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.
Ken 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 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 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.
James 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.
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.
Danielle 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.
Daddy 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.
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.