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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Here comes Holden: Further adventures in forgotten books

I hate reading books in the wrong order. I am a tidy girl who irons her bed sheets and has a neat sock drawer. I like things to be in their proper place and that includes books. Regular readers of this blog may recall my joy at discovering the work of Ursula Holden back in April when I reviewed her novel Unicorn Sisters. Well, drunk on discovery, reckless in pursuit of more, I ordered another of her little novels: Tin Toys on Amazon. It was a good read which I do not regret at all, but for anyone who may like to try it – it should be read before reading Unicorn Sisters. That’s right folks: there is, emerging from my Ursula Holden detective work, evidence of a trilogy of books, starting with Tin Toys then Unicorn Sisters and finally A Bubble Garden. So bare that in mind all ye who enter here.

Tin Toys is an odd and disquieting little book. It is the story of Ula – a little girl in the 1930s whose father has died, whose mother is woefully negligent and whose two older sisters have built a protective world for themselves, from which she is excluded. The household is riven with divisions of age and class and nationality and gender and for the most part, the segregation reinforces and breeds an atmosphere of dark loves and lonely prejudice. This is not a kind home in which to grow up and so it is no real shock that Ula herself is a peculiar child who struggles to connect with others. She is at once too cagey and also too candid.

When tragedy strikes the household Ula is packed off to Ireland and it is there that she will encounter the shock of cruelty and the web of deceptions and half truths that make up adult mores. Ula is a child and her judgement is both infant and flawed. She does not know whom to trust nor whom to love. She reaches out to several people but many of them will prove to be sorry friends. Maggie, the Irish cook/cleaner impresses Ula with her warmth and cosy tales of her homeland. Lucy, the child whom Ula meets at ballet class bewitches her with her wedgewood blue eyes and air of confidence. In Tin Toys, Ula learns the hard lesson of childhood; that adults can be as cruel and deluded and children.

It is the style and atmosphere of Tin Toys that really causes one to remember it. It is clipped and savage as a fairy tale. Things happen and they cannot be stopped or even explained. It is like all the world is locked into a fast train rattling who knows where with no hope of escape. Which brings me neatly to the front cover. The Methuen Modern Fiction paperback that I have is illustrated with Mark Gertler’s famous first world war painting Merry-Go-Round. The Merry-Go-Round is a frightening response to the mechanisation and horror of warfare in black, white and blood red. At first I thought it was an odd choice for the front cover of this book, but now I understand.

If pushed, I would have to say that Tin Toys did not quite have the emotional power of Unicorn Sisters, but it is still very good and they are so clearly from the same pen. Ula’s development is not necessarily an easy watch – but it is extremely well written and deserves not to be forgotten.

I have included a picture of the book and also (by popular acclamation!) pictures from our garden.


  1. The garden pictures are lovely - lucky you! I doubt anyone would want to admire pictures of my balcony.

    As you know, I read Unicorn Sisters on your recommendation and then Tin Toys; I also preferred Unicorn Sisters. But I didn't realise that there was a third - I shall seek it out.

  2. The pictures of your garden are lovely. The one thing I miss, now that I live in a flat, is a garden.

    I'd never heard of this set of books before, so thanks for drawing them to my attention.

  3. I've never heard of this either, sounds very, very intriguing. And I also like to read my books in order, so thank you for pointing this out! And great review, by the way.

  4. Rather shamefacedly, I'll have to admit to never having heard of Ursula Holden. Time to get me to a bookshop!

  5. I am going to dig out these books asap - I love Gertler's Merry-Go-Round and used to stand in front of it at the Tate Britain. I have a postcard of it that I have used as a bookmark for years so it is a little dog-eared.

  6. Your blogs make each book so tantalising. Having lived in Ireland, I must look for this one.

    Thank you for your reviews. You have a unique way of putting each book before us; much an offering of fruit, to savour.

  7. This does sounds good, Hannah... might even get past my aversion to books set in Ireland. (I don't know why I have this aversion, except they always seem to be about 'the troubles' or unkind nuns or poverty...)

  8. This book sounds harrowing, but also very interesting. I am going to have to check out this trio of books! Thanks, Hannah, for the excellent review and recommendations!

  9. This is a really good review. The book sounds quite intriguing and if I ever run across it, I'll give it, or the series, a try.

  10. I'm putting this one on my wishlist.

  11. I would love to read this series. It sounds great. I looked up the merry-go-round picture on the net. Creepy! Thanks for another great review!

  12. Thank you all so much for reading and commenting on the latest installment of the Holden adventure!

    Verity - i wouldn't be so sure about that Balcony - if your cakes are anything to go by I imagine that anything you are in charge of is quite beautiful. I am sorry - I had no idea when I opened Unicorn Sisters that it was part of a trilogy - I have confused myself and others.

    Spangle - you are welcome - and thank you for your comments on the garden. I can't claim credit for it, sadly.

    Chasingbawa - thank you so much!

    Tonia - I don't think that you are the only one - she is pretty unknown but undeservedly so...

    Bloomsbury Bell - it is such an erie image isn't it? I love his work. It is a shame that he died rather young.

    Aguja - gosh - thank you so much I am really touched... I will try to keep it up!

    Simon - erm - I won't say that this is entirely bereft of kitchen sink irish wailing of the sort you are referring to - but that is a minor element of the book and is more than made up for by the rest - so I think you would enjoy it and hope that you get a chance to give it a go.

    Zibilee - thank you so much and I hope that you enjoy...

    The Black Sheep - thank you so much and I do hope that you do!

    Bybee - good - it is very much worth a try

    Vaishnavi - it certainly is creepy. Hope that you enjoy the book.

    Happy reading one and all