Prime Time, Joan Collins, 1988

The Other Collins Girl


Back in the 1980’s, after decades of less-then-memorable or downright embarrassing movie roles, Joan Collins finally found –or was allowed into- a goldmine when she was cast as Alexis Many Surnames in Dynasty. Until then, quite many had not realised that she is a real life sister of Jackie Collins, one of the most best selling authors of all times. This offered a stellar marketing tool, so it was not a surprise when also Joan tried her hand in writing, publishing her first work of fiction, Prime Time in 1988.

It is not a surprise either that she did not wander far from her successful sister’s favoured genre, Hollywood’s ruthlessly competitive and morally bankrupt television and film world, or that she put an ample amount of her own life into the story. That said, the heroine of Prime Time is a wholesome and raven-haired British singer Chloe Carriere. Pushing forty, best days of her singing career behind her and her marriage to a fellow musician and duet partner Josh Brown in life support, Chloe seeks a much-coveted role of Miranda in a new big budget soap called “Saga”. And she wins, which does not sit well with the Tinsel Town’s vultures.

Considering how much ridiculed Joan Collins’ literary attempts were back then, it IS a surprise how competent her writing actually is. Admittedly she is telling about her own experiences in Dynasty, not shying away even from one of her characters HIV-scandal (R.I.P Rock Hudson), but even so, Prime Time is much more detailed and nuanced than anything Jackie Collins was churning out at the time, or since. Also, although her obvious alter ego Chloe does come across as goody-goody, Joan does not patronise the reader by providing them obvious heroes and villains, both equally unlikeable, like Jackie does. Joan does have her little sisters’ trademark, coarseness and raunch, but even then her take on sex comes across much more maturely than Jackie’s nubile 18-year olds approach.

It has been claimed that Joan Collins did not write Prime Time herself, which I am prone to believe in a light of her weak and uninspired follow-up, Love, Desire, Hate in 1991. It has also been said that it was Jackie who wrote this book, which in contrary does not make sense because why would she had made the effort to write a better book for her sister than one on her own. I think it’s apparent by now that Jackie Collins is not one of my favourite authors but I will review one of her books in near future.

NPG x126136; Jackie Collins; Joan Collins by Terry O'Neill

Sister, sister, oh so fair…


Queen’s Confession, Victoria Holt, 1967

The Queen Has Been Slain


Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) was the last queen of France during the country’s ancien régime. Alongside Elisabeth I of England she is probably the most featured queen in books and films. In her take Victoria Holt, a prolific British writer of historical novels, attempts deeper and more personal approach to the tragic queen through actual letters that Marie Antoinette wrote, mainly to her mother Maria Teresia, the empress of Austria. The letters don’t offer much insight, though, due to their vapidity. One reads:


Your Majesty is very kind to express her interest towards me, even so that She wants to know how I spend my days in Versailles. Because of that, I tell Her that I rise at ten or nine o’clock and after I have been dressed I say my morning prayer. Then I have my breakfast and go to my aunts and usually I also meet the King. Then it is half past ten. My hair is combed. At noon the doors are opened and all persons noble enough may come in. I put rouge to my cheeks and wash my hands. At noon, I go to mass with the King, if he is in Versailles, and Dauphin. Then we eat lunch that last until half past one. Then I go to see Dauphin. If he has work, I return to my own rooms. I read, write and sew a vest to the King. It progresses slowly but I believe that with the help from Almighty it shall be finished in a few years time…

According to Queen’s Confession, Marie Antoinette led outwardly fabulous but emotionally empty life in her lukewarm marriage with Louis XVI of France. In popular culture she is portrayed either a hapless victim of circumstances or an ultra vain and careless spendrift. Victoria Holt stands in a middle; she clearly brings front Marie Antoinette’s excesses, especially her dreamland Little Trianon, but presents her as a generally kind-hearted although intellectually mediocre woman who was woefully out of her depth as monarch and immensely helpless to overcome the complex political schemes and machinations which eventually took her to the gallows. Or the massive hate campaign against her, which enables juxtapositions to modern life as she could be likened to social media hate figures of nowadays.

Holt is not at her best at describing this intrigue as it materializes mainly as petty court gossiping and eavesdropping servants. Also Marie Antoinette’s real life romance to count Axel Von Fersen does not rise above your average Harlequin read. What I found frustrating is that once again Louis XVI is simply portrayed as a wimbster who let his throne slip through his fingers and his family laid to waste. There is another book by French writer Juliette Benzoni, Un Collier Pour Diablo, which concentraces to Diamond Necklace Affair and provides fuller picture of him.

Queen’s Confession is however a very strong reading experience, told as a flashback from already imprisoned Marie Antoinette’s point of view, full of sadness and regret, describing a materially lavish lifestyle with a sense of imminent doom hanging over it like a distant thunder. The book gets almost disturbing when it gets closer to its end and harrowing details of the Bourbon family’s imprisonment. This is why I cannot full-heartedly recommend this to those who get easily upset.

The Deep, Peter Benchley, 1976

Sanders Couple has an Activity Holiday

The Deep is the second book by Peter Benchley (1940-2006) after the blockbuster and pop culture touchstone Jaws. I have never read -or seen- Jaws so I cannot judge if he sunk into a sophomore slump or not, but The Deep has a feel that appears both easy-going and forced at once. The main characters are David and Gail Sanders, a relatively newly wed sporty couple, who have decided to spend their vacation in the Bermudas, scuba diving at the wreck site of ill-fated WWII military supply ship Goliath. They have no mercenary intentions although the vessel was fabled to transport thousands of ampules of morphine for wartime medical needs. They immediately attract the unwanted attention from a local potentate Henri Cloche, a drug kingpin with political ambitions, who wants to use the two to surface the stash of morphine for him. Stakes get even higher when David and Gail find out that Goliath is lying on top of an earlier wreck, 17th-century Spanish gold ship. Fortunately, they find an ally in Treece, a rough and slightly eccentric lighthouse keeper.

Although The Deep is very informative about how a seemingly effortless dive of only a few feets can become fatal if one does not know what he/she is doing, there is no real sense of danger in this book. Outwardly suave Cloche is not particularly memorable or innovative villain with his usage of voodoo shenanigans as a scare tactic and the Sanders’ are also little on the forgettable side although deeper (no pun intended) characters than in the 1977 movie version by Columbia Pictures. All this makes the abrupt and violent ending, which differs from the movie, feel like an afterthought.

However, The Deep remains smooth entertainment; Benchley’s strong love of sea shines through every page, scenery and locales are colorful and richly described and as a former journalist, Benchley always uploaded his books with interesting nuggets; like the difference between morphine and heroin, what is fire coral, why Spaniards preferred emeralds instead rubies and how to figure out toxicity of a fish before eating with a silver coin.

Kept In The Dark, Nina Bawden, 1984

Creepy Fat Young Man


Kept in the Dark is a rare (at least back in 1984) psychological thriller aimed for teens and pre-teens. Noel, 14, Clara, 12, and Bosie, 10, have to leave their London home behind at least for a while when their father, who is an actor in theater and TV, suffers a mental breakdown and must check into an institution to seek help. Their mother is unable to provide for them on her own so the children move to the countryside to live with their wealthy maternal grandparents until their father gets better. Their grandmother is little kooky herself and their grandpa a grumpy old war ax who has never accepted her daughter’s husband due to his acting profession. The stately but decaying mansion, which the children are supposed to call their home for time being, fascinate vivid imaginations of the three. Especially young Bosie’s who finds all kinds of rather mundane but possibly threatening things from its mostly unused rooms, like an old WWII era revolver in a secret compartment of an old desk.

Kept in the Dark’s strength is in this viewpoint of a child, things can look exciting or threatening when the true, grown up meaning is left to speculation. Especially when adults are constantly hiding things and talk about them only between themselves with hushed tones. One thing is particularly kept in the dark is David, twenty-something, overweight drifter, whom Bosie finds one morning sleeping in a pavilion of the overgrown garden but who in reality is grandpa’s nephew. David comes inside the house and without further ado takes the control of the household. The trusted housekeeper is fired, David uses his grandfather’s Bentley like his own, buys expensive roller skates and motorcyclists leather suit, which does not flatter his figure. David’s obesity is almost a plot point that I’ve seen mentioned in all reviews of this book, it is not often when we see an overweight young man in books, in most cases, they only come as bullied childhood sidekicks or leering perverts or corrupt German lieutenants.

In no time, brash David begins to suck the life out of the other, feisty grandfather turns ashy, grandmother stops eating and does not leave her room and the old family dog begins to smell. Noel has suspected and shunned David from the start and although Bosie and Clara were initially under David’s spell, Noel soon gets their to support. I find it quite refreshing that this time there is not a long and frustrating period in which one person is trying in vain to convince others that a popular character is up to no good. Ownership of the revolver found in a secret compartment of the writing table becomes a burning issue.

