Sunnyside by Glen David Gold (Shane's book 9, 2010)

Eight years passed between Gold's debut, Carter Beats the Devil, and this, his second novel. Carter Beats the Devil is a fictionalised story about Charles Carter, an American magician who was successful in the late 19th and early 20th century. It's a very good book.

[amtap book:isbn=0340829834]

Sunnyside is more ambitious but, because it doesn't quite reach its target, it's ultimately less successful. It tells the story of the birth of celebrity, the rise of Hollywood and the earliest stirrings of American empire. At its centre is Charlie Chaplin but numerous other real life figures appear on its pages.

Among them are Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks but there's also the lesser-known Leland Wheeler, the handsome would-be actor, whose time on the Western Front takes up a significant amount of the book. These real lives are sprinkled among a fictional cast, including Hugo Black, who finds himself fighting Bolsheviks in Russia, and Rebecca Golod who is rarely a central figure but pops up frequently in unexpected places.

Gold weaves his cast together through a series of incredible set-pieces: the Wild West show for the Kaiser; Black's dinner with two princesses abandoned in a castle; Wheeler rescuing a comrade from a burning farmhouse; the shocking execution of some mutineers by a British general; Chaplin at Samuel Goldwyn's beach party; German soldiers machine-gunning dozens of Charlie Chaplin cut-outs, pushed over the top by mischievous troops. It's full of richly-drawn and memorable episodes that drip with period detail.

Sunnyside is a huge book and Gold tries to do so much that it's hardly surprising that not everything works. There's so much material here that the book becomes overwhelming and unclear in places. The central problem is that Chaplin is so well drawn, so captivating, that the sections featuring Wheeler and Black drag a little. I suspect this is because Gold simply enjoyed writing Chaplin so much - those sections leap off the page.

However, those concerns don't stop this being a brilliant book, filled with humour, intelligence and poignancy. Well worth reading. I hope we don't have to wait another eight years for Gold's third novel.