San Diego Classic Film Calendar

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Book Review – The Garden on Sunset by Martin Turnbull

I stumbled on the The Garden on Sunset by Martin Turnbull while I was trying to pad my Amazon Wish List for Christmas. I'd found a couple of books that I wanted including a collection of anecdotes about old Hollywood. In the Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought section about two or three clicks back was a novel that caught my eye, Citizen Hollywood, historical fiction set in Golden Age Hollywood. To be honest, I've never read any historical fiction, ever, but this sounded interesting. 

Turns out Citizen Hollywood was the third book in a series now up to six (Hollywood’s Garden of Allah). I poked around a bit and found the title of the first book. I was in the mood to start something new, so I went out to look for it. I just hoped I'd be able to find the first book. I don't like reading things out of order. There's a good indy bookstore I frequent, Mysterious Galaxy. As the name implies, they specialize in mysteries and science fiction, so I thought I'd try B. Dalton first. They didn't have it, in the three fiction sections I tried. There was no one at the info desk, and the guy who looked like he worked  there seemed to be trying not notice me. I gave up and went to Mysterious Galaxy. They didn't have it either but were happy to order it. I'd just as soon give them my business anyway. It showed up the day before I planned to take the train up to L.A., a good way to jump into a new book.

The Garden on Sunset was a pretty fast read, I got through about a third of it on the train up and back and finished a couple days later. The story centers on the struggles of three characters (what follows is just a little more than what you'd find on the back cover, so don't worry about spoilers):

  • Marcus Adler comes from a small town in Pennsylvania. After his father catches him with his pants down, literally, with another man, he comes to the only place he can think to go, the home of silent film star, Alla Nazamova. She had visited him in the hospital when he was sick as a kid and told him to look her up if he ever came to Hollywood. He arrives to find that her house has been turned into a hotel, the Garden of Allah.
  • Kathryn Massey has recently left home as well, all of 9 blocks away, to get away from her domineering mother. She meets Marcus when she trips over Marcus, tying his shoe, sending the two of them into the pool. They soon meet another new arrival at the Garden of Allah.
  • Gwendolyn Brick is a native of the other Hollywood, the one in Florida. She has come to Hollywood after her mother died, and her brother has joined the Navy. 

The trio end up living at the Garden of Allah, a place where Hollywood's elite and wanna-be elite gather for the legendary parties around the pool. The Garden on Sunset covers about a 7-year period from 1927 (the winter before the release of The Jazz Singer) to roughly mid-1934 (people are talking about the Catholic League of Decency, end of the the Pre-Code era, by the end of the book). At first, that seems like a long time for a 300-page book, but all three of them are trying to make it in Hollywood, and almost the entire book is them getting jobs, meeting people, making contacts, and trying to make their way in Tinsel Town.

It's a fun read, as the trio hobnobs with the likes of Tullulah Bankhead, Ramon Navarro, Errol Flynn, and George Cukor. They all are trying make it different ways. Marcus and Kathryn are both writers. After seeing The Jazz Singer and an off-handed remark about Hollywood needing writers if talkies take off, Marcus decides he wants to write pictures. Kathyrn is more into journalism and spends much of the book stalking William Wilkerson, trying to land a job at the newly created trade paper, the Hollywood Reporter. Of the three, Gwendolyn wants to act and has the toughest time, having to navigate the mine field of agents, producers, and talent scouts, most of whom are more interested in getting laid than discovering the next big star. 

Through all of this, the trio finds themselves at places like the Cocoanut Grove, The Brown Derby, a gambling ship, speakeasies, and cattle calls, not to mention the ever-present Garden of Allah parties. I was often tempted to google people they met and things that were happening, but mostly resisted. The couple of times I did succumb, I found what was going on in the book jived with what the Internet was telling me. 

The one thing I found a little weird about the book was that it took you up to, but not including the sex. Characters would start a sex scene and then the next paragraph they were done. You would be like, did I miss something? In a way, I can see why the author did it this way. People are pretty hung up on sex, and considering you have both gay and straight characters, maybe he thought it would be weird to have both gay and straight sex scenes in the same book. 

It's not a big deal to me. I just seemed odd, but not enough to keep me from recommending the book. It did give a you the feel of what it was like to be in Hollywood in its heyday in an entertaining way. I glanced at a couple reviews, and it seems that the other books in the series are good as well, so I ordered the next two. It's a fun read, and I heartily recommend it to anyone into old movies.

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