The viewpoint of a child with lively imagination prevails until the (happy) ending when David has hit the road again and life instantly looks brighter. There is a relieved atmosphere at the dinner table but Bosie and Clara wonder what exactly happened and why, as David’s mysterious grip on the grandparents is never really explained. But as Clara says, “Adults always hide all the exciting things.”

Wideacre, Philippa Gregory, 1987

Mansion Monster


Wideacre is a dark, twisted and uncompromising tale of grand estate life back in 18th century Sussex, England. The debut novel by Philippa Gregory, acclaimed British writer of historical fiction and non-fiction, was first published 30 years ago and has since become sort of cult favorite among literary fans, there has also been lingering rumors and demand for a movie version throughout the years.

Wideacre is a fictional mansion in the English countryside that includes a vast area of land, green fields, forests, meadows and a village called Acre where everyone lives as tenants of Sir Harold Lacey, the lord of Wideacre. The heroine of the book, if you can call her such, is Sir Harold’s eldest and only daughter, beautiful and spirited Miss Beatrice Lacey, favoured child of her father who taught her to ride in age of four and throughout the years she grew up to be a brisk outdoors woman and valuable help for her father in matters of farming and forestry.

However, soon enough Beatrice realizes being in a receiving end of destiny’s cruel joke. Despite being first born child and much more worthy and capable heir than her weak younger brother Harry, as a woman she can never inherit and run Wideacre, that is enforced by the law. Beatrice can only expect an arranged marriage somewhere far away from the land she loves so passionately but she decides to defy the law and the destiny.

This sounds like a commendable effort of a woman seeking her lawful rights in a time that would likely have suffragettes hang in public but it is something quite different. For Beatrice, the end justifies any means and I do mean ANY. She stoops into fraud, adultery, being grossly indifferent to people of Acre, murder, accessory to murder and perhaps most notoriously, incest. And she almost wins, however it is a Pyrrhic victory as during the process she has sullied and ruined everything she held dear at first place.

The immense unlikeableness of Beatrice is both the strength and weakness of Widecare, she certainly makes a memorable main character but distracts the reader from enjoying this well written and researched novel because one is too eager to see Beatrice getting her comeuppance. Despite the lurid aspects, I still recommend this to anyone with interest and fondness for English mansions and life in them as Wideacre tells and describes the everyday life and work in mansions and what role these places played in economy and society at the time. This is the first part of a trilogy and I have never read the second and third book, Favoured Child and Meridon but apparently, Beatrice’s wicked witchery proved ongoing.

More Than Dreams, Pamela Bullard, 1987

Feministic TV-world Artefact from the Eighties


Katherine “Kate” Marchand is a forty-something CEO of Boston-based TV-station WLYM. She wakes up 5am after her regular five hours sleep, brushes her teeth while computer inside her head switches to Work and Today’s Schedule-mode, which involves countless duties and tasks of being the CEO of America’s most prestigious TV-station. This is indicative of the tone of More Than Dreams, WLYM is not “one” of the most prestigious TV-stations in America, it’s THE most prestigious, elevated to that position by the iron fist of Kate Marchand. However, this is not a story of a high-strung career woman who learns that she has pursued things she never really wanted, no ma’am, author Pamela Bullard reveres her heroine and would not have her any other way.

Pamela Bullard has worked many years in television as a local reporter for ABC and news anchor for WGBH, she has also lecturer in Harward and Boston University and it’s hard to escape the impression that Kate Marchand is her would-be alter ego: Kate is the only female TV-station CEO in United States (the story is set to 1982), shelves in her office groan under the weight of Emmy’s and Peabody’s, her work ethics are second to none, she is pragmatic to the bone, intelligent, talented, capable, visionary, flawless. Her only human weakness is her emotional dependency on her latently unfaithful husband Jonathan who is a world-class neurosurgeon.

Obstacle of More Than Dreams is that despite the author’s own support and infatuation for her protagonist, the Ice Queen, boss-from-hell Kate Marchand makes a tough character to like. Bullard tries to soften her by revealing that she suffers a chronic back pain, due to grenade incident during her time as heroic war reporter in Vietnam.

In the beginning WLYMS’s eleven o’clock news have been second in ratings for two consecutive weeks, due to the female anchor having lost her sparkle, and because Kate does not tolerate one hiccup in her well-oiled machine, she sets out for new blood… face. So enter Kim Winston, a recently widowed and a mother of one, New York small time TV-reporter destined for bigger and better things. Kim comes to WLYM and quickly lifts the station even higher spheres, not just as a stellar news anchor but also with her uncompromising and earth-shaking special reports about state’s corrupted youth welfare system, human trafficking ring and ruthless drug lords.

Kate and Kim form a winning pair in business but also get as close to friends as  Kate allows herself to, they are drawn to each by their mutual intelligence, talent and stamina. One cannot help but feel a little left out as Kate treats most of the people she comes in contact with more or less thinly veiled contempt because they fail to meet her standards. But things go little pear-shaped when Kim falls into sack with Dr. Jonathan in what proves to be the weakest link of this otherwise decent novel. He makes the first move and Kim goes along with it because she has poured two bottles of Dom Perignon into herself and thinks that Jonathan is her late husband(!) Dr. Jonathan’s motives are left cloudy, surely even the most cheat-happy husband, especially one who is supposed to be so smart, would think twice before taking advantage of his wife’s best friend and employer.

Now, that betrayal is not the dramatic highlight of More Than Dreams, a good part of it is almost prosaic story of how committed Kate is to her work, albeit instead the Staten Island ferry, this Working Girl whisks to work in her Jaguar from her suburban mansion. There is also some gritty realism in Kim’s exposés and the end of book teeters towards action as Kim, Kate and WLYM end up to bad side of the Uzi-wielding drug dealers.

Written and published a decade before internet’s arrival, More Than Dreams offers a nostalgic view to the TV-world and news anchors, to time when people actually cared a great deal about who provided them their daily dose of doom and gloom. At one point Kate shuns cooking programs in favor of prime time soaps, deeming cooking shows passé. Hello, Mrs. Marchand, MasterChef, Come Dine With Me, The Taste etc. etc. called and said up yours.

Agents Love Dangerously – Agenten lieben gefährlich, Heinz G. Konsalik, 1980

Roller coaster ride through “Green Hell”


Heinz G. Konsalik (1921-1999) was a profilic German author of manly reads, mostly in genres of war and adventure, which frequently touched the world of doctors. Heroine of Agents Love Dangerously is young, intelligent, head strong and beautiful (of course) German science woman Ellen Donhoven, privileged daughter of medicine tycoon. Ardent to prove her father that she can make it on her own, she embarks an expedition to fountainhead of Rio Juma, in the deepest heart of Amazonian rain forests, to research dart poisons of native Indians for their possible pharmaceutical purposes. She is accompanied by an international group of (male) scientists, native guide and a genius cook who knows 34 ape and 11 snake recipes. Also on board are Rudolf Forster, a brilliant and handsome, but too kind for his own good, doctor who is openly but one-sided in love with Ellen and captain José Cascal, representative of Brazilian government, who is not all that meets the eye.

Now this plays little like a B-movie plot and the approach is certainly straightforward and unsubtle. The expedition begins to fall apart almost immediately due to mysterious mishaps, which may or may not have something to do with Cascal (OK, they may). However, instead turning back to the civilization while they still can, the group puts itself in harm’s way by soldiering on to unmapped jungle of millions square kilometers wide just because they wish not look unmanly in eyes beautiful Dr. Ellen.

Even with matters of equality in her mind, Ellen apparently has no objections for this type of fool-hearty chivalry. Indeed, she is not particularly good example of “Woman of the 80’s” as she falls head over heels for an alpha male who suddenly appears out of nowhere rescue the increasingly doomed expedition. Strong-jawed American adventurer Cliff Haller, who mysteriously occupies a parachuted bungalow in middle untouched wilderness with his strikingly beautiful, and deadly jealous, half-native mistress Rita. Apparently Ellen does not mind stealing another woman’s boyfriend either.

You probably guessed that Haller is not exactly who he says he is, which comes apparent as the story proceeds towards “Town of Death”, a top-secret missile base hidden in a jungle valley. In the aftermath most of the expedition meets their demise in various violent ways and Brazilian special troops wipe out an entire village of natives, which is Konsalik’s recommendable effort to shed light into the destruction and genocide of Amazonian native tribes.

If one is not too upset by that genuinely disturbing passage in otherwise lightweight material, or the ruthless vivisection doctors Ellen and Rudolf perform on helpless jungle mammals, Agents Love Dangerously is fun and hyperbolic reading entertainment within rather streamlined 318 pages. Reader does get some insight of the unforgiving conditions in Amazonian rain forest, although the constant use of word “hell” gets repetitious, and the story paints an intriguing picture of Brazil as fascist, semi-police state and enemy of United States – back in freezing year of Cold War 1980 – which provides variety to same old Cuba and Soviet Union.