“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.

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“Dead Like You” by Peter James (2010)

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Roy Grace is on the hunt of a monster…

“We all make mistakes, all of the time.”

This is another one of those reviews that focuses on a book that’s part of a series. Unfortunately, unlike Poirot which can be read in any order, Peter James’ Roy Grace novels form a coherent narrative so some of what I say may not make sense if you haven’t read the first five novels in the series, although this one is actually a bit less about the ongoing plot.

All caught up? Good, let’s carry on.

In 1997, a serial rapist known to police and the media as the Shoe Man due to his habit of taking one of his victim’s shoes after each crime attacked several women, leaving their lives ruined. The final of these was Rachael Ryan, who saw his face, condemning her to death as he couldn’t let her go and run to the police. Twelve years later, there’s another rapist prowling around Brighton’s streets, with a very similar MO.

When women report being raped, DS Roy Grace sets about trying to piece together the story, but he overwhelmed by his feeling that this is the same man as before. Convinced that history is repeating itself, and keen to impress his new boss Peter Rigg, Grace rounds up  his finest men and women to set about putting this monster behind bars once and for all. But the rapist is clever, and all too aware of forensic evidence, seeming to never leave any behind. All they know for sure about him is that he’s obsessed with women in expensive shoes. With this one connection between all the attacks, Roy begins to solve the puzzle, but the answers may lie in the past, back when he was married, back before his wife disappeared…

Roy Grace is far and away one of my favourite fictional detectives. Hard-working, fair, competent and smart, he always comes up trumps, even if he takes a few wrong turnings along the way, and his “copper’s nose” is incredibly good at sniffing out the answers. Throughout this one, he remains convinced that the events of 1997 are related to what’s happening now, and the novel straddles the two time periods well, finally giving us a chance to see a younger Roy, as well as get to know his wife Sandy a little better. While in the earlier books Roy pines for Sandy (at this point, he’s now engaged again and his partner, Cleo, is pregnant), I found her to be a completely unsympathetic character. I don’t quite see how they ever managed to be married – but then, people come together for all sorts of reasons.

As usual, Peter James populates the book with numerous characters, each introduced with their own description and fleshed out more than just a name on the page. As I’ve surely said before, the books are incredibly real and very rich in their level of detail. Conversations that have no bearing on the plot save to reveal something about a character are fairly common, but the story doesn’t get lost among them. Despite clocking it at over 600 pages, it felt like it passed by a lot quicker.

That’s the real beauty of James’s writing. His novels are not small but the writing style is so quick and comfortable that you skip through it, desperate to know what happens next and almost feeling “at home” in his prose, despite whatever gory, macabre or twisted thing he happens to be writing about. And he has quite the imagination.

I’d solved the bulk of the crime a long time before it was revealed, but James still produces a hell of an ending with a remarkably good little extra flourish. The next book in the series sits on my shelf, ready and waiting.

If you like tales of macabre murders, may I be so bold as to suggest my novel, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, which gives murder a slightly more magical twist.