Category Archives: autobiography

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL – Review of Rough Magic: Riding the world’s wildest horse race by Lara Prior-Palmer #Brainfluffbookreview #RoughMagicbookreview

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I have to come clean – I requested this book because I was under the impression that it was a fantasy adventure, due to the title. For once, my trick of not reading the blurb tripped me up…

The Mongol Derby is the world’s toughest horse race. An outrageous feat of endurance across the vast Mongolian plains once traversed by the army of Genghis Khan, the Derby sees competitors ride 25 horses across 1000km, and it’s rare that more than half of the riders make it to the finish line. In 2013 Lara Prior-Palmer – nineteen, wildly underprepared and in search of the great unknown – decided to enter the race. Finding on the wild Mongolian steppe strength and self-knowledge she didn’t know she possessed, even whilst caught in biblical storms and lost in the mountains, Lara tore through the field with her motley crew of horses. She didn’t just complete the race: in one of the Derby’s most unexpected results, she won, becoming the youngest-ever competitor to conquer the course.

Lara makes an intriguing protagonist – in this painfully honest memoir of a tricky time in her life when she signed up for this most testing adventure on a fairly random whim, I get a sense of a very strong determined personality who is a work-in-progress. I liked the messiness of the characterisation. She is clearly someone not comfortable in her own skin – literally, as it happens. This gawky nineteen-year-old has been suffering with chronic stomach pains that no one has been able to successfully diagnose – and as the race wore on and many of the other competitors dropped away, it did occur to me that the reason why she managed to stick it out when so many others couldn’t, is simply that she’s used to being in constant physical discomfort and pain.

I say ‘simply’, but of course real life isn’t that simple. This book isn’t just about Lara’s gritted determination to complete – and ultimately win – a particularly gruelling horse race, it’s also about her take on the stunning scenery, the people in her life – and how comfortable she feels within herself. It’s striking that when in amongst other people, what falls out of her mouth is often crass and/or simply embarrassing. She mentions near the start of the book that she hasn’t many filters and at school she was in the habit of coming out with whatever was floating through her head at the time.

There’s a sense of her not really fitting in – not at home, or in her daily life and certainly not at the start of the race. By the end, however, it’s a different matter. The vets and race organisers begin to look upon her as a contender and there’s an implicit sense that there’s growing respect for her. Not that she mentions it – I’m not sure even now that she’s aware of how awed they were at her toughness and horsemanship. It’s striking that her main competitor pushed her horses really hard throughout, which eventually cost her the race. Mostly, Lara didn’t.

I’m conscious that I’ve written a great deal about the protagonist and not a whole lot about the race – it’s partly because I don’t want to stray into Spoiler territory, but also because I love the fact that while one thing is going on – the race – Lara is also busy growing up…

Her descriptions of her various horses, the varying weather and stunning scenery, along with her immediate reaction to it is masterfully done. This book pulled me in and held me throughout – I found it a fascinating, layered read that told me about so much more than a very challenging horse race. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys reading about true adventures.
9/10

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Review of The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, translated by K.A. Yoshida and David Mitchell

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I heard this book narrated on Radio 4 and was transfixed. Normally the radio is the background for the necessary loathed household chores I have to perform – but during that week, I sat down and listened. So it was a no-brainer to get hold of the book and read it for myself. Most books – for me – provide a really enjoyable way to escape the everyday. But there are a hatful of books that are inspirational, thought-provoking and genuinely life changing. I’m a tad allergic to books which trumpet this aspect – mostly because they’re not. However, The Reason I Jump is the real article.

reason I jumpI have to declare an interest – several years ago I looked after the son of my closest friend when she had to return to work while he was still very tiny, after he became extremely distressed when left with the childminder. He settled into my arms and we bonded… I love babies. I’m good with babies. And he was a sweetheart, so cuddly and affectionate. So bright-eyed and bubbly. Initially he hit all his milestones, but then around a year old, his progress seemed to falter and he started withdrawing. And sliding backwards… Anyone who knows about autism firsthand will, doubtless, recognise the whole wretched sequence. It was devastating when he was finally diagnosed. His parents have worked tirelessly on a range of therapies and he has made marvellous progress. His mother is currently writing a book about their experiences together.

What is it like to have autism? How can we know what a person – especially a child – with autism is thinking and feeling, so that we can help them?

This remarkable book, written by Naoki Higashida when he was only thirteen, provides some answers. Severely autistic, Naoki learnt to communicate via pointing to letters on a ‘cardboard keyboard’ – and what he has to say gives an exceptional insight into an autistically-wired mind. He explains the often baffling behaviour of people with autism, invites us to share his perception of time, life, beauty and nature, and offers an unforgettable short story. Proving beyond doubt that people with autism do not lack imagination, humour or empathy. Naoki makes a heartfelt plea for our patience and compassion.

For David Mitchell, The Reason I Jump provided an invaluable insight into his own autistic son’s mind. He and his wife ,K.A. Yoshida, have translated the book in the hope that it will benefit others in the same way, and dispel some of the widely held myths about autism. For all readers, Naoki Higashida offers a rare opportunity to view the world from a fresh and fascinating perspective.

The book is structured by posing questions that Naoki answers – questions that any of us who have cared for someone with autism have yearned to ask. While David Mitchell’s foreword gives the best description of this mysterious disorder that I have ever read. Naoki’s answers are direct and passionate – that’s what reverberates through the whole book for me… The intensity of his emotion. And yet, looking at his blank face, his avoidance of eye contact, his silence – Naoki finds speech very difficult – we would assume that his emotions are all locked down and he simply doesn’t care all that much about the rest of us… That is the heartbreaking aspect of this disorder – and why this book is so vitally important.

For carers struggling to cope, the sense that an autistic sufferer is indifferent to their efforts in trying to break through is exhausting and discouraging. Exhausted and discouraged carers don’t do a good job – with the best will in the world, your bleakness imparts itself to everyone around you. Especially to the person trapped inside themselves, with no way out to show how much he needs patience and optimism. Which is why words like inspirational and life-changing really do make sense when discussing The Reason I Jump.

Though he isn’t the first person to do it, I’m still awestruck when I consider that this book was written letter by painful letter, with thirteen-year-old Naoki pointing to each one, while someone copied it all down. If autism has touched your life, you owe it to yourself to read this book. Or maybe you feel fed up with the daily doses of ugliness on the news and need evidence of just how enduring the human spirit can be when faced with immense difficulties.  Do yourself a favour, get hold of The Reason I Jump – and perhaps you will also want to jump high to reach the sky in the knowledge that you share DNA with Naoki Higashida.
10/10

Review of EBOOK Are We Nearly There Yet? by Ben Hatch

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Ben came to talk to West Sussex Writers last year about tweeting and online marketing, as his guidebook has become an Amazon non-fiction best-seller. He seemed a thoroughly nice chap with an endearingly honest streak. I found his book online and loaded up on my Kindle as a summer read, to use it as a reward when I had written at least half of next term’s course notes…

are we nearly there yetIf you think writing a guidebook is easy, think again… A family’s 8,000 miles round Britain in a Vauxhall Astra. They were bored, broke, burned out and turning 40, so when Ben and Dinah saw the advert looking for a husband and wife team with young kids to write a guidebook about family travel around Britain, they jumped at the chance. With naïve visions of staring moodily across Coniston Water and savouring Cornish pasties, they embark on a mad-cap five-month trip with daughter Phoebe, four, and son Charlie, two, embracing the freedom of the open road with a spirit of discovery and an industrial supply of baby wipes.

I had expected a catalogue of mini-disasters, child-centred chaos and a certain amount of family tension – I’m a granny who spends a fair amount of my ‘free’ time looking after small grandchildren, so am only too aware of what an exhausting, messy job it can be. What I hadn’t expected, was the stark honesty with which Hatch portrays family life. He gave us an intimate history of his relationship with his wife and how they weathered a previous break-up, as well as an unvarnished account of the interplay between them, including the fights.

We also got the expected small children moments, though Hatch manages to keep parental sentimentality well and truly in check. The children came across as bright and articulate – and often more than a tad hyper, probably on account of all those chocolate buttons they were being fed to persuade them to be good…

While I was aware that Ben’s father, Sir David Hatch, had been suddenly diagnosed with cancer just before they set out on their five month adventure, I hadn’t expected the very moving recollections of Ben’s boyhood and his relationship with his father, who died while they were still on the road. It was poignant and rich as Ben’s sharp, honest prose sliced to the heart of how he felt, also wrestling with the prospect of his daughter disappearing off to school once the trip ended. So what this book is all about, is family life. About a couple of bright, intelligent people haunted by the sense that they were not fulfilling the promise of their youth, but instead had somehow become other people. In the middle of looking at museums, grading hotels for child-friendliness and coping with tantrums while always being in public – I got the sense that Ben and Diane discovered a lot more about families than how many chocolate buttons it takes to make a four-year-old sick.

If you are remotely interested in family life, get hold of a copy of this book. It packs far more a punch than the light-hearted cover conveys.
9/10

Fantasycon 2012 – My Highlights

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It’s a whole year since I first dipped my big toe into the Conference scene – starting with last year’s Fantasycon held at the Royal royal_albion_1Albion Hotel in Brighton. It turned out to be my favourite – both Bristolcon and Eastercon were wonderful, but for my money Fantasycon is the one for a bibliophile, with its heavy emphasis on books, writing and authors. So, a year later would I still feel the same way?

