft, graves in the basement)
Mature Themes: good vs. evil, witchcraft, betrayal

Book formats:

To learn more about the author, visit: Jacqueline West

March 20, 2011

HARMONIC FEEDBACK by Tara Kelly, 2010

Harmonic FeedbackSixteen-year-old, music- and sound design-obsessed Drea doesn’t have friends. She has, as she’s often reminded, issues. Drea’s mom and a rotating band of psychiatrists have settled on “a touch of Asperger’s.” Having just moved to the latest in a string of new towns, Drea meets two other outsiders. And Naomi and Justin seem to actually like Drea. The three of them form a band after an impromptu, Portishead-comparison-worthy jam after school. Justin swiftly challenges not only Drea’s preference for Poe over Black Lab but also her perceived inability to connect with another person. Justin, against all odds, may even like like Drea. It’s obvious that Drea can’t hide behind her sound equipment anymore. But just when she’s found not one but two true friends, can she stand to lose one of them? (Amazon)

Review by Alexa Barry

This book is as gorgeous on the inside as it is on the outside. 

Although Drea has Asperger and ADHD, it doesn't define her character and she was easy to relate too. Her voice is perfect, effortless and real, it caught me up from the first sentence.

Connecting with people and learning to be yourself, are two of the major themes of Harmonic Feedback and they’re handled brilliantly. Drea isn't the odd one out because she has aspergers, Naomi and Justin, have just as much trouble forming connections, they just hide it better. People learn to act normal, but we all have our strange quirks and ways of looking at the world and that’s presented here as a good thing, not something you should feel the need to hide, especially not from the people close to you.

The  interactions between the three feel so believable. I was rooting for all of them to find their place, find themselves, and find each other too. I loved Drea and Justin’s romance and I loved Drea and Naomi’s friendship just as much, it twisted my heart.

I loved moments like this with Naomi. They felt close and warm. If I could put this moment between us in a box, I’d hide it under the bed and take it out whenever I could. And I’d throw out the incident at the mall and Scott. I wished this was enough for her. I wished I was enough for her.

Drea’s Mom was perfect too, or rather she wasn't perfect, nor was she absent or evil. She was real, with issues of her own, she loves Drea and worries about her. I haven’t liked a mother/daughter relationship so much since Saving Francesca

Finally a note on the music because music plays a huge role in bringing Drea, Justin and Naomi together. I am fairly mainstream with the music I listen to (I need someone like Drea to make me a tape!) and I barely recognized any of the bands mentioned in Harmonic Feedback. What I did recognize was the transformative nature of music and how it can change your mood, change your life, Tara Kelly describes it beautiful.

Market: Young Adult
Language: Mild
Sensuality: Moderate
Violence: Mild
Mature Themes: Drugs, death, sex

Book formats:

To learn more about the author, visit: Tara Kelly

March 18, 2011

LEVIATHAN by Scott Westerfeld, 2009

LeviathanIt is the cusp of World War I, and all the European powers are arming up. The Austro-Hungarians and Germans have their Clankers, steam-driven iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition. The British Darwinists employ fabricated animals as their weaponry. The Leviathan is a living airship, the most formidable airbeast in the skies of Europe. Aleksandar Ferdinand, prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battle-torn Stormwalker and a loyal crew of men. Deryn Sharp is a commoner, a girl disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She's a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered. With the Great War brewing, Alek's and Deryn's paths cross in the most unexpected way - taking them both aboard the Leviathan on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure. One that will change both their lives forever.

Review by Jessica Day George, Middle Grade and Young Adult Author, and Bookshop Talk Host

Oh, wow.  I’m not a total steampunk junky.  I don’t belong to the Jules Verne Society, or anything that extreme.  But boy HOWDY is this book cool. 

Imagine if the forces of World War I were divided into Darwinists and Clankers, depending on if your army made use of mutated animals or steam-powered machinery.  No tanks or zeppelins are to be found here, but instead giant iron walking machines, and whales that float through the sky, filled with hydrogen. 

I loved the illustrations in this book, showing us what the walkers and airships looked like.  Westerfeld paid for the illustrations himself, because he wanted the book to really look like it had been written in the early 1900’s, when the illustrators of novels were often better known than the authors. 

It’s a beautifully written, beautifully illustrated book that gives us a wondrous look at a World War I that never was . . . but is so cool that you’ll wish it had been.  (If we must have a world war, at the very least we could have giant lion wolf hybrids pulling our carts!) Nor did Westerfeld stint on characterization or plot, relying on the illustrations to make up for any lack.  On the contrary, the characters are well done, and the plot is airtight.

I can’t wait to read the sequel, BEHEMOTH!

MARKET: Young Adult
LANGUAGE: mild/none

Book formats:

To learn more about the author, visit: Scott Westerfeld

To learn more about the reviewer and her fantasy novels, visit: Jessica Day George