Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Books For Christmas Part 8 - Music played live, playwright's blocked drive, Gordon's Alive! This year's favourite biography and memoir

The celebrity memoir comes in for more than its fair share of mockery at this time of year, but we reckon there are some really fantastic biography and memoir, some of the best books published this Christmas. And all of us knows someone who would love to get stuck into the juicy details of a favourite actor, adventurer, writer or sports star on Christmas morning.

So here's some of our favourites (we've signed copies of some of these as well making them extra special). We'll start with a Maggie Smith double-bill (sort of)...

The Lady in the Van – Alan Bennett (£14.99)
This is the sumptuous film tie-in edition of Alan Bennett's classic memoir. The film was released in November and features the biggest names in British drama, including Dame Maggie Smith and James Corden.

For fifteen years, the recalcitrant Miss Shepherd lived in her broken-down van on Alan Bennett's driveway in Camden. Deeply eccentric and stubborn to her bones, Miss Shepherd was not an easy tenant. Bennett, despite inviting her in the first place, was a reluctant landlord, never under the illusion that his impulse was purely charitable. This account of those years was first published in 1989 in the London Review of Books. The play premiered in 1999, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Dame Maggie Smith, who reprise those roles in this new film adaptation.

The hardback features sketches by illustrator David Gentleman, and there is also a dinky paperback at £6.99 as well.

Maggie Smith - Michael Coveney (£20)
There cannot be many actresses as instantly recognisable and cherished as Maggie Smith. Whether its playing the formidable Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton, or Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter film franchise, this has simply made her well-known to a new generation of fans who already knew her from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Travels With My Aunt.

This new biography shines the stage-lights on the life and work of a truly remarkable performer, one whose career spans six decades. Whether stealing scenes from Richard Burton (by his own admission), answering back to Laurence Olivier, or impressing Ingmar Bergman, her career can be seen as a Who's Who of British theatre in the twentieth century.

Absolute Pandemonium - Brian Blessed (£20.00)
The term 'larger than life' might have been invented for Brian Blessed. He is an actor whose career spans over fifty years with over 200 TV and film appearances and dozens of iconic roles including Porthos in The Three Musketeers, PC 'Fancy' Smith in Z Cars, Vultan in Flash Gordon and Boss Nass in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. He was also in Kenneth Branagh's Shakespeare adaptations of Henry V, As You Like It and Hamlet. He's also an explorer and mountaineer - the oldest man to have trekked to the magnetic North Pole and to have climbed to 28,000 feet with oxygen - and a boxer who has sparred with Joe Louis and Mohammed Ali.

In 'Absolute Pandemonium' this gifted raconteur is sharing his extraordinary story of a life lived to the full - with anecdotes as large and outrageous as the man himself. Funny, outspoken, touching and pure entertainment of one of Britain's best-loved actors. And we have signed copies in the shop whilst stocks last!

Heat – Ranulph Fiennes (£20.00)
Britain's most famous adventurer and bestselling author Ranulph Fiennes' book on extreme heat. Fresh from finishing the Marathon des Sables, Ranulph Fiennes has become the oldest Briton to complete this ultimate endurance test. The world's greatest living explorer has travelled to some of the remotest, most dangerous parts of the globe. Well-known for his experiences at the poles and climbing Everest, he has also endured some of the hottest conditions on the planet, where temperatures regularly exceed 40 degrees and without water and shelter, death is inevitable.

Spectacles: A Memoir – Sue Perkins (£20.00)
As Sue Perkins relates at the start of this equally sad and poignant memoir "Sadly, a recycling 'incident' destroyed the bulk of my childhood stuff that my mum had kept. This has meant two things: firstly, Dear Reader, you will never get to read a poem about corn on the cob. Secondly, it's left me with no choice but to actually write this thing myself. This, my first ever book, will answer questions such as 'Is Mary Berry real?', 'Is it true you wear a surgical truss?' and 'Does orchestral conducting simply involve waving your arms around?'"

Sue seeks to reassure the reader that "Most of this book is true. I have, of course, amplified my more positive characteristics in an effort to make you like me.". It's actually an extremely brilliant, you'll-laugh, you'll-cry memoir from the Bake Off presenter...

Charlotte Brontë: A Life – Claire Harman (£25.00)
The definitive biography of a beloved British novelist published on her 200th anniversary. Raised motherless on remote Yorkshire moors, watching five beloved sibling sicken and die, haunted by unrequited love: Charlotte Brontë's life has all the drama and tragedy of the great Gothic novels it inspired. Charlotte was a literary visionary, a feminist trailblazer and the driving force behind the whole Brontë family. She pushed Emily to publish Wuthering Heights and took charge of their precarious finances when her feckless brother turned to opium. In Jane Eyre she introduced the world to a brand new kind of heroine, modelled on herself: quiet but fiercely intelligent, burning with passion and potential.

Not Enough Time - Henrietta Knight (£20)
Even people who have no interest in horse racing have heaard of Grand National winner 'Best Mate', and he was trained by legendary trainer Henrietta Knight at her farm near Wantage. Together with her partner, former hell-raising jockey Terry Biddlecombe, there's was one of the most enduring, well-respected, well-loved and romantic partnerships in racing - and Terry's death in January 2014 left her devastated.

We were extremely privileged and honoured to be present at the launch of Henrietta Knight's memoir of their life 'Not Enough TIme' at her West Lockinge farm, and this incredible, honest and touching memoir is one of the most moving love stories you might ever read - both between two people, and between them and the wider world of horse racing.
A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt - Edited by Simon Garfield (£20)
On 18 April, 1925 a 15 year old girl by the name of Jean Pratt began a series of journals - which she kept for 61 years. As a social document, they are engrossing and as a record of a woman's life through the turbulence of the 20th century, they are moving, funny, sensitive and in the words of Hilary Mantel, "Timeless and Utterly Absorbing".

Good Night and Good Riddance: How Thirty-Five Years of John Peel helped to Shape Modern Life - David Cavanagh (£20)
Not so much a biography, more a cultural history in which John Peel looms in the background of both a man's life and the nation's musical taste. In terms of his passionate championing of underdog music, his resistance to shiny marketing and media newspeak, his embodiment of a fabulous curmudgeonly Britishness which is, perhaps, passing out of memory. So readable, a unashamed treat for anyone of a certain age who might claim "well, I may be old, but at least I saw all the good bands"!

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