‘The Betsy’: Smaller ‘Wheels’, quicker start

Angelo Perino, a retired race car driver, is hired by “Number One,” Loren Hardeman, to design and build a totally new automobile to be called The Betsy after his granddaughter.

Engineer's drawing of sporty car with BETSY on its license plate
Drawing showing the Betsy’s hood.

Although 91 and confined to a wheelchair, Number One is prepared to commit his entire personal and corporate fortune to the project, as is independently wealthy Perino.

There’s a catch: the entire project must be kept secret until the first Betsy rolls off the production line.

Bethlehem Motors, founded in the days of Henry Ford, diversified under Hardeman’s son and grandson. In 1969, CEO “Loren 3” is looking for an opportunity to unload the auto business, keeping only Bethlehem’s more profitable product lines such as washing machines.

The Betsy gets off to a lusty start with the male lead in bed with a auto racing groupie, and keeps up the supercharged sex to the end.

Unlike the whole-industry approach of Arthur Hailey’s Wheels, Harold Robbins’ focus on a single company makes for easier storytelling, although Robbins indulges in frequent and distracting flashbacks.

The main story is mildly interesting, scattered with intriguing bits of information, but it not sufficiently interesting that the dramatic end to the automobile project will be regretted by readers.

The Betsy by Harrold Robbins
Trident Press, ©1971, 502 pages
1971 bestseller #5. My grade: C

Reviewer’s note: the art is from the cover of the First Charnwood Edition of The Betsy, published in 1984 in Great Britain.

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Islands in the Stream: One man, three places

Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream is a three-part novel. Its sections are connected by characters and settings, but are totally different in tone.

Well-read copy of Islands in the Stream

The first section, Bimini, introduces Thomas Hudson, a twice-divorced painter living happily with his personal devils by keeping to a rigid schedule for working and drinking.

His three sons come to visit during their summer holidays. Tom and an old friend, writer Roger Davis, keep the boys busy swimming and fishing.

After the end of their vacation, Tom’s two sons by his second wife are killed in a car accident.

The second section, Cuba, is set during World War II. Tom has just learned that last remaining son has been killed in the war.

When reasonably sober, Tom does reconnaissance work for the US military, using his own boat. During most of the Cuba section, Tom sits in a bar and drinks.

The third section, At Sea, has Tom and his crew tracking survivors of a sunken German U-boat who, in their escape, massacred a village. In a shoot-out, Tom is badly, perhaps fatally wounded.

Islands will probably appeal to Hemingway fans. Those bored by watching others fish or drink, will probably quit reading long before the massacre.

Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway
Scribner, [1970] 466 p.
1970 bestseller #3. My grade: B

Historical note: Islands in the Stream was one of over 300 of Ernest Hemingway’s unpublished works his widow, Mary Hemingway, found after her husband’s death.

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Wildfire has more heat than light

Wildfire is a horse story with people in it.

The setting — Utah wilderness bordering the Colorado River — becomes a part of the action.


Wildfire by Zane Grey
1917 bestseller #5. Project Gutenberg EBook #2066. My grade: C+.

Wildfire getting started high in the mountains.
   Wildfire includes a real wild fire.

If Lucy Bostil loves horses, her father might be said to lust after them. John Bostil wants to own all the fast horses.

In the mountains, Lin Slone is trailing a wild stallion called Wildfire.

At last, Slone gets close enough to lasso the red stallion.

Exercising one of her father’s racehorses, Lucy finds Slone’s mount and Wildfire, both exhausted, and Slone himself badly battered.

The horses and Slone both fall for Lucy.

Lucy and Slone decide to have Lucy ride Wildfire in the big race against her father’s Sage King.

That sets up Lucy to be kidnapped and held for ransom while her kidnappers are pursued by horse thieves.

The fast-paced story is told by an omniscient narrator through an annoying series of “meanwhile back at the ranch” shifts.

There’s little character development: People don’t analyze events or reflect on behavior.

But few novelists can match Zane Grey’s physical descriptions. I found myself holding my breath as Slone and his horse slid and scrambled down and up the Grand Canyon’s walls.

Despite its flaws, Wildfire is breathtaking reading.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Barrier contains prejudice, romance, adventure

John Gale watches soldiers building a military post on the Yukon River and thinks, “The trail ends here!”

Necia Gale, his daughter, sees Lieutenant Burrell and thinks her trail is just beginning.

old photo shows Fort Yukon from vantage point in excavated pit
                        Old Fort Yukon

The Barrier by Rex Beach
[Harper’s, 310 pp.] 1908. 1908 bestseller #2.
Project Gutenberg ebook #4082. My grade: B.

In its first chapter, The Barrier prepares readers for a romance in which the Kentuckian’s bias against non-whites will have to be overcome.

Predictably, the young people fall in love.

But prejudice is trivial compared John Gale’s problem.

Gale’s difficulties are revealed slowly while readers see the kind of man he is and speculate on what he might have done in his early years.

Stark, a saloon-keeper, and his rascally companion, Runnion, arrive in Flambeau just as “No Creek” Lee finds gold. Stark puts up a tent and by nightfall is in business taking money from those who aim to strike it rich.

photograph of gold mining operation sluices
                            Mining for gold in the Yukon

Poleon Doret, who has loved Necia for years, gets only sisterly love and a commission to find out if Burrell means to marry her.

I won’t reveal the ending which is as quarter-turn left of predictable.

Aside from Necia, the characters, too, are just unusual enough to keep readers’ full attention.

Necia, sad to say, is just a pretty face with nothing between the ears.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Predictable plot can’t spoil The Spoilers

An immediate success in 1906, Rex Beach’s The Spoilers seems shopworn today because of its overused romantic plot.

But however tired the romance, even today Beach holds readers’ interest with his fast paced, action-adventure plot.


The Spoilers by Rex Beach

1906 bestseller #8. Project Gutenberg ebook #5076. My grade: B.


First edition cover ot The Spoilers shows village at the foot of Alaskan mountain.Handsome young Roy Glenister and his older sidekick, Bill Dextry, are headed back to their Midas Mine when Helen Chester makes a dash for their ship with several sailors in hot pursuit.

The men help Helen aboard and escort her safely to Nome where she has important business.

On the trip, Roy decides he’s going to marry Helen.

She disagrees: He’s too uncouth for her tastes.

There are the usual plot complications: misunderstandings on both sides, the girl’s guardian who’s a scoundrel, the suitor who’s an even worse scoundrel, the hero’s old girl friend.

The novelty is the plot trigger: Unscrupulous politicians have devised a way to steal gold from the Alaskan mines with the blessings of the courts and the US government.

The plan is simple, looks legal, and seems to be aimed at protecting honest miners.

Beach trained as a lawyer before spending five years prospecting in Alaska. The romance didn’t happen, but the skullduggery did.

Fraud on such a scale is mesmerizing—and well worth a read.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Cinematic Beau Geste buried in novel’s details

1926-07_beaugesteThe French phrase beau geste refers to a gracious gesture that has unwelcome consequences.

It’s an apt title for P. C. Wren’s novel about British orphan lads with the surname Geste.


Beau Geste by P[ercival] C[hristopher] Wren

J. B. Lippincott. 412 p. 1926 bestseller #7. My grade: C+


Michael “Beau” Geste, a natural leader; his twin brother, Digby; and their younger brother John are reared by their aunt, Lady Patricia,  in upper class comfort at Brandon Abbas.

When a precious jewel known as the “Blue Water” disappears, suspicion falls on the boys.

Beau takes off to join the French Foreign Legion, followed separately by Digby and John.

Having pledged themselves to serve France, they refuse to join a mutiny against the despicable Sergeant Lejaune that is prevented only by an Arab attack.

Only John survives the desert ordeal, returning to England where the mystery of the jewel theft is revealed.

Wren makes clear that Geste boys represent an entire class of British who do “the right thing” regardless of consequences: In the world war just ended and the one coming soon, such boys are the heroes of the Empire.

You might want to view the film version of this novel. Beau Geste is a rip-snorter of a mystery-adventure tale, but pages of detail bury the excitement.

The plot, however, is admirably suited to film presentation where an image can reveal 40 pages of detail.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Hurricane is exciting while it lasts

Before he was posted to the Tuamoto Archipelago, Dr. Kersaint was warned “those islands are sometimes visited by hurricanes, and from all accounts, they are most unpleasant things.”

Fifteen years later, Kersaint tells a young colleague the story of a handful of one hurricane’s survivors.

A man, a woman holding a baby, and a second woman cling to branches in a tree as hurricane roars.
Detail from the cover of The Hurricane.

 The Hurricane by Charles Nordhoff & James Norman Hall

Little, Brown, 1935. 275 p. 1936 bestseller #7. My grade: B-.


As the hurricane bears down on the Archipelago, the French, who administer the South Pacific islands, are seeking an escaped criminal, a native lad who a British merchant seaman had been training to take over his shipping business.

Terangi has been pulled from the sea by the local priest and brought home.

When the islands’ administrator accidentally discovers Terangi’s relatives are conspiring to help him get away, he sails off to find  the convict, leaving his wife at home watching the barometer fall.

Writer team Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall skillfully punctuate gray blurs of terrifying sound and sleep-deprived ache with vivid details that make readers feel the narrator truly lived through a hurricane.

They do not, however, go beyond telling an exciting story.

The survivors of  “the wind that overturns the land”  survive unchanged.

That’s would be impossible for anyone whose adventures occur outside their armchairs.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni