Book review · Non-fiction

Book review: “A life without limits” by Chrissie Wellington

I picked up this book in the library, attracted by the title. I hadn’t heard of Chrissie Wellington and it wasn’t obvious from the front cover what she was a world champion in.

A life without limits by Chrissie Wellington
‘A life without limits’ by Chrissie Wellington with Michael Alywin (2012)

I soon discovered that her specialism was Ironman, a punishing endurance triathlon event consisting of a swim of 2.4 miles, followed by a bicycle ride of 112 miles, finishing off with a marathon-length (26.2 miles) run. These three components are undertaken straight after each other with no break, and the entire event is a race against other endurance athletes. The fact that anyone can do this is staggering to me, and Chrissie’s story is awe-inspiring.

Always a sporty child, Chrissie swam competitively at school and then at university, but it wasn’t until she was in her late 20s that she first tried triathlon. She immediately took to it, but despite her proven ability in the water, swimming proved to be her weakest component, which gives an indication of how good she was at cycling and running.

Even before turning professional as an athlete at the age of 30, Chrissie had achieved a great deal. After graduating from Birmingham University with a first class honours degree in geography, she travelled the world for two years before returning to the UK to do an MA in development studies at Manchester University where she graduated with distinction.

Following her studies she got a government job with DEFRA (Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). Although she enjoyed the work, she became disillusioned with the bureaucracy, and took a sabbatical to do development work in Nepal. Nepal provided her with the opportunity to hone her cycling skills, with regular long, steep cycle rides up mountains – perfect training for the tough endurance events she would enter in later years.

After leaving Nepal she travelled to several other countries, including New Zealand where she took part in an event consisting of running, cycling and kayaking. To her astonishment, she came in second after a gruelling race of more than 13 hours. From there she went to Argentina, where she took part in a duathlon event of running and cycling. Much to everyone’s amazement, she beat off all the competition, which included renowned professional athletes, to win the race. By this time it had become clear to her that working at DEFRA was not how she wanted to spend the rest of her life. She returned to the UK and quit her job to become a professional triathlete.

Her professional sports career was nothing short of remarkable. The Ironman World Championships are held each year in Hawaii, and Chrissie won the competition four times. Her last World Championship win was in 2011, coming hot on the heels of an accident that should have kept her out of the race altogether. Alongside an undoubted talent for endurance racing, she constantly demonstrated incredible determination to overcome obstacles and maintained a strong belief in her own abilities.

In the Epilogue, she sums up her career with some inspirational words. For each of us, she says, our limits are often not be where we think they are. Even if we achieve our ultimate goals we often find we’re capable of more than we’d have believed possible. Many different things are required to make a world champion, but refusing to put limits on your abilities is clearly an essential key to success. Chrissie Wellington’s inspirational story is testament to that.

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Book review · Non-fiction

Book review: “Lion” by Saroo Brierley

This book tells the astonishing true story of a young Indian boy who got lost after boarding a train on his own when he was only five years old. He ended up in Calcutta (Kolkata, as it now is), hundreds of miles from home, with no idea of how to get back to his family again.

For weeks he lived in and around the train station in Calcutta, foraging for food, sleeping on the streets wherever he could find shelter, and trying to find a way to get back home. He wasn’t sure of the name of his home town, and only had the word ‘Ginestlay’ to offer to anyone who tried to help him. This meant nothing to any of the people he spoke to, and the only other place name he had a vague recollection of was a common-sounding name that could have been anywhere in India.

Lion by Saroo Brierley

“Lion” by Saroo Brierley with Larry Buttrose (2013)

During the course of his time wandering around Calcutta, the young Saroo met people who helped him as well as those who meant him harm. He quickly learned to question people’s motives and developed the ability to judge whether or not he could trust them.

One day, a teenage boy befriended him on the street and took him home with him. The house offered a place of safety and Saroo stayed there for several days. The teenager then took Saroo to the police station. This frightened Saroo, but he trusted his friend enough to allow the police to take responsibility for him. They asked him lots of questions, but when they were unable to discover where he had come from, they took him to a children’s home full of hundreds of other lost or abandoned children.

Although the home gave him shelter and food to eat, it was over-crowded and Saroo often had to share a bed or sleep on the floor. He was bullied by older boys and disturbed by the distressing behaviour of some of the other children. After a month of living in the home he was handed over to an orphanage. The orphanage contained fewer children, most of whom were of a similar age to Saroo, and he felt much happier there.

