The Bookbag

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The Bookbag

Hello from The Bookbag, a book review site, featuring books from all the many walks of literary life - fiction, biography, crime, cookery and anything else that takes our fancy. At Bookbag Towers the bookbag sits at the side of the desk. It's the bag we take to the library and the bookshop. Sometimes it holds the latest releases, but at other times there'll be old favourites, books for the children, books for the home. They're sometimes our own books or books from the local library. They're often books sent to us by publishers and we promise to tell you exactly what we think about them. You might not want to read through a full review, so we'll give you a quick review which summarises what we felt about the book and tells you whether or not we think you should buy or borrow it. There are also lots of author interviews, and all sorts of top tens - all of which you can find on our features page. If you're stuck for something to read, check out the recommendations page.

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The Shop Girls by Elee Seymour

4star.jpg History

Heyworth's Department Store.

The chances are, you have never heard of it before. I know that I hadn't, before I picked up this book. And yet, there was a time, not so long ago, when everyone in Cambridge would have been familiar with Heyworth's, even if they couldn't afford to shop there themselves. Smaller than most department stores, it offered high-end fashion, childrenswear and millinery, with a staff of smiling, smartly-dressed sales assistants ready to cater to the customer's every whim. It seems sad that with the passing of generations, the very existence of the store seems to have slipped away from the collective consciousness; ask most people in Cambridge if they remember Heyworth's and the majority response would be negative. Full review...

Ghosts of Manhattan by George Mann

4star.jpg General Fiction

New York City - 1926.

A world not quite as we know it. America is locked into a cold war with the British Empire, cars are coal powered and prohibition is still in place across New York. A series of horrific murders are committed throughout the city, and the overworked police force are already overworked dealing with the gangsters and criminals that fill the city.

What is needed, is a hero. And that hero is...The Ghost Full review...

The Rising by Tom Moorhouse

4.5star.jpg Confident Readers

Strife and Kale are two young water voles who can sniff out trouble better than their careful sister Ivy and to the fury of their protective mother, Aven. They just can't help it. But Kale isn't telling Strife everything - he has a secret. When long-lost Uncle Sylvan arrives warning of danger and the siblings eavesdrop on the adults' conversation, Kale's secret is exposed. Even though she doesn't fully understand it, Strife follows her brother into danger to avert a bigger danger. The quest on which these two young water voles embark will test them to their limits and they'll need all the help Uncle Sylvan and Fodur the rat can provide... Full review...

Wolf Brother: Chronicles of Ancient Darkness by Michelle Paver

5star.jpg Confident Readers

Living six thousand years ago, after the Ice Age but before the spread of agriculture, Torak and his people understand the natural world. They revere the animals they hunt and never waste an ounce of prey. A deer provides them not only with food, but also with clothes, water carriers, shoes, rope, even needles. Torak and his people also understand spirituality. They see the sacred in the seasons and the cycle of the moon. And they believe in demons. Full review...

On Sudden Hill by Linda Sarah and Benji Davies (Illustrator)

5star.jpg For Sharing

Birt and Etho are best friends. They spend hours together playing on Sudden Hill. Usually they play with large cardboard boxes imagining that they are pirates, or soldiers or maybe kings but always they are the best of friends. Then one day another little boy, Shu, brings his box to Sudden Hill and asks if he can play too. The three boys sit in their boxes together and imagine that they are dragon slayers or skyscraper dancers but Birt feels strange. He misses the two-by-two rhythm he had shared with Etho. Can the boys make a friendship of two become three? Full review...

Wreaking by James Scudamore

4star.jpg Literary Fiction

A derelict mental hospital, gloomy railway arches, the bleak countryside of the English coast. It all comes at us in grey flashes. If Wreaking was a film, it would saturated with cool tones. It’s an easy novel to visualise: Scudamore’s spare, elegant style creates an almost palpable atmosphere. Full review...

Victoria: A Life by A N Wilson

4.5star.jpg Biography

Every few years, it seems, we are presented with another generously-sized biography of Queen Victoria. How many times can another author follow Elizabeth Longford, Stanley Weintraub, or Christopher Hibbert to name but three, produce 500 pages or more and still say something new about her? Can the blurb’s claim that this shows us the sovereign ‘as she’s never been seen before’ really be justified? Fortunately it can, for even more than a century after her death, there is still new material from previously unseen sources to add to what we already know about her. Full review...

Summers of Discontent by Raymond Tallis and Julian Spalding

5star.jpg Art

Raymond Tallis is what some people may refer to as a Renaissance Man. He is a doctor (specifically, a neurologist), a philosopher, a poet and a cultural critic. Summers of Discontent: The Purpose of the Arts Today is a collection of excerpts from Tallis’s numerous other works, extracted and collated by Julian Spalding – curator and Tallis’ contemporary. It’s a testament to the free-flowing, all-encompassing way in which Tallis writes that these excerpts sit next to each other seamlessly; they feel like one complete discussion, which is an achievement in itself. Full review...

Found by Harlan Coben

4star.jpg Teens

It's been eight months since Mickey watched his father die in a car accident. Since then, he's been drawn into the work of the mysterious Abeona Shelter, rescuing children and young people from dangerous situations. The latest person to go missing is Ema's online boyfriend. Mickey isn't convinced he exists, but Ema's adamant they need to look for him. Meanwhile, Mickey's nemesis Troy has been taken off the basketball team after failing a steroid test. Troy isn't exactly Mickey's favourite person, but he knows the team won't play so well without him, so when Troy asks Mickey for help to prove his innocence, Mickey reluctantly agrees. Full review...

Darkness, Darkness: Resnick's Last Case by John Harvey

5star.jpg Crime

It's difficult to believe that it's thirty years since the miners' strike, not least because a lot of the enmities still live on. It wasn't so much that it was the miners against the government and the police as the fact that it was neighbour against neighbour - and sometimes the problem was within a family. The Nottinghamshire miners were less militant than some of their northern counterparts - and many continued to work. And so it was in Bledwell Vale. The pit there was just about played out and was scheduled for closure, so many men were continuing to work, despite the picketing. Six months after the end of the strike the pit did close, but there was no magic solution for Bledwell Vale and thirty years on another row of the old Coal Board houses was being demolished when the skeleton of a woman was discovered. Full review...

The Lives of the Famous and the Infamous: Everything You Need To Know About Everyone Who Mattered by The Week

4.5star.jpg Biography

To describe a book as unputdownable is a pretty bold claim to make. Jeremy O'Grady, editor-in-chief of The Week does just that in the foreword to The Lives of the Famous and the Infamous, a collection of obituaries from the weekly magazine. Thankfully, his bold judgement is largely spot on.

For those unfamiliar, The Week collates the best offerings from print media outlets around the world, condenses them into smaller chunks, adds a little of its own commentary and creates a highly concise and entertaining look at the news. Full review...

Havana Sleeping by Martin Davies

4.5star.jpg Historical Fiction

Hector, a night watchman is murdered at work. There's nothing unusual about that – it happens all the time. The reason being that this is Havana halfway through the 19th century; a place of intrigue, political posturing (and worse) as pro- and anti-slavery conflicts cause bubbles under the surface of society. It's a place where an apparently lowly British civil servant like George Backhouse can be posted to influential positions. It's a place where the Americans don't trust the British, the British don't trust the Americans and everyone fears what the Spanish may do. Meanwhile a courtesan named Leonarda just wants to find out why the man she loved died. Full review...

Never too Small by Zanib Mian and Laura Ewing Ferrer

4star.jpg For Sharing

There was once a young boy who didn't try to do things because he felt that he was too small, but he was lucky. He had a good friend and that friend wrote him a letter to tell him that people are never too small, or too big, or too old to try something new. There was also a little girl and she was afraid of the dark. It was her brother who wrote her a letter to tell her that he would always be there for her. There was the boy who wouldn't try new things to eat, the young girl who was afraid of heights, a boy who was terrified about going to school and a girl who was frightened of spiders. They all had that special someone who took the time to write them the letter which gave them the confidence to overcome their fears. Full review...

The Complete Guide to Quilting Techniques: Essential Techniques and Step-by-Step Projects for Making Beautiful Quilts by Pauline Brown

5star.jpg Crafts

Quilting is a generic term covering patchwork, quilting itself and appliqué. All three require different skills and you'll find them all covered to a greater or lesser extent in this gorgeous book. There's an introduction covering the origin of the skills - patchwork developing amongst the pioneer women of early America for whom it was an essential way of keeping their families warm, as did quilting and for much the same reason. Appliqué is rather more decorative and luxurious and the original appliqué quilts were made to commemorate special occasions. Don't think that quilting is a craft mired in the past though - over my lifetime I've seen numerous developments and tried many of them for myself. Full review...

A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman

4.5star.jpg General Fiction

On the day that Slava's Russian Jewish grandmother is buried in their new homeland of the US, a letter arrives from the German Conference on Material Claims Against Germany offering her financial restitution for her war years spent in a concentration camp. All she would have needed to do would be to write a letter about her whereabouts and experiences during World War II. It's too late for her but Slava's granddad wants Slava to complete the form in his grandfather's name instead. The fact that Slava's granddad was never in a German concentration camp is immaterial; surely Slava could write something? He's a journalist after all and his granddad did suffer during the war; every Jew in Minsk suffered. This put's Slava's filial devotion to the test but little does he know it's only the beginning. Full review...

The Brethren (Fortunes of France) by Robert Merle and T Jefferson Kline (translator)

5star.jpg Historical Fiction

After fighting for France for most of their adulthoods, the two Jeans, de Siorac and de Saveterre (nicknamed 'The Brethren') take over the chateau and settlement at Mespech in the Perigore region of France. There the newly founded community flourishes as people like Jonas the stone-cutter move in, signalling growth. De Siorac does his bit by producing a family. However this is the 16th century and conflict is never far away. Nationally France is threatened by Spain and England but it's also a threat to itself as brother fights brother – Catholic versus Huguenot. Indeed, the Brethren live in fear of the consequences of their own Huguenot faith although de Siorac doesn't make life easy for himself – his wife Isabelle is Catholic. His personal battles reflect those of the country and have effects that, for him, are just as critical. Full review...

Firelight by Kristen Callihan

3.5star.jpg Paranormal

Lord Benjamin Archer is a man feared throughout London. Dark and brooding, he hides behind a mask, scared of revealing the disfigurement that has had him searching across the world for a cure. Seeking companionship, he weds Miranda Ellis, a young woman from a family reduced to poverty. As Miranda and Benjamin come to know and love each other, secrets are revealed that could destroy not just the relationship, but both of them. Full review...

The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse

5star.jpg Historical Fiction

Connie is the daughter of once renowned taxidermist Crowley Gifford. Times have changed though. Crowley may once have been famous with his own museum proudly exhibiting intricately prepared bird and animal tableaux but he's now addled by alcohol and deep melancholy, leaving Connie to continue the art in much reduced circumstances. A decade before Connie (then aged 10) had an accident that robbed her of her memory. The past refuses to stay hidden though, returning with a vengeance and explaining the shell that Crowley has become. 'A vengeance' isn't a throwaway choice of words either – its return will upturn all that Connie has believed and even threaten her life and the lives of all those whom she holds dear. Full review...

No Stone Unturned by Helen Watts

4.5star.jpg Teens

Kelly doesn't have any friends at school. People don't like travellers. So she's glad to find a new friend in Ben over the summer holidays. Even Kelly's dog, Tyson, likes Ben. Exploring the disused quarries local to their village of Wilmcote, they find some interesting treasures, including an old boot. So when school starts again and Mr Walker sets a local history project, Kelly decides to find out more about the old quarries, the coming of the railway and the use of Wilmcote limestone in the construction of the Houses of Parliament. Ben offers to help and soon the pair uncover worrying evidence about what really went on all that time ago... Full review...

The Neon Colouring Book by Richard Merritt, Amanda Hillier and Felicity French

4.5star.jpg Crafts

Half a century ago I trained to be a teacher. My tutors were adamant that children should not be allowed to colour in any outline which they had not drawn themselves. It 'stifled their creativity' you see, but took no account of the pencil control which it gave, or, indeed, the pleasure of creating something individual - because everyone colours differently. Times have (fortunately) changed and colouring books to delight adults and children are now all the rage and yesterday I took an idle look at one, equipped with some felt-tipped pens and a few crayons left behind when my daughter departed. Half an hour, I thought. Just half an hour. That's all. Full review...

J by Howard Jacobson

3.5star.jpg Literary Fiction

J marks an unusual turn for Howard Jacobson. Though it seems at times like a skewed folk tale, it also bears the subtle signs of a future dystopia. It has some of Jacobson's trademark elements – odd names, humorous metaphors, and Semitic references – but felt to me like a strange departure after The Finkler Question and Zoo Time. Full review...

