The Street Lawyer by John Grisham

Night on city street during snowstorm, pedestrian barely discernibleIn the first paragraph of The Street Lawyer, novelist John Grisham puts hot-shot lawyer Michael Brock into an elevator with a pungent homeless veteran who minutes later threatens to blow up Drake & Sweeney and its 800 lawyers.

The lawyers survive.

The homeless man does not.

Mike is shaken up by his first-ever encounter with a homeless person. He begins doing research into the causes and responses to homelessness. In the process, he stumbles upon information that shows his own law firm benefiting financially from dumping poor people on the streets.

Mike visits a free legal clinic for the homeless and is fascinated by what he sees. He only has to be asked once to come make sandwiches one weekend, and Mike decides to quit Drake & Sweeney to work with Washington DC’s homeless.

Grisham does all the things writers of crime novels are required to do—bring in bad cops, have his client beaten up, get him a new girlfriend—but he does them in muted ways so they don’t become the whole story.

The story ends predictably but plausibly for Mike, who matures a lot in a few months.

Grisham produces a fast-reading, intriguing tale that leaves readers with a lot to think about.

The Street Lawyer by John Grisham
Doubleday. ©1998. 348 p.
1998 bestseller #1; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Hornet’s Nest by Patricia Cornwell

a hornet substitutes for the apostrophen in hornet's nestPatricia Cornwell’s Hornet’s Nest is a police procedural that turns that mystery novel sub-class upside down and inside out.

Cornwell sets the story in “the hornet’s nest of America,” Charlotte, NC, where the two top cops are women. Chief Judy Hammer is cool, collected, 50-ish professional who job of running the department includes being its public face.

Chief Deputy Virginia West, 42, is less cool and collected but no less sexy or less committed to her job.

Hammer has gotten permission from the city to allow Andy Brazil, the new police reporter for the Charlotte Observer, to ride along on police calls. Hammer orders West to take Brazil with her and to make sure he gets to see action. There is plenty of action, including what appears to be a series of brutal murders of businessmen in town for short stays.

Cornwell has plotted her story so readers have all the clues they need to be prepared for every surprise she throws in. She keeps her focus on personalities and their reactions, which reminded me of cops I saw when I worked a newspaper police beat.  Parts of the story are laugh-out-loud funny, others tragic.

Hornet’s Nest feels true.

Hornet’s Nest by Patricia CornwEll
G. P. Putnam. ©1996. 377 p.
1997 bestseller #10; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Cat & Mouse (novel)

Two lights glow in a railroad tunnel above which a cat stands looking at the trackThe six-page prologue to Cat & Mouse opens with Gary Soneji entering the basement of the Washington D.C. home of Alex Cross and his family, whom he plans to murder. Then the prologue shifts to London where Mr. Smith, a serial killer, is dismembering the latest victim of murders he began in Cambridge, Mass., in 1993.

Cross, a widowed police detective raising two children with the help of his grandmother, is about starting to date his children’s school principal. Those relationships make him especially vulnerable now.

Cross and his partner kill Soneji in the tunnels under Grand Central Station.

Days later, Cross’s home is broken into, all members of his family beaten, and Cross himself battered so badly he’s not expected to live.

Who is the perp?

Is it possible Soneji didn’t die in the explosion? If he survived, why didn’t he kill everyone in Cross’s household?

Or did Soneji send a villian too softhearted to kill?

Readers of James Patterson’s previous three novels about Cross will follow the story easily. The rest of us must rely on the liner notes to untangle the relationship between the two serial killers.

What we eventually find is a formulaic, sex-and-violence tale for macho readers.

Cat & Mouse by James Patterson
Little, Brown. ©1997. 399 p.
1997 bestseller #9; my grade: C

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Pretend You Don’t See Her

Woman’s face is faintly visible through leaves of a tree
The woman isn’t quite hidden.

Pretend You Don’t See Her is scary thriller in which a hired killer stalks women who know too much about the mob connections of a reputable businessman.

Lacey Farrell, a made-for-Hollywood heroine, is young, sexy, New York City real estate agent on her way up when she makes a promise to a dying woman to turn over her later daughter’s journal to the police and encounters the woman’s fleeing murderer.

Lacey keeps her promise, but keeps a copy of the journal. The original disappears from police custody.

The murderer is wanted by the FBI.

The NYPD and the federal investigators quarrel over jurisdiction.

Someone tries to shoot Lacey and hits her 4-year-old niece instead.

Lacey is placed in the witness protection program, given a new identity, moved to Minneapolis, and cautioned not to let even her closest relatives have any clues to where she is. Lacey isn’t good at following orders, nor is she bright enough to realize that telling her mother anything is like taking out a front page ad in The New York Times.

A quarter of the way into Pretend You Don’t See Her, anyone who ever read a Mary Higgins Clark novel will know who the culprit is.

Pretend You Don’t See Her
by Mary Higgins Clark
Simon and Schuster. ©1997. 318 p.
1997 bestseller #8; my grade: C+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Best Laid Plans

Close-up of woman’s face shows US Capitol reflected in her eyes
Reflection of the US Capitol is visible in the woman’s left eye.

The Best Laid Plans is a dazzling display of Sidney Sheldon’s cinematic flair.

The story is about Leslie Stewart, a PR and marketing genius who is smart, young, sexy, and ambitious, and Oliver Russell, the governor of Kentucky who is young, sexy, ambitious, but not nearly as smart as Leslie.

He’s also a drug addict.

When Oliver comes looking for PR help, he and Leslie become lovers.

Oliver finds a mentor in a Kentucky’s Senator Davis who sees his JFK-like charisma, properly managed, could take him to the White House.

Senator Davis is just the man to do the managing. That means tying Oliver closely to himself.

Leslie has no mentor, but she doesn’t need one. What she doesn’t learn by observation, she learns by doing research. She turns into a Katherine Graham-type power figure.

When Oliver abandons her for the Senator’s daughter, Leslie knows the best way to get back at him is to ruin his political career.

Sheldon’s story has no depth and it has mountains of implausibilities—where does Leslie get her money?—but all the main characters have enough real-world counterparts to keep readers on the edge of their chairs right up to the dramatic ending.

The Best Laid Plans by Sidney Sheldon
William Morrow. ©1997. 358 p.
1997 bestseller #7; my grade: B+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Unnatural Exposure

body part is missing from gaping blooding woundUnnatural Exposure is a medical mystery by Patricia Cornwell featuring Dr. Kay Scarpetta, Virginia’s medical examiner.

In this novel, Scarpetta has learned that five 10-year-old dismembered bodies found in Ireland, have the same MO as four found in Virginia. She fears that the same killer is responsible for both.

Her fear goes into overdrive when she receives a photo in her email that could only have come from the killer of a fifth recently found body in Sussex County.

The murders are not all totally consistent, however. The most recent victim was exposed to a smallpox-like virus. A woman on Tangier Island off Norfolk has apparently died from the virus and others on the island appear to be sick from it.  Scarpetta herself has been exposed to it.

To solve the mystery, Scarpetta calls on her niece Lucy, an FBI computer expert for help. Lucy enables her aunt to take a virtual tour of the room shown in the photograph from the killer.

Besides fighting to bring the killer to justice, Scarpetta has to fight for her budget, fight to keep the misinformation from the public, fight egocentric politicians, and fight her own nature when it threatens the relationships she holds most dear.

Unnatural Exposure by Patricia Cornwell
G. P. Putnam. ©1997. 338 p.
1997 bestseller #6; my grade: A-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Special Delivery

full moon above Hollywood skyline signals romanceThe leading characters in Special Delivery, Jack Watson and Amanda Robbins Kingston, are respectively 59 and 51. Their ages are the only unusual element in an otherwise totally predictable Danielle Steel romance.

Since a failed marriage that produced a son and one happy affair that ended tragically before marriage, Jack has been a most eligible and unattachable bachelor. He keeps his bed partners far from the altar but manages to keep most of them as friends.

Amanda was a Hollywood star 26 years earlier when she ditched the spotlight for marriage to a dull banker whom she adored. She and Matt had two daughters, Jan and Louise. Jan is married to Jack’s son, Paul.

As the book opens, Matt has just died.

Amanda and Jack exchange civil remarks at Matt’s funeral.

Almost a year later, Jan talks her mother into coming to a Christmas party Jack is throwing at his Hollywood store. Amanda surprises herself by being glad to be there, and Jack surprises her by being attentive and understanding.

Special Delivery is typical Steel fare, only about a hundred pages shorter than usual. The only suspense is waiting to see if your predictions as to the novel’s ending are correct.

(They are.)

Special Delivery by Danielle Steel
Delacorte. ©1997.   217 p.
1997 bestseller #5; my grade: C

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Ranch

cowboy on a bucking horse represents the dude ranchThe Ranch is a Danielle Steel novel that twists her usual romance formula to toward realism in a way that won’t disappoint her fans but will surprise her detractors.

The story is about three beautiful, sexy, and successful women who were college roommates 20 years before.

Now a celebrity music star, Tanya Thomas invites Zoe Phillips, a doctor at an AIDS clinic, and Mary Stuart Walker, wife, mother, and volunteer organizer for charitable organizations, to join her for a vacation at a Wyoming dude ranch.

Tanya’s third marriage is falling apart.

Zoe has just learned she has AIDS.

And Mary Stuart is seriously considering leaving the husband who has virtually ignored her for the year since their son committed suicide.

The three women quickly return to the honest, supportive familiarity of their Berkeley years.

The Ranch has some terrifying moments of physical danger for the women as well as Steel’s more typical tear-jerk moments.

Of course, each woman finds the right man for her, but those men are not Steel’s typical sexy, white knights with fortunes.

And instead of sweeping the heroines off on white chargers to live happily ever after in glittering castles, the men take them by the hand along potholed streets uphill toward unforeseeable challenges.

The Ranch by Danielle Steel
Delacorte. ©1997. 421 p
1997 bestseller #4; my grade: A-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Ghost

A miniature French chateau like that Pellerin had built for SarahOn the outside of The Ghost are two 1990s divorce stories. In one, Carole Waterson divorces her husband (who thought they were blissfully happy)  just as Charlie’s architectural firm recalls him from London to New York.

In the other, sportscaster and former Olympic ski champion Pierre Vironnet leaves his wife, Francesca, and their eight-year-old daughter, Monique, for a younger woman.

Charlie finds his company’s NYC office old-fashioned. Management won’t listen to reason. They gives Charlie a leave of absence, hoping he’ll quit.

Charlie decides to go to Vermont, but snow stops him in Shelburne Falls, Mass, where Francesca and Monique are already living.

Charlie rents a haunted house from an elderly widow, a miniature chateau Frenchman Francois de Pellerin built around 1800 for his English wife, Sarah Ferguson, who came to America alone to escape her abusive husband. In the attic, Charlie finds Sarah’s diaries (written in just after the American Revolution in 1990s prose), which inspire him to start his life over.

Before the temperature rises above freezing, Charlie and Francesca, passionately in love, are sitting on the historical society steps in a 30-inch snowfall.

The Ghost is not one of Danielle Steel’s best plots.

The Ghost by Danielle Steel
Delacorte Press. ©1997. 352 p.
1997 bestseller #3; my grade: C-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Cold Mountain (novel)

Mountains in deep shades of blue
The mountain looks cold.

Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain is a rarity: A Civil War novel that isn’t written in clichés.

At Petersburg, Confederate soldier Inman was fatally wounded but he survived anyway. In chapter 1, he steps from a hospital window and starts for Cold Mountain, hoping Ada has waited for him.

Ada had come to Cold Mountain with her father. Inman wrangled an introduction. Before he left, she and Inman had an understanding.  While Inman was away, Ada’s father died.

Ada is educated, but she has no domestic skills. On her own, she couldn’t survive. A neighbor sends Ruby to Ada. Ruby can’t read or write, but she can bargain. She offers to teach Ada how to run a farm. They’ll work together, eat together, but not live together. “Everybody empties their own night jar,” Ruby says.

While Inman hikes home, trying to stay healthy and avoid being caught as a deserter, the women try to keep a roof over their heads, stockpile food and fuel for the winter, and avoid marauding soldiers.

Frazier makes his characters and settings come alive in prose that never uses an unfamiliar word when a familiar one will work, never tells what he can show.

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
Atlantic Monthly Press. ©1997. 356 p.
1997 bestseller #2; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni