“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…

“Shakespeare’s Local” by Pete Brown (2012)

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Exit, pursued by a beer...

Exit, pursued by a beer…

“Robberies. Muggings. Fatal Accidents. Interest rates.”

There’s apparently something about the tail end of February that makes me yearn to know more about London. Two years ago, that focus fell to the city’s people. Last year, I explored the tube network. This year, I took a look at one of the most British inventions of all: the pub. It’s been longer than usual since my last review, and this is nothing to do with the quality of the book, but more to with troubling external issues such as work, illness, my birthday and a general recalibration of my life. But I’m back now, so pull yourself a pint and let’s get on with the discussion.

Shakespeare’s Local is the fourth book by Pete Brown, a beer expert who realised that by writing about it, he could drink more of it. I was naturally captured by the title, and then found that I had no choice but to buy it when I flicked it open to find a photograph of the pub in question: The George Inn, in Southwark. It wasn’t a pub I frequented, and still don’t, but I’ve drunk there a few times and always admired it. Brown is also taken by the pub that according to the National Trust has been there since 1677, but according to ancient records is much, much older. And so begins the tale.

Brown takes us back to the days of Chaucer and earlier to talk about The George Inn, only it turns out there aren’t a huge amount of records remaining from that far back, so there’s instead a lot of speculation and talk of other local pubs that probably did the same things as the George. Quite quickly, what began as a promised look at the history of a single pub turns into a history of innkeeping in general, London and in particular Southwark, industry and theatre. Only when the story catches up again to the late 1800s (when the pub was supposedly a favourite of Charles Dickens) do we begin to see specific details about the pub in question.

It sounds like I’m complaining, but I’m really not. Brown himself admits that the title is slightly misleading as, while Shakespeare certainly lived, worked and presumably drank in Southwark at a time when the George was there, there is absolutely no evidence to say he did or didn’t ever visit, merely a suggestion that, “Well, yeah, he probably did”. And, actually, that’s good enough for me, because while the book is a love letter to the George, it’s also a love letter to the whole of the Southwark and Borough area, that infamous den of vice that has now become rather fashionable and full once more of playhouses, as well as strange new buildings like the Shard and the Tate Modern.

The book deals with why Southwark and the inns there became so important (and it’s a genuinely interesting story), how they changed their uses over time and how the invention of the railway all but killed off the great pubs of Borough, leaving only the George standing, proud and ancient and full of history. Along the way we encounter characters we know who have a link – tenuous or not – to the George, from Pitt the Younger and Samuel Peyps, right up to Princess Margaret and Rik Mayall.

Brown knows he’s speculating on a lot of the topics, but his frank admission of this fact means you can’t really care. History is, after all, a lie that we’ve all agreed on (to paraphrase Napoleon) and he’s not pulling his suggestions out of thin air. Merely, he takes what we know about the other pubs of the area and applies it logically to what we can then assume of the George. Above all, Brown is a hilarious raconteur and a man you wouldn’t feel worried about spending an evening in the pub with. For what could be such a dry topic, Brown makes it work and brings it to life, describing with great colour the former festivals of Southwark and some of the larger-than-life landlords that have worked behind the George’s bar.

If you like pubs, booze, London or history, this is a book worth looking into. And when you’ve read it, I’ll meet you in the George for a drink to discuss it. See you there – it’s your round.

“On Booze” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (2011)

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On_Booze“Perfectly respectable girl, but only been drinking that day.”

I always felt that F. Scott Fitzgerald and I would get on really well, if only because we both write, have drinking problems, and we’re both fond of jazz music and fiesty women. I’ve read a couple of his books and have a certain fondness for The Great Gatsby, which, while probably not the Great American Novel, is pretty excellent. I found this book in Hatchards, an amazing bookshop in the middle of London, and figuring that Fitzgerald and alcohol was a winning combination in any situation, decided to give it a go.

The book is various snippets and clippings from Fitzgerald’s notebooks from the twenties and thirties, as well as autobiographical stories detailing his life as he lived it, and throwing new light on what it was actually like to be living in the Jazz Age and acting out the stories he put onto the page. A review from the New Yorker said, “More than any other writer of those times, Fitzgerald had a sense of living in history.” I think that’s very true – the man knew that times were changing and was often saddened by those changes.

The book is split into six parts, each of them dealing with something different. One is a selection of letters to friends; another talks of his struggles with insomnia. A third tells us why he fell in love with New York and why he always considered the city his true home. It paints a picture of a world post-crash where everyone had time to party and there seemed to be little in the way of responsibility. My favourite section, however, is “Show Mr. and Mrs. F. to Number —–“, which details every hotel that Scott and Zelda stayed in between 1920 and 1933. Each hotel gets a paragraph or a couple of lines, revealing a few candid details about what the hotel looked like, who else was staying there, or even just what they had to eat or drink.

Despite the book being called On Booze and one having an expectation of all the stories being laced with martinis, there is very little actual drinking going on, although Fitzgerald happily acknowledges that it was happening, and indeed happening all the time. There is more here about his insecurities and perhaps what caused him to become such a drunk. It’s an interesting read (although not espcially sparkly or quick), but his fiction is better and there’s something rather disjointed about the whole exercise.

Probably the most valuable thing I found in the book, however, are the words I want on my gravestone: “Then I was drunk for many years, and then I died.”

“I Play The Drums In A Band Called Okay” by Toby Litt (2008)

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drums“Wouldn’t the coolest thing now to be to be Japanese, eh?”

Something that seems to flummox many people about me is that I don’t have much interest in music. This might seem odd as anyone who knows me knows that I can’t walk down the street without first plugging headphones in. I like music as much as the next man, and I have my own tastes in it, but I’m not a die hard fan of anyone particularly. I’ve been to perhaps three gigs in my lifetime. I like music, but I don’t own any CDs, I can’t remember the last time I bought an album and I haven’t known what’s number one in the charts for about a decade.

As such, I perhaps didn’t get Toby Litt’s ninth book as much as some others might. I’ve read Litt twice before, with Beatniks and Finding Myself and I think this one ranks currently somewhere in between the two.

It’s a novel, certainly, but actually it’s probably better defined as a series of short stories. They’re all told from the point of view of Clap, the drummer in the band okay (all lower case, in italics) and tell the ups and downs of life in a rock band over twenty years. Along with his bandmates Syph, Crab and Mono, our hero drummer experiences the best and worst that fame, fortune and fans have to offer. The stories are given slightly out of order, and feature such episodes as Syph’s near-fatal overdose, Clap’s introduction and conversion to Buddhism, Mono meeting his wife Major and their joint fondness for fishing, and the suicide of a young fan who killed himself listening to okay‘s first album.

First and foremost, the book is witty and wise. There are lashings of Douglas Coupland in here, with plenty of one liners, some funny and some profound. It’s sad too, shining the torch onto the gritty world of rock and roll and showing that it isn’t all sex and drugs, and the bits that are don’t necessarily seem as cool as you’d imagine when you get a closer look at them. It is a story about people who refuse to grow up, and what happens to them when the universe makes them grow up anwyay.

It wasn’t the easiest read, and I think part of that is simply because I have so little interest in the subject matter, which is unlike me as I’m willing to read pretty much anything. Why did I bother reading it then? Well, valid question. Truth be told, the first book by Litt I read, Finding Myself, was so good and so smart that I guess I now continue to seek out his other work to find something as good as that. Neither book so far has been, but then again they’ve both been heavily about music. However, after a while, details of another tour, another overdose, another girl become boring and run of the mill. Clap is a good narrator and while not exactly someone I’d immediately want to befriend (Mono seems the best of the four bandmates, incidentally), he tells his story with love, tinged with regret, which I guess is how all the best love stories are told.

It’s worth a skim, and Clap’s list of advice to the fans is pretty beautiful (“Don’t mourn your own life”), but if you don’t really care about the music industry, then you might not get that much out of it.

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