Message from Nam

A helicopter flies against a camouflage background
Camo isn’t normal for Steel.

Message from Nam is a surprising departure from Danielle Steel’s typical romances. And it’s also far better than they.

Paxton Andrews, a Georgia teen who idolized her late father and is emotionally estranged from her mother and brother, chooses UC Berkeley for college.

Within months, she falls in love with a law student who has burned his draft card. When drafted, Peter chooses to serve, despite his opposition to America’s involvement in Viet Nam. Five days into his first tour of duty, he’s killed by “friendly fire.”

Paxton drops out of college a few credits short of her journalism degree.

Peter’s father, who owns the San Francisco Morning Sun, agrees to let Paxton go to Saigon as a reporter for six months.

Paxton extends her assignment to seven years, writing her “Message from Nam” until she catches the last helicopter out of Saigon.

The novel has the usual romantic bits, including an ending that feels downright fraudulent, but the bulk of the book is Steel’s retelling of the headline news of 1963 through 1975.

Of all of Steel’s novels I’ve read thus far for GreatPenformances, Message from Nam is the most atypical and the most memorable. It stands out as an historical snapshot.

Message from Nam by Danielle Steel
Delacourt Press. ©1990. 411 p.
1990 bestseller #4; my grade: B

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Memories of Midnight

Memories of Midnight by Sidney Sheldon is perfect for Hollywood: action-packed, implausible, and bloody.
The lettering’s graceful.

Like many of his other novels, Sidney Sheldon’s Memories of Midnight reads like the story line for a film. The characters are broadly described, the action is  fast-paced, and the plot is connected by linkages readers have to take on faith.

Catherine Douglas awakens one night in a convent remembering her name and nothing else. However, Constantin “Costa” Demiris, a nasty piece of work who is determined to get his revenge on anyone who ever hurt him in any way, remembers Catherine.

Demiris killed her husband and her husband’s lover. Now he hires an assassin to kill Catherine. Meanwhile, Demiris gives her a job in one of his offices and showers her with attention so he can keep an eye on her.

Demiris and his brother-in-law, Spyros Lambrou, hate each other. Lambrou hates Demiris for his treatment of Melina, who is his sister and Demiris’s wife.

There several other dastardly plots, related only because they’re in the same novel. Melina eventually realizes what a crud Demiris is, which precipitates the story’s ending. At the end of Memories of Midnight, there’s a dramatic rescue, a suspense-filled climax, and the villains get their just deserts.

It’s all action-packed, implausible, and bloody.

In short, it’s perfect for Hollywood, but a lousy novel.

Memories of Midnight by Sidney Sheldon
William Morrow. ©1990. 399 p.
1990 bestseller #4; my grade: C-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Burden of Proof

Gold type picked out with red on black background substitutes for art
Legal story is artless.

Scott Turow’s  The Burden of Proof is a novel about the people—lawyers, judges, cops, and clients— who facilitate or impede the administration of justice.

Alejandro “Sandy” Stern arrives home from a business trip to find his wife has committed suicide.

Sandy seems to be the only person shocked.

Sandy’s major client, Dixon Hartness, is the proprietor of a commodities trading firm who is routinely in trouble with federal regulators. He’s in deep trouble now: Federal prosecutors suspect he has been using his insider knowledge and possibly clients’ funds to make a killing in futures trading.

Sandy has reasons to worry. Dixon is not only his sister’s wife, but the employer of his daughter’s husband. And Sandy’s wife wrote Dixon a check for nearly a million dollars just before her suicide.

Sandy solves all the mysteries, not because he’s such a smart lawyer, but because people trust him. Even if Sandy works for disreputable clients, he personally is an honorable man.

I found Burden of Proof impossible to put down. The story’s financial and legal issues are as timely as the morning’s news. Besides that, Turow’s characters are such believable people that you feel you’d recognize them if you met them on the street.

The Burden of Proof by Scott Turow
Farrar Straus Giroux. 1990. 515 p.
1990 bestseller #3; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Four Past Midnight: novellas

burning gap at 12:04 on clock face marks 4 past midnight
It’s horrors time.

Four Past Midnight is a set of four Stephen King novellas in a single wrapper, each with a different way of scaring readers.

The first novella, “The Langoliers,” takes a science fiction approach. In it, 11 passengers on a flight from L.A. to Boston wake to find they’ve slipped into a people-less world where they are the likely next victims of some unseen menace eating its way across America.

In the “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” a novelist is menaced by someone who claims the novelist stole his story.

“The Library Policeman” turns a child’s fear of what will happen if library books aren’t returned on time into a tale of a real monster who sexually abuses children while maintaining the guise of something other-worldly.

“The Sun Dog” is a tale of technology: A Polaroid camera takes photographs of objects that aren’t visible to the naked eye.

King is at his best in the stories that open with situations that make adult readers uncomfortable. “Secret Window” revolves around a perennial problem for fiction writers: Is their work really original? The “Library” story opens with a man who is picked at the last minute to give a speech to Rotary and has to ask the librarian for help.

Four Past Midnight by Stephen King
Viking, ©1990. 763 p.
1990 bestseller #2; my grade: C+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

 

GreatPenformances’ top picks in Fine Books blog again

screenshot of blog post Fine Books and Collections‘ blog began 2020 with GreatPenformaces reviewer Linda Aragoni’s look back at 1919’s bestsellers orchestrated by Nate Pedersen, contributing writer for the magazine.

Of the 1919 bestsellers, Aragoni named In Secret by Robert W. Chambers as both her personal favorite and the novel she thinks has the most appeal to readers in the year 2020.

This is the fifth year Pedersen and Aragoni have collaborated to provide a 100-year retrospective to readers of Fine Books and Collections’ blog.

Read the entire post here.

The Plains of Passage by Auel

Alya, Jondalar, Whinney and Wolf look over the plains
Plains are empty of people.

In The Plains of Passage, Jean M. Auel picks up her story of Alya and Jondalar’s horseback trip from the Black Sea westward along the Danube, across a glacier, and on to Jondalar’s home into what is today France.

Alya fears Jondalar’s family won’t like her.

He worries he might not be able to father a child by her.

They meet few people on their travels. Those they meet are astonished that they ride horses instead of eating them and severely frightened by Alya’s tame wolf.

The pair win friends by sharing their knowledge. Alya is a medicine woman, animal trainer, inventor of a sewing needle, and discoverer of stones that, when struck, produce sparks for fire.

Jondalar is skilled in working flint for knives and spearheads, and inventor of a spear-throwing device that makes hunting big game easier.

To liven up the book, Auel provides a blow-by-blow description of each time Alya and Jondalar have sex. By comparison to Auel’s description of the sex life of the woolly mammoth, it’s pretty hot stuff.

Most of the book is taken up with descriptions of the geography and plant and animal life along the traveler’s route. It would be more interesting as a National Geographic program.

The Plains of Passage by Jean M. Auel
Vol. 3 in the Earth’s Children™ series
Crown. ©1990. 760 p.
1990 bestseller #1; my grade: C

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

While My Pretty One Sleeps

Title page of "While My Pretty One Sleeps"Mary Higgins Clark’s While My Pretty One Sleeps is a traditional murder mystery in the “cozy” tradition, but set in New York City.

The novel opens with a man from New York driving 35 miles through a snow storm to dump the body of a woman he murdered beside a steep path in Morrison State Park.

Safely back in the city, he realizes “the one ghastly mistake he had made, and knew exactly who would almost inevitably detect it.”

The late Ethel Lambston hadn’t been a particularly popular woman. The 60-ish freelance writer had a knack for annoying people which she practiced until her tongue was lethal.

Her ex-husband had been so glad to be shut of her that he opted for life-long alimony payments that are keeping him and his second wife in poverty 20 years later.

Douglas, her nephew and sole living relative resents her treating him like a lackey.

Even the fashion designer Ethel paid to select her outfits for her, Neeve Kearny, didn’t like her much.

And Neeve’s father, former NYC police commissioner Myles Kearney, had met Ethel once and never wanted to see her again.

Well-plotted and well-paced, While My Pretty One Sleeps is formula fiction, but done well enough that readers won’t object.

While My Pretty One Sleeps by Mary Higgins Clark
Simon and Schuster. ©1989. 318 p.
1989 bestseller #10; my grade: B

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni