Review: The Magic Toyshop

Short post today, I have so much reading to do (uni, but still fun), I can’t seem to concentrate on one book enough to write down my thoughts in a manner that will make sense to people not in my head. So apologies for my ramblings but since I am reading Virago books for Virago Reading Week I still wanted to share.

Angela Carter’s works have been on my radar for ages but so far I’ve always chickened out of actually reading anything by her. But this is a new year and I’ve recently gotten over my intimidation of Rushdie, so when I saw that Rachel and Carolyn are hosting a Virago Reading Week, it seemed like the perfect occasion to delve into Carter’s world.

Starting a book with a lot of preconceived notions is nearly always a problem, but I’m happy to say that I was not disappointed. The Magic Toyshop is completely amazing though not nearly as disturbing or weird as I expected. It’s foremost a coming of age story, namely that of 15-year-old Melanie who discovers and relishes in her newfound sexuality. However, when she and her siblings are suddenly orphaned, Melanie is confronted with the darker side of human interactions and sexuality. While she is at home, Melanie is free to explore her sexuality (going as far as to perform in front of a mirror), but when she and her siblings move to their uncle’s place in south London, she and her body seem to become something of a territory to be explored and conquered by men. There is Finn, whom she is both repelled by and attracted to, and of course her uncle who tries to exert control over her by deciding over her clothes, her speech and finally by trying to re-enacting Leda and the Swan.

The use of speech in this novel is certainly interesting. Uncle Philip uses it as a means of control; Melanie is told only to speak when addressed directly, and her aunt  has fled or been suppressed into speechlessness and has to use writing as a means of communication. The uncle does seem to prefer his family to be as silent as his puppets and suppressing their speech is one way of putting strings on his family. Uncle Philip’s love for his puppets is pretty creepy, as are the puppets. And I don’t know how weird that makes me, but I really expected there to be more to them (like being murdered people made into puppets. Should probably stop reading Joyce Carol Oates’ short stories).

What I also loved was Carter’s ability to create such atmospheric prose. It’s nearly lyrical in places but never too flowery or merely decorative. Are all her novels like that? I read that this was one of her earlier works, so I really want to see what she went on to achieve. The Magic Toyshop is amazing, but I think that aspects of power relations, gender and those dark and twisty instances of magical realism could be more pronounced.

For my second Virago read this week I chose Mad, Bad and Sad which is great so far. I’m happy I read The Female Malady last year, so now I can compare how Appignanesi and Showalter approach the subject (and I can nod knowledgeably when names and theories I’m familiar with pop up 😉 ).

What are you reading this week?

 

Other thoughts:

Things Mean A Lot

Verity’s Virago Venture

Another Cookie Crumbles

Lovely Trees Reads

 

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!

The Read-A-Myth Reading Challenge

Jo at Bibliojunkie and I are hosting The Read A Myth Reading Challenge 2011 (January 1 till December 31) and I’m very excited about it. Myths are how story-telling started and with this challenge we want to re-discover the classic myths and folklore tales and explore how they are represented and re-invented in contemporary literature. We hope that you’ll join us in reading the myths! Once you start looking at books to check if they could fit this challenge, you’ll see that there are so many that cover myths or rework them (remember Shaw’s Pygmalion?), and that this might also be the chance to explore myths from other countries and cultures. To give you an idea, take a look at the Canongate myth series, which would fit this challenge perfectly

 

You’re also welcome to cross-post with other challenges, rereads are welcome, and you do not need to have a list ready to sign up. These are the challenge levels (you’re welcome to level up anytime):

Level 1 Athena: That’s a Myth!
Read any two (2) books about myths.

Level 2 Erlang Chen: Demystify the Myth!
Read any four (4) books about myths.

Level 3 Mimir: World Myth!
Read any 6 books from the myth series must covers 2 different countries, including any one from the following list:

  • non-fiction book on the study of mythology (figure), or
  • Karen Armstrong’s A short history of myth, or
  • The original text of myth (many to choose from the Greek Mythology)

Level 4 Ogma: The God of all Myths!
Mix and match of any 8 books from the myth series or any mythology books, with the following conditions:

  • Must cover more than 3 countries.
  • Must contain at least 1 non-fiction book on mythology study.

I hope this sounds interesting enough that you’ll give our challenge a try. You won’t be hit by lightning if you don’t complete your level, though there are bookish prizes for those who make it 🙂 I love reading about the myths, especially how creatively some authors re-tell them, but somehow never got around to it (because there are so many other interesting books). But hosting this challenge seemed like the push I needed, and maybe that’s how others feel as well!?

For more info about the challenge, buttons and to sign up, please visit the Read-A-Myth blog! I know we’ll have lots of fun with this challenge, and please spread the word! 🙂

Review: Cold Comfort Farm

“There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort”! No seriously, let me tell you how much fun Stella Gibbons´ satire of rural novels is.

Flora Poste, orphaned, well-educated and supposedly unfit for any work, decides to burden her extended family. Equipped with “The Higher Common Sense”, Flora sets out for Cold Comfort Farm. The gloomy, dingy place offers every caricature of rural drama: the mad woman in the attic (Aunt Ada  “I saw something nasty in the woodshed” Doom), a free spirit (appropriately named Elfine), the stick-in-the-mud (Ruben), the sexed-obsessed Seth, wallowing-in-misery Judith, hell-preaching Amos, and the cow-whisperer Adam. Far from abandoning all hope at the sight of them,  Flora decides to tidy up, and is soon introducing tea, civilization, order, and the twentieth century to her family.

For all the fun Gibbons pokes at the drama of romantic rural novels such as Thomas Hardy or Wuthering Heights, the characters come very much alive and are so much more than mere caricatures. I found myself developing an odd affection for their strange quirks and way of life. This is likely due to Gibbons´excellent writing (and you cannot miss the “best” of her passages, as she was kind enough to emphasize them with asterisks) and the fact that she makes her characters use accents and dialects, apparently fashioned after the Sussex variety. Except for a few terms, which even Flora cannot understand, this does not complicate the novel but rather adds a bit of realism. In contrast to this stands the futuristic setting of this book, at least that´s what the reader is told in the beginning. It´s hardly noticeable though and I actually kind of forgot all about it while reading. But if you do like that sort of thing, try to catch these futuristic instances and let me know about them 🙂

If you haven´t read Cold Comfort Farm yet, make sure to move it up your tbr pile, it´s such a gem. I don´t really know what else to say about this book, I don´t want to give away the conclusions of Flora´s meddling with her relatives´ fates. It does wrap up very tidily though, just the way Flora likes it 🙂 I can also highly recommend the film adaptation of 1995.

Cold Comfort Farm was published in 1932 and as such counts towards Nymeth´s 1930s Mini-Challenge.

Favorite passages:

“So, Flora mused, must Columbus have felt when the poor Indian fixed his solemn, unwavering gaze upon the great sailor´s face. For the first time a Starkadder looked upon a civilized being.” (49)

“She liked Victorian novels. They were the only kind of novel you could read while you were eating an apple.” (53)

“Mrs Starkadder was the Dominant Grandmother Theme, which was found in all typical novels of agricultural life (and sometimes in novels of urban life, too).” (57)

“It was curious that persons who lived what the novelists called a rich emotional life always seemed to be a bit slow on the uptake.  The most ordinary actions became, to such persons, entangled in complicated webs of apprehension and suspicion.” (67)

“[s]o Flora disregarded the raised eyebrows of her friend (who, like all loose-living persons, was extremely conventional).” (94)

“`there´ll be no butter in hell!´”. (98)

“Flora was desperately sleepy: she felt as though she were at one of Eugene O´Neill´s plays; that kind that goes on for hours and hours, until the R.S.P.C. Audiences batters the doors of the theatre in and insists on a tea interval” (178)

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I´ll add a link!

Review: The Weed That Strings the Hangman´s Bag

After having to wait much too long (I think I can finally empathize with those desperate Harry Potter fans) for the second installment in Alan Bradley´s Flavia series, I finally got my copy last weekend and practically devoured it. And yes, it´s just as perfect as the first book, if not better (the first book in a series I love is always special to me so the following books can really only be just as good 🙂 ).

Now for the plot: After having successfully solved the murder of the man in the cucumber patch, Flavia does not have to wait long for the next exciting thing to happen. The great puppeteer Rupert Porson comes to Bishop´s Lacey and is persuaded to give a show for the villagers. Unfortunately he has a deadly “rendevous with electricity” and Flavia has a front row seat. There is also the matter of his troubled assisstent Nialla, the unsolved death of a young boy, poisoned chocolates, sleeping pigs, a Bronte-loving pow, television, and Mad Meg.

Doesn´t it sounds fantastic already? Flavia is as precocious and macabre as usual, and again leaves the police stumped. What I loved about The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, among other things, is that we get to know a lot of the villagers better. There is of course Mrs. Mullet and her awful cooking but helpful gossip, the vicar and his wife, musical tearoom ladies, aunt Felicity and Mad Meg. Bradley really brings the village and its inhabitants, which are appropriately eccentric, to life. As the year is 1950 and one of the characters is a German prisoner of war, there is the reference to the war and its influence on people. I think this also helps bring out a great side of Flavia, especially when she runs into Dogger in his episodes.

The mystery is more complex than in the first book, this time I didn´t guess who did it, which is partly due to the connection of the recent murder of the puppeteer and the older death of a young boy. Of course guessing at the solution does not spoil the fun of these books!

So this book is another great favorite which I will no doubt be rereading soon. I actually started rereading the first book because  I didn´t want to leave Flavia´s world. Highly recommended, I don´t think any fan of the first book will not love the second installment just as much. In case you´re new to the Flavia series, it´s a fantastic cozy crime series that starts with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (which I reviewed here).

A few of my favorite passages:

`You wouldn´t happen to have a cigarette, would you? I´m dying for a smoke.´ I gave my head a rather idiotic shake. `Hmmh,´ she said. `You look like the kind of kid who might have.´ For the first time in my life, I was speechless.” (16)

On Beethoven´s The Fifth: “I remembered that the end of the thing, the allegro, was one of those times when Beethoven just couldn´t seem to find the `off´ switch. (. . .) It was like a bit of flypaper stuck to your finger that yo couldn´t shake off. The bloody thing clung to life like a limpet.” (49)

`You are unreliable, Flavia,´ he said. `Utterly unreliable.´ Of course I was! It was one of the things I loved most about myself.” (112)

Much of my life was given over to holding the oven door of the Aga as Mrs. M fed heaps of baking into its open maw. Hell, in Milton´s Paradise Lost, had nothing to compare with my drudgery.” (274)

This book also counts toward Jennifer´s Canadian Authors Challenge 2010.

Review: The Eyre Affair

We are so often told not to judge a book by its cover- but it often turns out great if you break a rule. Like that fateful day a couple of years ago when I picked up a bright red book because of the dodo on the cover. I reread The Eyre Affair yesterday, it was the perfect day to stay inside with a great book and a cup of hot tea. There are not a lot of bookworms who haven´t enjoyed Jasper Fforde´s Thursday Next series but since this is a bibliophilic book (see challenge here) I still get to review and rave about it!

Summary:

The scene: Great Britain circa 1985, but a Great Britain where literature has a prominent place in everyday life. For pennies, corner Will-Speak machines will quote Shakespeare; Richard III is performed with audience participation … la Rocky Horror and children swap Henry Fielding bubble-gum cards. In this world where high lit matters, Special Operative Thursday Next (literary detective) seeks to retrieve the stolen manuscript of Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit. The evil Acheron Hades has plans for it: after kidnapping Next’s mad-scientist uncle, Mycroft, and commandeering Mycroft’s invention, the Prose Portal, which enables people to cross into a literary text, he sends a minion into Chuzzlewit to seize and kill a minor character, thus forever changing the novel. Worse is to come. When the manuscript of Jane Eyre, Next’s favorite novel, disappears, and Jane herself is spirited out of the book, Next must pursue Hades inside Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece. (amazon)

The Eyre Affair has it all: science-fiction, crime, slapstick, drama, literaturary references, word-play, and much more. I think I loved everything about it and all the elements come together nicely in the end (or the rest of the series). The idea of a world in which literature has such a status that readers actually notice when a minor character goes missing and his death raises national outcry, that´s genius. Despite the tons of literary references the plot moves like an action movie with enough special effects to keep up with Star Wars. Apart from a wonderful brainy kick-ass heroine, the endless minor characters are equally fascinating: a time-travelling father, a “mad-scientist uncle”, an evil mastermind, the irreverent brother, a byronic her, etc.

This is a great first book of an amazing series, despite loving this one, my favorite is the third book, The Well of Lost Plots. The boundaries between reality and fiction are very soft in The Eyre Affair, but if you want to know what happens when they dissapear for one person and what really goes on inside the book world, give the other parts a try as well.

While I know most of you have read the Thursday Next series, have any of you ever tried Fforde´s Nursery Crime series? It´s a lot of fun in its own way!