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Books of the Year: Biography and Memoir

There's nothing stodgy about the unconventional approach taken to this year's crop of profiles

Last month, the judges of the Costa Book Awards announced a shortlist for the biography prize with only three, rather than the usual four titles, raising questions about whether the genre had lost its verve. Perhaps the plodding recounting of a person's life has become staid, but a review of this year's biographies shows much experiment with the traditional form, and some lively results.

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (Vintage, £16.99) by Sarah Bakewell is one such book and it rightly deserves its place on the Costa shortlist. It blurs lines between philosophy, biography and even self-help on occasions, something Montaigne (right) may well have approved of. Bakewell is present as a witty interlocutor between 16th-century France and the modern day. It is part humane portrait of Montaigne - his idle attitude to the management of the family estate, his love of women, and the significance of the untimely death of a dear friend from the plague - and part gentle guide to philosophy. Most importantly, it is written so that the reader cannot escape the very questions Montaigne poses, the biggest of which is in the title.

A different radical approach comes in another book about a philosopher. Bettany Hughes's The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Cape £25) was a challenge to write, she admits, as it is a "doughnut" subject: the barefoot philosopher is only known through the writings of others, resulting in a profusion of material around her subject and a big hole in the middle. So Hughes recreates the dusty streets of Greece in which his dialogues took shape, and revisits archaeological sites around the glittering city of Athens. It reads like an investigation and, in trying to find the man, Hughes uses the skills of historian and documentarian combined to create a fresh and surprisingly pacy biography.

Looking inward, there have been a number of memoirs about family this year. Rupert Thomson's This Party's Got to Stop (Granta, £16.99), the story of the extended, wild and morbid home that he and his brothers make in their dead father's house, stands out for the unusualness of the story.

On a similar theme - absent parents - are Michael Frayn's My Father's Fortune: A Life (Faber, £16.99) and Jackie Kay's Red Dust Road (Picador, £16.99). Born out of wedlock to a Scottish woman and a Nigerian man who had studied at Aberdeen University in the 1960s, Kay was given up for adoption; Red Dust Road describes her journey to find her birth parents. Her father meets her in a hotel in Abuja, sermonises feverishly for hours, and tries to cleanse Jackie of the sin of her existence as an illegitimate child. To boot, he is too ashamed of his earlier life to introduce her to his second family. Kay finds some weary humour in her disappointment of a father, but her journey to her mother is heart-rending. The woman has wilted into a nervous fragile creature, and when they finally meet, after many cancelled appointments, rattles on about a neighbour with a heart condition. The book goes further than a search for roots. It is a meditation on what it is to have a history, how that history shapes a person, and at what point they stand alone from it.

My Father's Fortune is uncharacteristic of Frayn. Unlike his usual, very careful prose, this book has a looseness about it. It is a gathering together of his family myth, told through relatives' recollections, his own impressionistic childhood memories and those of his reflective adult self. At the heart of the book is Frayn's father, Tom, born into poverty in 1901 and crammed into two rooms off the shabby Holloway Road in north London with his parents and three siblings. At a tender age, Tom acquires a swagger, a decent job, a Homberg hat and a wife a station above him in life, and moves them all out to the suburbs, where Frayn's life begins. From this promising start, the story turns dark when Tom's beloved wife, Vi, drops dead suddenly after a glass of sherry. The book is Frayn's tribute to his father, a posthumous message of love that Michael had not expressed when Tom was alive, and a brilliant piece of writing.

Also of note is a work on Stieg Larsson by his friend Kurdo Baksi. Slim by comparison with Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, Stieg Larsson: My Friend (MacLehose, £14.99) nevertheless goes back to the roots of their friendship. Editors of separate Swedish magazines which eventually merged, the two men were professional colleagues as well as friends, and Baksi writes knowledgably about Larsson's work as a passionate campaigner against racism. It is an intellectual, unsentimental portrait.

There are some doorstoppers in this year's crop, too: David Brown's Palmerston: A Biography (Yale, £25), a hefty, statesman-like life of the 19th-century prime minister, and Rosamund Bartlett's academic but impressive Tolstoy: A Russian Life (Profile, £25).

Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin (Cape, £25) edited by his widow Elizabeth and his biographer Nicholas Shakespeare, doesn't skimp on pages either, but every drop of Chatwin is worth it. The same exquisite observations found in his novels and the penetrating ideas found in his essays infuse even his most casual letters. The volume also reveals much about his guarded personal life and his sudden passions, all augmented by humorously exasperated footnotes from his long-suffering wife.

With this level of quality, publishers and readers of biographies need not worry too much about the Costa's shortlist.