“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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“Feed” by Mira Grant (2010)

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“Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot – in this case, my brother Shaun – deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens.”

Fiction is laced with creepy creatures, and it’s always fun to see an author mess around with them. This year so far I’ve already dealt with vampires, monsters, gorgons and fairies, so it’s time to turn my attention to zombies.

It was 2014 when it all began. We’d cured the common cold and eradicated cancer, but something far more severe was released in the process – the Kellis-Amberlee virus, or as we may be more familiar with it, the “zombie virus”. In 2040, we meet Georgia and Shaun Mason, adopted siblings who work as journalists, one of the most respected professions in this new world. But as much as humanity survived, so did the zombies, and the world has been changed forever.

Via their popular news website, the Mason siblings have just learnt that they’ve been selected to follow the presidential campaign of Senator Ryman, a Republican who seems to have a genuine shot at being the country’s next leader. Following him across the country with their third member of the team, the technophile Buffy, they get to the heart of American politics and do their best to spread the truth about Ryman and his campaign to everyone else. Things start to unravel, however, when there’s a zombie outbreak at one of his conferences, and then another at his wife’s ranch, which ends up killing their daughter. Georgia, Shaun, Buffy and late addition Rick are on-hand to find out what happened, but end up uncovering a lot more than they bargained for.

Most notably, I felt, Grant does something that almost no other zombie fiction seems to do – it acknowledges previous zombie fiction. It always struck me as strange in zombie films and books that no one seems to know how to handle these creatures, suggesting that George Romero, Simon Pegg and their like never produced any zombie fiction and, indeed, they never existed in the mythology either until that moment. Here, it’s stated that George Romero is considered an international hero, as his movies allowed everyone to have the upper hand when zombies appeared. There are a few twists on the nature of the disease too. Grant goes into scientific detail about how the virus started and what it does to the body, and it’s noted that only people who died after the virus’s release reanimate, so there weren’t scenes of graveyards coming back to life, which probably allowed for the invasion not to lead to the end of the world. However, any mammal that weighs over forty pounds can be infected with the virus and become a problem. Because of this, most of the human population is now vegetarian, with it being unsafe to keep cows, sheep and pigs anymore. It also implies there are zombie whales roaming the oceans, which definitely needs exploring.

Grant’s worldbuilding is impressive. She takes into account how society would have to change with these events having happened, going into detail on hazard levels, cities that have been abandoned (the entire of Alaska is a no-go area now), how security and communication technology improved, what happened to religion, and most importantly how people’s view of the media changed. The reason that bloggers are now considered so worthy is that when the news broke, unofficial news blogs were already running information on how to defeat the zombies before the mainstream media were even admitting there was a problem. It has some rather prescient parallels to how the media is already being viewed, with many people seeming to get their news online instead, although not always from reputable sources. New slang is also introduced, such as dividing up the journalists into different factions; for example, Newsies report unbiased fact, and Irwins (named after the crocodile hunter, one presumes) like to get into the field and experience zombies up close.

However, Grant has a habit of getting bogged down in the minutia. It’s established very early on that security levels are ridiculously high, with blood tests and retinal scans being compulsory to enter any building, and often to leave them too. However, there are frequently long, slightly repetitive passages going into detail on all these scans and checks, despite the fact we’ve seen them all only a few pages before. Some of the dialogue is repetitive and phrases occur over and over again, such as Shaun always being described as liking to poke things with sticks. I also panicked towards the end that Grant was going to whip out a dues ex machina and make me want to drop the book into the water butt, but it was handled with such deft aplomb that I almost found myself applauding her.

Impressively for a zombie tale, the zombies don’t even feel like a major plot point. Very rarely do we have the protagonists dealing with them first hand; they’re merely part of this world, but one you forget at your own risk. It’s nicely done in that it’s not over the top, and the main story is really the presidential election, with themes embedded that we can totally understand. While it definitely has its problems, they aren’t related to plot at all, and it’s an inventive, exciting and really rather impressive introduction to what may well prove to be an engaging series.

“Ape And Essence” by Aldous Huxley (1948)

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ape“It was the day of Gandhi’s assassination; but on Calvary the sightseers were more interested in the contents of their picnic baskets than in the possible significance of the, after all, rather commonplace event they had turned out to witness.”

Aldous Huxley is almost certainly best remembered for his dystopian novel Brave New World, but he churned out several books on his lifetime. I confess though that until recently I couldn’t have named another one. I stumbled upon Ape and Essence a few weeks ago, received it for my birthday yesterday, and finished it today. It’s a short one, but interesting and engaging. It all begins with a man called William Tallis.

Tallis is a scriptwriter, and when two Hollywood writers find a copy of his film script, the titular Ape and Essence, in a pile of scripts ready to be destroyed, they are intrigued and decide to seek him out, only to find that they are too late – Tallis is dead. This is all we know of these characters, as they merely serve as a framing device for the rest of the novel which is actually the film’s script, presented without annotations, footnotes or edits.

Tallis’s story takes place in 2108, a century after the planet was destroyed by nuclear weapons in the Third World War. Our heroes are the crew of the Canterbury, a ship carrying the New Zealand Rediscovery Expedition. New Zealand, it turns out, was just about the only country to survive the war as, due to their remote location, no one ever thought them worth nuking. The ship arrives on the coast of what was once California. Botanist and mother’s boy, Dr Alfred Poole, encounters some of the natives, a tribe of humans who believe that the destruction was the fault of the Devil, whom they call Belial. They now live in a society where sex it outlawed, except on one day a year for breeding purposes, women are seen only as vessels for children, and any baby born with deformities (which is desperately common thanks to all the radiation in the atmosphere) is killed in a religious ceremony. Poole is soon caught up in their activities, but when he falls for one of the tribes women, he begins to hatch a plan.

The title of the novel comes from the vignettes that crop up in Tallis’s script. The film would apparently have featured several surreal moments where baboons are pictured as the dominant race, with scientists like Einstein and Pasteur kept on chains as mascots and pets. At first I thought that Huxley was introducing us to a Planet of the Apes scenario, and perhaps inspiration was taken from here for that film, but the scenes exist simply to show us that we humans are just as primitive and violent as the animals we claim to be beneath us. All societies will, after reaching a certain level of power and arrogance, destroy themselves. There are even suggestions that this new civilization that has built up will go on to do the same again to itself.

It’s primarily a satire of the way that humans continue to conduct war and kill off our own kind for, often, superficial reasons. Huxley had of course lived through both World Wars, so knew from experience how violent and evil our species can be. While not one of his more famous works, and containing a definite thread of pessimism throughout, it’s an interesting look at a world that, like all good dystopian novels, feels impossible and yet all too real.

“The Circle” by Dave Eggers (2013)

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The circle must be completed.

The circle must be completed.

“My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven.”

The Internet has changed the way we live in ways and to degrees that no one could ever have predicted. With a few clicks and taps, we can go shopping, share information, review products, communicate with people on the other side of the planet, tell the world about ourselves, pay bills, check our accounts, research topics and a myriad other things. Social media, Facebook, Twitter and the like, allow us to tell everyone what we’re thinking at any moment. Even more remarkably, we don’t even need to be in front a computer to access these powers now – we can be almost anywhere. But, really, is all of this for the good?

Mae Holland has just got a job – thanks to the string-pulling of her friend Annie – at The Circle, the vast corporation that controls most of the social media and online facets of the world, having subsumed Facebook, Google and everyone else sometime in the last six years. Users sign up using bank details and therefore there are no fake accounts anymore, and everyone can share their thoughts 24/7. Mae is employed at the campus in customer support where she must respond quickly to any of the advertisers who require help. But while she’s doing that, she’s got to attend all the non-mandatory but community-building events of the campus, share her own thoughts on everything, answer a constant stream of survey questions and read everyone else’s news feeds too.

While getting acclimatised, she meets two men who are curious about her, and she is fascinated by them. One is the clumsy but caring Francis, with a tragic past that has inspired his future goals, and the other is the strange, ethereal Kalden, a man who doesn’t even seem to exist anywhere in the Circle networks, but has access to everywhere on campus and is adamant that the circle must not be completed. Mae is enjoying her time at the campus, but when it comes to the attention of the bosses – the Three Wise Men – that she isn’t sharing quite as much as she could be, she becomes a cause for concern. As the Circle develops more and more ways to chip away at people’s privacy – all in the name of safety and community – Mae stumbles deeper into a network that is far greater than anything she could have imagined.

So, there is a lot in this book that owes itself to 1984, and probably Brave New World as well, and while I’ve read both, I remember more about the former. Like all good visions of the future, it brings into play our fears and concerns of the modern day. Already Fitbits and health trackers are worn by many, but in this book they become mandatory, measuring your heart rate, calorie intake and stress levels at all times. When the head honchos at the Circle develop SeeChange, tiny cameras that can be placed anywhere in the world without causing a distraction, the book really shows off its main conceit – that “secrets are lies”, and “privacy is theft”.

Mae begins as slightly unusual in this setting, as she doesn’t feel the need to share every waking moment of her life, which causes her colleagues and bosses some consternation. After discovering that Mae occasionally goes down to the bay to kayak by herself, they show genuine distress that there is absolutely no mention of this hobby on any of her networks – not one photo, zing (their version of a tweet), video or joined group that shows her interest in this. Why didn’t she tell anyone what happened when she visited her sick father that weekend? Could her experiences not help someone else who is dealing with a parent with MS? Determined to make her bosses happy, Mae quickly comes round to their way of thinking.

This book is terrifying. This is a world where secrets are seen as evil, and people believe that if anyone has a secret then they must be bad, because if all your thoughts and feelings were good, then why would you hide them? The Circle runs under the guise that knowing everything will lead us, as a species, to be our best selves, as there can be no crime or dishonesty when everything is known. It all makes perfect sense too, if you use that logic, but it’s misguided, and these people are in so deep that they might not be able to see the problems of this new technology.

The parallels between this and our world are also hammered home, but enjoyably so. The man behind the Circle’s foundation is Ty Gospodinov is a hoodie-wearing, rarely-seen expy of Mark Zuckerberg. The Circle campus, too, seems to be parodying Google’s campus, the Googleplex, with its laissez faire attitude – parties every night, thematic offices and general sense of “cool”. The company itself, while possibly having begun as a Facebook-like social network, now encompasses all areas of the Internet, and, like Google, is investing money in a myriad of other fields, such as self-driving cars, deep-sea exploration and crime prevention. Money makes the world go round.

As reality becomes more and more connected, we are perhaps not taking into account the issues of this level of information overload. Do we need to know everything? Are people’s opinions really that vital? Are secrets and lies necessary, even?

Far and away, this is the best book that I’ve read so far this year. It’s been a while since I read something that I could hardly put down, and even though it clocks in at around five hundred pages, it somehow didn’t feel long enough. Mirroring the issues the characters face, the information comes thick and fast, with speedy pacing, great narration and characters who couldn’t belong anywhere else, but fit this universe like a glove. It’s not just a novel – it’s a warning. This is the future, and it’s much closer than we think.

“Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell (2004)

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cloudatlas“Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints.”

I’ll wager that many of you have heard of Cloud Atlas. I started reading it ten years ago when I was seventeen and thinking that no book was able to stop me from plundering its secrets. I never finished the book then. In my head I’d made it about quarter of the way through, but upon picking it up this time, I found the bookmark on page 59 of 530. Not quite a quarter, then. If you don’t know the plot, you may at least know that it is one of the most intricate of modern literature. I’ll try and explain it as best I can, but please be prepared that I’d imagine this will be a long post. Strap in.

We begin with The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, the personal diary of an American notary. It’s 1850 and in New Zealand, he awaits repairs to his ship. While there, he witnesses a slave being beaten by his Maori owner and the slave, Autua, notices kindness in Ewing’s eyes. When back on board ship, Ewing finds that the slave has stowed away with him and begs Ewing not to reveal his presence. Meanwhile, Ewing approaches the ship’s doctor Henry Goose to discuss an ailment that he is suffering from. Goose thinks it a parasite and begins to prescribe medicine to his friend. The ship makes sail for Hawaii and…

There the story abruptly ends mid-sentence and turns into Letters from Zedelghem. We are now in 1931, Belgium, and reading the letters of an English musician Robert Frobisher, which are all addressed to his lover in England, Rufus Sixsmith. Recently kicked out of his family home and now penniless, he flees to Belgium to work as an amanuensis to the composer Vyvyan Ayrs, who can no longer write his own compositions down. While here, he begins an affair with Ayrs’ wife, and also starts selling off his employer’s books to keep himself in money. Frobisher agrees to stay until the following summer but…

