Sunday, 28 April 2013

Book Review of Shakespeare-The Illustrated Edition by Bill Bryson

This article was first published on on January 29th 2012.

As a true anglophile author must, Bill Bryson examines the life of England's most famous playwright with his unique personable approach and dry sense of humour.

It is a brave man who tackles the life of Shakespeare. So much has already been written about him by so many learned scholars that it is difficult to see what another book on the subject could bring to enlighten us all the more.

But Bryson does not lack the courage to tackle so tricky a subject and has produced his own book on the most renowned playwright and poet that ever existed. However, he has adopted an original approach in that he provides a condensing of lots of views and interpretations of Shakespeare and his life and works and collects it all in one easy-to-read volume with pictures. Obviously, because Shakespeare's canon has been around for hundreds of years and many academics as well as members of the public with their own strong opinions have written about the bard, Bill Bryson acts as an intellectual sieve, extracting the best nuggets of Shakespearean knowledge written, talked about and studied over the years and in his unique voice, presents them to a willing public in a way that is entertaining to read.

Having such wonderful illustrations does add to the book: to see Shakespeare's contemporaries, fellow playwrights, maps of the time as well as engravings and woodprints depicting the lives of the people helps the reader to understand Shakespeare's world to a greater degree and also means that this book will remain in your library. It is useful as a reference book for anyone wanting to know key facts about the man and his life or literally to browse the illustrations for pleasure.

Bryson has divided the work into accessible chapters to address different periods or aspects of Shakspeare's life. He adopts an almost chronological order starting with an introductory chapter called "In Search of Shakespeare"about how little is known about the man and leading in an almost circular fashion to "Claimants" about all the people who believe that Shakespeare didn't actually write a lot of his works, (a fact that is a product of not knowing an awful lot about him) and "The Lost Years, 1585-1592" where little is documented about Shakespeare's whereabouts and activities and "The Reign of King James, 1603-1616" where he really began to flourish.

The chapters are concise and focused with illustrations that more than support or clarify the discussion. This adds to the accessibility of the book, making it a perfect starting point for anyone harbouring an interest in Shakespeare who has previously been wary because of the high brow nature of material and the snobbery that can sometimes appear when talking about this "literary genius".

You will notice there has been mention quite frequently that there is a lot of information about Shakespeare which is missing. And this is the premise of the book really: that there is not really a lot known about Shakespeare. Bryson's opening line is "For somebody who has been dead for nearly four hundred years, William Shakespeare remains awfully active" and is testament to the fact that Shakespeare is still a moot discussion point precisely for this reason. In fact, Bryson himself is victim to Shakespeare's enduring appeal, the fact that he has an air of mystery about him and yet his work continues to capture new readers in every generation without any slowness of pace.

This lack of concrete fact extends to everything that we know about Shakespeare: what he looks like, how he lived, where he lived, what he wrote. In fact, in his preface, Bryson mentions that a more recent portrait has been discovered called the "Cobbe Portrait" that is deemed to be the most like Shakespeare out of all the images but again this is subject to debate.

Bryson's style really is his strength. There is always a sense of dry wit and sardonic humour running through his work and whilst writing in an intelligent and accomplished fashion, he really does not take himself too seriously at all.

One of my favourite examples of this is towards the end of the book, where Bryson is discussing the proposal that the Earl of Oxford was actually the author of Shakespeare's plays and he refutes this decisively in the following lines: "The Earl of Oxford, better still, additionally anticipated his own death and left a stock of work sufficient to keep the supply of new plays flowing at the same rate until Shakespeare himself was ready to die a decade or so later. Now that is genius." Such sarcasm is refreshing.

I would recommend this book as an introduction to Shakespeare to anyone and with the addition of a CD with Sir John Gielgud reading Shakespeare's Sonnets, you really couldn't go wrong.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Empire by Steven Saylor

This book review was first published on on April 27, 2011

Steven Saylor in his book, Empire continues the story of the Pinarii family history in Ancient Rome as started in Roma, Saylor's previous book.

Empire begins where Roma left off by showing us the progress of the Pinarii under the rule of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. At the start of the book, Augustus is becoming older and what has been regarded as the golden age is soon going to come to an end.

Saylor uses this old established family, which he has invented, to tell tales from different reigns of the emperors beginning with Lucius Pinarius, an augur (a reader of omens), these being very important to the Romans as their readings were used to judge whether their actions were receiving the approval of the gods.

This role brings him into contact with the Imperial household and provides Saylor with the opportunity to create his impressions of key characters from Roman history through dialogue and scenarios.

Saylor creates a real sense of the dangers as well as the benefits of being close to power. The Pinarii become more popular due to their connections but they are constantly aware that this can swing to disfavour and Saylor conjures a clear picture of the metaphorical tightrope that senators were obliged to navigate in order to ensure not only their personal safety but the future prosperity of their families.

For Lucius, this means the security of his identical twin sons, Titus and Kaeso. Lucius is ultimately forced to leave Rome as he is exiled by Tiberius, Augustus' successor, the alternative being death, and reluctantly, he moves his family to Alexandria.

When Titus and Kaeso are of age, they return to Rome, Titus thrilled at being there, Kaeso less so. They arrive in turbulent times when Caligula is wearing the laurel wreath and abusing his power magnificently. This is illustrated perfectly by Saylor when he shows us the twins' first audience with the emperor. They are initially excited at the prospect, especially Titus who is eager to improve the family's position under the new emperor.

However, this keen anticipation is soon dissipated as the meeting turns into a humiliating experience where the emperor wields his power to its full extent. Caligula uses the fact that the twins are identical and have brought their wives with them to involve them in something degrading purely for his own amusement. Saylor creates a sense of the helplessness of the twins and the inevitability that they must comply or suffer.

There are other cringe-making scenarios like this throughout the book, vividly giving the reader a picture of the madness of Imperial Rome and the extreme danger of placing power with someone prone to frivolity.

Added to this are the imagined descriptions of the games which truly show the Romans' obsession with brutality as a spectator sport whether this involved watching bears tear at a rhinoceros or the humiliation and torture of the perceived enemies of Rome. The burning of Christians by Nero is particularly gruesome and unforgiving.

The madness of emperors continues with the reign of Domitian, prone to random acts of violence against people he believes are plotting to depose him. This is paranoia at its most deadly. There is more and more of this throughout the book and to avoid becoming too list-like, it is fair to say that whoever the emperor, the events that Saylor chooses to describe within that reign are threatening, most likely violent, and gripping to read.

The ability to create a vivid world by description and characterisation is Saylor's strength. He transports you to the ancient world as he did in his Roma Sub Rosa series featuring Gordianus the Finder. In Empire, he manages successfully, by choosing to follow the fortunes of one family, to examine many different aspects of life in Ancient Rome, from the tasks of the augur to the limitations of the life of a vestal virgin, to the persecution of the Christians. As an introduction to the world of the Roman Empire, Saylor provides an accessible platform which is entertaining and extremely learned. As Saylor has only taken us to a certain point in the empire, one can only hope that Empire 2 is being drafted at this minute.

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.