An Evening In: Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin

I knew I’d like this book; I love a doomed romance (is there any other kind?). The copy I purchased is from the ‘Penguin Great Loves’ collection, which means it is small and nifty and has a lovely textured cover. The story, in brief, is a romance between David, an American in Paris, and the Italian Giovanni some time after the second World War. It is the tragic tale of a short affair over which the spectre of David’s almost-fiancée Hella is hanging from the start, alongside David’s unwillingness to admit the reality of his relationship with Giovanni. 

You know straight away that Giovanni is going to be executed. That night.

David is remembering the story of his life, which is the story of a bisexual man growing up in Brooklyn, of being poor in Paris, of social alienation and knowing he doesn’t quite fit like he – a big blonde football player type – thinks he should. It’s a story that ends with David wandering around an abandoned house in the south of France, drinking and remembering the end of an affair. But which affair? And why is Giovanni doomed?

It’s beautifully atmospheric, a despairing shell-shocked feel to the narrators voice in the present, remembering his life and particularly his struggles with his sexuality. His descriptions of the Parisian gay scene, which he sneers at and maintains an aloofness from before meeting Giovanni, are bitter-sweet and tragic, and even the older men like Guillaume and Jacques, who David holds in deep contempt, are allowed their slice of sympathy. The vaguely grotesque Jacques warns David on the night he meets Giovanni, ‘you play it safe long enough…and you’ll end up trapped in your own dirty body, forever and forever and forever – like me’.

David’s struggle between a quiet American future with Hella and children and a home, and his secret, sneaky life with Giovanni, encased in one room, one particular city and scene, that would have no place and no hope in the world he is from, is heart-wrenching. In its elements of isolation and social dislocation it perhaps echoes James Baldwin’s own situation as a gay African-American writer, born in Harlem and emigrating to France in 1948.

James Baldwin in Paris

The women in this book are the other stars. There are not many; Hella, and big-boned hopeful Sue who David sleeps with because she’s there and he can. They are worth mentioning, because they are not filler females, but well-rounded, sympathetic and developed characters despite their relatively small parts. Hella returns from Spain to realise that she’s ‘beginning to be tired of being in places for no particular reason’, while Sue’s wistful attempt to set up a ‘next time’ when David has no intention of seeing her again is painful – ‘there were a great many things she wanted to say, but she forced herself to say nothing’. Baldwin’s sympathetic depictions of these women, of Jacques and Guillaume, and of the other denizens of the milieu make Giovanni’s Room a gentle (and I mean that in the sense of sympathetic, kind-hearted and melancholy, not mild or undemanding) and thoughtful read, the David in the present trying to figure out, through remembering his past, why things have ended where they have.

It is a beautifully written and poignant story, and I would personally pair it with a picpoul de pinet, often recommended with strongly flavoured fish for its very dry and refreshing qualities; if ever a book was well-suited to a refreshing glass of something while slowly turning pages Giovanni’s Room is that book.

Book: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Pair with: Picpoul de Pinet

An Evening In: The Big Sleep

Gritty streets, fog rolling off the Pacific, rain over orange trees. It’s LA some time after Prohibition, and Philip Marlowe’s got a job to do. A job for a couple of half-crazy dames and an old man with a lot of money and a little pride.

Sooner or later, we all sleep the big sleep.

Raymond Chandler wrote his classic hits of pulp fiction in the 1930s having lost his job during the Great Depression, and people have lapped them up ever since. It’s a dangerous world of deceitful women and hard-faced men (the two kinds of people Ella Fitzgerald couldn’t understand), guns, shadowy figures in battered coats with their collars turned up, roulette being played in dilapidated old mansions and pornographic libraries being run from Main Street. Marlowe is a kind of a good man – the kind who can shoot straight.

It’s not just the gang-land plots and the seedy under-belly setting that sets Chandler’s work apart from the general flotsam of pulp fiction, however. He has a gift for a neat phrase – women with ‘enough sex appeal to stampede a businessmen’s lunch’, ‘a nice neighbourhood to have bad habits in’, the old man ‘using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work showgirl uses her last good pair of stockings’ – and sketches Marlowe’s straight talking, hard drinking ways in short, sharp sentences that don’t waste words in plots that are fairly convoluted and draw in plenty of characters who all get their face time with our hero.

The Big Sleep is such an immersive book, the setting, the language, the characters all belong together so neatly, that you do have to be in the right frame of mind for it. Best to read it, perhaps, in a dim room while it’s raining outside and huddled figures are waiting under street lights, with something amber at your elbow.

Marlowe drinks a lot of Scotch and soda in the book, and if you want to go along with him Laphroaig is always a safe bet. If, on the other hand, Scotch isn’t your thing perhaps try pairing The Big Sleep with one of the heavier white wines, something full-bodied enough that you know you’re drinking. Australian or Californian Chardonnays have the reputation of being heavier and fruitier than their European counterparts, while Chardonnay from the Montrachet region should be both dry and heavy. As anyone who keeps an eye out for cheap bottles knows, buying Chardonnay can turn into the Russian roulette of wine drinking, but these are solid starting points to try and find one you enjoy! Since dirty Hollywood is such a star of The Big Sleep, my recommendation is to show some loyalty and go for a Californian bottle.

Book: Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Pair With: Laphroaig and soda, or a Californian Chardonnay

An Evening In: Heyer Highlights

In the midst of some cursedly interesting times and painfully dull weather here in the UK I have been considering my next review and decided to go for a list I’ve been meaning to do for some time.

Georgette Heyer published over fifty books, and thirty-two of those were romances. She is the First Lady of Regency romance, taught me almost everything I know about Georgian London, and has a vaguely satirical, elegant writing tone that makes the stories romantic and exciting without descending into melodrama or the sort of over the top I’d-die-for-you nonsense that, for example, Twilight embraced.

I love Georgette Heyer for the detail of the historical setting, for the wealth of character and the fabulous lives of the Upper Ten Thousand, because the heroines don’t weep too often and the men don’t make unrealistic declarations of love every few minutes, and because when there are smugglers and kidnappings and elopements there is also nearly always a haughty lord watching with one eyebrow raised and finding it all very silly. Georgette Heyer often commented that her romances were not good books (she was more proud of her crime novels), but I entirely disagree, and think these internal auditors of the ridiculous are one of the reasons I can forgive her almost anything. All of her romances are funny, expertly plotted and neatly handled. It is very hard for me to pick a favourite; so instead, here are my Heyer highlights for any mood.

For a proper Romantic hero – Devil’s Cub.

The Marquis of Vidal is as wild and unruly as his sire, once named Satanas. The Satanas of These Old Shades has, however, retired his cloven hooves and the young Marquis has stepped into them, bent on a rakes progress of womanising, gambling, fighting and murder. From the glittering top of London society, Vidal’s latest exploit sends him by paternal instruction to Paris, taking with him not the sweet and vulgar Sophia Challoner, but a very different prospect in her sister Mary.

Featuring Rupert and Leonie in France, Julianna Marling and her sensitive swain Mr Cummin, Parisian balls, pistols and an awful lot of wine, this is one of the more dramatic of Heyer’s romances. Mary is the practical, vaguely ironical heroine expertly taking the wind out of Vidal’s swashbuckling sails.

Best moment: Rupert and his suspicious attitude to Dijon, or an ill Vidal describing gruel as ‘repulsive pap’ and threatening to throw it.

For a strong and excellent heroine – The Grand Sophy

The quiet London residence of the Rivenhall family is thrown into uproar by the arrival of their cousin, Miss Sophia Stanton-Lacy, left in the care of her aunt while her diplomat father travels to Brazil. This damsel, known to military men as the Grand Sophy from a life spent campaigning in war-torn Europe, wakes up a family that has become depressed and dull, burdened by the debts of their gambling, loose fish of a father. Sophy’s eldest cousin, the staid, long-suffering Charles, holds the purse strings and considerable control over the lives of his siblings. Cecilia Rivenhall is determined to marry a poet, Hubert Rivenhall is in the hands of a dangerous moneylender, and Charles himself is in quite the worst pickle of all with his engagement to the sanctimonious Miss Eugenia Wraxton. Sophy needs her finest schemes and a steady hand to bring this household to a happy conclusion.

Special mention to: the monkey, the Marquessa, and the absurd Augustus Fawnhope.

