Eye of the Needle

“Eye of the Needle” cover. A male figure seen through eye of a bloody stiletto with Nazi symbols.
That’s blood on Farber’s stiletto.

In 1944, the whole world expected the Allies to invade German-held territory on the continent soon.

The question was where.

Ken Follett’s novel Eye of the Needle is based on the hoax of cardboard ships and planes, called the First United States Army Group, that Britain created to suggest they will attack at Calais, near Belgium, rather than at their intended site in Normandy.

From that historical fact, Follett sets up a thrilling cat-and-mouse game in which a German spy, Henry Faber, called “The Needle” because of his preference for the stiletto as a death weapon, discovers the deception and tries to get his evidence back to Germany.

Farber is a professional spy. The other German spies working in England are rank amateurs; Farber has to eliminate them if they see his face.

The spies trying to catch Farber are also little more than amateurs. Percy Goldiman’s specialty is medieval history; before the war Frederick Bloggs was an inspector with Scotland Yard.

The unlikely pair come up with a scheme for getting a photograph of Farber.

Eye of the Needle contains no great philosophical truths, but Follett gets his psychological truths right.

Ordinary people rising to the occasion make this mystery-thriller extraordinary.

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett
Arbor House, ©1978. 313 p.
1978 bestseller #10. My grade: A-

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Second Generation: A Fast read

Second Generation is the second volume of Howard Fast’s trilogy about an Italian immigrant, Dan Lavette.

Cover of Second Generation is collage of drawings of scenes of the novel
Cover collage echoes shifting focus of Fast’s novel “Second Generation.”

As the title suggests, Dan’s children are the focus of this novel, which opens in California during the Depression and ends after World War II.

Dan has two children, Barbara and Tom, by his first wife, Jean, from whom he is divorced; and Joseph, by his second wife, May Ling.

Barbara and Tom have enjoyed all the benefits of Jean’s wealth and social status. Barbara remains emotionally close to her father and to his second family; she’s antagonistic toward her stepfather and ambivalent toward her mother.

Tom is emotionally cold to both his parents. He values his stepfather’s money and connections.

Joseph has coped well with Dan’s Depression-triggered decent from wealthy entrepreneur to mackerel fisherman. Joseph is on course to become a doctor.

Fast provides a fast-reading story, constantly shifting from one character to another, as their divergent interests take them to cinematic situations: a labor strike, Berlin under the Nazis, Hawaii under Japanese attack, India during WWII rationing,

Fast doesn’t show his characters grow; he just shows them changed. History, too, is reduced to scenes; there’s no continuity.

Second Generation provides good entertainment.

If you want something more substantial, you need to go elsewhere.

Second Generation by Howard Fast
Houghton Mifflin, 1978. 441 p.
1978 bestseller #9. My grade: B

Second Generation is the second volume of a trilogy. The first novel of the set, The Immigrants, published a year earlier, didn’t make the bestseller list, but the third volume, The Establishment, published in 1979 did.

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Holcroft Covenant

In the 1970s, a cottage industry of novelists emerged to exploit lingering fears of Nazi Germany.

Cover of “The Holcroft Covenant” American first edition uses Nazi colors red and black. A red bird bleeds through the book's title.
British 1st ed. featured a swastika built of stacks of money.

Robert Ludnum’s The Holcroft Covenant is a product of that movement.

A Swiss bank contacts American architect Noel Holcroft about a trust fund established by his natural father, Heinrich Clausen, and two other Nazis.

The three stole German funds, leaving instructions with their banker for disbursing the stolen money in 30 years to aid survivors and descendants of Holocaust victims.

Signatures from heirs of all trust fund signatories are required for the bank to release the funds, now grown to $780 million.

Noel is to locate those heirs.

What Noel does not know is that at the same time the “repentant Nazis” were setting up the compensation fund, other Nazis were sending thousands of their children to safety so when they became adults in the 1970s, they could establish a Fourth Reich.

Ludnum establishes all that background in the first 10 pages.

The rest of the book is a blur of action with Noel trying to play secret agent, the bad guys shooting everything that moves, and characters with the personalities of Lego blocks.

Ludnum’s epilogue leaves readers with a vision of the future, which we’re seeing come to life in the 21st century.

The Holcroft Covenant by Robert Ludnum
R. Marek Publishers, ©1978. 542 p.
1978 bestseller #8. My grade: B+

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Evergreen but forgetable

Evergreen follows Anna Friedman, a beautiful, red-headed Polish Jew, who comes to America alone as a teenager in the early 1900s.

Cover illustration for Evergreen shows Anna and a mansion in the center and two men on other side of them.
Symbolically, elements on Evergreen‘s cover don’t touch.

Anna works in a factory, learns English, reads and studies until she’s able to get work as a maid in a home of an upper crust banking family. There she falls for the son, Paul Werner.

Anna marries another poor immigrant, Joseph Friedman, who has little use for formal education but a great capacity for learning. He sees a fortune to be made in building.

When times get rough, Joseph sends Anna to appeal to the Werners for a loan. Anna gets the loan and a child by Paul.

The rest of the novel follows Anna and the next three generations of her family up to the 1970s.

Evergreen feels more like linked short stories than a novel. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. Bella Plain was a popular short story writer before Evergreen, her first novel.

Plain’s characters are complex enough for a short story, but not for a novel. She doesn’t show characters growing; she only shows they have changed.

History, too, is relegated to scene changes. Even the holocaust in Evergreen appears antiseptic.

Evergreen is decent entertainment, free of lurid detail, but totally forgettable.

Evergreen by Bella Plain
Delacorte Press, c1978. 593 p.
1978 bestseller #6. My grade: B-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Scruples: A novel about folks without them

Judith Krantz’s novel Scruples is an immorality tale about the sex lives of the super rich and the sycophants who use them.

All-text cover with Krantz'a name in large red type, Scruples in white handwritten type, all on black backround.
Scruples’ content is about as original as its cover.

“Billy” Ikehorn, one of the Boston Winthrop’s poor relations, blossoms into a glamorous, sexy woman during a year in Paris.

A year’s study at Katherine Gibbs lands her a secretarial job at Ikehorn Industries and marriage at age 21 to multimillionnaire Ellis Ikehorn, nearly 40 years her senior.

After his death, Billy is no longer the center of anyone’s world.

To compensate, she builds Scruples, a store where the super-rich can get anything they want and nothing they need.

Billy knows zilch about retailing.

Within six months, the store is already failing.

Billy is tricked into hiring a dress designer and photographer, both talented unknowns, to turn things around.

By contrast to Billy, who is just another self-centered rich girl with a father fixation, the characters in the supporting roles are complex personalities with jobs more interesting than anything in the plot.

Krantz has each of the main characters’ lives turn out right—financially and sexually— in the end.

Krantz writes well enough to be a commercial success, but Scruples is a waste of her talent.

Scruples is drivel.

Scruples by Judith Krantz
Crown, ©1978 [Book Club ed]. 478 p.
1978 bestseller #5. My grade: C

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Bloodline: Old themes revitalized

In Bloodline, Sidney Sheldon takes several tired themes, shakes them together, adds a most unusual detective, and serves up an entertaining, fast-reading mystery.

Couple embracing in front of Italian villa is image on dust jacket of "Bloodline" by Sidney Sheldon
Bloodline isn’t as sexy as the cover implies.

Elizabeth Roffe is the ugly duckling daughter of a wealthy pharmaceutical company CEO.

When her father is killed in a skiing accident, Elizabeth inherits control of the family-owned company.

Roffe and Sons is in financial difficulties and the other family members on the board of directors are clamoring for the company to be taken public.

Elizabeth wants to do what her father would have wanted.

She receives a confidential report her father had ordered which suggests someone has been deliberate sabotaging the company’s most promising projects.

Suddenly Elizabeth herself is in danger.

Elizabeth proposes to Rhys Williams, her father’s right hand man, and makes her new husband head of the company.

Into this romantic thriller, Sheldon inserts Max Hortung, an accountant, computer geek, and financial ferret whose goal in life is to be a police detective.

Max gets computers to tell him things and figures out who the villain is.

Sidney Sheldon has no great message for humanity, but it doesn’t matter.

Bloodline is fun to read and Max deserves to star in his own series of detective novels.

Bloodline by Sidney Sheldon
Morrow, 1978, ©1977. 444 p.
1978 bestseller #4. My grade: B+

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Fools Die: Readers suffer

Fools Die is by The Godfather author Mario Puzo.

Dust jacket of Fools Die has black text on white front, white text on black back.
The figure on Fools Die resembling a 1930s detective isn’t one.

Whereas The Godfather, despite its massive list of characters, was tightly focused and well-constructed, Fools Die is a collection of episodes about casual acquaintances, all of whom have appeared under other names in other novels by other authors.

The story begins in Hotel Xanadu, a Last Vegas gambling resort where four strangers meet at the tables.

One of them, Jordan, almost breaks the bank. Before the other three can hustle him out of Sin City’s temptations, Jordan shoots himself.

The others separate, but Cully and Merlyn keep in touch.

Cully goes to work for the Xanadu’s owner-operator; Merlyn goes back to New York to his wife, his boring job, and the novel that’s going to make him famous.

After that about a half-dozen stories compete for attention as the two men go their separate ways, meeting only when one of them needs a favor he can get from no one else.

A Paul E. Erdman or Arthur Hailey could have made the gambling industry interesting.

Puzo doesn’t.

He doesn’t make his characters plausible either: They sound like character sketches by graduate students in a seminar on a novel, complete with confusing sentence constructions and cringe-worthy grammar.
Let Fools Die alone.

Fools Die by Mario Puzo
Putnam, ©1978. 572 p.
1978 bestseller #3. My grade: C-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

War and Remembrance

Night bombing is symbolic dust jacket cover for  Herman Wouk's"War and Remembrance."
Night time bombings are memorable part of WWII.

Herman Wouk called War and Remembrance a historical romance, a description that barely touches what’s packed into its 3.5 pounds and 1,039 pages.

Wouk picks up the story of an American naval family—Commander Victor “Pug” Henry, his wife, and their three adult children—whom he introduced seven years earlier in The Winds of War.

This novel follows them from the attack on Pearl Harbor through the end of World War II. Wouk uses their stories to transport readers into the wake of war around the globe.

Pug wins promotions, but spends most of his time trying to unsnarl problems abroad at the behest of Roosevelt.

Pug and Rhoda’s eldest son is killed in action, leaving behind a wife and son.

While son Byron serves on submarines in the Pacific, his Jewish wife and their infant son become trapped in Poland.

Rhoda takes a lover, considers divorce.

Pug falls in love; the war continually pulls Pug and Pamela in different directions.

Wouk says frankly his purpose is to show that war must end. He’s too talented a writer to need to preach: His stories preach for him.

To understand War and Remembrance you need not have read Winds but you’ll appreciate both more if you read them as a set.

War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk
Little, Brown, ©1978. 1042 p.
1978 bestseller #2. My grade: A+

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Chesapeake: Delectable, accessible history

James A. Michener can be relied on to give readers their money’s worth and Chesapeake is one of his best bestsellers for contemporary readers.

on cover of James A Michener's novel Chesapeake geese fly over the bay
Geese always drew people to the Chesapeake Bay area.

As he did in Hawaii and Centennial, Michener immerses readers in landscape and history. This time his focus is a roughly 10-mile square area of Maryland’s Eastern Shore marsh lands where the Choptank River flows into Chesapeake Bay.

Michener begins his tale in 1583 when a Susquehannock Indian ostracized for counseling peace finds a welcome with the Choptank tribe and becomes its chief.

After that, Catholics and Quakers come to escape religious persecution, criminals come to escape hanging, slaves come because they are forced to, Irish come to escape starvation.

As the population grows, the intertwined and overlapping interests of these fascinating characters—historical as well as fictional ones—bring them into contact and sometimes into conflict with one another.

Michener displays his usual facility at turning well-researched technical information into spell-binding narrative. Readers will be entertained and informed by Michener’s descriptions of how a crab sheds its shell, boat building, and recipes for crab cakes.

More importantly, they’ll see how race, immigration policies, environmental protection, and education have been turned over the years into political issues that still divide America.

Chesapeake by James A. Michener
Random House, ©1978. 865 p.
1978 bestseller #1. My grade: A

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni