Jubal Sackett is Louis L’Amour’s 1985 offering in what it’s the dust jacket informs me is a series of 17 books about the Sacketts.
Jubal includes TV-guide sized summary of those volumes: Fugitive Barnabas Sackett immigrated from England to America, settling without official sanction in the Tennessee River Valley, where he raised three sons and a daughter.
In Jubal Sackett, anticipating his own death, Barnabas sends Jubal west to find a place where common people like the Sacketts can own land.
Jubal would probably have gone without his father’s commission: He has the wanderlust.
Jubal is scarcely out of the yard when he falls in with a Kickapoo named Keokotah, who has west a smattering of English and a wanderlust equal to his own.
Together they meet an old Natchee Indian who asks Jubal to find the daughter of the Sun, their tribe’s ruling order, who has gone to find a less dangerous place for her people to live.
Jubal can’t refuse a request made in his father’s name.
The rest of the novel is predictable.
There are wild animals, wild Indians, wild Spanish, wild blizzards.
The intrepid hero and his equally intrepid sidekick end up happily in a place with lots to explore, at least until L’Amour’s next Sackett novel.
If you took all the synopses from one issue of TV Guide, mixed them up, randomly drew 100 of them and merged them into a single narrative, you’d end up with something like Jackie Collins’ Lucky.
The dust jacket notes for Lucky select the most positive points made in a New York Times review of the novel. The review cited the novel’s “frenetic” pace, its constantly shifting setting, and concluded that in Lucky, “Miss Collins is at her raunchy best.”
Frenetic, disjointed, and raunchy are not positive characteristics, no matter what a publicist thinks.
Lucky’s plot is absurd, its characters amoral. There aren’t more than three characters in the entire book that a moderately intelligent person would hire to collect the trash.
The best part of the novel was the back cover of the library copy of Lucky that I read. It is a photo of Collins, all in black, against an ominous, gray-swirled background. Collins has wild hair and black-shadowed eyes, each of which appears to be looking in a different direction.
A previous reader had incised a handlebar mustache into the novel’s plastic protector.
The effect was highly amusing.
When a defaced photograph is a novel’s highlight, the book’s not worth reading.
Lucky by Jackie Collins
Simon and Schuster. 1985. 508 p.
1985 bestseller #8; my grade: D-
Having become “the face of space science” in 1980 through his 13-week PBS series Cosmos, Carl Sagan exploited his fame with a novel about the first contact between extraterrestrial beings and humans.
Contact‘s main character is scientist Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, who runs a network of radio telescopes listening for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.
One night her team discovers what appears to be a numerical, coded message coming from the star Vega, 26 light-years away.
America’s scientists, politicians, and military scramble to respond.
They have to bring other nations in to help collect the message that’s being broadcast when America is turned away from Vega. They also need help to break the code.
Sagan uses the novel to talk about his hot-button issues: religious people who discount science, fellow scientists who grandstand, and politicians who don’t understand or adequately fund scientific research.
Sagan fails, as many science fiction writers do, to make his characters much more than personas invented by a marketing team intent on selling dish detergent.
As a result, his novel self-restricts to an audience of science fans, leaving novels fans wishing for some characters with human emotions.
Contact by Carl Sagan
Simon and Schuster. 1985. 432 p.
1985 bestseller #7 ; my grade: C
Skeleton Crew is a collection of 22 Stephen King short stories of varying lengths and varying degrees of weirdness.
The hefty volume rings all the bells King fans enjoy and adds a few notes about the creative process behind them.
King has a particularly good ear for children’s memories, which he demonstrates in “The Monkey,” a story about a toy that has the ability to kill, and “Gramma,” a story of an 11-year-old left to care for his senile grandmother when his mother must go to the hospital because his older brother has been injured at football practice.
My favorites stories from the collection are built around situations that would be unsettling even without any supernatural flounces, such as:
“Here There Be Tygers” in which a third grader has to go to the bathroom which is in the school basement, a very scary place.
“The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet,” in which a crazy writer feeds a creature called a fornit that lives in his typewriter and produces words for him: What else could explain them?
There may not be a story here for every reader’s taste, but there’s enough variety that most readers will find something intriguing.
Skeleton Crew by Stephen King
G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 1985. 512 p.
1985 bestseller #5; my grade: B+
Fans of Minnesota Public Radio’s long-running variety show Prairie Home Companion set in the fictional Lake Wobegon were no doubt responsible for making Lake Wobegon Days a 1985 bestseller.
The book by the show’s creator and monologist Garrison Keillor is a collection of stories about the small, rural Minnesota community told in the rambling, discursive style beloved by audiences for almost 40 years.
That audience would recognize the people Keillor talks about in the book: the Bunsens, Pastor Ingqvist, Father Emil, Dorothy of the Chatterbox Cafe, Ralph of Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, and Norwegian bachelor farmers.
Readers today are more likely to associate Keillor with an accusation of “inappropriate behavior” (a term unknown to Lake Wobegonians) and “The Lake Wobegon effect,” derived from the Keillor’s description of the town as a place “where all the children are above average.”
Readers for whom the little town on the prairie would prompt recollections of their own experiences growing up are a dwindling group: Keillor’s 77th birthday is this year.
For today’s young Americans of child-rearing age, the world of Lake Wobegon will be about as familiar as life in a 14th century Italian monastery.
In Texas, James A. Michener varies his usual format for place-based historical novels: He sets Texas within a context of an imaginary task force whose job it is to decide what the state’s students learn about Texas history and how they should they learn it.
The task force allows Michener to present the history of the lone star state beginning with Spanish explorations in the 1500s up to the 1980s and to also provide commentary and interpretations of that history.
Michener clearly likes Texans, even when he dislikes some of the things they do.
Readers get Michener’s familiar history-by-the-eras formula with a unique Texas twist: Michener presents Texas as a state composed of seven state-sized, unique areas.
What makes Texas a state seems to be those areas’ sense of their superiority to any place that’s not Texas.
Texas is pure Michener: meticulously research, lyrically written, and almost flawlessly edited.
I can’t say that I liked the Texans I encountered in the pages of Texas, but I’m glad I read the novel.
It’s good preparation for understanding issues America is wrestling with today on its Southern border and elsewhere across the country: lack of water, climatic changes, and the need for migrant workers and the desire to restrict immigration.