For standout supporting cast and comedy – Friday’s Child

When young buck Viscount Sheringham is unexpectedly married to little Hero Wantage, all of London believes he has done it in a fit of pique, rejected by childhood friend and reigning London Beauty, Isabella Milborne. All of London, and Hero. Naive and trusting, Hero is merely grateful to be allowed to be Sherry’s wife, but is not up to snuff in the busy, bright world of London society. Sherry’s easy-going nature and blind optimism that he needn’t change his way of life just because he is no longer single are  swiftly tested by his new wife’s progress. With his excellent cronies Gil, Ferdy and George and the execrable Lord Montagu as the villain, this is one of Heyer’s most joyous, most complete and most satisfactory novels.

Best moment: Any scene featuring the four men and Kitten is heart-warming, ridiculous and very funny. I’m particularly fond of Ferdy, who is not pin-sharp but is nonetheless a veritable Pink of the ton.

For costumes – Arabella

Arabella Tallant is the eldest and most beautiful daughter of a Yorkshire vicar, sent to London to come out under the fond auspices of her godmother, Lady Bridlington. Knowing it to be her duty to marry well, Arabella’s besetting sin is impulsivity and this leads her to claim, before she even arrives in London, a wealth she does not possess to quash the arrogance of one Mr Beaumaris, a nonpareil of no mean order. Guess who turns out to be really, really important.

Also featuring Beau Brummel in one of his only speaking roles in Heyer, forays into the poverty and social problems of London, and a beguiling mongrel named Ulysses.

Best moment: at the beginning, when they go through her mother’s old clothes at the Parsonage and plan her wardrobe for London. Makeover scene!

For non-nauseating children – Frederica

Frederica Merriville comes to London chiefly to see her beautiful younger sister, Charis, well married. To this end she blithely enlists the help of the Marquis of Alverstoke, and to the surprise of all who know him, this indolent nobleman lets her. This is a favourite, however, not for the ensuing romance, but for the activities of Frederica’s two youngest siblings, Felix and Jessamy. These two clever and energetic boys take the combined efforts of Frederica and Alverstoke to handle, though they may have the best of intentions.

Special mention: To the Baluchistan Hound.

For high adventure – The Talisman Ring

A mystery and a romance in one, this is one of the more farcical of Heyer’s plots, dashing heroes and vivacious heroines solving a years old mystery against a backdrop of a rambling old estate, family struggles and smugglers.

Ludovic Lavenham has been on the run for years, after being wrongfully accused of a busy night of murder, theft and cheating at cards. When Eustacie de Vauban flees her grandfather’s home to avoid a marriage to her cousin, Sir Tristram Shield, she inevitably and almost immediately runs into the disgraced and exiled Ludovic. Thus begins the young couple’s attempts to clear Ludovic’s name, aided and abetted by Miss Sarah Thane and Sir Tristram himself, outwitting Bow Street Runners, excisemen and the sinister Beau Lavenham en route to a happy ending.

Special mention to: Sir Hugh Thane’s total indifference to the law and refusal to ever be ruffled.

For London – Cotillion

Kitty Charing, ward of the incredibly rich and incredibly miserly Matthew Penicuik, finds herself named his heir on the condition that she marries one of his great-nephews; Jack Westruther, Freddy Standen, Lord Dolphinton or Hugh Rattray. This, without ever having seen London, or done anything very much but live in a drafty old house with Mr Penicuik, in a tedium occasionally broken only by visits from the great-nephews, most frequently and memorably the romantic Jack Westruther. Neither Jack nor Kitty appreciate having their hands forced in the matter of marriage however, and when Jack fails to arrive on the appointed day to make Kitty an offer, she decides that by hook or by crook she is going to London, and Jack will be made to regret not offering for her.

Resourceful Kitty cajoles Freddy Standen into a fake engagement in order to give her a London season. Freddy, kind-hearted and generous, does not wish to be married, has no interest in the prospective fortune and thinks Jack is not quite the thing, but he allows himself to be convinced and the young couple head to London. While most Heyer’s are either set in or feature London at some point, Cotillion is excellent for introducing the reader to the city through the eyes of the innocent Kitty Charing, expertly guided by man-about-town Freddy.

Freddy, who seems at first a silly creature of fashion, proves himself to have a sensible head on his well-tailored shoulders and is surprisingly capable at manoeuvring Kitty out of the various coils she inevitably gets herself into.

Basically, I heart Freddy, so there.

Best moment: Dolphinton repeatedly hiding in a cupboard in fear of his mother, or any of Freddy’s reactions to social faux-pas.

For an unlikely hero – The Foundling.

If you’re not looking for pistols at dawn and men striding around between fights, if you’re not interested in heroines who are stunningly beautiful and inevitably take the town by storm, if you’re not vibing fancy balls but would rather like to see plain Mr Dash, of Nowhere in Particular, be the hero and get the girl, then Heyer has provided The Foundling.

The Duke of Sale (known as Gilly) is fed up of the over-protective, constant care of his uncle and his household. With a staff who have all known him forever and an unfortunate reputation for ill-health, he has been cosseted and sheltered his whole life and has finally had enough when he discovers his uncle has  now picked out a wife for him. However much he might like Lady Harriet, there is a limit, and telling only his dashing big cousin Gideon, Gilly heads off into the unknown, on a daring excursion of freedom in the English countryside.

Of course the English countryside is so full of bandits, bad lots, blackmailers, foundlings and runaways that there’s hardly room for a Duke as well, and Sale is quickly embroiled in the fortunes of both the lovely, extremely dim, Belinda and the redoubtable and stubborn Tom.

Special mention to: The Gideon/Gilly dynamic.

I must also just mention Heyer’s murder mysteries (excepting the wretched Penhallow, which I have just finished, and I was never more deceived in a book!), mostly set in the 1920s and 30s, and very much of the Golden Age of crime. Although Heyer does not perhaps reach the heights of Christie in her characterisations or her policemen, she uses them adeptly and cleverly, and I unhesitatingly recommend. Perhaps start here with Envious Casca, reissued recently as A Christmas Mystery; a proper country house murder.

WARNING: If you are buying Heyer’s romances, be aware that the newest runs by Abe books are full of irritating little errors. Some are obvious, some are more confusing and could be an obstacle to first-time readers. The older runs are much better edited!

Pair With: Malbec. This will go delightfully with the distinct, lean flavours of Heyer’s writing, and stands up well as a pleasant drink on its own, cheerful and softer on the pallet than the bruiser reds like Cabernet Sauvignon or a Bordeaux.

An Evening In With Poetry: Richard Siken

Ah, poetry! Summer has tentatively crept into the air around here, complete with strawberries, the nervous trying on of last year’s shorts, and flash floods (there’s thunder outside right now). I was meaning to write a review of The Darling Buds of May but there are only so many words to say: it’s beautiful, you’ll love it, pick it up. No seriously, it’s just lovely. Woods. Nightingales. Pop and Ma. Kent. Perfick.

So instead, because it’s been a while and because it’s a dreamy overcast poetic sort of June so far, I thought I’d go for something a bit different and have picked up Crush by Richard Siken. I read two lines of a poem by Siken that was being used as a tagline for a webpage I happened to be passing years ago, and on the strength of that and a quick google, bought the book.

Why do I like this collection of wistful small-town agonies and prayers so much? Perhaps it’s all the roads. Perhaps it’s because in the litany of panic and pain Siken seems to cycle through, there is always a road. The sense of movement, of striving towards some distant horizon, makes all of the sad, sweet moments of these poems seem part of a bigger thing. Siken leaves some hope hanging on at the edges.

There is the road, and there is the story of where the road goes, // and then more road

Siken uses everyday words and routine little scenes to draw a world of fields and bars and people dreaming of movies. It’s not a million miles from Allan Ginsberg and it’s not a million miles from the Liverpool poets, but it’s also in a place all of its own, a sad nocturnal sort of scene. With poetry every reader is on his own and I’m not in the market for themes, but I like the note of desperate communication in Siken’s poems, often addressing other people, trying to figure out what they want, what he wants, what the ending is going to be.

Dear So-and-So, I’m sorry I couldn’t come to your party. // Dear So-and-So, I’m sorry I came to your party // and seduced you // and left you bruised and ruined, you poor sad thing.

This is a talented poet with a beautiful mastery of mundane words, with an edge of James Dean flavoured Americana, keeping it sparkling and preventing it from being any sort of angsty kitchen sink monologue. It’s much prettier than that.

If you’re in the mood for a poem he’s one of my favourites, and he’s definitely a spirits sort of read. I’m going to go specific on the drink here, and suggest that I would pair this with Hoxton gin – gin is my favourite, and this Hoxton brand is flavoured with coconut and grapefruit and surprisingly delicious. It really works, as nice by itself as mixed with tonic. Go forth and seek you flavoured gins, that you may join me in saying ‘oh, that’s nice’ and spending £8 on a double. Because thanks for nothing, London.

 

 

Book: Crush by Richard Siken

Pair with: Hoxton Gin

An Evening In: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

I have just finished the tantalisingly mysterious, deliciously Gothic slice of New England oddity that is We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Jackson is not an author I have come across before, but the dearly beloved Mr Neil Gaiman mentioned her in an Instagram post last week and I was intrigued by the hail of approval the post met with.

What a grand slice of darkness it is, to be sure. From the opening premise, a dead family and a sister acquitted of their murder, the story is revealed slowly, layers peeling away as you come to know the family of the Blackwoods, the public details of the tragic murder of most of the family (arsenic in the sugar bowl), the house they live in and the strange attitudes of Merricat and Constance Blackwood to the rest of the world. While the big reveal is not particularly shocking – it’s not a murder mystery, after all – it is so nicely done with such elegant hints and characterisation that it’s more a relief than a surprise when it’s said out loud. 

It is a great moment in an avid readers life when you find a book that feels new and different. Shirley Jackson’s work doesn’t feel precisely unique; creepy towns in New England are a staple of American horror, a family poisoned with arsenic is a fairly classic murder and the uncanny feel of something not quite right in the household is a touch of atmosphere to be found in many novels. But I think Shirley Jackson may have the distinction of being a founding father in these tropes. Certainly in her lifetime her writing was considered shocking, though her first short story The Lottery (yearly ritual sacrifice in creepy village decided by lottery) represents an idea as familiar as a fairy-tale to modern audiences.

And Shirley Jackson’s ability to craft a story is entirely her own. Building the complexities of family, sanity, responsibility and community around the voice of Merricat herself, in a narrative interwoven with home-grown magic, food and the minutiae of a deeply enclosed life in a house that has become a museum to the Blackwood family, the result is an oddly bright story, eerie with the alternating naivety and shrewdness of the narrator. Having read this, I suddenly see shades of Jackson in Gaiman, Donna Tartt, Sarah Waters, the list goes on. I am thrilled to have found a writer who provides a backbone to so many others, and of whom I was so entirely ignorant.

And so to the beverage. Food is so very important to the nature of this beast that I am inclined to a cocktail, something with a recipe. Taking as our starting point then a grand American bourbon I had a flutter through the pages of the trusty 1977 Booth’s Handbook of Cocktails and Mixed Drinks. IMG_20160418_154843784This learned tome has many suggestions, but I proffer a Bourbon sour, a drink that is, like the book, classic with a kick. Plus the sugar is a nice nod to the vector for the arsenic in the Blackwood house.

Booth’s has it thusly: 1 oz. Bourbon to 1/2 oz. lemon juice, with a teaspoon of powdered sugar. Shake and strain.

Book: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

Pair with: A Bourbon Sour

An Evening In: The Pirates!

Now I like a good long read as much as the next girl. I like to read an epic each summer, something like The Far Pavilions, A Suitable Boy or Gone With the Wind (all of which, yes), but what with this hectic schedule and whimsical nature of mine, I sometimes need something a little briefer and punchier. Something that will make me laugh and feel benevolent towards the world, and will also only take me an afternoon to read. It is this side of my literary tastes that has resulted in me owning the entire Pirates! oeuvre.

Now, I’m aware there’s a film. I haven’t seen it; I can’t comment. The books are excellent. Firmly rooted in absurdity, smothered in piraticisms and with plenty of ham, Gideon Defoe has provided a delightful series of voyages into the delirious heart of piracy. The Pirates! can be found in adventures with scientists, whaling, communists, Napoleon and the Romantics. The plot for all of these goes thusly: the Pirate Captain gets his Pirate crew into some sort of beard- or money-based pickle. The scarf-wearing pirate is sensible and wise, the sassy pirate is a bit sexy, the pirate in green, the albino pirate, the pirate who likes kittens and sunsets and all the other pirates enter enthusiastically into a Scheme or Plot, Jennifer is Victorian and Black Bellamy attempts to thwart them. At the end, all of the pirates sing shanties and eat ham.

It’s genius. The naivety of the Pirate Captain leads the plot but is beautifully offset by the more knowing crew and the sidesteps in and out of reality, alongside wild adjectives, extraneous chapter titles and unexpected cameos by famous figures of fiction and fact. It’s the sort of book that you could (and I fully plan to) read to small children and amuse everybody at once.

I would of course suggest grog with this book, if you happen to know what it is, but there are other options. A hearty, cheerful piratey drink is needed, something warming and pleasant. Let’s say, cider. As a cider drinker, I favour Orchards, widely available and not too sweet, but if you are lucky enough to have a local cider brand that stands up, have a pint and good luck to you. The book is suitable for children, the drink is not.

Image result for glazed ham
Pictured: Success

Book: The Pirates! In an Adventure with…, by Gideon Defoe

Pair with: a hearty, apple cider

An Evening In: Snow Country

Ah Japan – land of haiku, of dispossessed samurai, of cherry blossom and of melancholy. Or of robots and manga and tentacle monsters, depends what you’re into.

Japan

I was feeling the need for some pristine writing, some neat phrases and sharp syntax, so I have just finished reading Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata. I recommend a foray into Japanese literature as it is clearly distinct from Western literature in the style and the feel of the books. Many novels , including this one, do consider the themes of Westernization and modernization in Japan, which was very consciously part of Japanese culture from the 1860s on (I studied Japanese history at University, hands up who feels sad for Okinawa). Yasunari Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, but this is the first of his books I had read, and it delivered.

…also Japan. And yes, those are giant stretching testes. Because Tanuki.

I read Japanese writing when I am feeling vaguely melancholy, in a gazing-into-the-middle-distance, Grandmother Willow sort of way, and in Snow Country I found the right notes of doom and a sort of helplessness before fate that I have met before in Japanese literature. A nice hopeless romance, and if the characters can find time to stand on mountain sides and consider nature before someone dies tragically that is a strong plus.

Snow Country is set in a rural Japanese mountain village, famous for its hot springs. The main character, Shimamura, is a married man from Tokyo and he nicely catches the image of the Westernised city dweller; he is an expert in Western ballet, but he is fascinated by the traditional methods of bleaching cloth in the mountains, by the remote, rural world of the village, and by one particular geisha, Komako, with whom he has a fairly open affair in the little village.

That the relationship can never go anywhere is clear from the start, and to modern eyes at least Shimamura is not a deeply sympathetic character. Often he barely seems to like poor Komako, who is frequently drunk, working at parties and then sneaking into Shimamura’s room afterwards, and he is fascinated by another girl whose enigmatic presence book-ends the story. He first sees Yoko on the train to the village, and she is the star of the last scene.

There is something deeply compelling in the lingering descriptions of the snowy scenes, of the hotel it is largely set in and of the characters. For a Western audience there is a particular interest in the descriptions of the most basic items of furniture and clothing or of the geisha lifestyle. It is a lovingly crafted, elegant short work, and it is the fresh mountain air of the mind to eyes that have read ever so many job descriptions of late. It is not an action-packed thrill ride, but rather a slow study in inevitability.

If you are luxuriating in Snow Country it might seem like a warming, heartening red wine would be the way to go, but I personally recommend a different route, one of a subtle sympathy with snow and bare-edged mountains. I suggest a riesling, a crisp, fresh white wine (a trip to google also tells me it is a good pairing with fish and Japanese food, so my choice seems vindicated), with a bite that will keep you awake and floating through the snow country with Shimamura, even if it’s raining and grey outside. Kanpai!

Book: Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

Pair with: Riesling

An Evening In: Agatha Christie

Happy Easter! Spring it is a-cumin, loud sing cuckoo, as we all say each day here in Blighty, before heading off on the cuckoo hunts with a lovely jacket spud in our pockets. Spring puts me in the mood for that single most English institution, the village murder. Ah, the maypole, the daffy-down-dillies, the mysterious corpse in the rockery. I refer, inescapably, to her lord highness Sir Lady Agatha Christie Esq. 