The third story, Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, takes place in California in 1975 and is written like a thriller novel. The titular Luisa Rey is a young journalist who comes across a story suggesting that a new nuclear power plant poses a threat. She is tipped off by none other than Rufus Sixsmith, now an old man, who has a report documenting his findings on the danger. Before Sixsmith can get the report to Luisa, however, he is murdered and her car is driven off a bridge, sending her plunging to…

The next story, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, takes us to modern day England and is the most comedic of the tales. Sixty-something publisher Cavendish is in trouble with a gangster client and his brothers after an issue with the contract that has made Cavendish rich and left the author with very little to show for his work. Seeking help from his brother, Denholme, Cavendish is shipped off to a hotel where he signs himself in, only to find the following morning that his brother has tricked him and he is now in a nursing home run by the barbaric Nurse Noakes from which there is no escape. He plots a way to escape but before his plans are complete…

An Orison of Sonmi~451 takes place in Nea So Copros (Korea, to you and me) about a hundred years into the future, and is a recorded interview between the clone servant Sonmi~451 and an archivist who is recording her story with great interest. As a clone, she has been bred simply to work at a fast food restaurant called Papa Song’s. There, she stands for nineteen hours a day, shows no interest in the exterior world, drinks her Soap before she sleeps, then repeats the whole thing the following day. However, when some of her kind begin to show signs of self-awareness, she too is forced to realise that there must be more to her life. Saved by a student, Hae-Joo Im, she goes on the run with the authorities always a few paces behind. When she finds that her rescuer has been arrested …

We come to the final story, Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After. In a post-apocalyptic world, Zachry, tells a story from his young days. He lives in Hawaii, worships a god called Sonmi and doesn’t know what the ‘Old Uns’ did to bring about the end of their world. He’s more concerned with not ending up a slave to the rival Kona tribe. The primitive visitors are occasionally visited by a group of people of vastly superior people in terms of both intelligence and technology known as the Prescients, and the natural order is disturbed when one of these, a woman called Meronym, comes to stay with the village for a while. Zachry’s world is turned upside down and…

Well, actually, there is no interruption here. We hear all of Zachry’s tale, then return back to Somni~451’s, hear the second half of Timothy Cavendish’s ghastly ordeal, find out what happened to Luisa Rey, read Robert Frobisher’s last letters and finally once again meet an ever-sicker Adam Ewing. The six stories nest into one another and if you’re still here with me after all of that, well done to you. Just try reading the book.

There are so few faults with his novel that it’s hardly worth throwing any of them up. Each story has an entirely new voice that is fitting with the character and the time they’re from. While Cavendish reads like a modern novel, Ewing is most certainly from his time, a Christian man who does not swear, and Zachry comes from a future where language has changed again somewhat and involves a lot of apostrophes and words that have had their meanings subtly shifted. The idea of having them interlock is so smart, and allows for much foreshadowing to occur. Vyvyan Ayrs, for example, has a dream of Papa Song’s one night. Both Robert Frobisher and one of Luisa Rey’s peers share a thought about money, but reach different conclusions. There’s an implication throughout that the main characters are reincarnations of one another, emphasised by the fact they all share a comet-shaped birthmark, but this is never made explicit.

The interlocking also works (and the midpoint cut-offs are admirably explained) by the fact that each character finds the previous story. While at Ayrs’ place, Frobisher finds Adam Ewing’s diary, but only the first half of it. Luisa Rey inherits half of Frobisher’s letters. Cavendish reads the first half of Luisa’s story, as it has been submitted to his publishing house. Sonmi~451 watches a film adaptation of Cavendish’s plight. And Zachry worships Sonmi~451 as a god. At the end of each of their stories, they find the second half of the material, and so we wind down and get to share them too.

It’s mostly a sublime tale of how humanity never changes. The same themes of love and hate, time and space, slavery and power, life and death, run through the whole novel. Later events reflect earlier ones, and the issues that are present in the 1850s are still just as valid in Zachry’s time, hundreds of years later. In fact, it’s fairer to say this is a collection of six short novels, each about eighty pages long. I’ve had to put it into several categories to accomodate its scope, but that just really shows what a talent David Mitchell is. This is the book that he will be remembered for best, I guarantee you that.

I feel I’ve mostly just described the plot rather than reviewed the book, but I’ve still left out so much. It’s a hugely intelligent, confusing, conflicting, masterpiece of a novel, and it’s totally worth the time you put into it. Still, if you’re not tempted, there is also a film version that came out a couple of years ago that is similarly masterful, mixing up the stories and further emphasising the reincarnation theme by having the same actors play different roles in the six stories, although often swapping age, sex and even race as they do so. It’s also a book that has shown me that old adage brought real – books will find you when you are ready for them. At seventeen, I wouldn’t’ve got the same things from it. Evidently I didn’t. But this time I found a real beauty about the novel, and I promise you that if you want to, you’ll find it too.

“The Beginning Of Everything” by Robyn Schneider (2013)

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beginning“Sometimes I think that everyone has a tragedy waiting for them, that the people buying milk in their pajamas or picking their noses at stoplights could be only moments away from disaster.”

When I was in my third year of university, a strange thing occured. My reading list, which up until that point and Dickens aside hadn’t been too bad, contained a title that as far as I was concerned had no place on such a list. It was that well-known dung heap, The Da Vinci Code. This isn’t like a subjective hate either – it’s universally considered a bad book, and this was 2008 when the stench of it and the film were still fairly strong. My professor, however, ensured me that all would become clear in the following lecture and I should just read the damn thing. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) I had read the book years back just to see what all the fuss was about and so wasn’t about to waste my week doing it again. I skimmed reviews and Wikipedia and then, indeed, the idea was very clear in the next lecture: this was a lecture about how not to write fiction.

I’ve since then been intrigued by the idea of finishing up bad books simply as a study in how not to write. I happen to have rather a good knack for choosing books that I do go on to enjoy, but occasionally one or two slip through the net, including Witch & Wizard, Don’t Read This Book If You’re Stupid, Humanzee and Sick Building, to name a few. From each, I have learnt more than I could’ve done had I read an essay on how to write. I’m not by any means claiming that I am a good writer – my novel is never going to be a bestseller – but I read enough to know when something is really badly written. All of this will now be leading you to thinking that the book in question here joins this list. And you’re absolutely right.

The Beginning Of Everything starts out vaguely promising, but quickly goes downhill. The main character, Ezra Faulkner, describes how everyone gets a tragedy, and in the case of his best friend Toby, it’s when he was on a rollercoaster and caught the head of a tourist in front of him who got decapitated by standing up on the ride. Ezra meanwhile has a tragedy all of his own – his girlfriend cheated on him. Granted, he then stormed from a party, had a car accident and his leg will never heal so he’ll never be able to play tennis again. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, none of his friends will talk to him anymore! Luckily, when he gets back to school, finding himself the unwanted centre of attention due to his accident, his old friend Toby (who he’s ignored for the last four years) decides to befriend him again.

Meanwhile, there’s a new girl at school, the wacky and kooky Cassidy Thorpe, and the two of them have been signed up to the debate team with Toby and all his misfit, madcap friends. Ezra finds himself attracted to Cassidy and her goofy ways and soon memories of his air-headed ex Charlotte are a thing of the past. But Cassidy is hiding a secret, and perhaps she’s not the manic pixie dream girl that he hopes she is after all…

I'm not angry, I'm just disappointed.

I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.

Formulaic to a fault, this reads like John Green has started giving lessons on how to write obnoxious, pompous white teen male protagonists, or else is writing under a pen name himself. Ezra (because these characters are never called Dave) is fundamentally unpleasant, stumbling over himself to tell the reader that he didn’t mean to be so popular, or that he didn’t ask to live in a six-bedroom house with swimming pool, and that it isn’t his fault that he doesn’t really study but is just naturally so gifted. So he’s got a busted leg, big whoop. Cassidy, in turn, is everything a manic pixie dream girl should be – full of stories about her adventures abroad, has a disregard for school dress codes that would get any student but her suspended, and a penchant for fun childish adventures while avoiding talking about her deep, dark secret.

The characterisation is all off, too, and I’ve got page numbers to prove it. Ezra is painted as early as page 69 as an “illiterate jock” and yet this goes out the window just nine pages later when he discusses themes in Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez, a book he read for extra credit. On page 108 he finds himself in a university level organic chemistry class (don’t ask) and finds he’s an expert on the subject and just totally gets it. On page 276 he mentions and defines the German word kummerspeck, despite implying earlier he had no knowledge of even basic German. On 289, it’s noted that he understands the Latin term memento mori well enough to make a “joke” about it. And every other chapter gets a mention of The Great sodding Gatsby thrown in, given that it’s the only book most American high schoolers seem to have read.

I’m not even going to attempt to define the humour, but there are a lot of paragraphs where the characters get into hysterics or simply crack up at a comment one of them has made, but it’s an informed humour. I don’t see it. Schneider also appears to have them slightly out of time. If they’re sixteen, presumably they were born in the mid-to-late nineties but still have a moment where they pine for a life before mobile phones, which is a time even I barely remember, and I’m a good decade older than them.

There’s also the unforgivably bland and immature-sounding line, “and she bit my bottom lip a bit as we kissed, and I pretty much wanted to die, it was so sexy.” I read it deadpan and the action has never sounded quite so unsexy. These books do nothing but give teenagers an unrealistic picture of the world. It’s enough to give anyone a complex.

Granted, I will throw in a positive or two. Cassidy shoots Ezra down by the end and calls him out on treating her like a manic pixie dream girl (but even that’s not novel anymore) and the treatment of a student’s evolving sexuality is handled rather nicely, but otherwise, you can predict pretty much every page before you get to it, and call me old-fashioned, but I still like to be surprised by my literature every now and again.

If everyone does indeed get a tragedy, then this book may well have been mine.

“Death Is A Lonely Business” by Ray Bradbury (1985)

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death lonely

One man bands: also a lonely business.

“Venice, California, in the old days had much to recommend it to people who liked to be sad.”

My second visit to California in the space of a few weeks, this was an entirely different part of it with a very different atmosphere. I revere Ray Bradbury as one of the greatest writers ever and have fond feelings towards many of his short stories and the perennial favourite Fahrenheit 451. This had an interesting title (I can never resist anything about death) and I’d never heard of it, which always makes things more intriguing, so I thought I’d give it a go.

It is the story of a nameless writer (although it appears to be a fictional version of Bradbury himself) who lives in Venice, California, a town with apparently little to recommend it except, as in the above opening line, to those who enjoy being sad. Everything seems dark and gloomy, there is always fog, and everyone seems just a little … off.

The narrator, an author with a very vivid imagination, meets a drunk stranger on the tram who says just five words to him – “Death is a lonely business”. When he finds the body of an old man in one of the drowned carnival cages by the pier, he thinks he may be going mad and enlists the help of detective Elmo Crumley to help him find out who is responsible. The detective, who also writes in his free time and knows everyone in town, is at first reluctant to help, as the author has no evidence of wrongdoing but becomes convinced that it was murder.

Around him exists a large collection of strange friends and acquaintances who soon begin to experience accidents and curious happenings – some of which are fatal. Scared that he is leading a deranged murderer to these people, the author begins to track down the supposed killer.

I love Bradbury, but I did not love this book. I found it a real slog to get through and, while the ending was satisfactory and it’s mostly tied up, one does have to wonder how much sense any of it really made. As I said above, it’s clear that the narrator has a good imagination, and it’s left to your own to decide how many of the events are really happening and how many of them are in his head. The characters are bizarre and include Henry (blind, but with an excellent sense of smell), Fannie (a 380-pound former opera singer), Peg (stranded in Mexico City), Dr Shrank (a fraudulent psychiatrist with a morbid library), Constance Rattigan (a former star of the silver screen), Cal (the worst barber in the world) and many others. They’re nicely constructed but you feel on edge with all of them, like any one of them could turn up behind you and scare seven shades of beige out of your being.

Diehard Bradbury fans will probably adore this cavalcade of nonsense, and it’s nice to read something by him that is a novel and not a short story (I love his short stories, but sometimes you want something with a bit more substance), but if you’re new to him then I wouldn’t recommend you start with this one. It’s rather depressing, haunting and, while still oddly beautiful, it doesn’t exactly fill one with joy. It’s a bit of a slog but if you like mysteries, the pay out is worth it.

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