Friday, 29 March 2013

This is How You Lose Her - Competition!

Title: This is How You Lose Her
Author: Junot Diaz
Pages: 213 (paperback)
Published: August 2012
Published by: Faber & Faber

The eagerly awaited new collection from Junot Díaz, Pulitzer Prize-winner and bestselling author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Junot Díaz's first book, Drown, established him as a major new literary voice - 'a strong, fresh, authentic talent' (Hanif Kureishi) - and his first novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao topped bestseller lists. His new collection, This Is How You Lose Her, is about the haunting, impossible power of love - passionate love, illicit love, fading love, maternal love.

On a beach in Santo Domingo, a doomed relationship flounders; in the heat of a hospital laundry room in New Jersey, a woman does her lover's washing and thinks about his wife; in Boston, a man buys his love-child, his only son, his first baseball kit. At the centre of these stories is the irrepressible, irresistible voice of Yunior, a young Dominican finding his way in New Jersey. As he and his family persist through broken promises, broken hearts and painful longing, passion, as always, triumphs over experience.

In prose that is endlessly energetic, inventive, tender and funny, This Is How You Lose Her lays bare the infinite longing and inevitable weaknesses of the human heart.

I won this book from the lovely people over at Dewey's 24-hour read-a-thon, and it wasn't quite what I was expecting. I didn't realise it was a series of short stories, expecting more of a Love Actually inter-connected thing to be going on. And if I had...well, I tend not to read short stories because I don't like the constant switching and changing.

But not all the stories were unrelated: most of them were about Yunior and various relationships he has throughout his life, though not in chronological order so it takes a bit of effort to get it all in the right order in your head, holding what you know has already happened (or will happen) and trying to fit the next story in with what you've already read.

The central character of each story is from Santo Domingo - the capital of the Dominican Republic - but currently living in New York city. The are all bilingual, slipping into their native Spanish for odd words or sentences here and there. This is nice and authentic I know, but my Spanish is woeful, so for the odd words it didn't really matter that I didn't understand what it meant, but the full sentences caused more issue. Yeah, I could have had like Google translate open next to me, but I didn't want to be breaking off doing that what would have been every few minutes in places. This aside, it was a relatively easy book to read: I never actually struggled with the writing itself.

The stories themselves were enjoyable enough, all looking at failed or difficult relationships, most of them revolving around cheating. Is this a cultural thing? I don't know many people who've had relationships end because of cheating, and it is certainly stated a number of times than Santo Domingo men tend to be like that so maybe. Still, it did present a pretty dismal view of relationships. Which I suppose I should have seen coming given the title, but there you go! A little more variation may have made it slightly more interesting for me: after a while, if it didn't state straight off that they were cheating I was waiting for it to happen.

So while it was a good book and probably deserves a higher rating, with one thing and another it just wasn't particularly for me, unfortunately.

Since I won this book I decided to pass it forward! If you would like to win this book (in very good condition - I try my very hardest to look after my books!) just leave a comment below. I'll leave it open for two weeks and then randomly select a winner!

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Author Interview - Martin Hopkins

I have Martin Hopkins, author of Cracks in the Pavement and Old Man in Window, here for my very first author interview. Woo!

So Martin, why don't you tell us a little about yourself.
Hello! Some days I have a beard, other days not so much...especially if I slip and take off a sideburn. I loved reading adventure books and watching films as a teenager, which I still do, but I didn't start writing them until my early twenties, a late bloomer!

Random question! What is your favourite type of biscuit?
Gold Bar, if I'm feeling flush, a plain digestive biscuit if I'm low-down broke.

Well, I can honestly say I've never even heard of Gold Bar - must be pretty classy!
What are you reading at the moment?

'Ripley's Game' by Patricia Highsmith. I loved 'The Talented Mr Ripley', the book is great and the film is even better (which is rare). He is a very complicated character. A mistake on the cover art of the book led me down the garden path to believe this was the follow-up to 'Talented'. Apparently it is the third in the series. Doh! 'Ripley Underground' could be the second one, although I don't trust the cover art on this one either...I'm confused!

I'm always quite afraid of that happening - it's so annoying when they don't make it clear! I assiduously check to make sure before I buy anything.
Where did the inspiration for Cracks in the Pavement come from?

The novel came from a sadness I felt, in regards to the class system still being predominant in modern day Britain. There is such a huge wealth gap in society and the worst part is it doesn't have to be this way. Why do we have to have one person sitting on a throne, eating cupcakes, at one end of the spectrum and another person sitting alone on a cold concrete path at the other? Or worse, naked in the dessert, starving, dying from AIDS at 4 years old...It makes no sense to me.

Most people want to climb higher in life; social status, money, power and all that 'important' stuff. Some people don't give a shit. It perpetuates the class hierarchy and keeps the economy going. Little guy in his place down there (stay where you are!), big lady, in more ways than one, striving to break through the next glass ceiling way up there (keep going you can make matter how many others you have to step over). Simple man, enjoying ignorant bliss, floating somewhere in the middle. Carry on reading here...

Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Singing

Title: The Singing
Series: The Chronicles of Pellinor #4
Author: Alison Croggon
Pages: 496 (paperback)
Published: September 1st 2008
Published by: Walker Books

The Singing follows the separate journeys of Maerad and Cadvan, and their brother Hem, as they desperately seek each other in an increasingly battle-torn land. The Black Army is moving north and Maerad has a mighty confrontation with the Landrost to save Innail. All the Seven Kingdoms are being threatened with defeat. Yet Maerad and Hem hold the key to the mysterious Singing and only in releasing the music of the Elidhu together may the Nameless One be defeated.

Can brother and sister find each other in time to fight the Nameless One, and are they strong enough to defeat him?

In this culmination of the epic Chronicles of Pellinor, we rejoin Maerad and Hem as they begin on the final steps of their destiny. They both feel the driving need to be reunited, but are in a vast land separated by countless leagues, neither with any idea where the other is. And all the while, the powers of darkness are besieging strongholds of the light and attacking in myriad ways. Both face new challenges and uncover powers they never knew they held, but whether this will be enough is another matter entirely.

This book follows both Maerad and Hem's journeys, each having a few chapters before it switches back to the other. I'm glad to have Maerad back as it is her I'm more interested in (and attached to, even with all that Hem went through in The Crow) her and her journey, admiring her imperfections and the strength she has shown in spite of this. This book again has her battling foes in unprecedented ways, and it's always interesting to see her struggles to defend those people and places she loves and the ways she comes up with of doing so.

Hem is also growing into himself more. After the trials of the last book he has sobered suddenly, no longer the child he was when we first met him but instead trying to find himself against the backdrop of all that has happened in the Suderain. He, too, is finding his confidence and strength, and it was nice seeing the things he finds he is capable of.

We get a few new characters in this book, but for the most part it is simply old faces returning and places being revisited. For Maerad especially, these returns to people and places remind her of just how much she has grown and changed in the time since last being there, and it serves as a reminder to the reader as well, the stark contrast of change in such a short time lost in the pages and time between reading.

There are also some pretty good battle sequences: less hand-to-hand than in previous books maybe, but this just lets you see the Speech being used in new ways, and this is sometimes what I like best about fantasy books. The characters are able to access these abilities and do these things that we would never be able to, and seeing them use their abilities makes fight sequences more exciting in my eyes. Brandon Sanderson's Allomancy (as seen in The Alloy of Law, among other books) is one of my favourite as it really is something special. I'd recommend his Mistborn series on those grounds alone. And while the Speech isn't as high impact as some magic systems out there, it's effects are more wide-reaching, with the wielder able to change and affect so many different things.

The story itself is a bit slower: we're back to quite epic amounts of travelling again, though these are more skimmed over than in previous books which was quite nice. Though thinking back now, a lot of the earlier parts of the book seem to be filler, stuff happening just so people can get places - especially when it comes to Hem. Maerad has these times of her own later in the book, but it stands out more in Hem's story for me. Possibly because I'm less bothered about him in general, I want more to be going on.

I think the build to the climax was done incredibly well, interesting and tense and sad, but the climax itself was a bit of a let down. There was all this build-up, and then there wasn't quite as much made out of it as I would have hoped. Still, the end was satisfying in that all the storylines were tied up nicely and some brewing relationships came to fruition. After a series that has touched on emotion and relationship without it ever really being the focus - like in real life, it's often there as a background but doesn't take over as it can do in some books - it was nice that this too got its time, though still without being over-the-top of losing the spirit of the story.

A good ending to a great series. And I'm already looking forward to my next re-read!

Friday, 8 March 2013

Cracks in the Pavement

Title: Cracks in the Pavement
Author: Martin Hopkins
Pages: 226 (ebook)
Published: December 21st 2011
Published by: Amazon

Jekyll & Hyde for the 21st Century. Watch out! The psychopathic Professor H is coming...

Daniel Walker is an enigmatic young man in his mid-twenties, living and working in the heart of Edinburgh, Scotland. He is handsome, intelligent, sleep deprived and often hungover. He works in a corporate office, hates his job and his moronic boss. The majority of his time is spent in various pubs throughout the capital, discussing the world with his friends and where it all went wrong.

On his reluctant walks to work, Dan notices there are an abundance of people sleeping rough on the streets, begging for money. He feels empathy for those less fortunate and tries to help them when he can. Realisation quickly dawns on him that not everyone claiming to be homeless is genuine - often it is merely a scam; free money to spend on drugs, alcohol and other addictions.

When his love interest, Emily, is attacked by a 'Dark Stranger', Dan must infiltrate an underground street community, to catch the elusive attacker. He gets caught in a deadly game of survival as he hunts for the attacker and is hunted himself. The closer he gets to finding his man, the closer he comes to living the life he was pretending to have. 

Dan soon discovers the old abandoned house in the woods, a hideaway for drug addicts, prostitution, illicit teenage pornography and shelter from the streets. It is not long before the police get involved. Dan must negotiate his freedom with the tenacious Detective Inspector Morrison, who wants nothing more than to interrogate his prime suspect...

'Cracks in the Pavement' is a darkly funny, sexually graphic Dickensian look at the dizzying heights and gritty depths of a fractured modern society.

All the while, a real life monster lurks in the shadows, waiting for his strike!

I was given a free copy of this book by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Dan has a 9 to 5 office job that he hates, and seems to tolerate nights in the pub with his friends. Every night, pretty much. He's a borderline alcoholic, becoming drunk even when it would serve him much better not to. His ex-girlfriend stumbles into the story, and he sets out on the road to avenge her, though she doesn't seem to really want him to. The place he is lead to is darker than the place he already was, and he finds himself in no end of trouble and it strains every area of his life.

This totally isn't the kind of book that I'd normally go for: I'm all for a bit of darkness in a book, but the blurb struck me as quite seriously dark, but then this didn't really follow through into the book itself. Yeah, there are things going on that most people would rather not think about even though they happen every day all over the world. Drugs, homelessness, sexual assault. Not happy topics, but all tackled in this book, and done well. But it wasn't constant or over-the-top, and a fair portion of it read like just, life.

Indeed, it was generally well written and an easy read. The overall tones was dark, but the nastier bits never lasted too long, which I appreciated. Although, you can tell it's been self-published: there are a few sections that could have been cleaned up a little. When characters are introduced - even minor ones, occasionally - we get quite detailed descriptions of how they look, what they're doing, and sometimes a little potted history of their lives. This is fine when it's one character, but by the time you've got round seven you've kinda lost the train of the story a little. On top of this, there were times when the timeline was a little muddled - some (what I think was) back and forth, but this wasn't made at all clear. These aside, it was well paced and there was always something going on, and I got through the pages without really noticing - always a good sign in my books.

One very good thing is that the central characters do seem like real people (although Dan was the only one with significant or consistent page time). They react to things in ways people would, getting angry with a smattering of swear words rather than effing and blinding left, right and centre as you come across in some media. They have conversations and interactions you can imagine mates sitting in a pub actually having, which isn't something you come across all too often in my experience. Though maybe I'm just not reading the right sort of books. The banter, joking and gentle mockery you find between friends. It is in these times that most of the amusing bits of the book come from. I found myself laughing a little fairly frequently to start with - Dan has exactly my type of humour, very dry - but this soon tapered off as there was less and less for him to mock or joke about. I liked first-half-of-the-book-Dan, not so much second-half-of-the-book-Dan.

Why? Because second-half-Dan didn't make a whole lot of sense. He'd do things, but it wouldn't be explained why. The things he did often didn't even make sense. He did them against his better judgement, but there was no clue given as to what exactly was pushing him to act in that way. Of course he was drunk/hungover most of the time by this point which may have something to do with it. He and Emily had dated in university; it didn't seem to be that serious and must have finished a few years ago, yet he goes off on this epic quest to track down the man who has wronged her. And largely carries it out drunk. You know, the perfect state for trying to infiltrate the gritty underworld of Edinburgh. Which he actually appears to achieve quite easily.

Homelessness was quite a significant factor in this story, not something I've come across in a fiction book before. The different ways they act and the ways other people react to them were particularly well done, both the good and the bad in both respects.

The ending... The ending was interesting, but a little confusing. The mysterious man in the camel coat had been woven through the story in dribs and drabs, giving hints about him but nothing anywhere near approaching concrete. This was a nice touch, adding mystery to the story. The ending answers all the questions you have, though I've got to admit it opened a few more for me as well. Namely 'why?' Things are explained, you understand what's been going on, but not really why they've been going on, or how they've been achieved.

A good book, though probably not for everyone. And definitely not for younger readers!

Friday, 1 March 2013

The Count of Monte Cristo

Title: The Count of Monte Cristo
Author: Alexandre Dumas
Pages: 1264 (paperback)
Published: 2008 (first published 1844)
Published by: HarperPerennial

The ultimate story of escape to riches, revenge and redemption by 'the Napoleon of storytellers'. Falsely accused of treason, Edmond Dantes is arrested on his wedding night and imprisoned in the grim island fortress of Chateau d'If. After staging a dramatic escape he sets out to discover the fabulous treasure on the island of Monte Cristo and uses it to exact revenge on those responsible for his incarceration. The sensational narrative of intrigue, betrayal, escape and triumphant revenge moves at a cracking pace. Dumas' novels present a powerful conflict between good and evil embodied in an epic saga of rich diversity that is complicated by the hero's ultimate discomfort with the hubristic implications of his own actions. A novel of enormous tension and excitement, The Count of Monte Cristo is also a tale of obsession and revenge, with Dantes, believing himself to be an Angel of Providence, pursuing his vengeance to the bitter end before realising that he himself is a victim of fate.

Edmond Dantes is a happy-go-lucky sailor, devoted to his father, and engaged to and deeply in love with the beautiful fisher girl Mercedes. He seems to have it all and therein lies his problem, for when jealous rivals find an opportunity they collude to bring about his downfall. Unfortunate circumstances and deplorable choices from many involved result in Edmond being imprisoned unjustly and thrown into the dungeons of the Chateau d'If. He befriends a fellow prisoner, allowing him to escape fourteen years later an educated man and with the secret to a treasure buried on the small, uninhabited island of Monte Cristo. With his millions (and millions. And millions.) secured he sets out on his revenge of those who betrayed him.

This book has three distinct parts: pre-imprisonment, imprisonment and post-imprisonment. Pre-imprisonment is a good introduction to all the characters, especially Dantes who is just a lovely guy. Pretty much everyone likes him and he's happy living a simple life as long as he can support himself and his father and marry Mercedes.

During his imprisonment you see him harden and change. He goes through believable cycles of hope and despair, even going so far as trying to starve himself at one point. Escape and the return to those he loves is the one thought in his mind for most of the fourteen years of his imprisonment, even when he is befriended by the Abbe Faria, who is quite clearly a 'good guy'. There is very little ambiguity between the good guys and the bad guys: there are those who've helped Dantes and those who've not. I suppose this sort of ambiguity is something that's come more into more modern literature, but it made a nice change to know who you could trust and who you weren't supposed to like. The Abbe sets out to pass on his vast wealth of knowledge, and Dantes proves an apt pupil. It is also the Abbe who passes on the secret of a vast fortune he has discovered.

While these two sections are very good, they are basically quite a long pre-amble section which is giving the tools for Monsieur le Comte de Monte Cristo to get his revenge. Though for all this they are probably some of my favourite parts, possibly because they are very easy to read.

We rejoin the story nine years after Dantes' escape, and his transformation into the Count of Monte Cristo is complete. He is well established in society, has furthered his education and established a coterie of servants (and slaves) about him. And this is where the fun begins. You know who he's going to go after, but he sets in motion these incredibly complex events to try and bring about their downfall without the least suspicion falling on him, and while you know this is what he is doing at the start it is very difficult to see how his actions will lead to this. I think this is even more impressive when you consider that this was published as a serial: there could be no going back and changing things to make it work better when (if) hiccups came along in the plot. Dumas just had to keep writing!

One thing I particularly like is that not everything goes to plan. Things go wrong with what the Count planned through information he doesn't know (though he does seem to know pretty much everything), unexpected relationship and pleas. But similarly there are some lucky coincidences that make things easier. At least I think they were never quite know with the Count. He could just be that good. Which is actually one thing that's a little annoying - he is amazing at, like, everything. He's intelligent and articulate, a master marksman and sword fighter, he can converse in multiple languages without the trace of an accent, has an incredible knowledge of chemistry, is a master reader and manipulator of people, and seems to be quite handsome too. I think music is the only thing that he doesn't excel in, but I'm making this assumption based on the fact that he doesn't partake in any musical demonstrations rather than through anything which said he was bad at it.

And then there's the characters. In the 23 years between his imprisonment and his arrival in Paris to gain his revenge (isn't it lucky they all live in the same city now?) they've got married and had children and lost spouses and remarried and had more children who are now engaged to people (sometimes each other). There are an awful lot of names thrown at you in quite a short space of time, and an awful lot of relationships established. I found it quite confusing at first, and still had blank moments towards the end of the book, having to work hard at who someone's father was, what he'd done to Dantes and how his downfall was being brought about. And it was at this point that my reading of the book fell off for a week or so.

I'd loved the in prison and escape chapters, and while it was necessary for the skip-forward, I struggled a little to get back into the swing of things, especially that the central character was no longer such. There are quite significant sections where he makes no appearance, and for me Dantes/Monte Cristo is the best part of the story. For all his being annoying being-good-at-everything-ness.

The end of the story, though, is rather wonderful. Seeing the consequences of some of his actions shocks the Count into change, and there is a happy ending for some (though nowhere near all) of the characters, often in spite of the actions taken by Monte Cristo. The ending - sailing away into the sunset - was a little cliched, but it was a nice end to a rather amazing book.

Though a little dry in places, the story is amazing and generally easy to read. It might take a while, but I'd definitely recommend it.