All Around the Town

bloody handprint on a curtain on open sliding doorIf you’ve watched television in the last 50 years, you’ve seen pieces of the plot of All Around the Town many times in old movies.

The plot’s container is the tale of Laurie Kenyon, a college student accused of murdering her English professor. Her fingerprints are all over his bedroom.

Laurie was kidnapped at age 4 and sexually abused for two years before the kidnappers abandoned her. When she is arrested for murder, the four personalities she developed to cope with her trauma emerge.

Laurie’s sister, a lawyer, takes on her defense, aided by a handsome, unmarried psychiatrist.

When they abducted Laurie, Bic and Opal Hawkins were tavern entertainers. Laurie’s arrest coincides Bic hitting the big time as a TV evangelist. Using their TV names, Rev. Bobby and Carla Hawkins, they pose as buyers for the Kenyon sisters’ home, which allows them to wiretap it so the reverend can get rid of Laurie if one of her personalities names him as her kidnapper.

Mary Higgins Clark mashes all these implausible elements together, sweetening the mix with even more implausible elements.

In the end, the implausibilities don’t matter. No sensible reader could care about any of these characters. They’ll be relieved at the story’s end when Laurie goes off to play golf.

All Around the Town by Mary Higgins Clark
Simon & Schuster. ©1992. 302 p.
1992 bestseller #10; my grade: C-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan

Four black women in vivid dresses and hats
The characters are as vivid as the cover.

Waiting to Exhale is a powerful novel unlike any other I’ve read. I held my breath for fear that, unable to sustain the intensity, Terry McMillan would tack on happy ending.

I need not have worried.

Waiting is about four black women friends, each looking for a man who will be her sex partner, friend, companion, help meet, husband, and father to her children. So far, their men have rung up in the loser category.

Each chapter is a first-person account by one of the four women about what’s going on in her life, including her conversations with the others.

Readers can see from the women’s narratives that each of the four is intelligent, caring, and resourceful, respected at work and among her peers. Readers can also see that none of the four gives herself credit for her abilities and achievements.

Each woman thinks she can’t get along without a man who will take her breath away. Each fails to see that her heartthrob may take her for everything else she has, too.

McMillan gives the novel a psychologically sensible ending that’s just enough to make you hopeful things will get better for the four “sistuhs” who feel like your sisters by the end of the novel.

Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan
Viking. ©1992. 409 p.
1992 bestseller #9; my grade: A-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Mexico by James A. Michener

James A. Michener’s Mexico opens with these words:

I had been sent to Mexico to cover a murder, one of a remarkable kind. And since it had not yet happened, I had been ordered to get photographs, too.

Clearly, this isn’t the standard Michener formula.

The journalist is Norman Clay. Born and reared in Toledo, Mexico, he left for the US in 1938 after the Mexicans confiscated oil wells his family owned. Clay served in the American armed World War II, and worked as a journalist ever since.

Clay, 52, is back in his hometown to cover a bullfight that’s rumored to be a confrontation the equivalent of murder.

an Indian stone figure lighted by the sunHe revisits places he knew as a childhood, tracing his roots to Mexico’s three primary population groups: Indians, Spaniards, and English. Readers get to see how differently pivotal historical personages and events were viewed by each of the three groups.

Some of the historical facts are grisly: men’s beating hearts ripped out of them to appease a stone god, nuns burned alive, women made to work in a silver mine, never seeing daylight.

With the brutality, there’s also art, music, public service, bullfighting, and an ending with just the right degree of happy ending for a 52-year-old journalist.

Mexico by James A. Michener
Random House. ©1992. 625 p.
1992 bestseller #8; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Tale of the Body Thief

Photo of sculpture “The Rape of the Sabines”
Lovely art, ugly tale.

The Tale of the Body Thief is told by Vampire Lestat, the self-described “James Bond of vampires,” formerly “a smash…as a rock singer.”

Lestat has the blues. The world has deteriorated since he became a vampire: Bloodsucking isn’t what it used to be.

So, when Lestat is approached by a handsome male figure, he wishes he were human again. The animating force inside that body is Raglan James, a telepathically skilled con artist who stole it.

James offers to trade bodies with Lestat for $10 million. Both of Lestat’s friends tell him not to risk it, but he ignores them.

Lestat slips inside the young male body and James goes off inside Lestat’s vampire body.

Lestat finds being human isn’t at all what he expected. He also finds that a deal that sounds too good to be true probably is.

The novel ends predictably, gruesomely.

Anne Rice is a fine writer. She not only has a vivid imagination, but the discipline to confine her imagination within the constrictions set by her characterizations. Her philosophical and theological musings are stimulating. I’d love to see what Rice could do if she applied her talent subjects worthy of her talent.

Vampires just aren’t important enough.

The Tale of the Body Thief by Anne Rice
Book 4 of The Vampire Chronicles
Alfred A. Knopf. ©1992. 430 p.
1992 bestseller #7; my grade: C+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Stars Shine Down

City skyscrapers are revealed in star-shaped cutout
Lara Cameron aims very high.

The Stars Shine Down is a made-for-viewing novel by Sidney Sheldon that never made it to the screen, which is where it belongs.

Lara Cameron is unwanted at birth, grows up unwanted, and forces herself on America’s male-dominated, commercial real estate world.

She is in her twenties in the 1980s , with only a high school education and no connections, but she knows one thing: OPM. People make fortunes by using other people’s money.

Lara ruthlessly goes after her goals. She has an instinctive sense of what the public wants and aims to deliver it months before other developers can.

She works very hard and she demands anyone who works for her work equally hard. She’s willing to take risks; she’s using other people’s money.

Though she uses people, demanding unquestioned loyalty, Lara is generous to those loyal to her.

She also is quite unable to believe any perspective than her own could be valid.

Stars is a totally absorbing story, easily read in an evening before an early bedtime. It’s also totally preposterous. Only when you finish the last page do you realize Sheldon duped you just as Lara duped people.

Lara Cameron isn’t a Horatio Alger heroine: She’s a nut case.

The Stars Shine Down by Sidney Sheldon
William Morrow. ©1992. 400 p.
1992 bestseller #6; my grade: B-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Jewels, a Danielle Steel novel

golden jewel and gold letters suggest jewels
It’s all about wealth.

Danielle Steel presents Jewels as Sarah Whitfield’s 75th birthday retrospective.

As a Manhattan debutante, Sarah fell for the wrong man. The marriage ended in a divorce that humiliated her into seclusion. To get her out of her funk, her parents took her to Europe where she met and married the much older William, Duke of Whitfield.

As the Nazis mobilized, William was called to military service. With an infant son and another baby on the way, Sarah stayed in a rural French chateau occupied by Germans while he’s gone. Although believed dead, William survived the war.

The couple had three more children and built a business buying jewels from war survivors who need money to rebuild their lives.

After William’s death, Sarah ran the jewelry stores and tried to cope with the problems her adult children cause.

Steel would have readers believe that, Sarah, despite her lack of training for anything, could refinish woodwork, direct a multi-national business, and assist in the hospital when casualties are heavy.

The historical content is equally preposteous. In rural France under Nazi occupation, Sarah and her children never so much as miss a meal.

Jewel is a novel full of characters but no real people, glass passed off as a gem.

Jewels by Danielle Steel
Delacourt Press. ©1992. 471 p.
1992 bestseller #5; my grade: C-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Mixed Blessings (novel)

a gold and silver image represents a child in the womb
The image represents a fetus.

In Mixed Blessings, Danielle Steel splits her attention among three couples and their decisions to have or not have children.

One couple are young, hard-driving professionals in glamorous jobs. She wants a baby desperately and immediately; he thinks she should relax and let nature take its course.

The second couple are a lawyer in her 40s and a judge in his early sixties. She’s never had the least interest in babies until her stepdaughter has one.

The third couple are lower-class. The man, an orphan, wants babies to love because he never had love. The woman doesn’t want babies because they mean families and she hated hers.

Steel has one or more of the spouses in each couple to visit ob-gyn specialists, and treats readers to the details of the 1990s examination procedures.

None of Steel’s characters is fully developed, which may be for the best. The women are all immature and silly. Like a bunch of fifth graders, they scream, “That’s not fair” when things don’t go their way. And like fifth graders, upon reflection, they conclude that things don’t turn out the way you planned.

