The Hundred-Year Of Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

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Honey-Bunny has recommended The Hundred-Year Of Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson to me several times, so as a dutiful parent I bumped this story up to the top of my list.

Honey-Bunny’s recommendations have come a long way. The first book (or series) she discovered for herself and insisted I read too were the Harry Potter books. I enjoyed them, but then came Twilight and a few other vampire books… which were not for me. A decade later, though, Honey-Bunny’s suggestions of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, A Song of Ice and Fire and The Hundred-Year Of Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared have all been winners.

The story of The Hundred-Year Of Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared is funny, clever and surprising, with unusual characters constantly doing unexpected things.

The hundred-year old man is Allan Karlsson, a Swedish man who lives in an old people’s home. As the title suggests, on his one hundredth birthday, Allan climbs out of his window and disappears, on the very first page. I don’t know why I found this event to be so surprising considering the book’s title, but it was.

Allan hadn’t pre-planned his escape, and he didn’t have any particular reason for absconding apart from wanting to avoid a fairly lame birthday party which had been planned for him, but as the story went on, this impromptu behaviour turned out to be entirely in keeping with his character and his life events, which were told alternately with the present story.

After shuffling away from the old people’s home, Allan arrived at the bus station where a young lout asked Allan to look after his suitcase while he used the toilet. (The lout used much coarser terms, as you would expect). Allan then hopped onto the next bus with the lout’s suitcase and travelled as far as his money would take him. He got out at an abandoned train station where he met the next main character in the book, Julius. Allan and Julius quickly bonded over a meal and alcohol, and when the angry owner of the suitcase tracked Allan down at the abandoned train station, they shoved him into a freezer and turned the temperature down.

Unfortunately Allan and Julius were having such a good time (alcohol) that they forgot about the lout in the freezer and when they remembered him in the morning, he had frozen to death. The suitcase turned out to be full of cash, so Allan and Julius took off with the suitcase full of cash, wheeling their victim along with them on a trolley.

The present-day adventure continued in much the same vein, with luck falling Allan’s, Julius’ and their future companion’s way for another 350 pages.

The story is interspersed with Allan’s history, which is equally as fascinating as his present day adventures. In his younger days Allan was an explosives expert, who lived at various times of his life in the United States of America, China, Bali, Russia and quite a few other countries. Allan was on first name terms with a number of American presidents and other world leaders, including Stalin, General Franco, Mao Tse Tung and Kim Il Sung, due to being in the right spot at the right time, over and over again. He told Robert Oppenheimer how to make an atom bomb work when he was unable to find a solution to the problem, and was later responsible for giving the Russians the same information.

Allan crossed the Himalayas on foot, was involved in espionage on both sides of various wars as well as being employed as an explosives expert in both sides of other wars, and spent time in a Russian prison camp in Siberia.

I realise that this all sounds quite ridiculous, but the plot was completely believable when I was reading the story. The story itself is funny and the characters endearing, although they have a terrible habit of accidently killing people who are trying to kill them. All I can say is, the only characters that died deserved their endings, and as Allan himself would have said, these characters would have died anyway, eventually.

Allan goes through life without worrying about things he cannot control, in his own words, “Things are what they are, and whatever will be will be.”

The language is slightly awkward, in a story written in a Scandanavian language then translated into English sort of way. I’m not complaining though, because the style made it obvious that Allan was Swedish, rather than English or American or Australian, like most of the characters in books that I read.

I only have one complaint about the book, which is that the paperback was unwieldy to read on the train. I wish publishers would make paperbacks with a lot of pages bigger, instead of cramming more pages into a smaller book. My fingers ache trying to hold paperbacks with too many pages open.

Anyway, The Hundred-Year Of Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared is an enjoyable book with endearing characters. I am a happier person for having read this, and I will go out of my way to find this author’s second book, The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden.

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Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard

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Some of Miss S’s friends watch the Pretty Little Liars television series. To keep up with what is going on in her world, I decided to read the first book in the series, Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard. I must say, I found the experience to be educational; in particular, I learned to hide the book’s cover from my fellow commuters on the train so I didn’t feel as if they were judging me…

The story is about a group of five young teenagers, Spencer, Aria, Emily and Hanna, who orbit around Alison, the ‘It’ girl of their community. Alison is the prettiest, the cleverest, the most fashionable, the sportiest, but she is also the one no one else in the group can stand up to, no matter how much they want to.

When Alison disappears after an argument during a sleepover, the girl’s friendship group falls apart. Alison was never found and their seemingly idyllic community changed forever after the events following her disappearance.

The story starts again a few years later when the girls are about 16 years old, by which time Spencer is spending way too much time making eyes at her older sister’s boyfriends, Aria has a crush on her new English teacher which is reciprocated, Emily is falling in love with the girl who has moved into Alison’s old house and Hanna, who used to be sweet and overweight, is now mean and thin. When the girls start receiving anonymous messages and threats signed ‘A’ about secrets only they and Alison knew, life as they know it starts to become complicated.

The girls try to find out who ‘A’ is and I have to admit, I was very interested to learn who this is too, but the end of the book came and the mystery was not resolved. I turned to Google, and discovered that there is a whole series of these books with more twists and turns than a television soap opera. I satisfied my curiosity regarding ‘A’ via these means, raising my eyebrow at some of the more unbelievable twists in the story, then decided enough was enough.

I found the characters in the story to be nasty and shallow, and the writing itself could have been better. The mystery is intriguing though and I can see why this series is so appealing to teenagers, but I’m too old for Pretty Little Liars. Luckily Miss S is not overly interested either.

 

 

 

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler is the story of a dysfunctional family. Are there any other kind of family? I’ve only ever read one story about a perfectly happy family and that was a Little Golden Book, appropriately named The Happy Family.*

However, as some famous Russian writer or other said, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” **

Rosemary Cooke is the narrator of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. She is a university student in no hurry to graduate when she becomes involved in a fracas and is arrested for damaging property.

Rosemary is socially awkward and has never fitted in with her peers. She hasn’t seen her older brother, who is a fugitive from the FBI in years and there is a mystery surrounding the whereabouts of her sister Fern. Rosemary’s father is a scientist who is angry and distant, and her once-happy mother is sad and quiet. Rosemary continually refers to her childhood as a happier time when she never stopped talking, until something terrible happened to Fern, after which she became silent.

There is a twist in the story that came once I had started to feel settled into the plot. This twist changed everything I thought I knew about Rosemary’s family. I’m not going to spoil the plot for anyone who intends to read this book, as the twist is a major spoiler.

Despite being quite surprised by the twist, I didn’t like or feel a connection with any of the characters in this story. Rosemary was a whinger and I got tired of hearing about how great things were in her childhood, long before the twist explained some of the mystery of Fern’s disappearance. Rosemary sponged off her parents by refusing to grow up, and bowed far too easily to peer pressure. Her character is explained by the twist, but this in turn led to me disliking the choices Rosemary’s family made, which again I can’t say more about without spoiling the plot for others.

The only character in the story who I liked ended up in jail, after being led by another character to do something which again, I can’t talk about here because doing so would spoil the twist in the plot. This character said; “The secret to a good life is to bring your A game to everything you do. Even if all you’re doing is taking out the garbage, you do that with excellence.” Now that’s the type of value that will serve a happy family well.

I think I read The Jane Austen Book Club by this author years ago. I can’t remember anything of the story except for the title, but based on We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves I probably won’t revisit this book.

 

*To be fair, after Mother, Father, Tony and Peggy in The Happy Family got home and went to bed after their day at the sea-side, there wasn’t really anywhere else that my favourite story could have gone. Despite this story not having a romance, a mystery, or even a dilemma, this book always makes me smile.

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**Yes, I know, Tolstoy said this in Anna Karenina.

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The Beloved by Annah Faulkner

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I wouldn’t have read The Beloved by Annah Faulkner if I had realised that I had already read Last Day in the Dynamite Factory by this author, which I found quite dull. The Beloved was a much better book, although in this case, there was too much going on.

The Beloved is told by a child, Bertie Lightfoot. She is a likeable and unusual heroine, who lives for art and is able to see people’s auras as a colour.*

The story begins with Bertie catching polio while living in Melbourne in the 1950’s. She loses the use of one of her legs and remains in hospital for a very long time. Eventually Bertie’s mother, Lily May, gets fed up with Bertie’s lack of improvement and brings her home, where she dedicates herself to Bertie’s recovery. Bertie eventually recovers use of her leg, although she needs to wear a brace and a built-up shoe.

Lily May is a strong woman who loves Bertie deeply, but does not believe that Bertie sees auras and refuses to encourage her daughter’s artistic nature. I found this aspect of Lily May’s nature to be at odds to her personality, as she was encouraging towards her children in every other way.

The plot was choppy due to constant changes of location. The family started off in Melbourne, then headed off to Sydney. Next thing they went New Guinea to live, followed by visits to Canada, back to Sydney and then back again to New Guinea. I couldn’t keep up and felt that the constant changes of location detracted from the actual story, which was that of Bertie and Lily May’s relationship. If the locations had only used Melbourne and New Guinea I think the story still would have worked and would have been better for it.

The plot also had a touch of ‘throw in everything including the kitchen sink’ and would have been improved by cutting out some of the things which were unnecessary to the telling of the story. I got the feeling that the author didn’t know what was important to the story, with disapproving grandparents, dead first loves, affairs and hidden relationships strewn throughout.

I would have preferred to have stuck more closely to the story of Bertie’s parents marriage, and the battle between Bertie and Lily May over Bertie’s art.

I loved the cover art of The Beloved, which I thought was perfect for the story of an artistic child who sees other people’s auras as a colour.

*On a scientific note, I investigated the subject of seeing auras (on the internet, where else?) and found some techniques. I tried staring at my hand for ten seconds, but unfortunately I couldn’t see my aura. I then went cross-eyed, and saw about eight fingers on one hand, but still couldn’t get an aura. The website I looked at said some people have to practice for months before they can see auras. Since I think wanting to see auras is just a passing phase for me, I gave up. Plus, the website I looked at seemed a bit shonky. They said that if I phoned them up and gave them my credit card number, they would tell me all about my aura.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

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After Sir Roger Moore’s death, Dad asked me if I had ever read any James Bond novels. He seemed disappointed when I said the only Ian Fleming story I had ever read was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, so I bought a copy of Casino Royale.

I read the whole book one Sunday afternoon, sitting outside in the sun. The story is fast-paced and an absolute page-turner. I was surprised to find James Bond’s character to be much more human than the almost superhero-like character he is in the movies.

Casino Royale is during the Cold War and is quite dated, in that all of the men are think only about woman either in terms of how sexually attractive and available they are, or as nuisances who get in the way of the actual business. I am pleased to say that one female character cleverly uses these prejudices to her own advantage.

Most of the characters chain smoke and drink heavily. If they were real people they would smell like ashtrays, with tobacco-stained fingers and tongues, and be loud and slurry and fall over from all of the alcohol they drink. Personally, I wouldn’t trust anyone who drank that much with government secrets or with guns, but since this is fiction the characters dress glamorously, say witty, clever things, gamble enormous amounts of money at the Casino, drive fabulous cars (without smashing them while driving drunk) and physically, are devastatingly attractive.

In Casino Royale James Bond drives a Bentley, but in the James Bond movies, the character drives an Aston Martin. There was so much product placement in this book that it was noticeable while reading, Ian Fleming certainly didn’t leave his readers wondering about what brand of anything James Bond uses. I actually enjoyed all of the descriptions, which gave me a mental picture of the casino at Royale-les-Eaux, which is a fictional seaside resort in France based on real places. I know what Vesper Lynd, (the Bond Girl in this book) looks like and what type of clothes she wears. Most importantly, I know exactly what ingredients go into a Vesper Martini from the instructions James Bond gave to a barman when he ordered a particular drink which was to be “shaken, not stirred.”

There are some nasty torture scenes in the story and as previously noted, Ian Fleming provides a lot of description. I skipped over the parts that made me feel squeamish. However, James Bond escaped, and while he didn’t come out completely unscathed, at least he lived to die another day. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist…) The story and the torture scenes explain why James Bond went on to save the world from SMERSH baddies in all of the books that followed.

I’m glad I read Casino Royale but probably won’t rush out to read another James Bond novel. I am due for a re-read of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang though.

 

 

 

 

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The Book Club by Mary Alice Monroe

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My only excuse for reading, (or rather skimming through) The Book Club by Mary Alice Monroe is that I’ve recently changed jobs and am taking the train to work again. If I had anything else to read, I would not have read past the first few pages of The Book Club. But I didn’t, and my train trip takes 40 minutes. Each way.

Five women. Book group.

Number One’s husband dies. Unknown to Number One, her husband had been having an affair. Number One sells up, moves and gets a job. Well done, Number One.

Number Two eats too much and is married to a bully. Number Two gathers her self-respect and gives her husband the boot. Well done, Number Two.

Number Three is in her forties when she gets clucky but has old eggs. The pressure is on Number Three’s husband to perform, which strains their marriage. Number Three gets cancer, beats it and says goodbye to her dream of motherhood. Well done, Number Three.

Number Four is hard-working and loyal. Number Four’s husband loses his job, so she mans-up and takes on more work to keep their household afloat. Well done, Number Four.

Number Five is **whispers** gay. And an artist. And has a difficult mother. Number Five is a minor character and I think I must have skimmed over how things worked out for her. But I expect she worked it all out, so well done, Number Five.

Now that you know what happens in The Book Club, if you find yourself on a train with nothing else to read, you can go to sleep. Or make conversation with the funny-smelling weirdo sitting next to you. Or just look out of the window at the graffiti until you arrive at your destination, I’ll leave it completely up to you. Happy travelling.

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

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I won’t lie, I think a lot of the themes in The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery went over my head.

I came across this book when a character in The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George recommended The Elegance of the Hedgehog to another character who was lacking in self-confidence. I was intrigued by the theme in The Little Paris Bookshop that there is a perfect book for every reader’s emotional needs at any time and added quite a few titles to my wish list of books to read. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the first one I’ve found. *

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is set in Paris. The heroine is Renee, a frumpy, ugly, and crotchety old concierge who hides her superior intelligence and taste from the rich and powerful people who live in her building.

The story is alternately told by Renee and Solange, a 12 year old girl who lives in Renee’s building. Solange is suffering from depression and plans to suicide on her 13th birthday. Solange also hides her intelligence from her family, who she judges as being superficial and unworthy of knowing her true self.

Renee and Solange’s worlds expand when a Japanese man, Monsieur Ozu, moves into their building and befriends them both. He immediately recognises that he and Renee have a great deal in common, as both love Tolstoy and Art. They become instant friends and appear to be ideally suited in their tastes. Renee blossoms with this friendship, and with Monsieur Ozu, expands on her knowledge of Japanese culture, which she adores. She eats Japanese foods, drinks Sake and admires the way he has decorated his apartment. Monsieur Ozu is far too good to be true, but since this is a novel, I was able to suspend my disbelief. I also found it funny that the French characters fetishized about Japan, while the rest of the world feel that way about France.

Solange and Renee also become friends, to both of their benefits. These unexpected friendships show why the character in The Little Paris Bookshop used this book to press the point to the other character that everybody is worthy of being loved.

The language is very formal. The book was written in French and translated into English, and my understanding is that French is quite a formal language. (I only know a few French words and they are all words for nice things to eat). Renee’s character is also a stickler for the use of correct grammar which adds to the formality of the story.

A great many philosophies and big ideas are explored in this book, which attempts to educate the reader in a way which reminded me of the massively popular Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, although The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a more difficult read than Sophie’s World.

I enjoyed the last half of the story much more than the first, because by that time I had become fond of Renee. I didn’t much enjoy Solange or Renee’s philosophical meanderings, although if I were more interested in philosophy these sections might not have felt so heavy-handed.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog probably deserves a re-read because I was too tired to appreciate the formal language and the ideas properly on my first read. I’m guilty of skimming over the parts where the characters banged on about philosophy, but think that a slow, careful read would be the best way to approach this story.

*My self-confidence is fine.

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Away by Michael Gow

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Miss S has been studying the play Away by Australian author Michael Gow at school and recently went on a school excursion to the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne to see the play performed.

I took the opportunity to read Miss S’s copy of the play too.

Away is set in Australia in 1967 and starts with the end of year school play being performed, in this case, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The performance ends with the school principal making a very ockerish speech, thanking the local supermarket for supplying cordial at half-time, someone’s mother for making the cakes, and ending with a request for everyone to be careful of the flower beds when they leave the school hall. Later, talking with one of the parents, the principal comments “It’s a pity they weren’t selling something a bit stronger than cordial,” as they would have made a killing. Agreed. School plays, dance recitals and prize-giving ceremonies could all be improved by alcohol. And I don’t drink.

After the play there is a gorgeously awkward scene between Tom and Meg, two teenagers who have gotten to know each other during play rehearsals. Tom is chatting Meg up before they are interrupted by Meg’s parents who are ready to go home. (Isn’t ‘chatting up’ a gorgeous expression? I can remember wearing my bubblegum jeans and blue mascara to a school social and being chatted up by a boy, oh, about 40 years ago now, but the memory makes me very happy still).

Meg’s mother is hard work, whinging about having being unable to see the stage during the play, complaining about her head hurting and carrying on because she still has to pack for the family’s annual holiday when they get home. It is clear that Meg and her father chip in, but Meg’ mother is someone who doesn’t give much credit to anyone else.

Tom and his parents are also going on a camping holiday the next day. Meg’s mother brags that her family are staying in a motel a little bit further up the coast and is rude about Tom’s family staying a tent. When they leave, Tom, who played Puck in the play, curses Meg’s mother and her holiday.

As it turns out, the school principal and his wife are also holidaying on the coast, although they are staying in a resort. He and his wife are grieving their son’s death in Vietnam the year before. His wife is on the edge of madness, bailing strangers up for weird conversations and staring at people in a way that discomposes them.

After a series of storms and other incidents, all of the families end up in the same holiday spot and spend time together. They each have complications or tragedies in their family life to resolve or to come to terms with.

The story is deceptively simple, suitable for teenagers to read and study, but with enough going on in the background to keep teenagers and adults interested. Miss S said she and her group discussed the play and the themes all of the way back to school in the bus, which is a sure sign of this play’s success. I enjoyed reading the play, and would dearly love the opportunity to see it performed.

 

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Inspector Morse Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter

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My mother is a massive fan of the Inspector Morse television series and was delighted to hear I was reading Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse Last Bus to Woodstock. Mum visited Oxford while in England some time ago and until now, I thought that had been an ordinary day out, never realising that the Oxford excursion had been meticulously planned to indulge Mum’s penchant for Inspector Morse and his sidekick, Lewis. (As an aside, well done to the organisers of the expedition, who found themselves at the top of Mum’s ‘favourites’ list).

Last Bus to Woodstock is the first novel in the Inspector Morse series and is set in the 1970’s. The story begins with a couple of girls hitch hiking to Woodstock on a summer evening. One of the girls is found murdered later that evening in the car park of a pub.

Hard drinking, middle aged Inspector Morse enters the scene and with the help of Sergeant Lewis, sets about working out exactly what happened to the victim. Everyone from the bus driver, to the girls’ workmates, people in the pub and teaching staff around Oxford are potential suspects. Inspector Morse is clearly the brains of the organisation, but Mum told me that after the death of Inspector Morse (and the actor who played the character), Lewis now has his own television series.

I found Last Bus to Woodstock to be a little dated, with the characters very much of their times. The girls wear mini-skirts and no bras and defer to men in a way that I find laughable, while the men are lords and masters of all they survey. All of the teaching staff at Oxford were having affairs. I felt as if the author really enjoyed writing about the swinging times, much in the way that I like to read about other people’s adventures but not actually have them myself.

Inspector Morse had an eye for a pretty girl too and is surprisingly attractive to women.

The story itself was good. I worked out what had happened slightly before Inspector Morse told all, but didn’t have a clue earlier in the book. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I find myself sitting up on the couch sometime with Mum watching an episode of the Inspector Morse television series with her, as she points out the places she visited in Oxford.

 

 

 

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End of Watch by Stephen King

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I don’t know.

I just wasn’t feeling it with Stephen King’s End of Watch, the last story in the trilogy which started with Mr Mercedes. 

Mr Mercedes was an excellent read, with great characters and a story that kept me turning the pages when I should have been doing other things, such as sleeping, doing housework or going to work. The second book in the set was Finders Keepers, which could have been read as a stand alone novel. Despite being unnecessary to the trilogy, I enjoyed Finders Keepers too.

End of Watch went on another adventure as well as adding onto and tidying up all of the loose ends from Mr Mercedes, but the story just didn’t grab me. I was finding it hard to work out why, because I always enjoy the feeling of familiarity of being in Stephen King’s world for a few days and I’ve become quite fond of the characters in this trilogy. Then I realised that the previous two stories were straight crime novels, but End of Watch had some supernatural elements which one of the characters developed as the story went on.

This seems to me to be a cheat. A crime novel should be a crime novel. Same for a supernatural novel. If you’re reading this, Stephen King, don’t add a different element at the end of a three-book story and expect me to like it. This is comparable to reading about a fantastic adventure which ends with the line, “and then I woke up,” which everyone knows is not playing fair.

However, despite my disappointment with the twist in End of Watch, Stephen King is still one of my favourite authors and I’ll be lining up for his next creation, along with his other Constant Readers.

 

 

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