Book of the Week, memoirs, new releases, non-fiction

Book of the Week: A Pocketful of Happiness

It’s a memoir for this week’s pick – and it’s really good but it’s also heartbreaking. So bear that in mind when picking a moment to read it – I ended up a snotty mess more than once.

Depending on how old you are, you’ll know Richard E Grant for something different. Withnail and I, Spice World, Girls or if you’re my sister me: Jack and Sarah. He was nominated for an Oscar in 2019 for his role in Can You Ever Forgive Me. But what I didn’t know was that he had one of those rare things: a long and happy marriage in showbiz. And I only found that out when I saw his post on social announcing that Joan had died. A Pocketful of Happiness is a memoir of his wife’s illness, intercut with stories from their life together.

Joan Washington was one of the acting world’s leading dialogue and accent coaches. She and Richard met when she taught him at acting school, soon after his arrival in the UK from Swaziland. Ten years older than him and recently divorced, they fell in love when she coached him to help iron out his accent and they stayed together for 38 years.

Richard’s love for Joan shines through in every page of this – but you can also see how loved she was by other people and how much impact she had on their lives. At the end Richard has included some of the tributes to her from people that she worked with – some of which were gathered when her friends tried to get her an honour from the Queen before she died. It’s a memoir of grief and nursing someone through a terminal illness – but it’s also full of wonderfully showbizzy stories. Richard’s unashamed joy at being nominated for an Oscar was obvious at the time – but in this you see the behind the scenes as he goes to the awards season events and meets every famous actor he’s ever dreamed of working with – but also his all time heroine: Barbra Streisand. The showbiz stories help break up the heavy bits but also tie together with the story of the last few months of Joan’s life. It’s one of the best actor memoirs I have recently read – and as you know, there have been a few on the pile!

My copy came from the airport, but it’s out now in hardback, Kindle, Kobo and audiobook – read by Richard himself.

Happy Reading!

book round-ups, memoirs, Recommendsday

Recommendsday: Actor Memoirs

This Recommendsday post has been a long time in the making, but actually really fits in with the theme of this month in a way – I’ve written about the theatre and careers on the stage a fair bit – but also featured a children’s film starring one of the actors in it!

Forever Young by Hayley Mills

So lets start with that one – Hayley Mills is the star of my favourite version of The Parent Trap, but was also the biggest child star of her day. She was born into an acting family – her father was Sir John Mills, her Mother Mary Hayley Bell and her sister Juliet is also an actress. She won a Bafta for her first film role and was signed by Disney. This book takes you through her childhood career and what happened when she grew up. It’s got plenty of Old Hollywood and British Acting Royalty detail in it as well as all the sorts of thing you want to know about being a child star and what sort of effect it has on you. It doesn’t talk a lot about her life after the mid-1970s, but given that most people are probably reading this because they’ve watched her juvenile performances, and by that point she’s all grown up and married, that’s probably a reasonably wise decision unless the book was going to be much longer. The good news is that I came out of the end still liking her, although some of the decisions she made in her early adulthood were not the best!

Home Work by Julie Andrews

From the star of one of my favourite childhood films to the star of two of them! This is the second memoir that Julie Andrews has written – and the first of them, Home, finishes just before she becomes a major star. So as the Sound of Music and Mary Poppins are among my favourite movies, I was looking forward to reading this to see what the experience of making them was like for her. And that is in there – but just not in as much detail as I was expecting. Andrews and her co-writer, her daughter Emma, rattle through 30 years of her career and personal life at breakneck speed and without ever really letting you in on what Andrews was thinking or feeling. She’s been in psychoanalysis since the 1960s, so you would assume that she has more insight into what was going on than she is telling you, but she’s definitely keeping you at an arms length and preserving that Old School Hollywood aloofness that some old school stars like her have cultivated since the early days of their career. Now whether some of her reluctance to talk about what must have been the very real difficulties of her second husband’s prescription drug dependence are because she was writing this not long after his death (or even before) and she doesn’t have the perspective yet, I don’t know. But for all that the details of making Mary Poppins and SoM are satisfying (in as much of them as you get, and I’m not sure there’s masses here I didn’t already know) the lack of everything else holds this back.

I Was Better Last Night by Harvey Fierstein

Most of us probably first saw Harvey Fierstein in Mrs Doubtfire – or heard his voice in Mulan, but Fierstein is something of a Broadway legend – he wrote the play Torch Song Trilogy, the book for the musical version of La Cage aux Folles and won a Tony as the original Broadway Edna in Hairspray. His memoir follows him through growing up in 1950s Brooklyn through all those big moments and achievements. It’s a long and hard journey – with addiction and loss along side spectacular highs but as well as being a personal story, it also shows the development and evolution of New York theatre in the last third of the twentieth century and the changing face of gay culture.

Mean Baby by Selma Blair

At the other end of the spectrum to Julie Andrews is Selma Blair’s memoir. Blair doesn’t hold anything back – her drinking from an incredibly young age, her fraught relationship with her mum, her self destructive behaviour – it’s all here along along with the professional successes you already know about, or at least that you know about if you’re my age – Legally Blonde, Cruel Intentions, Hellboy – and her activism after her diagnosis with MS three years ago. It’s a story of resilience through adversity and proof that no matter how someone’s life might look like on the outside – movie roles, front row seats at fashion shows – you never know what is going on in secret and the struggles that are going on behind the scenes.

And that’s your lot for this post. I do have several more actor memoirs sitting on the pending self, so there may well be a follow up at some point, but who knows when that might be given my current track record!

Happy Humpday everyone!

book round-ups, reviews, stats

Best new books of the first half of 2022

As promised, here is part one of my favourite books of the year so far – and we’re starting with new releases. I’ve already read 200 books this year, so I’ve got plenty of books to chose from but it’s no surprise that I’ve already written about most of these at some length.

I haven’t read a lot of nonfiction this year and not much of it is new-new but I have read Stories I Might Regret Telling You by Martha Wainwright and it’s such a good one. As I said in my BotW review back in April, this is one of the most unvarnished memoirs I’ve read. Martha Wainwright is as clear eyed about her own faults and her life as you will find someone and is prepared to put it out there in a book. Even if you don’t know her msuic, this is well worth reading – especially if you’re interested in the effects of famous paretns and/or competitive siblings and/or life in the music industry and particularly life in the music industry as a woman. And it turns out to be easier to get hold of than I thought it would be.

On to fiction and most of my favourite reads (that aren’t in series) are either romance or romance adjacent. There is the fabulous and sunny Book Lovers by Emily Henry and the redemptive and ultimately hopefuly Mad About You by Mhairi MacFarlane. They have very different plots, but they also both have heroines who know what they want in life and what they deserve. Mad About You has darker moments than Book Lovers, but you will come away from both with a big happy smile on your face.

Then there are two books that I have read in the last couple of weeks. I actually finished Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus and The Unsinkable Greta James by Jennifer E Smith one day apart and then had a massive book hangover from two of my favourite books of the year so far. Greta is this week’s Book of the Week so you can read all about that there, and Lessons in Chemistry was the top review in Quick Reviews yesterday – and wasn’t actually that quick a review.

And as I mentioned earlier – there have also been a few really good new entries in series that I like – there is The Prize Racket – the latest in Isabel Rogers’ Stockwell Park Orchestra Series, the latest Rivers of London book, Amongst Our Weapons by Ben Aaronovitch, and the latest Vinyl Detective novel Attack and Decay by Andrew Cartmel.

And lets finish with a couple of honourable mentions – all the books above got five stars from me on Goodreads, but there are a couple of really, really good books nipping at their heels – like Jill Shalvis’s The Family You Make and Harvey Fierstein’s memoir I Was Better Last Night which I still haven’t written about here but will undoubtedly figure in my long planned actor memoir recommendsday post, just as soon as I read the other actor memoirs I have on my shelf!

So that’s half a year done – fingers crossed that the new books in the second half of the year are as good. Tune in tomorrow for my favourite new-to-me books of 2022 so far!

Book of the Week, memoirs, new releases

Book of the Week: Stories I Might Regret Telling You

It’s been a while since we had a memoir as a Book of the Week, but it makes a change and having already written about the new Mhairi McFarlane and with a lot of rereads on last week’s list, it’s really a good thing that I enjoyed reading this so much!

This was actually on my pre-order list, and as I mentioned in that Martha Wainwright is a singer songwriter who has had a special place in my heart for a long time now. In the book she describes her self as a “child of… twice over” as both of her parents are well known musicians, and added to that her brother Rufus had mainstream success at a time when she was also trying to make it in the music business. This memoir looks back at her life and the decisions she’s made and the people she knows. She comes from a fiercely competitive family, with lot of competing egos and careers and it is very, very interesting to get the inside scoop on all that – from her point of view at least.

And the title isn’t joking – she’s probably already regretted some of this, as an earlier manuscript of the book was used in her divorce. It’s probably the most honest and unvarnished memoir I’ve read since Viv Albertine’s first book. Wainwright is fairly self aware and with the benefit of time, can see patterns in her own life and how things have affected her. And of course her music has always been the same way – but there’s a difference between a three minute song and a 200 page piece of extended writing. As well as the career and her relationships with her siblings and parents, it also looks at the pressures of juggling a career and motherhood – which is not exactly new, but it does feel a bit different because the arrival of her oldest son was unexpected and traumatic and came at a really difficult time in her life – as her mother was dying of cancer – and when she was in the UK rather than at home in Canada. All in all, a really interesting read for a fan like me – and I suspect there’s enough here for people who aren’t fans too.

As I said, I had my copy preordered so got it on the day it came out two weeks ago – but Foyles now have signed bookplate editions with a couple of quid off and everything, so I’m almost regretting that. But I have a ticket to see her live in London later in the year, so maybe I’ll take it along to that. I do already have a signed ticket from the last time I saw her (at the small but brilliant Stables in Milton Keynes where I would have gone to see her again if it wasn’t for the fact that the evening she’s playing there is the same day as we’re seeing The Glass Menagerie in the West End. Why does this always happen?) so it’s not like I’m missing out really. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself. Anyway, it’s out now in hardback, Kindle, Kobo and audiobook read by Martha herself.

Happy Reading!

books, memoirs

Missing books

Do you know when you can’t find a book and it’s really annoying you? In last week’s Bookshelfie I spoke about the fact that I didn’t have to even check the shelves much to know what was on there. And no, I don’t know all of my shelves that well, but I do know where roughly most of my books should be. So when stuff is not there it gets frustrating.

I used to loan books out a fair bit in the before times, but then I would forget who had what and end up with missing books or duplicate copies. You may remember when my copy of Gone with the Windsors went awol and it was A Drama. I have three copies now because I cried about it on Twitter and Laurie Graham saw it and sent me one, which was too nice to read and so I bought another copy of it and then I got the original one back as well. So now I have three copies and I started a list of who I had loaned what to. Which helps. But occasionally, there’s a book that I can’t find and I don’t know why.

At the moment it’s Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves. It was one of the extended reading list books for my A Levels – where we did a module on War Literature. I read all the books on that list. And for years while I was at university and slightly beyond, my copy of Goodbye to All That lived on the bookshelf that ran across my bedroom wall above the door with the other books from that module. Then when I moved into my own house I took all the books with me. Well I did a bit of a weed. But of that collection of books from that module, the only one I ditched was Testament of Youth. Because I hated it.

So now they lived on the downstairs bookshelf at the old house. And it should be on the same bookshelf now. But it’s not. And it’s really annoying me. Especially since my copy of Strange Meeting returned to base the other week (even if my mum didn’t realise it was mine, despite the fact my name was written in the front of it!). So where have I put it? And what do I do? I could buy a new copy, but it wouldn’t be the same edition – and I want the same edition. And of course if I do, the original one could turn up. Although I’ve been waiting for years for my copy of Regeneration to turn up as it was one of a matching set and it hasn’t yet so what do I know.

Maybe the act of writing this will magic my copy back to me? It’s a turn of the century small paperback sized Penguin one, with the black and white photo of the trenches on the front. It’s completely the wrong size for all the other books from that module, but I don’t care because it’s the *right* version for me. Thanks.

Book of the Week, memoirs, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Educated

Well. I’m going to preface this with a Not For Everyone warning, and I’m going to depart from my recent well trodden path of crime and romance recommendations and go with a nonfiction memoir. And I’m only about four years behind, which is fairly par for the course for me to be honest as you all well know.

Educated is Tara Westover’s memoir about growing up in a doomsday prepping, fanatically religious household in Idaho and about how she struggled free. Her father is convinced that the end of days is coming, and that the government is plotting against him. This means that Tara is home schooled, but home school actually often involves working in the family junkyard. Her father also doesn’t believe in doctors or the medical profession in general and so injuries and illnesses go untreated. Eventually Tara manages to escape to university and finds herself in a world that she is ill equipped to deal with and lacking basic knowledge that others take for granted. But conflict with her family remains and she has to find a way to navigate that.

This needs all the warnings. I don’t think it’s giving too much to say that there is an incredible amount of violence in this – and whatever injuries you’re imaging went untreated, you are not imagining anything bad enough. I had been warned by my sister and I still wasn’t prepared. So go into this expecting: child abuse, child neglect, sibling violence, bullying and pretty much any behaviour that triggers a mandatory child protection referral if a teacher were to suspect it was going on. But of course Tara wasn’t in school so, yeah. It just goes on.

But if you want to know more about survivalists and some of the extremes of some of the offshoots of Mormonism then this will give you that. And some. Tara Westover has built a fresh life for herself and, spoiler alert, has managed to build healthy relationships – some of which are with some of her family. Unsurprisingly perhaps, her parents disagree with her descriptions of her childhood – and her mother has in fact written her own book in response to this, which she has self-published and in doing so has given all the real names of the people who Tara had given pseudonyms to. If you fancy an interesting half hour, after you have finished Educated, you can go and read the reviews of that on goodreads. I’m not sure you need to do any more than that because I think you’ll be able to draw your own conclusions from that.

Now I’m fairly sure my copy of Educated came from NetGalley, but so long ago now that it’s not even funny. You can get Educated everywhere. It has been on all the lists, been recommended by everyone who you could want to recommend it. I’ve seen it in pretty much every bookshop and some supermarkets too. And of course it’s on Kindle and Kobo.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, memoirs, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Here for It

As I mentioned yesterday, last week I mostly binged on George Bellairs and I’ve talked about him relatively recently. But luckily I also read R Eric Thomas’s book of essays, so I get to tell you about that today!

Cover of Here for It

I think I first came across him as a podcast guest, but in case you haven’t come across him before, R Eric Thomas writes the “Eric Reads the News” column for Elle.com and is Very Funny. This an essay collection but as a whole it also forms a memoir about growing up different and how he found his way and place in life. He was one of the few black pupils at his high school and his Ivy League college. He was brought up attending a conservative black church but he is gay. And it took him a while to figure out what he wanted to do with his life, a period which included going viral on the early internet and not in a good way.

This is basically a funny and joyful journey to self-acceptance. Some of the essays really, really work. Thomas is also a playwright and coupled with his storyteller ability means that he has a knack for picking out themes that run through his life and finding just the right experience to use to tell you about it. And it means the stories build and develop and go somewhere (which is somehow rarer than you expect it to be in essay collections) and make you think.

It made me laugh and it made me think and it was a really great book to read in these strange quarantimes we are living in. I think it’s a special order in the UK – Amazon only has the hardback and no kindle edition right now – so I don’t think you’ll be able to pick it up off a shelf in the bookstore. If you want a taste of R Eric before you buy, here is one of my favourite of his recent columns but he also has a newsletter that you could sign up for and see if you’re interested.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, memoirs

Book of the Week: The Chiffon Trenches

So as I said yesterday, it was an awful week. But at least I have a good book to tell you about today. Sometimes it’s the small things isn’t it.

Cover of The Chiffon Trenches

So The Chiffon Trenches is André Leon Talley’s new memoir about his life in the fashion industry. If you’re my age, you may have first seen him  as a judge on America’s Next Top Model around the time they started trying to update the series to make it more high fashion – the era of the Vogue Italia photospread prize, before they started getting people to vote on social media – but he left after the madness that was the All Stars season. Ahem. Anyway, serious fashion fans will actually know him as a long-standing and long-serving member of the Vogue editorial team, where among his roles he was Creative Director, Fashion News Editor and an Editor-at-Large.

This is not his first memoir (although I haven’t read the previous one) but this one deals with his early life, his rise to prominence, his relationship with Anna Wintour and his role in fighting for more diversity and representation in fashion. He is a striking figure – and it’s not just because he’s a 6’7 man who wears couture kaftans – this book will take you on a hell of a journey. He was born in North Carolina in the time of Jim Crow laws. He won a scholarship to Brown University where he did a Masters in French Literature and was intending to be a French teacher. His first mentor was Diana Vreeland. He worked for Andy Warhol at the Factory and at his magazine Interview. He was Anna Wintour’s righthand person through her rise to the top job at Vogue and beyond. And this is his attempt to make sure that his achievements are seen in their own right and his work and not as part of Anna Wintour’s.

It’s fascinating. He’s got all the stories about all the people. If you’ve read about fashion – or about the Studio 54 crowd – it’s all here. Dancing with Diana Ross. Weekend’s at Karl Lagerfelds. European princesses. There’s a best dressed list (male and female) at the back. I didn’t always love his writing style – but I did love the content. It’s a mind-blowing peek at the excesses of the world of high fashion and at the world of Vogue at a time when money was rolling in and anything went. And he’s very keen to set you straight about what the Devil Wears Prada got wrong. If you’ve read Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair Diaries (which I did a couple of years back) there is some neat crossover here. If you’re a serious fashion fan, I don’t know how much it will tell you that you don’t know – except what Talley’s view on everything is and how he wants to position himself. But it’s a lot of fun finding out.

You should be able to get hold of this fairly easily at your book store of choice. It’s a hardback at the moment and it only came out a couple of months back so I would expect it to be on one of the tables or in one of the displays fairly near the front rather than in hidden away in a specialist section. And it is also an audiobook (that he reads himself!) and on Kindle and Kobo.

Happy Reading

Book of the Week, memoirs

Book of the Week: You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams

I said yesterday that I wasn’t sure if there would be a BotW pick this week, but I had a think and had a write and this is what I came up with. It seemed a shame not to have a book of the week post for the week that included world book week – even if I didn’t have the greatest week and it had an impact on my reading. But You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams perked me up last week when I was feeling a bit blue and stressed so here we have it.

You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams is a coffee table book with a bit of extra. It’s a set of picture essays about moments in the actor and singer’s life. Depending on your age you’ll know Cumming from GoldenEye, the first batch of X-Men movies, The Good Wife or his work on stage – notably as the MC in the revival of Cabaret. If you’re a certain age and British, you may remember him from his sitcom about a minor Scottish airline, The High Life. His life has been eventful and this gives you snapshot glimpses of it all – from his difficult relationship with his dad, to his fragrance range (Including a body wash called Cumming all over) to meeting Liz Taylor and being friends with Liza Minnelli. Cumming has picked his stories carefully and it feels gossipy and revealing as you read it, but is actually very cleverly picking what it’s divulging. He has written a memoir about his relationship with his father which was painful and difficult and this is not that and I don’t think covers much of the same material at all – it’s more about the different facets of Cumming’s life and the pictures he’s taken of it.

I bought this when I saw Cumming in concert in London a few years ago*, which is why the book is signed and it had a fairly similar mix of stories to that gig – which was lovely and brought back the memories of that night in the theatre. I’m not ruling out reading Cumming’s memoir about discovering his real family history when he went on Who Do You Think You Are (even after hearing the story from the video below) but that wasn’t what I needed last week – and this was.

This one might be a little tougher to get hold of than some of my other picks because it is a couple of years old now, but Amazon tells me that it has hardcover copies in stock. It’s also available in Kindle and as an audiobook, but the photos are such an integral part of this that I can’t imagine that it would work anywhere near as well without them alongside at the least.

Happy Reading!

*I found the ticket for that concert tucked in this book and was shocked, shocked I tell you, to discover how long this has been on the to-read pile.

Book of the Week, memoirs, reviews

Book of the Week: Year of the Fat Knight

My final BotW of 2019 continues the Year of Non-fiction, except this is one from the to read bookshelf and not from the library. If you’ve missed my look back at my reading obsessions over the year, you can find them here, and also my best books of the year. Coming up tomorrow, instead of the stats, is my look ahead to some new books coming in 2020. The stats will follow later in the week. Because I’m that good to you. Anyway, to the review.

Year of the Fat Knight on a bookshelf

Ever wondered what it takes to be an actor? Or more particularly if you’ve got what it takes to be an actor? You sort of half think it might be an easy life right? Wrong. Over the course of this book you watch (in your mind’s eye at least) Antony Sher agonise over taking a part, preparing for the part and playing the part. And as you read, you realise all the hidden hard work that goes into crafting a performance, an interpretation of words on paper.

The Fat Knight of the title is Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s iconic creations. But not, as Sher muses, one that The Big Names often play. He muses that there are traditionally two tracks for Shakespearean actors – one leads to King Lear, via Macbeth and Hamlet, and the other to Falstaff (via parts like Bottom) and that never the twain shall meet. But here is Sher – who famously played Richard III as a young man (which Sher also wrote a book about) and who I saw play Macbeth just after the turn of the century* – considering an offer, from his partner (now husband) no less, to play Falstaff. Illustrated with Sher’s own drawings, it’s fascinating and eye opening and incredibly readable. Sher’s husband is Gregory Doran, a director who at the start of the book is just taking over the helm at the RSC so as well as the musings on Falstaff, you get a peek behind the curtain at the RSC and in the world of theatre generally. The two are named as a power couple in the media in a couple of lists during the book, which perplexes Sher but reminds the reader that there are fairly large stakes here professionally. The production – and Sher’s performance – were a success but that never feels anywhere near certain as you read it.

I raced through this and although I didn’t see the productions of Henry IV Sher is writing about, I have seen a couple of the others that are mentioned in it and have seen some of the other actors in other things which made for an added bonus as a theatre nerd.  I don’t know that you need to be a theatre nerd to enjoy this though – I think you just need to be someone who is interested in process and creation.  If you’ve ever wondered how a production of Shakespeare is put together, whether the actors really understand what they’re saying and how they create a character, this would certainly interest to you.  But if you’re a creator of something else, I think this would be worth a look as well – and you can compare your process in your field to this.  I’m sure you’d get something out of it.

I had this on the shelf – I think it came from a work book sale a year or so ago (it came out in , but you should be able to get hold of a copy fairly easily from a bookshop with a theatre section.  Mine is a hardback, but there is also a paperback edition now. If you want to buy online, may I suggest you go direct to Nick Hern Books, the publisher, where the price is within pennies of that of Amazon as I write this and will undoubtedly benefit them more direct.  They’ve got 20% off everything at the moment – so in one of life’s more predictable moments, I ordered myself Sher’s other two books on acting – the aforementioned Year of the King and his latest, Year of the Mad King about King Lear – when I went to check this out.

Happy Reading and Happy New Year!

*Gosh that makes me feel old saying that, but although the turn of the century automatically makes me think of the start of the 20th century, we’re far enough into the 21st now that I probably should get used to it.  I saw Macbeth with Sher and Harriet Walter at the Swan in Stratford sometime around 2000 – I still have the poster somewhere, but I’m not getting it out to check!