Sunday, November 29, 2009

Being Elizabeth by Barbara Taylor Bradford

This novel by bestselling author Barbara Taylor Bradford (A Woman of Substance) takes the always enthralling Tudor saga and transplants Elizabeth I to the 20th century as young, brilliant, auburn-haired, marriage-phobic Elizabeth Turner, heiress to Deravenels, an old and esteemed multi-million dollar corporate trading company. Her sister, the late but not lamented Mary Turner-Alvarez, (Mary Tudor) almost ran the company into the ground with a $75 million gift to her husband, Spanish tycoon Philip Alvarez, to use on his overly ambitious building projects. Now that Mary is dead, it is up to Elizabeth, aided by her loyal secretary Cecil Williams (Sir William Cecil), and her childhood friend and lover, Robert Dunley (Robert Dudley), to restore Deravenels to its former glory. Along the way she faces a life threatening illness, competition from rival claimant to the Deravenel-Turner fortune, Marie Stewart (Mary, Queen of Scots), a deluded none too bright Scottish-French mantrap, and rumors about the mysterious death of Robert's estranged wife, Amy Robson (Amy Robsart). But don't worry, there's a happy ending tacked on at the end.

While the premise sounds intriguing, it was enough to make me buy the book without a second thought, somehow, uprooted from 16th century Tudor England, it doesn't really work, the story loses some of its luster and magic. Another problem I had with this book was that every crisis that looms up, making the reader think "now we're getting somewhere" is settled easily, with little muss or fuss, usually within a few pages of first rearing its ugly head, so throughout the book one is left with the feeling of waiting for something to happen.

I find most novels with contemporary settings to be swift reads for me, but this one just seemed to drag. I kept looking at the page count and marveling at my lack of progress; at less than 350 pages I should have been able to fly through this book in a couple of days but instead found myself plodding through it for over a week wishing that either something really engaging would happen or that it would just end.

I really wanted to like this book, I applaud any new spin on the oft-told tale of the Tudors, but despite its clever concept this one was rather a dull and dreary read. I'm sorry to say that I honestly can't even recommend it as mind-cotton-candy happily-ever-after beach-read fluff.

Fear The Worst by Linwood Barclay

"Fear The Worst" is a gripping thriller about an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

Divorced used car salesman Tim Blake of Milford, Connecticut is delighted when his seventeen-year-old daughter Sydney comes to spend the summer with him. After an early morning tiff at the breakfast table, Tim tries to atone with a pizza for dinner, only to discover that his daughter is not working at the front desk of the Just Inn Time hotel as she claimed, and no one there has ever heard of her. So begins every parent's worst nightmare.

Sydney Blake seems to have fallen off the face of the earth and her mysterious disappearance seems destined for the cold case file. The drama escalates as Tim follows up on an Internet tip that his daughter has been seen in a Seattle teen shelter. A photo sent via email seems to prove the tip is legitimate and Tim races to Seattle to investigate. But when he arrives at the teen shelter he discovers that no one by the tipster's name works there or ever has and no one has ever seen his daughter. Frustrated and bewildered, Tim returns home to find his house trashed and cocaine hidden in his pillow and himself the subject of police suspicion.

The story becomes even more tangled and bizarre as Sydney's best friend, the promiscuous party girl Patty, also vanishes, Tim himself almost becomes an abduction and murder victim, the blood of a shady character known to deal in human trafficking, bringing illegal immigrants into the USA and hiring them out as his virtual slaves, is found in Sydney's abandoned car, and when Tim's kookie, self-absorbed on-and-off girlfriend Kate is found dead with a gunshot wound to the head in Tim's house, the spotlight of suspicion is taken off finding Sydney Blake and fixed glaringly on her father. And Tim finds himself running a race against time, to find his daughter before he is arrested.

"Fear The Worst" is a gripping edge-of-your seat thriller and I hope to read more of Mr. Barclay's books in the future.

Unmasked The Final Years of Michael Jackson by Ian Halperin

Sometimes I surprise myself. This wasn't a book I expected to read as I have never been much of a Michael Jackson fan, though I have liked the occasional song over the years, but when I found myself in a busy optometrist's waiting room waiting for my father to have his glasses adjusted, and me without a book to read, I nipped over to the nearest store, and this was the most enticing volume on the rack.

The stories that have swirled around Michael Jackson over the years have always reminded me of something straight out of a carnival sideshow. I can't say how much is fact and fiction, hyperbole and sensationalism dreamed up by journalists in need of a tabloid tall tale to sell more papers, and outright lies or muddied truths told by disgruntled employees, discarded friends, and extortionists, all I can say is that Michael Jackson was a man who marched to his own drum, even if that meant marching right off the edge of a cliff.

Although the truth is murky, the evidence, as presented by Ian Halperin, tends to suggest that Michael Jackson was innocent of the child molestation charges that have dogged him for so many years. Mr. Halperin makes a good case for this in his book, though in my personal opinion we will never know for sure; a disturbing niggling doubt will always cling to Mr. Jackson's reputation. However, even after putting these highly distressing episodes behind him, Michael Jackson continued to put himself in a position that both courted and supported the widespread suspicions of guilt; leading many to conclude that there is no smoke without fire. He may very well have been an innocent child-like man, a Peter Pan trapped in an adult male's body, but in a world peopled with predators and monsters who prey on children it is hard to see a middle-aged man having sleepovers with little boys as entirely innocent, pure, and wholesome; and that is the only genuine truth I fear that we can glean out of these murky waters.

Mr. Halperin's book also presents some interesting theories about the role the cult of Scientology may have played in the marriage between Lisa Marie Presley and Michael Jackson, and also offers some evidence, supposedly obtained from former lovers, of Jackson's alleged homosexuality. He also claims Jackson's health in his final years was worse than the general public suspected, and that he suffered from a debilitating genetic lung disease known as Alpha-1.

Although this book was updated after Michael Jackson's death, it went to press before the autopsy results became known, and there is no mention of the role the surgical sedative Diprivan may have played in his demise. Instead, Mr. Halperin makes a tantalizing claim that Jackson's death was tantamount to assisted suicide. Burdened by debts and failing health, and faced with a series of concerts he lacked the stamina for, Halperin proposes Michael Jackson simply gave up and went quietly into the night.

Mr. Halperin's book is a swift and intriguing read, but neither emotionally or factually earth-shaking or ground-breaking. I've read better biographies and I've read worse. For me, this was just a swift read to pass the time in a waiting room and it served its purpose.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Two More Reviews for The Boleyn Wife

Here are two more reviews by historical fiction bloggers to whom I sent Advance Reader Copies. My apologies for the delay in posting these.

Elizabeth at found the book a tad too risque for her personal tastes, but enjoyed the ghosts of Anne Boleyn and her brother George that appear in the Tower of London to torment Lady Rochford. To read her full review please visit

Robinbird at found Jane Boleyn (Lady Rochford) to be an interesting and thoroughly unsympathetic villainess. To read her full review please visit I also did a brief interview with her, it can be read at

The Boleyn Wife by Brandy Purdy will be published in the USA on January 26, 2010 by Kensington Books, and in the UK on April 1, 2010 by Avon/Harper under the title of The Tudor Wife by Emily Purdy.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran

Michelle Moran's third novel tells the story of Kleopatra (Cleopatra) and Marc Antony's sun and moon twins--Alexander Helios and Kleopatra Selene (Cleopatra VIII). Ten years old at the time of their parents' deaths and Rome's conquest of Egypt, they are taken to Rome as Octavian's prisoners/guests. Too young to pose any real threat, they are adopted by Octavian's kind sister, Octavia, the wife Marc Antony spurned for the Queen of Egypt, to be raised and educated alongside her children while they await their monumental fifteenth birthday, the age at which they will be considered adults, and when Octavian will decide their fate--will they live or die?

Although the characters are interesting, this novel lacked a certain something, to me the pace felt somewhat slow and the emotion and drama lacked the necessary depth and emphasis to make the story truly sparkle. For example, although it is mentioned repeatedly that Selene suffers the pangs of unrequited love for Octavian's nephew and heir apparent, charming, generous, handsome Marcellus, I never truly felt the angst of a teenage girl in the throes of her first love. And the siblings' transition from Egyptian royalty to Roman citizens went a little too smoothly, in my opinion, to be completely believable. Though the young are adaptable and said to heal quickly, I think the twins would have suffered more through their various ordeals and life-altering changes. Nonetheless, though not of the same caliber as Ms. Moran's previous novels, "Cleopatra's Daughter" is still an engaging and enjoyable read especially for fans of Ancient Egypt and those who are fascinated by its most famous queen and have wondered what fate befell her offspring.

The Heretic Queen by Michelle Moran

"I'm just a leftover princess from a dynasty of heretics," bewails brilliant but childishly rambunctious Princess Nefertari, niece of the infamous Nefertiti, wife of the "Heretic Pharaoh" Akhenaten, and daughter of the ill-fated Mutnodjmet (see Ms. Moran's first novel "Nefertiti" for her story). Regarded as an omen of misfortune by most of the court, who superstitiously shun anything associated with the heretical reign of Akhenaten, Nefertari is only tolerated because she is the closest friend of the crown prince, future Pharaoh Ramesses the Great.

But when Ramsesses falls under the spell of a court beauty, Iset, Nefertari sees her dreams of becoming Ramesses' wife crumble, until she is taken under the wing of Woserit, the wise Priestess of Hathor, in sort of an Ancient Egyptian version of "My Fair Lady," and tutored in the ways and manners that become a queen.

Happily, love conquers all, and Ramesses marries Nefertari, but problems persist, because of the people's mistrust of Nefertari's heretical heritage, Ramesses bows to pressure and delays naming a Chief Wife, a queen, so the rivalry between Iset and Nefertari persists, and it is up to Nefertari to win the people's trust and respect and prove herself a capable queen and helpmate in the Audience Chamber where she hears petitioners and her fluency in several languages stands her in good stead.

"The Heretic Queen" is a worthy successor to Ms. Moran's first novel, "Nefertiti," and I encourage fans of Ancient Egypt to give both a try.

Nefertiti by Michelle Moran

Though the title is "Nefertiti" this is really the story of two very different sisters. Nefertiti is the beautiful one burning with ambition, the star destined to rise high and shine bright. Mutnodjmet, the narrator of this tale of blind ambition, religious turmoil, and royal intrigue in Ancient Egypt, is the plain one who longs only for love, a husband and a child and a quiet life tending her medicinal herbs and dispensing them to those in need. But circumstances force Mutnodjmet to live in her sister's shadow and play handmaiden to her ambition.

When Nefertiti is chosen to be the Chief Wife of the young mentally unbalanced Pharaoh-to-be Amunhotep the Younger, whom history would remember as Akhenaten "The Heretic Pharaoh," everyone hopes she will curb his foolish excesses, and put an end to his insane obsessions with worshipping the sun disc Aten, setting him above and abolishing all other gods and goddesses, especially Amun, and destroying the all-powerful priests of Amun. But rather than displease her royal husband and see herself relegated to the dim recesses of the royal harem with all the other women who live only for the Pharaoh's pleasure, and shut away where her beauty can no longer shine, or be forced to play second fiddle to her rival, Secondary Wife Kiya, Nefertiti supports her husband 100% in his mad folly, egging him on to greater acts of audacity and daring, dominating him, and transfiguring herself into an icon, and a living goddess, along the way. Thus the stage is set for tragedy; it's plain from the start that this story cannot end happily.

II thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Moran's rendition of this controversial era in Egyptian history; she makes the characters come vividly and sympathetically to life. Even those who have few likable characteristics are still human beings readers can in some way relate to, even if it is only sibling rivalry or jealousy, or a case of the grass looking greener on the other side, Ms. Moran's characters come off the page as real people with wants, needs, ambitions, desires, and dreams.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Name Change for UK Edition of The Boleyn Wife

My UK publisher Avon/Harper has decided to change both the title of my book and my own name for their edition of THE BOLEYN WIFE which will be published in the UK on April 1, 2010. It will be published as THE TUDOR WIFE by Emily Purdy, instead of under my real name, Brandy Purdy. More details, including cover art, will be posted when they become available.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Looking For Little Egypt by Donna Carlton

After reading Emily Leider's biography of Mae West, which mentions that she saw Little Egypt dance at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (World's Columbian Exposition), I started thinking about how many times the famed belly dancer's name has cropped up in my reading, yet I knew nothing about her beyond her stage name and that she was a star attraction at the above mentioned fair, so I decided to go on a fact finding mission. That search led me to Donna Carlton's slim but fascinating volume.

I was surprised to learn that Little Egypt and her association with the famous fair is a myth, a popular oft-repeated American legend, as are most of the stories told about her. For instance, Mark Twain did not suffer a coronary after seeing her dance, Thomas Edison did not film her, and she did not popularize the zipper. There is not one contemporary shred of evidence, no newspaper articles, photographs, advertisement, or souvenir book from 1893 to prove that Little Egypt danced at the Chicago World's Fair. It is inconceivable that if she had been the star attraction we have been led to believe she was that she would not have been prominently featured and promoted. All stories linking her to the fair date to years after that world famous event.

In fact, there were dozens of women, both serious practitioners of the danse du ventre (belly dancing) and bastardized hootchy-cootchy versions, who billed themselves as "Little Egypt." The name was practically a generic term for dancers of this type. After one such dancer, Ashea Wabe, who is pictured at the top and bottom of this review, became an overnight sensation after performing at a notorious bachelor party, the number of Little Egypts plying their trade on the various carnival, circus, sideshow, burlesque, and vaudeville circuits skyrocketed; every sideshow and amusement park midway had its own Little Egypt, they seemed to breed like bunnies.

Donna Carlton presents all the details known about that notorious bachelor party, hosted by a nephew of the great showman P.T. Barnum, which became notoriously known as "that awful Seely dinner" and the two trials it spawned and the theatrical parodies that made "Little Egypt" famous. Though it is not known if Ashea Wabe ever danced at the Chicago World's Fair, or when she began using "Little Egypt" as her stage name, she is undoubtedly the one who made the name notorious with risque connotations. Ashea Wabe was a petite, pretty Algerian who spoke a mixture of French and English, beyond this and the role she played in the scandalous Seely dinner and her starring role in Oscar Hammerstein's parody "Silly's Dinner," nothing else is known about her. I did an Internet search after finishing this book in the hope of finding out a little more about her, but found nothing, not even a birth or death date.

Ms. Carlton also presents a rival contender for the title of "the original Little Egypt," one Fahreda Mahzar Spyropoulos, who most likely did dance at the Chicago World's Fair, but not as a star, or under the name of "Little Egypt," but just one of the many dancing girls; in fact, she seems to have only claimed the name as hers after the Seely scandal made it famous and myths about "Little Egypt" being a star attraction at the fair began to crop up.

Though it is always a trifle sad to learn that a good story is just that a good story, Ms. Carlton's book is nonetheless a fascinating journey to the past, taking readers back to the fair, which did indeed introduce the art of belly dancing to the American public, and that esteemed Middle Eastern art form's evolution into the bawdy shimmy or hootchy-cootchy.

Becoming Mae West by Emily Wortis Leider

More than a biography, Ms. Leider’s book is a fascinating window to the lost world of burlesque and vaudeville, giving modern-day readers a tantalizing glimpse of the color, eccentricity, clamor, personalities, customs, and superstitions of those long ago show people and their journey from a time when actresses were often equated with whores, and those in the theatrical profession were regarded as “the offal of society,” and the “wicked stage” where they earned their bread and butter was seen as “the porch of pollution,” to a time when celebrities were feted like royalty and courted and fawned over by high society.

It is also a fascinating word-portrait that chronicles the changes of social mores, sexuality, and women’s roles from the 1890s to the late 1930s, with all sorts of fascinating facts and tidbits thrown in. And at the center of it all, the battles between the entertainment industry and censors who considered themselves crusaders against vice and were determined to keep America’s morals wholesome and pure. And in the middle of it all was Mae West, caught in the crossfire of bullets over what was considered indecent and morally corrupting on both the stage and the screen.

Even if you are not a Mae West fan—and here I have to admit I like her costumes better than her character—you may still find this book interesting; I myself was motivated to read it after reading the author's excellent biography of silent screen star Rudolph Valentino, and I am glad that I did. It is not a traditional from the cradle to the grave biography, instead it is a portrait of an era as well as a personality and how she honed her craft and created a persona that remains an enduring camp icon to this day. From start to finish, “Becoming Mae West” is a journey of the ups and down on the bumpy road to fame.

See Mae West in action on the silver screen in her most famous film "She Done Him Wrong"

Also available a five film box set

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Lost Flight of Amelia Earhart A Novel Based on Historical Evidence by Carol Linn Dow

Fascinating though the subject matter is, this book strikes me as the literary equivalent of a multiple personalities case. Although the book is subtitled "A Novel Based on Historical Evidence," well...let's just say this does not read like a traditional novel. Some pages read like encyclopedia entries or a school report on Amelia Earhart. Other pages dramatize or fictionalize incidents, such as Amelia and Fred Noonan in the cockpit of the doomed Electra or imprisoned and subjected to brutal treatment by the Japanese, or a group of reporters discussing the mystery over Chinese food in a restaurant conveniently run by a supposed witness to their capture. Then there are pages that read like an article from a scientific magazine about radio frequencies and technology of the era. There are also several photos, footnotes, and over 100 pages of supportive notes and evidence in back. When dramatized scenes do appear, awkwardly plunked down between these lengthy factual sections, the dialogue is written in a very minimalistic style, more suitable to a playscript than a novel.

(Major) Moto, "You spy! You Amelican (American) spy. You spy for Navy. You fly over islands to spy on Japanese."
Earhart, "No, no I'm not a spy."

Descriptions between dialogue are sparse and kept to a minimum, like notations to set the scene in a play or movie. Perhaps this has to do with the author's plans to make a movie and this novel was born of a pre-existing screenplay?

I was eager to read this book and wanted to enjoy it, but regrettably its choppy, distracting style proved an insurmountable barrier, and there is nothing new or groundbreaking about Earhart's fate to help overcome this. The Japanese capture theory has been around for a long time and explored and depicted with greater depth and drama elsewhere.

If Ms. Dow's book is indeed made into a movie, I am sure it will be quite interesting to watch, but as a novel I am sorry to say it leaves much to be desired. But I commend the thoroughness of her research and dedication to the project and finding a solution to one of America's most enduring and famous unsolved mysteries.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of All Time by the Editors of Time-Life Books

I have a definite weakness for books like this dating back to when I first learned to read, so when I saw this brand new, up-to-date tome about unsolved mysteries I HAD to have it.

How could I resist such a tantalizing array of cases like the Voynich Manuscript, Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper, The Black Dahlia, The Lost Dauphin, Mary, Queen of Scots and the murder of Lord Darnley, The Lost Colony of Roanoke, Lord Lucan, the fate of Grand Duchess Anastasia, the murder of acclaimed silent film director William Desmond Taylor, the mysterious disappearance of West Point Cadet Richard Cox, and of course Amelia Earhart, D.B. Cooper, Ambrose Bierce, and Judge Crater, and even the inclusion of more recent cases like JonBenet Ramsey and Natalee Holloway?

Even with the strange omission of the Mary Celeste and her vanishing crew, this book seemed tailor-made for me. Yet, with great regret, this book turned out to be a colossal disappointment. Each mystery is explored in only one to three pages, one of which is usually all photos or illustrations. As much as I regret to say this about any book, if you are looking for any depth or detailed exploration and debate of possible solutions and theories about the mysteries included here, this book is a complete waste of time, I have read better encyclopedia entries about some of these cases. It doesn't even have the saving grace of a bibliography for further reading in back. What a shame; this could have been a great book if only some real effort had been put into it, it is certainly beautifully put together, but looks aren't everything.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe by J. Randy Taraborrelli

As a longtime fan of Marilyn Monroe I've found that almost every new biography claims to be THE ONE to reveal the REAL truth about her, to reveal the heretofore undisclosed and to blast the lies and secrets away like bursting bombshells. That said, Mr. Taraborrelli's book did indeed contain some unexpected surprises. Instead of giving in to sensationalism and conspiracy theories as the title might reasonably lead readers to suspect, he instead paints a portrait of a sad and lonely woman grappling with the demons of her own mind, a borderline paranoid schizophrenic, terrified that, like her mother and grandmother before her, she would end up institutionalized.

The life of Marilyn Monroe is a fascinating study in contradictions. She was the woman every man wanted and every woman wanted to be, but that was just a beautiful illusion. The real Marilyn, despite her breathtaking beauty and genuine talent, was a bedeviling blend of insecurity and fear barely glued together by drugs and alcohol which made her behavior and mental state even more erratic. She was a woman who used sex to affirm her desirability and usually chose badly, either to boost her career or stave off loneliness, when it came to the men in her life. She also had a distressing tendency to surrender herself to the power of strong, Svengali-like personalities, such as her acting coaches Natasha Lytess and Lee and Paula Strasberg, and her last psychologist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, a man often cast as the villain in the saga of Marilyn Monroe, because of the control he exerted over all aspects of her life and the unorthodox and unprofessional choices he made in her treatment.

To my surprise, Mr. Taraborrelli, while admitting anything is possible, largely debunks the web of conspiracy, sex, and murder that has been spun around Marilyn and her relationships with President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert "Bobby" Kennedy. He maintains that Marilyn was basically a weekend fling, just another conquest--bedding the ultimate Hollywood blonde--to JFK, and that poor deluded, drug-addled Marilyn became obsessed with him, doggedly pursuing the President and pestering him by phone, wanting their relationship to be more than it actually was or could ever be, maybe even going so far as to imagine herself as First Lady someday. When Marilyn refused to face the facts, Bobby Kennedy was dispatched to tell her to back off and stop calling. Though many believe this confrontation evolved into a love affair, the evidence presented by Mr. Taraborrelli fails to support this, and one is left with the feeling that while they make fascinating reading the conspiracy theories that abound about Marilyn and the Kennedy brothers are more fiction than fact.

Although a genuine air of mystery enshrouds Marilyn's death, and there are questions that remain unanswered and probably always will, in Mr. Taraborrelli's account suicide seems more likely than murder. For many years, I was a devout believer in the murder conspiracy, but as I have gotten older my mind has given greater consideration to the suicide theory. I used to be one of those who believed that Marilyn would never have intentionally taken her own life, she had too much to live for; things were looking up, she had a bright future ahead of her and some great projects in the works. But I know now that having talent that suggests a bright future lies ahead is not always enough to chase the darkness of the soul away. Attaining success, or even stardom, is not a cure, and these things bring their own share of problems that can compound pre-existing ones. Admiration, adoration, and accolades aren't enough, they are not chicken soup for the soul. In the end, Marilyn Monroe couldn't escape the encroaching darkness, she was a woman fighting a losing battle with her own mind and inner demons; she could not save herself and no one else could or would either.

Whatever the truth about Marilyn Monroe's last night on earth, and whether she departed via malice, accident, or intent, Marilyn Monroe didn't die that night, sad, lonely, frightened, lost little girl Norma Jeane died, her glittering platinum and diamond creation, with the breathy little girl voice and marshmallow-soft but oh so fragile heart and soul, the legendary Marilyn Monroe lives on.

I found Mr. Taraborrelli's book to be a refreshing, down to earth, unsensationalized look at the life of Marilyn Monroe, the woman and the movie star. The only issue I had with it was that he omitted to mention either the cosmetic surgery or abortions that form an oft-repeated part of the Marilyn Monroe story and appear in numerous books about her. To me, the book would have felt more complete if he had explored these issues, regardless of whether it was to affirm or disprove them. That said, I would still recommend this book to any casual reader or devoted Marilyn fan.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Delectable Dollies: The Dolly Sisters, Icons of the Jazz Age by Gary Chapman

The Dolly Sisters were a pair of dainty dark-eyed, dark-haired identical twins, born in Budapest in 1892, who took Broadway by storm, dancing their way to fame and fortune, starring in the Ziegfeld Follies and other shows on Broadway and in London and Paris in the early 1900s to the late 1920s when they retired.

The Dollies were the darlings of New York cabaret society, Parisian cafe society, and the London Smart Set. They were spoiled rotten by Diamond Jim Brady and wined and dined by millionaires and royalty who showered them with jewels and sables; one smitten suitor even had a matched set of large blue diamonds set in the shells of a pair of live tortoises and gave them to the twins. Their evening gowns and theatrical costumes were almost as famous as they were, designed by the likes of Lucile (a.k.a. Titanic survivor Lady Duff Gordon), Molyneux, and Patou. Their jewels were legendary, one observer commented they were "behung with baubles like a couple of Christmas trees," and equally legendary was their addiction to gambling and their feats of daring at the casinos and race track; staggering sums in the hundreds of thousands of dollars were habitually wagered on a single turn of the roulette wheel.

But as alike as they were on the outside, inwardly the Dollies were quite different. Rosie was regarded as the more reserved and stable twin, "the lucky one," who, after two divorces, found love and a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and settled down to enjoy a happy life of travel and socializing in a marriage that lasted until her husband's death twenty-one years later. Jenny was the more emotional and reckless of the pair, "the unlucky one," despite her fabulous jewels and famous luck at cards. Jenny was a wild pleasure-seeker who kept two wealthy suitors, both wanting marriage, dangling until it was too late and her luck ran out after the 1929 Stock Market Crash forced almost everyone, including millionaires, to cut back on luxury goods like keeping beautiful women in jewels, designer gowns, and furs and paying their gambling debts. After a car accident left her wracked with pain and hideously disfigured, it took seventeen costly and painful operations for plastic surgery to restore her beauty, but it was only a mask; inside, Jenny was never the same again. Her fabulous jewel collection, rumoured to be the largest in private hands, had to go up on the auction block to pay for the costly surgery and settle other debts, but only sold for a pittance of its actual value. And in 1941 Jenny, broken in spirit, took her life, hanging herself from a curtain rod one Sunday afternoon. Her twin lived on for another thirty years, though in later years, after the loss of her beloved husband, Rosie also suffered from depression and unsuccessfully attempted suicide. Rosie died, an invalid suffering from complications of a hip injury and the flu, of a heart attack in 1970.

"The Delectable Dollies" is the first full-length biography of the famous sister act. It is a fascinating rags to riches saga of the love and rivalry, devotion and duplicity between sisters amidst the glitterati of high society, royalty, and stars of the stage and screen. It is also the tale of the lucky twin and the unlucky one, and perhaps proof of the old adage "lucky at cards, unlucky in love."

Classic movie fans may have seen the 1945 lavish Hollywood musical bio-pic "The Dolly Sisters," starring leggy All-American blonde glamour girls Betty Grable and June Haver as the singing and dancing sisters in a story that is more fiction than fact, but Mr. Chapman's book presents the truth behind the fables and tells the real story of "The Delectable Dollies."

The 1945 movie musical is not exactly a gem of accuracy, but entertaining nontheless.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Breathe The Sky A Novel Inspired By The Life of Amelia Earhart by Chandra Prasad

Of the three novels about Amelia Earhart I have read recently, "Breathe the Sky" is my favourite. It paints a revealing portrait of the dark side of fame. Courting the public and press was a necessary evil in the life of Amelia Earhart; in order to finance her flights speaking engagements, writing books and magazine articles, product endorsements, and public appearances were a must. Ms. Prasad's novel shows us the private Amelia, a woman approaching forty but still bedeviled by feelings of inadequacy, a need to prove herself, to push herself to achieve more and break records, egged on by her husband/manager G.P. (George Palmer Putnam) the ringmaster presiding over the circus of her life. This Amelia is a tired woman, intensely aware of the pressure to keep up appearances, who feels spread too thin between her various commitments to flying, fame, and family. This is a woman who sometimes pulls her car over to the side of the road to catch a quick nap or checks into the hospital for recurring sinus infections just to snatch a little peace and quiet away from the clamor of grasping hands and the adoring masses. Even her mother and sister take advantage of her and even sell stories about her to press.

