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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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Narrow Dog to Wigan Pier by Terry Darlington

4star.jpg Travel

You might not realise, but there is a hierarchy in publishing of narrowboat travelogue trilogies. At the bottom is Shane Spall, mostly for the fact her and husband Timothy's boat isn't narrow, and partly for the fact she's only published the first volume. With three volumes under his belt, we have Steve Haywood, but top of the pile is Terry Darlington. One example of the proof of this is that Mr Haywood was front page news in the Leicester Mercury when he wrote them a letter about the graffiti near his mooring, while Mr Darlington trended number two on the BBC news sites when his boat burned down, such is the esteem he, his wife, his narrowboat and his narrow dog (Jim the whippet) is held in. Full review...

The Day You Saved My Life by Louise Candlish

4.5star.jpg Women's Fiction

Holly, in her early twenties, is a single mother who has had severe post-natal depression since the birth of her son Mikey. He is now a toddler, and they live with Holly's mum, Joanna. She has a somewhat sordid past of her own but has given everything to raising Holly in a loving environment; she has also had to do most of the caring for her small grandson. Full review...

Signs of Love: Stupid Cupid by Melody James

3.5star.jpg Confident Readers

Gemma is still stuck writing horoscopes for the school webzine instead of any real journalism – but that may be about to change, as she’s given the chance to work with an older student on an actual article. The only problem is, the older student is the seriously annoying Will – but putting up with him is a small price to pay for the chance to see her name in print. Of course, she’s already the star of the webzine in many ways – but her role as Jessica Jupiter is still top secret, so barely anyone else knows this. Can she use her column to sort out Savannah’s love dilemma in the same way she so successfully helped out Treacle in the last book? Full review...

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming

4star.jpg Confident Readers

You can't help envying Jeremy and Jemima Potts. Not only do their family own a magical car, but they have wonderful parents, too. Imagine the scene. Only this morning you found out that your car has features which definitely aren't standard on the average Range Rover or hatchback, and now you're in the middle of the English Channel, busy escaping a horrible death by drowning. Do your parents suddenly decide that seeing as you're halfway there, you might as well all go to France for a holiday, even though you don't have passports, clean socks or French money? Hmm. Thought not. Full review...

Friends by Michael Foreman

4.5star.jpg For Sharing

Cat is a cat and Bubble is a goldfish and as Cat points out at the start of this story, there are quite a few differences between them. The main one is that Cat is able to wander wild and free whereas Bubble is stuck in his tank and can only swim round and round or up and down. Because Bubble is his friend, Cat finds this quite upsetting; so much so, that he tells the reader:

...he just looks at me and sighs.
He is my friend. He breaks my heart. Full review...

Animal Antics by Neil Griffiths and Janette Louden

3star.jpg For Sharing

It's the run-up to World Sport Week. Thanks to a rules challenge (presumably by a lawyer bird), animals are to be admitted for the first time. With much flapping of wings and clattering of hooves, the animals proceed to turn this Olympics-esque event into a whitewash for the non-human competitors. Full review...

My Brother Simple by Marie-Aude Murail

5star.jpg Teens

Kleber is just starting his second year of sixth form in Paris and is looking for a flatshare. For most boys, this would be an exciting time, full of possibilities. But for Kleber, it's problematic. He comes as a twosome with Simple, his older brother. Simple has learning difficulties and the boys' father, just remarried, had packed him off to a residential centre. Simple hated it there and Kleber suspected the staff of neglect. Despite being just seventeen, he's decided to take his brother on. Full review...

Cursed: An Alex Verus Novel by Benedict Jacka

4.5star.jpg Fantasy

A beautiful enchantress steps through the door just as an evil construct beast hurtles through the window. Not an obtuse Chinese saying, but a typical day in the life of future-diviner and magic shop owner, Alex Verus. Add to this the benign magical animal that seems to have died mysteriously and unmarked and you begin to realise something's afoot. It's the sort of day that could only be made worse by the realisation that Alex's curse-soaked friend Luna has fallen in love with someone other than Alex and... yes, the downward spiral has just taken another turn. Full review...

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

4.5star.jpg General Fiction

In Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Billy and what is left of his Bravo troop colleagues are back from the war in Iraq following a brave firefight caught on camera by embedded journalists. The US army, keen to gain PR from the event has brought them back on an optimistically titled 'Victory Tour' despite the fact that they are all to be re-deployed the next week. The majority of the book takes place on the last day of this tour when Billy is in his home-state of Texas, where the Bush link makes it even more pro-war, as the boys are invited to attend that most American of PR events, the Thanksgiving football game at the Dallas Cowboys stadium. Accompanying the troop is a veteran Hollywood producer who has promised the soldiers that he can sell their story to a movie studio for mega-bucks. If only it were that simple. Full review...


The Year from Jahannam by Shams Uddin

3.5star.jpg General Fiction

The Wright family begin a blog in January 2011. They all want to celebrate a new start after the turmoil of recent years. Father Richard had been a casualty of the financial crisis, working for Lehman Brothers at the time of its collapse, and the ensuing chaos had affected the entire family one way or another. But Richard retrained, secured a new job and has recently earned a huge bonus. At last the family are back on track and enjoying the fruits of hard labour. Full review...

Strindberg's Star by Jan Wallentin

3.5star.jpg General Fiction

Just as he is preparing for an appearance on a television show, a stranger approaches Don Titelman and asks for his help. This man, Erik Hall, has recently discovered a mysterious body at the bottom of a flooded mine shaft. Whilst perfectly preserved, medical checks confirm the man had been dead for nearly a hundred years. The deceased apparently committed suicide whilst holding on to a metal ankh with some strange writings on it. Full review...

Farundell by L R Fredericks

3.5star.jpg Historical Fiction

American Paul Asher is damaged by memories and dreams originating from World War I, or at least he thinks that's where they're from. Once the war is over and, as he's estranged from his father in the US, Paul decides to remain in the UK to find work. Work comes to him as he's asked to assist Lord Percy Damory at Farundell, the Damory ancestral home. Paul's job is straightforward: Sir Percy needs someone to whom he can dictate memoirs of a well-travelled life among distant tribes. However Paul's life at Farundell will be anything but straightforward thanks to the Damorys' apparent eccentricities, an ancestor from the 18th century who refuses to be labelled as a ghost and, of course, there's Sylvie. Full review...

Fate by L R Fredericks

4.5star.jpg Historical Fiction

It's the 18th century and 11 year old Francis Damory is spoken to by great great grandfather, Tobias. Nothing odd except that Tobias is dead and speaks via a portrait in Farundell, the family's Oxfordshire home. Hence begins the obsession that will take the adult Sir Francis across the world and through a lifetime of adventures to track Tobias down. The longer Francis looks, the more he realises that Great Great Grandfather isn't dead and that, therefore, Francis wants whatever he's on. Full review...

When It Happens by Susane Colasanti

3star.jpg Teens

Sara and Tobey are both in their last year of high school. Sara is fairly straight-laced but is determined to reinvent herself and win over the hunky Dave. Tobey is a musically gifted slacker with a crush on Sara. Told from their alternating points of view, When It Happens is a contemporary romance featuring an older pair of characters than most teen books and I was really looking forward to seeing them juggle the stirrings of love with the problems of planning for their future. Full review...

Real Life: One Woman's Guide to Love, Men and Other Everyday Disasters by Melissa Kite

4star.jpg Autobiography

We're used to thinking about career women who have it all: the high-flyer who goes home to her husband, children and immaculate house to plan their next holiday and their social life. We might not know these people - but everything seems to tell us that they're there. What, though, of the single woman, no longer in the first flush of youth (that's probably nineteen, these days) who struggles just to keep going? What of the woman who struggles to keep the boiler going and who is tempted to kidnap the television repairman and tie him to the bed because she's convinced that the television will stop working the moment he goes? Full review...

Every Day, Every Hour by Natasa Dragnic and Liesl Schillinger (translator)

4.5star.jpg Literary Fiction

Dora and Luka meet and become firm friends. In normal situations one might add and a whole lot more to that sentence, but Dora and Luka are in Kindergarten, which makes their intense relationship hard to define. As they grow into adults, however, it becomes obvious that there is something between them and no matter how much they, or their circumstances, try to fight this it is there and is not going to fade away. Dora’s parents move her across the continent, careers develop and flourish, out of nowhere they are enveloped by family lives, but still there is an invisible bond that draws them back to one another. Full review...

Food Britannia by Andrew Webb

4star.jpg Cookery

I've always suspected that British food gained its dreadful reputation after the end of World War II. Rationing lasted for many years and the sort of food which you could buy in the average hotel or restaurant was pretty poor. An image like that sticks: we might have Stilton cheese, Scottish raspberries, Welsh lamb and a host of other wonderful foodstuffs but still we are thought of as the people who eat the food of a post-war boarding house. Andrew Webb is a food journalist and photographer - and he's set out to prove that there's a wealth of regional food, traditional recipes and passionate producers just waiting to be found. Full review...

The Vampire of Highgate by Asa Bailey

3.5star.jpg Teens

Kathy Bilic can barely remember the sister she was separated from when they were tiny. An ocean lies between them – she’s been adopted by an American couple and Amber is living in London. When she hears that Amber has gone missing, though, and receives a mysterious package, she flies to London to see if she can help to find her sister. Full review...

Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition by Eamon Duffy

4star.jpg History

In the introduction to this book Eamon Duffy, Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge History, points out that all too often historians have written about the English Reformation from strongly polarised views. Taking two extreme examples, he cites one which states that the people of England, formerly happy medieval Catholics, were forced by King Henry to abandon their religion, and England was never merry again, alongside another which speaks of the English being oppressed by corrupt churchmen until King Henry gave them the Protestant nation for which they longed. On the following page, he suggests that it had long been an axiom of historical writing that the success of the Reformation in England was an inevitable consequence of the dysfunction and unpopularity of late medieval Catholicism. Such remarks were evidently made by writers with an axe to grind. Full review...

Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach by Jean Sprackland

4.5star.jpg Travel

Sprackland is a poet, and a good one. At least I assume she's a good poet – I rarely read poetry these days. Her first collection was shortlisted for the Forward Prize, her second was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize and the Whitbread Poetry Award and her third won the 2007 Costa Poetry Award. Unless all of the panels harbour the same judges, that's a lot of people thinking this is someone special. Full review...

The Secrets Club: Alice in the Spotlight by Chris Higgins

4star.jpg Confident Readers

This is a cheerful, feel-good story which nonetheless manages to capture exactly that feeling of anxiety and self-doubt that people experience when going into a new situation. Moving to secondary school in particular is a huge change (which Alice's school does not seem to have managed as efficiently as many real-life schools do these days) and it's a time when even the most confident of children must wonder, in the depths of their hearts, if they will find new friends. Alice in particular is so used to being in the shadow of her loud, cheerful, pretty sister that she spends half the book fretting about whether the other three members of the Gang of Four really like her or not. After all, half the class seemed to fall asleep when she gave a talk about the environment, and even Lissa, Tash and Dani admit she did go on a bit. Full review...

Kicking the Hornets' Nest by Gerry Wells

4.5star.jpg Short Stories

WWII books about the RAF and the Navy are quite common. Books about Special Operations Executive and similar organisations proliferate. Stories about the army are fewer and try as I might I really couldn't think of one which was other than incidentally about tank crew, so when the opportunity came I had to read 'Kicking the Hornets' Nest' particularly as it's written by an author who crewed a Sherman tank in Operation Overlord, back in June 1944. I had just a couple of nagging doubts. It's a book of short stories. Would I find it easy to pick up - and out down again? The big worry was whether or not this was going to be a macho action story, which wouldn't really be my cup of tea at all. Full review...

Mesmerized by Alissa Walser and Jamie Bulloch (translator)

4star.jpg Historical Fiction

Celebrated scientist (at least in his own mind) Franz Anton Mesmer is called upon to cure the blindness of 18 year old piano virtuoso and courtier's daughter Marie Theresia Paradis. Despite the unease of her parents, Mesmer installs Marie into his 'magnetic hospital' where, alongside his other patients, she settles in to a regime of treatment, including free access to Mesmer's beloved piano. Mesmer is the Paradis' last resort and so they're happy to pay for success but they come to realise that the final cost may not be entirely financial and he realises that the result may not be beneficial to all parties. Full review...

The Secrets Between Us by Louise Douglas

5star.jpg Women's Fiction

Sarah and Alexander meet at a time when both are looking for a fresh start following the demise of their previous relationships. She is vulnerable, he is needy, and together they can support each other. Sarah is quickly employed as a live in housekeeper in his sprawling home, and moves south from Manchester to join Alex and his young son Jamie. Life in a small village takes some getting used to, especially given what has happened. Genevieve, Alex’s popular, pretty and wealthy wife, has disappeared. Some say of her own accord, others are sure something sinister has happened to her, but in any event she has not been heard from since she left town and the locals are suspicious of Sarah’s motives. In their eyes she is moving in on the man who rightly belongs to the town sweetheart, taking over the role of mothering Jamie, and generally weaselling her way in to become the lady of the house before Genevieve’s bed is even cold. Protestations that she is simply an employee, not a lover, fall on deaf ears, and with Genevieve’s family being the most prominent in town, it’s hard to get anyone to be on Sarah and Alexander’s side when accusations start flying. Full review...

City of Swords (Stravaganza) by Mary Hoffman

4star.jpg Teens

Laura's unhappiness is hidden away where no-one can see it. But she does have a release. She knows cutting herself is wrong, but the relief it provides is addictive. But Laura's secretive life is upturned by the discovery that she is a Stravagante - a person who can travel through time and space. Transported to sixteenth century Fortezza, she finds herself in the middle of a bitter battle for succession to the city's dukedom. The Stravaganti are supporting Princess Lucia but Laura also meets Ludo, the pretender, and is immediately drawn to him. And at home in Barnsbury, Laura's life is changing too, now she is a part of the time-travelling community. Full review...

A Stallion Called Midnight by Victoria Eveleigh

4.5star.jpg Confident Readers

Jenny lived on Lundy with her father who was a farmer on the south of the island. It was an idyllic life: everyone knew and helped everyone else and it was rather like living in a big extended family. This was important to Jenny as her mother had died in a cliff fall when she was just five. Jenny had a secret though. Wild ponies roamed freely on the island and the stallion, Midnight, was considered to be the wildest of them all, but he liked and trusted Jenny and allowed her to ride on his back. Midnight has a dreadful reputation and Jenny dreaded what would happen when she had to leave the island and go away to school. Full review...

Turf by John Lucas

4star.jpg Teens

Fifteen-year-old Jay is a member of the Blake Street Boyz gang. He and his best friend Milk spend their time selling drugs, marking their turf and dreaming about graduating from the gang's Youngers to its Olders. And in a world where something as insignificant as the choice of a chocolate bar can mean the difference between respect and contempt, it's not surprising that Jay treads very carefully. Every choice, no matter how small, is a statement. So when he is finally given the chance of joining the Olders, he can't afford to mess it up. But the task is murder. And suddenly there are no choices left... Full review...

Be a Happier Parent with NLP by Judy Bartkowiak

4star.jpg Home and Family

Babies, unlike new cars, don't come with a manual. There are always plenty of people, each with their own unique advice, happy to stick an oar in on whatever parenting issues you're facing, but I have often found as a mum that I'm left confused and floundering, wondering which piece of conflicting advice is least likely to permanently damage my little ones! I've watched Supernanny. I've read about how to have a contented baby. So seeing this book, with such a nice, positive title, I had to give it a go! Full review...

Dragon of Life Book 2 Minor Gods by Mark Devine

3.5star.jpg Women's Fiction

Luke and Martha have been apart for some time as Luke's been in Valparaiso where one of the hotels which he sold to a consortium of employees has been having problems. When they meet again it's in Seattle, but they're on their way to the Far East in the hope of starting a new life free from the attentions of the FBI which they so tired of in the first book in the series. They had perhaps hoped that life would be simpler - but this is Luke Whittaker we're talking about and 'simple' is just never going to happen. Full review...

The P K Pinkerton Mysteries: The Case of the Good-looking Corpse by Caroline Lawrence

5star.jpg Confident Readers

PK is a skilled tracker with a keen eye and an excellent sense of smell. But he does suffer from a few disadvantages. Firstly, his Thorn: he has trouble understanding the expressions he sees on people's faces. Secondly, his Foible: he gets what his foster-mother used to call the Mulligrubs, going into a trance and rocking back and forth when things upset him. Thirdly, his Secret, which he is at great pains to conceal from everyone. And lastly, his Eccentricity: he loves to collect things. In this, the second book in the series, he begins to collect different kinds of tobacco. Full review...

Take the Plunge by Timothy Radcliffe

4star.jpg Spirituality and Religion

There appears to be more Christian literature around than ever before at the moment. I don't know whether this is a response to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, which has meant that Christian writers and publishers have increased their outputs, or because I'm noticing it more. Timothy Radcliffe's Take the Plunge is taking a more or less opposite view to that of Dawkins, exploring the importance of baptism in everyday life and arguing that there is no aspect of life that cannot be touched if you are baptised and therefore living with faith. Full review...

Moon Crossing by Cathy Farr

4star.jpg Fantasy

Wil Calloway returns to Saran in the most unwelcome of circumstances. Tally, Lady Elanor's young sister, has been abducted by the evil Lord Rexmoore in an attempt to find the whereabouts of the Legacy. Tally doesn't know it, but that won't save her. So Wil has come to rejoin his Fellmen friends and mount a rescue mission. But it's not going to be easy. Gisella and Mortimer aren't talking. Seth is as accident-prone as ever. And Leon and his father are still deeply suspicious about Wil's part in Giles's death during the last Moon Chase. Full review...

The Village by Nikita Lalwani

4.5star.jpg Literary Fiction

A BBC film crew is sent to India to make a documentary about an Indian prison with a difference. There are no walls, the prisoners hold down jobs and their families live with them as a condition of acceptance. In fact, to all intents and purposes, it seems like an ordinary village which is all the more unusual when you consider that they all share the same crime category; all the prisoners have been convicted of murder. The programme makers (20-something British-born, Indian director Ray, ruthless producer Serena and ex-convict-turned-presenter, Nathan) are expecting an eventful shoot and, in return, the inhabitants are expecting a film unit exhibiting the standards for which the BBC has become world famous. Both parties will be sorely disappointed. Full review...

Strong Winds Trilogy: Ghosting Home by Julia Jones and Claudia Myatt

4.5star.jpg Confident Readers

We first met Donny Walker in The Salt-Stained Book as he and his mother Skye left their home on the outskirts of Leeds and headed off to the Suffolk coast. When his deaf-and-mute mother had a breakdown fourteen-year-old Donny was taken into care and the only good thing in his life was that he was introduced (almost accidentally) to sailing. He was a natural. The worst parts of his life were that he wasn't allowed to see his mother and no matter what he did he seemed to keep running foul of Social Services and a certain police inspector. Something was going on, but could Donny and his new friends work out what it was? And would his great Aunt, known as Golden Dragon, be able to help him when she arrived in her boat Strong Winds? Full review...

Defeating Hitler: Whitehall's Top Secret Report on Why Hitler Lost the War by Paul Winter

4star.jpg History

Just how and why did Hitler lose the Second World War? The message in Fatherland by Robert Harris is that he spent too much effort killing Jews to concentrate on anything else. Remarkably, this look at more explicit reasons for the end of the Third Reich barely mentions the Holocaust. What we have is Some Weaknesses in German Strategy and Organisation 1933-1945 - a document drawn up by what would now have to be called Whitehall Mandarins, written during a year of war and a year of peace, that itemises for those with enough security clearance just what Hitler's chain of command was, and what his thinking was for each theatre of the War. It was never Top Secret, but was classified for thirty years and has spent about as long waiting for this hardback version. Full review...

Eden Moore - Wings to the Kingdom by Cherie Priest

4.5star.jpg Crime

Dead soldiers from the American Civil War have been seen wandering around the Chickamauga National Park in Georgia, site of a notable Confederate victory in 1863. They don't speak, just point forlornly as locals turn and flee in the opposite direction. Eden Moore would rather ignore it completely, especially as show business psychics Tripp and Diana Marshall have already started investigating, complete with camera crew and full entourage. However, eventually her curiosity (and her friends' unstinting nagging) gets to her and she agrees to trespass after dark, quickly discovering that the gesticulating dead are a minor problem compared to the reason they've awoken. Full review...

The Blind Goddess by Anne Holt

3.5star.jpg Crime

Here is a rum do - a Nordic crime, and the launch episode of a currently successful series, that has sat untranslated for almost twenty years? What's more, when you start reading you may think the main character the author would choose to use as her principal heroine in future books should not be Hanne Wilhemsen, the too-good-to-be-true lipstick lesbian policewoman, but commercial lawyer Karen Borg, who is thrust into a world of criminal proceedings when a man who has clearly murdered another demands her and only her as the outlet of his truth. Is this a wise move from him - and just what is the game afoot, and who are the other main players? Full review...

Living, Thinking, Looking by Siri Hustvedt

4star.jpg Lifestyle

'Living, Thinking, Looking' is a collection of essays by Siri Hustvedt which, she claims, are linked by an abiding curiosity about what it means to be human. In these essays she examines who we are and how we got that way. Full review...

The Jelly That Wouldn't Wobble by Angela Mitchell and Sarah Horne

5star.jpg For Sharing

Everyone knows that jellies are supposed to wobble but what will happen when a particularly stubborn jelly refuses to do any such thing? To make matters worse, this is the jelly that has been specially prepared for Princess Lolly's 89th birthday party. As she is the sort of princess who likes to get her own way this poses a bit of a problem. So desperate is she for her jelly to wobble though, she offers a reward of a thousand and one chocolate sovereigns for anyone who can come up with a solution. Lots of suggestions are made including prodding it with a walking stick and scaring it. However, it is the youngest guest at the party who eventually comes up with an idea that works but I'll leave you to guess what it might be! Full review...

Hilary and David by Laura Solomon

3.5star.jpg General Fiction

Hilary, a single mother of two troublesome boys meets David, an elderly writer with problems of his own, through Facebook. It’s an odd beginning – they have a mutual friend, so one adds the other, and then they start chatting quite spontaneously – but sets the scene well for their atypical relationship. Hilary’s in New Zealand, David’s in London. They are many decades apart in age but are clearly both quite lonely and looking for someone to talk to. So, with the vague anonymity of social networking on their side, they reach out to one another. Full review...

The New Republic by Lionel Shriver

3star.jpg Literary Fiction

Lionel Shriver adds a beard-shaped appendage to Southern Portugal in The New Republic and immediately has it fighting for independence, taking a wry look at terrorism as well as the ethics of the international press corps. After a series of international terrorism acts, the Os Soldados Ousados De Barba, or the SOB for short, have gone quiet at the same time as charismatic journalist Barrington Sadler has vanished without a trace. Insecure former lawyer Edgar Kellogg steps into Barrington's post: Kellogg on the hunt for serial killers, as it were. Full review...