Steel herself philosophizes, “Fertility as well as infertility can be a mixed blessing.”

Mixed Blessings by Danielle Steel
Delacorte Press. ©1992. 369 p.
1992 bestseller #4; my grade: C-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Gerald’s Game by Stephen King

 Handcuffs hanging on a bedpost
Those are handcuffs on the bedpost.

Lawyer Gerald Burlingame enjoys bondage games with his wife. As Gerald’s Game opens, the fun as worn off: Jessie is handcuffed to a bed headboard in their rural Maine summer home.

Her situation triggers dark, childhood memories. She kicks out, knocking the breath out of Gerald and triggering a coronary. Gerald is dead within minutes.

Jessie is trapped.

She can’t call for help: There’s no one to hear. She can’t reach the phone. She can’t reach the handcuff keys.

All she can do is listen to the outside door bang and relive the horrors of July 20, 1963, the day she watched the solar eclipse with her father.

Jessie is finally freed, but her misery doesn’t end there. She still has repressed childhood psychological problems as well as some memories of her 28 hours of captivity that she has to deal with. She addresses her residual problems by writing about them in a letter to a friend mentioned in the bondage chapters.

What Stephen King delivers in Gerald’s Game is a terrifying tale: It’s much easier to dismiss as fiction a supernatural evil thing than to ignore the evil within people.

Fortunately, Jessie’s letter shows not all people are rotten and some are quite decent.

Gerald’s Game by Stephen King
Bill Russell, illustrator
Viking. ©1992. 332 p.
1992 bestseller #3; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Pelican Brief, a novel

Shadows of a man and a pillar against a marble wall
Whose is the shadow?

Although John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief is described as a legal novel, it reads like an Ian Fleming–Stephen King cross.

The plot is about an attempt to pack the Supreme Court with justices who will be favorable to a new Louisiana oil drilling operation that will mean billions to a secretive donor to the Republican president and extinction to the Louisiana brown pelican.

In a single evening, a professional hit man kills the court’s oldest justice, a liberal, and the court’s youngest justice, a conservative. The FBI is baffled. What reason could anyone have for killing that pair of justices?

Law student Darby Shaw spends a couple days in the library and whips out a cui bono analysis. Her law prof/lover gives her “pelican brief” to a friend in the federal government, who passes it on.

Suddenly the prof is dead and assassins are after Darby.

Darby contacts a Washington Post reporter; together they fight for truth, justice, and the American way.

The bad guy who manipulated the president gets his comeuppances.

Darby and the reporter go off to the Virgin Islands together.

And the President is left practicing his putting in the Oval Office.

The whole thing’s too implausible for fiction.

The Pelican Brief by John Grisham
Doubleday. ©1992. 371 p.
1992 bestseller #2; my grade: C

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Dolores Claiborne, the novel

Woman peers down into well as the sun goes into full eclipse above her
It’s a solar eclipse.

Dolores Claiborne is a Stephen King novel for people who think they don’t like Stephen King novels. Its horrors all have human origins and no good deed goes unpunished.

On page one, Dolores Claiborne has already been advised of her rights. Dolores is thought to have killed her wealthy employer, Vera Donovan, for whom Dolores had worked since her teens.

The rest of the novel is a transcript of what Dolores tells to  the police chief and his deputy at Little Tall Island, Maine, and their stenographer.

Dolores freely admits that she killed her husband 29 years earlier during a solar eclipse. Although most people suspected her, no one could prove she did it.

Dolores says she didn’t kill Vera, although sometimes she would have liked to. Vera was a bossy, nasty, bitchy woman. After Dolores’s husband’s death, even her children didn’t want to live at home.

Dolores put up with Vera because there were few jobs available and she was used to Vera’s habits.  Over the years, the women battled their own demons and each other, finally seeming to reach an armed truce.

When Vera died, she left her estate, valued at $30 million, to Dolores, which is why Dolores is being questioned.

Dolores says, “Most of what bein human’s about is makin choices and payin the bills when they come due.”

Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King
Bill Russell, illustrator
Viking, ©1992. 305 p.
1992 bestseller #1; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni