A Virago Reads

because well behaved women rarely make good protagonists

Oh my God, Carol is almost here and it looks AMAZING

“Everything comes full circle, and when it happens I want you to imagine me there to greet you.”

Before I say anything, before I even open my big fat mouth, look at this. LOOK AT IT.

Is that or is that not the most beautiful thing you have ever seen? Those costumes. Those colours. Cate Blanchett. A period drama with lesbians. I must have been super good this year, because Carol is gonna be one hell of a Christmas present. Forget James bloomin’ Bond, this is the highlight of cinema for 2015. Not even Suffragette got me this excited.

But Grace! You say. This is a book blog! Why do we care about some crappy movie? Because, reader, this film is an adaptation of one of my favourite books of all time. And unlike when they filmed Inkheart (WHY, BRENDAN FRASER, WHY!?) this adaptation looks like it’s going to be a good one. It’s already had some killer reviews (including this awesome one from Autostraddle, the leading authority on all things lesbian), and the teaser trailer is so beautiful I have watched it about 15 times and it still makes me well up.

I just watched it again. I don’t think I can wait another 5 weeks, my head may explode.

Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name, Carol is the story of Therese, a young woman working in a department store over Christmas, who meets an older woman, Carol, buying a gift for her daughter. The two strike up an affair, but Carol’s rapidly deteriorating marriage becomes an obstacle. It’s hard to say anything else without major plot spoilers, but Highsmith’s talent for keeping the reader uncomfortable really comes into play, here. The book has the feel of the thrillers Highsmith is best known for, constantly driving you forwards, while showing you a romance between two women who found each other against all odds. Published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan in 1952, The Price of Salt, as Carol was originally called, sold over a million copies but, despite sales, Highsmith didn’t reveal her association with the novel until late in life because of its homosexual content. When I read it a few weeks ago, I absolutely adored it. The imagery is beautiful, and it is so wonderfully tense it keeps you on the edge of your seat right up until the last page. The ending is an interesting one considering the time that the novel was written, and homosexuality is treated without any suggestion of perversion or negativity, unlike many of the 1950s lesbian pulp novels which were its contemporaries, the problems they face coming from larger society rather than from within the women themselves. Highsmith is such a talented writer, it was always going to be awesome, and with a cast and crew this good I can’t imagine the film could go far wrong. BUT, only time will tell! Go, read the book. Mentally and emotionally prepare yourselves. I am off to watch the trailer on repeat and weep over the beauty of Cate Blanchett’s hair.

Carol is released in UK cinemas on the 27th of November 2015.

In other news, no post for the next couple of weeks as I am off graduating (screams into the abyss). I will return soon with more ramblings about books / book related doings / things that I’m excited about.

Image via Empire Online

Confession Time 2: Guilty Pleasures Edition

What’s that Grace? You were hideously unorganised this week and left everything to the last minute AGAIN, and now have less than an hour to write a blog post? How unusual. That’s not like you at all. Yes, I know leaving things to the last minute is how Caitlin Moran does it, but she’s cleverer than you and has much better hair. Let’s just get on with it, shall we?

Reader, we are gathered here today to talk about guilty pleasures. Or rather, one guilty pleasure in particular. I actually don’t have many. If I like something I tend to own it, get very excited about it, and go on about it endlessly until my girlfriend’s eyes glaze over. This happens quite a lot. But as a book seller, literature graduate, and literary fiction fan, this particular one is something that I tend not to talk about. I buy these books on my kindle and read them furtively on buses when no one is looking. My guilty pleasure is 1950’s lesbian pulp fiction. Specifically the work of Ann Bannon, lesbian pulp queen and all round awesome lady. The writing is bad (in a good way), the plots are melodramatic, and there is lots of sex and smouldering eye contact, and I absolutely Eat. That. Shit. Up.

Now, if I were being literary and pretentious, I could try to defend my love of lesbian pulp. I could say that historically they’re really interesting, providing an insight into the position of lesbians in post-war America at a time when being homosexual was still illegal, heavily stigmatised, and undoubtedly dangerous. It gives us a window into these women’s lives, the way in which they viewed themselves and their relationships. They are a piece of homosexual history. And yeah, this is all true, and very important, and yada yada yada. But we all know the real reason that dykes like me (and a large audience of straight men, for that matter) LOVE these books, even back when they had to be read super furtively and hidden under mattresses. Because they are FUN. I love Laura Landon and her unstable, tempestuous, and (later) abusive relationship with Beebo Brinker (get a load of that alliteration, guys). As someone who was just coming out at university, I loved reading about American college students falling in love with a sorority sister, the will-they-won’t-they of their relationship made even more tense by the social stigma and the risk of being expelled from school. They are great fun and my immediate go to if I want something that doesn’t require any kind of thought. Complicated, they are not, but interesting? Absolutely.

Because it’s true. They are a piece of history. The way in which homosexuality is talked about as something you can learn, something that is conditioned, but becomes inherent and impossible to change, is a far cry from the “Born This Way” attitude of many 21st century homosexuals. Laura’s close, almost idyllic, friendship with homosexual Jack provides comfort to him when male homosexuality is shown to always end in heartbreak: though homosexuality is not seen as an illness, the relationships are seen as less enduring than heterosexual love. It blights the life of Bannon’s characters, leaving them drinking heavily, alone, once they reach middle age and younger lovers lose interest. In true pulp fashion, passion can drive people to madness, and a definite feeling of violence boils just under the surface of much of Bannon’s work. It can be dark. It’s not all sex and sunshine and rainbows. But it’s not all negative, either. Homosexual love is portrayed as real, homosexuality is not seen as a disease, and very progressive ideas such as interracial relationships and homosexual parenting are addressed in the later books.

But let’s face it. We’re not really here for the history. We’re here for the smouldering eye contact, smoking butches, and the sex. So go fourth, faithful reader. Give Ann Bannon a go. For history. For science.

(and for lesbians)

The Grace Booker Prize: And the Winner is…

Ah, reader, it’s finally here. The day you have all been waiting for. I know you are SUPER excited. You’ve had this in your diary for weeks, you’ve been checking back anxiously all day to see if it’s up yet, you are all on the edge of your seats. I expect you’ve been all aflutter. It’s understandable (you can’t see, but I’m nodding my head sagely) for today, I announce the winner of the landmark literary event that is the Grace Booker Prize: my number one fiction book of the year so far. I shan’t keep it from you any longer.

And the winner is…


Asylum – Patrick McGrath


*applause, squealing, sounds of general excitement*

Yes! Ladies and gentlemen, my favourite fiction read of the year thus far is Asylum, a gothic and twisted story about the wife of a doctor at a mental institution who embarks on an affair with a long term patient. It is a wonderful book, brilliantly atmospheric and tense, that haunts you long after you’ve finished it. There’s also a pretty good film adaptation starring everyone’s favourite guy Gandalf *ahem* I mean, Ian McKellen. But the book is better. Obviously.

But Grace! I hear you cry. This is a feminist book blog! You only ever talk about books by women, who is this male infiltrator? I know, reader, I know. Looking back through my book journals I realised that I rarely read books by men. It’s not intentional, honest, it just usually turns out that way. Put it down to me being a man hater who always sides with the women on Come Dine with Me. But trust me, this book is a corker. Its portrayal of the position of women in 1950s Britain and the way that the mental health system was used to uphold patriarchal expectations of “natural” female behaviour (chastity, maternity, a love of cooking, all that shit) is absolutely fascinating, and would make an interesting comparison with The Bell Jar if I ever have the time/motivation/caffeine supply necessary to write it. So you can read this one without risking your feminist lit fan street cred (and I won’t tell them about the 10 year anniversary addition of Twilight you’ve got under the desk because WE ALL KNOW YOU’RE GONNA READ IT). The writing is fantastic, the story is gripping, the interplay between man/woman and patient/doctor roles gets all mixed up and turned around, and the narrator is so wonderfully creepy I can guarantee you will love it. If you love dark, twisted stories where everything goes wrong, that is. Mills and Boon this is not.

A big congratulations to the ACTUAL real life Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. The novel is also up for the Green Carnation Prize 2015, so best of luck to him.

Phew, all that excitement has quite exhausted me. Someone put the kettle on, I am in desperate need of tea.

Image via Google Books

5 Bookish Ways You Can Support Charity and Generally Do Some Good

It is a truth universally acknowledged that giving to charity is generally a pretty good thing. When you have a bit of spare money, you can part with it safe in the knowledge that it’s going to someone who really needs it (plus, you can bask in that fuzzy feeling you get when you know you’re doing something good, so it’s not totally altruistic). “But Grace!” you say. “Books must permeate every part of my life (obviously). Is there a way that I can give to charity and stay true to my bookish ways?” I am so glad you asked. Here are 5 ways you can incorporate your love of reading into your charitable doings. I google weird shit so you don’t have to.

Donate to a bookish charity!

This is probably the most obvious way to incorporate books into your charity contributions. There are loads of book centric charities you can support, working in the UK or abroad. Two notable ones are Book Trust ( who promote reading and education within the UK, and Book Aid International ( who send brand new books to communities in need all over the world.

Send books to prisons!

Prison libraries are often understocked and it can be hard for prisoners to access reading material or vital course books that they need to complete educational courses. Books are also a wonderful comfort and means of entertainment and escape, so their value shouldn’t be overlooked and for many they are a vital part of rehabilitation. There are rules and restrictions as to what material can and can’t be sent, and the format that books should be sent in (no hard covers, for example), so it may be worth doing some research before you send anything off. The website has lots of comprehensive information on donating to prisons, or you could donate money to Haven Distribution UK, a charity working to send prisoners the educational material they need since 1996.

Adopt a book at the British Library!

For a donation of £25 you could adopt a book at the British Library. You can choose from a list of classic titles, such as Jane Eyre and Little Women, and your donation will go towards conservation at the library. Plus, you get a book-jacket gift card. Win.

Take part in the Buy Books for Syria campaign!

Now, in the interest of full disclosure I do work for Waterstones, BUT even if I didn’t this is still a campaign worth getting behind. Waterstones have teamed up with Oxfam and a selection of well known authors (including personal favourites Neil Gaiman and our BELOVED Caitlin Moran) to donate 100% of the cover price of a range of books to Oxfam’s Syria crisis fund. These books will have a Buy Books for Syria sticker on the front and neither Waterstones nor the publisher will see a penny of the money, so it’s a really good way to give money to help refugees while feeding your love of literature. Oxfam also have several charity bookshops throughout the country, so keep an eye out for those.

Volunteer at your local library!

Unfortunately, due to hideous budget cuts and the removal of vital funding, many county libraries in the UK are relying on volunteers to keep their doors open. If you have time, volunteering at your local library could help keep these vital services going, and probably give you some fascinating stories to tell along the way.

So, reader, there you have it! Five bookish ways to do some good and earn you some extra karma points. Come back next week for the result of the Grace Booker Prize. I know you’re all on on the edge of your seats.

Reflections on Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman

Last night (or more accurately *ahem* early this morning) I finished Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, the memoir by the now notorious Piper Kerman, a middle class white woman who was incarcerated for smuggling a suitcase of drug money for her girlfriend ten years after the offence took place. Like many people, I was first introduced to Kerman’s story through the Netflix series of the same name, which I absolutely love, so when I saw the book during a trip to my local library (USE YOUR LIBRARIES, PEOPLE) I immediately picked it up. For those of you who are familiar with both the book and the show, you can imagine my surprise. Where the series is a complex ensemble drama about the entangled lives of a group of incarcerated women, Kerman’s memoir is a story of class inequality, a prison system that is ineffectual and unfeeling, and the amazing perseverance and solidarity of the women caught in the middle of it all.

At first, Kerman reminded me rather of Elizabeth Wurtzel. Also a blonde, middle class, American woman, Wurtzel rose to fame in 1994 after publishing her memoir Prozac Nation, chronicling her battle with depression in a way that read to many, including myself, as rather whiny and narcissistic. Now, I actually ended up quite enjoying Prozac Nation (which probably warrants a blog post all of its own), but for most of the book I was deeply annoyed by Wurtzel, and when I first began Orange is the New Black, I was concerned that Kerman was so wrapped up in how dreadful it was that the life of this ‘nice white lady’ had been destroyed (by her own actions, no less) that, as with Wurtzel, this self-pity would overshadow anything else in the novel. I am very glad to say that this is not the case. Although Kerman was, understandably, devastated that she was being sent to prison, what rapidly became apparent is that she is painfully aware of her own privilege compared to many of the women she was incarcerated with. She had a wonderful support network of dedicated friends and family on the outside, a reliable stream of money to buy her own goods (such as toiletries and actually edible food) from the commissary, a job and a home waiting for her when she was released, a fiancé who stood by her and visited every single week, and the money to employ a good lawyer in the first instance, meaning her sentence was significantly shorter than that of many women imprisoned for similar crimes. Also, she was white, educated, and engaged to a nice middle-class man. She is continuously questioned how a woman like her ended up in prison in the first place.

The inequality is what is really at the heart of this book: Kerman is rightfully outraged at the way in which ‘we have built revolving doors between our poorest communities and correctional facilities’, and that prison spectacularly fails at teaching these women the skills they need to break into mainstream society, when criminal and underground markets are all many of them have ever known. Daughters are imprisoned in the same institution to which their mothers were sent before them, often with sisters or cousins in similar facilities. And the revolving door turns.

Another thing that Kerman highlighted is the solidarity, love, and perseverance that the women in these institutions display. They make gifts for each other, celebrate together, comfort one another. They form their own families, their own support groups, and far from being a danger, Kerman portrays her fellow inmates as a constant source of love and sisterhood. It’s a far cry from the accepted narrative that your fellow prisoners will be the largest danger you will face in prison: the danger to these women comes from incompetent or bullying correctional officers (or COs), and from being caught in cycles of poverty, addiction, and poor education that prison does very little to rectify.

But where is Alex, I hear you cry! Where are the lesbians? Well, reader, I spent the whole book saying the same thing. I waited with baited breath for the moment when Nora, Alex’s real life counterpart, would come strutting into Danbury and sweep Piper off her feet. But, alas, it was not to be. Nora does make another appearance, but there is no affair, and there is certainly no sweeping. If you want gay ladies, I would stick with Sarah Waters. The lesbianism in this novel is there: Kerman is frank about the nature of her relationship with Nora, and there are several openly lesbian woman in the the prison, but there is no sex, and it is all handled in a very matter of fact manner, with no sensationalism or gratuitous sapphic dabbling. I was only a little disappointed. All in all, I found this an interesting and enjoyable read, more in the line of Girl, Interrupted than Cell Block H. If you want an educated exploration of the pitfalls of the US prison system and the women trying to overcome it, then definitely give it a go. Kerman’s narrative is amusing, warm, and nowhere near as irritating and self-involved as Piper Chapman can be. However, if you were looking for a Piper x Alex fix to fill the void after the end of OITNB season 3, you may just have to sit tight and wait for season 4.

Image via Piper Kerman

Confession Time

Okay, confession time. My name is Grace, and I am a pretty bad book collector. And not just any book collector, I’m one of THOSE book collectors. The kind where you find yourself buying yet another copy of a book you already own because it’s a DELUXE EDITION, GUYS, or has all new content from the author, or has a limited edition cover, or is a limited run reissue, or… well, the list goes on. My room is full of books. So full, it can be kind of hard to find room for anything else. And yet, I can’t stop myself from buying more. And I know quite a few of them are duplicates: I have three copies of Wuthering Heights, for example, and the same number of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Usually there’s a good reason for this (or at least that’s what I tell myself). With The Bloody Chamber, one copy is my old college paper back, lovingly (and heavily) annotated and beaten to a pulp. The next is a beautiful Folio Society hard back with slip cover, so you can see why I just HAD to have it. The last is the recent Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition released this year in commemoration of what would have been Carter’s 75th birthday. The cover was so gorgeous I nearly died.


I justify each duplicate to myself with increasingly convoluted excuses. Well, my Nan gave me that one so I can’t get rid of it. That one’s part of a set, so I’ve got to keep it. That one is a Waterstones exclusive edition with a new author introduction, so it’s practically a whole new book. I’m a sucker for a pretty cover, or new “previously unpublished” material, or anything numbered: basically, anything that isn’t your basic run of the mill paperback I will covet instantly. I fetishise books. To me, it’s as much about the object as what’s inside them. I’m not a big Susan Hill fan, but when a new hardback edition of The Woman in Black came into the bookshop where I work I seriously considered buying it because it was just so pretty. While I own an e-reader and completely recognise the practicality and beauty of being able to carry an entire library in your bag, not to mention how enabling they are for visibility impaired book lovers, I will never be fully converted. I would always rather have the physical object, rather go into a bookshop and be able to handle the books I’m buying. Imagine a world where you couldn’t go into a bookshop and just BROWSE. No thank you. I’m one of those weirdos who sniffs her books. Not to mention if I get one with good paper: I freaked out a woman sitting next to me on a delayed train out of London once by lovingly stroking the pages of the Oxford Classics edition of Tess of the D’Urbervilles because I suddenly realised how good the paper quality was. So smooth. So pretty.

Both my parents are book lovers. My father, whose eyesight is poor, is a total e-reader convert, but my mother rallies against them, believing firmly in the power and beauty of books as objects. She also worked as a bookseller years ago, and introduced me to all my favourite angry women: Fay Weldon, Angela Carter, Emily Brontë. We have always discussed books, picking them apart in detail, and sharing our ever growing collection of paperbacks, and her love of reading is, I believe, a massive part of why I love it so much. However, even she can’t understand my obsession with book collecting, my willingness to part with (relatively) large sums of money to buy books I already own because it’s a nice edition. My mother is a practical woman, more interested in the stories than what binds them. So I can’t blame this quirk on her. No, this is me, 100% my weird obsession. However, it’s not one I can see myself giving up any time soon. I’m off now. If you need me, I’ll be in Waterstones.

The Grace Booker Prize Shortlist: My Top 6 Reads of 2015 (so far!)

This week the Man Booker Prize for fiction shortlist was released. For those of you who have been living under a literary rock, the prize is awarded every year to the best original novel written in the English language, and for the last two years it has been opened up to writers from all over the world, so competition is tough. A big congratulations to this year’s finalists, but I think it’s time I introduce a far more exciting award into the literary calender. I am pleased to announce the Grace Booker Prize: where I choose my best book of the year and award the writer the glory of knowing that I have enjoyed their book more than anyone else’s. If I had their address I could send chocolate, but Caitlin Moran has issued me with a restraining order so that could be awkward. Where was I? Oh yes. So without further ado, my top six books of the year (so far!) are:

The Talented Mr Ripley – Patricia Highsmith

A wonderful book from the queen of suspense, The Talented Mr Ripley is the first book of Highsmith’s famous Ripley series. A brilliant read that keeps you hooked, desperate to know what Ripley will do next, and if he will get away with it all.

Asylum – Patrick McGrath

A dark read from gothic penman Patrick McGrath, Asylum is the story of an affair that goes horribly wrong. Obsessive lovers, deception, and unreliable narrators galore, this is a fantastic read that grips and chills until the very last page.

The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters

Made famous for her titillating debut Tipping the Velvet (which I LOVE), The Little Stranger is unusual for Waters in it’s lack of any obviously lesbian characters. However, don’t let that put you off. A country doctor is called to the house of one of the oldest families in the town, only to find that what is going on there may be more sinister than mere illness and hysteria. Water’s narrative style is a joy to read, as always, and the uncertainty and suspense makes this book a truly enthralling read.

The Custom of the Country – Edith Wharton

Published in 1913, this is the oldest novel on this list, but in many ways the most interesting. Wharton paints a fascinating, if jaded, picture of interwar America, where divorce, money grabbing, and greed is the norm, old social structures are falling, and nothing is sacred. The wonderfully named Undine Spragg is the anti-heroine we love to hate in this massively entertaining piece of social commentary.

The Cloning of Joanna May – Fay Weldon

I was lucky enough to hear Fay Weldon speak at The Chester Literature Festival while I was at university, and when asked which of her books was her favourite, this was the one she chose. Divorced socialite Joanna May was cloned without her knowledge thirty years ago during what she believed to be an abortion. Now, left by her controlling husband after an affair, the past catches up with her in this fascinating examination of the place of women in society, nature vs. nurture.

How To Build A Girl – Caitlin Moran

Oh Caitlin, how I adore you, with your DM boots and your black hair flying gracefully in the wind. I won’t recap this one, as I reviewed it a few weeks back which, if you are so inclined, you can read here. When you’re done with that, go see Half Girl Half Teacup’s awesome post, The C-Word, on why Caitlin Moran is the most awesome woman ever.

Now, none of these books were published this year, I know. Turns out, it’s September and I have yet to read one (ONE!) book published in 2015. Better get a move on! I will announce my winner the week of 13th of October, same as the actual prize, so check back then to see my top read of the year so far. I know you are all on the edge of your seats.

Review: The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

Publisher: Random House
Year: 2012
ISBN: 978-0-09-956183-5
No. of Pages: 224 

‘”I have sold my soul,” she said. “I have signed in blood.”’

As a literature loving Pagan lesbian (try saying that when you’re pissed), you can imagine how excited I was to stumble across The Daylight Gate. This novella is the latest offering from Jeanette Winterson and is a fictional account of the days leading up to the infamous Pendle Witch Trials, published in 2012 to commemorate the 400 year anniversary of the executions. Many, myself included, know the story of the little girl who testified against her own family and her neighbours, sending them all to the gallows for witchcraft, but Winterson’s take is a chilling retelling of political agendas, personal vendettas, and demonic pacts where it’s not just your life at stake, but your soul.

Jeanette Winterson, OBE, was born in Manchester but raised in Lancashire, where The Daylight Gate is based. She rose to fame with her first book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, in 1985, and has continued to enthral readers with her subsequent novels exploring themes of physicality, sexuality, and gender identity. Despite the prevalence of queer themes in her work, Winterson is not confined to the category of “lesbian writer” and has achieved popular recognition, winning several prizes including the Whitbread Prize for a first novel, the E. M. Forster award, and two Lambda Literary Awards, as well as her OBE for services to literature.

Winterson’s historical fiction is always interesting. As in her 1987 novel The Passion, Winterson is free and easy with historical accuracy in this novella, using the history as a setting, a background against which her characters stand. Winterson herself said that ‘The Passion isn’t an historical novel. It uses history as an invented space. The Passion is set in a world where the miraculous and the everyday collide’, and in many ways The Daylight Gate is the same. The characters are real historical figures, but Winterson has made them her own. She takes the accusations of devil worship and witchcraft levied at these women and uses it as fact, introducing a level of supernatural horror in addition to the gruesome physical abuse these women are seen to endure: rape, torture, and state sanctioned murder. However, the way that Winterson does this makes for an interesting and in many ways disappointing power dynamic in this novel. Contrary to witchcraft providing women with power and agency of their own, it is shown over the course of the story to be something that is bestowed on women by men (or male appearing characters. Whether or not they can be men if not human is up for debate). It’s hard to say much on the subject without huge plot spoilers, but the portrayal of women as the agents of male power was somewhat disappointing, especially considering the increasingly feminist (if occasionally trashy) portrayal of witches in recent years. However, I did love the division between the ceremonial magic and alchemy practised by Dr Dee and the folk magic of the Device family, and it isn’t at all true to say that the women of this novel aren’t powerful. However, it is Alice Nutter’s money that allows her her agency, not her knowledge of alchemy. And, of course, her fierce intelligence.

But really these criticisms are mere pet peeves: considering the setting, it’s amazing these women have any power at all. When it comes to how enjoyable the novel is to read, Winterson is brilliant as ever. Although I confess to being slightly disappointed with the very end of Christopher Southworth’s story, Alice Nutter’s was wonderful, and I ripped through this novella, finding it just as gripping as Winterson’s previous work. As always, Winterson’s prose was absolutely gorgeous: the short, blunt sentences highlighting the brutality of what is being described, and the storyline that emerges about Alice Nutter and the beautiful Elizabeth Southern was brilliantly handled. Winterson always handles queer sexuality without being heavy handed, and presents human relationships as fluid and natural. Her queer characters never feel tokenistic or gimmicky. She brilliantly captures the political climate of 1612 Lancashire: the paranoia and fear of the establishment, as well as a politician’s self-serving desire to get ahead, is encapsulated in Potts and his determination to both capture Southworth and expose the Pendle women as witches, whatever the cost. The Daylight Gate is a hugely enjoyable book, at times genuinely chilling, and a definite read for any one who, just as dusk is falling, feels they could believe in magic.

5 Lessons I Learned from Angela Carter

Angela Carter is a writer who tends to elicit strong responses from people. In my experience, she is literary Marmite: you either love her books with a burning passion, or you hate her writing and think that she should never have been allowed near a typewriter for the sanity of readers everywhere. However, when I picked up a copy of The Magic Toyshop at the tender age of 15, it started a love affair that has lasted my whole reading life to date, and Carter is nothing if not a fountain of (slightly… specialist) wisdom. So here are five lessons that I have learned from Angela Carter:

There are few problems in life that can’t be solved with the strategic use of sex

Sex is never just sex in a Carter novel: it is the most powerful weapon known to man, and it is often used accordingly. When it comes to getting what you want, whether that’s not being eaten by a wolf or attempting to force your niece to act in a play, in a book by Carter sex is generally the way to go about it.

Men are fundamentally beasts (but women love them anyway)

Men are animals in Carter novels. Sometimes literally. Okay, so they might have their bright moments, their scarily clever manipulative bastard moments, but they are slaves to their… baser urges. However, Carter’s women seem to recognise this and accept it, even like it, becoming a bit animal themselves in the process (‘The Tiger’s Bride’, anyone?). Carter’s romantic relationships are never straightforward and are often as multi-faceted and twisted as the characters themselves, but her men are always a bit on the beastly side.

If things first appear to be freaky and weird, you can safely assume they will turn out to be 15 times worse.

Carter has a talent for presenting you with a weird, twisted situation… and making it so much worse than you could have imagined before the book is out. Hidden bodies, incestuous siblings, literal and figurative monsters, men who are ‘hairy on the inside’: nothing is off limits. What we as readers can take away from this is if it looks bad at the outset, then turn tail and run, girl. Turn tail and run.

Just because a girl is young does not mean she isn’t fierce

Many a man has come to a sticky (ahem) end in a Carter novel for underestimating the strength and sometimes just downright duplicity of a teenage girl. Just because a girl’s young doesn’t mean you can just walk all over her, and even if you appear to be getting what you want, I’d watch out for what she’s doing when your back is turned…

‘If in doubt, freak ’em out’

Okay, okay, this isn’t actually Angela Carter, it’s Sharon Needles, but the same still applies. When you are looking at your short story the length of an A4 page and thinking ‘is necrophilia, incest, sadomasochism AND peadophelia too much?’ take Angela’s word for it that no, no it is not. Carter never shied away from using good old shock factor in her work, and it is all the better for it. There is something about the imagery of a cigar as ‘fat as a baby’s arm’ that just sticks. Trust me, you will traumatise A Level English students everywhere, but there will be at least one 16 year old girl in that class that will love you for it. The rest of them are weak.


So that’s it! Five lessons I have taken away from Carter novels. Take these words of wisdom and take them out into the world, but I accept no responsibility for any wolf men harmed in the process…

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