The Spike: Covering the disinformation war

The descender on P in Spike plus hammer and sickle symbolsplits an American flag
Spiked stories about what’s going on in the world let Russia divide the US

The Spike is two international reporters’ attempt to make foreign policy relevant to a mass audience by borrowing  fictional techniques from John le Carré and Ken Follett.

Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss aren’t able to pull it off.

Their story is about Bob Hockney, whose experience at Berkeley during the Vietnam protests led him into journalism.

Hockney wants to investigate how media bias has lulled Americans into discounting Russian malice toward America. He reports from Vietnam, then returns to America to seek whoever is responsible for getting the President and Congress to turn a blind eye to Russian activities.

The story comes to a boil when, as troops invade North Yemen from Aden, the French report Soviet pilots using South Yemeni planes are bombing North Yemen.

Hockney is implausible as a journalist, unmemorable as a protagonist, and ludicrous as a leading man. The story is equally unmemorable.

Despite its  flaws, The Spike  reads like today’s news.

There’s  feuding among White House staff.

The president is alienating America’s allies.

And the premise of The Spike —that Russia is using disinformation to achieve its aim of global supremacy—may be an even more serious threat today than it was in 1980.

The Spike by Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss
Crown Publishers. 1st ed. ©1980. 374 p.
1980 bestseller #10. My grade: B

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

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The Fifth Horseman: Bombs and bureaucrats

A nuclear explosion is background for type on cover of The Fifth Horseman
Nuclear bomb threat is central to this novel.

The Fifth Horseman is a thriller merging 1970s international news and hometown fears in a narrative that still feels contemporary.

Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has devised a plot to trigger a nuclear bomb hidden somewhere in New York City if the Americans don’t get Israel to abandon territories seized from Arabs.

Getting the bomb into New York and getting directions to the White House falls to Kamil and Whalid Dajani and their sister, Laila.

The trio had vowed vengeance for the loss of the family’s West Bank home.

Whalid studied nuclear physics and went to work for the French nuclear program.

Whalid’s political views softened; Kamil’s and Laila’s became harder.

Laila, disguised, delivers the terrorists’ threat.

Gaddafi gives the U.S. 36 hours to comply. Should the U.S. attempt to evacuate the city, Gaddafi will detonate the bomb immediately.

Americans scrambling to respond to the nuclear threat discover they have few options other than to find the bomb and disarm it without news of the crisis leaking out.

Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre had been news reporters before joining forces to write books.  Their first hand observation of political appointees shows in their depiction of inept bureaucrats trying to solve an immediate problem.

That in itself still renders The Fifth Horseman terrifying.

The Fifth Horseman
by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre
Simon and Schuster. ©1980. 478 p.
1980 bestseller #9. My grade: A-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Devil’s Alternative: Politics within politics

Black and red type, red eagle bearing hammer and sickle compose front dust jacket of “The Devils Alternative”
Russian symbols are fixed to the American eagle

As in his three earlier bestsellers, in The Devil’s Alternative Frederick Forsyth puts together a complicated plot against Western democracy.

Here that plot unfolds while the United States thinks it is pulling off a clever scheme to get the Russians to sign an arms deal.

A series of accidents have led to a failure of the Russian grain crop which, in a matter of months, will lead to widespread starvation.

Both the Politburo and the West are sure the Russian people will revolt rather than starve.

America’s intelligence man in Moscow is getting top-secret documents via his old lover, now a secretary to the Politburo.

The documents reveal a power struggle within the Russian leadership. So far, the minority, which has a plan to attack the West with nuclear armaments, is one vote from control.

Meanwhile, a small cell of Ukrainian nationalists are plotting to draw world attention to their demands with a threat to blow up the world’s largest oil tanker, dumping a million barrels of oil into the North Sea.

The tight schedule of events make the plot riveting but leaves no time for Forsyth’s characters to develop.

The result is good entertainment with a tacked-on ending.

The Devil’s Alternative by Frederick Forsyth
Viking Press. 1980, ©1979. 432 p.
1980 bestseller #8. My grade: B+

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Random Winds: Not the usual surgeon story

dust jacket art: Dr. Martin Farrell flanked by his lover in England and wife in New York
Lover and wife on opposite sides of the surgeon

Random Winds begins in the manner of an A. J. Cronin story of a poor boy who becomes a brilliant surgeon.

But nothing I’ve come across in the 20th century’s bestsellers is anything like Belva Plain’s Random Winds.

The liner notes describe the novel as a saga about three generations of doctors, but the story is really about just one of them, Martin Farrell.

There’s the usual faithful wife and alluring temptress, the surgeons clawing for preeminence, the wealth industrialist who comes comes to the rescue with funds for the surgeon’s pet project; those are required in novels about MDs.

Readers see everything in the novel through Martin’s eyes.

Martin is smart, hard-working, principled, essentially decent.

But he also takes everything he sees at face value.

Random Winds is compelling because Martin learns repeatedly that outside the operating room the evidence of his eyes and ears isn’t always true.

It’s not until his daughter, whom he thought would take over his scalpel, chooses a different specialty that Martin realizes what had actually happened in the episodes that were turning points in his life.

Plain’s characters learn and grow so that when they meet after a passage of time they can forgive what they cannot forget.

Random Winds by Belva Plain
Delacorte Press ©1980. 496 p.
1980 bestseller #8. My grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Key to Rebecca

 a woman's photo, swastika are opposite ends of a key
Photo within the key shows woman with mask over her mouth

You’ve seen the plot of The Key to Rebecca in a dozen movies. It’s a World War II thriller with the bad guys coming within a hair’s breadth of beating the good guys.

In Key, the really bad guy is Alex Wolff, an European-trained Egyptian returned home to spy for the Germans.

Wolff’s job is to provide Field Marshall Rommel with information that will allow him to destroy the British in Egypt once and for all.

The really good guy is Major Vandam, a British officer whose knee wound sidelined him to intelligence work.

Wolff slipped up returning to Cairo and killed a man; Vandam is after him.

Vandam meets a beautiful Egyptian Jew, Elene, whom he uses to lure Wolff out where he can grab him.

Wolff has a friend and sometime sex partner, Sonja, who is the most famous belly dancer in Cairo.

He cajoles her into helping him steal documents outlining the Brits’ plan to defend Cairo.

Once he has the documents, Wolff must encode the information and transmit it to the Germans using a code based on the novel Rebecca.

Instead of reading The Key to Rebecca, read Follett’s The Eye of the Needle. It’s a far more original work.

The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett
Morrow, 1st ed. 1980. 381 p.
1980 bestseller #6. My grade: B-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Firestarter is a nonstarter

.Firestarter cover: gold type on basic black.
This copy of Firestarter had no dust jacket.

On the opening page of Stephen King’s Firestarter,  Andy McGee and his daughter, Charlie, 7, are rushing up Third Avenue in New York City at 5:30 p.m.

A green car is following them.

Andy grabs a cab, tells the driver he’ll give him $500 to take them to Albany airport. Andy gives him a dollar, which the cabby accepts as a $500 bill, and they’re off.

The pair have escaped for the time being.

Unlike King’s 1979 bestseller The Dead Zone, which develops from a single premise that readers must take on faith, Firestarter requires readers to accept a whole series of assertions each of which requires a significant suspension of disbelief.

 Girl's haunting eyes seen behind a flame of fire.
Dust jacket that was missing from my copy of Firestarter

Readers learn, for example, that Andy and his wife developed psychic powers after participating in a government-funded test of a hallucinogenic drug while they were college students.

From infancy, Charlie displayed pyrokinetic* power.

The government is now after Charlie.

The feds apparently want to use her instead of nuclear weapons.

Charlie, apart from her psychic powers, acts more like of 21 than a child of 7.

All those elements strain credulity.

But mainly I can’t believe a New York cabbie mistaking a $1 bill for a $500 bill under any amount of psychic push.

Firestarter by Stephen King
Viking Press, 1980. 428 p.
1980 bestseller #5. My grade: B-

*Stephen King coined the word pyrokenetic.

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

‘Princess Daisy’

From the cover of “Princess Daisy,” a silvery-blonde woman's black eyes hold the reader's eyes.
The princess has captivating eyes.

There’s enough raw material—I use the word raw advisedly—in Princess Daisy for a half dozen novels. Unfortunately, Judith Krantz put all of it in one seemingly interminable, disjointed novel.

“Daisy” Vanesky is the elder of twins. Her father, a Russian Prince, rejected her mentally retarded sister. When their mother dies, he places Dani in an institution in England.

At Vanesky’s death, the twins’ older half-brother, appropriately nicknamed Ram, is left to manage the investments Vanesky’s made on behalf of the twins and his mistress, Anabel de Fourment.

When Anabel learns Ram raped Daisy, she sends Daisy to California to attend college with a friend’s daughter.

The women’s investments fail.

Daisy gets work in production of TV commercials, drawing portraits of children on horses to weekends to earn money to pay for Dani’s care.

The real story of how Daisy becomes “Princess Daisy” is crammed into fewer than 100 pages.

Princess Daisy seems to have dozens of subplots, few of which are actually necessary and most of which aren’t particularly interesting.

At the end of a chapter of Princess Daisy, I’d check to see how many more pages I had to read. The answer was always, too many.

Princess Daisy by Judith Krantz
Crown Publishers. 1st ed. ©1980. 464 p.
1980 bestseller #3. My grade: C-

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni