‘The Magic Toyshop’ by Angela Carter

My rating: 4 stars

Originally published in 1967, The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter occasionally reads like a Victorian novel sprinkled with Ancient Greek mythology influences. As the story progresses, it’s impossible not to start drawing comparisons with the work of Charles Dickens. The book features children who became orphans, a haunting wedding dress, a Christmas day that is not as it should be, and people living in meagre conditions. However, it is also a coming-of-age novel that explores the sexual awakening of a young woman.

Fifteen-year-old Melanie is the main character in this novel. She has two younger siblings – Jonathon and Victoria. They are being looked after by their housekeeper, Mrs Rundle, since their parents are away in America. One day a telegram arrives. Their parents have died in an accident. While Jonathon and Victoria don’t seem to realise how their lives are about to change, Melanie feels that her entire world is falling apart. To make matters worse, she believes that there must be a connection between her having worn her mother’s wedding dress and the death of her parents. It haunts her.

Soon they learn that they are to live with their mother’s brother from then on. Uncle Philip, whom Melanie is only aware of thanks to a photo of her parents’ wedding, is a toymaker in London. It’s not him who is waiting for them at the train station, though. Instead, they are picked up by Finn and Francie, who are their aunt’s brothers. Continue reading

‘Mrs Dalloway’ by Virginia Woolf

My rating: 4 stars

Stream of consciousness is not always the most appealing of writing styles. When authors are not successful in captivating readers from the outset, our attention can irredeemably drift away. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf is a good example of how to employ such a challenging writing style to good effect. The third-person narration of the characters’ thoughts and interactions with those around them mirrors closely our intimate daily contemplations, while also painting an enthralling picture of London and its inhabitants.

On a warm day in the month of June, 52-year-old Clarissa Dalloway goes out to buy flowers. She is going to host a party that same night. When she returns home, she learns that her husband, Richard Dalloway, has been invited to lunch with Lady Bruton. That leads to a reflection on how she once fell in love with Sally Seton and on how she chose to marry her husband, with whom she has a daughter called Elizabeth, instead of Peter Walsh.

The book is not only about Mrs Dalloway, who is not as content as she once was. Something is missing in her life. It also focuses on what is happening around her, her friends and some of the people she crosses paths with, while she is concerned about her party. Peter Walsh, who was once in love with Clarissa and may well still be, has just returned from India. Septimus Warren Smith, who fought in the First World War, is showing worrying signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Their emotions come to life seemingly without effort and their gestures are easy to imagine, thanks to a precise choice of words, which are put together in sentences that play with rhythm. Continue reading

Mid-Year Freak Out Tag

The mid of the year is just around the corner, so this is the perfect time to start reflecting on our reading year. I’ve recently watched Lauren from the YouTube channel Lauren and the Books doing the Mid-year Freak Out Tag and decided to answer the questions as well, although, if everything goes according to plan, I’ll read more books in the second half of the year than in the first and, therefore, the best may well be still to come.

 

  1. Best book you have read so far this year

One by One in the Darkness by Deirdre Madden is probably the best book I’ve read this year so far. Through a story of a grieving family, it paints a picture of the Northern Irish society during the Troubles. As the book goes back and forth in time, the fascinating characters come to life.

 

  1. Best sequel you’ve read so far this year

I’ve only read one sequel so far – The Mad Ship by Robin Hobb. It is the second book in The Liveship Traders Trilogy, which is set in a world where the figureheads of ships become alive, because they are made of wood with magical properties. Continue reading

‘Memento Mori’ by Muriel Spark

My rating: 2 stars

The premise of Memento Mori by Muriel Spark can lead readers to expect an enthralling dark mystery. This is not the case, however. The book is most of all a tale about old age, the fear of dying, the inevitability of death, and how elderly people can have their concerns dismissed by society. If these matters are not without interest, the execution turned the story into a fragmented, dull and characterless book.

Seventy-nine-year-old Dame Lettie Colston has been receiving anonymous calls. When she lifts the receiver, the male caller only says “remember you must die”. After one of those occurrences, she calls her brother Godfrey. He decides to pick her up to stay at his home for a while. His wife Charmian was a well-regarded novelist. Although she suffers from dementia and her memory is failing her, she still has some moments of lucidity.

While attending the funeral of Lisa Brooke, Dame Lettie becomes convinced that Godfrey has to hire Mrs Pettigrew to look after Charmian. The only problem is that she is thought to be the beneficiary of Lisa’s will and, therefore, is probably not willing to continue to work. Soon they learn that Lisa Brooke had a secret husband, though. Since Mrs Pettigrew, who thinks herself exceedingly cunning, doesn’t inherit anything to her great displeasure, she ends up working at Godfrey and Charmian’s house. Continue reading

‘The Flight of the Falcon’ by Daphne du Maurier

My rating: 4 stars

Daphne du Maurier employed a variety of writing tones in The Flight of the Falcon, showing how versatile she could be. If the first chapters are characterised by a funny undertone, in the rest of the book the first-person narration assumes a much more introspective, mysterious and tense quality. As past and present start to mingle, the story becomes puzzling and even confusing at times. In order to keep a secret alive, one of the characters is not as explored as his backstory and mental state asked for.

Armino, the narrator of the novel, is a tour guide in Italy. He works for Sunshine Tours, a company that organises visits around the country. At the beginning of the book, he is with a group of English and American tourists in Rome. While at the hotel, one of the tourists invites him to his room. Although the narrator clearly refuses the offer, the man still slips a 10 thousand lire note into his hand trying to convince him. Armino decides to give the money to a woman they saw sleeping at the door of a church early on. When she holds his hand, he has a strange feeling and runs away.

The following day, a piece in the newspaper says that the same woman was killed and nothing was found in her possession besides a few coins. The moment he sees her body, Armino realises that the woman is Marta, who worked for his family when he was a child. That realisation makes him want to return to Ruffano, his hometown, a place he left with his mother when he was just eleven years old. Both his father, who was the superintendent of the town’s palace, and his brother Aldo died during the German occupation. Continue reading

‘The Enchanted April’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim

My rating: 4 stars

In the hands of other authors, The Enchanted April could have been a fiasco. Elizabeth Von Arnim, however, managed to turn a very simple plot into a pleasant book, whose most valuable asset is a subtle ironic tone. Set in a place that has almost magical properties, this is a story about the restoring power of holidays and how four women start to look at their lives differently after less than a month in Italy.

On a February afternoon, Mrs Wilkins was at a woman’s club reading a newspaper when an advertisement about a small medieval castle for rent during the month of April in Italy caught her attention. She started daydreaming about the possibility of going there. When she was about to leave the club, she saw Mrs Arbuthnot, whom she had never spoken to before, but whom she was aware of because of her work with the poor. She decided to speak with her about the advertisement, as she was also reading the newspaper, and try to convince her that they should rent the place. How wonderful would it be to spend some time there? It would improve their boring lives and they could be happy for a while.

Mrs Arbuthnot ended up agreeing on sending a letter asking for further details about the castle, although she tried to hide, even from herself, how keen she was to go to Italy. Their main interest was the price. As the rent was much higher than they expected, they decided to put an advertisement on the same newspaper to find other two companions. Lady Caroline and Mrs Fisher were the only two applicants for joining them. Continue reading

Favourite Books by Daphne du Maurier

The time has finally come to enjoy another Daphne du Maurier Reading Week, hosted by Ali. As I still haven’t managed to start reading my choice for this year, The Flight of the Falcon, nothing better than to share with you my favourite books by Daphne du Maurier. So far, I’ve read a total of nine books, including seven novels and two short story collections. They are: Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, The King’s General, Jamaica Inn, The House on the Strand, The Birds and Other Stories, The Scapegoat, Frenchman’s Creek and Don’t Look Now: Short Stories.

Are you curious to discover the four that I cherish the most?

 

Rebecca

The unnamed narrator of this astonishing book is a self-doubting young woman who marries Maxim de Winter after meeting him in Monte Carlo. She moves with him to Manderley, his family home, where her insecurities and doubts are greatly amplified. How can she ever be as perfect as his deceased first wife, Rebecca? The first novel I read by Daphne du Maurier remains my favourite. It is enthralling, enigmatic and atmospheric. The gripping mystery is perfectly accompanied by fleshed out characters. Continue reading

‘The Animals at Lockwood Manor’ by Jane Healey

My rating: 3 stars

Throughout the years, authors have been choosing to set their books in striking houses that hide secrets and disturb their new inhabitants. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë are only two remarkable examples. The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey is also set in an imposing house, but its characters are not as well crafted nor the pacing is as successful as they could have been. In fact, the gripping resolution asked for a much better structured novel overall.

The year is 1939. Hetty Cartwright, one of the first-person narrators, has been given the responsibility to keep the Natural History Museum’s mammal collection safe at Lockwood Manor, since the war is expected to ravage London. She studied Zoology at Oxford and her dream has always been working at a museum. She was adopted by a well-off family as a child, but close after her father’s death, her mother renounced her. When she arrives at the new address of her precious collection, she is greeted by Major Lord Lockwood, who is rude and arrogant, and soon after meets her daughter, Lucy, whose point of view readers are also presented with.

Lucy’s mother and grandmother died just a couple of months before, so she considers her responsibility to oversee the running of the manor. Its many empty rooms leave her uneasy, however. She recalls how her mother, who believed that she was being haunted by a woman in white, and later herself became plagued by nightmares. Her mother wished she had never gone living at Lockwood Manor. Hetty’s arrival gives her a new occupation, as she starts helping cleaning and dusting the animals. Later they have breakfast together and start forging a bond. Continue reading

Book Genres – Biggest Delights and Pet Peeves

The magical power of the written word can be found in a variety of book genres. Some of my favourites are literary fiction, fantasy, dystopian and historical fiction, but I also read other types of books. That doesn’t mean I like all the books within a specific genre, though. In fact, while some of their most common characteristics give me great joy, others are a source of great irritation. There are four book genres regarding which I can pinpoint my biggest delights and pet peeves.

 

Literary Fiction

Books that can be classified as literary fiction don’t usually shine because of their compelling and gripping plots. The characteristics that I find the most appealing about this genre are the importance placed on character development and the impactful prose. The writing style doesn’t have to be full of linguistic flourishes, but it has to help readers form an emotional attachment to the story, message and characters. Having said that, I love how some authors awe me with their lyrical prose as if stringing words together was a magic trick.

One characteristic that I don’t tend to like about some books in the literary fiction genre is their fragmentary nature. Books that are almost only a compilation of vignettes or snippets, when short scenes and descriptions are not well connected, usually annoy me. As almost everything in life, there are exceptions, though. I enjoyed Ema by Maria Teresa Horta and Lanny by Max Porter, for example, despite their more fragmentary prose and structure. Continue reading

Books to Read in a Weekend

The weekend is the perfect time to sit down, relax and spend a great couple of hours reading a book. If that book is shorter than 200 pages, it’s even possible to read it in full during only one weekend. Even if you are a content slow reader like me, who is not bothered anymore about not being able to read for many hours in a row, sometimes it just feels fulfilling to finish a book in two days. I haven’t managed to read many books in a single weekend, to be honest, but you could certainly read the following books in only two days (or even one).

 

Os Armários Vazios (Empty Wardrobes) by Maria Judite de Carvalho

When Dora Rosário’s husband died, she mourned him for 10 years. She couldn’t have anticipated how her outlook on life was about to change. Empty Wardrobes is a story about how three women let their lives be influenced by men. As it has an unreliable narrator, readers are forgiven for constantly questioning whether the characters actually acted in the way we are being told that they did.

 

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

A story about the decisions made by the women in the life of Chris Baldry, The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West features believable characters and various visual descriptions of the natural settings. After a long time without having news from Baldry, his wife and his cousin received the visit of Margaret Allington. She told them that he was in hospital with no memory of the last 15 years. Continue reading