Shogun: Exotic, enlightening, entertaining

James Clavell’s 1966 bestseller, Tai-Pan, was a whopping novel.

a drawing of a samurai sword on the cover of Shogun
This often-read library copy of Shogun  is coming apart.

Shogun is monumental.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a ship has washes up in Japan. Her pilot, James Blackthorne, had hoped to be the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, wrest control of Oriental trade from the Spanish and Portuguese, and make himself very rich.

The Japanese think Blackthorne a barbarian; Catholic priests see him as a heretic.

Until the heir to the throne is old enough to assume his lawful position, Japan is being ruled by five feudal lords, none of whom trusts the others.

Only of the five,  only Toranaga sees any value in keeping Blackthorne alive.

Like the skilled falconer he is, Toranaga bends Blackthorne to his will: Blackthorne must learn to speak Japanese and become Japanese.

None of the Japanese characters is what he or he appears to be.

The plot twists and turns and stands on its head as the five lords, their wives, consorts, and relatives vie for control, always polite, always with a sharp knife within reach.

Readers who can bear up under the physical strain of reading Shogun—it’s 803 pages of small print and weighs 3.2 pounds—will find themselves fascinated, informed, and shocked by a surprise ending that, in retrospect, is perfect.

Shogun: A Novel of Japan by James Clavell
Atheneum [1975] 803 p.
1975 bestseller #9. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The Great Train Robbery entertains and informs

Man in top hat watches a steam-drawntrain
The dust jacket of The Great Train Robbery tells part of the novel’s story.

In The Great Train Robbery, Michael Crichton’s masterfully blurs fact and fiction as he did in The Andromeda Strain.

This time Crichton takes readers to 1855 London, a teeming urban center where the immensely rich often live just across the street from the pathetically poor.

Edward Pierce, a man of unknown antecedents and unsurpassed effrontery, plans to steal the gold bullion being shipped from London to the continent to pay the British Army fighting in Crimea.

Pierce is a meticulous researcher, though his methodologies would not have been well regarded at Oxford or Cambridge.

To secure the four keys needed to open the two safes in which the bullion is transported, Pierce not only spends hour observing and timing the activities of railway employees, but also courts the daughter of one of the key holders and springs a noted cat-burglar from Newgate Prison.

Crichton laces the dialogue with the argot of London’s criminal class, declining to translate much of it, thereby intensifying the impression that he’s recording exactly what the thieves said.

Crichton surrounds the plot with vital trivia about Victorian England’s socioeconomic conditions, architecture, and burial practices.

Readers will close the novel better informed about nineteenth century history and very well entertained.

The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton
Alfred A. Knopf, 1975. 266 p.
1975 bestseller #8. My grade: A-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Greek Treasure: A biographical novel

The Greek Treasure is biographical novel* by the 20th century’s master of that form, Irving Stone, whose books on Freud, Michelangelo, and Mary Todd Lincoln were top-10 bestsellers.

Photo of circular stone on The Greek Treasuredustjacket
The Greek Treasure lies under a dull lid.

In Greek Treasure, Stone tackles a less familiar subject: 19th century amateur archaeologists Heinrich and Sophia Schliemann.

Sophia has just graduated high school in Athens when her Uncle Vimpos recommends her as wife to a divorced, self-made millionaire twice her age.

Henry Schliemann says he wants a poor but well-educated woman who loves Homer and will assist him in digging with pick and shovel to prove that Homer’s Troy was a real place.

Sophia is young, flattered, and willing to marry her family’s choice, sure she will learn to love him after they’re married.

Greek Treasure suffers from the perennial problems of Stone’s extensively-researched novels: Much of the source material is dry-as-dust.

Readers get very few glimpses into the inner lives of the characters that little comes mainly from self-edited documents.

Stone is a skillful writer, but this particular book is probably not one that will attract many 21st century readers. Baby Boomers were the last generation to know where the Dardanelles are, and millennials know Homer only as a character on The Simpsons.

The Greek Treasure by Irving Stone
A Biographical Novel of Henry and Sophia Schliemann
Doubleday [1975] Book Club Edition 470 p.
1975 bestseller #7. My grade: B

*Stone used the term “bio-histories” instead of the publishers’ term “biographical novels.”

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Eagle Has Landed

German SS is central to The Eagle Has Landed.

The Eagle Has Landed is a World War II novel that manages to be both exciting and nuanced.

The novel is about a 1943 German plot to kidnap Winston Churchill in a commando operation, which Himmler thinks might make Hitler happy.

Himmler selects Colonel Max Radl, a terminally ill officer, to coordinate the top secret mission.

By coincidence, a spy living on a remote, unprotected stretch of English coastline reports that Churchill will be staying overnight nearby on November 6.

Radl pulls together an unlikely team led by Kurt Steiner, a German officer in disgrace for helping a Jew, with aid from Irish Republican Army operative Liam Devlin and hindrance from Harvey Preston, a captured English soldier who defected to the SS.

Steiner’s dozen commandos parachute in to join Devlin, who had already secured the necessary equipment for the snatch.

Then things start going wrong.

Novelist Jack Higgins’ characters are puzzling, contradictory personalities, not your typical war novel stereotypes. In fact, the Eagle’s battle-hardened German soldiers are too nice. Joseph Wambaugh’s Choirboys would be more believable. They’d fit in with American Colonel Shafto, who thinks nobody can run a war as well as he.

Despite that highly intriguing flaw, The Eagle lives up to his book jacket blurbs.

The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins
Pocket Books ©1975 [paper] 1st ed. 390 p.
1975 bestseller #6. My grade: A-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Choirboys are no angels

The Choirboys in blue carry billy clubs like this one.

Author Joseph Wambaugh knows cops. He worked 14 years for the Los Angeles Police Department until, with two novels and a nonfiction book to his credit, he quit to write full time.

The Choirboys is a about five sets of partners working the LAPD night shift. They are an oddly-assorted bunch, including military veterans, college graduates, do-gooders and do-others-first types.

They have nothing in common except the shared misery of doing a thankless job directed by incompetent supervisors for a public that hates their guts — and choir practice.

Choir practice is what the boys in blue call their weekly booze and broads bacchanals in MacArthur Park.

Officially, choir practice doesn’t happen because nothing LAPD officials refuse to admit happens, happens.

The guys in the patrol cars are on their own with disastrous results.

Less a novel than a collection of episodes, without Wambaugh’s frequent references to the shooting that would happen later The Choirboys would hardly pass for a novel: 10 main characters are about eight too many.

Wambaugh gets the details right, though. The topics of conversation and the language remind me of working the police beat as a newspaper reporter—and of why I hated working the police beat.

Cops are not choir boys.

The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh
Delacorte Press ©1975 346 p.
1975 bestseller #1. My grade: B

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Looking for Mr. Goodbar: A powerful depressant

The woman’s position is decidedly uncomfortable.

Theresa Dunn is nobody you’d particularly notice. She’s an average looking girl with average intelligence who teaches first grade in a New York City school.

One of five children, Terry like millions of others attended parochial schools and like thousands of others was paralyzed by polio in the decade after World War II.

Polio made Theresa different.

That and the accidental death of her beloved elder brother who was more like a father to her than her father.

Hospitalization warped Terry.

Afterward she yearns for love and fears its impermanence.

In the sixties, she slips into the drug culture, looking to booze, marijuana, and sex to fill the hollow left from childhood.

Novelist Judith Rossner’s rendition of the vibe of Terry’s childhood trauma felt right to me: I survived a far less serious case of polio.

Whether Terry’s childhood trauma predestined her to adult misery and led to her murder is open to debate — and in today’s opioid epidemic is worth debating.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar is a slender novel on a serious topic, quickly read but not easily forgotten.

It is, however, a profoundly depressing novel.

Ready your preferred drug—good chocolate, hot tea, or a copy of Pollyanna—for a chaser.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar by Judith Rossner
Simon and Schuster ©1975 284 p.
1975 bestseller #4. My grade: A

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Curtain: Poirot’s last case

In Curtain, the last Hercule Poirot mystery, novelist Agatha Christie takes Poirot back to the setting of the 1920 novel that began the series: Styles Court.

That’s a mustache under  the Curtain.

As then, Poirot is joined by Captain Hastings. Unlike then, Poirot is now old, deformed by arthritis, using a wheelchair.

Styles Court is now a guest house. Poirot has persuaded Hasting’s daughter, Judith, and the Franklins, who are her boss and his wife, to come to Styles Court.

There are other people staying at the house, Poirot and Hastings have never met.

Poirot has asked Hastings to come to help him investigate the guests and prevent a murder which he is sure is going to be committed.

Poirot has already identified five seemingly unrelated murder cases in which no one doubted who the murderer was. Yet Poirot believes the person responsible for all five of the murders was someone else—a person who is at Styles Court.

With Poirot confined to a wheelchair, it’s up to Hastings to do the legwork.

Poirot fans will appreciate this unexpected end to the 55-year series.

For those who don’t know him, Curtain is not a good introduction to the little Belgian with the mustache.

Curtain by Agatha Christie
Dodd, Mead [1975] 1st ed. 238 p.
1975 bestseller #3. My grade: B

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni