While My Pretty One Sleeps

Title page of "While My Pretty One Sleeps"Mary Higgins Clark’s While My Pretty One Sleeps is a traditional murder mystery in the “cozy” tradition, but set in New York City.

The novel opens with a man from New York driving 35 miles through a snow storm to dump the body of a woman he murdered beside a steep path in Morrison State Park.

Safely back in the city, he realizes “the one ghastly mistake he had made, and knew exactly who would almost inevitably detect it.”

The late Ethel Lambston hadn’t been a particularly popular woman. The 60-ish freelance writer had a knack for annoying people which she practiced until her tongue was lethal.

Her ex-husband had been so glad to be shut of her that he opted for life-long alimony payments that are keeping him and his second wife in poverty 20 years later.

Douglas, her nephew and sole living relative resents her treating him like a lackey.

Even the fashion designer Ethel paid to select her outfits for her, Neeve Kearny, didn’t like her much.

And Neeve’s father, former NYC police commissioner Myles Kearney, had met Ethel once and never wanted to see her again.

Well-plotted and well-paced, While My Pretty One Sleeps is formula fiction, but done well enough that readers won’t object.

While My Pretty One Sleeps by Mary Higgins Clark
Simon and Schuster. ©1989. 318 p.
1989 bestseller #10; my grade: B

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

California Gold: a novel

California sun reveals a train, oil derricks, a housing development ringed by orange groves
Mack Chase sees the California sun

In California Gold, John Jakes marries the historical sweep of a James A. Michener novel with the cloying romance of a Danielle Steel novel. The result is a very thick book that’s very easy to forget.

Jakes’ hero, James Macklin Chase, arrives on foot in California in 1886 determined to make his fortune. Mack carries his inspiration with him: T. Fowler Haines’s “Emigrant’s Guide to California and Its Gold Fields.”

Mack has just arrived when he learns a lesson not in Haines’s book: “When you own the water, you can drink all you want.”

Mack doesn’t own water. He is penniless, uneducated, and hopelessly naive. But he’s also handsome, kind, brave, hardworking, intelligent, and willing to take risks.

Jakes moves Mack up and down California from 1886 to 1921.

Mack cleans up well and looks great in black tie.

He fights the corrupt Southern Pacific monopoly, supports the right of labor to organize, pays his workers a fair wage, and protests racism.

He survives the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, meets William Randolph Hearst, Leland Stanford, John Muir, Jack London, “Gentleman” Jim Corbett, Teddy Roosevelt.

Bad guys hate him.

Good guys respect him.

Women fall at his feet.

And Mack lives happily ever after.

California Gold: a novel
By John Jakes
Random House. ©1989. 658 p.

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Pillars of the Earth

 interior drawings of a 12th century cathedral form dust jacket backgroundKen Follett, who set his three previous bestsellers during World War II, sets The Pillars of the Earth in medieval England.

The novel opens with the hanging of an innocent man. Watching in horror, a pregnant 15-year-old girl curses the monk, the priest, and the knights who hanged him.

Before Follett reveals the significance of that event, he spins a fascinating tale about centered around two men and two women.  One is master builder and an artist in stone; both want to build beautiful cathedrals.  One of the two women is a beautiful noblewoman, the other an outcast living in the forest.

Twelfth century England was not a pleasant place in which to live. For a half century, the country suffered as competitors vied for the throne.

Towns were burned, crops destroyed, women raped, people slaughtered, survivors forced into penury and starvation.

The clergy sought to protect their rights regardless of who won the throne, sometimes resorting to less than charitable means of promoting their claims.

The story is intricately plotted, fast-paced, and absolutely riveting.

Follet’s story ends with a king settled on the throne and the martyrdom of Thomas á Becket ensuring the church will remain a force in English politics for years to come.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
Morrow. ©1989. 973 p.
1989 bestseller #8; my grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Russia House (novel)

all text cover on black and red backgroundThe Russia House, is, as one expects from John le Carré, is set in the Cold War era.

In the novel, a salesman at a Moscow book fair is slipped a document by a frightened woman who wants it delivered it to Barley Blair, who she says has agreed to publish it for a unnamed friend of hers.

The salesman sneaks the manuscript through customs. Unable to find Blair, he delivers it to British Intelligence, whose CIA counterparts find it details the Soviet’s nuclear capabilities and atomic secrets.

The Service finds Blair, and presses him turning spy.

Barley stays sober long enough to be trained in the rudiments of spy craft, and sent into Russia to find the unnamed author and verify the authenticity of the document.

He contacts Kayla, trying to reach the author through her.

Before he gets to Yakov, Barley and Kayla are in love, and Yakov appears to be under KGB surveillance.

On what’s supposed to be his final effort to find out if the documents are authentic, Barley disappears.

Russia House has all the complexity of earlier Le Carré novels, but a far less gloomy setting and an almost upbeat ending.

The Russia House by John Le Carré
Knopf. ©1989. 353 p.
1989 bestseller #7; my grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Satanic Verses

tiny black dots on cover obscure both type and illustration
Two figures fighting

The uproar that greeted publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses doomed the book to the category of historical oddities.

Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is a complex set of nesting stories. The outer story is about two Indian Muslims who miraculously survive when the jet on which they are returning to London is blown up.

As they fall into the Atlantic, film actor Gibreel Farishta turns into the angel Gabriel while voice actor Saladin Chamcha becomes the devil.

Three of Gibreel’s dreams become sub-stories. The first, based roughly on the founding of Islam, led Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa against anyone associated with the publication of The Satanic Verses. Few non-Muslims would understand the story, let alone see why it enraged Muslims.

The other sub-stories are about aspects of the emigrant/immigrant experience.

Rushie’s prose mixes wise-cracking humor about people “of the tinted persuasion” with poignant narration that draws tears. Here, for example is Saladin’s reflection at his father’s death bed:

To fall in love with one’s father after the long angry decades was a serene and beautiful feeling; a renewing, life-giving thing.

The Satanic Verses isn’t easy reading, but it offers a needed glimpse of what it’s like to be an immigrant.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
Viking. ©1988. 546 p.
1989 bestseller #6 my grade: B+

Jacket illustration shows a detail from 17th century work “Rustam Killing the White Demon” from a Clive Album in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Tiny black dots on the dust jacket obscure the image.

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Caribbean (a Michener novel)

island scene in center of dust jacketJames A. Michener’s novelistic style is as distinctive as a fingerprint.

In Caribbean, the Michener imprint is unusually sunny considering how bleak much of Caribbean history is.

The first chapter ends with cannibals eating a tribe they despise for playing ballgames instead of making war.

That sets the stage for centuries of conflicts both among those who live around the Caribbean Sea and between nations far away who prefer to fight their wars far from home. (More civilized, don’t ya’ know.)

Famous names like Columbus and Sir Francis Drake appear, along with a host of less familiar Caribbean heroes and villains.

The chapters of Caribbean read almost like short stories, which makes the hefty novel very accessible.

drawing of sugar processing plant
Sugar plantation

Two intertwined themes run through all the stories: Race relations and economic survival.

From the appearance of white explorers to Michener’s day, the Western belief in white superiority prevented darker skinned individuals from participating in a significant way in the islands’ economies.

The exodus of the most talented among them has left the islands at the mercy of the North American tourist trade.

The novel is worth reading as a novel and equally worth reading as a discussion of economic and political realities that are still impacting the United States.

Caribbean by James A. Michener
Cartography by Jean Paul Tremblay
Illustrations by Franca Nucci Haynes
Random House. ©1989. 672 p.
1989 bestseller #5 my grade: A+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Star by Danielle Steel

all-silver book jacket of Star sparklesDanielle Steel’s Star is an inspiring story of how Crystal Wyatt, a teenager from a northern California ranch with nothing but a gorgeous body and incredible voice, becomes a Hollywood star by overcoming daunting obstacles such as her own ignorance and her reluctance to sleep with her agent.

Around that story, Danielle Steel wraps a love-at-first-glance story, in which Crystal at 14 falls hopelessly in love with ex-Army officer, Spencer Hill, age 27.

Although equally smitten, Spencer does the sensible thing. He goes to law school, and marries the daughter of a Supreme Court justice.

Within days of their wedding, Spencer is recalled to service in Korea. As he waits to deploy, he meets Crystal again.

When he leaves for Korea, she’s carrying his child.

Spencer spends three years in Korea. For the last year, he’s so miserable he doesn’t write to anyone stateside.

Finally home, Spencer becomes a political figure in Kennedy White House.

Kennedy has been shot and buried when Crystal calls saying she’s been arrested for the murder of her agent.

Spencer leaves Washington, wife, and career to go to Crystal’s defense.

The novel ends with the obligatory happy ending of all Danielle Steel novels.

Star by Danielle Steel
Delacorte Press. ©1989. 447 p.
1989 bestseller #4; my grade: C

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Daddy by Danielle Steel

Front dust jacket has gold type on medium blue background, no imagesDaddy is most unusual for a Danielle Steel novel: It’s told almost entirely from a man’s viewpoint.

The novel opens with a brief history of the 18-year marriage of Oliver and Sarah Watson, who met as students at Harvard.

When she became pregnant, Sarah wanted an abortion. Oliver had talked her into marrying him instead.

Although Sarah hadn’t wanted babies, she’s a wonderful mother to their three children.  Oliver thinks they have a perfect marriage.

Then Sarah announces she’s been accepted into a master’s program at Harvard. She leaves right after Christmas.

The reactions of Oliver and the children are predictable: They’re hurt, angry, feel abandoned, wonder what they did wrong.

While they’re trying to deal with those issues, Oliver’s father is trying to cope with his mother’s dementia while also trying to pretend it’s not happening, and Oliver gets a big promotion that requires the family to move cross country to California.

Daddy attempts to explore the “What do women want?” question, but Steel can’t get beyond the surface. For Oliver (and perhaps Steel and her legions of devoted readers) the answer is that real women want a man and children.

Daddy isn’t a great novel, but it’s extraordinary for a Danielle Steel novel.

Three days after reading it, I could still remember the plot.

Daddy by Danielle Steel
Delacorte Press. ©1989. 352 p.
1989 bestseller #3; my grade: B-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Dark Half (novel)

undistinguishable dark blurs are background for author and title name
Nothing’s clear here

The Dark Half is a Stephen King novel with all the creepy ambiance and nightmarish monsters for which King is justly famous.

And, like most King novels, at its core is a fairly common occurrence: Writing under an assumed name.

When novelist Thad Beaumont slammed into writer’s block, he occupied his time writing violent novels under the pen name George Stark. Stark’s name was on four very successful novels.

A dozen years later, in a mock ceremony captured in People magazine, Thad and his wife buried Stark beneath a tombstone inscribed “Not a Very Nice Guy.”

Stark’s readers are furious.

So is Stark.

The never-existent Stark is determined to use Thad as an instrument for writing his stories, just as Thad used Stark.

When the Beaumonts’ odd-jobs man is found murdered, Thad’s fingerprints are found on the man’s truck.

Sheriff Alan Pangborn thinks it’s an open-and-shut case, but until he interviews Thad, who has witnesses to the fact he was at home miles away when the murder occurred.

The Dark Half blends the mundane with bizarre facts about twins, adds a touch of Alfred Hitchcock, and winds up with the all-too-real possibility that the Beaumont’s marriage won’t survive.

It also leaves the question: How do novelists create their characters?

The Dark Half by Stephen King
Viking. ©1989. 431 p.
1989 bestseller #2; my grade: B

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Clear and Present Danger

helicopter is at the center of dust jacket
‘copter rescues trapped soldiers

Tom Clancy’s Clear and Present Danger hit the top of The New York Times bestseller list as soon as it was published. It’s still a winner today.

Like Clancy’s earlier thrillers, Danger is a fast-moving, intricately plotted, richly detailed.

In an election year, the President authorizes his National Security Advisor, Admiral Cutter, to take all necessary action to stop the flow of drugs into the US. Cutter decides a war on drugs demands military action.

Hispanic members of the military with no dependents are selected, secretly trained, and helicoptered into Columbia.

Neither Congress nor Columbia is informed, nor are some top-ranking members of the president’s administration, including acting CIA director Jack Ryan.

When Ryan learns of the secret military action, he’s perplexed as well as angry. How far does the President’s right to act without congressional authorization go?

Clear and Present Danger is an action-packed adventure that is hard to put down. But it’s also a thoughtful novel about serious topics.

Although Danger was clearly sparked by the Reagan-era war on drugs and the Iran-Contra affair, the passage of 40 years hasn’t reduced the timeliness of the novel’s themes: free speech, executive orders, the congressional oversight role, the importance of personal integrity, and the destructiveness of drugs.

Clear and Present Danger by Tom Clancy
Putnam. ©1989. 656 p.
1989 bestseller #1; my grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni