Review: Oscar Wilde & the Candlelight Murders by Gyles Brandreth

This work is set in London, 1889. Oscar Wilde, celebrated poet, wit, playwright and raconteur is the literary sensation of his age. All Europe lies at his feet. Yet when he chances across the naked corpse of sixteen-year-old Billy Wood, posed by candlelight in a dark stifling attic room, he cannot ignore the brutal murder. With the help of fellow author Arthur Conan Doyle he sets out to solve the crime – but it is Wilde’s unparalleled access to all degrees of late Victorian life, from society drawing rooms and the bohemian demi-monde to the underclass, that will prove the decisive factor in their investigation of what turns out to be a series of brutal killings.

Review by Erastes

Knowing of Gyles Brandreth from the television and radio, I rather thought this book might be a little “sophisticated” for me. He’s a vastly intelligent man and, like Stephen Fry, he often loses me with his mind but I needn’t have worried, because The Candlelight Murders is an enjoyable – almost frothy – murder mystery of the old school and thoroughly enjoyable.

It’s obvious from the word go that Brandreth is a big fan of Oscar Wilde and he sets the scene well. The books are narrated from the Point of View of Robert Sherrad, a real life friend of Wilde’s, and right at the beginning Robert makes it clear that although he loved Oscar, he was not his lover. The narration style is worthy of Watson, bumbling a good 20 steps behind the genius of Wilde as he burns his way across the page, leaving epithets and witticisms in his wake – believably so, as Brandreth explains that he would trial his “stock phrases” on his friends and relations before using them in his published works.

Oscar is totally believable, you can almost visualise him, almost believe that Brandreth had spent time with the great man, because he’s portrayed here in all of his greatness and his ambivalence. His love for his family and his wife is clear and yet the darker side of his life is never glossed over, not completely. It is clear that Sherrad knows of his predilections and they threaten to break through at any time.

I enjoyed this particularly because I grew up with Sayers and with Christie, I love romping through a book, catching some of the same clues as the detective and feeling smug, but I also love being led down a blind alley and being throughly duped by a clever writer. This doesn’t achieve that totally, not – for example – in the same magnificence as “Ten Little Niggers” did, or “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”, because I actually realised what was going on a couple of chapters towards the end. But it did a damned good job and once started it was impossible to put down.

The period detail is spectacularly well done, the demimonde feel of the fin-de-siecle cities, the descriptions of Oscar’s house, the dinner parties and most intriguingly the group of men who love boys is perfectly expressed. The cast of characters, ranging from the aesthetes to the grotesque as wonderfully drawn and suit the era and the darker undercurrents exactly.

Anyone who loves a good murder mystery will love this, and the homoerotic sublayers add even more flavour.

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Review: The Carnivorous Lamb by Agustin Gomez-Arcos

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Review by Hayden Thorne

BOOK DESCRIPTION:
A brilliant, lunatic tale filled with black humor and decadence, The Carnivorous Lamb is a compelling family saga of power, love, and politics. Into a shuttered house, haunted by ghosts of past rebellion and Franco’s regime, Ignacio is born. His mother despises him; his failed father ignores him; his older brother becomes his savior, his confidant…his lover. Shocking, irresistibly erotic, their forbidden relationship becomes the center of exiled Spanish author Agustin Gomez-Arcos’ savagely funny, stunningly controversial novel – and a damning indictment that neatly spears Franco, family, Church, and the modern world.

REVIEW:
Ignacio and Antonio are brothers. They’re also lovers. Priests are hebephilic perverts, and they stink of incense and shit. Franco’s regime drips from every corner of a decaying house that’s literally, emotionally, and psychologically cut off from the rest of Spain. Within this household, religion and politics play themselves out day after day, shaping Ignacio’s birth, childhood, and adolescence, offering us a bizarre tableau of family dysfunction and oppression.

