A Stranger in the Mirror

A Stranger in the Mirror is the story of a two people who have miserable childhoods and come to Hollywood in search of the attention they crave.

dust jacket of "A Stranger in the Mirror" shows Toby Temple totally alone in blackness.
In the darkness, comedian Toby Temple is at the microphone.

Born in Detroit during the Depression, Toby Temple has a domineering mother who convinces him he is going to be famous.

He’s furious when he isn’t an overnight success.

He finally submits to learning his craft, but he never stops trying to get even with the people who didn’t recognize his greatness.

Josephine Czinski, deprived at birth of oxygen for four minutes, she gets awful, recurring headaches when she’s stressed.

Raised by her widowed mother, a Polish seamstress caught up in a fire-and-brimstone religious sect, the girl has a lot of stress.

Josephine gets on a bus in Odessa, Texas, and get off in Hollywood as Jill Castle, one of hundreds of beautiful girls with dreams of stardom and no talent for acting.

Like Toby, she becomes an accomplished hater.

Without dragging readers through the dirt with them, Sidney Sheldon tells the story of two pathetically damaged individuals leading sordid lives in city full of people just like themselves.

It’s compelling reading, complete with what can only be described as a Hollywood ending: Unexpected, predictable, and dramatic.

A Stranger in the Mirror by Sidney Sheldon
Morrow, 1976. 321 p.
1976 bestseller #10. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Touch Not the Cat

The mistress of atmospherics, Mary Stewart, set Touch Not the Cat on a decaying estate—complete with a moat and a maze—held in trust for the elder of two identical twins.

cat figure in mosaic tile is on dust jacket of Touch Not the Cat
This mosaic tile cat should not be touched.

When Ashley Court’s owner is killed by a hit-and-run driver, his 22-year-old daughter, returns to England to settle the estate.

The manor house is being rented by American tycoon’s family, but Bryony’s father gave her an adjacent cottage that’s not part of the trust in which she can live.

He also passed down to Bryony “the Gift”—telepathic ability— handed down the generations ever since it led to an Ashley ancestor being burned at the stake.

Bryony has been communicating telepathically with a relative she thinks of as her “phantom lover,” but she has not yet discovered which of the Ashley men he is.

I’m not sure how Stewart’s characters got from the end of the penultimate chapter to beginning of the final one, but she certainly paced the novel well and kept my interest.

Stewart’s characters are just well enough developed for her to move them through the maze—both figurative and literal—of the story.

Plot, not personalities, is the draw in this semi-spooky thriller.

Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart
Morrow, 1976. 336 p.
1976 bestseller #9. My grade: B

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Lonely Lady is alliterative, not accurate

The title character of The Lonely Lady, JeriLee Randall, is a lady only for alliterative purposes.

closeup of a sexy blonde with half her face in shadow
She looks better than she is.

For all other purposes she’s, at best, a slut.

JeriLee is beautiful and brilliant, as are all Harold Robbins’ protagonists unless they are men, in which case they are handsome and brilliant.

JeriLee is a small town girl who wants to be a writer. She marries a writer. They divorce.

JeriLee lacks the business savvy and connections to make it as a writer on her own.

She falls back on acting, then on dancing, finally ends up in a nude review.

She drinks heavily and uses drugs. Although she’s not selling drugs, she gets caught when the guy with whom she’s living gets caught dealing.

She ends up in a mental institution, from which she’s rescued by the police detective who arrested her. Surprisingly, she neither marries him nor has sex with him.

What she does is write a screenplay that wins an Academy Award and lets a stoned JeriLee tell off the world as the TV cameras role.

Robbins is a great storyteller, but his stories aren’t worthy of his talent.

With Lady, as always with Robbins’ novels, I had forgotten the title character’s name within 15 minutes of laying down the book.

The Lonely Lady by Harold Robbins
Pocket Books ©1976 [paper] 421 p.
1976 bestseller #8. My grade: C+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Slapstick: or, Lonesome no more!

As he did in Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut begins Slapstick: or Lonesome No More with a personal reference.

A clown with SLAPSTICK written where his lips should be is on novel's cover
Slapstick’s clownish dust jacket cover hides a serious message.

Vonnegut tells of flying with his brother to their uncle’s funeral and missing their sister who died from cancer two days after her husband died in a accident, leaving four children to be brought up by family members.

That, and seeing a performance of Tosca, starts him imagining a novel in the spirit of Laurel and Hardy who “did their best with every test.”

Slapstick is a series of loosely connected episodes about Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, M.D., age 100, currently one of three inhabitants of the Empire State Building (most other residents of Manhattan have been killed by plague) and former president of the United States.

Swain won the Presidency with the slogan “Lonesome No More” and instituted a program in which Americans were assigned to families identifiable by middle names consisting of a noun and a number.

Vonnegut’s absurd characters are no more real than a Laurel and Hardy sketch, but realism is not his point.

His characters are parables, zany to get your attention and direct it to a message:

“Human beings need all the relatives they can get—as possible donors or receivers not necessarily of love, but of common decency.”

Slapstick: or, Lonesome no more!
By Kurt Vonnegut. ©1976. 243 p.
Delacorte Press/S.Lawrence
1976 bestseller #7. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

1876: America the scandalous

In his bestseller Burr, Gore Vidal swaddled the story of America’s babyhood into a tale about a law clerk for Aaron Burr’s who uses his insider knowledge to launch a journalistic career.

In his novel 1876, after living 40 years in Europe, Charlie returns to America accompanied by his widowed daughter, Emma, the Princess d’Agrigente.

Both father and daughter are broke.

Charlie hopes to get himself appointed minister to France by the next American president and find Emma a rich second husband. He’ll use his journalism skills to gain access to the right people.

In 1876 America celebrated her first Centennial, but the country’s mood was not happy.

The Civil War is over, but the country is still divided.

Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency is rocked by scandals.

Armies of disabled and unemployed soldiers beg on the streets.

Bribery is rampant.

A small coterie of ultra-rich, Astors and Vanderbilts, run the economy to their advantage but thousands, including Charlie, lost their life savings in the Panic of 1873.

Irish, Italians, and Chinese lured to the U.S. are “taking jobs away from our own people.”

“Half the people don’t even speak English.”

Native Americans rise in violent rebellion at Little Big Horn.

One presidential candidate refuses to disclose his tax returns.

And the man who wins the 1876 popular vote fails to get the presidency.

Vidal lays bare the character of the nation at the end of its first century in this entertaining tale enlivened with Charlie’s wry comments.

1876 by Gore Vidal
Random House, ©1976, 362 p.
1976 bestseller #6. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Deep: Inexperience leads to trouble

Jaws author Peter Benchley returned to the bestseller list in 1976 with The Deep, a more exotic and less frightening novel.

Dust jacket cover of "The Deep" shows sky and sea in dark shades of blue.
A woman in a bikini is in The Deep.

Newly-weds David and Gail Sanders have come to Bermuda to do some diving. Both have done some diving, but neither is experienced enough to know how to keep out of trouble.

On their first dive, they find several items that appear to have come the shipwrecked Goliath, including a small glass ampule containing liquid. No one can—or will—tell them what it might be, but someone claiming to be a glass collector offers them $50 for the ampule.

They won’t sell: They don’t like his attitude.

They seek help from Romer Treece, a local wreck recovery expert with long experience and scant patience with inexperienced know-it-alls like David.

Treece discovers their finds are authentic and dangerous: The cargo on the Goliath is worth millions to the wrong people.

As he did in Jaws, Benchley infuses his thriller with information. Here, through Treece, he talks about everything from the habits of moray eels to 18th century Spanish history and techniques for researching shipwrecks.

And through Treece, Benchley tells know-it-alls like David how to grow up:

A lot of people want to prove something to themselves, and when they do something they think’s impressive, then they’re impressed themselves. The mistake is, what you do isn’t the same as what you are. …

The feeling’s a lot richer when you do something right, when you know something has to be done and you know what you’re doing, and then you do something hairy.

The Deep by Peter Benchley
Doubleday, 1976. 301 p.
1976 bestseller #5. My grade: A-

Storm Warning: heroism where none’s expected

Storm Warning is an implausible and irresistible tale of heroism in unlikely places.

A tattered Nazi flag rises above the words Storm Warning
This flag tops a 3-masted sailing ship, badly battered.

Novelist Jack Higgins weaves together several stories, each worthy of a novel on its own.

The book opens in  Brazil in August, 1944, as Captain Berger’s three-masted German sailing ship, disguised as a Swedish vessel, sets sail for Germany 5,000 miles away.

On board is a crew of 22 men and seven passengers, five of them nuns.

If his wooden vessel survives Atlantic storms, Captain Berger will have to sail along Scotland’s treacherous western coast which, as WWII winds down, is dominated by American and British ships and planes.

In London, American doctor Janet Munro has leave from patching up air raid victims to visit her severely wounded uncle, Rear Admiral Carey Reeve on Fhada Island off Scotland.

Crossing Scotland, Janet and her Navy escort Harry Jago cross paths with Paul Gericke, who had just pulled off a U-Boat attack on Falmouth.

All the characters converge on Fhada Island just as the storm of the century whips up.

Higgins presents a rousing adventure story supported by precisely-drawn characters captured in vivid verbal snapshots.

The story has too many coincidences to withstand scrutiny, but while you are reading, Higgins will make you believe every word.

Storm Warning by Jack Higgins
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976, 311 p.
1976 bestseller #4. My grade: A-

Jacqueline Susann’s Dolores is her best

It’s no oversight that Jacqueline Susann’s Dolores omits the usual disclaimer that any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidence.

Dolores with sunglasses pushed up on her forehead
Sunglasses protect the ex- first lady Dolores Ryan’s privacy.

Title character Dolores Ryan is the widow of a popular U.S. president assassinated in a southern state; details about that assassination are echoed in Dolores as are other society gossip column details about Jack Kennedy.

Susann takes those tidbits, invents a childhood for Dolores, creates a private personality for her, and then proceeds to explore what someone with that personality would do when she suddenly finds herself out of a job as First Lady.

After a discrete year of mourning out of the limelight, Dolores begins trolling for a sex partner with money. When Dolores says money, she means tens of millions.

And she wants those millions attached to someone at the highest rungs of the social ladder.

Can Dolores get what she wants?

Notably for Susann, Dolores is a slender novel, due in no small part to the novelist’s decision to leave the details of Dolores’s sexual encounters to readers’ imaginations.

What’s left isn’t great literature, but it’s a far better piece of fiction than any of her earlier novels.

Jacqueline Susann’s Dolores
William Morrow. ©1976, 201 p.
1976 bestseller #2. My grade: B

Sleeping Murder: The last of Miss Marple

Sleeping Murder is the last of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries, and like Curtain it was prepared for posthumous publication.

All-text front dust jacket of Sleeping Murder
There’s nothing on this cover to keep readers awake.

In Sleeping Murder, a young couple from New Zealand, Gwenda and Giles Reed, both the only remaining members of their families, have come to settle in England.

The Victorian villa they buy in a small seaside town feels strangely familiar to Gwenda. She learns she and her father had lived in the house very briefly as a small child.

Then Gwenda has a terrifying vision of a woman lying strangled at the foot of the stairway.

Because of the family connection, Gwenda and Giles begin poking into the history of the house.

Miss Marple, visiting friends in the village, urges them to “let sleeping murders lie” but they persist.

Readers familiar with Christie’s Miss Marple will know how the silver-haired sleuth puts tea and scones together and to come up with the obvious solution.

Readers who don’t know Miss Marple may wish to make her acquaintance via one of the 14 earlier cozy mysteries featuring her, beginning with The Murder at the Vicarage, published in 1930.

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie
Dodd, Mead. ©1976, 242 p.
1976 bestseller #2. My grade: B

Trinity: Easy reading Irish history

Leon Uris’s Trinity is a huge doorstop of a novel about the socioeconomic and political history of Ireland from the early nineteenth century into World War I.

Trinity's dust jacket has colored bands of green, white, and orange
Color bands represent Ireland’s Catholics, English, and Protestants.

Through those years, Uris focuses on three families with different loyalties.

A Catholic family named Larkins scratch a bare subsistence from hillside farms in Ballyutogue.

The Hubble family headed by the Earls of Foyle, English aristocrats, owe their position and wealth to England.

The MacLeods, a Belfast shipbuilding family, is committed to the Scottish-Presbyterian Protestantism and the British Crown that established them in Ulster for reasons of state.

Uris weaves the three families together through a single character, Conor Larkin, age 12 as the story opens and 43 when he dies in 1916 fighting for his vision of an independent Ireland.

Reading Trinity, I realized that what little I know of Irish history has come primarily through the filter of English novelists. It had never registered with me that the position of Ireland in nineteenth century (and beyond) was like that of America in the eighteenth century: a colony.

Uris wraps his fictional characters in cloaks of history and as he unwraps the historical figures from them, simultaneously providing good entertainment with a substantial history lesson.

Trinity by Leon Uris
Doubleday, 1976. 751 p.
1976 bestseller #1. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni