The Doomsday Conspiracy

Front dust jacket of The Doomsday Conspiracy

Doomsday Conspiracy reads like a novel Tom Clancy and Stephen King might have co-authored while drunk, with help from Danielle Steel to make the story end happily.

Robert Bellamy, a Navy Commanding Officer, is ordered to investigate the crash of a weather balloon in the Swiss Alps and identify the tour bus passengers who saw the wreck.

Bellamy thinks it’s a very odd job to be treated as top secret and given top priority, but he follows orders. Witnesses say they saw a space craft with two dead extraterrestrial creatures in it and an empty seat that had obviously been occupied. The witnesses even had their photographs taken in front of the spacecraft.

Each of the witnesses is murdered within hours of Bellamy’s reporting their identity to his superior officer.

When Bellamy learns that three of the witnesses have been killed, he begins to smell a rat.

The liner notes say the story unfolds to reveal “why the world must never learn an incredible secret shielded by an unknown force.”

If it did, I was laughing too hard at the crazy story to notice.

The Doomsday Conspiracy is certainly the most bizarre bestselling novel since Diane of the Green Van.

The Doomsday Conspiracy by Sidney Sheldon
William Morrow. ©1991. 412 p.
1991 bestseller #6; my grade: D+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

September by Rosamunde Pilcher

Fallen brown leaves cover dustjacket of “September”Rosamunde Pilcher’s September is a restful novel, full of hardworking, neighborly, nice people who, though they occasionally do things you might not approve of, are nonetheless people you’d be glad to know.

The story focuses on two families in the Scots Highlands: the Balmerinos and the Airds. The Balmerino family has a title, land, and no money.  Lord and Lady Balmerino— Archie and Isobel—take in American tourists to make ends meet.

The Airds family has money. Edmund is an executive. Virginia, more than 20 years younger, is his second wife. He has an adult daughter by his late wife, and an 8-year-old son by Virginia.

Edmund and Archie were best friends for years, but a coolness developed between them shortly before Edmund’s wife’s death.

A newcomer triggers events that resolve that coolness when she organizes a big dance for her daughter’s 21st birthday, and gets everyone in the community involved.

The story’s ending is a tad too neatly predictable, but Pilchers’s characterizations, especially in the early chapters, are beautifully sketched. Even minor characters, like the local drunk and the Pakistani couple who run the village market, feel recognizable from her descriptions.

September requires attentive reading, which it richly, calmly, lovingly, repays.

September by Rosamunde Pilcher
St. Martin’s Press. ©1990. 536 p.
1990 bestseller #10; my grade: B+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Witching Hour by Anne Rice

Fine carved angels and lit candles are dust cover background.Imagine a mashup of a novel by Judith Krantz and one by Stephen King and you’ll have an approximation of Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour.

Rice begins her story in the present day, when a drowned man is revived by Rowan Mayfair, a neurosurgeon from a family of witches with special powers, who pulls him from the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay.

Michael Curry knows that while dead he was given some task to complete and given some unusual sensory powers. He’s forgotten what the task is and is scared by the powers.

Michael grew up poor, but grew a construction business that has made him wealthy.

By contrast, the Mayfairs are enormously wealthy and have been wealthy for four centuries: Rowan can write a check for two luxury cars on one day more casually than most people would write their monthly check to their electric company.

The duo fall in love and move to New Orleans where both their families have roots and Rowan’s family manages her trust fund.

It’s hard to care about the miseries of the super-rich, and even harder to care about the super-rich who may not even be human. Put their stories in a 965-page novel, and you’ve got a good doorstop.

The Witching Hour by Anne Rice
Alfred A. Knopf. ©1990. BCE. 965 p.
(Lives of the Mayfair witches series)
1990 bestseller #9; my grade: C-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Lady Boss: A Jackie Collins novel

"Lady Boss" signals for secrecyLady Boss is a Jackie Collins novel about people you wouldn’t want to know doing things you’d rather not know about.

Don’t let the word lady in the title fool you. Lucky Santangelo, the novel’s main character, is no lady. She is a multimillionaire, a control freak, and, as many other characters observe, a bitch.

The story is this: Lucky’s husband is an actor under contract to Panther Studios. Lennie hates the scumbags who run the studio. Lucky’s solution is to buy the studio as a surprise for Lennie.

Then she goes undercover at the studio to find out what’s really going on there, disappearing for a month without telling Lennie even how to get in touch with her.

Lucky is appalled by the studio’s treatment of women as objects. Most of the studio’s income is from porn films that it ships abroad hidden among legitimate films. When she takes over, she’ll change everything.

When Lucky tells Lennie she bought the studio, Lennie feels insulted that his wife thinks he needs rescuing. That surprises Lucky.

Collins has the gall to say, “Ego was not [Lucky’s] thing.”

Lady Boss by Jackie Collins
Simon and Schuster. ©1990. 608 p.
1990 bestseller #8; my grade: D-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Stand, complete and uncut

2 medieval-appearing figures fight with swords
Dark, brooding eyes above carved cherubim

In 1978 Stephen King published a shorter version of The Stand to critical acclaim. He reworked and restored the cuts, added new material, and this 1,153-page novel became a 1990 bestseller.

A flu virus being tested by U.S. government labs as a biological weapon is accidentally released, causing the deaths of 90 percent of the American population. Survivors, who had natural immunity to the virus, begin to migrate in search of other survivors.

One group drifts into Boulder, Colorado, where a 108-year-old black woman with a deep Christian faith becomes the figurehead around which people attempt to rebuild America according to its Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

A second group drifts into Las Vegas, where a “dark man” attracts people who are uncomfortable with religion and representative democracy.

A clash between them is inevitable.

Although there is a supernatural element to the novel, its most terrifying elements are all-too-familiar aspects of human nature we see on daily newscasts. King draws all his threads together into a plausible ending, leaving readers with a great deal of uncomfortable reality to think about.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid readers in 2020 won’t read such a long book, no matter how good—and The Stand is the best of the King bestsellers I’ve read.

The Stand, complete and uncut, by Stephen King
Viking. ©1978, ©1990. 1153 p.
1990 bestseller #7; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Bourne Ultimatum: a novel

A conch shell with spike through it superimposed on photo of US capitalThe Bourne Ultimatum is Robert Ludlum’s spellbinding end to the contest between good and evil, represented respectively by a man called Jason Bourne and another called Carlos or “the Jackal.”

The only two men who know Jason Bourne’s true identity are summoned by telegram to witness a bizarre killing, which tells them David Webb’s cover is blown.

Unless Carlos is killed, Webb knows his family will never be safe. He decides to lure Carlos into a trap using Medusa, a Mafia-like operation that has grown out of a gang of killers that sprang up in the 1960s to terrorize the North Vietnamese.

Both men are past their prime. Each needs to mentally put himself in the other’s place, figure out what that man will do, and then find a way to thwart the plan with a minimum of physical effort. Webb senses Carlos wants his native Russia to view him as an organizational mastermind, not as just a thug, and uses that insight against him.

What makes this and the earlier “Bourne” novels fascinating is the complexity of his characters. The Bourne Ultimatum is a thriller you can read and reread.

It’s that good.

The Bourne Ultimatum by Robert Ludlum
Random House. ©1990. 611 p.
1990 bestseller #5; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Message from Nam

A helicopter flies against a camouflage background
Camo isn’t normal for Steel.

Message from Nam is a surprising departure from Danielle Steel’s typical romances. And it’s also far better than they.

Paxton Andrews, a Georgia teen who idolized her late father and is emotionally estranged from her mother and brother, chooses UC Berkeley for college.

Within months, she falls in love with a law student who has burned his draft card. When drafted, Peter chooses to serve, despite his opposition to America’s involvement in Viet Nam. Five days into his first tour of duty, he’s killed by “friendly fire.”

Paxton drops out of college a few credits short of her journalism degree.

Peter’s father, who owns the San Francisco Morning Sun, agrees to let Paxton go to Saigon as a reporter for six months.

Paxton extends her assignment to seven years, writing her “Message from Nam” until she catches the last helicopter out of Saigon.

The novel has the usual romantic bits, including an ending that feels downright fraudulent, but the bulk of the book is Steel’s retelling of the headline news of 1963 through 1975.

Of all of Steel’s novels I’ve read thus far for GreatPenformances, Message from Nam is the most atypical and the most memorable. It stands out as an historical snapshot.

Message from Nam by Danielle Steel
Delacourt Press. ©1990. 411 p.
1990 bestseller #4; my grade: B

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Memories of Midnight

Memories of Midnight by Sidney Sheldon is perfect for Hollywood: action-packed, implausible, and bloody.
The lettering’s graceful.

Like many of his other novels, Sidney Sheldon’s Memories of Midnight reads like the story line for a film. The characters are broadly described, the action is  fast-paced, and the plot is connected by linkages readers have to take on faith.

Catherine Douglas awakens one night in a convent remembering her name and nothing else. However, Constantin “Costa” Demiris, a nasty piece of work who is determined to get his revenge on anyone who ever hurt him in any way, remembers Catherine.

Demiris killed her husband and her husband’s lover. Now he hires an assassin to kill Catherine. Meanwhile, Demiris gives her a job in one of his offices and showers her with attention so he can keep an eye on her.

Demiris and his brother-in-law, Spyros Lambrou, hate each other. Lambrou hates Demiris for his treatment of Melina, who is his sister and Demiris’s wife.

There several other dastardly plots, related only because they’re in the same novel. Melina eventually realizes what a crud Demiris is, which precipitates the story’s ending. At the end of Memories of Midnight, there’s a dramatic rescue, a suspense-filled climax, and the villains get their just deserts.

It’s all action-packed, implausible, and bloody.

In short, it’s perfect for Hollywood, but a lousy novel.

Memories of Midnight by Sidney Sheldon
William Morrow. ©1990. 399 p.
1990 bestseller #4; my grade: C-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Burden of Proof

Gold type picked out with red on black background substitutes for art
Legal story is artless.

Scott Turow’s  The Burden of Proof is a novel about the people—lawyers, judges, cops, and clients— who facilitate or impede the administration of justice.

Alejandro “Sandy” Stern arrives home from a business trip to find his wife has committed suicide.

Sandy seems to be the only person shocked.

Sandy’s major client, Dixon Hartness, is the proprietor of a commodities trading firm who is routinely in trouble with federal regulators. He’s in deep trouble now: Federal prosecutors suspect he has been using his insider knowledge and possibly clients’ funds to make a killing in futures trading.

Sandy has reasons to worry. Dixon is not only his sister’s wife, but the employer of his daughter’s husband. And Sandy’s wife wrote Dixon a check for nearly a million dollars just before her suicide.

Sandy solves all the mysteries, not because he’s such a smart lawyer, but because people trust him. Even if Sandy works for disreputable clients, he personally is an honorable man.

I found Burden of Proof impossible to put down. The story’s financial and legal issues are as timely as the morning’s news. Besides that, Turow’s characters are such believable people that you feel you’d recognize them if you met them on the street.

The Burden of Proof by Scott Turow
Farrar Straus Giroux. 1990. 515 p.
1990 bestseller #3; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Four Past Midnight: novellas

burning gap at 12:04 on clock face marks 4 past midnight
It’s horrors time.

Four Past Midnight is a set of four Stephen King novellas in a single wrapper, each with a different way of scaring readers.

The first novella, “The Langoliers,” takes a science fiction approach. In it, 11 passengers on a flight from L.A. to Boston wake to find they’ve slipped into a people-less world where they are the likely next victims of some unseen menace eating its way across America.

In the “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” a novelist is menaced by someone who claims the novelist stole his story.

“The Library Policeman” turns a child’s fear of what will happen if library books aren’t returned on time into a tale of a real monster who sexually abuses children while maintaining the guise of something other-worldly.

“The Sun Dog” is a tale of technology: A Polaroid camera takes photographs of objects that aren’t visible to the naked eye.

King is at his best in the stories that open with situations that make adult readers uncomfortable. “Secret Window” revolves around a perennial problem for fiction writers: Is their work really original? The “Library” story opens with a man who is picked at the last minute to give a speech to Rotary and has to ask the librarian for help.

Four Past Midnight by Stephen King
Viking, ©1990. 763 p.
1990 bestseller #2; my grade: C+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni