Real lives: From navel gazing to belly-button rings

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In a radio chat show at the end of May, a conversation took place that could have been written to illustrate the difference between a worthwhile memoir and a really, really bad one. The New York author Ishmael Beah talked with charm and eloquence about his childhood in Sierra Leone: his flight from rebel soldiers aged 12; the village he saw burned when he was 13; his life as a child soldier, drugged, terrified and forced to kill. Then the interviewer turned to a faded rock star, who was there to discuss his own memoir. "I never wanted to be famous," he whined. "I had to go through a lot of therapy."

Beah's exceptional story ought to make most memoirists embarrassed. A Long Way Gone (Fourth Estate, 14.99) describes with breathtaking honesty how he lost his parents and was sucked into a war he didn't understand. Equally surprisingly, it describes his redemption. But what makes it inspiring is its lack of self-pity. At points, the 26-year-old author has what can only be described as a sense of humour about what happened.

By comparison, the story of a poor little rich girl who spends all her money on good times and gin ought to look like navel-gazing, but Clarissa Dickson Wright's Spilling the Beans (Hodder & Stoughton, 18.99) sidesteps the maudlin neatly, and you can't help but love the title. In adventures as rackety and un-PC as you would expect of the surviving "Fat Lady", she escapes her brutal father, is devastated by her mother's death and discovers hard liquor: "the answer to everything, the key to the universe". She becomes the youngest woman ever called to the Bar, has sex behind the House of Commons Speaker's chair and meets a young Tony Blair "a poor, sad thing... something of a fantasist". In all this is a salutary lesson: it was the tonic that eventually did for her liver, not the gin she mixed it with.

It makes sense that Amazon "customers who bought this item also bought" Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley (Fourth Estate, 25). Wickedly funny, and funnily wicked, this 832-page selection from their 12,000 letters recalls a time when being U was all, and being PC wasn't invented. And it wins the name-dropper prize. "Poor Sweetheart Fhrer," writes Unity, "he's having such a dreadful time." Diana (the future Mrs Oswald Mosley), does confess: "I must admit, 'The Mitfords' would madden me if I didn't chance to be one." If you find this too, too sick-making, follow it with Hermione Lee's Edith Wharton (Chatto & Windus, 25), in which the snooty American will seem tame in comparison.

Further insight into the social lives of history's cruellest despots came in the form of Young Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 25), which became the thinking man's summer blockbuster. Using newly available archives, Sebag Montefiore's cinematic history fleshes out the young "Soso" as a prequel to his 2004 book, Stalin. It also goes to show that writing teenage doggerel is no indication of sensitivity.

For a lighter read, Agent Zig Zag by Ben Macintyre (Bloomsbury, 7.99) was pure gold. This stranger-than-fiction romp saw Eddie Chapman, a deserter, womaniser and jolly bad sort, going over to the Germans in the 1930s and then nipping back to Blighty as an unlikely double agent. The author is clearly charmed by Chapman's flights of fancy including one about sharing brandy with Churchill in his bedroom, which is "completely untrue" as he gleefully allows this bizarre life to unfold. As MI5 officer Colonel Tim Stephens stiffly said: "In fiction it would be rejected as improbable."

Many of the more fun biographies of the year have involved men with a fondness for fibs, including Valerie Grove's affectionate tribute, A Voyage Around John Mortimer (Viking, 25). This faced the added difficulty of writing about a subject who has many years left in him yet, and overcame it with a judicious fondness of the sort you would want in a true friend.

By contrast, Alastair Campbell's The Blair Years (Hutchinson, 25) told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Excepting any details that might embarrass Gordon Brown or offer ammunition to the Tories, of course which made it surprising that the edited tome came to 816 pages. This apologia for spin, swearing and the Iraq war reads like an episode of The Thick of It as Campbell curses and weeps his way through press briefings and parliamentary affairs, maintaining throughout that "When it came to taking the strain and pressure, I was second in line," and that Diana, Princess of Wales always rather fancied him. If you can stand the egotism and vendettas, this is an essential guide to the last 10 years of government from a man who is either surprisingly honest about himself or shockingly bad at lying.

The other side of the story came from Oona King, who escaped Campbell's wrath relatively lightly (Clare Short, by contrast, turned his stomach). King's diaries, House Music (Bloomsbury, 12.99), are presented in an off-puttingly Adrian Mole-ish cover, and present equally unpalatable truths about life as an MP. From leaving her pager in a petrol station to nipping to the shops in a crop top and navel ring, King comes across as a normal human being, which explains why she never got on in Campbell's Westminster: "a posh boarding school with crap food". As she fights the election that she will ultimately lose, she reveals that: "My second biggest fear was losing my seat... My biggest fear was winning it." King eventually escaped the system that nearly wrecked her marriage and her chance of a family, but the system is poorer for it.

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