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.

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 · 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: 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 · 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.

Book review · Non-fiction

Book review: “Angels in my hair” by Lorna Byrne

I initially got this book out of the library for my dad, because he’s very interested in near-death experiences. This book is not really about that, although it does touch on the subject briefly.

Lorna Byrne is described on the cover as a modern-day Irish mystic, although I don’t think she would have used that sort of terminology herself before she wrote this book.

“Angels in my hair” by Lorna Byrne (2008)

Lorna Byrne was born in Dublin in 1953, and from the age of two was assumed to be retarded. She describes how, from very early childhood, she could see things that she later discovered other people couldn’t see. This preoccupation with beings outside the realm of other people’s existence led her family, and the doctor who made the pronouncement when she was two years old, to believe she wasn’t quite the full shilling.

At some point in her childhood she became aware that the supernatural beings she was interacting with were angels. She could also see the spirits of people who had died, such as her brother Christopher who had died at only 10 weeks old, before Lorna was born. Despite having died at such a young age, Christopher frequently appeared to Lorna as an older child, as well as sometimes looking like a baby.

Throughout her life, Lorna has been communicating with angels on a daily basis, and the matter-of-fact tone of the book suggests that she inhabits this supernatural world just as easily as she does the physical one.

My dad read the book eagerly and then encouraged me to read it, but no sooner had he finished it than my mum picked it up. They both seemed to enjoy it although they admitted they thought it was rather weird and full of strange ideas. I approached it with considerable scepticism, and assumed my cynicism would prevent me from getting beyond the first few pages. I told my dad I would give it a go, but doubted I would get very far.

To my astonishment I quickly became intrigued by Lorna’s story, from its early beginnings through to the death of her husband in the year 2000. I read the book over breakfast for several days, and found myself looking forward each morning to the next instalment.

There are several quotes at the front of the book, given by reviewers who felt much the same as I did about reading a book like this. The Sunday Independent had this to say:

“Before reading Lorna’s book, in my cynicism I saw her claims as psychobabble. But the book surprised me, I really enjoyed it. It’s a very simply and softly written narrative, one that managed to grip me emotionally and made me reflect.”

Another one, from Woman’s Weekly, simply said:

“You believe she is telling you the truth.”

This was the feeling I had when I finished the book. I am not aware of ever having seen angels, or indeed the spirits of dead people. I have not felt or heard what I would describe as an angel close to me, nor has it ever occurred to me that there might be angels with me at any time. Despite my own lack of experience in this department, I nevertheless felt that Lorna Bryne was telling me the truth, her truth.

I did wonder when I started reading the book if Lorna Byrne might have some sort of mental condition along the lines of schizophrenia, but the more I read the less I saw it like that. The impression I’ve been left with is that, in writing this book, Lorna Byrne has detailed the facts of her life as they appear to her. She uses words such as ‘angel’, ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ to describe things that have happened to her, experiences she’s had that can’t be described in normal physical terms. I don’t see her as retarded, or mentally ill, but rather as someone who experiences life in a very different way from what I’m familiar with.

It could be said that she has an unusually fertile imagination, or that her vivid accounts suggest the results obtained by ingesting hallucinogenic substances, but there is a surprising simplicity about her narrative. She obviously feels entirely comfortable inhabiting what some would call a make-believe world, but I have no doubt that it’s very real to her.

Did she make all this up? Is there anything potentially believable about what she describes? Can anyone really see supernatural beings? Is her testimony in any way a proof that such beings might exist? I think each reader would have to form their own opinions about these questions, but I would challenge anyone who feels cynical to at least give this book a chance. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and I’m sure there are many people even more cynical than I am who could never be persuaded to read beyond page 1, but I think a lot of people have been surprised, as I was, by how fascinating her story is.

Book review · Non-fiction

Book review: “The girl with seven names” by Hyeonseo Lee

This book tells the astonishing true story of a young woman’s escape from North Korea. I found it at turns shocking, horrifying, inspiring and heart-warming.

Aged 17, Min-young (as she was then known) crossed the border illegally into China, alone and unsure of what she was going to do once she got there. The night she left, she told her mother she was going to a friend’s house. It would be twelve long years before she and her mother would meet again.

The girl with seven names
“The girl with seven names” by Hyeonseo Lee with David John (2015)

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with so many cliffhangers in it. For a large part of the tale, particularly the latter two thirds, I was constantly on the edge of my seat. Hyeonseo Lee’s journey, which took her into various parts of China and eventually into South Korea, was peppered with knife-edge situations and the ever-present fear of being discovered as a North Korean defector.

The first few chapters of the book describe Lee’s childhood and upbringing, and I found the descriptions of life in North Korea frequently depressing. The closed nature of the country makes it endlessly intriguing to those of us on the outside, but for those inside it must be a brutal and terrifying place to live.

North Korea’s dictatorship demands total loyalty to the despot; anything less is considered a criminal offence and swiftly dealt with by torture or execution. The country’s citizens are brainwashed to such an extent that they believe their leaders to be gods, and live in constant fear of their dictator’s barbarity. Hyeonseo Lee witnessed her first execution aged when she was just 7 years old.

As indicated by the book’s title, The girl with seven names, Lee had to keep changing her identity to avoid being detected as an illegal immigrant in China. Her incredible courage, determination and resourcefulness eventually paid off when she gained asylum in South Korea, more than a decade after leaving North Korea.

While some defectors, like Lee, succeed in escaping to safety, others are tragically caught and returned to North Korea to face beatings and death camps. There are also those who find it so difficult to adjust to life in the free world that they choose to return, knowing they’ll face savage treatment for their disloyalty.

Thanks to the bravery of the defectors who speak out, the rest of the world is learning more about this secretive nation. The decision to leave, however, is never straightforward. Once defectors have turned their backs on North Korea, they often become completely cut off from family and friends, live with the guilt of leaving their loved ones behind, and struggle to make new lives for themselves in countries vastly different from the one they know.

Hyeonseo Lee now lives in the USA with her American husband and campaigns for human rights. She believes North and South Korea will one day be reunified, but admits that achieving this will be extremely challenging.

Book review · Non-fiction

Book review: “Surviving the death railway” by Hilary Custance Green

This book, compiled by fellow blogger, Hilary Custance Green, was given to me as a Christmas present. It was well into this year before I began reading it, but once I started I was hooked.

Surviving the death railway
“Surviving the death railway” by Hilary Custance Green (2016)

Hilary’s father, Barry (the handsome chap on the cover), was 26 years old and a Captain in the British Army when he was posted to the Far East during the Second World War. His young wife, Phyllis (the lovely lady on the cover), and their baby son, Robin, were left behind in England, expecting to join Barry in due course. At that time, in the summer of 1941, the Far East was at peace and there was little inkling of what lay ahead.

As soon as they were apart, Barry and Phyllis began communicating with each other by letter. It is these letters that make up the bulk of the book, along with letters sent to Phyllis by relatives and friends of other men serving alongside Barry. During what ended up being four years of separation, Phyllis made it her mission to try and keep in touch with the families of Barry’s unit, known as 27 Line Section.

After Japan became involved in the war, life deteriorated significantly for the British and their allies serving in the Far East. Held as Prisoners of War (PoWs) by the Japanese, they were treated appallingly. Along with many of his fellow PoWs, Barry was frequently moved between various work camps in Malaya and worked on the now infamous Burma-Siam railway.

Throughout this time the sending and receiving of mail became increasingly difficult, with letters taking months, or often years, to be delivered. For three and a half long years after becoming a PoW, Barry was constantly waiting for news from Phyllis while Phyllis was desperately awaiting letters from Barry. Each of them continued to write, always hoping for some sort of response. It’s hard to imagine just how difficult it must have been to keep on writing in those circumstances.

Thousands of PoWs died in the Far East, but Barry was one of the survivors. After reading this book it seems clear that his relationship with Phyllis was a big part of what kept him going. For Phyllis, left to bring up their small child on her own and and never sure whether her husband was still alive or not, the prospect of one day having him back gave her hope for a brighter future. The love Barry and Phyllis had for each other shines through the pages from beginning to end.

Although the conditions Far Eastern PoWs had to endure were truly horrific, and some of what’s described in the book makes for distinctly uncomfortable reading, I found this a surprisingly uplifting and moving read. The book is skilfully edited by Hilary, with sufficient context and extra information to allow the letters to speak for themselves. After finishing the book I was left with the reassuring feeling that, no matter how bad things get and how awful human beings can be to each other, love and friendship always win through.