Book Review: The Toy Makers

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The Toy Makers

Written by Robert Dinsdale

480 pages

Published by Ebury Publishing/ Penguin RandomHouse UK

Publication date: 8th February 2018

Age range: 14+

Summary (from Goodreads):

Do you remember when you believed in magic?

The Emporium opens with the first frost of winter. It is the same every year. Across the city, when children wake to see ferns of white stretched across their windows, or walk to school to hear ice crackling underfoot, the whispers begin: the Emporium is open!

It is 1917, and London has spent years in the shadow of the First World War. In the heart of Mayfair, though, there is a place of hope. A place where children’s dreams can come true, where the impossible becomes possible – that place is Papa Jack’s Toy Emporium.

For years Papa Jack has created and sold his famous magical toys: hobby horses, patchwork dogs and bears that seem alive, toy boxes bigger on the inside than out, ‘instant trees’ that sprout from boxes, tin soldiers that can fight battles on their own. Now his sons, Kaspar and Emil, are just old enough to join the family trade. Into this family comes a young Cathy Wray – homeless and vulnerable. The Emporium takes her in, makes her one of its own. But Cathy is about to discover that while all toy shops are places of wonder, only one is truly magical…

Running away was not like it was in the stories.

People did not try and stop you. They did not give chase.

The thing people didn’t understand was that you had to decide what you were running away from.

Most of the time it wasn’t mothers or fathers or monsters or villains; most of the time you were running away from that little voice inside your head, the one telling you to stay where you are, that everything will turn out all right.

There are a hundred different clocks in the Emporium.

Some keep time with the comings and goings of London seasons. Others tick out of sync, counting down the hours of that faraway coastline the Godman brothers once called home. Still more keep erratic and uncontrollable times: one counts each third second backwards, the better to extend the time between chores; another elongates the evening, all the better to keep bedtime at bay.

These are the times that children keep, and which adults are forbidden from remembering.

Only a child could understand how one day might last an eternity, while another pass in the flicker of an eye.

Yes, Papa Jack’s Emporium is a place out of step with the world outside. Come here day or night and you will find a place marching to the beat of its own drum.

Listen and you might hear it, even now …

So happy to say that this not only lived up to all my expectations but exceeded them – a little slice of magic in magical realism done perfectly! I plan to reread this around Christmas as, despite the story taking place over decades, this would be a perfect festive read.

Cathy grabbed my heart from the first page, where she flees from an uncertain future to the city where anything could happen. The Emporium is like another character in the story, changing with the seasons, but a constant presence supporting the people who pass through its doors and find true magic. The tension between love and competitiveness between Kaspar and Emil is portrayed so perfectly and realistically, though I found Emil less sympathetic a character as the book continued with one decision he made later on seeming almost completely out of character for who he was in the first half of the book!)

A magical book, highly recommended – please read it!

There is a moment, before the end, when a man knows he cannot be saved. I have watched some go to it in a state of quiet awe, but that is not the story of most. Most men feel the encroaching dark and rage against it – but a man can no more fight that battle than light can battle shade.

In these hospital beds they hold themselves until they can hold themselves no longer; after that, they are men no more. They are like boys with a fever, wanting only to curl up beside Mama, with old blankets on their laps, and be sung to and told stories.

What better way for a man to go out than the way he came in? With the milk of mother’s love.

It was my papa who taught me how a toy must speak to a grown man, how it must fill him with the simplicity, again, of being a child.

Children come to the Emporium for adventure, but adults to be reminded that adventure was once possible, that once the world was as filled with magic as the imagination will allow.

What I liked: The magic, so much magic! I am often disappointed by magical realism books if the balance is (in my opinion) tilted too far towards the reality and not the magic. Yet, this book, got it just right with the realities of war and hardship being balanced perfectly with the sense of awe and wonder inspired by the Emporium

Even better if: I did struggle a bit with Emil ‘s decision near the end and the fact that he never came clean about it. While I could see him doing something like that in anger or on a whim, I couldn’t reconcile the fact that he never admitted what he had done in the face of all the sadness it caused.

How you could use it in your classroom: Despite this being marketed as an adult novel, there is nothing in this book which makes it unsuitable for a younger audience. I would recommend it for secondary pupils who have some knowledge of World War I and II as this book straddles the years of history with ease, yet touches on the trauma and turmoil caused by war.

(Thank you to Netgalley and Ebury Publishing/ Penguin RandomHouse UK for my e-ARC)

While you’re here, why not check out my reviews of Hold Back the Stars, Gilded Cage or I Wore My Blackest Hair?


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