Category Archives: Fiction

“The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared” by Jonas Jonasson

100yearoldman

 

On the first page of this novel, centenarian Allan Karlsson, in an effort to dodge his 100th birthday party, climbs out the window of his nursing home room and heads to the local bus station with no destination in mind.  With neither planning nor malice intended, he hops on the next bus with a suitcase a fellow passenger asked him to watch so he could use the restroom.  The suitcase turns out to be brimming with cash: ill-gotten gains from a crime.  So begins the adventurous and humorous journey with criminals and police all looking for the 100-year-old man.  Along the way, he befriends an outcast recluse that becomes his cohort.  Together they use some of the cash to buy a hot-dog-stand-owner’s Mercedes and hire him as their chauffeur.  Instead of attracting attention at a hotel they pull up to a local country house to offer to pay for a night’s stay.  Their host is a foul-mouthed redheaded widow who owns a dog and an elephant.  Together, this motley crew tries to stay one step ahead of their pursuers.

Just as interesting as the main action is Allan’s backstory.  Turns out he began his career in munitions and became an expert at blowing thing up.  Not only was he a spectator to some of the most important events of the twentieth century, he actually played an influential role in them.  Happenstance puts him in situations where he ends up dining and drinking with world leaders:  Mao, Truman, Stalin, Churchill, Franco, and de Gaulle.  The scene with Vice President Truman is especially funny – Allan and he are making their way through two bottles of Tequila at a Mexican restaurant in Los Alamos, New Mexico, when Truman gets the call that Roosevelt has died – the new leader of the free world is “three sheets to the wind”.

Although the book is not a laugh-out-loud comedy, it is non-stop amusing and entertaining – which is a feat for any author.  The characters are quirky and comical.  Allan gives us all hope that you are never too old to start over and that good vodka and a kind heart are key to a long and interesting life.

The author Jonas Jonasson is Swedish. The book has been translated into 30 languages and has sold over 6 million copies.

Bryan will be reviewing “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared” on WZZM Channel 13 Take Five morning show at 9:00 am Monday, November 3.  Please join us for the monthly Book Nook Book Club at 6:00 pm Monday, November 3 at the Book Nook & Java Shop in downtown Montague.  Everyone is welcome.

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“The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green

the fault in our stars

Paperback: 352 pages Publisher: Speak; ISBN-10: 014242417X ISBN-13: 978-0142424179

This is a moving story of star-crossed lovers in a time of cancer told by 16-year-old Hazel.  Hazel has stage-four thyroid cancer with a “satellite colony” in her lungs.  As she tells it, “depression is a side effect of cancer” and, at the behest of her parents, she attends a support group at the local Episcopal Church.  There, she meets Augustus, another “cancer kid” in remission from a rare bone cancer.  The two hit it off, which launches the love story.  They are bright, witty, and physically attractive despite the accoutrements of cancer: Hazel, an oxygen canister and cannula; Augustus, a prosthetic leg.  In addition to dealing with regular teenage angst (appearance, fitting in, parents, etc.), they grapple with existential themes of life, death, suffering, and meaning. They not only handle their own suffering, but also the suffering they will inevitably inflict on their parents and each other – Hazel sees herself as a grenade that will eventually detonate, taking down the loved ones in her path.  This results in her distance; Augustus, however, tells her that “all efforts to save me from you will fail.”

Augustus comes into her life and shows Hazel that she is more than her disease: “Like, cancer is in the growth business, right? The taking-people-over business.  But surely you haven’t let it succeed prematurely.”  Together they begin a magical, romantic adventure culminating in a trip to Amsterdam to meet with the author of Hazel’s favorite book.

I admire the quote from Hazel: “There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1.  There’s .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others.  Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million.  Some infinities are bigger than other infinities… There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set.”  The lesson, of course, is no matter what size the unbounded set, it’s what we do with the infinity in between that counts.  Or, as many a motivational speaker states: it’s what you do with the dash – the dash between your date of birth and date of death on your tombstone.  Hazel thanks Gus for the “forever within the numbered days.”

Augustus, struggling with meaning, is despondent about not leaving a bigger mark with his life.  Comparing his situation to dying in battle, for a cause, or on a cross: “There is no glory in illness.  There is no meaning to it.  There is no honor in dying of.”  He eventually learns by example from Hazel that “the real heroes anyway aren’t the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention.”  Hazel says, “I believe the universe wants to be noticed.  I think the universe is improbably biased toward consciousness that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed.”  And it’s noticing that increases life and time, not the number of hours.

Particularly young adults should read this book, because Hazel and Augustus are good role models.  When Hazel’s mom asks, “Is it still cool to go to the mall?” Hazel replies, “I take a lot of pride in not knowing what’s cool.” – which makes her cool.  They are teenage heroes above all the anxiety-ridden stuff normal teenagers deal with.   Instead, they have to confront big, real life issues like death and cancer, which puts the concern of looking fat in your jeans in proper perspective.  But, this is also a great book for adults, because it is well written, humorous, intelligent, and ultimately a story of life and love and the art of noticing.

The Fault in Our Stars is being released as a movie June 6 starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort.

Bryan and his 14-year-old twin daughters, Adrienne and Miriam, will be reviewing “The Fault in Our Stars” on WZZM Channel 13 Take Five morning show at 9:00am Monday, June 2.  Please join us for the Book Nook Book Club at 6:00pm Monday, June 2 at the Book Nook & Java Shop in downtown Montague.  Young adult readers are encouraged to attend.

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“Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter

ISBN-13: 9780061928178 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 4/2/2013 Series: P.S. Edition description: Reprint Pages: 337

ISBN-13: 9780061928178
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 4/2/2013
Series: P.S.
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 337

 

This is a beautiful book – one that can be relished from cover to cover: the story, the writing, the characters – everything exudes charm, warmth, and humor.  The story begins circa 1962 in Italy during filming of Cleopatra, the notorious costly flop starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.  An unknown extra actress, Dee Moray, takes sick leave from the film and shows up in the tiny cliff-strewn coastal town of Porto Vergogna.  Here she meets Pasquale, the humble innkeeper of The Hotel Adequate View.  According to Pasquale, it was love at first sight – not so much him with the actress as with the moment that could last forever.  The story jumps around over five decades and two continents: 1962 Italy; contemporary Hollywood; 1967 Seattle; 2008 Edinburgh; and recent Sandpoint, Idaho.  A few side stories even take place during World War II and the Donner Party excursion in 1847.  Each of these pieces of cloth the author sews into a quilt, as he answers questions, reveals lives and loves lost and found, and fates mislaid and redeemed.

The central characters are memorable: the delightful, romantic, and idealistic Pasquale with his crotchety relatives and crass “friends”; lovely and beautiful Dee Moray with her artistic pursuits; Shane Wheeler, the aspiring screen-writer, whose secret to success is the fake-it-till-you-make-it mantra: “Act!”; Claire, a high-brow film buff, who is stuck with a womanizing, slacker boyfriend and a soul-sapping job assisting a past-prime movie producer named Michael Deane.  Deane – who’s had so much plastic surgery “he resembles a dying man with the face of a nine-year-old Philipino girl” – is now in a career slump, so Claire spends her time hearing pitches for reality shows like Drunk Midget House. Just like the beautiful ruins of the Italian coast, the characters navigate the rocky shores of their lives, while clinging to the improbability of their dreams.  We are even treated to a cameo performance by the most beautiful ruin of them all: Richard Burton.

Walter’s engaging storytelling and evocative writing style are infused with humor, but not with laugh-out-loud one-liners. Instead it’s a wise humor that is full of understanding, both funny and sad at the same time, so that while reading a smile creases your face and a simultaneous tear wets your eye.  You are left with a sweet, lingering warmth in your heart.

Bryan will be reviewing “Beautiful Ruins” on WZZM Channel 13 Take Five morning show at 9:00am Monday, May 5.  Please join us for the Book Nook Book Club at 6:00pm Monday, May 5 at the Book Nook & Java Shop in downtown Montague.

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“A Long Way Down” by Nick Hornby

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ISBN-13: 9781594633560
Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
Publication date: 5/6/2014
Pages: 352

 

Middle-aged Martin Sharp had an enviable life:  a wife, two daughters, and a successful career as a celebrity host of a morning show “Rise and Shine with Penny and Martin.”   That was until he slept with a girl that was 15 years and 250 days old – just 115 days shy of being of legal age – for which he spent 3 months in prison.  The media had a field day with the scandal and, after his release, he finds his marriage ruined and his job lost.  He sees no option other than to end his life – which is why we find him atop  a 15-story building in London (nicknamed “Toppers House,” a popular suicide spot) on New Year’s Eve.  While he is contemplating his jump, he is interrupted by  Maureen, there for the same purpose, although her circumstances differ  – she feels trapped as the sole caretaker of her adult son who cannot walk, talk or even recognize her.  Soon, sassy, depressed 18-year-old Jess joins Martin and Maureen; her father is the Minister of Education.  Next, JJ arrives.  He’s a well-read American who delivers pizza for a living and grieves the loss of his former band and girlfriend.

With their respective end-of-life plans having been thwarted, the four decide to leave the roof the traditional way – via the stairs.  The story is written in first-person from the four main characters’ points of view.  It recounts their misadventures as they grapple with their predicaments and their pact to live  90 more days.

The author, Nick Hornby, is famous for his dark British humor and quirky characters.  These four personalities are all very different; were it not for their chance meeting on the roof, they likely would never have met each other.  Their chemistry, as they navigate their path through events, makes the book fun.  While finding some limited consolation in each other’s company, they are denied by Hornby any moments of grandiose redemption or epiphanies that might give them the will to live.  None of the four find neat resolutions to their problems – just enough  tweaking to go on.  For Maureen, it’s as simple as joining a quiz group, allowing her a free night each week away from her son.

A few of Hornby’s previous novels have successfully debuted on the big screen: “High Fidelity;” ” About a Boy;” and “Fever Pitch.”  “A Long Way Down”  was released in March in the U.K., starring Pierce Brosnon as Martin (the U.S. release has not yet been set).

 

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Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

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ISBN-13: 9781250037756
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 9/24/2013
Pages: 304

 

Books, Technology and a Secret Society Mystery

As a bookstore owner,  I was intrigued with the title “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,”  a first novel by Michigan native Robin Sloan.  Laid-off web designer, Clay Jannon, takes a job working the graveyard shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore.  Right away, Clay realizes there is something mysterious about the bookstore.  For one, there are hardly any customers.  From time-to-time, a passerby will stop in and browse the slim selection of used books at the store’s front – hardly enough sales to keep the doors open.  More common is a loyal group of odd customers who check out (not purchase) large tomes from the back of the store where the books pack floor-to-ceiling shelves 3-stories tall, accessible by a sliding ladder.  Although warned by Mr. Penumbra not to peruse these special books, Clay succumbs to his curiosity and discovers they are all written in a strange code.  Clay gathers a posse of friends to help in a mission of solving the riddle of what exactly is happening.

The characters are charming and resourceful:  his roommate, a special effects artist; his best friend, a nerd turned multi-millionaire creator of “boob-simulation software;”; and, his new love interest, Kat,  who works for Google. Together they solve the Founder’s Puzzle using highly advanced technology, especially with Kat’s access to Googles computing power.  They realize more is at stake as the plot thickens when Mr. Penumbra disappears.   Clay and friends track him to New York City and uncover the headquarters of a 500-year-old secret society called the Unbroken Spine.

Throughout the book, the author shows the power of technology matching wits with the old rigorous methods of the secret society.  It also highlights the current debate central to us in the book business – eBooks vs. regular books and the benefits of each.  One of the amusing aspects of the paperback edition of “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” is that the yellow cover glows in the dark –something lost with the eBook or audible editions.

Overall, I found the book delightful and entertaining – it is hard to put down.  The main characters are all likable and the author has a sense of humor throughout.  One of my favorite lines is Clay observation that  “Kat bought a New York Times, but couldn’t figure out how to operate it, so now she’s fiddling with her phone.”   The book will appeal to anyone who loves books, mysteries, secret societies, and technology.

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Me Before You

Memorable Love Story

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ISBN-10: 0143124544
ISBN-13: 9780143124542
Published: Penguin Books, 07/30/2013
Pages: 400
Language: English

In JoJo Moyes’ 9th novel and international bestseller, “Me Before You”, we meet an unlikely heroine Louisa Clark, a 26-year-old unemployed waitress.  She has led a sheltered working class existence both geographically and emotionally, never living apart from her parents and never setting foot outside her tiny English village.  Under pressure from her family dependent on her income, she takes a job as a caretaker for the upper-class paraplegic 35-year-old Will Traynor.  Prior to his motorbike accident, Will lived a large life as a wielder of multi-million-dollar deals, extreme sports, world travel, and super-model girlfriends.

Will has not adjusted to his circumstances – being confined to a wheel chair and his apartment adjacent to his parent’s home makes him bitter and hopeless.  Will’s mother Camilla hires Louisa out of desperation.  Will already has a nurse to attend to his physical needs, so it is hoped that Louisa can boost his morale.  Louisa proves to have a lot of backbone, which is necessary to deal with the curmudgeonly and off-putting Will.  The premise of the novel is reminiscent of the hit French movieThe Intouchables” with a wealthy paraplegic being cared for by a black man from the projects.  In both cases, the high and mighty made low is being cared for by the low and strong, and the caretakers dish out humane care and insistence on the inherent good beneath the flawed surface of their invalid bodies, not pity and compassion.

The curious title “Me Before You”, the author explains as “deliberately opaque – but I think of it as referring to each of them: It’s ‘who I was before I met you’”.  As the relationship warms, they each give to and change the other.  Will broadens the world for Louisa – she begins reading literature and watching foreign movies with subtitles and is encouraged to exercise her independence and expand what is possible for her future. “You cut yourself off from all sorts of experiences because you tell yourself you are ‘not that sort of person,’ ” he scolds her. “You’ve done nothing, been nowhere. How do you have the faintest idea what kind of person you are?” Irritated by her dithering, he rants, “Promise me you won’t spend the rest of your life stuck around this bloody parody of a place mat.”  Louisa makes a project out of expanding the possibilities for Will given his current limitations.  She joins online chat rooms with other paraplegics to get ideas, insights, and camaraderie.  After a few failed attempts at outings she arranges a trip of a life time to an exotic tropical island where their love deepens.  But, is it enough for Will to turn around his will to live?

This warm, human story explores the themes of class differences, how families deal with tragedy, assisted suicide, and whose decision it is to end life.  This book proves to be a tear-jerker without being cloying.  The movie rights have been sold, so I am looking forward to adding this to my future Netflix queue.

Bryan will be reviewing “Me Before You” on WZZM Take Five morning show which will air 9:00am Monday, January 6.  Join the Book Nook Book Club to discuss the book 6pm Monday, January 6 at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague.

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The Dinner

“The Dinner” Serves Up a Five-Course Psychological Thriller

Paperback: 320 pages Publisher: Hogarth; Reprint edition (October 29, 2013) Language: English ISBN-10: 0385346859 ISBN-13: 978-0385346856

Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Hogarth; Reprint edition (October 29, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0385346859
ISBN-13: 978-0385346856

“All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This first line from Tolstoy’s famous “Anna Karenina” is a theme and mantra of the narrator of “The Dinner” by Herman Koch.  The question the novel raises is to what length parents will go to cover unhappy particulars of their children to maintain a precarious sense of cohesive happiness.

The whole of the story takes place over a five-course dinner in an overly-pretentious up-scale restaurant in Amsterdam – the kind of place that takes months to get a reservation and where plates have more white space than food on them.  As Koch writes, “The first thing that struck you about Claire’s plate was the vast emptiness. Of course I’m well aware that, in the better restaurants, quality takes precedence over quantity, but you have voids and then you have voids. The void here, that part of the plate on which no food at all was present, had clearly been raised to a matter of principle.” The misanthropic narrator, Paul, and his wife, Claire, are meeting Paul’s older brother, Serge (in the lead to become the next prime minister – and hence able to get a table at the restaurant on the same day) and his wife, Babette.  Paul paints a picture of Serge as a pompous, publicity-seeking boor who affectedly loves everything French and goes to such lengths as to adopt an African boy to win votes.

They are meeting to discuss their teenage boys who have committed an odious crime which was caught on tape and uploaded to YouTube.  The crime has been widely publicized and met with outrage but has not yet been tied to the perpetrators. With everything at stake (political career, future of the boys) and a good chance of getting away with it, what should they do?

It remains a puzzle to me that I am drawn to a book whose characters are all unlikable.  It must be Koch’s mastery in creating suspense and drama by skillfully revealing secrets as the dinner progresses – the book is hard to put down.  What is chilling is that the story is not far-fetched but probable – the crime was based on actual events.  Being a parent, it is disturbing to grapple with what I would do if faced with the same situation.

The novel, originally in Dutch, has been translated into 12 languages, adopted as a Dutch play and film and soon to be made into an American film directed by Cate Blanchett.  It explores the themes of xenophobia, class pretension, nature vs. nurture, roots of evil, sibling rivalry, parenting, family secrets, and mental illness.

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