I was up until three last night reading They Came to Baghdad, so I’m particularly going to focus on that one. I picked it up because, although I think I’ve read most if not all of her books, I do forget the endings, particularly of the ones that do not feature either Miss Marple or Poirot. They Came to Baghdad is an espionage thriller, still threaded around a mystery that needs solving and, of course, there is a murder, but it is set as part of the Great Game of the Cold War, shadowy figures slipping in and out of Baghdad and Basra, men speaking eight different languages, convoluted plots and passwords, and in the middle of it all is Victoria Jones, London typist and incorrigible liar.

I love the Christie’s set in the Middle East, where she spent a lot of time with her second husband, an archaeologist. They Came to Baghdad is not the only book to feature an archaeological dig, Murder in Mesopotamia for example, and Christie’s knowledge of these and of Baghdad in the 1950s is both colourful and fascinating. Death on the Nile is probably my favourite Christie, if I had to choose, for the beautiful setting as much as for the neat and ingenious murder.

She is best known, of course, for her English country house murders, however, and there is something very comforting in picking up an Agatha Christie and reading about Marple or Poirot walking past the church, going up to the manor, tracing letters at the post office, discovering that Amy Baddingham is actually none other than the lost twin sister of Cassandra Hawthorn what done in her husband ten years before or did she??? That sort of thing. A simpler time.

Grim horror.

My personal tips for solving a Christie before you get to the end are as follows:

  1. Never trust actors.
  2. If a family member is mentioned as either estranged or dead or missing for fifteen years, they are already somewhere in the house.
  3. She never wastes characters. If someone doesn’t seem to have much of a role, they did it.
  4. She is a romantic. If someone’s other half is beginning to look suspiciously innocent, they will develop another romantic intrigue before the end. The nice young people are very rarely left single. Similarly, if there is only one option for a nice girl to end up with, he’s probably innocent.
  5. Never accept someone is who they say they are until it has been corroborated by at least three separate sources, and if one of those says, ‘Oh I’d recognise her anywhere, not around the face of course, when I knew her she wore a veil at all times,’ then it doesn’t count.

That’s all the help I can give you. Her romantical leanings at the ends are one of my favourite things about Agatha Christie; I like to know justice has been done, and people are all nicely matched up with their most suitable partner.

As for a drink, you need a clear head to go with a Christie, but I could still recommend perhaps a small sherry or a glass of something light and cheerful. Muscadet is an excellent choice, associated with Easter in my mind as one of the wines I have often drunk in France around this time of year.

Even if you know the endings, as practically everyone does for Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None, the books themselves are so neatly crafted, the characters so appealing and the world so charming that rereading these is a pleasure, and the perfect activity for a rather dreary Easter day. I’m going on to Five Little Pigs, now. Bedhead out.

Book: They Came to Baghdad, Agatha Christie

Pair With: Muscadet

An Evening In: Dracula

I have been off in a corner scribbling a novel all over the wallpaper, but now that is done and I’m back to my other important duty of aiding alcoholic bibliophiles. So today, on a beautiful spring morning with blackbirds and daffodils swarming all over my garden, I’m going to be recommending that cheerful, bright tome, Dracula by Mr Bram Stoker.

The original vampire book, before the cliché switched from coffins and garlic to twinkling and moping. Dracula has no time for moping, he is too busy being a total badass and psychologically manipulating everyone around him. He is such a role model.

It’s a classic. It’s the classic when it comes to monster books. The story produces not only strong characters and a thrilling plot, but is like a travel brochure for the macabre, presenting a full range of gothic transport options and sinister holiday destinations. Creaking horse drawn carriages or boats sailed by the dead? No problem. A weird, creepy castle that everyone around is openly afraid of? Gotcha. The weather-beaten abbey at Whitby? An insane asylum next to a deserted old chapel? A sanatorium run by nuns in Budapest?  Done, done and done.

The basic plot kicks off with Jonathan Harker’s trip to Castle Dracula in Transylvania, for some duties pertaining to real estate. There, he is scared by local peasants, intimidated by the obviously dead Count and lured by the Count’s three foxy brides (remember when Keanu dealt with that and it was really tough).