Despite their best efforts to try and locate Saroo’s family, the people at the orphanage ran up against a brick wall. The best they could do, they told him, was to find him another family to live with. A few weeks later, a willing couple was identified. They were Australian and lived in Tasmania. He was shown photographs of the house he would live in, and the car his new family owned, realities that seemed unbelievable to him. With little idea of what his future held, he agreed to go to Tasmania.

At Melbourne Airport he met his new parents for the first time. He was shy and didn’t speak English, and they didn’t speak Hindi. It must have been very unsettling to be in a strange country, about to start a new life with complete strangers, but his ability to judge character no doubt helped him at this point. From the first time he saw them, he knew he could trust his new parents and immediately felt safe in their care.

It would be 25 years before he would stand on Indian soil again, as a 30-year-old Australian citizen attempting to find his birth mother. The story of how he traced his home town – using Google Earth to look for the few landmarks he could remember from his youth – is astonishing in its own right. I found his utter determination never to give up quite awe-inspiring.

His entire story is remarkable and I’m not surprised it’s now been made into a film. I haven’t seen the film, but it received six Oscar nominations and won two BAFTA awards.

Book review · Fiction

Book review: “The body on the beach” by Simon Brett

This is the first novel in Simon Brett’s series featuring Carole and Jude, neighbours in the fictional English village of Fethering.

I hadn’t read this book before, but having got to know the central characters from later stories I was interested to find out how they first met.

The body on the beach
“The body on the beach” by Simon Brett (2000)

While walking her dog, Gulliver, early one morning, Carole comes across the dead body of a middle-aged man lying on the beach. While Carole’s looking at the body, Gulliver runs off into the sea and comes out soaked in sea water and smelling of something unsavoury. When she gets home, keen to prioritise giving the dog a bath, Carole does that before attending to anything else. It’s only once Gulliver is clean and snoozing in the kitchen that Carole gets round to phoning the police.

While she’s waiting for the police to come and interview her, Carole notices her new neighbour beating the dust out of a rug in her front garden. Shocked that someone should carry out such a domestic chore at the front of the house, Carole makes negative assumptions about her new neighbour. Taking a brief rest from her beating, Jude turns and sees Carole looking out of the window. Carole is horrified by to have been caught watching but feels compelled to go out and introduce herself.

After a short chat that leaves Carole frustratingly bereft of answers to the many questions she has about Jude, the police call round and Carole turns her attention to telling them about her find on the beach. The police immediately rub her up the wrong way by appearing to doubt her tale. Carole prides herself on being eminently sensible and reliable and to have the police question her truthfulness is a dreadful slight. At the end of the interview they tell her that they went to the beach before calling in to see her, following her clear instructions about where she had seen the body. There was, they said, only one problem with her version of events: there was no dead body on the beach.

Later in the day, still upset about not being believed by the police, Carole opens her front door to a rough-looking woman who wants to know if she, Carole, found a body on the beach that morning. Curious to know who this woman might be, Carole invites her in. The woman, who seems a bit hysterical, demands to know if Carole saw anyone move the body. Carole does her best to stay calm, but when the woman pulls a gun out of her jacket pocket and starts raving at her, she concludes the woman is far from sane. She tells the woman she’s going to phone the police, but the woman threatens to shoot her if she does. Carole is wondering what to do when she’s saved by the doorbell.

When she opens the door she finds her new neighbour, Jude, standing there. Needing a break from unpacking, Jude has called round round to see if Carole fancies going for a drink at the local pub. While Carole’s busy at the front door the gun-toting woman disappears out of the back door, leaving Carole perplexed and needing very much to get things off her chest. She goes to the pub with Jude and, uncharacteristically, unburdens herself. Her neighbour proves to be a good listener and, unlike the police, she believes Carole’s tale.

While reading later books in the Fethering series, I had grown curious about how Carole and Jude had first got together to solve crimes, and why it was that they took things into their own hands rather than reporting things to the police. ‘The body on the beach’ answered my questions, and I very much enjoyed this story. Using my 4Ps rating system, I gave this book 17/20.

Book review · Non-fiction · Sport

Book review: “Rafa: my story” by Rafael Nadal with John Carlin

Having watched Rafael Nadal in Wimbledon tournaments for many years now, I was intrigued to learn more about what made him the champion he’s become.

This book gave me the insight I was hoping for, and was so well written and engaging I found it hard to put down.

Rafa
“Rafa: my story” by Rafael Nadal with John Carlin (2011)

Born in 1986 on the Spanish island of Mallorca, Nadal was coached from a young age by his uncle Toni. A gifted player himself, Toni had dreamed of being a big tennis star one day. Although undoubtedly talented, he discovered he lacked the strength and determination required to reach the very top. Instead, he threw himself into coaching youngsters in Mallorca, including his nephew, Rafa.

In the book, Toni recollects his early advice to the four-year-old Rafa: “First, hit the ball hard; then we’ll see about keeping it in.” Rafa, it seems, was an obedient and hard-working child even at that young age. His parents drummed into him the importance of having respect for others, particularly his elders, and instructed him to make a point of congratulating his opponents whenever they beat him at anything. Along with his Uncle Toni, they instilled in him the idea that however successful he might become, it was of paramount importance that he remain humble and keep his feet on the ground. Seen from the outside, the Nadal family seems unusually close and tight-knit. It is, apparently, the Mallorcan way, and it’s very clear from the book that Rafa highly values his family ties.

One of the things that has struck me about the tennis world is how often many of the top players change their coaches. It’s the opposite of how Rafa goes about his business. He has had the same team around him for years, and his Uncle Toni has coached him through 15 Grand Slam titles, making him the most successful tennis coach in history. (Things have in fact changed this year, six years after the book was published, with Toni retiring from Rafa’s coaching team; he now focuses on the Rafa Nadal Tennis Academy, coaching upcoming youngsters.)

The book is written in an interesting and unusual style, with every second chapter being told from the point of view of Rafa’s co-author, John Carlin, while the other chapters are written in Nadal’s own words. I enjoyed this chopping and changing between voices, because it allowed Carlin to make his own comments on Nadal and include quotes from the people who know him best, as well as giving Rafa the chance to tell his story in his own way. The majority of the chapters written in Rafa’s voice describe career-defining matches and the way he felt when he played them. Having watched one or two of these matches, most memorably the Wimbledon final he played against Roger Federer in 2008, it was fascinating to learn what Rafa was thinking and feeling during those critical moments.

I was expecting to enjoy this book, but I wasn’t anticipating such a rewarding read. It’s clear from the statistics that Rafael Nadal is an outstanding champion (only Roger Federer has won more men’s Grand Slam singles titles), but this book explains how he got to be so good. As he repeatedly says himself, his success would have been impossible without his incredibly supportive family and the close friends and advisers that make up Team Rafa.

As of now, Rafeal Nadal is 31 years old (four years younger than Roger Federer). Given that he won a record-breaking 10th French Open this year, you have to wonder what else he has in store. He currently holds 15 Grand Slam titles, to Federer’s 19. If Rafa stays fit and well over the next few years there’s surely every chance he could match, or even surpass, the great Federer’s amazing record.

Book review · Fiction

Book review: “The murder at the vicarage” by Agatha Christie

This is one of Agatha Christie’s detective novels featuring the brilliant elderly spinster, Miss Jane Marple. The story takes place in Miss Marple’s home village of St Mary Mead and centres round the murder of Colonel Protheroe, a prominent but not very likeable local magistrate.

One Wednesday lunchtime, irritated by Colonel Protheroe’s interferences in church affairs, the local vicar declares to his wife and nephew that anyone who murdered the Colonel would be doing the world a favour. On the following day, Protheroe is found shot dead sitting in the vicar’s study, waiting to see him for a pre-arranged meeting.

Agatha Christie The murder at the vicarage
“The murder at the vicarage” by Agatha Christie (1930)

The book has all the ingredients of an enjoyable murder mystery: an attractive setting, a number of possible suspects, various motives, a didactic police detective and an unassuming but astute observer on the sidelines who ends up solving the crime.

The novel is told from the point of view of the vicar, Len Clement, one of the few characters in the story who respects and appreciates Miss Marple’s skills from the outset. Each intent on getting to the bottom of things, Clement and Marple team up to solve the mystery.

Len Clement’s position at the centre of the drama gives him unique access to the investigation. People feel able to confide in him and several of the suspects unburden themselves to him throughout the story. Alongside this, Miss Marple’s shrewdness and understanding of human nature allow her to form theories that completely escape the police and help the vicar to make sense of what people tell him.

The setting, a vicarage in a small English village, is the perfect place to stage a murder mystery, with its old-fashioned appeal and restricted cast of characters. In her masterly way, Agatha Christie keeps the reader guessing whodunnit till the end, revealing the solution in a typically unexpected and satisfying manner.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read this novel in the past, but I look forward to reading it again some time in the future. Using my 4Ps rating system, I gave it 18/20.

Book review · England · Fiction

Book review: “Death on the downs” by Simon Brett

“Death on the downs” is the second of Simon Brett’s murder mysteries, based in the fictional English village of Fethering and featuring middle-aged amateur sleuths, Carole and Jude. I was pleased to find a copy of it going very cheap in a second-hand bookshop recently.

Neighbours in Fethering, Carole and Jude are similar in age but vastly different in personality and life experience. As with other literary detective duos, the contrast between them is what makes their partnership work.

Simon Brett Death on the downs
“Death on the downs” by Simon Brett (2001)

The story begins when Carole accidentally happens upon human remains. While out for a walk in the countryside one morning, she takes refuge in an old barn when it starts to rain. Inside the barn she accidentally tips over some fertiliser bags and a human bone falls out of one of them. When she gets back to her car she drives into the nearby village of Weldisham and phones the police from a call box to report her find. The police ask her to stay where she is until two of their officers arrive to speak to her and investigate her discovery.

One of the police officers, Detective Sergeant Baylis, takes her to the local pub for a chat. The pub hasn’t yet opened for the day but the manager lets them in. Baylis asks the manager to provide drinks, despite it being out of licensing hours, and tells him to put the cost on his tab, with a wink that makes the manager look distinctly uncomfortable. Ever observant and curious, Carole wonders what sort of a hold Baylis has over the publican.

A little later, when the pub opens up to customers, Baylis leaves and Carole stays there on her own, having been provided with another drink on Baylis’s tab. Sitting in the pub nursing her brandy, Carole observes several local characters who turn up and start chatting to the manager and each other. To her great surprise, one of them mentions the human bones found in the barn. Wondering how her discovery has become known about so quickly, she takes a particular interest in the man who makes the comment. Discussions amongst her fellow customers lead to the suggestion that the bones belong to a girl who went missing from the village some time ago.

When Carole gets back home she discusses her experiences with Jude, who by chance knows the girl the customers in the pub were talking about. From then on, Carole and Jude do their utmost to find out more about the mysterious bag of bones, but the more involved they become the more they have to watch their backs. Certain people are not pleased to find Carole asking questions in the village, but she feels she’s getting closer to solving the mystery and refuses to curb her investigating. Meanwhile, Jude is looking into the circumstances surrounding the girl who went missing and beginning to draw disturbing conclusions. When Carole fails to return home after a visit to Weldisham, and her car is found parked outside the pub with the keys on the ground beside it, Jude realises her friend’s life may be in danger.

Although some of the conversations and situations in this book were a bit far-fetched, I found it an easy and entertaining read, and possibly the most enjoyable of the Fethering books I’ve read so far. Having been reading the novels out of chronological order, I’ve now ordered the first in the series from my local library to find out how Carole and Jude started out on their detective partnership. Using my 4Ps rating system, I gave this novel 16/20.

Book review · Non-fiction · Sport

Book review: “Believe” by Nicola Adams with Jordan Paramor

Not being much of a boxing fan, I hadn’t heard of Nicola Adams until she became one of the names to watch at the London Olympics in 2012.

Born and brought up in the Yorkshire city of Leeds, Nicola was 29 years old when she competed in her first Olympic Games. Having won silver at the Women’s World Boxing Championships in China in 2008, she might well have been on course to take a medal at the Beijing Olympics in the same year, except that in 2008 women’s boxing wasn’t an Olympic sport.

Nicola Adams Believe
“Believe” by Nicola Adams with Jordan Paramor (2017)

Nicola Adams might never have got into boxing at all, had it not been for an unexpected event. One evening, when she was 12 years old, her mum, Dee, was getting ready to go out to an aerobics class at a local gym. Nicola was due to be looked after by a babysitter while her mum was out, but the babysitter cancelled at the last minute. Not wanting to leave Nicola and her little brother alone in the house, Dee took her children along to the gym with her.

The gym happened to house a boxing club, and when the coach saw Nicola hanging around he asked if she’d like to have a go at boxing. Finding this suggestion preferable to sitting around waiting for her mum’s class to finish, she went into the boxing gym and was immediately enthralled by what she saw.

After an inspiring introduction to the sport, she could talk of little else and begged her mum to let her take boxing lessons. When she turned 13 she was permitted to attend the gym on her own three times a week, and after a year’s training the coach asked her if she’d like to enter a competition. Having a naturally competitive personality she jumped at the chance, and fought her first boxing match aged 13 in a working men’s club in Leeds. She won the match, and it fired her up for more. A big fan of Muhammad Ali, Nicola decided she wanted to rise to the top of women’s boxing, and was determined to become an Olympic champion.

She came up with this idea in the mid-90s, when women’s boxing was nowhere near becoming an Olympic sport. Despite that fact, something inside her led her to believe that she would, one day, win an Olympic gold medal. As it turned out, she had to wait another 16 years for that dream to come true, and in the intervening years she boxed as much as she could.

Women’s boxing was almost unheard of in Britain twenty years ago, so Nicola had to travel abroad to compete against other female boxers. It was a constant struggle to find enough opponents to hone her skills on, and the lack of funding for the sport often meant she couldn’t afford to travel to competitions. By the time she reached her early 20s a local Yorkshire company and the Hilton hotel group offered her sponsorship. Intent on making boxing her career, she moved to London where there was greater support for women’s boxing.

In 2009, the International Olympic Committee announced that women’s boxing would be included in the 2012 Olympic Games. This was the big chance Nicola had been waiting for, but it came at a time when her entire boxing career was on the verge of being scuppered.

When she was leaving her flat in London one day, she tripped and fell down a flight of stairs. At first she didn’t think she’d done herself too much harm but a few weeks later, following a scan, it was discovered that she’d damaged some of her vertebrae. The pain in her back had been getting worse and she was told she would have to wear a body cast and get plenty of rest to have any hope of recovery. For months she was on high level pain relief and at one stage had to spend several weeks in hospital. The doctors reassured her she would get better, but reiterated the advice that rest was the only cure. Slowly but surely, her back did heal and she gradually returned to training in short bursts.

In her first tournament following the injury, she amazingly beat the World No.1, World Champion and European Champion in the space of one week. Her consistency and skill was enough to guarantee her a place at the London Olympics, in the very first Olympic women’s boxing tournament.

After working her way through the early matches, she was faced with her arch rival, Cancan of China, in the Olympic final. They had fought each other twice before and won a match each. In their most recent fight, at the World Championships in China, it was Cancan who had been victorious. The defeat had left Nicola furious with herself and determined to beat Cancan in their next match. It could hardly have been on a bigger stage, but Nicola was ready and completely focused on her goal. When the match ended and Nicola was declared the winner, she had finally achieved the ambition she’d set her heart on 16 years earlier.

Four years later she was competing in the Rio Olympics, and again came face to face with Cancan, although this time in the semi-final. Triumphant again, Nicola went on to fight Sarah Ourahmoune of France. Although Ourahmoune put up a good fight, Nicola was convinced the match was going her way. She was right, and she claimed her second Olympic gold medal.

Hot on the heels of her incredible achievements, Nicola Adams decided to turn professional. In the book, she says that making this decision means she’ll have to count herself out of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 because she won’t have time to concentrate on both a professional boxing career and training for the Olympics. She has admitted, however, that as the next Olympics draws nearer she might be tempted to change her mind about that.

As I read this book I was struck by several aspects of Nicola’s character. The book is well written by a ghost writer, and Nicola’s personality bounces off the pages. Nicola Adams is undoubtedly an optimist. She is also fiercely competitive and supremely self-confident. I’ve read a few sporting biographies and noticed these traits in other top athletes. Like her idol, Muhammad Ali, she isn’t afraid of calling herself the greatest at what she does. In some people this can seem brashly boastful but with Nicola, as with Ali, it doesn’t come across that way.

This book left me with the impression that Nicola Adams is indeed a great champion, someone with charm and charisma as well as consummate skill. As of May 2016 she was the Olympic, World, Commonwealth and European Champion. I can’t help wondering if she’s reached her peak or if there might be still greater things to come. Only time will tell.