‘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

‘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

‘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

‘O Círculo Virtuoso’ by Maria Isabel Barreno

My rating: 3 stars

A collection of five short stories, O Círculo Virtuoso by Maria Isabel Barreno isn’t particularly memorable. The characters and storylines won’t be vivid in my mind for very long. Although it features a couple of auspicious moments, they leave an impression of unfulfilled potential, as they promise a type of narrative that is ultimately not achieved.

The first story in the collection, ‘O Diamante Roubado’, at first appears to be a crime mystery, but in fact it’s mostly about how writers will have to deal with failure sooner or later, which left me disappointed. Helena is one of those authors who sometimes struggles to write. Once, however, a story seems to come into her mind fully formed in a moment of glorious inspiration. The heroine of her story, which is part of the one we are reading, has the same name as her. In the story being written, Helena’s husband died close after the disappearance of a diamond from their house. The police are investigating.

Though ‘A Descida aos Infernos’, the following tale, features one of the same characters as the first, it doesn’t provide any answers. It is certainly philosophical, but not noteworthy. A speleologist encounters a man called Veloso in a cave. He is searching for Helena. Continue reading

‘One by One in the Darkness’ by Deirdre Madden

My rating: 4 stars

A grieving family is at the centre of One by One in the Darkness by Deirdre Madden, a book that paints an enlightening picture of Northern Irish society during the Troubles and leaves readers begging for more. The characters effortlessly come to life as the novel moves back and forth in time. The apparent normalcy of their daily lives is interspersed with moments of quiet, albeit raw, emotion. The final paragraphs are particularly harrowing.

In 1994, Cate is returning home to Northern Ireland with major news for her Catholic family. She works at a magazine in London and has two sisters – Helen, who is a solicitor specialised in terrorist cases, and Sally, a primary teacher. Their father was murdered a couple of years before. Since he was a Sinn Fein member, newspapers reported on his death almost as if it had been his fault.

Although all three sisters and their mother still haven’t overcome his death, it’s Helen who seems to be struggling the most. She is seeing David, a journalist whose father was also killed when he was on a van with an IRA member. Continue reading

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

My rating: 4 stars

Os Armários Vazios (Empty Wardrobes in the translation into English) by the Portuguese author Maria Judite de Carvalho seems to be a story about how three women let their lives be influenced by men. And “seem” is a precise and deliberate choice of verb, because the novella has an unreliable, albeit interesting, narrator, who makes readers question whether the characters actually acted in the way she is telling us they did.

When Dora Rosário’s husband died, she had to overcome many financial and emotional problems. It was only when her friend Gabriela got her a job at an antique shop that she managed to turn her life around and send her daughter, Lisa, to a good school. For ten years, Dora mourned her husband, engulfed in great sadness. Contrary to Dora, her mother-in-law, Ana, didn’t lose the will to enjoy life. She, one day, tells Dora about something that happened in the past and that completely changes her daughter-in-law’s outlook on life.

The feelings of the characters are not explored in depth throughout the entirety of the book. Nevertheless, at the specific moments that the focus is on their most intimate tribulations, the emotions are palpable. Dora’s grief at the beginning of the tale and her relationship with her daughter are believably portrayed. Lisa is very perceptive for her age, a characteristic Dora appears to find uncomfortable. Continue reading

‘The Glass Hotel’ by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 4 stars

The cast of characters in The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel is vast. Almost all of them have one thing in common – they have met Jonathan Alkaitis at some point in time, which irreversibly changed their lives. The story is told from various points of view and goes back and forward in time, similar to Station Eleven. Although the narration is initially not thorough enough, the novel becomes consistently more enveloping and gripping, as the characters dwell on their tribulations and their connection with one another is established.

In 1999, Paul was at the University of Toronto studying Finance. He would have preferred to major in musical composition, but after several years in rehab, his mother wanted him to study for a degree that offered more prospects. He once met a group of people in a band at a dance club. He was smitten by the young woman in the group, Annika, and offered them some pills. The heart of one of them, Charlie, stopped and he died on the dance floor. That still haunted Paul.

Sometime after, Paul decided to go look for his half-sister, Vincent. Her mother had died when she was 13 years old, reason why she went to live with their aunt for a few years. He didn’t hate her. However, he felt some resentment, since their father had left his mother shortly before Vincent was born. Continue reading