The Thalidomide Catastrophe is a book written by Martin Johnson, Raymond G. Stokes, and Tobias Arndt. Released today, I was lucky enough to be able to review an advanced reader copy.

As a journalist, I have been interested in this story for a while now; I’m working on a story that’s related to it. It was also around the tie of the fiftieth anniversary BBC documentary that I was introduced to the concept of Thalidomide. (What still strikes me-and what is further illustrated by the book-is the lack of awareness or knowledge of it.)

The tagline on the cover says it all: ‘How it happened, who was responsible and why the search for justice continues after more than six decades.’

The Cover:

The cover is brilliant, in my opinion. It’s stark-the white background, with the innocuous object of a medicinal bottle. It looks harmless, however because of the history since Thalidomide was on the market makes it kind of terrifying. It’s horrific to think that this pill-marketed on the basis of apparently being a “wonder drug”-was, and still is capable of so much harm.

The white background also makes it stand out on a book shelf; if I was at a bookshop, my eye would catch this. I’d be curious as to what it was about, etc.

Content:

Initially, I found it a little bit hard to get into. I think that after seeing Attacking The Devil, I perhaps expected too much of the book. My expectations were also flawed in this respect; the book gets into the nitty gritty of Thalidomide, not the Sunday Times campaign. (It’s not about the journalistic side. It’s the full-on, comprehensive history.)

It’s also shocking to me how there hasn’t truly been justice. I haven’t got to this particular chapter yet, however it is alleged that there was corruption surrounding the German trial. There is a lack of accountability surrounding Thalidomide, and I can’t understand that. Surely, as an empathetic human, you’d do your best to help, when you’ve caused this catastrophe?

I was also struck by the images that are dotted throughout. I have met one Thalidomider; however, I wasn’t aware of the full range of disabilities that Thalidomide caused. (It sounds silly, doesn’t it?)

There had previously been a disconnect for me; it’s all very well to watch footage on the TV or whatever. There’s a distance in that respect; I don’t think that there is with books and photos. The use of photography bought it home to me, making this story truly alive for me.

What would I have changed?

At times the book can be clunky, in the way it’s written; however, I think that is partly caused by being a book of history. It’s not a book about people; it’s the factual facet.

Conclusion:

I think that this is a book that everyone should read, or at least be aware of. Thalidomide is known for its notoriety, however I don’t think the full scale of its history is known. I hope that this book goes towards correcting some of that, along with bringing it into the public consciousness. And I hope that this book, in its majestic state, goes towards contributing to the justice that has been denied for so long.

As a follow up, could I make a suggestion? I’d like to have a book of interviews, with people involved: so people like Mikey Argy, Harold Evans, people at the trust, etc.

The Thalidomide Catastrophe is published by Onwards and Upwards. For more information, visit their website. You can buy the book here. 


Disclaimer: I was lucky enough to be gifted this book at my own request. I have not been paid to review this. For more information, please see my disclaimer.

Laura James has written the ultimate book about Autism ; Odd Girl Out should be on your ‘must read’ list.

It’s about an Autistic woman, Laura, in a neuro-typical world; she looks back at earlier parts of her life, and how she reacts and gets on with her diagnosis later on in life. As an autistic female, this book felt very ‘human’ to me; it spoke to me, almost as if Laura was inside my head. Forget the diagnosis, and medical terms; here is someone who ‘gets it’, and is probably undergoing what you feel.

I was lucky enough to speak to Laura about Odd Girl Out via email; she is also a journalist, which was another thing that interested me.

First of all, how did you come to write your book, Odd Girl Out? 

When I got my autism diagnosis, one of my first thoughts was ‘will I write about this?’. About three months later I wrote a piece for the Daily Telegraph and the response was so huge, writing further on the subject in the form of a book seemed like a natural next step.

Why did you think writing about your diagnosis, which came later in life, should be the centre of the book? 

I used it to underpin the book, so it’s where I start, but I also dart back in time and look at my childhood, my teenage years, young motherhood etc. It felt like a good jumping off point as it was so fresh in my mind and writing was allowing me to process all the emotion around being diagnosed.

How has the reaction been to the book?

The reaction has been amazing. It’s not often that I’m surprised, but I have been surprised by the sheer number of people interested in my story. I got thousands of messages in the month around publication and most days I still get a message or two on social media from someone who has come across the book.

What do you think about early intervention to diagnose people on spectrum?

I think everyone deserves to know who they are and to have the very best opportunities in life. If that can be done by spotting autism early, then I am all for it. What happens afterwards, however, is important, as is that ongoing support, nurturing and caring is put in place. I don’t like interventions that major on teaching children how to behave in a neurotypical way, as they can only do damage in the long term. Support that encourages children to be their best and most authentic selves is what we should be striving for.

What did you think on finally being diagnosed? 

Overwhelmingly, I felt relief and vindication. My autism diagnosis came a few months after my Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome was diagnosed and suddenly everything in my life made sense. I wasn’t a hypochondriac or unlucky – there were concrete reasons as to why my body behaved the way it did. The autism diagnosis was so vindicating as it allowed me to know why I find some things much harder than others do.

“The reaction has been amazing. It’s not often that I’m surprised, but I have been surprised by the sheer number of people interested in my story.”
-Laura James on the reaction to Odd Girl Out.

How did you start out as a journalist?

I was working for a publishing company and an amazing editor called Gill allowed me to interview Jilly Cooper, who was my absolutely favourite writer and one of my intense interests.

In terms of being autistic, how do you think people on spectrum could be an asset to journalism? 

For me, the ability to hyperfocus is a huge asset at deadline time, as is the way I can get to grips with complex information very quickly. Having intense interests helps a lot too. Finally, I can look at all sides of an argument in a non-emotional way and I think that really makes for balance.

For people who are on spectrum, who aspire to get into journalism, what would be your advice? 

If it’s someone who likes to be around people, then maybe contacting their local paper and asking if they can do some work experience or intern for a bit. I am not necessarily a huge fan of journalism degrees as I think you learn much more in the working environment. Most of the really great journalists I know have done an NCTJ course or apprenticeship and I can’t recommend them highly enough. I was lucky that I learned on the job and my husband, who at the time of our meeting was a magazine editor but who spent many years working in news, taught me everything over a number of years.

“Overwhelmingly, I felt relief and vindication. My autism diagnosis came a few months after my Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome was diagnosed and suddenly everything in my life made sense.”
-Laura James on what she felt after her Autism diagnosis.

Random: If you were on Desert Island discs, what would be the book you’d take to the Island with you, and why? 

Oh gosh, only one? That feels terribly hard. I think if I had to pick, I would probably choose Rivals by Jilly Cooper. It’s real comfort reading to me and the characters feel like people I have known for years. They are beautifully drawn and feel very real, plus it’s funny, has lots of stuff on W.B. Yeats (my favourite poet) and the book is quite long so would take me a while to get through.


Thank you to Laura for answering my questions; you can follow her on Twitter.  If you’d like to read an extract of Odd Girl Out, read it here. And you can buy the book on Amazon. 

My first introduction to Tina Brown came when Googling, surfing the web on a break; Orion were about to release The Vanity Fair Diaries. (Bear in mind this was near the end of last year.) It appealed to me instantly; the personal diaries of an editor, glossy figures, and the challenges of turning around a failing brand? Check.


I think it should be noted that this book is a thick volume; at over a decade, these diaries have been edited before being printed. It also makes me wonder; what has been left out?

Content and plot.

The introduction instantly sets the scene, with the first few entries elaborating further; Brown is barely thirty when arriving in New York as a consultant for Vanity Fair. The sense of frustration is also palpable from the beginning, in the sense of actually getting the editorship. Then: just how to save a magazine? 

Journalistically, the content is also interesting. There’s a lot about the editorship, the daily choices, moving in what seems to be a man’s world.As one publication put it in their headline, it was a supreme balancing act.  However, I’m not sure it would necessarily appeal to a wider audience; in this respect, the book is very ‘niche’.

In terms of style, I think Brown has a novelists pen coupled with a journalistic sensibility; she makes people instantly memorable.

I also like how the book has a wider sense of the time; there’s a sense of being on the edge, technology speeding things up, going at a quicker pace.

A note on the characters.

I think this memoir was timely in one sense, given today’s politics. For instance, Boris Johnson appears in the book, albeit briefly. (With my interest in politics, I was smiling at this particular entry.) There’s also Donald Trump-the domineering, overbearing character who appears at various times in the book. It’s slightly eerie in a way.

Should you read it?

If you remember the eighties, this is a book for you. (I don’t-being born well after-so at times I was left wondering “Who is x, y, z?”) If you also enjoy magazines, then this is also the book for you-it recalls what could be coined as a ‘golden age’ for journalism. I enjoyed it, although I had to plod through a little bit; I would have loved to have worked for Brown at this time.


Buy The Vanity Fair Diaries on Amazon. 

The Reckoning landed on my door matt after a mix up; however, as with virtually every crime novel, I was intrigued by this tome. It’s not every day that a book arrives, after all! Please note, this review contains spoilers.

The book as a whole:

Instantly, I was captivated by the language and the method of storytelling; I have a tendency to read about plots in either the UK or America. However, this takes place in Iceland, a departure from what I tend to read. (It’s a cross between The Snowman and The Child.

At first, I was staying up late to read this book; it reminded me of The Shadow Of The Wind, due to the break-neck pace, genre blends, etc.

But: I was disappointed with this book. And by the end, I felt inexplicably angry, as it was almost as if the characters had suddenly become real. Too real in fact.

Characterisation and plot:

The plot seems too eerily now, in mirroring what has been in the news recently; a time capsule is dug up, and in it is a note that says x amount of people are going to die. At the same time, a school in America (twinning with this project) also dig up their time capsule. Yet, as a detective and his sidekick, a child physiologist, try to “crack the case”, the bodies rack up.

As to the ending? Well, I could not help but feel more than a bit disturbed. The killings were in revenge for the killing of a little girl, Vaka, in collaboration with the son of the alleged killer. But… this brings me on to characters.

Who dreams up a scene where a man dressed as Santa tries to abduct two young children? There was also one character that had me raging; when kidnapped, he has to have his hands cut off, to save his children from being abused. Yet, when asked to name one of his children, he does! And he pities himself, not the child afterwards!

What to improve:

There could have been a lot less description, and more cutting to the chase. I also did not like the fact that the reader can see when someone is going to be kidnapped, and yet it leaves the Detective clueless. “Wake up, he’s about to be killed!” is what I wanted to shout-yet couldn’t, as it is fiction.

In conclusion:

On finishing this book, I felt such a sense of betrayal; there is also a twist at the end which I did not see coming. However, I think that it would be suited to someone more at GCSE level; I would have also liked a book without the scenes I mentioned under Characterisation And Plot.

Click here to buy the book.


Disclaimer: this book was sent to me via a member of the publicity team at Hodder & Stroughton. However, this post contains my honest opinion, and is not advertising; I have also not received any fee for review. You can read more about this in my disclaimer.

As some of you may know, one of my pencils is Abbie, from Abbiechic.com; earlier this year, we met, up, and explored Brighton. (See my post here.) She very kindly sent me a book by her husband, Dan. He has autism, yet writes about it, creates youtube videos, and more. So: I wished to find out a little bit more about his work.

Dan Jones C/O Dan Jones

Firstly, in terms of youtube and your writing, could you tell us a bit about what you do?
 
I describe myself as an autistic hypnotic YouTuber and author. I create eCourses teaching how to do hypnotherapy and psychotherapy and occasionally teach live courses and hold talks. I mainly write non-fiction. I have written about autism spectrum disorder (my autobiography ‘Look Into My Eyes’ reached number 30 in all Biographies on Amazon.co.uk even getting ahead of Khloe Kardashian and I’m not naked on my front cover! My wife, Abbie also wrote a chapter of this book about what it is like to be married to someone with autism), hypnotherapy, meditation and parenting. I have also written a novel and some books of therapeutic stories to help children relax and sleep based on an approach I developed years ago when I used to work in children’s homes with children with challenging behaviour and who often had very difficult backgrounds leaving negative associations with bedrooms and sleeping, so they struggled to sleep.
When were you first aware that you were maybe on spectrum?
 
As a child and teen I had never heard of autism. After my Dad died in 2014 I went through many of his belongings and found that he thought something was ‘wrong’ with me when I was about 4 or 5 years old and wanted me seen by a Doctor. My Mum and Dad were separated and my Dad’s concerns didn’t get listened to so I never got any support. I knew when I was a primary aged child that I thought differently, I knew some of my struggles and was more aware of these as I passed through my teenage years and into my twenties.
It was in my early twenties that I first heard about autism. I was working in homes for adults with mental health issues like Schizophrenia, Psychosis and Bi-Polar. The homes had some residents with autism despite this not being a mental health issue. There was no training about what autism was, whereas our training was extensive around mental health issues.
When I was about 22 I started working in children’s homes. Many of the children were diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s and fairly quickly other staff used to joke about how I was like the children, I used to laugh it off but in my head I was aware that they were right, I had similarities to the autistic children. In that job I also started getting a lot more training about autism and Asperger’s and the more I was learning the more I would say “I’m like that, I’m like that…”
I purchased a couple of books on autism and Asperger’s to read, my wife, Abbie, read some of them and commented that the books were describing me. I never wanted to say I thought I was on the spectrum because I worked in an environment where you always see people self-diagnosing and saying they have things because they have a few traits and then they become the label and define themselves as the label, often focusing on the negatives and developing a defeatist attitude to life. I didn’t want to do this and didn’t want to be treated as a label when I am an individual not a label.
By about 24 years old I was fairly sure I was autistic but didn’t think of getting a diagnosis, I didn’t feel it would be any benefit, my belief has always been that you treat people as individuals, you shouldn’t only offer help someone needs because they have a label and not help the person without the label, everyone should be offered help if they need it.
It wasn’t until long after this where I faced multiple examples of workplace discrimination and reached a point where I became suicidal and thought the only way to tackle the discrimination was to have occupational health support, but the only way to get the support was to have a diagnosis I decided that was the time to see whether I was on the spectrum or not and I ended up being diagnosed with autism.

The Book. C/O: Dan Jones.

Do you think that being on spectrum has enhanced your life at all? If so, how?
 
It is difficult to know what difference specifically being autistic has had, if I wasn’t autistic there are traits I wouldn’t have, but I may well have other traits which would enhance my life, I do believe people with autism have many strengths which can be utilised and that people should focus on helping those with autism to develop their strengths and develop skills and ways of managing challenges. I don’t know if being autistic enhances my life. It gives me skills that can help others like my ability to notice patterns and not get drawn into content of what people say so I do better therapy. It helps me handle larger emergencies because I don’t have the same emotional connection to the situations, I’ve had guns pulled on me, I’ve been in very violent situations etc., and these situations don’t particularly bother me because I have already mentally rehearsed what I need to do in these situations. What I struggle with is situations with dozens of different outcomes so I can’t mentally rehearse them adequately. I struggle far more with walking into a shop and talking to a shop assistant than I do having someone threaten to kill me.
What has been the most offensive/stereotypical thing someone has said to you, upon learning of your diagnosis, in spite of all of what you have achieved?
 
The two things that probably annoy me most are people saying “we’re all on the spectrum somewhere” or “we’re all a little bit autistic”. I have to point out that you are either autistic or not. If you are not autistic then you are not on the spectrum. The other one is people being dismissive as if people with autism are just putting it on or have a label to justify being rude or difficult and that it is a made up condition.
Do you have any new projects coming up?
I’m always working on many things at once. I have been working on an interesting project, I have made some video courses for The Church of Jediism which will go live at the end of November. I am also working on a book with a neuroscientist Dr David Lewis as part of a project I’m involved in called The Mind Changers. We are writing a self-help book together about the idea that there are no problems only solutions. I am also in the process of organising autism talks and hypnotherapy masterclass workshops for next year. I am also writing a third book of therapeutic children’s stories and in the planning stages of a fantasy novel I want to get written next year.
I have many other project ideas I’m yet to start. Every year I set new years resolutions, sometimes they are clear, like saying over this year I want to do x, other times they are more vague, like every month achieve at least one thing. I never expect to complete everything, I like to set more than I think I can do, I don’t get annoyed if I haven’t done everything, but I don’t want to make things too easy for myself and I like to try to do some things I’ve never seen others do.

C/O: Dan Jones.

For people who wish to follow in your footsteps, what would be your advice?
 
A couple of years ago I was made redundant and trying to make a living online was a challenge. It took me a lot of time for very little financial return, but because my situation meant I put about 80 hours per week into building an online business I have now reached a point where I still work hard, but I can also take time off whenever I want and have many weeks where I do very little work but still have income coming in.
To do this takes a clear plan and hard work and it involves being humble enough to go with what generates income and, at least initially, focusing your efforts in that direction. My YouTube channel has grown by 7,500 subscribers in the last year and 600,000 video views, but to achieve that I have posted every week on the same day at the same time and interacted with viewers. I have also watched my analytics and created more of the types of videos which get significantly higher views and less of the videos which get very few views.
I did the same with eCourses. I use Udemy.com for my eCourses. Initially I made the courses I wanted to teach, then I saw which courses would get more students and started making more similar or related courses to those and less courses about subjects which weren’t particularly popular. An advantage of doing this is that when I make new courses because they are similar or related to my current courses I can let my current students know about the new course and get hundreds of students on my new course straightaway.
It can be slow to set all this up and to establish yourself, but once you have, income can come in each month even if you take time off. Money earned is no longer connected to hours worked, you start to generate residual income. This has always been my dream and why I like YouTube, eCourses, audio downloads and books, as all of these are things where you put in lots of hard work once and they make you income ever year from then on.
For books I use CreateSpace.com (for paperbacks) and Lulu.com (for eBooks and paperbacks) and KDP.Amazon.com (for Kindle eBooks) to self-publish my books. It means I have to pay for cover designs and for proofreading and copy-editing and I have to do all of my own PR, but I also get greater royalties per sale than being traditionally published and I keep my rights to my work. These services are easy to use and are free. Anyone interested in writing who wants to write books/eBooks I would recommend self-publishing, it is very easy to do, but as with everything I’ve mentioned you want to create an audience and position yourself as an authority on your topic, even if it is fiction, you want people to want to know what you are writing and want to read what you write before you release your book so that you have people who want to read it. You also want to treat how your book will show on Amazon etc., like a website, so you want to do search engine optimisation. When someone searches on Amazon, Amazon tries to use the terms to bring up the product they think the person is after, just like Google brings up the websites they think the searcher is after.
Random: What is your favourite pizza topping?
 
I don’t feel I have a favourite, but I always have the same. I always have something with chicken and chilli’s and deep pan. There is normally a pizza on a menu which matches this whether it is Domino’s or Pizza Hut, or Papa John’s. I find things bland and don’t appreciate food for its taste at all, I find eating a chore, so I like strong clear flavours which is why I like the chilli. For me it is more about the textures than the flavours.
Thank you to Dan for agreeing to this interview; to buy his book, click here. And to find out more about his work, click here.