Lockwood and Co: The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud

5star.jpg Confident Readers

No one knows why ghosts have begun rising in such overwhelming numbers, threatening a terrible death to anyone they touch, and the fact that only children and young people can see them just makes everything that bit more mysterious. And it's no exaggeration to say that the members of the smallest and shabbiest psychic detection agency in Britain have their hands full in this, their second adventure. Their recent successes have brought in plenty of work, but also jealousy: their rivals from the well-funded Fittes Agency are determined not only to make them fail, but to make them look as stupid and incompetent as possible in the process. Full review...

Lock In by John Scalzi

4.5star.jpg Science Fiction

The Hayden disease started off looking like the common flu, but when people fell into comas and did not come out again we realised this was something very different. Twenty years later and society has moved on, with millions of Americans locked into their bodies a new culture has developed; one of coma patients being able to control androids or other people. So when a murder happens is it the body, or the mind that inhabits the body that is at fault? It is up to FBI agents Chris Shane and Leslie Vann to discover. Full review...

In the Country by David Gentleman

5star.jpg Art

I had no intention of reading In The Country. I opened it simply to see what it was like, but by the time that I shut it again I was nearly halfway through and I had no intention of giving the book to anyone else. Now in his eighties David Gentleman is well known as watercolourist, specialising in landscapes. He's based in London but also has a home in Suffolk in the village of Huntingfield and it's this house, the village and the surrounding area which is the location for In The Country. Full review...

Strong Winds Trilogy: The Salt-Stained Book by Julia Jones and Claudia Myatt

5star.jpg Confident Readers

Donny and his mother left their bungalow on the outskirts of Leeds and headed off to Suffolk to meet Donny's great aunt. It was never going to be easy as Skye, Donny's mother, was deaf and just about mute. She and Donny communicated by signing and usually they managed quite well, but when Skye had a breakdown in a car park in Colchester, their camper van was towed away and fourteen-year-old Donny was taken into care. He couldn't understand why none of the officials would believe him – in fact, were they all that they seemed? And why will no one let him see his mother? Full review...

Bing: Make Music by Ted Dewan

3.5star.jpg For Sharing

Round the corner, Not far away… These are the words I hear in my living room most afternoons followed by 6 minutes and 30 seconds of silence from my boy. I could take advantage and get on with some urgent tasks but, truth be told, I’m happy to snuggle up and drink in the rich artwork that is Bing Bunny brought to life on CBeebies. Unusually, Bing on the box was born out of Bing the book. Also, unusually, my local library have no Bing books so Bing: Make Music was my first experience of the Bingster (as he is known to his fans) confined to paper. There on the first page, just like on CBeebies, were the magic opening words followed by… Bing’s been bongo- ing all day. Full review...

Princess Disgrace 2: Second Term at Tall Towers by Lou Kuenzler

5star.jpg Confident Readers

Princess Grace is starting her second term at the prestigious Tall Towers academy and the class are preparing for the annual Ballet of the Flowers. Each class member must select a native flower from the island and perform a dance, representing the qualities of their chosen flower. The princesses select the most delicate and beautiful blooms, including water lily, poppy and crocus. But how on earth is Grace, the clumsiest, scruffiest and most unladylike of all the princesses, to choose a flower that reflects her personality? Full review...

It's Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Cliches by Orin Hargraves

4star.jpg Reference

I don't usually start a review by telling you what a book isn't, but in this case it's important. This isn't a light-hearted look at the subject, such as we found in Cliches: Avoid Them Like the Plague by Nigel Fountain and which - laughing and blushing in equal measure - we shelved under 'trivia'. This book will be shelved under 'reference': it's a rigorous look at the problem with the clichés divided not by subject matter, but grammatically and with an introduction to each section which gives all the information you need to help in making judgements about your own writing. This isn't a book to amuse you, but to help you to improve your use of words. Full review...

The Soldier's Daughter by Rosie Goodwin

3.5star.jpg Historical Fiction

Briony Valentine lives a contented life with her mum, dad and younger siblings in a close-knit community in Nuneaton. She doesn't have much to worry about, other than the fact that she and her best friend both have a crush on the same boy, Ernie. However, the clouds of war are gathering and threaten to turn Briony's peaceful world upside down. Dad and Ernie enlist in the army and Briony has her own war to fight when she and her siblings are evacuated to Cornwall to stay with their stern Grandmother. The black sheep of the family, the unsavoury uncle Seb, clearly wants Briony out of his way, but how far will he go to make sure that she does not interfere with his sinister plans? Full review...