What’s new on the bookshelves

Some of the books which may be finding their way into Christmas stockings this year
Some of the books which may be finding their way into Christmas stockings this year

Need a last-minute Christmas present? Try this great selection of non-fiction books.

When It’s A Jar by Tom Holt (£8.99, ebook £3.59).

Unlikely hero Maurice Katz is a serial underachiever who wakes up one morning to find a dragon in his bedroom.

In a fit of outraged disbelief, he kills the beast with a bread knife – setting him off on a quest to rescue his (arguably) ‘One True Love’, best friend and army officer Stephanie.

Pulled along with destiny like a modern Arthur Dent, Katz’s future involves a scientist trapped in a different multiverse, a megalomaniac techno-tsar who dreams of being the richest man in any world and a most unusual new job as a junior admin assistant. Oh, and paying the rent.

Holt’s work, while favourably compared with Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, is firmly set in the present and blends the modern world with mythological and legendary narrative tropes – dusted liberally with dry humour and the ability to take a turn of phrase very literally.

It’s chortlingly good fun.

The Dogs Of Littlefield by Suzanne Berne (£14.99, ebook £8.99).

The latest novel by Orange Prize award winner Suzanne Berne is set in Littlefield, Massachusetts, named one of the 10 best places to live in America.

It seems like the perfect place; neighbourly, with leafy streets and a quaint village centre.

But all is not as it seems – the use of the park has caused fractures between the dog owners and the rest of the community worrying about dogs being let off the leash and how they behave.

There are also fears over coyotes coming into town, and all these fears come to a head when a dog is found poisoned.

Into this troubled community comes an anthropologist wanting to learn what makes Littlefield a place for a better quality of life.

Berne treats the story almost like a jewel, slowly turning and revealing different facets, focusing on different characters but coming back to Margaret, who is middle-aged and feeling like her life is coming apart.

Her husband is unhappy, but neither of them can articulate their problems – even with the help of one of the town’s many psychiatrists.

Over the course of months, more dogs die, Margaret’s anxiety escalates and she alienates her teenage daughter.

The novel has a dreamy quality.

At first it seems as if it is a mystery novel, then a comedy of manners examining the difference between men and women in a sharp and revealing way.

It raises many questions about how to live, both in a small domestic way but also how best to bear the burdens that life throws in your path.

It is contemplative and a sensitive portrayal of how fear shapes the way we live.

The Late Scholar by Jill Paton Walsh (£19.99, ebook £7.47).

The unique characters of late crime author Dorothy L Sayers – Lord Peter Wimsey and his wife Harriet Vane – are resurrected for Walsh’s latest novel.

Having been made a Duke, Peter discovers he is also now Visitor of St Severin’s college, Oxford.

When a vote can’t be decided on between fellows – in this instance, over the potential sale of a valuable manuscript, possibly owned at one stage by King Alfred – the Visitor is called upon to help settle the dispute.

With half of the fellows in favour of keeping the manuscript, and half wanting to sell it for land they can sell on to solve their financial problems, they seem to have reached a deadlock.

That is, until fellows start having mysterious accidents and even dying, in circumstances curiously similar to those featured in Harriet’s crime novels.

This is a charming romp through Oxford, featuring some unforgettable characters – a novel to get lost in on a winter’s evening.

After Annie: A Novel by Michael Tucker (£10.99).

After Annie is the debut novel from actor Michael Tucker.

Set in the world of film and stage, the story centres on Herbie Aaron, a famous actor who loses his equally famous wife to cancer and must learn how to live on without her.

Naturally, with a whole host of actors, the characters are wonderfully melodramatic and entertaining, but the drama never feels overplayed or affected.

The author’s background means there is a sense of authenticity about working and living in that industry, and these sections of the book are the most engaging.

After Annie is a quick, enjoyable and easy read but, despite the subject matter, the story also lacks depth and complexity.

The foul-mouthed, borderline alcoholic Herbie is an endearing character, but the reader is never really given a sense of the deep devastation that comes with losing the love of your life and having to face life as a widower.

The Dark Angel by Dominique Sylvain (£18.99, ebook £11.15).

Dominique Sylvain’s thriller The Dark Angel has the usual twists and turns – and the obligatory dead body – expected of a crime novel.

But what sets this typical piece aside from the others is the sleuths out to unmask the killer.

Set in Parisian backdrop, beautifully described with vivid realism, a beautiful girl is found murdered and the clues lead in many directions.

Enter an unlikely detective partnership; Lola a bitter, wine-loving, jigsaw-addicted retired police commissioner and Ingrid, an American masseuse/striptease artist.

When the finger points at a restaurateur with a dark past it seems to Lola and Ingrid that the law has the wrong man.

The hunt for the real killer plays out alongside the story of the deceased’s lover, a thief with revenge on his mind.

Both plots work well together and the writing is superb, but it does miss a little pace to keep me really turning the pages.

Ghost Moth by Michele Forbes (£12.99, ebook £6.49).

Set in the backdrop of the Troubles, this emotionally-charged debut novel from the Belfast-born actress, Michele Forbes, doesn’t quite hit its mark.

Partly written in a dual narrative, we see two summers in the life of Katherine, the book’s tragic protagonist.

We endure the summer of 1949, the summer which was to have such a profound and disastrous effect on her life, and which hovers over her during the summer of 1969, where, weary and broken, she surveys the carnage her life has become.

As Northern Ireland teeters on the brink, Katherine struggles with the memory of a man long gone, and how this ghost haunts her marriage to George.

The narratives works well by delving into Katherine’s mind and making her well-rounded.

However, although wonderfully written with poetically rich prose, there is not enough to render her sympathetic, and the whole story falls a bit flat.

1963: The Year Of The Revolution: How Youth Changed The World With Music, Art And Fashion by Ariel Leve and Robin Morgan (£16.99, ebook £8.96).

The Sixties were not the decade that changed the world; in 1963, a meticulously crafted new oral history by Ariel Leve and Robin Morgan, the spotlight is shone on what the authors believe is the one single year that revolutionised music and culture forever.

Told through the memories of celebrated Sixties peers such as Keith Richards, Mary Quant, Eric Clapton and photographer Terry O’Neill, 1963 offers a full and interesting look at life before and during the landmark year.

The book is broken into a four parts, with the first section focussing on 1960 to 63, the second on the early part of 1963, the third on the summer of ‘63 and the last segment on the end of the year.

Each section is preceded by a short history before launching into a few chapters with a wide range of personal anecdotes from the people who rose to prominence during the decade – you will feel like you’re eavesdropping in on a conversation between friends reminiscing about the good times.

The only criticism that could be said of this book is that, because it is also aimed for American audiences, there are lots of explanations of typically British colloquialisms, such as ‘rag and bone man’, that sometimes halt the flow of the story.

Other than that, it makes for a spirited, rounded read of a pivotal year.

How We Invented Freedom And Why It Matters by Daniel Hannan (£20, ebook £4.19).

A book outlining the history and political implications of freedom doesn’t sound like much of a page-turner, but Hannan’s efforts are surprisingly readable.

His premise is fairly simple: that freedom, rather than being a concept common to Western Europe, stems from Anglo-Saxon culture.

As English as the English language, Hannan says the concept of freedom was exported through Imperial conquest and military victory to become the touchstone of democracy that we know today.

He traces the “lineage of liberty” back through these events to its roots and the establishment of a ‘Rule of Law’ in Britain.

There are many who will be at odds with Hannan’s conservative theorising.

However, for those who can overlook the political overtones – or for fans of the colonial era – this is a well-written and interesting perspective on British history.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Visual Companion by Jude Fisher (£12.99).

Author of all three of the bestselling Lord of The Rings Visual Companions, and the first book of the Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, Jude Fisher is back with an essential visual companion for director Peter Jackson’s next chapter in the Tolkien epic.

It’s a useful book both for seasoned fans of Tolkien and for those who have not read the book.

Fisher reacquaints us with the characters we met in An Unexpected Journey – Gandolf, Bilbo Baggins and the 13 Dwarfs – and introduces us to new ones: Beorn, the Skin Changer, Bard The Bowman and the return of the Woodland Elves with King Thranduil and his son, Legolas.

There are the villains too, the Master of Laketown, the Orcs, led by Azog and, most dangerous monster of all, the dragon Smaug.

Packed with more than 100 colour photos from the film, including some stunning location shots of Middle Earth, plus lots of interesting information and an Introduction by Richard Armitage, who plays Thorin Oakenshield, this is a wonderfully produced book and a must for all Hobbit fans.