Weekend: Books: For Your Reference: Last Minute Christmas Gift Books

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Byline: Ross Reyburn and Martin Longley

How many famous people can you name who have been born in Birmingham? Intriguingly The Book of British Birthplaces (Breedon Books, pounds 8.99) lists a grand total of 50 with the industrialist Matthew Boulton (1728-1809), chocolate manufacturer and philanthropist George Cadbury (1839-1922), comedian Tony Hancock (1924-1968) among the front rank names, as well as the innovative scientist Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), the man who devised forensic fingerprinting.

Avid followers of the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland (1901-1999) probably know she came from the city but websites tend to throw a smokescreen over the fact actress Felicity Kendal (1947-) was born in Birmingham by listing her birthplace as 'Olton, Warwickshire'.

First published in 1997, this book in its second edition has an A-Z of locations while a name index provides an essential cross-reference.

London dominates with some 16 pages of names but being born in upmarket locations doesn't seem an automatic route to fame. For example the only person of note Esher in Surrey seems to have produced is the Habitat creator Sir Terence Orby Conran (1931-) while the solitary entry for Sutton Coldfield is trade union leader Arthur Deakin (1890-1955) of all people.

That product of Goff's Oak in Hertfordshire, Victoria Beckham (1974-), getting listed is a sad indictment of modern day values. Strangely two of the greatest of all sportsmen, the legendary England footballer Duncan Edwards from Dudley, and the greatest bowler in cricket history, SF Barnes of Smethwick, are nowhere to be found. No matter, this publication is an interesting addition to the world of reference books. Firmly in the invaluable category is the paperback edition of Who Wrote What? A Dictionary of Writers and Their Works (Oxford University Press, pounds 14.99) edited by Michael Cox. The book has a pleasing symmetry with the writer's works neatly laid out in date order in the author index and the total of 23 novels written by Birmingham writers Jim Crace, David Lodge and Sebastian Coe are all listed. If you know the title but not the author, the second part of the book is the title index.

The works of Shakespeare may be well-known but how many know that Richard III(1592-93) was his first play and his last work not published until 1634 was The Two Noble Kinsmen? I was once told by a learned man of literature that the marvellous Just William series by Richmal Crompton depicting British youth at its glorious best in an era long gone included a book titled William and the Atomic Bomb. Disappointingly Cox lists no such title under Richmal Crompton (1890-1969). Russell Ash's The Top Ten of Everything 2003 (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 12.99) is the 14th edition of this bestselling reference book and is laden with fascinating facts.

The idea that the modern child has forgotten the art of reading in the computer age is contradicted by the fact that in the year 2001, JK Rowling's Harry Potter books sold an astonishing total of more than 3 1 /2 million copies in the UK. Stalingrad with an estimated two million dead, wounded and missing is in a league of its own as the battle with the most casualties.

Vincent van Gough's Portrait du Dr Gachet is the world's most expensive painting after its New York sale for pounds 44,378,696 to a Japanese buyer in 1990 but how many know Calla Lillies with Red Anemone by American painter Georgia O'Keefe bought for pounds 3,948,662 in another New York sale is the most expensive painting by a woman artist? …