A man who has seen too much

If you haven’t read the book, I won’t go into too much detail, but his visit is the prelude to Dracula leaving Transylvania and sailing to Whitby, where he wreaks havoc amongst the local gentry. Lucy Westenra is the poor beautiful innocent who falls victim to him and draws a posse of good, upright Victorian men into the fight against evil.

 

Now I know because I’ve carefully labelled the book ‘5F’ on the inside, that I read this for the first time when I was about ten. Some of the descent of the inmate Renfield into ‘a zoophagous..maniac’  went over my head, and I remember being unclear on whether Mina was in thrall to the Count or not, but the most confusing part of the book by far, and a section which still baffles me, is the incomprehensible conversations Mina has with an old man from Whitby. Stoker is not the only writer of this time, around the turn of the twentieth century, to start writing regional accents phonetically, but it’s something I don’t personally hold with. The odd word misspelt, to remind the reader that there’s an accent happening, can be effective, but whole reams of it seem much more of a hindrance to the smooth running of the story than a help to the imagination. Because, seriously: ‘I wouldn’t fash masel’ about them, miss’; ‘I must gang ageeanwards home now, miss’; ‘it takes me time to crammle aboon the grees’; ‘it’ll be a quare scowderment at the Day of Judgement’. What do any of those sentences mean??

Whitby Abbey: sheer atmosphere

 

 

I hardly need to say it, but you should obviously read this while working your way through the thickest, heaviest red wine you can get your hands on, perhaps a Shiraz or Nero D’Avola. Alternatively, a nice fullsome brandy could inject a similar heady depth to the reading experience. Go on, it’d be a quare scowderment to deny yourself. Maybe.

 

 

Book: Dracula, by Bram Stoker

Pair with: full-bodied red wine, such as Nero D’Avola

An Evening in: Neverwhere

Neverwhere is a feast, a bonanza, a treat, a graffiti-covered dreamscape, a road-trip on a tube, a hymn to the forgotten, a love song to London. I dig it.

Neil Gaiman (of Sandman or Stardust fame depending on your sub-culture selections) has, in this book, created a hectic urban fantasy adventure set in and starring London Below. This is a parallel version of good old London town, where all the people who fall through the cracks – the homeless, the odd and the fantastical – live, with the Underground as a sort of gateway. If you’ve ever ridden about on the Tube for any period of time it’s probably crossed your mind to wonder who the Earl of Earlscourt was, or what the Black Friars were up to, and Gaiman runs with this idea to build a world that’s strange and familiar and exciting and dangerous. The hero, Richard, is a normal bloke who is dragged into the world of London Below by an accidental visit from the Lady Door, fleeing two sinister gentleman, one of whom eats pigeons. The why and the how of this event is the beginning of Richard’s trip down Below, where he meets such interesting people as the Marquis de Carabas, Old Bailey and the fierce Hunter searching for the great Beast of London.

These little guys…

I have recommended this book to many people who are not fantasy readers in general, and it’s a hit across the board. It’s a particularly satisfying read if you know London at all, because trying to guess the next move and what sideways version of a well-known place the characters are off to now is great fun. But even without knowledge of a Tube map it’s a story with heroes, villains, monsters, Marquises (well, one), ravens, rats, chases and SFCs (Strong Female Characters). Everything you need for a hella good read.

I’m going to provide a little extra option here as well. There’s a companion BBC TV version of this made in the 90s which I wouldn’t bother with. It’s got a great cast, but the setting and the characters are so interesting and huge in the book that it’s just painful to sit thinking wrong, wrong, wrong. The book and the series were made at the same time, so perhaps I’m being too harsh on it, but there is a version I strongly recommend and that is the 2013 radio adaptation, also BBC, also all-star, but with the heavy bonus of audio that the makers can leave the sets blank to be filled in by your own imagination.

…and this cheeky lad

So, this evening you have a choice of reclining in an armchair with your eyes shut, or reading a trusty hard copy while sipping on a glass of light and fruity Beaujolais. This is actually one of the wines I drink most often, so perhaps it’s the comfortable feel of both it and Neverwhere in my own personal habits that I’m matching up, but the flavoursome notes of a beaujolais seem to mirror something of the flamboyant Marquis de Carabas, one of the brightest stars in this particular world. On the other hand, if you really want to get into the spirit of London below, feel free to neck some hard spirits, but chapter 2 is worth reaching.

Book: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Pair with: Beaujolais