The novel shifts between the story of her ill-fated last flight and revealing vignettes from her past. Through these tantalizing windows we catch glimpses of her beloved ne'er-do-well drunken father; her friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who pays for secret flying lessons with baskets of blueberry muffins at Amelia's request; her harrowing solo flight across the Atlantic through thunderstorms and equipment failures; we go inside an illegal doctor's office with Amelia when she has an abortion; attend the funeral of a dead cat with G.P, Amelia, and the socialite wife he would divorce in order to wed Amelia; the six marriage proposals it took before she would say "yes"; and we see firsthand how G.P. bamboozled the President of Purdue University into buying Amelia a new plane with a bottle of cognac he claimed was 100 years old but was actually made in a none too clean bathtub not even a year ago.

And there are vivid scenes recreating that famous last flight. Unlike many other accounts of that voyage into oblivion and enduring mystery, this is not a chronicle of details and data or mishaps and misadventures inside the cockpit of the gleaming new Electra, readers get to eavesdrop on conversations between Amelia and her navigator Fred Noonan, in whom Amelia sees the shadow of her alcoholic father, and upon whom Amelia has what she describes as a "ridiculous, even masochistic little crush," as the pair share exotic meals and go see the sights during their pitstops in South America, Africa, Indonesia, Singapore, India, and Australia. We see Amelia vexed with the unfamiliar new gadgets in her new plane, including the radio, which Amelia, with her live and learn philosophy, cannot be bothered to take the precious time to master, and we see Noonan battle the demon rum that has him in its thrall. Then there are stomach upsets, romantic tensions, and monsoons to contend with before the couple vanish into the realm of real-life mystery.

If you are fascinated by the enigma of Amelia Earhart, I highly recommend you give "Breathe The Sky" a try; I don't believe this slim little novel will disappoint.

I was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn

This surrealistic little novel was the book I was reading, or rather trying to read, when my mother died back in 2002. With the buzz about the new Amelia Earhart movie roaring like an airplane engine and feeding my longstanding fascination with her still unresolved fate, I decided to give this tiny volume another try.

In its pages, Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, find themselves marooned on a desert island. Here time, without calendars and clocks, proves elusive and as slippery as an eel, darting randomly between past, present, and future, and this may confuse readers to some degree. The narrator, Amelia Earhart, with her hair grown long as it was before she became famous, thinks of her former life as like a dream, almost as if it had all happened to another person, hence the title: I WAS Amelia Earhart.

She sees herself and Noonan as two damned souls; the drunk navigator who didn't care where he was going and the reckless pilot who didn't care if they ever got there. The two dislike each other almost from first sight, and they alternate between constant bickering, giving each other the silent treatment, and separate accommodations on opposite ends of the island. But circumstances force them to come together; on this minuscule godforsaken little island, which they jokingly name "Heaven," each other is all they really have. Noonan, who began his career as a kitchen boy when he went to sea at fifteen, cooks their dinner every night on the beach, serving up the catch of the day--fish or crabs--or, in times of empty-bellied desperation, stringy rats, all washed down with toothachingly sweet coconut milk. Afterwards, he plays his harmonica and Amelia sings Shirley Temple's theme song "On The Good Ship Lollipop" or advertising jingles. Sometimes the two even make love, but "it's understood that it doesn't mean anything," even when they both know that it does.

The whole book has a hallucinogenic quality; reality blurs and time drifts and shifts. The tale told within its pages could just as easily be a hallucination suffered by the aviatrix flying at too high an altitude, or it might all be a waking fantasy or a sleeping dream, or, as the immortal bard once said, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," it might even be true. After all, stranger things have happened, and the castaway theory is not new to the list of possible fates for Amelia and Fred.