Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Pilot's Wife by Anita Shreve

"The Pilot's Wife" is the story of a woman whose whole life is shattered when her husband, a pilot, dies in a crash. Rumors swirl incessantly around the disaster, some even believe the pilot may have crashed intentionally, in effect committing suicide and taking a plane full of people with him to his watery death.

Desperate to clear her husband's name, Kathryn Lyons embarks on an investigation of her own, only to have her world shatter again. She discovers that her happy marriage of 16 years has been built upon a foundation of lies. Each shocking reveleation leads her to question whether she ever truly knew the man she loved and shared her life with, the father of her only child, at all as each discovery puts even more distance than death already has between them. Death also prevents confrontation and asking him personally the crucial question: "Why?"

For many years, Jack Lyons had been leading a double life, a secret life, guilty of bigamy, with another wife and children in Ireland as a devout Catholic family man. This novel chronicles Kathryn's attempts to make sense of it all and glue her life back together in the aftermath of discovering that the love of her life was a lie.

This was a book that made me think and wonder, having known more than my fair share of human chameleons, why people sometimes choose to live a lie. Is the deception, taking advantage of another person's trust and love, a thrill that gives them an unmatchable high better than any drug? Or is it simply that such people are devoid of conscience? Do they find a special excitement in pulling the wool over the eyes of someone who cares for them? Or is that they just want to create and dwell in their own fantasy world regardless of who it might hurt? I have no answers for these questions, but the book did make me think. It is also a quick and fast-paced read, a good book for a day at the beach or to occupy the time while waiting in the dentist's office.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

An Inconvenient Wife by Megan Chance

This novel is set in Victorian-era New York, in 1884, it tells the story of Lucy Carleton, a high society wife struggling with her own desires, to be free to live life on her own terms and express herself artistically by painting. But Lucy is a woman against the world, her nouveau-riche husband, stern, unsympathetic father, and the upper-crust society she was born into frown on any deviations from a proper wife's well-defined role. She is expected to spend her life elegantly gowned attending society teas, dinner parties, balls, gala events, and the opera, playing the perfect hostess at home, and being a beautiful ornament her husband can be proud to call his own.
To cure Lucy of these "improper" desires and the accompanying physical and nervous manifestations of them (anxiety, depression, willfulness, neglect of social obligations, etc.) her husband forces her to see numerous doctors until she falls under the spell of a clever but controversial new physician who uses hypnotism in his practice.

Dr. Victor Seth holds out the promise of a cure, but he may have an ulterior motive of his own. And will that cure come in the form family and society expect? I won't spoil it for you.

"An Inconvenient Wife" offers a fascinating look at Victorian medicine and psychology, the often barbaric and inhumane treatments of nervous and psychological disorders, and the domestic and social oppressiveness of an era where even a well made and intentioned marriage could sometimes become a prison and a trap.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Olive Thomas The Life and Death of a Silent Film Beauty by Michelle Vogel

At the time of her death she was one of Hollywood's first and foremost stars, she was hailed as "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," adoring fans knew her as "Everybody's Sweetheart," and artists, including Alberto Vargas, vied to immortalize her likeness, she excelled at schoolgirl roles and baby vamps (devious dewy-eyed ingenues, the physical opposite of exotic, sultry, alluring sirens like Theda Bara), and was the first actress to portray that icon of the roaring 1920s--the flapper, yet today Olive Thomas is remembered for how she died, not how she lived, or for her films, most of which survive only in fragmented condition on decaying nitrate film.

Except for the tragic ending, her life story reads like a scenario for one for the rags to riches, poor little shopgirl makes good, roles that were a staple of Hollywood film fare. Born in the dingy coal-mining town of Charleroi, Pennsylvania in 1894, Olive grew up a poor girl dreaming of bright lights and big cities, particularly New York. She married at sixteen to get out; Pittsburgh was a step up the ladder, but not good enough, and when her marriage crumbled Olive quickly high-tailed it to New York. She worked as a shopgirl to pay her way and entered a beauty contest. With her abundant brown ringlets sheened with gold, melting violet-blue eyes, Olive Thomas looked like a porcelain doll, and no one was surprised when she won. She quickly became a popular artists' model, and from there it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to Broadway, and in 1915 she made her debut in the Ziegfeld Follies, sharing the same stage as The Dolly Sisters and Will Rogers, and the bed of that great glorifier of the American Girl, Florenz Ziegfeld himself. But she didn't stay in the Follies or his bed long as both Hollywood and romance soon beckoned.

Olive found her soulmate when Jack Pickford danced his way into her heart. Jack was the brother of that star of stars, "America's Sweetheart," the little girl with the golden curls, Mary Pickford. But Olive was determined to succeed on her own, she would never let it be said that she had traded on the Pickford name to become a star, and the couple kept their marriage a secret until Olive's star was secure in the Hollywood firmament. Olive made her way in the movies on the strength of her talent, vibrant personality, and beauty, but her in-laws never ceased to look down on her. Jack was the adored darling of his mother and big sister Mary, and in their eyes he could do no wrong, they always bailed him out of trouble (and with Jack there was always a lot of trouble), covered up for him, and made excuses for him; Jack learned early he could always depend on his sister to rescue and take care of him.

Despite her porcelain doll prettiness, Olive Thomas was no saint, she and Jack Pickford were two of a kind. Olive was a wild, kick up your heels party girl, who loved to dance, drank champagne as if it were water, a spendthrift who frittered her fortune away on luxuries like fancy clothes and fast cars that she and Jack invariably wrecked, and expensive jewelry she handled carelessly and often lost, including a $5,000 (approximately $45,000 in today's currency) diamond and sapphire bracelet. She once spent an entire week's worth of her generous movie star salary to buy her husband a dog. And Jack was equally, if not more extravagant and wild. He was a confirmed womanizer who didn't let the gold wedding band on his hand and his frequent declarations that Olive was the love of his life slow him down. He contracted syphilis a year after they were married and may even have passed the disease on to Olive. In Hollywood he was known as Mr. Syphilis and his entire adult life was spent in thrall to alcohol, heroin, and cocaine. The two fought as hard as they partied, endured lengthy separations because of their work, which led to tension, jealousy, and accusations of infidelity, then made up with lavish gifts and ardent expressions of love.

In 1920, amidst rumours of escalating fights and divorce lurking on the horizon, they embarked on a belated honeymoon to Paris. And here the mystery Olive is remembered for today begins.

On September 5, 1920 Olive and Jack set out on a tour of the nightclubs of Montmartre, including the notorious Cafe du Rat Mort (Dead Rat). There are some contradictory accounts of their movements that night and how much of it they spent together and whether they returned to their hotel, The Ritz, together or separately. Regardless of their itinerary, around 3:00 a.m. the exhausted, partied-out pair were back in their hotel room. According to Jack's version of events, he went straight to bed but Olive, claiming a headache and that she couldn't sleep, stayed up to write a letter to her mother. Around 4:00 a.m. Jack awoke briefly to complain that the desk lamp was bothering him and to urge Olive to take a sleeping pill (some accounts say aspirin) and come to bed, they had to get up early the next morning to make a flight to London. Olive went into the bathroom--whether she turned on the light or not is unknown--and a little while later there was a crash of a glass bottle hitting the tile floor and a scream. Olive had ingested a fatal dose of mercury bichloride, which was used to treat syphilis before penicillin came along (It was a common saying that one night in the arms of Venus led to a lifetime on Mercury). Jack bolted out of bed and rushed to his wife's side. He tried desperately to save her, calling for doctors, and while he waited for them to arrive he endeavored to flush the poison from Olive's system or at least counteract it by forcing eggs, milk, melted butter, and 12 to 15 glasses of water down her throat. But it was too late, there is no going back from mercury poisoning, and by diluting the poison Jack only prolonged Olive's agony. Olive vomited repeatedly, which resulted in the caustic poison burning her vocal chords so that she could never tell what truly happened, and causing such severe chemical burns to her face, neck, and throat that a closed casket funeral would be necessary. Olive lingered for almost a week in agony, going blind and deaf before acute nephritis ended her suffering. She died on September 10, 1920.

The mystery of what really happened that night endures to this day. Was Jack's version of the story true or was the accident not an accident at all? Was it in reality suicide or something more sinister? Was it, in fact, murder? The only thing we know is that we will never know for certain. Theories abound and all are fully discussed in Michelle Vogel's fascinating book, the first full-length biography of this almost forgotten star.

Despite its brevity, only 203 pages, though the book itself ends on page 144, the remaining pages consist of a filmography and index, this book offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of a silent screen star, a girl who spent her all too brief life in the fast lane with her foot slammed on the gas pedal, and died much too young, only a month shy of her 26th birthday and became enshrined in the annals of unsolved mysteries. There are numerous photographs, both portraits and film stills, paintings, posters, lobby cards, and advertisements throughout, including the beautiful erotic nude "Memories of Olive" by Alberto Vargas, and extensive quotes from magazines and newspapers of the day.

Olive Thomas, despite her wild child personality, was gifted with an inquisitive mind that sought and sucked up knowledge like a sponge. She often drove people to distraction asking "Why?" and "How?" She wanted to understand every aspect of moviemaking, both in front of and behind the camera, she had ambitions to direct and write; who knows what she might have achieved had she lived. It is a tragedy that the "Why?" and "How?" of her death should be her legacy instead of the golden talent she was blessed with. Perhaps this is why Olive's spirit cannot rest, her ghost is said to haunt the New Amsterdam Theatre where she once graced the stage. She is said to appear--forever the flirt, Olive usually only shows herself to men--in a green-beaded gown with a blue glass bottle (the one that contained the fatal dose of poison?) in her hand. She is also sometimes seen in the white and silver dress she was supposedly buried in with a champagne glass in her hand.

Jack Pickford spent the rest of his short life wallowing in grief, drugs, alcohol, and self-pity. He married twice more, both times to Ziegfeld Girls. First to Marilyn Miller, the golden-toed darling of musical comedy, and a martyr to sinus infections, which eventually took her life, then to Mary Mulhern, but both marriages ended in divorce, and in 1933, at age 36, Jack lost his battle with syphilis, drug and alcohol addiction, and died in the same hospital where Olive spent her last days. From his hospital bed he could see the window of the room where she had died.

It all goes to show that Beauty + Money + Fame don't equal happiness, and in Hollywood more movies end happily than the lives of their stars.

You can read my article about Olive Thomas at

Mirella Patzer Shines The Spotlight On The Confession of Piers Gaveston

Author Mirella Patzer will be doing a special three day feature on my novel "The Confession of Piers Gaveston" at on June 19, 20, and 21. It will include a new interview, as well as her review of my novel, and the first chapter.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Mozart's Wife by Juliet Waldron

This interesting and insightful novel gives Mozart's longsuffering wife, loyal, practical, loving Konstanze a voice and whisks readers back to 18th century Vienna to peer through the verbal window of Konstanze's words and witness what being married to lovable but selfish musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was like.

It is a story or trials, of constant ups and downs. Despite the perfection of his music, Mozart is a deeply flawed man; loveable and likable, and in some ways almost child-like, money flows through his fingers like water, and he spends far more than he earns. Just like a child, he insists upon instant gratification of all his wants and whims whether it be new silver shoe buckles or to keep a horse he cannot afford. And always there are bills, bills, and more bills; debts that he cannot pay, and more piling up all the time. When he has money, instead of settling his debts, he fritters it away, and he is a notorious soft touch for a loan. His shifting fortunes necessitate frequent changes of address, borrowing money, and pawning the gold snuffboxes and watches his patrons routinely reward him with. He absolutely refuses to be practical.

While Mozart spends his days giving lessons and trying to curry favor and commissions from the rich, Konstanze is left to her own devices, almost perpetually pregnant, a bored German hausfrau with endless piles of sewing and housekeeping to do. It is also her lot to deal with the endless procession of creditors who come knocking at the door. Mozart's nights are spent at concerts, parties, and the opera, sometimes with, but most often without, Konstanze at his side.

The novel also poignantly illustrates the achingly real perils of motherhood in the 18th century. Konstanze stoically endures numerous pregnancies, fully aware of the dangers that a woman faces in childbed, the knowledge that Death is never very far away, and also confronts the painful reality of infant mortality as, more than once, her children die.

Konstanze also endures her husband's dalliances and infatuations with various female students and opera singers, including her own sister the beautiful golden warbler Aloysia, a worldly prima donna with marital woes of her own. When Mozart protests his innocence, vowing that he loves only Konstanze, and hasn't really done anything wrong, she reluctantly lets the matter drop, even though she knows she should be more forceful and assertive, "but my poor heart still wanted so much to believe."

Konstanze also faces her own erotic temptations in the form of a handsome military officer, and her life doesn't end when Mozart's does. After his death, Konstanze becomes a professional widow, adept at always keeping the flame of Mozart's memory burning bright so that even though the composer is dead the music never dies, and earns a tidy sum to provide Konstanze with the comfortable existence her wayward husband could never give her when he was alive. She eventually marries again, this time to solid, dependable, reliable, Georg Nissen, a Danish diplomat and ardent admirer of Mozart's music.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, I've always found Mozart and his talent fascinating ever since I saw the movie "Amadeus" as a child, and I applaud author Juliet Waldron for bringing his beloved Stanzi out of the shadows and giving her a voice. Also, this is a story it would have been far too easy to romanticize and mythologize as one of the great love stories of history, kudos to the author for resisting that temptation and giving us Mozart and his wife as real human beings with all their flaws and foibles, and showing us the stark reality of their marriage instead of presenting it as a beautiful bed of roses. So, another round of applause for Juliet Waldron!

A wonderful director's cut of the movie "Amadeus" is also available on DVD

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Sixth Wife by Suzannah Dunn

Katherine Parr is a woman renowned for making everything all right. She is prudent, practical, dependable, and wise; everyone knows they can always count on Kate. So why after surviving four cantankerous and nerve-rattling years as the sixth and final wife of Henry VIII does she marry dashing, reckless, impetuous, ambitious charmer Thomas Seymour, a man the future Queen Elizabeth I would later eulogize as "a man of much wit but very little judgement"? That is the question the narrator of this novel, Katherine Parr's best friend Catherine, called Cathy, Duchess of Suffolk,(the widow of Charles Brandon, brother-in-law of the late king) often has cause to ponder. Perhaps it is simply because, as Kate says, "he makes me laugh."

At the time of their marriage Kate is the Dowager Queen, a wealthy widow in her mid-thirties, childless, and apparently barren after three fruitless marriages to men who had all previously fathered children. Thomas Seymour is a fine figure of a man at forty who has never married, the romantics might say he was simply waiting for Katherine, whilst others suspect he was waiting for Princess Elizabeth to reach marriageable age. But either way you look at it, whether a man marries a Dowager Queen or a princess the bride is both a trophy and a lucrative prize.

When Kate becomes ill, nothing can keep her best friend from rushing to her side. She is startled and amazed, and a little alarmed due to her age, to discover that she is pregnant. Cathy visits Kate whenever she can, and during these visits is disturbed by the familiarity Thomas displays towards Elizabeth now that the clever flame-haired princess has joined their household. Both the girl's governess, Mrs. Ashley, and Kate are inclined to laugh it off as innocent, harmless, and just good fun, but Cathy knows that when one is charged with the care and upbringing of a royal princess one can never be too cautious. Cathy also knows what Kate apparently does not, that before he married her Thomas had actively sought the Princess Elizabeth's hand; a fact that makes his attentions to her even more suspect and disturbing.

On the night of January 1, 1548, when they are celebrating the New Year at Sudeley Castle, Thomas makes advances to Cathy literally right behind his pregnant wife's back. As they are going through a door, Kate first, followed by Cathy, with Thomas last, he lifts Cathy's veil and presses a kiss onto the back of her neck, then he is gone before the shock and surprise even has time to fully penetrate Cathy's brain. As rage and disbelief bubble and boil within her, Cathy follows him into the darkened garden to confront him and instead finds herself, against her better judgement, succumbing to his charms.

Cathy finds it surprisingly easy to betray her best friend. She makes excuses and tries to justify her behavior as she lets herself fall under Thomas Seymour's spell. Both Thomas and Cathy take a "what she doesn't know won't hurt her" attitude about their affair and how it might affect Kate. Both declare their love for her and vow "over my dead body" will she ever find out about their dalliance. "This isn't about Kate," they rationalize, "this has nothing to do with Kate," then abandon themselves to a series of secret trysts.

As Kate's pregnancy progresses Thomas cannot resist the pull of his royal ambitions. He plots to buy the wardship of little Lady Jane Grey and marry her to the boy-king Edward VI, to place not only a home-grown Protestant queen on the throne of England but one who is also in his debt and power. And his attentions to Princess Elizabeth escalate until their early morning tickling games in her bedchamber become the subject of scandalized gossip. Suspicion at last takes tenacious root in Kate's mind until she can no longer laugh it off, but it also blinds her to the other betrayal--her husband and her best friend--going on behind her back and under her own roof.

While admittedly the distinctly modern dialogue is jarring in a novel set in Tudor England, given the personality of the narrator I think it works, and it may also attract readers who are sometimes put off reading historical fiction because of antiquated language. Catherine/Cathy, Duchess of Suffolk is a brash, blunt, outspoken, "modern" woman ahead of her time, so her speaking in the English of today doesn't necessarily strike a sour note. Ultimately, the individual reader must decide whether they like or loathe the style, but I think it is fair to say it was certainly a bold move on Suzannah Dunn's part. And, despite the controversy over this issue, the story of the queen who survived Henry VIII only to be betrayed by love is as fascinating as it is tragic. It is a cautionary tale that illustrates the sad truth that for as long as the world has been populated women have been falling in love with men they shouldn't; in matters of the heart not even royalty are exempt.