The Man from St. Petersburg

Dust jacket uses red type to suggest The Man from St. Petersburg is targeted for death.
Targeted man faces symbols of empires

In The Man from St. Petersburg, Ken Follett once again spins an imaginary tale around an actual attempt to win a war by misdirection. Here his focus is World War I.

All Europe knows war is inevitable: Germany has the continent’s strongest army and it wants Alsace and Lorraine back.

England is militarily weak. She and France will need a third ally against Germany.

The Czar wants an alliance with England; he’s sent Prince Orlov to London to seek one.

Winston Churchill taps the Earl of Walden to handle negotiations for England. Walden’s Russian wife is Orlov’s cousin.

Before their marriage, Lady Walden had a lover in St. Petersburg, a poor, militant radical; when her family found out, they had Feliks arrested and tortured. To save his life, she agreed to marry Lord Walden.

The couple have a daughter making her debut in society in 1914 just as Feliks, hardened by imprisonment in Siberia, has come to London to kill Orlov.

Compared to his ordinary blokes, Follett’s upper crust characters are two-dimensional, and unfortunately the focus in The Man is on the social and political elite.

Only Follett’s generous sprinkling of 1914 historical trivia raise the novel above the ordinary.

The Man from St. Petersburg by Ken Follett
W. Morrow. © 1982. 323 p.
1982 bestseller #10. My grade: B

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

2010: Odyssey Two

Dust jacket foreground for “2010” is a spacecraft far from earth; background is a womb-like object in space.
A baby in the womb?

The novel 2010: Odyssey Two is a follow up to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Although Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001, Stanley Kubrick’s movie version was released before the novel was published and thus became “the right” version.

Clarke accepted the inevitable, writing a sequel to the movie version.

People who have seen the movie will know the background. People like me who haven’t will be hard pressed to make any sense of the novel.

As best I can make out from 2010, in 2001, a Discovery expedition failed because the ship’s computer system, HAL, refused to obey orders. A crewman, Dave Bowman, was left stranded in space, the rest of the crew killed. Bowman’s last words were, “My God, it’s full of stars.”

A new joint US and Russian mission is being sent to Jupiter. They hope to recover data on the abandoned Discovery before the Chinese, already in space, can get it.

The Chinese, however, aren’t after the data: Their aim is Europa, where they say they have found life.

Life is what isn’t in Clarke’s novel. It’s a story for folks who sleep with a slide rule on their bedside tables.

None of Clarke’s characters is as human as HAL.

2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke
Ballantine Books, 1st ed. ©1982. 291 p.
1982 bestseller #9. My grade: C

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

North and South

images of steel mill and West Point cadet separated by words NORTH AND SOUTH from image of South Carolina plantation
the people are all 1-dimensional

Take all the novels you’ve ever read about America’s Civil War, put them in your Magic Bullet, push the on button, and you’d have John Jakes’s novel North and South.

The novel contrasts two families whose ancestors came to America in the 1600s.

The Mains were aristocratic French Protestants who settled in South Carolina.

The first Hazard in America was a working-class English teen who had murdered his stepfather. That lad went to work in the Pennsylvania iron industry.

In 1842 Orry Main and Charles Hazard meet as plebes at the Military Academy at West Point. They become life-long friends despite their different temperaments and backgrounds.

Jakes follows the two men and their families up through Lincoln’s election and the South’s secession.

The dust jacket notes say the novel is “filled with memorable characters, many of them captured from the pages of history.”

Actually, all the memorable characters are from history.

Jakes gives his fictional characters labels and then moves them around like paper dolls.

It’s interesting that Congressman Daniel Boone proposed a bill to close the Military Academy, which was regarded contemptuously in both North and South, but historical trivia is insufficient compensation for characters who are stereotypes.

North and South by John Jakes
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1st ed. ©1982. 740 p.
1982 bestseller #8. My grade: C

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Different Seasons: 4 novellas

If you think Stephen King is a one-track writer, the four novellas in Different Seasons will change your mind. Each of them deserves a review of its own.

To package the four novellas in a single cover, the stories are linked by what might be thought of as chapter headers that play off the names of the seasons.

A circle divided into quarters, each quarter containing an icon for one of the seasons
Mysterious, almost romantic images

“Hope Springs Eternal” is the chapter heading for Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, a story about a man unjustly imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit and his eventual escape.

Many readers will recognize it from the 1994 film version, Shawshank Redemption.

“Summer of Corruption” is the header for Apt Pupil, a horrific tale about a 13-year-old who becomes fascinated by World War II concentration camps. One day Todd sees a old man who resembles an SS officer who ran one of the camps and pays him a visit.

Cover art on black background is a circle split into quarters containing icons for the seasons.“Fall from Innocence” is the header for The Body, a story in which four young boys go to see the body of a boy their own age who’d been reported missing in the Maine woods.

“A Winter’s Tale” is the header for The Breathing Method, a story told by a doctor about an unwed woman determined to have her baby.

Different Seasons by Stephen King
Viking Press, 1982. 527 p.
1982 bestseller #7. My grade: B

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Valley of Horses

Cover of “The Valley of Horses” shows Ayla, sling in hand, looking at horses
Ayla’s a whiz with her slingshot

For most of its length, Jean M. Auel’s The Valley of Horses* is two stories about prehistoric Europe.

In the first story,  a young woman who has been turned out of her adoptive home finds an unoccupied cave in a remote valley.

Ayla is tall, blonde, and beautiful, a skilled hunter, healer, and toolmaker.

She tames a wild colt and a great lion cub, but she’d rather have a human mate.

Meanwhile, 1,000 miles away, two human brothers are setting out to explore.

Their journey takes them to a riverside village where Thonolan meets and loses the love of his life.

Despondent, Thonolan packs to leave. Jondalar, fearing for his brother’s mental state, accompanies him, though he’d rather go back home.

After losing their boat and belongings, the brothers end up in the mountains where Thonolan is killed by Ayla’s lion and Jondalar—Did I mention he’s a gorgeous hunk?— is rescued by Ayla.

Valley is full of fascinating, esoteric information about prehistoric life, but Auel’s depictions of primitive men’s use of language is ludicrous. In one paragraph, strangers are bewildered by each other’s grunts; five sentences later they’re discussing fluid dynamics like engineers in a graduate seminar.

I’ve heard more plausible prehistoric male communication up the street at Bob’s Diner.

The Valley of Horses by Jean M. Auel
Crown. ©1982. 502 p.
1982 bestseller #6. My grade: C

*The Valley of Horses is the second novel in Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children™ series (The Clan of the Cave Bear was the first) and the only one of the series to make the 20th century’s bestsellers list.

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Mistral’s Daughter

The dust jacket of Mistral’s daughter features a red carnation on a bright pink background
A red carnation is Maggy’s signature

Judith Krantz gave the public what it wanted in 1982 with Mistral’s Daughter, which was promptly made into a TV miniseries for which the story is ideally suited.

The story begins when Maggy Lunel, illegitimate and orphaned, arrives in 1920’s Paris to make her fortune as an artist’s model.

Maggy Lunel becomes Julien Mistral’s model and mistress, the subject of his first successful paintings, then loses him after his first successful show.

Maggy becomes the mistress of an American who dies suddenly leaving their daughter, Teddy, for her to raise.

She goes to work, eventually opening a modeling agency.

On a photo shoot in France for Maggy’s agency, Teddy meets and falls for Mistral  and bears him daughter, Fauve.

When Teddy is accidentally killed, Mistral gives Fauve to Maggy to raise.

When Fauve is a teenager, Mistral invites her to spend summers in Provence.

Maggy can find no reason to refuse without telling Fauve about her own sexual relationship with Mistral.

Although it’s a page-turner, Mistral’s Daughter wouldn’t suffer if it had fewer pages.

The novel’s happy ending suggests all the wrong done by an artist is automatically cancelled by his art.

The popularity of that ethical assertion doesn’t make it true.

Mistral’s Daughter by Judith Krantz
Crown Publishers ©1982. 531 p.
1982 bestseller #5. My grade: C-

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Master of the Game

 Blood and diamond on dust jacket of “Master of the Game”
That’s a diamond dripping blood.

Sidney Sheldon begins and ends Master of the Game at the 90th birthday party of Kate Blackwell, a rich, powerful, controlling woman.

Between the first and last chapters, Sheldon retraces the Blackwell history since 1900.

Jamie McGregor leaves Scotland at age 18 to pick up a fortune in African diamonds.

Picking up diamonds turns out to be more difficult than he expects, but Jamie is a hard worker and fast learner.

He makes sure the people who took advantage of him as a greenhorn are amply repaid when he makes his fortune.

Kate, Jamie’ daughter, inherits her father’s business empire, his compulsion to have the power money brings, and the brains to get it.

Kate has identical twin daughters, Alexandra who is a decent human being, and Eve, who is as pathologically power hungry as her mother and grandfather.

Master of the Game is typical Sheldon. The plot is simple and colorful.

The leading characters are drawn and colored in broad, cartoon-like strokes.

They use money, sex, and murder as everyday control mechanisms.

None of them ever learns anything except how to be better at being despicable people.

The only surprising facet of Master of the Game is how quickly the novel can be forgotten.

Master of the Game by Sidney Sheldon
W. Morrow. 1st ed. ©1982. 495 p.
1982 bestseller #4. My grade: C-

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Parsifal Mosaic

Robert Ludlum’s The Parsifal Mosaic is aptly named: The novel seems composed of millions of bits of information.

front of “The Parsifal Mosaic” suggests gun pointed toward woman in the dark.
A woman on a beach in moonlight

The central story is rather simple. The White House has been infiltrated by a Russian mole who is not an ordinary KGB mole. This mole works for the VKR, the fanatical wing of the KGB.

This much information is suggested obliquely to Michael Havelock, an ex-field agent for a clandestine branch of the U.S. State Department, by his KGB counterpart, Peytor Rostov.

Rostov knows Havelock was in love with a woman who was murdered, accused of being a Soviet spy.

Rostov also knows the woman never had any KGB affiliation. He can’t understand why the kill was made to look like she did.

Havelock rejects the story until he spots his lover across the platform in a crowded Rome train station.

After that—which all happens in the first 40 pages—Havelock has to find Jenna and learn what happened that night on the beach and who is behind the deceptions.

Ludlum twists and turns and jackknifes his plot. He kept me turning pages, but I’m still not sure I got the entire story straight.

Perhaps The Parsifal Mosaic has just a few too many pieces.

The Parsifal Mosaic by Robert Ludlum
Random House © 1982. 630 p.
1982 bestseller #3. My grade B

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Space: A Novel

James A. Michener was never a man to shrink from big tasks. His 1982 bestselling novel tackled one of the biggest: An exposition of America’s space program.

All-black background with small red circle through which stars can be seen
    A small section of the universe

The novel begins as World War II ends.

Michener applies his tried-and-true formula of showing events through the experiences of fictional characters living at pivotal times.

Michener first introduces four fictional men whose lives will be intertwined with the American space program. Later readers will meet their wives and children.

Through these fictional characters, Michener is able to trace not only the history of America’s space program, but of America’s changing profile.

Although Michener was a gung-ho supporter of the space program—he served for four years to the NASA Advisory Council and had extensive contacts with NASA scientists and engineers—he records with an historian’s eye how people outside the program reacted to it.

Particularly interesting for readers today to see how the space program led to an anti-science movement, the feminist movement, proliferation of fundamentalist religious groups, rise of right wing militants, and a distrust in government in general.

In 1982, Michener’s Space may well have been as prescient as Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here in 1935 or George Orwells’s novel 1984 in 1949.

Space by James A. Michener
Random House. 1st ed. ©1982. 622 p.
1982 bestseller #2. My grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial is extra-terrible as a book

Space craft barely visible in night sky on cover of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Space craft barely visible in night sky

Making a movie version of a great book rarely turns out well. If E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, is anything to go by, turning a great movie into a book is a disaster.

Even people who didn’t see the movie know the general outline of the story: A being from outer space who comes to earth to gather botanical samples, misses the space ship trip home, and is befriended by an American kid, 10-year-old Elliott Thomas.

E.T. gets Elliott and the other two Thomas children, Gertie and Michael, to get him the additional parts he needs to build a transmitter from the Speak and Spell so he can contact his space ship and arrange to go home.

The entry of an UFO into American airspace hasn’t gone unnoticed.

All the resources of America’s government are on the trail of the extra-terrestrial.

They’re no match for the juvenile Dungeons & Dragons fans on bicycles who rush E.T. to the landing site just in time to catch his return flight.

The movie’s special effects made the silly story an entertaining fantasy suitable for children of all ages.

The book renders the story too ridiculous for any reader.

(The website cracked.com ranks E.T. one of the five worst movie-into-book translations of all time.)

E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial
by William Kotzwinkle. Based on
the screenplay by Melissa Mathison
G. P. Putnams. © 1988.  246 p.
1981 bestseller #1. My grade C

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni