Category Archives: Memoir and biography

Looking for a book recommendation? Try the Costa Book Award shortlist

You can find the whole list of short-listed books here.


Reviewed: Tomboy by Liz Prince

tombWhat a beautiful memoir! I loved this graphic novel which told the coming-of-age tale of a young girl who doesn’t identify with anything ‘girly’ she sees around her and can’t help but feel there must be something wrong with her. Several moments in the book were truly heart-breaking, as we see her struggle to come to terms with who she is. The ending was one of the most feel-good things I’ve recently read. Perfect.


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“Finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option…Unmissable” – New York Times

breath“At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a medical student asking what makes a virtuous and meaningful life into a neurosurgeon working in the core of human identity – the brain – and finally into a patient and a new father.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when when life is catastrophically interrupted? What does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away? Paul Kalanithi died while working on this profoundly moving book, yet his words live on as a guide to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.”

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Dreaming of jetting off into the blue? This could be the perfect book for you…

9780099589853Turn your mind back to when you first flew. When you first left the Earth, and travelled high and fast above its turning arc. When you looked down on a new world, captured simply and perfectly through a window fringed with ice. When you descended towards a city, and arrived from the sky as ordinarily as morning. In ‘Skyfaring’, airline pilot and flight romantic Mark Vanhoenacker shares his irrepressible love of flying, on a journey from day to night, from new ways of mapmaking and the poetry of physics to the names of winds and the nature of clouds.

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Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe

ninaWhat a lovely book! If you’re looking for a funny and fascinating read, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

Nina came to London in the 1980s and was employed as a nanny in a literary North London family. She can’t cook and her employer doesn’t object to her interesting approach to looking after the two boys, which means that Nina’s letters home to her sister make for very amusing, and sometimes laugh-out-loud reading.

Nothing exciting or outrageous happens, but the everyday events of family life are reported in these chatty letters to Vic which include recipe tips and reports of conversations over the dinner table with famous neighbours who call round for meals.

In the second part of the book, the literary influences begin to have an effect on Nina and she struggles through an A level in English Literature, in order to get into higher education. I loved the light touch that she gives to the unfolding story, and am delighted that she’s gone on to have her first novel published – I’ll definitely be borrowing it!


Reserve Love, Nina.

Costa Book Awards: Biography winner

What links penguins, giant squid, the moon, Darwin and Napolean?

One man, Alexander von Humboldt. The namesake of Humboldt Penguins, the moon’s Mare Humboldtianum, the Humboldt squid; he inspired Darwin and Napolean was famously jealous of him. More things have been named after Humboldt than anyone else- but he’s been largely forgotten since. This prizewinning biography aims to set that straight.

humboldtJudges awarding the prize said: “Alexander von Humboldt is the most brilliant polymath you’ve never heard of. The thrillingly readable story of a visionary 18 th century scientist and adventurer who travelled the globe, from the South American rainforests to the Siberian steppes, and foresaw the destructive impact of mankind on the world.”

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) is the great lost scientist. His colourful adventures read like something out of a Boy’s Own story: Humboldt explored deep into the rainforest, climbed the world’s highest volcanoes and inspired princes and presidents, scientists and poets alike. Napoleon was jealous of him; Simon Bolivar’s revolution was fuelled by his ideas; Darwin set sail on the Beagle because of Humboldt; and Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo owned all his many books. He simply was, as one contemporary put it, ‘the greatest man since the Deluge’. Taking us on a fantastic voyage in his footsteps – racing across anthrax-infected Russia or mapping tropical rivers alive with crocodiles – Andrea Wulf shows why his life and ideas remain so important today. Humboldt predicted human-induced climate change as early as 1800, and The Invention of Nature traces his ideas as they go on to revolutionize and shape science, conservation, nature writing, politics, art and the theory of evolution. He wanted to know and understand everything and his way of thinking was so far ahead of his time that it’s only coming into its own now. Alexander von Humboldt really did invent the way we see nature.

Sarah’s Brilliant Reads of 2015

I’ve not read an awful lot of fiction this year, a lot of what I’ve read has been nonfiction or related to my studies. However with such a heavy reading load in 2015 there are five books that really stick out for me as being brilliant reads.

Four of them are quite whimsical, two are translated from the French, two are modern children’s classics (or should be!) and my best book of the year was such a good novel that I had to keep checking that it was indeed fiction!

In no particular order:

When Marnie Was There by Joan G Robinson.

When Marnie Was ThereI loved the Teddy Robinson books by the same when I was small and I have no idea how I missed this one.  I’m not sure if this counts as a time slip or a ghost story but I found it to be truly beautiful and the North Norfolk Coast setting really made it feel like “my” book.

Studio Ghibli have made a film version of this, it and it had its UK premier at the London Film Festival in the autumn so hopefully it will make it to a cinema soon, or failing that a DVD to borrow from the library.

The Last Pilot – Benjamin Johncock.

The Last PilotI love the history of the early manned space programme (American and Russian) and have read many history books and biographies featuring the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts.  This book was so good I really thought that it was a biographical story of an astronaut I’d overlooked. The story fitted seamlessly into the real histories and like all of the best books I lived and breathed America in the 1950s and 1960s.  On talking with the author I was astounded to read he’d not spent hours visiting the actual sites he talks about as he describes it all so well.

This isn’t science fiction and it isn’t a hard core science book what it is is a brilliant story about a man pushed to the edge by life and his job.

George’s Grand Tour – Caroline Vermalle (translated by Anna Aitken)

George's Grand TourGeorge is 83 and about to fulfil his life-time’s ambition – he’s going to follow the route of the Tour de France. No not on a bike, he’s in his eighties after all, but on a road trip with his friend Charles. And so begins a wonderful, heart-warming, tear-jerking novel that evokes rural France, family life and so much more.

I’m not ashamed to say that this book made me cry as I read it (and yes embarrassingly I was on a train at the time) but I still rate it as a top read of 2015.

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper (no library copy at present)

I read this book after coming across mentions of it repeatedly in books I was reading for my dissertation.  It is another time slip story, this time set in London at Shakespeare’s Globe when a modern day actor suddenly finds himself thrust back in time to 1599.

I did like this an awful lot, from all of my studies I know that it is well researched and accurate as well as being enjoyable.  It reads a lot like a very good Doctor Who episode and I think that had I read it as a child I’d have been clamouring for either a trip to the theatre or a time travel machine!

The Red Notebook – Antoine Laurain (translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce)

The Red NotebookThis was possibly the book I’d been waiting for with the most excitement in 2015, I loved Laurain’s first book (The President’s Hat) and although this second book doesn’t quite live up to the first it was still a delightful little whimsical tale that I’ll be recommending to anyone looking for something light and quirky.

Laurent finds an abandoned handbag that contains a notebook and decides that as a true romantic he should reunite it with its owner.  There are many adventures on the way but in the end this book is just pure escapism that brings the sights, sounds and smells of Paris to life. I really hope that this Paris can still be found after the dreadful events of November 2015.

The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett

The Lady in the vanIn 1974, the eccentric Miss Shepherd moved her broken down van onto Alan Bennett’s drive and stayed there for fifteen years.

Living in the van and existing on her faith, hope and charity, Miss S was not an easy person to have around and Alan describes their up-down relationship with honesty and wit.


Reserve The Lady in the Van

Coming soon! Spectacles: a memoir from Sue Perkins

perkins“When I began writing this book, I went home to see if my mum had kept some of my stuff. What I found was that she hadn’t kept some of it. She had kept all of it – every bus ticket, postcard, school report – from the moment I was born to the moment I finally had the confidence to turn round and say ‘Why is our house full of this sh*t?’

Sadly, a recycling ‘incident’ destroyed the bulk of this archive. This has meant two things: firstly, Dear Reader, you will never get to see countless drawings of wizards, read a poem about corn on the cob, or marvel at the kilos of brown flowers I so lovingly pressed as a child. 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 ‘Is a non-spherically symmetric gravitational pull from outside the observable universe responsible for some of the observed motion of large objects such as galactic clusters in the universe?’

Most of this book is true. I have, of course, amplified my more positive characteristics in an effort to make you like me.

Thank you for reading.”

Reserve a copy here.


Glorious new memoir from the Queen of Disco

9781471135217A no-holds-barred memoir from muse, model, and music legend Grace Jones… Grace takes us on a journey from her religious upbringing in Jamaica to her heyday in Paris and New York in the 70s and 80s, all the way to present-day London, where she is working on a new album.

Reserve yourself a copy here.


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