The novel might sound like an erotic melodrama, but it isn’t. What Gomez-Arcos does – and does magnificently – is take Spain, the Catholic Church, Franco, and notions of family by the hair, and skewer them through with a knife. Again. And again. And again. His tone is brazen, defiant, and angry, with Ignacio telling his story with a dark, biting humor that kept me enthralled from start to finish. I have, I must admit, a special fondness for angry, subversive fiction that takes no prisoners, and The Carnivorous Lamb does so with wit and a vicious satire that would make Juvenal weep with pride (sort of). Like Lindsay Anderson’s If…, the novel, in a nutshell, is one big “Fuck you!” from start to finish.

To say that the characters are fascinating would be an understatement. Because Gomez-Arcos limits his scope to Ignacio’s family, bringing in an occasional outsider in order to place the family within a certain social context or, in the case of Don Gonzalo (the priest) and Don Pepe (the tutor), to just plain tear apart, the characters are explored to near minute detail in a kind of vacuum. Their complicated relationships, their ambivalence toward each other (in the case of Ignacio and his mother, a mutual hatred), and their ties to the past (notably the Spanish Civil War) play out like a surreal stage production.

Of all the characters, Matilde (Ignacio’s mother) is the most interesting and the most complex. She’s born into wealth, and her family’s aligned with Franco’s Nationalists, but she loves and marries a Republican, whom her family saves from imprisonment. Her conflicting allegiances show themselves again and again, and at times, we’re left wondering which side she truly belongs. She starts out as a satirical figure, representing the Catholic church in many ways, but as the novel progresses and Ignacio begins to touch on the more “hidden” corners of her character, she grows into a much more fascinating and exasperating figure.

Carlos (the father) and Antonio are the least developed of the major players. Carlos, a former Republican soldier and failed lawyer, spends his days hiding in his study, listening to old propaganda records that talk about peace and victory while locals consult with him over legal matters. He wastes away slowly, practically dead well before he dies. Antonio’s given more room for development, but though he remains a constant in Ignacio’s life – a strong, erotic, protective figure who exerts a remarkably strong influence on Ignacio – he still remains largely in the periphery.

Ignacio’s anger – simmering and sustained throughout the novel – colors our views of Spain, but we’re also made to laugh (maybe in shock, maybe in sympathy) at the occasional wry observation and simply out-and-out hysterical commentaries and exchanges he makes with the other characters. The scenes involving his baptism, confirmation, and first communion, for instance, are classic. Even America, represented by Evelyn (the graduate with a degree in Home Economics), isn’t spared a vicious tongue-lashing. Some readers might find Ignacio’s loathing of his mother and of Evelyn a blatant show of misogyny, but I think that’s limiting one’s reading of the text to a surface level. The nature of the story itself is so bizarre and outlandish that to read on a literal level would be doing the book a bit of injustice.

As the novel progresses, and Ignacio’s rage escalates, the scenes turn more and more surreal. Even Evelyn, who plays a small but effective part near the end of the book, becomes less of a character and more of a metaphor, and it’s clear that it isn’t because she’s a woman that Ignacio learns to despise her. It’s what she represents in addition to her role in the family, what with all his contemptuous observations of her diploma and her American bacon-and-eggs efficiency in the kitchen.

Gomez-Arcos’s novel can be taken apart in so many ways, given its subject and its narrative approach. It’s the kind of novel that’s memorable in its in-your-face subversion and celebration of anarchy. Darkly funny, incredibly erotic, I give this book four stars for the writing and one extra star for the damned fine cojones.

Buy the book: Amazon, Amazon UK

Review: Wheel of Fortune by Julia Talbot

From the Blurb: Fortunato is a mute lad, making his way in the shadowy world of Renaissance Venice. Angelo is the scribe charged with his education in reading and writing, all at the order of the mysterious Master Riccio. These reluctant allies come to know each other better than anyone could imagine and as Fortunato is dragged into a world of deceit and danger, Angelo is the only one he can trust and with any luck, love. Romantic historical suspense that begs for more at every cliffhanger.

Review by Alex Beecroft

When I started reading this, I was overjoyed by the way the author conjured up the setting.  I really felt that yes, life in the Doge’s palace in Venice might have been just like this for a child learning to be a tumbler and acrobat, and an ex-monastic scribe valued for his illuminations.  That delight carried me along for a good quarter of the book.  Little things, like the ink stains on Angelo’s hands, or the mosaic on the floor of the church, Basillio’s success at playing the female parts in plays, the atmosphere of the store-room where the old musical instruments are kept – these were so well written and enthralling that I was initially swept away simply by the lavish detail.

Both Angelo and Fortunato are very likeable characters, and I was intrigued by Fortunato’s dumbness and the efforts that the other characters had to make to communicate with him.  It’s an amusing twist that Fortunato is rejected by his family and goes through the angst so typical of m/m protagonists, but not because he’s gay – he’s flawed because he can’t speak.

The romance between Angelo and Fortunato also starts delightfully, with Angelo initially resentful of being given the task of teaching the boy to read, then charmed by Fortunato’s sweetness of temper, while dead set and determined not to allow himself to be attracted by someone who is at that point still a child.  The growing tenderness and trust which they each have for each other is another beauty of the book.  It’s nice to see a relationship which is obviously built on mutual kindness and liking, rather than the usual concentration on mere looks and lust.

Unfortunately my initial delight faded a little once I got past the midpoint of the book.  Fortunato began to grow up, enough to have a threesome with his friends and to develop fully realized desire for Angelo.  But his characterization did not seem to change in any way.  It’s hard to explain, but I felt he was still written as a sweet innocent child.  I was looking for some evidence that the child had turned into a man, and I didn’t find it.  This was also reflected in the way the other characters treated Fortunato; even at the end, when he’s stormed the dungeons and rescued his lover (while somehow still remaining sweet and innocent) the other characters persist in mothering him.  That had made sense at the beginning, but gradually became less and less convincing.

I also felt that once sex entered the equation, the novel’s wonderful attention to detail and characterization got sidelined in favour of fitting in a certain quota of sex scenes.  Fortunato’s discovery that his training has been in order to equip him to become Master Riccio’s assassin, and his reaction to being sent out on his first mission is passed by almost in parentheses.  All we see of it is him returning to weep on Angelo’s shoulder, and Angelo being outraged that Fortunato’s kind and gentle nature has been taken advantage of.  The fact that he’s killed someone in cold blood is ignored as though it was a triviality.

I’m not saying that you can’t have a naturally gentle person who is forced to kill and is devastated by it; I’m just saying that I didn’t feel it was given the weight it should have carried.  Angelo’s experience in the dungeons was passed over in almost the same kind of rush – as if it was an impediment to the story, rather than the story itself.  I came away wondering if the author had a deadline to hit, and had written the second half faster than the first.

I also became progressively more annoyed at the tarot card quotes scattered thick and fast throughout.  I have a pack myself and have occasionally used them for trying to think of a plot, but somehow showing them decreased the build up of tension and the feeling that the story was a cohesive whole.  Starting a new chapter with ‘sudden reversal of fortune’ or the like just made the text that came next feel as though it was colouring in between the lines of a picture you’d already seen.

From the first half of the novel, I formed the impression that Julia Talbot was a very talented writer, and I’m glad to have read the book for that alone.  I’ll be looking out for her other stuff with high hopes.  But I probably won’t be reading this one again.

Buy Fictionwise 

Review: Aubade by Kenneth Martin

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Review by Hayden Thorne

BOOK DESCRIPTION:
It is the beginning of the summer, and Paul has just left school. Estranged from the people around him and unable to communicate with his parents, he feels lonely and unloved. But his life suddenly changes when he meets a young medical student whom he renames Gary. Their relationship develops through the long hot summer, to reach its climax with the approach of autumn.

REVIEW:
Kenneth Martin was only sixteen when he wrote Aubade, using his poverty-stricken adolescence as well as people he knew for the book’s central conflict and characters. Given those, one can say that Aubade is the ultimate gay young adult novel. Elizabeth Bowen’s review for the Tatler sums it up best: “Most books about [adolescence] come from the pressure of emotional memory: Kenneth Martin writes from the very heart of them.”

The novel is very short: 150-plus pages with large text. I read the story first and then the book’s introduction afterwards – not advisable, in hindsight, because Kenneth Martin’s introduction provides a long, detailed account of his adolescence, his family, their hardships, and his experiences in publishing and beyond. Knowing all those beforehand would have made my reading experience much more comfortable because at the very least, I’d have been able to read through the book with a better understanding of Paul’s character.

Stylistically, Martin’s age and inexperience show. The prose alternates between concise and clunky. The novel’s rough around the edges, at times lyrical in its descriptions, and other times devoid of sensory details. The dialogue also teeters between natural and stilted, and Martin provides an interesting – and rather poignant – reason for his attempts at keeping proper syntax and not colloquial speech.

Paul, as the novel’s main character, makes things a little more difficult if one decided to skip Martin’s introduction. On the whole, Paul is unlikable. He’s cruel to his parents, his friends, and toward girls. He’s bored and restless, withdrawn and angry, selfish and proud, and he lashes out at the smallest provocation. Without understanding Martin’s background, it’s quite easy to simply dismiss Paul as another insufferable, angst-ridden teenager who’s suffocating under the pressures of family and convention. As it turns out, things aren’t that simple with him.

Kenneth Martin’s childhood and adolescence were a miserable time for him, being an adopted son of a large, impoverished Irish family (he was adopted to replace a child who died), where endless hardship had taught everyone to be silent and walled up despite their close physical proximity. Growing up under such unhappy circumstances, coupled with his own development as a confused gay kid, Martin lets it all out through Paul. The absurd quarrels, the outbursts of rage, the illogical cruelty, the loneliness, the extreme self-centeredness – everything about Paul becomes more solid once its foundation in real life is understood.

I think the only thing that makes Paul’s circumstances a little implausible is the fact that Martin makes Paul’s family more financially stable than his real-life family. The degree of Paul’s rage, then, is somewhat disproportionate, but I suppose one can always argue that we’re still looking at things through a disaffected teenager’s eyes. In that sense, financial stability doesn’t really matter.

Paul’s romance with Gary actually makes up a fairly small portion of the novel. Yes, most of the book focuses on Paul: his relationship with his dysfunctional family and his friends, with only occasional references to his restlessness and loss of interest in girls and growing fascination for Gary, at least in the first two-thirds of the book. The novel’s more of a character study, which builds up in the direction of Paul’s awakening sexuality. It’s in the last third of the book that we’re finally shown the growing relationship between the two young men.

The minor characters are limited in development. There’s enough there for us to have a pretty basic idea of who they are, but because a lot of them tease us with all sorts of interesting histories, complexities, and quirks, it won’t come as a surprise if we ultimately feel a bit let down because they’re not explored as deeply as perhaps they should be. Gary, especially, remains elusive despite Martin’s efforts at bringing him to life. There’s a certain untouchable quality in him that makes him, almost literally, an ideal that poor Paul can only dream of. That Paul renames him Gary (Gary’s real name is John) can be seen as a reflection of that, which to me is the saddest detail in the book.

The lack of polish in a sixteen-year-old writer’s first novel can be a bit off-putting at times, but the intensity of feeling and the crazy, sometimes disjointed fumbling around for answers work well in tandem with the absence of stylistic maturity.

Buy the book: Amazon, Amazon UK

Review: Finistère by Fritz Peters

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A lyrical gay coming-of-age story first published in 1951, acclaimed by many including Gore Vidal and The New York Times, about Matthew, a young American who moves to France with his mother following his parents’ divorce. In boarding school and on trips with his mother into the countryside, Matthew investigates his budding sexuality and complicated new relationships with trepidation and hardship until he is forced to confront finistère – land’s end – where the brutal truths of the world can be found.

Review by Hayden Thorne

Though the novel was published in the 1950s, the story takes place in the late 1920s. As a historical novel that’s also a coming-of-age story, it’s very much the classic problem novel of which we see a lot being published as Young Adult fiction. What we have in modern sophistication and cynicism becomes postwar America’s confining views about homosexuality, and that said, it comes as no surprise that Peters’s novel is a tragedy – the kind of pre-Stonewall fiction that some readers criticize or dismiss as self-hating and/or trashy.

On the whole, Finistère is both easy and difficult to read, the reasons lying largely in Peters’s narrative style. Given the delicacy of the subject – fifteen-year-old Matthew’s process of self-discovery, which involves a man who’s twice his age – Peters tackles it with a certain elegance and grace that adds color to the frank sensuality of Matthew’s relationship with Michel. The sex scenes are suggestive, not explicit, and even the slightest gesture, touch, or even kiss is beautifully erotic.

The characters’ complexities, particularly those facets of their natures that are shaped by their pasts, are subtly and skillfully drawn. The effects vary, of course, depending on the character and how Peters is able to develop him or her. Some minor characters – such as Edith, Matthew’s stepmother – are on the scene for a very limited span of time and yet are able to convey so much about themselves through mannerisms, dialogue, casual gestures, and simple interactions with others. There are those – such as Paul – who are there from start to finish and yet come across as unsatisfying and flat. In Paul’s case, Peters does try to say as much as he can about the man’s character, but in the end, it’s simply not enough. Paul, in fact, though adding texture and color to Peters’s impressive cast of characters, remains a problem for me. He’s simply too villainous, and while there’s an effort in the end to give him a more multi-dimensional quality, it’s simply too late in the story for him to rouse sympathy in me. To some extent, Peters’s efforts in developing him in the final chapters feel almost forced.

The greatest weakness in the book, I think, lies in Peters’s use of the third person omniscient POV. While readers are treated to close and in-depth looks at each character, the heavy dependence on so much telling, not as much showing, can take its toll. The book relies a lot on introspection and exposition, and being in a character’s head can last a few pages at a stretch. It’s during those moments when I feel myself slow down quite a bit in my reading. Despite the interest these scenes raise in me regarding a given character, they can be relentless and even repetitive. There are, in fact, scenes in which Michel ruminates about the same things that Matthew does in other scenes. There are also times in which situations that are shown in a previous chapter resurface in another, but this time it does so in the form of exposition, with the reader rehashing the same issue in, say, Scott’s head.

On the other hand, this omniscient POV also works to give the characters – pretty much all of them – varying degrees of complexity, which really adds to the dramatic texture of the plot. Most of them undergo a process of transformation, and some end up being revelations. It’s an effective approach to take in telling Matthew’s story, especially when one considers that Matthew, at fifteen, is the only youngster through most of the book. His innocence comes under fire from his environment, which is peopled with bitter, loving, pragmatic, misguided, selfish adults. The boy is alone through his ordeal, and the sympathy he rouses in his readers is sharp and strong. It’s quite easy to see Michael Bronski’s point in the book’s introduction when he says that Matthew, in his youth and innocence, becomes a metaphorical symbol of “the naturalness and the ingenuousness of homosexual desire.”

Michael Bronski’s lengthy introduction is a gem in itself, for it provides readers a fascinating mini-study of postwar gay fiction and, therefore, a historical context for the conception of Finistère and its successful reception. His discussion of post-Stonewall attitudes toward pre-Stonewall gay fiction is also significant, given the fact that most postwar gay novels are tragedies, conveying pessimistic views of homosexuality against the backdrop of past mores.

“While it is understandable that gay readers of the 1970s would reject these earlier novels in favor of a new wealth of literature that was being published by both mainstream and alternative publishing houses post-Stonewall, the rejection incurred emotional costs as well. Not admitting these novels into a growing canon of gay and lesbian literature meant that the gay reader of the 1970s did not allow himself access to the world view – and more importantly, the emotions and the psychological mind-set of homosexuals who had come before him…These new gay cultural norms were so set that they did not allow gay liberationists to take the time to understand the people or the cultures of the recent past. This lack of cultural empathy created a generational divide that was difficult for people on both sides.”

Well said, and that can certainly be applied to new generations of readers as well.

Buy the book: Amazon, Amazon UK

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