Review: Poor Caroline, by Winifred Holtby

They had little use for truth, even though they paid lip service to it. Those facts which failed to support their own particular vision of the perfect world, they tacitly ignored They spoke of scientific research, meaning the exploration of phenomena advantageous to their cause. They inquired if  men or women were ‘sound,’ with the intention of discovering not their habitual rectitude or sanity, but the degree of their devotion to a particular point of view. … They sought to mould society according to some well-designed pattern of good, to impose their wills upon the shifting wills of men, their ideals upon the mobile framework of the universe.  (p. 126)

In her fourth novel, Winifred Holtby pokes fun at earnest souls who labor tirelessly for a cause.  In this case, the “cause” is the Christian Cinema Company, founded by Caroline Denton-Smyth to advocate for better morals in cinema, and produce “pure” films made in Britain.  Caroline is in her 70s, rather dotty, prone to wearing feathers and beads and viewing the world through her lorgnette.  She’s convinced the company’s success is just around the corner.  But the truth is, they are sorely lacking in funds, and without a single film to their name.  One of the board members is a scientist with a breakthrough film-making process, but he demands capital and Caroline is determined to raise it.  Her days are spent in the fruitless pursuit of funds, writing letters and speaking at women’s institute meetings.

The plot is rather sparse; its characters make this book a delight.  Holtby tells Caroline’s story, and that of the Christian Cinema Company, through the eyes of each board member in turn.  Holtby manages to draw each character as both an authentic person and a caricature. Basil Reginald Anthony St Denis is persuaded by his partner to give up his leisurely lifestyle to become the company’s chairman.  Joseph Isenbaum joins the board in hopes of making connections that will benefit his son.  Eleanor de la Roux is Caroline’s cousin. Recently arrived in London, she joins the board out of sympathy and because she needs something to do.  Hugh McAfee invented the “Tona Perfecta Film,” which threatened to revolutionize the industry until color techniques came along.  Roger Mortimer is a minister, and the object of Caroline’s affections.  And Clifton Johnson is a swindler and sole proprietor of the Anglo-American School of Scenario Writing.  Chapters devoted to each character provide context, fill in background details, and advance the storyline. They also portray other characters through new lenses, showing traits and motivation that had not emerged in their personal chapter.

Holtby’s earlier novels were more strident, beating the drum of social activism and causes she was personally committed to.  In Poor Caroline, her tongue is firmly in cheek.  She mines familiar philanthropic territory, satirizing the causes themselves while poking fun at human nature and our motivations for doing charitable work.  Anyone who has ever been involved in charitable fund-raising will enjoy her rich wit.

* FTC Disclosure: This e-book was sent to me by the US distributor, Independent Publishers Group, for review on my blog.


Review: The Winter Ghosts, by Kate Mosse

Let me see if I have this straight.  Freddie, a young man in his late 20s, never recovered from his brother’s death in World War I ten years earlier.  Recently released from a sanatorium, he goes motoring around France in search of … something.  He is suicidal one minute, inexplicably pulls himself together, and not much later is on the brink of despair again.  Then suddenly he’s caught in a blizzard and has a horrific car wreck in which he almost goes off a cliff.  He hits his head on the windshield, which shatters in his lap, and he’s left bleeding and unconscious.  But when he comes to, he dusts himself off and manages to walk several miles down a remote, unmarked path to a village and finds a room for the night.  A hot bath proves just the ticket, as Freddie is rejuvenated and feels his grief subside, seemingly for the first time since his brother’s death.  WHAT?

And that’s just the first 85 pages.  This book was completely improbable and poorly constructed.  Freddie’s grief was melodramatic and not at all convincing.  The beginning of the story should have been believable, but wasn’t.  The rest of the book was intended to be fanciful, but instead was predictable.  And the writing … ugh.  This advance review copy included the usual disclaimer:  in quoting from this book for reviews or any other purpose, please refer to the final printed book, as the author may make changes on these proofs before the book goes to press. But I can’t help myself.  The Winter Ghosts should be entered in the Bulwer-Lytton (“dark and stormy night”) fiction contest, for gems like this:

Ironically, in light of my parents’ antipathy to my penchant for reading it was a book that did it for me in the end”

Or perhaps this:

Then, one day, it happened.  The soldiers came for us.

[End of Chapter]

My heart hit my boots.

On a more positive note, this book was only 260 pages long and I was able to skim through it in about a day.  🙂

Review: Breaking Night, by Liz Murray

Talk about overcoming obstacles.  Liz Murray has done it.  Born to drug-addicted parents living in the Bronx, Liz was homeless at 15.  By that time she had already experienced life’s hard knocks in ways most of us could never imagine:  waiting up all night for her parents to come home from bars, watching them shoot up in the kitchen, having her belongings sold to buy drugs.  The family’s apartment was in poor condition to begin with, and her parents were unable to keep up with basic maintenance.  The bathtub drain was so backed up, the smell permeated the rest of the apartment.   By the time she turned 10, Liz was skipping school regularly, trying to earn her own money pumping gas or bagging groceries.

Liz’s mother left for another man, and Liz remained with her father.  When conditions forced him to move to a shelter, Liz entered the foster care system, living in a group home for a while.  She was then returned to her mother’s custody, but soon began skipping school again and eventually left home to live on her own.  She stayed the night with friends or slept on the subway.  She became involved in an unhealthy relationship, and stayed in it too long simply for the perceived security.  Shortly after her mother died from AIDS, Liz “hit bottom” and began working to get her own life together, attending an alternative high school and obtaining her degree in just two years.  She also obtained a prestigious New York Times scholarship that enabled her to pursue a university degree.

However, despite a compelling story, the writing was just average, and repetitive in parts.  Sometimes the emotions were raw and hit hard; at other times I failed to connect even when I felt I should.  Because it’s a true story, it was a difficult read.  I know there are thousands like Liz facing similarly extreme hardship, who will never be able to turn their lives around.  While Liz’s perseverance was amazing, what most impressed me was her ability to love, accept, and forgive those who wronged her.  There’s a lesson in that for all of us.

Review: Trespass, by Rose Tremain

In her latest book, Rose Tremain explores all facets of its one-word title:

trespass (noun)

1. Law

a. an unlawful act causing injury to the person, property, or rights of another, committed with force or violence, actual or implied.
b. a wrongful entry upon the lands of another.
c. the action to recover damages for such an injury.
2. an encroachment or intrusion.
3. an offense, sin, or wrong.

Trespass revolves around two brother/sister pairs.  Anthony Verey is an English antiques dealer whose business is failing.  To escape the stress he decides to visit his sister Veronica and her partner Kitty at their home in France.  The beautiful country setting inspires him to give up his business and relocate to a dream house in France.  He begins searching for the perfect house, and finds one in Aramon Lunel’s mas (farmstead).  Aramon inherited the property from his father, but has allowed it to fall into disrepair.  His sister Audrun lives in her own bungalow on adjacent land, and is less than pleased with Aramon’s desire to become rich by selling the mas.

But Anthony’s interest in the mas is only the most obvious trespass.  Tremain weaves a complex web of trespasses from parental abandonment to lovers’ quarrels to incest to violent crime, with disastrous cumulative effects.  The violent crime introduces a bit of mystery to the novel, but one that is pretty easy to figure out.  At first this annoyed me, but then I realized “whodunit” was not the point.  Rather, Tremain shows how childhood experiences shape the adult, and how trespasses — even minor ones — build over a lifetime, potentially into a pretty volatile brew.

This is a dark story, and with all that trespassing going on the characters are not particularly endearing.  But it makes for thought-provoking, worthwhile reading.