Book Club: Sam’s Best Shot

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Author: Dr James Best
ISBN:
978-1-76011-314-8
RRP:
$32.99
Publisher:
Allen & Unwin
Copy:
Courtesy of the Publisher

Sam’s Best Shot is a memoir, which is not a genre I usually pick up, that tells the story of a father and son who set off on an epic journey across Africa. Why did I choose to read, review and feature this one as part of the book club if it’s not something I would read you may ask. Autism touches the lives of many of us, me included, and I was intrigued by the premise.


As parents we want to do all that we can for our children, we want to give them the best that’s in our power and we want to make sure they are well prepared for their growth into adulthood. You often hear stories of families selling everything and fundraising for life-saving medications or surgeries they can only get somewhere else in the world and when you really break it down, this isn’t really that different.

Sam Best is a fourteen year old boy on the autism spectrum and he faces some major challenges in everyday life. Autism is a spectrum disorder which means that every person with autism is different, and will respond to different therapies and stimuli. This means there isn’t a one size fits all treatment plan, or a set of behaviours you can judge every person on. The range on the spectrum goes from extremely high functioning to severely disabled and everywhere in between, many of the people on the spectrum fall somewhere in between. Sam falls somewhere in between.

Sam’s Best Shot is an intimate look at an extreme intervention devised by Sam’s parents to take him outside his comfort zone and teach him strategies for coping with unpredictability, as well as learning social and conversational skills he has been struggling with. This journey has been documented in more ways than just this book; there is a documentary filmed by Heiress Films, Dr Best completed a travel blog while they were away and recently a story aired on one of the current affair shows.

Over the course of the book, which documents their entire trip from leaving Sydney to their return six months later, we watch the changes in Sam. A lot of this is a little subjective as we see through the eyes of his father, but there are also some writing exercises performed by Sam where we can judge for ourselves the difference in his writing.

I think the issue I have with memoirs is that they have a very different pace to a novel. It isn’t about world building and scene setting, it’s about getting to know a person and experiencing their life through their words. I am trying to work out how best to articulate what I’m thinking and finding it quite a struggle. I think that, for me, memoirs tend to get a bit bogged down in detail and I find it slows me down. It’s not that these aren’t relevant details but they tend to keep me from losing myself in the book.

Sam likes the familiar so when he is transported to Africa it really is a completely different world. We watch as he is thrown into a new country, away from all he is familiar with, and is set tasks and goals to help him reach a greater degree of independence. We get to spectate through the course of the book as Sam interviews the people he meets, engages in conversation with new people, experiences a wealth of new sights, sounds and tastes. We get to watch the fluency change in his conversation, the level of self-regulation he is capable of and the expansion of his comfort zone.

Sam’s Best Shot is about so much more than all of that, and there are a lot of elements that surprised even Dr Best. The lessons that he learned about himself and the growth he faced apart from all he was trying to achieve with Sam were totally beyond the scope of what he thought would happen.

Travel is a major focus of the book, as you would expect, and we head off on a once in a lifetime journey with this father and son duo. They book one way tickets and accommodation for the first couple of nights, after that they make it up as they go. I can not even begin to imagine this situation.

Dr Best shares a lot about the places, the people and the culture so there is a wealth of information to take in. We are shown the glaring contrasts between the African countries and life in Australia but we also glimpse disability from the perspective of Dr Best as he compares Sam with the many people they come across on their travels. They meet Africans with autism of different ages and recognise the differences in their lives; Sam has access to a plethora of treatments and therapies which still leave him with limited independence yet in Africa the access to treatment is very much reduced and people with autism are living alone, working and supporting themselves.

I enjoyed my backseat journey with the Bests; watching them grow, watching them learn and experiencing things that I will never come close to. I did find that at times it was a little draggy but I think that’s more the style of book than anything else.

I think this is a great read for an inside look at autism and Africa just don’t go in expecting a miracle cure, it just doesn’t work that way. I enjoyed the book and would definitely recommend it.

For more information you can check out Sam’s Best Shot on Facebook and the travel Blog.

Sam’s Best Shot is published by Allen and Unwin and available now from Angus & Robertson Bookworld, Booktopia and where all good books are sold.

Thanks to Allen and Unwin 10 of our Beauty and Lace Club Members will be reading Sam’s Best Shot. I look forward to hearing what they think in the comments section below.

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10 thoughts on “Book Club: Sam’s Best Shot

  1. “Sam’s Best Shot” is an inspirational and entertaining book about and by Dr James Best and his adolescent son Sam. The pair embark on a journey through many African countries as an educational experience that will broaden Sam’s horizons and teach him invaluable life skills.

    This trip is a fascinating one for any father and son to embark on but it’s made even more interesting when you consider that Sam is on the autistic spectrum. Along the way the Best men interview locals and meet other people who are on the spectrum or have other disorders and disabilities. They also encounter many people who are happy to take time out to support the pair’s ambitious endeavours.

    Overall this book is an incredible one of discovery and proof that positive outcomes can come from various interventions and life-altering experiences for people on the spectrum.

  2. Sam’s Best Shot is a story about a family and an autistic son, and their journey to provide the best learning options for him. Dr. James Best takes his fourteen year old son on a backpacking journey to Africa, in the hope of challenging his son, and himself, in many ways. His wife is at home organising visits to many schools and other facilities in Africa. It was an interesting story, both for the challenges they face, but also for learning about facets of Africa. I was impressed with their endeavours.

  3. Sam’s Best Shot is a raw and honest account of a father and his teenage son, backpacking around Africa in the hope that their journey and experiences will increase Sam’s independence and abilities.

    This book arrived at a good time. After a very difficult week with my own Son on the spectrum, I picked this book up while slightly apprehensive (would it hit a raw nerve) but I did feel a little hopeful. Most parents no doubt approach adolescence in trepidation facing the unknown, but when your child already has special needs this heightens the concern.

    Sam was diagnosed in early childhood with Autism. As you could imagine it was difficult to hear and it took time for father Dr James Best, a Sydney Doctor, to comprehend. Something I know myself only too well.
    What Dr James and his wife Benison wanted was to take Sam out of his comfort zone and predictable routines to embrace a journey of a life time, which would expose Sam to new sounds, sights, smells, and social situations while his brain is still evolving during adolescence. Moving far away from life’s everyday distractions and going out on a limb in a big way. It was not about being a tourist but more soaking up the process, and what they learn along the way. This expedition was documented and filmed with the research then being evaluated by Griffith University.

    Nomadic throughout the African country James’s mantra was to work on Sam’s neuroplasticity exercises, school work, and blogging their journey. The aim was to improve Sam’s adaptive skills which will help him with daily living and independence, as well as allowing natural opportunities for social and communication skills which typically can be difficult for people on the Spectrum.

    Traveling in a developing country as you could imagine didn’t come without its trials and tribulations. I admire the dedication and strength it must have taken, for not only James but Sam, and not to mention mum Benison at home- Kudos to them all!

    Sam’s quirks and no filter remarks often had me laughing out loud. James has done well to explain the ups and downs of their very personal journey. While some of the daily travel accounts were drawn out it was still overall an interesting read.

    Before having children I acquired a degree in Disability Studies at University, but this did not prepare me for raising my own child. So it is good to have the information and experiences of others to see how it can benefit your own situation. I was really touched by the Best family and could appreciate the lengths taken to ensure their child has the greatest chance to reaching their fullest potential. There is still so much we don’t know about Autism, this travelogue is just one families journey but it was well worth the read not only for families with children on the spectrum but for any family looking for inspiration.

    Thank you to Beauty & Lace and Allen & Unwin

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed “Sams Best Shot” by Dr James Best.
    This is a true memoir written about 14 year old Sam by his father James and their time spent in Africa together .
    Sam has autism and James and his wife take the huge step to sell their family home to fund the trip to Africa in the hope of increasing Sam’s independence and abilities.
    Being on the Autism spectrum myself I can thoroughly relate to Sams reaction to being taken away from the familiar and into a new world of learning to adapt to other people and places.
    I loved the Best’s journey and believe it would be a great book not only for the everyday reader to perhaps understand autism a little better, but it would also be a very interesting read for those families that have perhaps just received and autism diagnosis in their family.
    The novel is not just about this subject, it is about the love between this family and the beautiful African country and people and most of all I believe it is a story of hope and love.
    Thank you to Beauty and Lace and Allen and Unwin for allowing me to read and review this great book.

  5. How refreshing! A remarkable and tender journey full of emotion and truth. Not only through the rambunctious country that is Africa but the enormous psychological steeps that were trodden. Of course I selfishly loved the African anecdotes but this is a story of much more than just travel. Sam and Dr James, his father, are busy, busy, busy stretching Sam’s comfort zones. (Sam, as you probably already read or heard, is 14yrs old and on the autism spectrum.)
    I have not had a great deal to do with autism but having read this I do now relate differently, if I come across a person who may be on the spectrum – with much more quiet compassion and patience. For this alone I am grateful.
    The changes in Sam are delicately told and almost sneak up on the reader. This journey and read is tantalizing and vibrantly alive with hope and determination.
    While it is a medical memoir of sorts, this can be read as a coming of age story, by lovers of Africa, armchair travelers, those thinking of physically going to Africa and those who have never thought of it (but now just may! )
    Every person interested in the power of the mind, the hope of love and the faith of uncomplicated joy, this is a book for you. A tremendous read. Highly recommended. 5 stars

    1. I found Sam’s Best Shot to be a difficult but ultimately an enjoyable read. I am not very familiar with the diagnosis of autism and the trials and tribulations experienced, so to read of the many emotional, physical and ethical dilemmas faced by this family was a real eye-opener.

      I appreciated learning of the many life events this family has experienced. From the initial recognition of ‘something is different with my child’, the shock at an autism diagnosis, the research and attempts to understand this condition and then learning to live with the daily difficulties, this must have been very difficult for a young family to deal with. Sam’s parents have delved deep to do the very best they can for him, to work with his abilities, to provide him with the best support system they can and to help him grow and ultimately to live his life to the full.

      Memoirs are not usually a genre I would choose and I found that I struggled to sink myself into the book, particularly when about a third of the way through. I kept reading and the pace did improve and I was able to better enjoy the book. I found the honesty of Dr Best’s writing, whether about Sam’s difficulties in a situation or bad behaviour, to his own critique of his parenting skills, emotional well-being and coping abilities to be very interesting and humbling; this is a father trying to do the very best for his child.

      I would have liked to have heard more about the other family members, particularly the two boys at home in Sydney. The brothers were barely mentioned and I assume having their father absent from their lives for six months would have been tremendously difficult for them. I wonder how such a great focus on Sam would affect the lives of these two boys and what plans were put in place to also take care of Sam’s siblings as they were growing up; did they receive special time with their parents, how did the parents focus on their development as well as Sam’s higher needs? I wonder if any parents of autistic children would benefit from learning of how this family coped with the needs of all family members.

      Overall I found this to be an interesting read and I have certainly learned a lot more about the autism spectrum and the impact of this on children and families.

  6. Thank you Beauty and Lace and Allen & Unwin for the opportunity to read and review Sam’s Best Shot. I have always enjoyed autobiographical/biographical works so had no hesitation applying for the opportunity to read and review this book. The fact that it also dealt with the ups and downs of a having a child on the autism spectrum just made it more appealing.

    Although the book is about his son Sam, the opening pages are about the death of Dr James Best’s 17 year old younger brother Matthew in a camping accident in 1985; and the guilt he still carries for not having protected his brother and preventing the accident.. It is this guilt that makes James so determined to take steps to enable Sam to survive in a world that often makes no sense to him.

    James Best and his wife Benison have 3 sons, Sam is the youngest and in 2004 at age 3 he is diagnosed as sitting on the Autism spectrum. The spectrum ranges from those who are severely disabled, unable to speak or care for themselves to the often socially inept geeks who populate industries such as IT and everything in between. Sam falls somewhere in the middle.

    After much research James and Benison determine that the answer to assisting a child with autism is intensive early intervention, or as James describes it “bloody hard work and bucketloads of money.” How this early intervention works and the progress made by Sam are dealt with, as is the unpredictability and fearless recklessness so often displayed by children on the spectrum, in the early chapters of the book.

    As Sam approaches adolescence James and Benison make the decision to further challenge Sam by taking him completely out of his comfort zone to places where no internet would be available and he would have to deal with novel and challenging experiences. So the decision is made to sell the family home to finance a seven month trip across nine countries from South to East Africa for James and Sam.

    The rest of the book chronicles that journey, the highs, the lows, the differences of each country, their experiences, the things James manages to lose along the way, the way Sam is treated by the people he meets, the skills he attains, the strange things he says and does that make you laugh, as well as his developing interest in young women. As well as the travel James continues to work with Sam on his school work, as well as various neuroplasticity (brain training) exercises including chess, and boxing., and challenges such as ordering and purchasing his own lunch, striking up conversations with others etc.

    While I understand the value of the various neuroplasticity exercises that James chose to work on with Sam, I was surprised by the choice of boxing as the risk was always there that as Sam gained skills in this area he could use them inappropriately when angered. I accept that it may have been difficult to come up with another exercise that used both sides of the brain, both sides of the body and both upper and lower limbs and was able to be performed wherever they were.

    I loved the descriptions of the places they went and the people they met, and was impressed that James did not try to make it all roses and sunshine but documented the bad times also, including the times that he showed his humanity by responding inappropriately to Sam, his concerns of the impact on his two other sons, and how much he missed his wife.

    Clearly what James and Sam did is not the ultimate panacea for Autism. Every person is different and every person will respond differently. Few of us have the money to provide the level of intervention that James and Benison provided in the early years of Sam’s life or are able to sell our home to finance an extensive trip overseas. However there is no doubt in my mind that the experience assisted Sam and the book provides food for thought in considering useful interventions for other children with autism.

    Sam’s best shot has been made into a documentary and Sam’s progress has also been analysed by autism researcher Dr David Trembath at Griffith University. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it for reading by anyone who enjoys a good biographical work, a story of love between father and son, or a greater insight into the puzzling world of Autism.

  7. A beautiful and well written book “Sam’s Best shot ” by Dr James Best. Following the journey of Sam and his amazing dad James, had me intrigued and captured at every page. Dr James Best’s idea to take Sam, who is on the Autism spectrum, through Africa in order to get Sam out his comfort zone, would be considered quite extreme and terrifying by most, but the results were so wonderful.
    I loved that Dr Best recorded every aspect of the experiment, the good, the bad and sometimes the ugly!

  8. Sam’s best shot was an amazing novel about a Loving Dad who happens to be a doctor and his lovely young son Sam who happens to be on the Autism Spectrum.
    This book is one I was very keen to read as my daughter has recently been diagnosed and I knew I would learn a lot.
    I wasn’t disappointed.
    Dr James Best is a father who loves his son very much and wanted him to learn how to challenge himself, learn new life skills and learn to live in the moment.
    Through their trip to Africa they were able to achieve this and teach many others about ASD along the way.
    I feel truly blessed to have been able to read this book and learn more about Sam, Dr Best and ASD. Thank you so much to Dr James best for writing this and allowing us into your lives, thank you Sam for being you and thank you Beauty and Lace and Allen and Unwin for giving me the privilege of reviewing a book so close to home.

  9. Sam’s Best Shot is a travel memoir, but it is so much more than that. Dr James Best and his wife Benison, are concerned of the impact adolescence will have on their son, Sam, who is on the Autism spectrum. They make a radical decision, that James will take Sam to Africa on a 6 month journey in the hope that it will have positive outcomes for Sam.
    James is the author of the story, which was also filmed, made into a documentary and became part of a research project at Griffith University.
    I was fascinated by the background to the trip. There was a huge risk that it would all go pear shaped.. It is a testament to the lengths parents go to in order to obtain the best for their children.
    I had some knowledge of Autism and the book has given me greater understanding. They met others on the spectrum and people with other disabilities. The differences between living with a disability in Australia compared to Africa are huge.
    A large part of the book is a travelog. James is an accomplished writer and I got a real sense of Africa, the differences between the countries and the friendliness of the people.
    Memoirs and travelogs are not my usual genre” and I found the story slow moving and somewhat boring in the repetitive detail of the exercises Sam and James undertook. However it is a story well worth reading Sam struggles with the enormity of life being so different to what he is used to. James struggles with his emotions and worrying about Sam and if he is doing the right thing, it is a very honest story and James tells of both the good and bad times. He stirred my emotions on many a page.
    Overall it is a very interesting read and I learned a lot about both living with Autism and the African Continent

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