Friday, 17 August 2012

The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disppeared: Jonas Jonasson (Sweden)

It all starts on the one-hundredth birthday of Allan Karlsson. Sitting quietly in his room in an old people’s home, he is waiting for the party he-never-wanted-anyway to begin. The Mayor is going to be there. The press is going to be there. But, as it turns out, Allan is not… Slowly but surely Allan climbs out of his bedroom window, into the flowerbed (in his slippers) and makes his getaway. And so begins his picaresque and unlikely journey involving criminals, several murders, a suitcase full of cash, and incompetent police. As his escapades unfold, we learn something of Allan’s earlier life in which – remarkably – he helped to make the atom bomb, became friends with American presidents, Russian tyrants, and Chinese leaders, and was a participant behind the scenes in many key events of the twentieth century. Already a huge bestseller across Europe, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared is a fun and feel-good book for all ages.
This novel, which is a cross between Forest Gump and Australian novel Steve Toltz' A Fraction of the Whole, is the funniest book I have read well, since A Fraction of the Whole. Written by Swedish born writer Jonas Jonasson and translated from its original language, it has since become an international best seller, and justifiably so.
The story begins as the blurb says, with the 100th birthday of Allan Karlsson, a resident in an old people's home. Sitting quietly in his room, waiting for his 100th birthday celebrations to begin, he decides that he wants none of it, and so climbs out of the window into the flower beds, and so begins his adventure, or does it, for it transpires that Allan has been having adventures all of his life.
Interwoven into the tale of Allan's escape is the story of his life, and this is no ordinary life, for during his travels, Allan has helped both the Soviets and Americans to build atom bombs, worked for both the KGB and CIA, saved the wife of Chairman Mao and blown up the town of Vladivostok in an attempt to escape from a Siberian Gulug - so that he can escape into North Korea and find some vodka.
The imagination and humour of Jonasson know no bounds, as we are introduced to the 100 year old Allan's four accomplices and partners in crime - a petty thief, a hot dog salesman, a gangland boss, and a red haired beauty (not forgetting her adopted elephant Sonya). The four misfits, who meet under unusual circumstamces, together go on the run, following Allan's theft (or borrowing whichever way you look at it) of a suitcase which happens to contain 50 million Swedish Crowns, the proceeds of a drugs heist.
This is an absorbing. laugh out loud tale of hilarious proportions, some of which I can well imagine, are very close to the truth - closer perhaps than those in authority would like us to believe - a total exercise in urine extraction, made all the better by the fact that it is so outrageously believable.
This is quite simply the funniest book I have read in a long while, and one that I would recommend - to everyone !

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Boy Racer: Mark Cavendish (Isle of Man)

Boy Racer steps behind the scenes of the Tour de France. It unmasks the exotic, contradictory, hysterical and brutal world of professional cycling from the compellingly candid viewpoint of someone right in the thick of it. Written off as ‘fat’ and ‘useless’ in his youth, Mark Cavendish is now cycling's brightest star.  His extraordinary quadruple stage-win at last year’s Tour proved him Britain’s best ever cyclist. Some have called him cocky, but to anyone who doesn’t like his style, Mark will simply shrug his shoulders and reply, ‘I know I’m good. There’s no point lying about it. ’Peers say that they have never seen anyone with Cavendish’s hunger for success and while this fearlessness – both in the saddle and on the record – has at times led to controversy, it has also earned him the respect of ever more fans. In Boy Racer we follow him through through the mayhem of the Tour de France in a page-turning journey of pure exhilaration.

Until the route for the recent London 2012 Olympic Road Cycling Races was announced, I had little or no interest in the world of professional cycling. When it was announced to the world's media that the quiet Surrey village of Box Hill, where I live would form a large (in fact pivotal) part of the route, all that changed, it had to in order for me to report back to the rest of the village through my role (as it was then) as Editor of the village newsletter, Box Hill News. Watching the London Surrey Cycle Classic (otherwise known as the Test Race) provided a small taste of the excitement that was to come, when the world's top athletes in this exciting sport sped quite literally past the doorstep. Nothing could have prepared me for the exhileration of the Olympics themselves, two days that I shall never forget.

You would never guess that this book was ghost written (by cycling journalist Daniel Frieb), and he has done an expert job, as it is written so expertly in Cav's own style. The man himself has come across occasionally as arrogant, sometimes as over confident, and often as downright rude, but here to attemps to put his side of the story, portraying himself as a man who very much knows his own mind, strengths and weaknesses and is not afraid to challenge the status quo. I think we need a few more Cav's in this world, for it strikes me that this is a brutally honest young man.

From his childhood on the Isle of Man, to his relationship with ex fiancee, to his cycling exploits, trials and triumphs, it is all here in stark and brutal honesty, with no holds barred. This is a book that not only holds great human interest, helping me to understand what makes this man tick, but which also helped me to understand more about the cycling world, the importance of team work and  how the riders help each other. Cav went up enormously in my estimation when towards the end of book, he detailed the reasons why he turned down a 100 percent pay rise to stay with his (then) current team, but he knows that it is his team makes who are as responsble for his success as he is himself - they are the ones who helped and supported him along the way, and this is in the end far more important than any amount of wealth.

He comes across then, despite his media image, as a level headed young man who understands what really matters, and knows where his loyalties lie, qualities which are all too lacking in other high profile sports I can think of. I for one am eagerly anticipating the next installment of this remarkable athlete's meteoric success, which will go straight to my shopping basket the moment it is released.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

The Appointment: Herta Muller (Romania)

‘I’ve been summoned, Thursday, ten sharp.’ So begins one day in the life of a young clothing-factory worker during Ceausescu’s totalitarian regime. She has been questioned before, but this time she knows it will be worse. Her crime? Sewing notes into the linings of men’s suits bound for Italy. ‘Marry me’, the notes say, with her name and address. Anything to get out of the country.As she rides the tram to her interrogation, her thoughts stray to her friend Lilli, shot while trying to flee to Hungary; to her grandparents, deported after her first husband informed on them; to Major Albu, her interrogator, who begins each session with a wet kiss on her fingers; and to Paul, her lover and the one person she can trust. In her distraction, she misses her stop and finds herself on an unfamiliar street.And what she discovers there suddenly puts her fear of the appointment into chilling perspective. Bone-spare and intense, The Appointment is a pitiless rendering of the terrors of a crushing regime.

Romania suffered perhaps more than any other Eastern European country under the brutal repression on the Ceaucescu regime. Several Romanians work at the nursing home with me, and they have hinted at the things that they saw and experienced during this time, so I suppose I was hoping that reading this book may help me to understand, if one ever really can.

Author Herta Muller was born in Romania in 1953. She lost her job as a teacher and suffered repeated threats following her refusal to cooperate with Ceausescu's Secret Police. One of the lucky ones, she eventually managed to emigrate in 1987 and now lives in Berlin.

This is for me a difficult book to review, as I found it difficult to understand. It seemed to flit between different scenes, as the narrators mind flitted around her own thoughts and experiences. In many ways it can be seen as the narrators life story, at least of her adulthood, as it contains so many different underlying threads. The main thread is however fear, fear or others and what they may say to incriminate you if you do anything deemed to be out of the norm. This may seem a small and insignificant fear to us, but under the notorious Ceeausescu regime, it carried with it the real fear ot interrogation and death. That then is the narrators fear as the story unfolds.

As the blurb suggests, she has been summoned to appear before her inquisitors, the notorious Secret Police. This is not her first interrogation, and is not likely to be the last. As she sits on the tram en route to her appointment, her thoughts begin to wander to what brought her to this point and everything that has happened in her life up until now. The one person that she can rely on is her husband Paul, but this too turns out to be a sham, as when she misses her stop, she sees something that sheds light on tne nature of her relationship and brings her fear into sharp focus witn an almost chilling perspective.   

Fatal Tango: Wolfram Fleischhauer (Germany/Argentina)

Giulietta Battin has devoted herself to ballet, earning a coveted spot as a dancer with the Staatsoper Berlin. But when she decides to explore a new style of music—the tango—life as she knows it changes forever. Soon after beginning her musical adventure, she meets Argentinean tango dancer Damián Alsina. They begin a torrid affair…which quickly turns into a nightmare. Damián suddenly sabotages his own performance with a bizarre, improvised choreography. His passionate creativity excites Giulietta, until Damián’s strange behavior culminates in a shocking act: he kidnaps and tortures her jealous father. Horrified, she demands answers, but Damián has fled to Buenos Aires and her father, his victim, is being suspiciously unforthcoming. So Giulietta follows her lover to South America, where her journey into the world of tango confronts her with the unspeakable horrors of the country’s brutal past. But denial will never silence art, and as Giulietta learns to decipher the true significance of Damián’s dance style, she finds the key to the mystery of her lover´s past and the terrifying truth that connects it with her own.

I bought this book again as Kindle deal of the day thinking that it sounded interesting. Although it took a while to get going, I was not disappointed.

The story centres on young ballerina Giulietta (a name that I have to confess sounds more Italian than German) and her lover, Argentinian tango dancer, Damian. Soon after meeting they begin a torrid and passionate affair which comes to an abrupt halt when Damian kidnaps and tortures her father for no apparent reason, fleeing the country soon afterwards. In an effort to understand, Giulietta follows him to his homeland and so begins her quest to uncover the truth. Interwoven into this fascinating thriller are themes of incest and family secrets, as well as dark secrets harboured by secretive Governments and corrupt officials both past and present that wish to cover their own tracks and hide the truth.