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Sunday Review: The Limits of Limelight by Margaret Porter

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.

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Sunday Review: The Medicus Series

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:

Medicus
Terra Incognita
Persona Non Grata
Caveat Emptor
Semper Fidelis
Tabula Raza
Vita Brevis
Prima Facie (a novella, rather than a novel)
Memento Mori

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Sunday Review: Chasing the Wind by C.C. Humphreys

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.

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Sunday Review: The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny

Although I am a longtime fan of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series, over the last few years I’ve felt less enthusiastic about some of the books. I know that it’s very hard to keep a series fresh, but the pivot to having several plots about massive conspiracies didn’t appeal to me as much as her earlier work. (Your mileage may vary.)

With this novel, I think Penny struck a better balance. First, it’s set back in Three Pines, so we get to catch up with the cast of eccentric characters there. Second, the issues she explores juxtapose a debate over policies that would have national significance with the moral cost to individuals of participating in or fighting against those policies. (I am being deliberately vague to avoid spoilers.) Several characters come face to face with shadowy things hidden in their own psychological depths—reasons for their behavior that they would prefer not to admit. This isn’t unusual in a Louise Penny novel, but I found these revelations particularly poignant. 

This is one series I strongly recommend reading in publication order. And I do still recommend it. Because of this latest installment, I am looking forward again to the next Gamache book. 

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Sunday Review: His Castilian Hawk by Anna Belfrage

This is the second novel I’ve read by Belfrage, and both have been highly enjoyable. A few weeks ago, I was going through a stressful period at work, so I wanted a book that would take me away from my worries. The description of this one intrigued me. I haven’t read many novels set during the reign of Edward I of England.

The opening chapters set up an unlikely marriage: bastard-born Robert FitzStephan, one of Edward’s soldiers, and Eleanor d’Outremer (Noor), a half-English, half-Spanish noblewoman who is left alone in the world after Robert kills her father and brother as they charge at the king without warning. To reward Robert’s loyalty, the king tells him to marry Eleanor and take possession of her lands. With such a complicated beginning, it’s no surprise that the marriage starts out poorly. Robert already has a beautiful bedmate, Edith, of many years duration, who is a good friend as well as lover. And initially, he’s not impressed with the smaller and quieter Noor, so he makes mistakes that wound her deeply.

However, beneath the quiet exterior, Noor is a complex, feisty character, and Robert is a man of principle who regrets hurting her. He eventually realizes that he must woo his wife and set Edith aside. Which is when the complications truly begin. The manipulative Edith has no intention of slinking away quietly now that Robert is a wealthy man. And Noor is related to the Welsh princes who are fighting a losing battle to keep Wales free of English domination. When one of those princes comes clandestinely to her castle to request a favor based on kinship ties—that she save his youngest child, whom he has kept secret from the world—she makes a difficult choice that puts her marriage in further peril by embroiling her and Robert in the cutthroat politics of the day.

The characters of both Robert and Noor have wonderful arcs, full of personal growth and change. The time period is fascinating. I appreciated learning more about the conflicts between England and Wales. This book was exactly what I wanted: a solid historical novel with just enough romance to spice it up. I look forward to the publication of its sequel, The Castilian Pomegranate.

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Review of Katie, Bar the Door by Windy City Reviews

I’m very pleased to share that my novel Katie, Bar the Door—which is coming out Wednesday, September 22—was just reviewed by Kelly Fumiko Weiss for Windy City Reviews. You can read the full review here.

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Sunday Review: Book Woman of Troublesome Creek

Kim Michele Richardson’s The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is a beautiful example of a historical novel that sheds light on a little-known aspect of American history. Frankly, I wish publishers would look for more stories like this instead of endlessly bringing out books about the world wars.

This story focuses on two aspects of Kentucky’s history: first, the pack horse librarians who at some danger to themselves carried books and magazines into some of the poorer regions of the Kentucky hills and, second, the blue people of Kentucky, whose unusual color was caused by a recessive genetic condition and which caused them to be discriminated against in much the same way Black citizens were.

Richardson herself is a native of Kentucky, and she conveys an especially strong sense of the place and culture. Cussy Mary is a likable narrator, spunky without being overly modern. Through Cussy’s father, the story also highlights the hardships of Kentucky coal miners.

The book has a satisfying but not too saccharine ending and an epilogue that explains more about the historical background. I enjoyed the novel very much.

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Sunday Review: Stalin’s Door by John St. Clair

Stalin’s Door by John St. Clair is the story of a family nearly destroyed by Stalin’s Great Terror, the purge by which the dictator imprisoned or executed not only his enemies but also anyone who, in his growing paranoia, he thought might become enemies. Zhenya, the daughter of the family, is the single thread running through the tale. Her father was a rising official awarded an apartment in the House on The Embankment in Moscow, a place where the Soviet elite lived in luxury that was unimaginable to most citizens. However, life there came with the terrible price of greater scrutiny by the secret police. Historically, a very high proportion of residents were dragged off, charged with treason, tortured, and killed or imprisoned. The author has created an almost surreally Kafkaesque scenario to explain why so many residents were disappeared—to borrow a term from Argentina’s dirty war. (I did search to see if the method of spying St. Clair describes was real but without success.) The novel follows Zhenya through the arrest of her parents and down the unexpected path she takes to and through the horrific Gulag system.

This project was an ambitious undertaking for a debut novel, and to a large extent, St. Clair pulls it off. The horrors inflicted by Stalin’s regime are vividly portrayed without gratuitous descriptions of brutality. The five main characters caught up in the story are sympathetic and distinctive. The themes of the novel remind me of The Lives of Others, the brilliant 2006 German film about the Stasi. There is also a touch of magical realism used effectively to enhance the story rather than distract from it.

I have two minor quibbles. I was hoping for an author’s note to explain what was real and what was fictional invention. If St. Clair ever issues a second edition, I think he should consider adding one. The second quibble is that the language was a bit stilted for my personal taste. I suspect this was intentional to evoke both the past and the foreignness of Russian culture. I’d have preferred a lighter hand with that technique, but it wasn’t enough of an issue to slow my reading.

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Sunday Review: The Fourteenth of September by Rita Dragonette

According to family lore, one of my older brothers had the wrong date on his birth certificate. The nuns wrote down the next date instead and refused to believe my mother when she pointed it out. Whether that story is true or not, I have long been intrigued by the idea that someone’s chances of dying in Vietnam might have been determined by a clerical error.

I kept remembering that as I listened to this novel. It doesn’t deal with such a mistake, but it does examine how the draft lottery was an arbitrary gamble that the government played with people’s lives. The book focuses on Judy Talton, a college sophomore in 1969 whose mother pressured her into enlisting in the army in exchange for college tuition and a nursing degree. But after her first year in the program, Judy begins to have qualms about the Vietnam War, so she embarks on a careful plan to determine exactly what she believes. Since only one other student on campus knows about her military commitment, she decides to “go undercover” and join a group of freaks (AKA hippies) who oppose the war and are increasingly vocal about it.

Judy quest to resolve her crisis of conscience is complicated by conflicts among various student groups, an attraction to one of the freak leaders, a friendship with a young man who shares the same birth date as hers (causing her to identify with his anxiety over the lottery), a trip to Washington to participate in the largest protest the government had ever seen (at least until then), the mounting tensions over the pending first draft lottery, the explosive news of the Kent State shootings, and the constant fear that either the army or her new friends will discover the double life she is leading.

I enjoyed the book. I’m 8-10 years younger than that generation, so I wasn’t very aware of the explosive events of 1969 at the time, and it was enlightening to live it through Judy’s perspective. There were times I felt that I wanted more descriptions of setting; the book was inside Judy’s head a lot of the time, and I could have done with more concrete details.

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Sunday Review: You Belong Here Now

Set in Montana in 1925, You Belong Here Now by Dianna Rostad is a beautiful story of relationships that bring healing. The “you” in the title refers to three young people who are sent from New York City on one of the orphan trains transporting children out west to be taken in by families and set to work on farms. Each of the three has been battered by life: Charles, a strapping young man who learned to get by on the violent streets after his father died in WWI and his mother took to the bottle; Patrick, an Irish immigrant orphaned by the Spanish flu epidemic; and Opal, a tiny, mostly silent, little girl taken from an abusive mother. In town after town, these three are picked over and rejected until they’re the only ones left. On their way to the last town on the line, they take desperate action and jump off the train rather than be sent back to New York.

Fate leads them to the Stewarts, a ranch family that is in many ways as scarred as they are. Nara, the unmarried daughter in her 30s, is a capable ranch hand and wants nothing so much as to be Papa’s righthand helper and heir—but he refuses to accept that the family’s only son has left permanently for the life of an artist in New York. And Mama, caretaker of everyone else, still nurses a deep wound inflicted by the death of her oldest daughter as a small child. Although the Stewarts desperately need help around the place, Nara doesn’t trust the children because of rumors about crimes committed by other train riders. Mama takes Opal under her wing, but Nara works the boys hard so they will be too tired to get into mischief. But trouble finds them anyway in the form of prejudice by the community, Children’s Aid Society officials looking for the runaways, and dangerous ghosts from the children’s past lives.

Rostad delivers the setting masterly, evoking the language, scenery, and customs of rural Montana with a deft touch. The story is heartwarming without being saccharine. None of the difficulties are glossed over, and each character’s growth is hard won. I recommend this debut novel highly.

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