“Decanting A Murder” by Nadine Nettmann (2016)

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“One thousand seven hundred and forty-two.”

I love a drink. A good glass of wine, a fancy well-made cocktail, a perfectly poured pint of Guinness. As I write, I’m drinking a salted caramel flavoured vodka. However, it’s wine that I favour above all others – a large Viognier if you’re buying, thanks.

It’s also well documented that I’m a big fan of murder mysteries, so a novel about a trained sommelier solving a murder felt like it should be right up my vineyard. And yet, I emerge from the book, fresh from the Napa Valley wineries, torn about the whole thing.

Katie Stillwell is a sommelier in a fancy San Francisco restaurant, with only two obsessions: her job, and practicing for the Sommelier Certification exam. Known among her friends and colleagues as “The Palate”, she has a remarkable ability to successfully name wines in most blind taste tests. When she’s invited to a party at the highly secretive and exclusive Frontier Winery, courtesy of her friend Tessa, she leaps at the chance to meet the owners and sample some of the Napa Valley’s best wine.

However, after some flirting with the vineyard manager Jeff, the party takes a dip for the disastrous when the winery’s owner, Mark, is found dead in one of his vats with a bottle opener stuck in his back. Tessa is nowhere to be seen, and all the evidence begins to point to Katie’s friend being the one responsble. Katie, however, is sure that Tessa is innocent, and drops everything to help the police in solving the mystery. After all, if Katie can detect the subtlest notes in a glass of wine, surely she can turn that detection to other things, right?

OK, so let’s give the book some credit. I rather cockily decided quite early on that it was obvious who was responsible for the murder, but Nettmann actually managed to pull the wine label over my eyes so I wasn’t completely correct. The characters are generally quite well fleshed out, if not entirely appealing people, and you can’t deny that she knows her stuff, being a Certified Sommelier herself. There’s also a pleasant touch of each chapter being headed with a wine pairing, although given the speed I read and the fact I read most of this book on my morning commute, following along with it seemed inadvisable.

And yet.

Far be it from me to call a book amateurish given the stage my career is at, but I can’t help but feel that this could’ve done with another round or two with an editor. Some of the dialogue is a little forced and exposition-heavy, and occasionally characterisation doesn’t sit well. The clues we’re given are either forced or written in riddles, and many plot points seem a tad unbelievable and laden with coincidence. Katie is very bland as a character, and she seems quite content to tell us all about herself, or how she views herself at least. She has a deep, repressed secret that is built up to be quite serious, and while the consequences of it clearly were, the actual event itself is quite silly.

Altogether, it’s not a bad story. There’s a good, solid mystery here, but the edges just need tidying up. This is apparently the first in a series, and I’m not sure if I’ll find my way back here. But, never say never.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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Vintage Minis: “Drinking” and “Swimming”

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If you’ve been in a bookstore recently you may have noticed the collection of Vintage Minis. These are twenty tiny books that take selected highlights on full-length memoirs and novels to give you a sample of the writing. All human life is here, and some of the names behind them are particularly notable. Themes include “Home”, “Desire”, “Death”, “Calm”, and “Work”, with writers including Salman Rushdie, Nigella Lawson, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison giving their insights into their area of expertise. Intrigued by the concept, I bought the two that best fitted with my favourite activities. I read the first one a couple of months ago, but I present them both to you here now.

Drinking by John Cheever

“It was Sunday afternoon, and from her bedroom Amy could hear the Beardens coming in, followed a little while later by the Farquarsons and the Parminters.”

Taken from the anthology Collected Stories by John Cheever, this book gathers together all the excerpts that focus on alcohol and what it does to us. In “The Sorrows of Gin”, a young girl steals alcohol from her parents cabinets and lets the staff take the blame.  In “Goodbye, My Brother”, a family gather together and old wounds are reopened, and family is also present in “Reunion”, where a man goes out with his alcoholic, abrasive father for the last time. In “The Scarlet Moving Van” we see how dangerous alcoholism can be, and how it tears families and friends apart when it takes hold.

The pieces are wonderfully moving, and often drinking doesn’t even play a major part in the story, perhaps showing how insidious the habit of reaching for the liquor bottle has become in much of society. Drinking seems to be one of the ties that bind us all together as humans, and a number of us have on more than one occasion, tried and failed to find solace at the bottom of a bottle.

One of the stories, “The Swimmer”, in fact inspired…

Swimming by Roger Deakin

“The warm rain tumbled from the gutter in one of those midsummer downpours as I hastened across the lawn behind my house in Suffolk and took shelter in the moat.”

The excepts from Swimming are taken from Roger Deakin’s book Waterlog. In this, the only book he published in his lifetime, he decides to explore the British landscape by swimming through it. Thus begins a journey through rivers, streams, lakes, lochs and around the coast to experience the island through its’ remarkable waterways.

We are treated to several great excerpts here, such as his dip into the Atlantic Ocean off the Scilly Isles and discussion about what the locals do with shipwrecked cargo, his argument with locals in Winchester who feel the rivers should be off-limits to people not willing to pay for their use, meeting an otter in Suffolk, and a dip in the North Sea on Christmas Day. He has a beautiful way of writing and showing us the true beauty of our countryside. It makes you appreciate our waters and shows the island from a new angle, bringing to the fore some of the most wonderful denizens of the water, including salmon, water voles and even porpoises. It’s actually compelling enough that I’m tempted to buy the full version, proving that these books seem to be doing what they were made to do – get us excited about literature.

Hopefully these quick summaries will inspire you to pick up a Vintage Mini and dive into a topic you’re passionate about. I doubt these are the last ones I read.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Dead Writers In Rehab” by Paul Bassett Davies (2017)

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“I know why the caged bird sings. But that pigeon outside my room at four in the morning? What the fuck is his problem?”

It’s well documented that a lot of creative people seem to develop a fondness for, and perhaps a reliance on, drugs or alcohol. Indeed, I wrote an article for a spirits website about the favourite drinks of several authors. I suppose there’s no real way of knowing if the addictions caused the creativity, or the stress of creating let to the addiction. Who knows? All we do know is that Fitzgerald, Byron, Hemingway, Thompson and the rest all created great works while “under the influence”. Now imagine if you put all those people into the same building and watched the fireworks fly. That’s Dead Writers in Rehab.

Foster James is a literary star who seems to spend much of his time between writing novels in rehab. Once again, he wakes up to find himself in an institution with no memory of how he got there. The doctors are cagey and remote, and he can’t find the front door. It’s only when, during a group therapy session, he’s punched in the face by Ernest Hemingway that he realises that this isn’t a regular rehabilitation centre.

Now surrounded by literature’s greatest reprobates, James must try and come to terms with where he is. In between navigating the comedowns of William Burroughs, Colette and Hunter S. Thompson, he sleeps with Dorothy Parker, and they all learn that the centre is under threat as the two doctors assigned to their care are being torn apart by a failed love affair. Deciding that some things are bigger even than their egos, the writers pool their resources and set about bringing the doctors back together. But there’s something lurking on the edge of the grounds, seen from the corner of the eye, watching and waiting…

Despite not being massively well-versed in the classical canon, I know enough about the figures presented here to enjoy the story hugely. Foster James isn’t especially likeable, but then again very few of the characters are. Dorothy Parker is portrayed as willing to sleep with anyone who asks; Hemingway is violent and aggressive, and Hunter S. Thompson is a cheating sleazeball. They are also all shown at the age they were at the height of their prowess – Hemingway is in his fifties, representing the time he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, while Thompson is young, at his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas peak. It’s a great cast, even including Mary Seacole, who wrote some excellent memoirs about her time in the Crimea, warranting her a place among the patients. I longed for Agatha Christie to appear, of course, but she neither smoked nor drank, and would not be seen in a place like this.

The story is told via the recovery diaries of all the patients, mostly Foster himself, but with excepts from others who all write in the same style that we would expect of them. It’s Foster, though, who provided me with the lines that I particularly loved. When thinking of how his marriage went sour, he says poignantly:

It was like a relationship between pen pals in reverse: we began in the same place, knowing everything about each other, and by the end we were in different wolds with nothing in common but an imperfect grasp of the other’s language.

Or he can be funny, such as when discussing the meaning behind a famous M People song:

I’m all in favour of searching for the hero inside yourself. And if you can’t find him, try luring the bastard out with alcohol and the prospect of a fight; that usually does the trick.

There are a few great twists and surprises which I won’t mention here because the impact is better if you don’t know what’s coming, and while the novel does well for mostly leaving you wondering exactly what’s going on, the end was a little disappointing. It works, sure, but I don’t think we needed an explanation. Or if we did, we needed one different to the one we got.

A very smart, funny and unique book that anyone with even a passing interest in literature should gobble up with great haste.

“Nina Is Not OK” by Shappi Khorsandi (2016)

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“The burly bouncer was holding me by the scruff of the neck.”

I like a drink. A lot of my friends like a drink. We are, however, generally capable of knowing when we’ve had enough. We don’t drink to black out, but whether that’s down to our age (hangovers are much worse in your late twenties than they were at university) and/or an inbuilt sense of responsibility, I won’t state here. However, in Nina is Not OK, the first novel by the phenomenal British comedian Shappi Khorsandi, we meet a girl who definitely doesn’t know when to quit.

As the story opens, Nina is being kicked out of a nightclub where she has been engaging in, let’s say, a public display of sexual activity. Followed out by the man involved and one of his friends, the next thing she remembers is being in a taxi holding her knickers. Things don’t get any better from here. Still smarting from the sudden departure of her boyfriend Jamie, she is unable to remember quite what happened on this night. Knowing something bad did, however, she seeks to block any ideas out from her mind, sending her into a downward spiral of heavy drinking and sleeping with whoever comes her way.

Amongst all this, she discovers that her friend Zoe is now dating the guy she met at the club, her mum and stepdad are planning on moving to Germany, Jamie isn’t replying to any of her messages, she’s struggling to come to terms with her sexuality, and her exams are creeping ever nearer. Things reach a head, however, when she tries to hit on her best friend’s dad. Rehab seems to be the only option, but even that isn’t going to be the end of all the drama…

I find myself deeply conflicted about the character of Nina for much of the novel. The trouble is, she reminds me quite a lot of a girl I knew at school. She was perpetually drunk, sleeping with inappropriate characters, and generally struggling to keep her life together. But we were all seventeen – as Nina is in this book – and what on earth do we know about helping keep one another sane? She moved away eventually – none of us had been able to cope with her – and I happen to know that she is now healthy and happy elsewhere. This whole thing makes the character far more real and less of a stereotype than Nina may appear to others. However, the girl I knew didn’t quite go as far as this, and her life wasn’t quite as much of a soap opera. I did, however, find myself sympathising more with her friends and family who had to put up with her drunken antics than I did Nina herself though.

It wasn’t until later in the book when the truth comes out that I began to feel sorry for her. I found it hard to have any sympathy for her as she seems to be willfully destroying her own life, and because the incident from the opening chapter is left vague, I seemed to forget about its severity. She goes through a lot, and Khorsandi handles it all with compassion and skill. The characters are vibrant and real, if not always particularly pleasant, and there are some horrible but vital truths about our society and its treatment of men and women, rape victims and alcoholism. The scenes set in rehab are tragic and bring home the reality of the situation for many people.

It’s a dark and brave novel full of heart and horror. Emotional doesn’t even begin to cover it. I’m a big fan of Khorsandi’s comedy, and I always turn to a novel by a celebrity with trepidation as I’ve been burnt before, but this one came highly recommended, and I’m pleased to say that she’s written a wonderful, if shocking, novel.

“Three Act Tragedy” by Agatha Christie (1934)

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Three-Act-Tragedy“Mr Satterthwaite sat on the terrace of ‘Crow’s Nest’ and watched his host, Sir Charles Cartwright, climbing up the path from the sea.”

It’s been a really terrible week, what with one thing and another. As we stagger blindly towards our new home inside an out-and-out dystopian novel, it’s a comfort to take sanctuary inside a comfortable novel. I’ve made my way back to Agatha Christie where, while the situations recounted might not be terribly pleasant, at least they’re well-written and the guilty party will get what’s coming to them.

Our story begins at a party hosted by noted actor Charles Cartwright, a man who never seems to be himself and enjoys playing a part whenever he can, much to the amusement of his friend Mr Satterthwaite. The usual suspects gather at the party – friendly vicar Mr Babbington and his wife, actress Angela Sutcliffe, playwright Muriel Wills, feisty young heroine Hermione “Egg” Lytton Gore, notable nerve specialist Dr Bartholomew Strange, snide young upstart Oliver Manders, and a few more besides. Most familiar of all though, is the world-renowned detective, Hercule Poirot.

Before the night has even really begun, Mr Babbington sips his cocktail and keels over. He is dead, and it’s written off as an unfortunate accident. But a few weeks later, at a party with a very similar guest list, Dr Strange dies in an oddly similar manner. When it turns out that Strange was killed by nicotine poisoning, Satterthwaite, Cartwright and Egg become convinced that both deaths are connected, but who on earth would want to kill off an innocent parson and a kindly doctor? Enlisting the help of Poirot, the group begin to study what could possibly have happened and how.

Christie fans will note that Mr Satterthwaite is not new to the canon, and has in fact appeared once before, in the more supernatural tales of The Mysterious Mr Quin. He’s back here now, though, and seems to have past experiences with Poirot. Satterthwaite is an expert in people, and is very observant, always thinking he knows best about people from studying their behaviour. This comes in useful, but his mind is that, as Poirot says, of a playgoer, distracted by drama and too busy looking at the actors rather than noting the scenery. Poirot, however, declares his mind is not the same and he can see things more prosaically.

I wasn’t as captivated by this story as many of Christie’s others, but I put that down to my mood this week rather than the storytelling. It’s a good one, with the usual twist that we always love, and I consider this half a win, as I’d worked out details of the solution, but not the whole thing. She artfully weaves a narrative where, not only anyone could do it, but absolutely anyone could never make it out the book alive. As usual, all the clues are there, but it takes more skill than I have to put them in the right order and solve the entire puzzle.

“Hangover Square” by Patrick Hamilton (1941)

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We've all been there.

We’ve all been there.

Click! … Here it was again.”

Anyone who knows me knows that I rarely turn down a drink. If there’s a glass to be had, I’ve probably already had it. Up until my early twenties, I also remarkably got away with never having a hangover, which, if you’ve never experienced it, makes you feel powerful and godlike. However, I’m twenty-eight now, and while it’s an age that means I should know better, it’s nonetheless also an age in which my hangovers have become more pronounced than ever. But at least they fade, whereas the characters in this novel seem to be cursed with hangovers that never end.

George Harvey Bone is a man with a problem. He is hopelessly, uncontrollably in love with Netta Longdon. She, however, is far cooler in her affections towards him. Knowing how he feels, she makes use of him to provide money and drink for her and her friends, often the men she is actually intimate with. But Bone is weak and drunk, and love is powerful, and he believes that if he keeps on trying, he will soon be welcomed fully as “one of the gang”, and then he and Netta will run away together to start the perfect life he knows they can have.

But Bone has a slight problem that might ruin everything. Every now and then, he slips into what he terms a “dead moment”. These can last hours or days and when he surfaces from them, he can never remember what happened in them. What he doesn’t realise is that in these moments he doesn’t seem to want happiness with Netta – he wants her dead. Bone is living two lives; one in which he worships her, and another in which he wants to kill her for treating him like she does. Which Bone will win out?

Set among the pubs and bars of London and Brighton, on the eve of the Second World War, the novel takes us to the seedy underbelly of society, where the unemployed rub shoulders with failed actors and everyone is three sheets to the wind. George Bone is a pitiful protagonist, but you can’t help but feel sorry for him. We’ve most of us been in a position where we love someone who has no desire to reciprocate our feelings, and often we know what fools we’re making of ourselves, but there are few people to fall in love with that are crueler than Netta.

While readers can see how hideous she is – beautiful but poisonous – Bone seems aware of it too, but is unable to help himself, though that’s probably due to the amount he’s drunk throughout the novel. You find yourself rooting for him, even in his “dead moments” when he is overcome with murderous rage and forgets the real world. He’s sympathetic, sure, but also fairly pathetic. As the novel progresses, you get caught up with his desire to kill as Netta becomes more and more vile, and her friends even more terrible. It all culminates in a tragically bittersweet finale where Bone has to come to terms with reality.

The threat of war coming up fast is never far away from any of the characters minds and, by the time the novel ends, Britain is at war with Germany at last. It’s a novel of worry and social inequality, about wanting and hoping, and life failing to deliver time after time. It’s darkly comic, and said to be Hamilton’s finest novel, but I’ve nothing to compare it with. It stands out though, and is definitely one to read if you have any feelings at all. It’s going to play havoc with them all.

“Sparkling Cyanide” by Agatha Christie (1945)

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Not your average cocktail.

Not your average cocktail.

“Iris Marle was thinking about her sister, Rosemary.”

We arrive now at the first Agatha Christie novel of 2016, Sparkling Cyanide. Although lacking in any of the more prominent detectives, we do get Colonel Race, a former soldier and MI5 agent who turns up in a few books either to aid Poirot or replace him. In this case, he works with the police to solve a bizarre double murder.

A year before the novel opens, Rosemary Barton died at the dinner table of a fancy London restaurant, the Luxembourg. At the time, it was deemed by the police to be suicide. Rosemary had slipped cyanide into her own drink and killed herself, although no one could really explain why. However, a year on, it turns out that the six other people who had been sat at the table that night are all thinking on the events, and it transpires that each of them had a reason to see Rosemary dead.

Her husband, George, had suspected her of an affair. Her sister, Iris, came into a lot of money after her death. Anthony was suspect because Rosemary knew the truth about his past misdemeanors, and George’s secretary Ruth was in love with her employer, and wouldn’t it have been helpful to have Rosemary out of the way? Finally, there was Stephen Farraday and his wife Sandra, the man that Rosemary was having an affair with, although he was trying to end it, and the woman who knew about it all but kept quiet with simmering rage.

A year later, almost to the day, George invites the same people back to the same table in the same restaurant with the plan to lay a trap, having come to believe that it wasn’t suicide at all, but pure cold-blooded murder. But great plans often go wrong, and when history repeats itself, the police find themselves dealing with a double murder where everyone and no one seems guilty.

The novel took a while to get going, I thought, but once it found its feet we were well away. The first six chapters detail the suspects’ memories of the night of Rosemary’s death, and then we follow George’s descent into possible madness as he brings everyone back together, while struggling also with his nephew Victor who keeps sending messages demanding money. It’s a book where everyone is hiding secrets and everyone seems just as likely to have committed the murders, but there’s also no evidence that’s obvious to say which one did.

Somehow, despite all this, I remain intensely proud of myself because I got it right! I’d made my guess quite early on in the telling, and didn’t waver for once, to find that I was correct in nailing the murderer! I didn’t get all the details – does anyone? – but I got the main answer and that’s good enough for me. Maybe I’m finally getting the hang of these books with just a few to go. Christie uses her usual raft of red herrings and twists here, but if you’re paying close enough attention, she actually spells out the solution for you early on … although I admit that’s not what led me to the answer, and I still missed it.

Sharp as usual, but it’s a retelling of her short story Yellow Iris, which originally contained Poirot, and you can tell he’s missing from here. This feels like one of his stories, and much as I like Race, it’s a shame to lose the little Belgian. But it’s a good one nonetheless, and will make you double check your champagne glass before you drink from now on…

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