Annabel Smith, Whiskey and Charlie (#BookReview)

Annabel Smith, Whiskey and CharlieSome explanations first. Western Australian author Annabel Smith’s novel Whiskey & Charlie was first published in Australia back in 2012 as Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, which immediately brings to mind the two-way alphabet (or, as I knew it, the alphabet used by the police on The Bill for communication. The things you learn via TV!) However, as happens, the book was, excitingly and successfully, published in America in 2014, and its title was changed to the less evocative Whiskey & Charlie. What I read – heard, actually – was the audiobook that I won in a Readers’ Pack draw last year. Mr Gums and I listened to it on our recent road trip to Melbourne. It passed the time beautifully.

But, another thing, before I talk about that. I’m not a huge fan of audiobooks as I explained earlier in this blog. I really like to see the text; I don’t like to miss visual clues; and I rarely like readers acting out the voices. All these were challenges with Whiskey & Charlie, particularly the last one. The reader, Gildart Jackson, is English. He did the English accents well, but, oh dear, his Australian accent sounded disconcertingly American. I assume this audio, with its American title, was made for an American audience, but, regardless … I prefer reading!

So now the book itself which, really, is what this is all about isn’t it? It tells the story of two identical twins, Whiskey (born William) and Charlie. It is all told, however, through Charlie’s eyes, as the novel starts after Whiskey has had a freak accident and is lying in hospital in a coma. They are 32 years old, and the trouble is that they have been estranged for some time. Charlie has no idea what music, for example, Whiskey would want played at his funeral should he not awaken. He’s distressed. A procastinator who avoids confrontations, he’d always believed there’d be time to sort it all out. The novel progresses from this point, with the family taking turns waiting by Whiskey’s bedside, while Charlie remembers the past and how they’d got to the point they’re at. As he does so, he gradually comes to some realisations about himself and their relationship that enable him to – finally – mature, to see that it hadn’t all been as one-sided as he’d rather smugly assumed. This could be seen in fact as a coming-of-age novel. Perhaps all novels are, in a way; perhaps none of us stop coming of age until we, well, stop?

Anyhow, what makes this book particularly intriguing, besides the thoroughly engrossing story of an ordinary family with all its ups and downs – emigration from England to Australia, parental divorce, and so on – is its structure. And this is where the two-way alphabet comes in. We learn early on that when they were 9 years old, the then close twins been given a walkie-talkie set, and, to help with communication, they learnt this alphabet. William was disappointed that Charlie’s name was in the alphabet, while his was not. Charlie dubs him Whiskey, which becomes his name from then on. Smith structures the narrative around the alphabet, with each chapter titled according to the words – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta and so on right through to Zulu – and with each of these words linking to some part of its chapter’s content.

This – and the fact that the flashbacks aren’t completely chronological – gives the novel a somewhat episodic structure, but it doesn’t feel forced. Instead, the story is revealed in the backwards-forwards sort of way, for example, that we gradually get to know new friends while the friendship itself is moving forward. (A not uncommon structure. What makes this one a bit different is being organised by the alphabet.)

I’m not going to write my usual sort of review, mainly because having listened to it, I don’t have the same sort of notes, or the same easy access to check details or find quotes. So, I’ll just make a few comments. It’s quite a page-turner, with the main plot, as you’d expect, turning on whether Whiskey will come out of his coma, and if he does what state will he be in. The secondary plot relates to Charlie’s mental state, and his understanding of himself and his relationship with his brother (not to mention with his long-suffering, angelically patient partner, Juliet). He has always felt inferior – the one who came second, the one who didn’t get the girls or the fancy jobs – but he also felt in the right when it came to their estrangement. However, were things really how he saw them? This is something he has to work out for himself. For this reason, the third person limited voice is a good choice for the novel. It enables us to feel with Charlie, while also providing that little bit of distance which enables us to see that Charlie’s perspective may be just a little skewed.

One of the lovely things about Smith’s plotting is that there’s no melodrama, or over-blown emotionalism here. Sure, drama occurs, and there are some surprises, but it’s all within the realm of possibility. There’s some lovely humour too, particularly in the stories of the boys growing up. One particularly funny section has Charlie describing the “bases” in petting with a girl. There were times, though, when I felt Charlie was too angry, too irrational, particularly towards the end when it seemed he was on the road to growth, but that’s minor and didn’t affect his overall trajectory.

Binding all this together is the description of Whiskey’s medical condition. Smith obviously did quite a bit of research – or already knew – just how extended comas play out. While I knew some of it, there were details that I didn’t, and that I found fascinating. Smith also covers such issues as grief and end-of-life decisions.

Finally, I like the title. At first I wondered why Whiskey’s name was first when Charlie was telling the story, particularly given Charlie also comes first in the alphabet. But, of course, it’s polite to put the other person first, and it also reflects Charlie’s sense of who was first in their relationship.

Whiskey & Charlie (or Whisky Charlie Foxtrot) has been out for a few years now, but it’s still worth reading if you come across it in a library or bookshop. Or, have you read it already? If you have, let me know what you thought.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked and reviewed this – but way back when it came out!

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeAnnabel Smith
Whiskey & Charlie (Audio)
(Read by Gildart Jackson)
Blackstone Audio, 2015 (Orig. pub. 2012)
10H30M on 9CDs (Unabridged)
ISBN: 9781504608268


33 thoughts on “Annabel Smith, Whiskey and Charlie (#BookReview)

      • Actually, it was more work than you might think. I had to read the book again, and write the launch speech and practise/time delivering it, plus cajole friends into making up crowd numbers. I had to race home from work and then through the peak hour traffic to get there, and then the cheer squad was late so we started half an hour late). On top of that I spent the evening fending off wannabee authors expecting that I would want to hear all about (and, obviously, eventually review) their books.
        But on the plus side, I got to meet Bram Presser who is a really nice man who (if he was writing it at that time) didn’t mention a word about his book but just chatted like a normal human being:)

        • Oh, I didn’t say it wasn’t work, just that it would have been fun doing that for such an author – because I thought you enjoyed doing things like this? Maybe not? (I must say that I shy from things like this as I hate having to think on my feet – I much prefer the extra brain time that writing gives. Less chance of foot in mouth!)

        • I wasn’t going to comment on this, but I saw your impressions, Lisa, about launching the original text in Melbourne, and thought I’d chime in with my own recollections. The first time I met Annabel was at a promotional event which was held out the front of the State Library in Perth (in the blazing sunshine) not long after Whisky Charlie Foxtrot was published. Freo Press were raffling off a pizza oven as part of the festivities, and I happened to win it. But because I’m a culinary sluggard, the pizza oven stayed firmly in its box for the next seven years. I eventually gifted it to my parents, who now use it to keep a production line running on evenings when they feel like Dr Oetker’s frozen offerings for dinner. 🙂

        • It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want it, but I was (am) too incompetent to take advantage of it!

      • Glen, I had forgotten all about that!
        Lisa, I’m sorry to hear you wouldn’t do it again, you did such a wonderful job.

  1. This sounds very good. The characters sound well done and I like it that you describe the plot in lacking in melodrama.

    Because I must have really gotten onto the habit of keeping notes when reading, I usually only listen to audiobooks when I also have access to the text, which I refer to from time to time. Thus, I often listen to audiobooks of older works that are available through Project Gutenberg.

  2. I also enjoyed this book and remember that the structure worked well. As you note, everything that happens is plausible and I felt like Smith had captured the sibling relationship beautifully.

  3. Yes I read & loved this book back in 2014. Reading your review was a lovely treat in memory retrieval!! The story came flooding back to me as well as my desire to read Annabel’s earlier novel, which is sadly out of print.

  4. I think it sounds terrible. I’ve been reading through the comments (all positive) and trying to work out why I think otherwise. Guy relationships and general fiction I’m thinking. I hope that when I do listen to it – and I’m sure at a book a day all oz audio books will cross my path eventually – that I remember your review.

      • Bill, could it be the thought of a young life hanging in the balance after an accident, and the choices that have to be made about life support? That situation still haunts me all these years after reading the book … that someone you love can suddenly be at death’s door and it’s too late to sort out the complications of a relationship that’s soured…

  5. Good point Lisa. I haven’t really experienced a soured relationship as Charlie did but I have certainly felt regret after the sudden death of close family members. Smith teases this situation out doesn’t she?

  6. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this great review! I really appreciate it. What is hilarious is that I’ve never actually listened to the whole audiobook myself – it just seems weird listening to your own book! But I didn’t realise he attempted a terrible Australian accent! The Australian accent is so hard to get right.

    • A pleasure Annabel. Took me a while to find the right length car trip to listen to it! We finished it an hour before we arrived home.

      It was a great story. No matter at what point we had to pause/stop it, we were keen to hear the next bit. (But that accent. I think I’d have preferred he just used his own, and read it straight!)

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