What do Swayze, Motty and Zippy have in common?

They're all here, in the first instalment of our three-part round-up of the year's best books, from celebrity memoirs to humour, sporting tomes to children's titles – as well as those miscellaneous stocking-fillers
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Celebrity memoirs: Sex, drugs and hand puppets

At long last! The cast of ‘Rainbow’ reveals all...

A celebrity memoir should be like the conversation at the end of Christmas dinner – frank, emotional and with plenty of skeletons clanking out of the cupboard.

Ant & Dec's Ooh! What a Lovely Pair: Our Story (Michael Joseph, £20) is certainly chatty, written in alternating paragraphs, but it's more of a natter and a noggin, and if they have any emotional baggage we don't get to hear of it. Ant (high forehead) covers his parents' divorce in a sentence, and admits to being less outgoing than Dec, who was the shouty youngest of seven. But perhaps it's wrong to look for complexity in the nation's most cheerful double act, and their love of life sings off every page, making it an uplifting read. From Newcastle council estate to TV superstardom, you get the sense that, to this day, they still can't quite believe their luck.

Chris Evans' It's Not What You Think (HarperCollins £20) tells a similar story – from terraced house in Warrington to multi-millionaire Radio 2 anchor. But by the time Evans buys his first Ferrari aged 27, the ego has taken off. He snogs Kim Wilde in a tent seconds before going live on The Big Breakfast; he tells Radio 1 he'll do the breakfast show for double what his agent recommends (of course they agree); the night Kim dumps him he goes home with Rachel Tatton Brown, "the hottest totty in town". Showbiz is all money, success and shagging, apparently. If he wants us to be jealous, we are.

So we turn to Jo Brand, and the brilliantly titled Look Back in Hunger (Headline Review, £20). Brand spent much of her twenties doing day-shifts as a psychiatric nurse before slogging up the M1 to do stand-up gigs at which someone would usually yell out "fat cow", or much worse. It's not surprising that men come in for a rollicking – she meets mostly perverts or psychopaths. She makes jokes about her weight from the start ("I was the child who was asked to play Bethlehem in the school nativity play") – but of course she turns out not be quite such a tough old boot, and her confidence is easily knocked. Fortunately that doesn't stop her dishing it out to her fellow comedians: Eddie Izzard was apparently "absolutely terrible when he started", and she had Frank Skinner down as a "no-hoper".

Michael Jackson's life story now over- shadows the brilliance of his music, but his reissued 1988 autobiography Moonwalk (Heinemann, £16.99) gives a sense of the man before the weirdness took over. Poignantly he laments performers who die "of pressure and drugs" before their time, such as Jimi Hendrix and Marilyn Monroe. "It's so sad," he says with characteristic simplicity.

As was the death of Patrick Swayze earlier this year. Swayze's book, co-written with his wife Lisa Niemi and called – what else? – The Time of My Life (Simon & Schuster, £17.99), is a lesson in the celebrity memoir; sparsely told and chock-full of highs and lows. So we ricochet from the day Swayze smashes his knee playing American football to his days as a nude model in New York; from his marriage to childhood sweetheart Niemi to the day they learn they can't have children; his adventures filming all over the world, and his near-fatal riding accident. And then comes his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, a slow lingering death, and the renewing of the authors' vows last summer after 33 years together... I defy anyone to put it down dry-eyed.

Leona Lewis has been punched in the face since writing Dreams (Hodder & Stoughton, £20), so she is probably now not quite as exuberant as she is in the book. Seeing her go from Hackney waitress to pop sensation in three years, it bursts with the promise of youth.

Although not strictly a celebrity memoir, Annabel Goldsmith's book No Invitation Required: The Pelham Cottage Years (Weidenfeld, £16.99) is a jolly little serving of gossip and laughs from the matron of London's decadencia. There are chapters on friends including John Aspinall, Tony Lambton and Claus von Bülow (or, hilariously, "Clausikins"), who she insists did not murder his wife. Mostly, though, it's about dogs with names such as Noodle and Midge and, best of all, Help. ("I always felt quite ridiculous as I tore round Hyde Park shouting 'Help! Help!'") But the high priest of wit, hilarity and name-dropping is Nicky Haslam. Somehow he has contrived to know everyone of interest from the past 70 years, and dutifully spills some beans in Redeeming Features (Cape £25), such as his affair with Lord Snowdon. But apart from all the names – the names! – the joy of this book comes from Nicky's undying joie de vivre.

And finally, if you only read one celebrity memoir this year, make it Rainbow Unzipped!, the inside story of of the children's TV series by Zippy, George and Bungle (as told to Tim Randall, Headline £12.99), in which "The squabbling stars lift the lid on the glory days and the wilderness years in their long-awaited, official and uncensored autobiography." Fantastically silly, it's got drug addiction, a gay outing, tabloid headlines, and makes a useful template for anyone drafting their memoirs for next Christmas.

Matthew Bell

Sport: Go down fighting

Behind-the-scenes squabbles and all-out fisticuffs dominate recent sports reads

Peter Mandelson is apparently struggling to find a publisher for his memoirs, and another erstwhile left-winger, Wayne Rooney, has seen the original £5m, five-volume deal for his (ghosted) life story quietly consigned to history. So we have something to thank the recession for, as heavily hyped works of hubris from both politicians and footballers seem less in favour these days.

The stand-out football book of 2009 explores new ground: Feet of the Chameleon (Portico, £16.99) is a study of African football by Ian Hawkey. As a timely introduction to next year's World Cup in South Africa it is hard to beat, but it would have made its mark in any year. The voice of the sheepskinned sage and cult hero John Motson will doubtless be heard at the 2010 tournament, and he reminisces on his career to date in the amusing Motty: 40 Years in the Commentary Box (Virgin, £18.99). Not all the humour is intentional, as he obsessively lists every game he has covered and the respective merits of every commentary position he has sat in, but he comes across as a thoroughly amiable chap.

Which is more than can be said of Fred Perry, who remains Britain's last Wimbledon men's singles champion: "Thank God I'm not playing me today," Jon Henderson quotes him as saying in the locker-room before one match. The Last Champion (Yellow Jersey, £16.99) is, surprisingly, the first biography of this single-minded, singular man (although there were two notoriously unreliable autobiographies) and Henderson's diligent research has produced a clear-eyed account of a remarkable life.

No less remarkable is the life of Patrick Veitch, a Cambridge mathematician turned professional gambler whose profit from betting on horses over a period of eight years was precisely £10,049,983.03. Enemy Number One: The Secrets of the UK's Most Feared Professional Punter (Racing Post, £18.99) is an absorbing account of how he did this, a feat that required him, in his words, to combine the skills of "a brain surgeon and mad axeman".

Ninety-five per cent of the horses that carried the weight of Veitch's money on their backs would have been descendants of an 18th-century champion stallion who was equally heroic at stud, and Nicholas Clee's Eclipse (Bantam, £20) tells the story of the horse bred by a prince and owned by a low-born rogue with tremendous brio.

Skill and speed seem in somewhat short supply in the England rugby union team these days; perhaps they have taken to heart the words from a 1936 newspaper column quoted by Tony Collins in his entertainingly unstuffy A Social History of English Rugby Union (Routledge, £19.99): "The game is not intended for highly trained athletes but for reasonably fit men who like their exercise on a Saturday afternoon." The Welsh and the French take the code rather more seriously, as exemplified by two very different warts-and-all accounts. In Seeing Red: Twelve Tumultuous Years in Welsh Rugby (Mainstream, £16.99) Alun Carter, a former Wales international and chief analyst to the team, details what he largely views as the mismanagement of the national side in the dozen years up to 2008. It provides a fascinating insider's view of the player power that led to the jettisoning of the head coach, Mike Ruddock, and his entire coaching staff, within 12 months of his leading Wales to their first Grand Slam for 27 years. Meanwhile, Confessions of a Rugby Mercenary (Ebury, £7.99) by John Daniell, an itinerant Kiwi who never quite made the top grade, is a darkly humorous account of a life of strife and flying fists with Montpellier as they tried to cling on in France's top division.

The rotten core at the heart of the official fight game in past years is the subject of two outstanding boxing books. Jacob's Beach: The Mod, the Garden and the Golden Age of Boxing by Kevin Mitchell (Yellow Jersey, £18.99), is an eye-opening exposé of the malign influence of the Mafia upon US boxing during the 1950s, by an author who really knows his stuff. Things had not improved much by the 1990s, if Jon Hotten's The Years of the Locust: A True Story of Murder, Money and Mayhem in the Last Age of Boxing (Yellow Jersey, £12.99) is to be believed. This dark tale is in the same genre as Truman Capote's In Cold Blood or James Ellroy's My Dark Places, and does not suffer by comparison.

There are fewer fisticuffs, if spats aplenty, in Time to Declare (Hodder & Stoughton, £19.99), Michael Vaughan's self-justifying take on his time as England's cricket captain. And far greater controversy in Harold Larwood (Quercus, £20), Duncan Hamilton's follow-up to his award-winning book about his experiences with Brian Clough. It's a tour de force of research and lucid prose which returns Larwood, the wronged working-class hero chosen to be England's principal strike weapon in the 1932-33 "bodyline" Ashes series, to his rightful place in history.

With Strictly Me: My Life Under the Spotlight (Mainstream, £18.99), another complex cricketer, Mark Ramprakash, made his entrance into an increasingly crowded sub-genre: autobiographies by sporting luminaries who have appeared on Strictly Come Dancing. At least he won; Richard Dunwoody, jump racing's former champion jockey, lost out in a dance-off this year, as he describes in Method In My Madness: 10 Years Out of the Saddle (Thomas Brightman, £18.99). Not enough method in his mambo, obviously.

Simon Redfern

Humour: Who will have the last laugh?

Frankie, Dara et al put the ho, ho, ho into the holidays

One assumes that the amount of ho, ho, ho that falls off the shelf at Christmas time in the form of comedians' biographies, humorous travel accounts and collections of whimsy is inversely proportional to the ho, ho, ho of Santa himself and his beleaguered emissaries, the postal service. While Amazon will be having the best laugh of all, of course, the quantity of mirth is not always commensurate with the quality. Fortunately there are laughter lines that run through the current crop.

Of the inevitable clutch of comedians' autobiographies, Frankie Boyle's was one of the most eagerly awaited by friends and foes alike. It's often the case that a comic's memoirs are used as a springboard for an on-page routine, and so it is with Boyle's book. But what it lacks in insight, My Shit Life So Far (Harper Collins, £18.99) makes up for in biting wit. For example, on Iraq he says: "The excuse 'It's not illegal, I'm only here teaching them English' didn't work for Gary Glitter, nor should it work for the military."

In contrast, you'd be disappointed if the autobiographies of Alan Davies and Peter Kay didn't bob along with bonhomie. In Saturday Night Peter (Century, £20), Kay allows the reader to ease into the chaotic world of the stand-up. Among the episodes noted here is Kay's own uncharacteristic brush with controversy when he told a joke about Jill Dando's cat. Rather than a media backlash, however, Kay received the most stick from his family members, who either doubted the joke's technical worth or whether Dando did indeed own a cat. Kay's latest volume follows on from The Sound of Laughter, which charted his boyhood. And boyhood is the nostalgic territory of Davies' first book, My Favourite People & Me: 1978-1988 (Michael Joseph £18.99) – a tender look at his life in this period through the prism of his icons, from the Arsenal players Pat Jennings and Charlie Nicholas to Dennis Potter and Neil Kinnock.

The urbane Irish comedian Dara O Briain, above, has used the miles of experience he's clocked up going from town to town on tour in the UK to sketch out his take on his adopted home. Tickling The English (Michael Joseph, £18.99) has the Mock the Week star describing the peculiarities of each tour stop, as well as breaking down the English attitude to sex, filth and teenagers, among other dinner-party no-nos. Much of the material is quite serious; for example, on the latter topic the Irishman argues that England has "ethnicised" its youngsters and given them the reception it once reserved for O Briain's countrymen.

Other stand-ups going off-piste include this year's Edinburgh Comedy Award winner Tim Key in Instructions, Guidelines, Tutelage, Suggestions,Other Suggestions, and Examples Etc (The Invisible Dot, £10.95), a Spike Milligan-esque collection of quixotic eccentricity helpfully charting which animals could fit into other animals, and suggesting that the decathlon could be enhanced by an 11th event – "the soup dunk". Meanwhile, Dave Spikey, Peter Kay's collaborator on Phoenix Nights, wryly commentates on the idiosyncrasies of local newspaper reports in He Took My Kidney, Then Broke My Heart (Michael O'Mara, £10).

Mitch Benn and Jon Holmes provide a unique commentary on events of international importance in The History of the World Through Twitter (Prion, £6.99). Perhaps its description of the assassination of JFK might be a tweet too far, but it exposes the shortcomings of expression on Twitter as much as it exposes the dubious taste of the exercise. A more stately, yet equally gagworthy, approach to history comes from John O'Farrell in An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain: or, Sixty Years of Making the Same Stupid Mistakes As Always (Doubleday, £18.99). O'Farrell melds post-war political commentary with mirth, allegorising, for example, the referendum on joining the Common Market as an episode of It's a Knockout.

Finally, for the hell of it (a sentiment this book is surely against), is Sod That! 103 Things Not to Do Before You Die (Orion, £6.99) by the Crap Towns author Sam Jordison. Among other examples of delightful killjoyism, Jordison warns against sampling the Oktoberfest because being subjected to oom-pah music makes you understand why Germans "unironically enjoy the music of David Hasselhoff".

Julian Hall

Children's books: A-hunting we will go

Santa had better watch out. He’s coming to town – but one naughty boy and his tigers are lying in wait

There can be few more arresting titles on the market this year than Nicholas Allan's Father Christmas Needs a Wee (Red Fox, £5.99; inset). Santa's been drinking since half-past three. Count the beverages he's downed alongside the presents he's delivered (see – it's educational, too) as he races back home to the little boy's room. Perfect for all, pretty much from birth. If you're less sympathetic to Saint Nick, he's under attack in Jonathan Emmett's The Santa Trap (Macmillan, £10.99). Spoilt boy Bradley is fed up with getting socks every year, so he trains tigers, dynamites chimneys and trapdoors the floors. Thankfully, he doesn't get his guy, but Poly Bernatene's illustrations make the manhunt sensationally watchable. Split screens, panoramas – it's like a movie on the page. For ages three and up.

Bizarre threats also lurk in Oh No, Monster Tomato! by Jim Helmore and Karen Wall (Egmont, £5.99). The duo that brought us the Stripy Horse stories can do no wrong in my eyes. It's the Great Grislygust Grow-off and Marvin's tomatoes are titchy. He magics up an outsize solution (complete with giant foldouts), but his plant goes out of control. It's only beaten in wackiness by Cressida Cowell's Emily Brown and the Elephant Emergency (Orchard, £10.99), in which a trip down the Zambezi is constantly interrupted by Matilda the elephant's mummy calling to find out if she's wearing her Wellingtons. The expeditionary party turns back to save Matilda's ma from an outbreak of "great, grey busy-ness" and feeds her mobile to a passing crocodile. Life lessons here for all over-threes.

Finally in the picture books category, some more traditionally heart-warming tales are provided by the perennial favourites Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. Tabby McTat (Alison Green, £10.99) is a busker's cat who loses his down-and-out owner and finds that a more luxurious life is not necessarily a better one. Great London streetscapes feature alongside perfectly scanned verse. David Lucas's Cake Girl (Andersen, £10.99) is a thing of beauty, too, in which a grizzled old witch discovers that being nice to a friend – even one you've knocked together out of cake-mix – brings unexpected rewards. Neither could fail to charm anyone under six.

If you've reached the stage of concentrating more on words than pictures, 2009 brought with it some welcome returns to the past. Hilary McKay's Wishing for Tomorrow (Hodder, £10.99) is a pitch-perfect reconstruction of the attic world of Miss Minchin's Seminary for Young Ladies, home to Sara Crewe in Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess. If you've ever wondered what happened to her classmates after she inherited that diamond mine, now's your chance to find out. Also channelling an author in an awesome act of literary ventriloquism is David Benedictus, whose Return to the Hundred Acre Wood (Egmont, 12.99) takes Pooh and friends to a spelling bee and buys Eeyore two umbrellas, "for front and back". Some may carp at the temerity of these two writers, but their sincerity as fans can't be doubted if you've actually read the books.

You might also expect an unseasonal kicking to be given to David Walliams, for Mr Stink (HarperCollins, £12.99), but you'd be disappointed. For one thing, it has Quentin Blake illustrations; second, it's not wildly original but it is enjoyable; third, hats off to any author who can call a chapter "Abandon Starbucks!" or include the phrase "swing by for a waz" with reference to the Royal Family. If I were nine, I'd be even more impressed. For literary style though, you'd have to turn to Kate DiCamillo. The Magician's Elephant (Walker, £8.99) is Carter Beats the Devil for the under-10s. It's elegant, timeless and utterly heart-breaking. A conjuror "intends lilies" but magics instead an elephant, which falls on a noblewoman. On the plus side, it also heralds the return of a long-lost sister. Yoko Tanaka's illustrations invoke DiCamillo's bestseller, The Tale of Despereaux. This one's better.

It's hard for new authors to break into a market so dominated by tie-ins, brands and sequels. So hurrah for Neale Osborne. Lydia's Tin Lid Drum (Oxford £12.99) must be set in one of the most densely-imagined alternative universes ever. And it's not elves and orcs but toffee, secret kitchens and territories called Jamatarta and Mokachino. Mad, but tantalisingly different for the over-10s. Nothing so far, though, compares to Chris Priestley's Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth (Bloomsbury £10.99). A witty pastiche of short sensation fiction from the Victorian era, it's genuinely, thrillingly horrible. And I mean that in a good way. I've seen his stories recommended elsewhere for ages nine and up, but I'd add a couple of years unless your offspring are especially steely. It is a classic in the making.

There's just time to mention an actual classic, Ovid's Metamorphoses, as reimag- ined by the late, great Adrian Mitchell. Shapeshifters (Frances Lincoln, £14.99) humbles every other entrant on the list with its humanity. Smuggle it into the adults' stockings, too.

Nicola Smyth

Stocking fillers: A kiss under the miscellany

This year’s best almanacs, annuals and anthologies

Every so often, the publishing world stumbles upon an idea so fabulous and money-spinning that there is no need to have another one for several years. The idea to publish ever more hastily written Dan Brown rip-offs until the reading public cries out in desperation for a well-put together sentence is not one of them, but other publishing memes still have more fun to be squeezed out of them. Although not obviously aimed at the Christmas market, Faber and Faber: Eighty Years of Book Cover Design by Joseph Connolly (Faber, £25) would be a stunning gift for the reader who loves books-as-beautiful-things as well as a good read. Let's have more like this.

The repackaged 19th-century agony aunt market is one obvious publishing success story: both a comic look at outdated mores from times that are happily gone by, and a reminder of how little has really changed. Tanith Carey's Never Kiss a Man in a Canoe: Words of Wisdom from the Golden Age of Agony Aunts (Boxtree, £9.99) offers much that is still relevant to today's girl-about-town. Constance Mortimer's What Every Woman Ought to Know (JR Books, £10.99) contains way too many exclamation marks, but makes the modern woman pleased, at least, not to have to bother with so many "tinctures". Among its pearls of "Woman's Wisdom" is: "In order to win an argument with a man, a woman doesn't have to be especially logical, but especially pretty." Plus ça change...

Fortunately, for men at least, the world has moved on. But it can still be a confusing old place. 150 Things Every Man Should Know by Gareth May (Square Peg, £14.99) is a practical guide to some of life's little conundrums, that combines a sense of humour with healthy curiosity and some genuinely good advice. Sections on how to prepare your CV, check for testicular cancer, dress up as a convincing woman, iron a shirt like your mum, and hold a baby are all admirably informative. Though any women buying this for their boyfriends for Christmas ought to tear out the page on "How to get away with cheating" and scrawl "www.myla.com" at the top of "How to buy lingerie for your girlfriend".

The above book and the Dave TV channel have a similar target audience, and many of them will be looking forward to some TV tie-ins in their stockings, while also sniggering at the word "stockings". The QI Annual 2010 (Faber, £12.99) contains some worthwhile "fancy that"s – but not on the double-page spread about gravel (yawn). Mock the Week: This Year's Book by Dan Patterson (Boxtree, £14.99) and the Private Eye Annual 2009 by Ian Hislop (Private Eye Productions, £9.99), are much as fans of each would expect. But the smart money goes on the Have I Got News For You Guide to Modern Britain by Nick Martin (BBC Books/Random House, £9.99), which is billed as the Home Office citizenship guide for people who already live here, and has more startling facts and brutal satire than the other three put together.

Fans of a good old-fashioned annual will love the new set of Eagle books, which include Eagle Annual: The Best of the 1960s Comic by Daniel Tartarsky (Orion, £14.99). Featuring the Rolling Stones, the Space Race and England's 1966 World Cup preview, alongside adverts for Hornimans tea and "Mounting botany specimens – so much simpler with Sellotape!", it's a reminder of a simpler time, when boys were boys, and ripe for the picking with adverts for the Army. There's also "fun with a compass", "Eagle men of action", quizzes such as "Are you the Kruschev type?" and plenty of Dan Dare.

Those who grew up with Eagle might also appreciate The Archers Miscellany by Joanna Toye (BBC Books, £9.99), aimed at the true Archers geek – though is there any other kind of Archers fan? Toye knows whereof she speaks – she has worked on the programme since 1980 – and writes, "The joy of finding, in full, Marjorie Antrobus's recipe for Yemenite pickle and the fact that there were so many mentions of Nigel's jackets that they merited an entry of their own had to be set against the frustration of the 'lost years' of the Fête and Flower and Produce Show..." The book is gently revealing about our changing society, while also dishing all the juicy details: Freda wears support stockings for work; Lilian has a state-of-the-art juicing machine; and red wine gives Bert heartburn. The only book more detailed is the latest fine Schott's Almanac by Ben Schott (Bloomsbury, £16.99). It reveals, rather sadly, that 2009 was a year defined by Iceland, Mandelson, Twitter, flipping, and the deaths of Updike and Pinter. Frustratingly, it doesn't tell us what we should call the decade after the Noughties.

Speaking of Twitter (again), Luddites may not approve of Twitterature: The World's Greatest Books Retold Through Twitter, by Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin (Penguin Books, £6.99) – though it is clearly aimed at the literary and not the twitterary. The glossary will come in handy for those who'd like to keep up with the internet generation, and there is the odd laugh-out-loud line, such as Oedipus's comment about a "total MILF" whom he meets in Thebes...

Funnier still is How to Take Over Teh Wurld: A LOLcat Guide 2 Winning by Professor Happycat (Hodder & Stoughton, £9.99). It's impossible to describe why, but I was accused of crying with laughter in my open-plan office when I read the caption "invisibul seesaw" to describe a picture of an inexplicably mid-air cat. Beware: it's addictive, and, like The Wit and Wisdom of the North by Rosemarie Jarski (Ebury Press, £12.99), it will have you thinking with a whole new voice in your head. With an introduction by Stuart Maconie, who is thrilled that "...according to Anthony Burgess, Graham Greene put carrots in his Lancashire hotpot", Jarski's book is notable for its strong women and maudlin men. What do Jeanette Winterson, Pauline Calf, Jarvis Cocker and Margaret Thatcher have in common? Northern wit. And as for Victoria Wood... well, to quote Jack Duckworth: "There's a woman you'd grow a marrow for."

Dour northerners will probably enjoy this last recommendation, brought out by a canny publisher with an eye on the anti-Christmas market: The Dreaded Feast: Writers on Enduring the Holidays, edited by Taylor Plimpton and Michele Clark (Abrams Books, £9.99). Short fiction by writers including Jay McInerney, Mark Twain, John Cheever and Hunter S Thompson all shares an attitude to the festive season summarised by Augusten Burroughs in the story "Oh, Christmas Tree": "Our lives are an endless stretch of misery punctuated by processed fast foods and the occasional crisis or amusing curiosity." Bah humbug!

Katy Guest