Newest Autobiography Reviews

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Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh

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It's more than two years since I read Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery but the memories have stayed with me. I had thought then that a book about brain surgery might sound as though I was taking my pleasures too sadly, but the book was superb - and very easy reading and when I heard about Admissions I decided to treat myself to an audio download, particularly as Henry Marsh was narrating. I knew that my expectations were unreasonably high, but how did the book do? Full review...

Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick

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Celebrity autobiographies. It's a genre long tainted by the examples of people who clearly didn't deserve to be a celebrity, let alone have a ghost-writer create their book, and by those who did so little but managed to churn out five memoirs before they were even thirty. But more recently it's become a way of staking a claim to importance for female comics. They've not all written autobiographies, as Bridget Christie proved, but enough have to provide for a rapidly-filling shelf at the bookstore. 2016 we had Amy Schumer winning a GoodReads award, Lena Dunham's been at it, and we've also got Anna Kendrick. Now she's not a strict comic – not all of her films are designed to make you laugh, and some of them that are just don't – but this has to be in the same bracket. Full review...

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: A Memoir by Chris Packham

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Everything seemed alive in that scintillating moment and as the gleams gyrated and glittered I imagined I could see their tiny twinkling hearts, seeding the sparks that made them so very vivid. And then I wiped away the spilled slop of the river, polished the glare and thrust my fingers into the sparkle jar to stir the soft tickles of the swirling tinsel of fishes.

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar is a unique memoir, written in a distinct style quite unlike any other. Chris Packham, well-known TV presenter and wildlife expert, takes us back to his childhood in 1960s Southampton, and we meet a curious child who doesn't quite fit in to the societal norm. Fast forward a few years, and the chasm widens, leading to bullying, name-calling and beatings at the hands of the local thugs at his comprehensive school. Full review...

This Mum Runs by Jo Pavey

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I am something of a self-confessed running addict: I think nothing of hitting the roads for 50 miles a week, and spend much of my time searching for races to run all over the country. That is, until I wound up with a persistent sports injury, hung up my running shoes for nearly a year, and switched the road to the pool. At the time I thought nothing could alleviate the misery of not being able to run; but now I wish I had had Jo Pavey's autobiography, This Mum Runs, to keep me company because the elite athlete’s account of the Olympics, injury, family, and life in general falls nothing short of inspirational. Full review...

The Stone Cradle by Patrice Chaplin

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'The Stone Cradle' is a remarkable book from the author Patrice Chaplin. It is a biography, the third in a series set in the Catalonian city of Girona. It is also an enduring love story and a journey into mystery and spirituality. The city has drawn artists, writers and philosophers for centuries. Rich in Kabbalistic thought through Azriel, the most famous student of Isaac the Blind, it has always been a home for mysticism and secrets. The magnetism and resonance of the city has had a hold on Patrice Chaplin since she first visited it in the fifties. The series of books detail her journey and her encounters with the esoteric society that have protected its mysteries since ancient times. 'The Stone Cradle' also gives a new life and direction to the mysteries of Rennes le Chateau, the small French village, made famous by the Da Vinci Code and the Holy Blood and The Holy Grail. Linking the two places through sacred geometry to the mountain of Canigou. Full review...

Gone by Min Kym

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Gone is a fascinating peephole into the world of solo musicians and their instruments. When Min Kym's 300 year old Stradivarius violin was stolen in 2010, the newspapers were eager to tell the story; this memoir is Kym's side of it, from her early childhood and education at the Purcell School (their youngest ever pupil) to the recovery of the Strad and beyond. Full review...

Coming Clean by Cathryn Kemp

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When Cathryn develops acute pancreatitis it leaves her in intense pain. With no obvious cure, she is prescribed strong painkillers to manage the painful flare ups. Yet still she bounces in and out of hospital, from one 'expert' to another, undergoes needless operations when Consultants say I know there's no evidence for this, but we may as well try it…the list goes on. As time passes, the pain remains but is joined by a new friend: a dangerous addiction to painkillers, prescribed at many times above the usual dose and soon to have a damaging effect on her health. Full review...

Who I Am by Charlotte Rampling, Christophe Bataille and William Hobson (translator)

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I'll drop all pretence of plot summary, and set the stall out, just as this book does. Here's a quote from page one – Who I Am: not a biography. With the name of one of cinema's most esteemed actresses on the front, you might assume it to be an autobiography for a start, but before that quote we'll already have been disabused of that thought, for apart from a couple of quotes the first six and a half pages of the book is addressed to Charlotte Rampling, and not apparently by her. There are gnomic paragraphs and lyrics here, in italics that suggest they are direct quotes, leaving the rest of the text here to be both a collaborative look at the star's background, and a musing perusal of the nature of creating the book in the first place. And that stall I was setting out certainly doesn't have the right number of legs if I don't mention this book can be read in well under an hour. Full review...

Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman by Peter Korn

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'My intuition from the day I first picked up a hammer was that making things with a commitment to quality would lead to a good life,' Peter Korn writes. As an aimless, free-spirited University of Pennsylvania student, he moved to Nantucket Island to earn the rest of his college credits through independent study and happened to be offered a carpentry job. That arbitrary job choice at the age of twenty would come to define the rest of his career. Manual labour was all new to him, but 'from the start there was a mind/body wholeness to carpentry that put it way ahead of what I imagined office work to be.' Full review...

Quicksand by Henning Mankell

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How do you judge a book? Not by its cover, we're told. In my case, often by the number of turned down corners or post-it-note-marked pages by the time I've finished reading it. Sometimes, by whether I worry about leaving its characters to fend for themselves while I take a break…or by how much of it stays with me afterwards or for how long. In this case, it doesn't matter. However, I judge Quicksand the judgement comes up the same. This collection of vignettes from an ageing, possibly dying, writer looking back on his own life is as powerful as it is simple, as easy to read as it is impossible to forget. Full review...

A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of the Columbine Tragedy by Sue Klebold

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Sue Klebold's son Dylan was one of the shooters at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Her book opens on 20 April 1999, the day of the shootings. Klebold remembers the confusion and dread she and her husband and older son felt when they learned something was happening at Columbine. Early on they were told Dylan was a suspect, and before long they also knew he was dead, but they didn't know how he was involved or how he died. From the start, though, it was clear that there would be fallout: one of the first things they had to do, before they even cremated their son, was have a clandestine meeting with a lawyer. In the months that followed, they were essentially in hiding in their own hometown. Full review...

Lion: A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley

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At first glance, Saroo Brierley seems to be a normal, well adjusted Australian man. He has a job, a girlfriend, a good social life and a supportive family, but his life could have turned out very differently. Saroo was born in India, where his single mother had to work hard to feed him and his three siblings. The children lived an almost feral existence, disappearing for days, exploring the local area for food and job opportunities. One fateful day, young Saroo begged his older brother Guddu to take him along on an adventure. The thrill soon turned to fear when the pair became separated and Saroo found himself trapped on a moving train. After a long journey, the train finally pulled into Kolkata station, leaving the five-year-old child alone and terrified. Soon he was found by the authorities and adopted by a family in Australia, where he spent most of his life trying to piece together his fragmented memories of his origins. Full review...

No Wall Too High by Xu Hongci and Erling Hoh (Translator)

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It was one of the greatest prison breaks of all time, during one of the worst totalitarian tragedies of the 20th Century. Xu Hongci was an ordinary medical student when he was incarcerated under Mao's regime and forced to spend years of his youth in some of China's most brutal labour camps. Three times he tried to escape. And three times he failed. But, determined, he eventually broke free, travelling the length of China, across the Gobi desert, and into Mongolia. Full review...

In Search of Sundance, Nessie...and Paradise by Simon Bennett

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Books are personal. There are three things that signal good books to me: how I feel while reading them and in the enforced spaces between reading them, the degree to which I bore everyone around me for ages afterwards by quoting them and talking about them, and whether I remember how, when and where I first read them. That last criterion can only be judged later, but on the first two In Search of Sundance… definitely qualifies. Full review...

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

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No you haven't stumbled into a music review from the 1970s, I'm talking about The Boss's autobiography. Lots of books have been written about Springsteen by folk who knew him, worked with him and by others who have only read the cuttings. Over the last seven years he has been going about – not putting the record straight, exactly – but telling it from his own perspective. As he puts it: Writing about yourself is a funny business. By his own admission, it isn't the whole truth, discretion holds him back but in a project like this, the writer has made one promise, to show the reader his mind. In these pages, I've tried to do this. Full review...

Krysia: A Polish Girl's Stolen Childhood During World War II by Krystyna Mihulka and Krystyna Poray Goddu

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Most of us would think of Polish children suffering in World War Two because of the Nazi death camps – they and their families suffering through countless round-ups, ghettoization, and transport to the end of the line, where they might by hint or dint survive to tell the horrid tale. But most of us would think of such Polish children as Jewish victims of the Holocaust. This book opens the eyes up in a most vivid fashion to those who were not Jewish. They did not get resettled in the Nazi Lebensraum, but were sent miles away to the East. Krysia's family were split up, partly due to her father being a Polish reservist when the Nazis invaded, and then courtesy of Stalin, who had signed a pact with Hitler dividing the country between the two states, before they turned bitter enemies. Krysia's family, living in the eastern city of Lwow, were packed up and sent – in the stereotypical cattle train – east. And east, and east – right the way across the continent to rural Kazakhstan, and a communal farm in the middle of anonymous desert, deep in Communist Soviet lands. Proof, if proof were needed, that that horrendous war still carries narratives that will be new to us… Full review...

Becoming Reverend: A diary by Matt Woodcock

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Matt Woodcock is enjoying life: successful journalist, happily married and a new dream home bought and heavily mortgaged. The only cloud on the horizon is their struggle to have children but they have faith in the IVF treatment as it's early days yet. Then comes the funny turn Matt has on the way to a story one day. This takes him by surprise but the resulting clergy collar comes as a total shock. He's a normal bloke who always thought of himself as more pint than piety believing in a God who's happy for him to remain in the pews. Errrrm… whoops! Full review...

My Brain Is Out Of Control by Patrick Mbaya

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Dr Patrick Mbaya was enjoying life as a consultant psychiatrist, husband and father. His career was going well and he enjoyed making ill people better. His marriage was solid and fulfilling and his two children were exploring their potential, often through the uplifting power of music. Life was good. But then... Full review...

A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of the Columbine Tragedy by Sue Klebold

4star.jpg Autobiography

Sue Klebold's son Dylan was one of the shooters at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Her book opens on 20 April 1999, the day of the shootings. Klebold remembers the confusion and dread she and her husband and older son felt when they learned something was happening at Columbine. Early on they were told Dylan was a suspect, and before long they also knew he was dead, but they didn't know how he was involved or how he died. From the start, though, it was clear that there would be fallout: one of the first things they had to do, before they even cremated their son, was have a clandestine meeting with a lawyer. In the months that followed, they were essentially in hiding in their own hometown. Full review...

A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939-45 by Astrid Lindgren

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Before she became a world famous author, Astrid Lindgren worked as a secretary, and as a wife and mother. She kept a diary, and throughout the war maintained her own personal record of world events, commenting on political situations as well as her own day to day activities and struggles. She writes in a fresh and candid manner, and her observations are both personal and astute. Full review...

My Son's Not Rainman: One Man, One Autistic Boy, A Million Adventures by John Williams

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In 2012, stand-up comedian John Williams was encouraged by his work colleagues to write a show charting his experiences as the parent of an autistic boy. After registering the domain name: My Son's Not Rainman, he also decided to write a blog to share his funny anecdotes and experiences. After a shaky start (I had a handful of followers. Three of them were my brothers), the blog eventually went viral as it increased in popularity with parents who felt a connection with John and 'The Boy'. This book fills in some of the gaps in the story, starting with 'The Boy's' early childhood and ending, appropriately, on his thirteenth birthday, when he suddenly became 'The Teen'. Full review...

Wild and Precious Life by Deborah Ziegler

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You probably remember the case of Brittany Maynard; it was much in the news in the latter half of 2014. Diagnosed with a massive brain tumour at age 29, Brittany chose to move from her home in California to Oregon so that she could take drugs to end her life at a time of her choosing using that state's Death with Dignity Act. She and her family appeared in documentaries and national news media and gave official testimony to raise awareness about the cause of assisted dying for the terminally ill. A film about her story is also in the works. Full review...

Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch, 1934-1995 by Iris Murdoch, Avril Horner and Anne Rowe

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This collection of Iris Murdoch's most interesting and revealing letters gives us a living portrait of one of the twentieth century's greatest writers and thinkers. They show her mind at work - seeing Murdoch grappling with philosophical questions, feeling anguish when a book fails to come together, and uncovering Murdoch's famed personal life, in all its intriguing complexity. They also show the 'real life material' that fed into her fiction - and above all we see her life - blazing, brave, and brilliant in this collection of letters. Full review...

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

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In her memoir, actress, comedian and activist Magda Szubanski describes her journey of self-discovery from a suburban childhood as an immigrant child, haunted by the demons of her father's espionage activities in wartime Poland and by her secret awareness of her sexuality, to the complex dramas of adulthood and her need to find out the truth about herself and her family. With courage and compassion she addresses her own frailties and fears, and asks the big questions about life, about the shadows we inherit and the gifts we pass on. Full review...

I Me Mine by George Harrison

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This sumptuous volume was first published in 1980 as a rather heftily-priced limited edition of 2,000 copies, each signed by the former Beatle. It now appears with a revised introduction by his widow Olivia, including brief references to their years together. What we have here is not a book of memoirs in the conventional sense. George Harrison was the man whose first solo album, excluding two rather experimental records of electronic music and film soundtrack not really aimed at a mainstream audience, was a lavish boxed set including three long-playing records, one consisting of extended musical jamming sessions with friends. If you're expecting a tidy set of chapters telling his story as he recalls it from childhood to the date he laid down his pen (or powered his laptop off, or whatever the 1980 equivalent was) - this is not it. Full review...

Grey is the Colour of Hope by Irina Ratushinskaya

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In April 1983 Irina Ratushinskaya was convicted of 'agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or wrecking the Soviet Regime'. She had dared to defend human rights and to ask questions of the Soviet system via her writing in general and poetry in particular. The penalty that came with the conviction was 7 years in a labour camp followed by 5 years in internal exile. In In the Beginning, her first autobiography, Irina touches on that time of her life. Now, Grey is the Colour of Hope goes back to look at it in detail. Full review...

In the Beginning by Irina Ratushinskaya

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Irina Ratushinskaya was born in the Ukraine of 1954 to an engineer and a teacher. Irina's very early childhood is innocent, having been sheltered by a loving extended family from the harsher side of Soviet life. However, when Irina starts school she begins to realise that doing the right thing is often frowned on and tainted by an illogical regime. Early on she realises she has a choice: be a good Soviet citizen or be true to her own sense of justice. The choice – and living with its repercussions – form Irina's existence from that point onwards for Ratushinskaya the poet, the writer, the dissident, the prisoner. Full review...

Notes from the Blockade by Lydia Ginzburg

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With the scenes from war torn Syria brought to our screens every night, 'Notes from the blockade' is a timely book. It is the remarkable story of Lydia Ginzburg's survival during the 900-day siege of Leningrad during World War 2. With beautiful prose full of Russian melancholy and pragmatism, it details daily life in the besieged city. I have to confess that I found this to be one of the most moving books that it has ever been my pleasure to read. Pleasure may be a strange choice of words to describe a book recounting horrifying events, but it came from the lyrical quality of the writing. Ginzburg's prose is simply beautiful. Her descriptions of the minutiae of everyday life, as it descends into the abyss, are the most human I have encountered. It is this that leaves its mark long after the final page is turned. Full review...

Toby and Sox: The Heartwarming Tale of a Little Boy With Autism and a Dog in a Million by Vikki Turner

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Sometimes I found myself holding him on my knee, quietly crying above his huddled little body – so quietly he wouldn't be able to tell – just hoping that I could physically hold all the broken pieces together and somehow make everything OK.

Vikki Turner is a busy mum of four, and for her, family is everything. Her first two children gave her no cause for concern, hitting their developmental milestones right on cue and behaving beautifully when in public. When Toby came along, she naturally expected things to be the same, but it soon became apparent that there was something different about him. Toby had a fear of bright lights and insisted on wearing sunglasses wherever he went. Sounds bothered him, so he constantly wore earphones to block out the outside world. Earphones in, sunglasses on and hood up, Toby had created his own 'bubble' in which he could feel safe. Full review...