I’ve started writing my next novel. At this point, I’m not sure I’ll continue with this storyline, but for now, I’m working on a possible prequel to Katie, Bar the Door that tells her mother’s story. Because it’s set further back in time (1939 to 1956), I’m having to do more research the way I did with my two historical novels. The other day, I was trying to figure out the process Marietta’s uncle would go through when he was inducted into the army during WWII. Lo and behold, I found this great little informative film.
Monthly Archives: October 2021
I’m a lifelong fan of old movies, so when I learned that Margaret Porter was writing a novel about Phyllis Fraser, Ginger Rogers’s cousin, I was eager to read the book and bought it soon after it was published. Phyllis, born Helen Nichols, was an Oklahoma City high school student when her cousin and aunt cooked up a plan to bring her to Hollywood and make her a star. I was intrigued because, although I’ve seen countless Ginger Rogers movies, I’d never heard of her younger cousin.
There’s a good reason for that. Although Phyllis finds fairly steady work as an actress because of her family connections, she doesn’t achieve anything like the status of her more-famous relative. Even so, her story is quite interesting. She becomes part of a group of “baby stars,” hopeful starlets being groomed by the studio yet struggling to break out of the pack. One of her closest friends was Anne Shirley, the former Dawn O’Day who changed her name to match that of the most famous character she portrayed. Anne pursues romance with a handsome actor as well as success on screen. Then there is Peg Entwistle, an ethereal English beauty who longs to return to to the Broadway stage and whose fate has become Hollywood legend (read the novel to find out why). Katharine Hepburn also wanders in and out of the story, first as a rival who feuds with Ginger Rogers and then as someone trying to shed her reputation as “box office poison.”
Phyllis is a refreshingly down-to-earth girl, called “Oklahoma wholesome” by one of her many suitors. Although she enjoys the Hollywood social scene, she has few illusions about the depth of her talent nor does she let any young man, no matter how charming, rush her into a relationship she’s not ready for. Before moving to Hollywood, she had non-acting career goals, and as she gradually learns that the lure of limelight has its limits, she must decide whether to continue pursuing acting or to try building a reputation in a completely different field.
Ginger Rogers and her mother Lela are strong presences in the novel. Lela, who had served in the Marines during World War I is a daunting personality who serves as her daughter’s manager and fights for Ginger’s career with relentless determination. Ginger—the ultimate quadruple threat, a massively talented performer who sings, dances, and acts in both comedy and drama—is ambitious and hard working. She’s less successful in her romantic life, as the novel makes abundantly clear.
The book is an enjoyable fast read, perfect for TCM subscribers and students of Hollywood history. The characters are well drawn and vidid. Phyllis herself is likable, and I found that the path she eventually chooses provides a satisfying ending to the novel.
Today, rather than reviewing one book, I’m going to talk about the Medicus series of historical mysteries by Ruth Downie, set in the Roman Empire in the second century of the common era. We first meet Gaius Petraius Ruso, a physician (or medicus) from Gaul, when he is assigned to a legion in Britannia. Ruso is a wry, unassuming man who just wants to earn a decent living to help out his family in Gaul, left in debt after his father dies, and to forget his failed marriage to a woman who had far more ambition than he does and regarded him with scorn for not rising faster in his career. He hopes working at a routine institutional job will give him the time he needs to focus on compiling a medical guide that will salvage his finances and reputation—as well as helping other physicians.
Life in Britannia quickly proves more complicated and dangerous than Ruso anticipates. His soft heart leads him to purchase a blonde slave girl with an unpronounceable British name from her abusive master with the intention of saving her severely injured arm. Thus we are introduced to the second main character, quickly rechristened Tilla.
When young women at a local bar near the military outpost start turning up dead, Ruso somehow ends up investigating the crimes. This in turn gives him a reputation as a detective that he dearly wants to disavow but which follows him throughout the course of the series, disrupting his plans to be just a good doctor.
As does Tilla, who evolves from a distrustful housekeeper with no domestic skills to Ruso’s partner in more ways than one. She views every injustice with sharp indignation, and she has a knack for annoying the authorities and going her own headstrong way, further injecting chaos into the life of the man she lives with.
The series meanders to Ruso’s family home in Gaul and even to imperial Rome but always seems to come back to Britannia, touring some of the ancient high spots such as Hadrian’s wall (then under construction) and Aquae Sulis (now known as Bath).
The stories are fast reads, and humor makes up a large part of every book. Downie’s use of eccentric characters to people her world reminds me a bit of Dickens. Some of the most memorable of those characters are recurring. Life in the ancient Roman empire is depicted in vivid but not overwhelming detail. Most importantly, by the time I reached the third or fourth book, I found myself missing Ruso and Tilla between reads. To me, that is always the sign of a good series.
Read the books in order to avoid confusion and to be able to follow the characters’ development:
Persona Non Grata
Prima Facie (a novella, rather than a novel)
This is like a cross between one of those early movie serials—all action and peril—and a historical novel set between the world wars. The heroine is a risk-taking, cigarette-smoking, whiskey-drinking, adventure-loving aviatrix who flees America after her father is killed, leaving her with a mountain of debt she can’t repay.
Her adventures take her to Africa, Spain, the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and aboard the Hindenburg on its fateful voyage—and along the way she encounters smugglers, art forgers, saboteurs, Nazis, and her family’s arch enemy.
Don’t expect a serious portrayal of the politics of Europe in the late 1930s. But if you’re in the mood for a fast-paced, fun romp on the order of Raiders of the Lost Ark, this is the book for you.