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.

January 25, 2016

NINTH WARD by Jewell Parker Rhodes, 2010

Twelve-year-old Lanesha lives in a tight-knit community in New Orleans' Ninth Ward. She doesn't have a fancy house like her uptown family or lots of friends like the other kids on her street. But what she does have is Mama Ya-Ya, her fiercely loving caretaker, wise in the ways of the world and able to predict the future. So when Mama Ya-Ya's visions show a powerful hurricane--Katrina--fast approaching, it's up to Lanesha to call upon the hope and strength Mama Ya-Ya has given her to help them both survive the storm. (Goodreads)

Reviewed by Julie, children's literature enthusiast and pop culture geek

I'm writing this review at the end of February, as Black History Month draws to a close.  Throughout the month, I've seen several lists and blog posts that feature wonderful children's books celebrating black history.  One book that has been wrongfully missing from these lists is NINTH WARD by Jewell Parker Rhodes.

NINTH WARD can be classified as historical fiction, although the history it presents may be recent in the minds of older readers.  The story takes place during the onset of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana's Ninth Ward.  Readers see the disaster through the eyes of the narrator, twelve-year-old Lanesha as she struggles to survive the flood.  Although Lanesha doesn't have much, she has her friend TaShon, her guardian Mama Ya Ya, and the ghostly apparition of her deceased mother to remind her of the strength she has.

Lanesha is one of my favorite recently-discovered characters.  She narrates her own story with beautiful, spare prose that sheds a light into her as a person: she loves math, vocabulary, and learning, and she hopes to be an architect one day.  Although she has an "uptown family" consisting of relatives that want nothing to do with her, she forms her own sense of community among her friends and guardians in Ninth Ward.  Her gift of sight, which allows her to see and speak with ghosts, gives her a special understanding of the place she was born into, including its rich past and current social and political problems.  Her voice is mature and interesting, and I enjoyed reading what felt like a very honest and balanced account of what life was like for young victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Although Black History Month is confined to February, it is important to continue reading about and celebrating these stories throughout the course of the year.  NINTH WARD is a gripping story of survival and hope featuring a fantastic main character, but it also provides an important glimpse into recent history, an event from which many people are still recovering.

Market: Middle grade/YA fiction
Violence: References to gang-related violence in protagonist's neighborhood.  One character is hurt by bullies.
Language: Mild insults, bullying language
Sensuality: None
Adult themes: Natural disasters, poverty, loss and grief

January 18, 2016

THE KISS OF A STRANGER by Sarah M. Eden, 2008

When Crispin, Lord Cavratt, thoroughly and scandalously kisses a serving woman in the garden of a country inn, he assumes the encounter will be of no consequence. But he couldn't be more mistaken, the maid is not only a lady of birth, she's the niece of a very large, exceptionally angry gentleman, who claims Crispin has compromised his niece beyond redemption. The dismayed young lord has no choice but to marry Miss Catherine Thorndale, who lacks both money and refinement and assumes all men are as vicious as her guardian uncle. (Goodreads) 

Reviewed by Brooke – Wife, Mother, Reader

This is a bit of a "Cinderella" story (my favorite by the way).  Catherine lives in a horrible situation.  She is a lady, but under the cruel rule of her uncle.  Crispin, a gentleman, kisses Catherine, thinking it harmless.  Crispin being the gentleman that he is, agrees to marry Catherine when her uncle insists.  The marriage saves Catherine from her situation with her uncle, but now she is married to a stranger.

THE KISS OF A STRANGER has a bad guy, a really good bad guy.  The Uncle fills this role well.  Crispin is a wonderful hero.  He has good morals.  He may at times not know what’s right, but he wants to be the true good guy.  Catherine is a damsel in distress.  Crispin saves her like the Prince saves Cinderella from the Wicked Stepmother.   Although Catherine is shy, she and Crispin have some really fun banter.  Catherine comes out of her shell when she is not under the rule of her uncle.  I like the dynamic between these two characters.  One of my favorite characters (besides the hero and heroine), is Crispin's sister, Lizzie.  She is a wonderful supporting character, loving and kind when Catherine needs a friend.  Another favorite minor character is Philip Jonquil.  He is such a good character that the author has written a book with him as the main character.  He is witty and adds humor to the book.

Sarah M. Eden writes lovely historical romances and I recommend her books if you like clean romance.

Market: Adult Clean Historical Fiction
Language: None
Sensuality: Mild, Kissing
Violence: None
Mature Themes: Mild, Bullying by Uncle

January 11, 2016

THE SCREAMING STAIRCASE by Jonathon Stroud, 2013

For more than fifty years, the country has been affected by a horrifying epidemic of ghosts. A number of Psychic Investigations Agencies have sprung up to destroy the dangerous apparitions. Lucy Carlyle, a talented young agent, arrives in London hoping for a notable career. Instead she finds herself joining the smallest, most ramshackle agency in the city, run by the charismatic Anthony Lockwood. When one of their cases goes horribly wrong, Lockwood & Co. have one last chance of redemption. Unfortunately this involves spending the night in one of the most haunted houses in England, and trying to escape alive. (Goodreads)

Reviewed by Valette M.

Lucy Carlyle makes a plucky and determined heroine -- she has to be to continue to face down ghosts night after night. She is adventurous, yet moderately levelheaded and makes a nice support of a team consisting of Lockwood (who prefers to charge in guns -- ahem -- rapiers blazing) and George, who's perhaps a little bit too reserved. The chemistry in the team was very entertaining, consisting of the rough bumps and snappishness of a family but also the fierce  loyalty and general camaraderie. They worked together well, almost mesmerizingly so in a battle scene. And yet they weren't infallible, and there were times when their age bled through, serving to put things in perspective and up the ante.

THE SCREAMING STAIRCASE starts out with quite a kick. The reader is thrown directly into the action with no info dump needed to get a hold of the dramatic and intricate, perhaps far more so than currently seen, world. Ghost hunting, though always carrying an intrinsic fear, was never so intense. The stakes upped. And then they upped again. And right when the plot was tying up, it didn't. So to those of you who've missed the feel of biting your nails, this one's for you. Though it could be considered a 'ghost' book, Jonathan Stroud has broken all the tropes of the genre to bring us a swashbuckling, plot-hole free narrative that just gets better and better.

The Bartimeaus Trilogy is one of my favorite series by far. The magic system and depth of the alternate history blew my mind. I can safely say that Lockwood and Co is well on its way to attaining the same. Again set in an alternate London, this time the people are coping with The Problem, a serious rash of hauntings. Reality melds smoothly with paranormal activity, in the newest book from Jonathan Stroud, and also the newest book on my favorites list.

Market: Young Adult
Language: Mild if any
Sensuality: None
Violence: Mild (Dismembering of ghosts, etc)
Mature Themes: The Spooky and the ethereal

January 4, 2016

LOVE, AUBREY by Suzanne LaFleur, 2009

A tragic accident has turned eleven-year-old Aubrey’s world upside down. Starting a new life all alone, Aubrey has everything she thinks she needs: SpaghettiOs and Sammy, her new pet fish. She cannot talk about what happened to her. Writing letters is the only thing that feels right to Aubrey, even if no one ever reads them. With the aid of her loving grandmother and new friends, Aubrey learns that she is not alone, and gradually, she finds the words to express feelings that once seemed impossible to describe. The healing powers of friendship, love, and memory help Aubrey take her first steps toward the future. (Goodreads)

Reviewed by Jaina, who spends most of her time reviewing books at Read Till Dawn

Gosh, I love LOVE, AUBREY so much. And oh, how it makes me cry! I have read many sad fictional books, from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (honestly, so many people die in that book!) to books about the Titanic and the last Romanovs, but most of them can't bring me to tears. They can make me really, really sad, it's true, but they can't make me actually cry. This book, though, gets the waterworks flowing in the first three chapters and never lets them stop. And this may sound miserable, but it's actually wonderful.

You see, this is a story of pain and grief and abandonment, but it's also the story of love and friendship and strength at the worst of times. It is the story of Aubrey, whose father and sister died in a car accident. Her mother was so incredibly consumed with grief she ran away from home a few months after the funeral, leaving Aubrey behind to take care of herself. The story is told in first person past tense, which worked well for the story by providing a compelling contrasts with the first person present flashback scenes in which Aubrey remembers life before the car accident. Instead of an info-dump at the beginning of the story we gradually find out the events of Aubrey's past as she is forced to remember them, which (you guessed it!) provides haunting snapshots throughout the story of how much Aubrey has lost.

The saddest parts of the narrative, however, are probably the letters Aubrey writes. At the beginning of the book she writes letters to her sister's imaginary friend Jilly as a way to sort of indirectly talk to a piece of her sister. As she begins to come to grips with everything that has happened to her, she starts to write more directly to her mother, father, and sister, telling them what she wishes she could say to them in person. She signs each letter "Love, Aubrey," which is the source of the title.

This is, without a doubt, one of my all-time favorite books. It's heart-wrenching, but it's also realistic and  heartwarming. Aubrey has had the unthinkable happen to her family, and she responds the way any real person would - through denial, through tears, and through shutting down at any reminder of what has happened. But as the story goes along, she learns to cope and to forgive and to live her new life with her grandmother and best friend/neighbor Bridget.

This is an amazing book, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. But please, know what you are getting into. This is not a light or easy read, and if you don't want to read a book that will make you cry, then don't pick this one up. But know that it does not just toy with the emotions: it is sad because terrible, tragic things happen in life, and sometimes you have to cry about them.

Market: Middle Grade
Language: None
Sensuality: None
Violence: Mild/Moderate (Aubrey has flashbacks to the car accident that killed her father and sister)
Mature Themes: Dealing with the realities of death and parental abandonment