Breakfast with the Borgias Review (2014)

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Invoke the name Hammer, and a glut of bubbling, misty images conjure forth: spired castles crumbling in the fog, fanged beasts, patchwork monsters, and – perhaps if you’re a little more intimate with the legendary English motion picture house – apocalyptic sci fi visions, buxom cave girls, and Hitchcock-lite thrillers. Mostly, though, the name suggests scares. Sadly, despite bearing the iconic Hammer logo on the spine, Breakfast with the Borgias brings little-to-none of those sorts of gut-churning treats to dine on, though Booker Prize winner DBC Pierre brings some other delectables to the table that are perhaps more of the brain food variety.

Ariel Panek, doctor of computer science, artificial intelligence expert, is on his way to a conference. When bad weather intervenes, Panek’s plane is grounded and he finds himself stuck in rural England with nary a net connection to be found. Surrounded by the strange characters at The Cliffs Hotel who seem to want nothing more than to pester and torment Ariel – not to mention confound his perception of intelligence and interaction – Ariel attempts to escape, and stay sane in the process.

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Given the dust jacket blurb: Marooned in an isolated guesthouse on the Suffolk coast, an American academic becomes trapped in an insidious web of other people’s secrets and lies as he realizes that hell is other people…, readers who are passingly familiar with Sartre will be unsurprised to learn that DBC Pierre’s entry into the literary branch of Hammer’s library is existential at heart. From the moment he checks in to The Cliffs, Ariel is challenged by a bizarre family and, contrary to the world of tightly controlled academia and Von Neumann computing machines, a reality that runs hot with emotion rather than the cold predictability of logic. Conversations brim with hints and sideswipes rather than directness, dark secrets are occluded just beneath the surface, and interactions and behaviors are governed by systems that are constructed purely by the connections between unique personalities that fear change. Pierre seems to delight in word play, with many names standing in as signposts to guide the reader through concepts central to the novel –  all good fun, but outside of some reality-bending existential confusion, there are no real frights to be had here.

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Comedic, acerbic, and spiced lightly with the spectral, Breakfast with the Borgias is both tense and fun, but it won’t please those looking for a date with the shocking, monstrous side of Hammer. Well worth reading for those who like the literary and philosophical with one foot in the genre graveyard.

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