Best memoirs and biographies to read in 2024

Dive into some of the most compelling life stories – from Britney Spears to Keir Starmer

Book covers of The Woman in Me by Britney Spears, Lou Reed: The King of New York by Will Hermes, and Original Sins by Matt Rowland Hill
Intimate narratives are revealed in these landmark biographies and memoirs
(Image credit: Simon & Schuster / Penguin)

Keir Starmer: The Biography by Tom Baldwin

Although Keir Starmer is almost certain to be our next prime minister, he remains an "oddly elusive" figure, said Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian. People often complain that they don't really know what he stands for, and he talks about personal matters somewhat stiffly, as if holding something back. All this makes a book such as Keir Starmer: The Biography feel long overdue. Tom Baldwin is a former journalist who worked for five years as a Labour spin doctor; he was originally recruited to ghostwrite Starmer's own memoir, but Starmer backed out of the project last year, agreeing instead to cooperate on this biography. The result, while not exactly revelatory – Baldwin warns that his pages won't be "spattered with blood" – does a job that "very precisely mirrors its subject": it is careful, nuanced and eminently capable. "It is, in short, as intimate an insight into Britain's likely next prime minister as readers are probably going to get." 

The most interesting chapters concern Starmer's "difficult early life", said Robert Shrimsley in the FT. Starmer grew up in a cramped semi in Surrey with a "seriously ill mother", Jo (she had Still's disease); a "cold, difficult" father, Rodney (a toolmaker); and three siblings (one of whom, Nick, has learning difficulties). Television was banned in the Starmer household, the "radio played only Beethoven or Shostakovich", and Rodney "barracked and bullied" visiting schoolfriends, said Patrick Maguire in The Times. Although Starmer was the only one of the siblings to go to grammar school and university, and then became a leading barrister, his dad never once told him he made him proud. Only after his death in 2018 did Starmer find out this wasn't "the full story": hidden in his father's wardrobe was a "scrapbook of every newspaper story about his son".

Many politicians pose as regular people, but Starmer emerges from this as someone who really is quite ordinary, said Matthew d'Ancona in the Evening Standard. He is happiest spending time with his family, or organising weekend eight-a-side football games. As his deputy, Angela Rayner, puts it: he is "the least political person I know in politics". The "one nagging question" is how much Baldwin's political sympathies have coloured his portrait, said Ben Riley-Smith in The Daily Telegraph. Had he discovered "less laudable aspects of Sir Keir's story", would he have "forensically interrogated" them? This may not, then, quite be a definitive biography – but it is engaging and "skilfully done".

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Hardy Women by Paula Byrne

The fame of the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy rested largely on the heroines he created, said Norma Clarke in Literary Review. With the likes of Tess Durbeyfield (Tess of the d'Urbervilles) and Sue Bridehead (Jude the Obscure), he displayed, as one young reader wrote to him, a "complete understanding of a woman's soul". But as Paula Byrne shows in this fascinating book, the women Hardy knew in real life were less fortunate. Byrne doggedly details them all, from Hardy's "strong-minded" mother, Jemima, to the "pretty girls" who "turned his head" in his youth, to his wives, Emma Gifford and Florence Dugdale (pictured, with Hardy). Hardy's women, she concludes, "paid a large price" for the "magnificent fictional women he invented". "In a sign of trouble to come, young Hardy fell in love violently and often," said Susie Goldsbrough in The Times. His first serious entanglement, says Byrne, "was with a Dorset maidservant called Eliza Nicholls, whom he dumped for her young sister". 

In his mid-30s, Hardy married Emma, a solicitor's daughter. Although initially happy, the marriage soured as "Emma gained weight" and became increasingly eccentric. By the time of her death, aged 72, in 1912, she was living in the attic of their Dorset home – and the much younger Florence was living with them, having been employed as Hardy's typist. After Hardy married Florence in 1914, she had to put up with him "enthusiastically mourning the wife he had spent years complaining about" – and who now became the subject of an "astonishing" series of love poems. Although Byrne is sometimes hampered by a lack of evidence (Hardy destroyed most of Emma's letters, together with the journal she wrote about him), this is still an "absorbing" portrait of the women who suffered for Hardy's art.

William Collins 656pp; £25 (£19.99)

The Woman in Me by Britney Spears

In January 2008 – 11 months after the notorious occasion when she shaved off her own hair in a Los Angeles salon – Britney Spears was asked by her parents to meet them at their beach house, said Anna Leszkiewicz in The New Statesman. "There she was ambushed by police and taken to hospital against her will." A month later, the state of California placed the pop star under a "conservatorship" – a legal arrangement giving her father, Jamie, full control of her finances and personal life. For the next 13 years, Spears was "told what to eat, what medication to take, when she could see her children", even when she could and couldn't use the lavatory. Meanwhile, her father "paid himself a $6m salary" from the proceeds of her endless concerts and recordings. It's no surprise, in the circumstances, that Spears's memoir reads "like a dark fairy tale". Powerful and compellingly candid, it tells of how a "young girl, both adored and vilified for her beauty, talent and fame", was effectively "imprisoned" by her jealous and avaricious family.

The truth, of course, is that Spears had always been controlled and infantilised, said Neil McCormick in The Daily Telegraph. She became a "people-pleasing child performer" at a young age, supporting her family by appearing in theatrical musicals. Aged 16, male music executives moulded her into "America's teen pop princess" – and soon she was being taken advantage of by "narcissistic self-serving boyfriends", and "hounded by paparazzi". When she rebelled against her "powerlessness", her sanity was called into question – a process she "specifically likens to a witch trial". Her memoir, written without self-pity, is gripping and "forensically convincing". Finally, we know what it feels like to be the "madwoman in the attic of pop".

Gallery 288pp £25, (£19.99)

Marcia Williams by Linda McDougall

"Imagine a story of sex, drugs and secrets inside Downing Street. A story of a political wife accused of meddling, and a resignation honours list mired in scandal," said Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian. But no, it's not the one you're imagining: this biography by Linda McDougall tells the "irresistible tale" of Marcia Williams, political secretary and "office wife" to Labour PM Harold Wilson. Baroness Falkender, as she became in 1974, was one of the most controversial and vilified political figures of the 1960s and 1970s. According to many, she was a "hysterical tyrant" with a "dark hold" over Wilson. McDougall offers a more nuanced portrait. Without ignoring Williams's flaws, she outlines the strains she must have been under, as a high-achieving woman with a troubled personal life living in rampantly sexist times. Her Williams, while "no heroine", is "fascinating". 

Williams, the daughter of a Northamptonshire builder, first met Wilson in the mid-1950s, when she became a secretary at Labour HQ, said Frances Wilson in The Daily Telegraph. She began sending the then-shadow chancellor anonymous letters, alerting him to machinations within the party. She soon became Wilson's private secretary – at which point, McDougall admits, they probably had a brief affair. (She later allegedly told Wilson's wife, Mary: "I went to bed with your husband six times in 1956 and it wasn't satisfactory.") In 1964, when Wilson became PM, he appointed Williams his political secretary, a newly created role that made her one of Britain's first unelected political advisers. She stayed in it when Wilson lost power in 1970, and went with him back to Downing Street when he regained it in 1974.

It was then that Private Eye revealed that "Lady Forkbender" had a shocking secret, said Anne de Courcy in The Spectator. In 1968 and 1969, Williams had given birth to two children – the result of an affair with political journalist Walter Terry. The births had been hushed up; Williams concealed her pregnancies by wearing a baggy coat at work. Amid a public outcry, McDougall suggests, Williams resorted to taking amphetamine pills and Valium, "prescribed by Wilson's doctor", which contributed to the "hysterical outbursts" for which she became known. Further scandal followed in 1976, when it was revealed that Williams had hand-written Wilson's controversial resignation honours list (dubbed the "Lavender List") on a sheet of lilac paper. McDougall's sympathetic book is a "gripping" portrait both of an "extraordinary woman", and of the "emotional dynamics of Downing Street".

Biteback 304pp; £25 (£19.99)

Lou Reed: The King of New York by Will Hermes

Lou Reed, the lead vocalist of the Velvet Underground, who died in 2013, already has a longish shelf of biographies. This one is the first to make use of his personal archive, "and it shows", said David Keenan in Literary Review. "It feels more like a coolly researched biography than one written by a passionate fan." What's more, Will Hermes tries to repackage the "violently aggressive, drug-huffing", gender-bending, "sexually unhinged" rock star to make him acceptable to the modern world: Reed and his circle were "nonbinary", Hermes informs us; he suggests that Reed was a troubled person who tried to become "someone good" (as he wrote in one of his best-loved songs, Perfect Day), not the sociopath that his behaviour suggested. The result is an "awkward love letter to the 20th century", but "the perfect biography of Lou Reed for 2023": a defensive depiction of a man whose stock in trade was "all that was difficult and dark and destructive in what it is to be human".

It's "the only Lou Reed bio you need to read", said Stephen Metcalf in The Washington Post. It's really two biographies: one of Lewis Allan Reed, the sensitive, middle-class, midcentury music fan; and one of the louche, sardonic, drug-addled persona he invented and inhabited. From Reed's early days with Andy Warhol to his  breakthrough as a solo star, with a little help from David Bowie, it's all there, written up with a judicious blend of "love and scepticism". Hermes doesn't conceal the evidence that Reed became a pampered celeb who could be as obnoxious to waiters as he was to journalists. But he's good on Reed's "musically confrontational" yet "unabashedly romantic" songwriting. The book gets the balance between the person and the poseur "exactly right".

Viking 560pp £25; (£19.99)

Dinner with Joseph Johnson by Daisy Hay

The radical publisher Joseph Johnson was a "key figure" in late 18th century London, said the FT. Many of the great minds of the age – Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, William Blake – attended his weekly salons. A biography of Johnson has long been overdue – and this one is "meticulous". It’s altogether a "delightful book", said The Times – one that gives its readers the "feeling of being at a rather elevated party".

Vintage £10.99; (£8.99)

Original Sins by Matt Rowland Hill

This "devastatingly good" memoir recounts how its author "swapped a love of Jesus for a love of Class-A drugs", said The Daily Telegraph. Following his strict evangelical upbringing in Swansea, Hill won a scholarship to Harrow and then went to Oxford – where he became addicted to heroin. The themes of this book are not exactly original, said The Guardian. But it proves "propulsive" and "brilliant" – thanks to Hill's black humour and his "lacerating candour".

Vintage £10.99; (£8.99)

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