The Magic Toyshop – Angela Carter

ISBN: 0860681904

This novel is dripping with barely repressed sensuality. Melanie, aged fifteen, longs to be a woman, and also longs to be a child again; this much is clear through Carter’s evocative prose. A surreal night time wander, swiftly followed by a family tragedy leads Melanie to find herself living in her Uncle’s toyshop with her brother and sister and two unconventional cousins.
This is a novel about between places. Melanie is between childhood and adulthood, between happy and sad, between one family and another. As always, Carter uses vivid images that at once inspire and startle. Here, images synonymous with childhood clash with those of adulthood in a way that is disturbing and, also, realistic particularly with her allusions to the literature of childhood. This reaches its peak at the end, when Melanie loses her childhood teddy bear forever.
Though not as plot-driven as some of her other work, this novel abounds with Magical Realism, and at times the Carnivalesque too. Carter weaves these elements together in a way that is spellbinding and captures the imagination, evoking memories from when we, too, were in those in-between places. She comments on human relationships and the solidarity and comfort that can be gleaned in the most peculiar of situations.
Rating: 8/10

Junk – Melvin Burgess

ISBN: 0140380191

This book is as addictive as its subject matter. Somewhat controversial, Junk is a novel aimed at teenagers that tells the truth about drugs, particularly heroin, the highs, the lows, the good, the bad, and the devastating, without being patronising or glib. As with most teen fiction, this is more than capable of speaking deeply to adults.
The split-viewpoint prose is canny, and we slip seamlessly behind the eyes of almost each character we come across. Burgess achieves this with poise, if not with subtlety, and the pace trots along with the speed of the young peoples’ lives.
At times, however, I found the teenage language a little forced and a little anachronistic with the time period (the mid 80s). Also, the varying characters increasingly address the reader directly, which is confusing and irritating.
This work speaks of freedom; its strengths and its limits. Burgess explores addiction in many forms and the weakness of human beings. What holds this novel together is love; its ability to liberate, to capture, to intoxicate and to heal.
Rating: 8/10

The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

ISBN: 0099588110

Cater’s prose in this selection is dark and heady like a large glass of red wine. Dense with sensuous imagery, this is a rich collection of stories that we want to go on and on. These are clever updates of classic fairy tales, which Carter, arguably, puts a feminist spin on.

Wrought with suspense, sometimes gore, and often terror, these stories are to be revelled in, they are so drenched in life. Though at first we wonder at the horror and sexuality that she adds to these tales, I think they highlight to us just how complex the stories of Grimm and Perrault truly are.

Perhaps, though, the ‘women coming out on top’ is a bit overdone. Moreover, for a collection of stories that are supposed to be new, Carter sticks surprisingly rigidly to Gothic convention.

Rating: 8/10

The Bonesetter’s Daughter – Amy Tan

ISBN: 0006550436

This is a powerful novel that speaks to us about family, memory and words themselves. Ruth’s mother, LuLing is getting old and Tan shows us how she copes with this as well as day-to-day family drama and her own somewhat dysfunctional relationship.
Yet the story is not as simple as that. As LuLing plunges into further confusion do to Alzheimers she begins to make strange claims about her family. But as Ruth has her mother’s memoirs translated from Chinese to English, she discovers much about her mother’s past and she begins to question many things.
The frame narrative of this book is beautiful, and with each layer we care more and more about the various characters. Tan writes with a lot of poise and charm that wraps us under its spell. I did find some passages a little slow, though, and I would have loved some descriptions of China in terms of the landscape and atmosphere.
Above all, this is a novel which explores the meanings of words, the spoken word, the written word, the individual word and collective words. Tan shows us that they have power, mystery and contain lost knowledge.
Rating: 7/10

Belinda – Maria Edgeworth

ISBN: 0199554684

Maria Edgeworth is an author who escaped my notice until quite recently. Reading her was like tasting chocolate for the first time! Naturally, I compared her to other Regency women writers: Edgeworth writes with all of the satire of Jane Austen and the darkness of Emily Bronte.

This novel follows Belinda through her first interactions with society as those around her try to steer her towards a husband. The most dominant character, though, is Lady Delacour, who is deliciously beastly –think Mrs. Bennet meets Mr. Woodhouse, through whom we encounter much of the medicine of the day.
Funny and plot-driven, this book tells us much of the contemporary society, not only in terms of medical practices, but also social experiments, trickery and the role and constraints of women, and how these were fought against.
This novel is satisfying and ahead of its time in both its style and its content. It really is a work of art.
Rating: 8/10

The Screwtape Letters – C. S. Lewis

ISBN: 0006280609

I found this book fascinating. Lewis delves into hell for his characters Screwtape, one of the Devil’s assistants, whose job is to stop people becoming Christians. The novel (for I would classify it as such) is presented as a succession of letters from Screwtape to his nephew, a younger, newer ‘demon’.

This is a really entertaining read, and immensely funny. It challenges preconceptions of how we view Christians and it makes us think about how our daily actions have much larger repercussions. Lewis presents each of our lives as a battleground between good and evil.

Despite the depth of this book, it is a lighter read than you would imagine. Lewis offers us a lot of hope and encouragement in a world that seems to be influenced by the Devil at every turn. Lewis highlights the futility of evil where a benevolent God is truly in control. A must-read no matter what your beliefs.

Rating: 9/10

The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde

ISBN: 034073356X

Literary humour sparkles through this novel that will make any book lover smile knowingly and feel proud that they have spotted the jokes. For me, this was the main attraction of the book, the constant allusions to other literature made me feel at home; reading this felt like browsing my own bookshelf on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

The eccentric characters are immensely likeable, if not entirely true to life. The bizarre happenings of the plot will keep you tripping through the pages even though you determined to stop for a cup of tea half an hour ago.
I felt that the voice of the narrator was overpoweringly male, though, considering the main character is a woman. I also felt that the tone suited that of an American detective novel, which I found slightly irritating. Also, considering the title directly mentions Jane Eyre, that novel doesn’t really come into the plot until near the end, which I was disappointed with.
This is a very clever book, though, and highly readable.
Rating: 7/10

The Castle of Otranto – Horace Walpole

ISBN: 0140437673

This is credited to being the first Gothic novel. I enjoyed the book, I found it immensely entertaining. Princes and princesses, knights, a castle with secret corridors and trapdoors galore, not to mention a creepy portrait and a more than slightly unusual family, this is the kind of thing that fantasy is made of. I can see why it sparked such a huge and successful genre.

However, I can’t help but feel that this is a caricature of a novel, a cardboard cut-out stage with two-dimensional characters. Walpole’s characters are stereotypes that don’t seem to show any emotion or even surprise. Realism is hardly the author’s aim, though, so perhaps this can be forgiven.

This is a novel that is to be laughed at rather than with, I’m afraid, despite its profound effect on literature as a whole. If you’re happy to do that, though, or to overlook the gaping plot flaws, it is a really enjoyable read. It is a must for any lover of fantasy or Gothic.

Rating: 5/10

The Host – Stephenie Meyer

ISBN: 9780751540642

I found this novel entertaining and challenging. I was surprised by the depth of this book; Meyer questions what it is to be human. This seems to be an increasingly common theme among novels, especially in fantasy and science fiction, but Meyer has an original take on it here.
Earth has been taken over by ‘souls’ and humans have almost been wiped out, being used as hosts for the ‘souls’. But Meyer explores what happens what part of the human host remains. She changes our perceptions of aliens and of our own behaviour, particularly in a colony-type setting.
I found this really thought provoking and very moving. Though this is science fiction above all else, there is still the swoon-rendering romance we’ve come to expect from Meyer. We become so attached to the characters in here that it becomes quite heartbreaking at times.
If you’re a Meyer sceptic, I would suggest reading this. She writes with poise and sincerity, and there isn’t a vampire in sight.
Rating: 7/10

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer – Patrick Suskind

ISBN: 0141041153

This is a fascinating novel that focuses on viewing the world through one’s nose. Where novels usually focus on what things look like, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the protagonist, has an unusually sharp sense of smell, and so experiences the world in this way. Suskind brings to life 18th century Paris through how it smells. I found this totally absorbing as well as (sometimes gruesomely) entertaining.

It’s a dark novel, to say the least, but the fleshiness of it is what gives it its spark. We get into the mind of a killer and we know what makes him tick. Somehow the murders don’t seem as important, to us the readers, as this smell that is at the forefront of Grenouille’s quest.

Suskind shows us how this world is to an outsider, and Grenouille is an outsider in every sense of the word. This is what makes him so good at what he does. How can a human with no smell fit in with humanity? How can one cling to one’s humaneness with that sense ever pervading your nostrils?

This is also a novel about power, in its different forms, and how far we will go to get it.

Rating: 8/10