This year I brought my husband along. John is also a speculative fiction fan, so I knew he wouldn’t be moodily mooching along at my side, wishing he were elsewhere. Have to say, the Royal Albion Hotel is also a firm favourite. Yes… I know the checking in procedure is a long-winded nightmare; that the subterranean rooms make a sauna feel chilly; that the whole place – frankly – has seen better days. But on a sunny day, the light streams through the huge sash windows in the Regency lounge and the view out to the pier and the sea is just fab. And while it isn’t the last word in efficiency, the staff are invariably friendly.

STANDOUT MOMENTS
Meeting up with friends I only get to see at conventions – like Mhairi Simpson, Justin Newland, Roy Gray and Susan Bartholomew is one of the main joys of coming to these events – as well as meeting new folks like Lynne Stephens, who managed to combine Fantasycon with a business trip from the US. Talking about science fiction and fantasy books to people who actually know the authors you’re on about is very empowering.

alchemistofsoulsI’d already started reading Janet Edward’s science fiction YA book, Earthgirl, before arriving at the hotel, but found it absolutely compelling – so found the time to finish it AND discuss it with Janet, which was great… I’ll be writing a full review of it in due course.

Another book I picked up while at the Con that I managed to complete, was Kim Curran’s Shift – another enjoyable read. And then started in on Anne Lyle’s historical fantasy The Alchemist of Souls, another thoroughly quality book, which I acquired while here. And one I will also be reviewing…

I bumped into Jaine Fenn (literally!) while bopping in the disco, author of the wonderful Hidden Empire series – and she asked me to do a review of Downside Girls, her new short fiction book where the stories are all related to the characters in Principles of Angels. Of course, I said YES PLEASE.downsidegirls

The Open Mic Poetry Event – I went along to support Susan – and had a really enjoyable time. The poems covered a wide range of subjects and were generally of an impressively high standard. Roy Gray actually allowed me to read one his poems – though I was kicking my stupidity in not bringing some of my own stuff. My highlight was the wonderful Tina Rath, who actually knew her work well enough to perform it – and her poetry is a superbly creepy and funny.

I attended a fair number of panels – although the heat in the Fitzherbert Room was something else – and I think it’s a testament to the endurance and professionalism of all the panel members that by the end of a sweltering hour, they were still speaking and thinking coherently, while I was just plain melting…

220px-Juliet_E_McKennaKeeping It Real – This, for me, was the outstanding panel of those I managed to attend. Juliet McKenna is always excellent – intelligent and amusing. Brent Weeks proved to be a confident and adroit Moderator, while Adrian Tchaikovsky and Jasper Kent both were able to speak with the authority of experienced, established authors and although Benedict Jacka was clearly nervous, he also had some interesting insights. I could have happily sat and listened to these five authors speak for the rest of the morning.

The Quiz – Just like last year, this was insanely difficult. And I contributed absolutely nothing to my team, which actually did well, thanks to the likes of Amanda Rutter and Anne Lyle… However, watching Sarah Pinborough and Joe Abercrombie try and keep control of the proceedings was hilarious.

 

Brent Weeks’ Reading – He not only endured the heat of Room 132, he overcame it to perform his reading in a tour de force that brent-weeks-credit-travis-johnson-photographyhad his fans all groaning aloud by the end of the session, as his protagonist died in a hail of bullets. It was on the edge of the seat stuff – before he confessed that particular scene wouldn’t be making it into his latest book. Probably…

The Editorial Process – This Masterclass by Gillian Redfearn of Gollancz was excellent. She discussed the common faults authors make and how we can correct them, before moving onto to explaining how she approaches an author’s work, and the stages a manuscript goes through when being edited by a publishing house.

willhillHow To Write and Sell a YA Novel – Another high point. Will Hill was informative and very generous with his wealth of experience without being remotely patronising. As someone who is working on my first YA book, I found his advice invaluable – I think the Conference was worth it just for this particular session…

The Disco – This was a blast – I missed last year’s effort. Everyone was bopping around for all they were worth. And then, of course, there was that dance-off…

It’s always sad when feelings get trampled (actually, it was a minor miracle that no one ended up being squished underfoot when Joe Abercrombie and Tom Pollock went head to head…) Have to say, it was THE highlight of my Conference. Did the right man win? Anyone who has visited Joe’s blog recently will know his feelings on the subject. I bought him a drink the bar the following morning, when his devastation was apparent.  All I can say, is that if there was any kind of fix, I wasn’t aware of it. No doubt the inevitable Enquiry into the matter will produce a Report in Due Course. In the meantime – keep dancing, Joe…

My book addiction kicked in bigtime. John and I staggered onto the train home with 28 additional books in our luggage – which added to the 31 already stacked by my bedside means that my 2 year old grandson is now in imminent danger of being buried by a bookslide every time he scrambles off our bed.

And now that I’ve been back from Fantasycon 2012 for almost a week, my memories of the whole conference are backlit with the warm friendliness of everyone I encountered. A big thank you to everyone who worked so hard to make it possible – it was great!