Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Book Review: Oscar Wilde and the Nest Of Vipers by Gyles Brandreth

Article first published as Book Review: Oscar Wilde and the Nest of Vipers by Gyles Brandreth on Blogcritics.

Gyles Brandreth has taken great license in making one of the most controversial figures of Victorian  society and literary circles of his day an amateur sleuth.

Amazingly, this works rather splendidly.  Having now read The Candlelight Murders, Dead Man’s Smile and now the fourth book, The Nest of Vipers, Oscar’s powers of deduction go from strength to strength as does Brandreth’s prowess as a writer of mystery fiction.

I enjoyed The Candlelight Murders and was surprised by the revealing of those with murderous intent.  Dead Man’s Smile was where I was first introduced to Oscar in Paris, in the theatre; how wonderful.  I found both books enjoyable reads although a little clunky in places, the flow of Brandreth’s narrative not always feeling comfortable with me, leading to paragraphs where I had to determine to plough on rather than glide through.

And then you have Nest of Vipers.  I breezed through this book, delighting in the twists of the narrative; pleased by the inclusion of Arthur Conan Doyle again and revelling in the insight into the royal avoidance of scandal that seems surprisingly paramount to all suspects concerned in the narrative to the detriment of the pursuit of justice and, of course, the truth.

The Duchess of Albemarle is found murdered in her telephone room after a prestigious party held at her house.  Initially, it is assumed that she died of an enfeebled heart.  However, it transpires that the Duchess is a lustful woman with an appetite that must be satiated; an appetite the Duke is unable to assuage.

Linked with the Prince of Wales as one of his many lovers, the royal household is keen to avoid a scandal but the Prince is also curious about the truth of the Duchess’ demise and so instructs or orders Oscar and his band of followers, Robert Sherard, biographer and Conan Doyle, admirer and friend, to investigate.  Which they duly do.

There are many possible suspects who come under the detective eye of Oscar Wilde, and he deduces the facts and surmises the truth in a way which is uncannily like Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth, Sherlock Holmes.  Oscar’s insights litter the text, his astute observation of people’s behaviour and accomplished (and some might say rather lucky) guess work, revealing much about the characters around him and these are greatly entertaining.

Oscar keeps much to himself allowing Brandreth the wonderful climactic reveal at the end of the book where the killer is uncovered in a Poirot style summary and confrontation.  And this sits easily with the portrayal of Oscar as showman and orchestrator, the person in the centre of attention to whom others clamour.

Brandreth’s style of narrative structure is developed in this book, the author making great use of secondary sources as opposed to Sherard’s sole voice and the odd smattering of telegrams.

At the opening, Brandreth has Sherard talking to Wilde about publishing the story of the Duchess’ murder and asks him to read through his gathered source material corresponding to the affair.  We are then beadily looking over Oscar’s shoulder while he peruses the papers which are collated chronologically and include diary entries, telegrams, party invitations, etc.

Adopting this format makes the book exceptionally easy to digest, avoiding the turgidity that sometimes permeated Sherard’s narrative.  The inclusion of letters by other applauded writers and friends of Oscar like the aforementioned Doyle and also Bram Stoker, author of Dracula add the element that Brandreth’s book spans two worlds rather well, those of fiction and reality.

So, another great mystery story.  What were also interestingly provided in this novel which I liked were the diary entries of an intimate of Wilde, Rex LaSalle.  Whilst also being a suspect, he is an acolyte of Oscar’s who is disarmingly attractive and also claims to be a vampire.

His personal private encounters with our hero allow a small, albeit fictional glimpse beneath the veneer of Wilde’s persona into a world where he is more vulnerable,  more exposed.  I liked these hints of intimacy, the man beyond the image.

Altogether, I think this is Brandreth’s best book to date.  I wonder where Wilde will wander (and wonder) next.



Book Review: Mirror Mirror by Gregory Maguire

Article first published as Book Review: Mirror Mirror by Gregory Maguire on Blogcritics.

Some book covers grab your attention convincingly whilst others allow your eyes to glide by.

Mirror Mirror has a cover which is not highly remarkable and yet, for some reason, it persuaded me to remove said book from the shelf and peruse it further.  Perhaps it’s the repetition that focuses the attention and the title being subconsciously absorbed from DVD releases of the Julia Roberts’ film of same name.  Or, and I like this idea the best, perhaps it was fairy-tale witchery at its finest.

I had never heard of Gregory Maguire who also wrote Wicked, the book on which the blockbuster musical was based.  In fact, discovering this fact put me off a little but in the spirit of fair-mindedness and objectivity, I delved into the narrative.

The Premise of Mirror Mirror

Maguire has taken one of the best-loved fairy-tales, Snow White, and spun it into a completely new tale, the elements of the original poking up to provide the supporting structure around, through and over which Maguire has crafted his narrative.

And it is an enjoyable read.  Snow White had all the ingredients of a great story: love, deceit, magic, good vs. evil – the whole gamut.  Maguire has expanded this into the realms of the Renaissance, making Lucrezia Borgia the mistress of misery in the life of our heroine.

The premise of the tale surrounds Bianca de Nevada who lives with her father in Italy with Primavera, the maid and Fra Ludovico, the priest assisting with her upbringing.  This is all thrown into disarray with the arrival of Lucrezia and her brother, Cesare Borgia to their homestead, the end result being Lucrezia stays to take care of Bianca whilst Vicente, Bianca’s father is required to go on a mission to find the Tree of Knowledge.  Vicente doesn’t dare refuse the Borgias and leaves his daughter in Lucrezia’s capable (though of what?!) hands.

The Borgias

If you know nothing about the Borgias, this book is bound to whet your appetite into finding out more about them.  Notorious, brutal, sexy, powerful – they had it all.  I think it was a masterstroke of Maguire’s to centre the badness around Lucrezia.  I wonder if he sat contemplating two contrasting ideas: “I would love to rework a fairytale” and “The Borgias would be a great subject for a novel”, deciding on a whim to throw them together and see, daringly, what the result would be.

A good story is the truth, imaginative flair shown throughout especially in the creation of the dwarves.  Their chosen names made me laugh out loud and the way they are described by Maguire make them truly his unique creations; weird but wonderful.

Of course, we all know the outcome of this story so no surprises there although what actually happens to Lucrezia is up for speculation with Maguire’s ending.  It is a well-crafted, original story which I thought began rather hesitantly and I was concerned that it would be exasperatingly slow, verging on tedious.  I was wrong.  The pace gathered once the Borgias arrived and the threat to Bianca’s safety loomed.

Well worth a read.

Friday, 12 October 2012

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

I had never heard of Hannah Tinti but as with all open-minded readers, I am always searching for new authors especially of modern fiction.  This is a double-edged process, sometimes resulting in a find that so enriches your life that you seek out everything that writer has ever produced; sometimes, you end up reading something particularly dire which is a drudge to get through and a relief to finish.

Fortunately for Hannah Tinti, she provided in The Good Thief an excellent story which will stay with me for a long time; imaginative and moving.

It tells the story of Ren who is delivered to the doors of St Anthony's orphanage, a baby with one hand only, a meagre scrap of a thing.  There is nothing that the boys of St Anthony's want more than for a family to arrive one day and remove them to a place of safety and comfort.

And one day, someone arrives for Ren, a man called Benjamin Nab who claims to be his brother.  The brothers who run the orphanage let Ren go with him and Ren is transported into a world where he is required to earn his keep and not in the most honest ways.  In fact, some of them are quite macabre.

Ren is a likeable character with a lot of spirit for such a young lad.  Perhaps that is the consequence of his start in life.  He soon fits in with Benjamin and Tom, the drunken ex-schoolteacher who is his sidekick.  And in their adventures, they meet some highly enjoyable characters that reminded me of Dickens in the way that they are distinct and almost verging on caricature.

There is a lot of brutality in this book; Ren befriends a murderer who is like an automaton, built for killing except when he is around Ren.  There are men who chase after our heroes who have no qualms about dismembering, maiming and other collected methods of savagery.  This all adds to your eagerness as a reader for Ren to come out of it safely and find a more stable life.

What Tinti does really well is create characters who are doing bad things but are doing them in order to survive in a harsh, unyielding world.  Her narrative is full of sympathy for them and the fact that most of the time, they are just doing enough to get by.

Next on my reading list will be Animal Crackers, a book of short stories by the same author which have also met with as much praise and I must say that I am mightily looking forward to it.