The Bookbag

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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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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K Massie

4.5star.jpg Biography

Already known for major biographies of Nicholas and Alexandra, and of Peter the Great, Massie has now written an equally full and absorbing life of the late eighteenth-century reigning Empress. Full review...

An Inventory of Heaven by Jane Feaver

4star.jpg General Fiction

Mavis Gaunt was evacuated to Shipleigh in Devon during World War II and went to live with her aunt. It wasn't just an escape from the dangers of London - it was a welcome relief from her parents' loveless marriage and in her mind it became a heavenly retreat. In her twenties and with her mother dead there was nothing to keep her in London so she headed back to Shipleigh. She struck up an unlikely friendship with Frances Upcott, one of three children of a reclusive farmer and, almost against her will, found herself drawn into the life of the farm. It gave her a sense of belonging but it ended in tragedy. Full review...

Spy for the Queen of Scots by Theresa Breslin

4star.jpg Teens

Jenny is not only a lady-in-waiting to Mary, Queen of Scots; she's also one of her oldest and closest friends, brought up with her at the French court during Mary's long betrothal to the Dauphin. Jenny is fiercely loyal to Mary and so, when she overhears a whispered conversation about poison, she decides to turn spy for her queen. The French court is full of plotting and spying but, when Mary returns to Scotland after her young husband dies, Jenny discovers the warring clans of Scotland present her mistress with even more danger. Full review...

Lay the Favourite: A True Story about Playing to Win in the Gambling Underworld by Beth Raymer

4.5star.jpg Autobiography

It was a dream which brought Beth Raymer to Las Vegas, but the reality was that she ended up waiting tables in a low-end diner and living in a distinctly unsavoury motel. A chance meeting brought her into contact with Dink, the self-styled king of the city's sports betting and she moved into what was very much a man's world - of high-stakes gambling and a lot of people you wouldn't necessarily want your daughter to know. This is the story of how Beth learned the trade and moved into the world of the big money where gambling regulations don't apply. Being sharp was what it was all about. Full review...

My Friend Nigel by Jo Hodgkinson

4.5star.jpg For Sharing

Billy is a bit fed up of his parents constantly practising their magic especially when most of their spells go wrong. He is a little curious about all of their strange assortment of ingredients though:

Jellied bugs and pickled flies,
Bubbling potions,
Lizard tails,

And what was this?
A little snail? Full review...

The Games by Ted Kosmatka

4.5star.jpg Science Fiction

It's the near future and the Olympics go on, but not without changes. A new event has been added to those that we'd recognise: genetically engineered gladiatorial combat. This is no holds barred competition, with one rule: each country's gladiator must be devoid of any human DNA. Indeed, America is so good that their team has won all the last three games' golds, thanks to geneticist Dr Silas Williams, but this year is different. This year he has nothing to do with the design; someone sent a single design criterion to an experimental intelligence computer. (You just know that was a bad idea day don't you?) The design criteria is just one sentence, just words, but words can be misunderstood and misunderstanding can be devastating for more than just genetically manufactured gladiators. Full review...

The Seamstress by Maria Duenas

4star.jpg Historical Fiction

Raised in Spain by her mother and unaware of her father's identity, Sira moves to Morocco following her true love, only to be left stranded and alone. However, there's a kind-hearted, rough diamond of a local who, via unorthodox and downright dangerous means, pushes Sira towards reliance on the one thing she's brought from Spain: her gift with the sewing needle. This propels her into a business serving the cream of Moroccan ex-pat society, and that includes Nazi officers' wives and mistresses; a clientele that has possibilities that certain powers seem very happy to utilise. Full review...

Blackout by Mira Grant

5star.jpg Horror

The last thing Georgia Mason remembers is her brother Shaun putting a bullet in the base of her neck. So how come she's alive and kicking and locked in some CDC facility somewhere? Full review...

The Outcast Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

4star.jpg Fantasy

After defeating the armies that threatened Venice single handedly, the newly knighted Sir Tycho finds himself with status, wealth and the subject of much interest to the Venetian citizens. But all Tycho really wants is Lady Giulietta, niece of the city's steward. Giulietta, grieving her dead husband, is desperate to escape the backstabbing, poisonous world of the Venetian court, and isn't in the mood for Tycho's clumsy attempts to woo her. Full review...

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again by Frank Cottrell Boyce

5star.jpg Confident Readers

The Tootings are in many ways a typical modern family. Dad has loads of great ideas, and Mum thinks through the practical side. Lucy loves dark, brooding tragedy (as long as it's not happening to her), brother Jem (please don't call him Jeremy) enjoys helping Dad mend things, and Little Harry—well, he just keeps wandering off. They think Dad's idea about setting off to see Paris and the pyramids (plus a dinosaur or two for Little Harry, if possible) is just plain ridiculous. Full review...

Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis

3.5star.jpg Literary Fiction

Martin Amis can be relied upon to create some pretty nasty, self-centred central characters. Usually they are upper class cads and bounders but in Lionel Asbo his central character is at the polar opposite in terms of class. He's violent, uncouth and ignorant. He's a criminal whose usual sidekicks are a pair of vicious pit bulls. His 'manner' is a fictitious down trodden area of London called Diston Town where he lives in a tower block with his nephew, Des, who in fact is the central character in the book. Des, in contrast is far more sympathetic - intelligent and kind, that is if you overlook the fact that as a 15 year old he had an affair with his grandmother, Lionel's mother. Hey, no one's perfect. Full review...

Existence by David Brin

4star.jpg Science Fiction

We are a few decades further into the 21st Century at the start of this sci-fi novel. The world is buckling under climate change, and over-population. Those with enough funds are completely wired into a virtual world, but wherever they live out their existence things are going to be changed, when a space-based labourer, clearing space junk from orbit, finds an alien artifact containing contact with various races in a sort of memory bank cum virtual reality. Where are the aliens that had previously been so silent while we sought for them with our Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence? What is the purpose and message behind this capsule? And who can be sure that this alleged First Contact was actually the first? Full review...

Criminal by Karin Slaughter

4star.jpg Crime

The apartment in Atlanta was particularly sordid but made horrifying by the brutally-murdered body of a woman. Special agent Will Trent is almost involved in the investigation but his boss Amanda Wagner seems determined to keep him at arm's length. The murder brings back memories for Wagner of a murder in the city more than thirty five years ago - before Will was born - but Trent receives some disturbing news which has him going back to the children's home where he grew up. How does it all fit together? Full review...


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...