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

Night Over Water

aircraft at night over oceanNight Over Water centers around a largely forgotten piece of 20th century aviation history: the luxury aircraft the Flying Clipper, which could land and take off from the ocean.

In Ken Follett’s novel, a few days after Britain declares war on German in 1939, the Clipper takes off on a 30-hour flight to New York. Some of the passengers are trying to avoid the war, others are trying to escape their pasts.

Weather conditions had to be just right for the Clipper. It couldn’t take off or land unless the waves were less than three feet high. Unless stars were visible, the aircraft had no way to navigate and could run out of fuel. Conserving fuel often meant going through storms rather than around them.

The spark for the drama is the presence on the plane of a mobster being returned to America for trial. His gang have kidnapped the pregnant wife of the Clipper’s engineer in order to force her husband to have the plane land in the ocean off Newfoundland where they can rescue him.

Follett’s characters are types familiar to novel readers. It’s the setting that produces the drama. Few writers can milk the drama from an historical setting to entertain and inform as Follett can.

Night Over Water by Ken Follett
William Morrow. ©1991. 400 p.
1991 bestseller #8; my grade: A-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

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

The Sum of All Fears (novel)

airplane suggest bomb may be droppedThe Sum of All Fears is a hold-your-breath novel from Tom Clancy featuring Jack Ryan, Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Accustomed to Cold War hostilities, neither America and its allies nor Russia and hers are quite sure how to behave in the new, lukewarm conditions.

Ryan gets an idea for a Middle East peace plan brokered by the Vatican. The plan works, but all Ryan gets is the animosity of the President and his Secretary of Defense, who also happens to be the President’s bed mate.

Terrorists, to whom peace is unnatural and unsettling, have plans of their own.

As both the West and the Soviets have dismantled missiles with nuclear warheads, some of the nuclear material has simply disappeared. The owners haven’t publicized their losses. Nevertheless, a few men of ill-will know where the material is and how to use it for their ends.

Clancy provides plenty of excitement with a minimum of gore. He focuses on how people rise to or fall before a challenge for which they could not rehearse.

Clancy’s text is packed with jargon and technical details about intelligence procedures, aircraft, ships, submarines, weapons, and bomb building, which feels incredibly dull but is essential to the plot: Evil is not passive in this novel.

The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy
G. P. Putnam. ©1991. 798 p.
1991 bestseller #2; 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

The Dark Half (novel)

undistinguishable dark blurs are background for author and title name
Nothing’s clear here

The Dark Half is a Stephen King novel with all the creepy ambiance and nightmarish monsters for which King is justly famous.

And, like most King novels, at its core is a fairly common occurrence: Writing under an assumed name.

When novelist Thad Beaumont slammed into writer’s block, he occupied his time writing violent novels under the pen name George Stark. Stark’s name was on four very successful novels.

A dozen years later, in a mock ceremony captured in People magazine, Thad and his wife buried Stark beneath a tombstone inscribed “Not a Very Nice Guy.”

Stark’s readers are furious.

So is Stark.

The never-existent Stark is determined to use Thad as an instrument for writing his stories, just as Thad used Stark.

When the Beaumonts’ odd-jobs man is found murdered, Thad’s fingerprints are found on the man’s truck.

Sheriff Alan Pangborn thinks it’s an open-and-shut case, but until he interviews Thad, who has witnesses to the fact he was at home miles away when the murder occurred.

The Dark Half blends the mundane with bizarre facts about twins, adds a touch of Alfred Hitchcock, and winds up with the all-too-real possibility that the Beaumont’s marriage won’t survive.

It also leaves the question: How do novelists create their characters?

The Dark Half by Stephen King
Viking. ©1989. 431 p.
1989 bestseller #2; my grade: B

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Clear and Present Danger

helicopter is at the center of dust jacket
‘copter rescues trapped soldiers

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.

Clear and Present Danger by Tom Clancy
Putnam. ©1989. 656 p.
1989 bestseller #1; my grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Icarus Agenda

“The Icarus Agenda” dust jacket White House appears target of electrical storm
Is Kendrick White House material?

Robert Ludlum’s The Icarus Agenda is not escape reading.

Ludlum’s tale is a series of inter-connected, world-wide plots further connected by a journal typed into a computer by an unidentified man who records the events for his own mysterious purposes.

In book one of the novel, terrorists have already killed 11 hostages and threaten to kill the other 236 Americans they hold hostage in the US embassy in Masqat, Oman. They demand release of 8,000 terrorists belonging to organizations ranging from the IRA to the PLO.

Evan Kendrick, a newly-elected, “accidental” Colorado congressman, convinces the State Department’s covert operations director to let him try to raise the siege using connections he made—including connections to the Sultan of Oman—while doing construction work in the Middle East.

The man at DoS agrees only because Kendrick’s offer is predicated on his role never being known to any other person.

The hostage incident is over page by 221 of the novel. After that the Ludlum’s story  gets complicated.

Although the novel is action packed, Ludlum’s characters are believably complex characters whose motivations are as complex as their personalities.

This 1988 bestselling political thriller requires—and deserves—readers’ full attention: The plot Kendrick uncovers is altogether too plausible to be dismissed in 2019.

The Icarus Agenda by Robert Ludlum
Random House. ©1988. 677 p.
1988 bestseller #4; my grade: A-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

 

The Sands of Time

Art-free front cover of “The Sands of Time” has uses gold type on a red background.I suspect that Sheldon’s The Sands of Time was a bestseller because book buyers in 1988 expected a Sheldon novel to be a bestseller.

If the author had been Anonymous, Sands wouldn’t have sold.

Most of the story’s action is set in 1976 Spain, where the 1936-39 Civil War is still being waged by the Basque terrorist organization ETA.

The powerful OPUS MUNDO cabal wants Jaime Miró and his gang rounded up, tried, and killed.

In their search for Miró, soldiers enter a convent where they rape and murder Cistercian nuns. Four escape.

Three of the four escapees are true nuns; the fourth is a woman wanted for murder.

The Miró gang run into the escaped nuns. Unwilling to kill them, they’re forced to take them along as the gang splits up to escape from the soldiers.

As they travel, Sheldon tells about the early lives of  the women and what led them each to take holy orders.

Most of Sands is told in flashbacks and because the story has so many main characters the effect is like being surrounded by the press covering the verdict in a particularly grisly murder trial.

And none of the characters is someone you’ll remember the next day.

The Sands of Time by Sidney Sheldon
Morrow. ©1988. 412 p.
1988 bestseller #1; my grade: C-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Cardinal of the Kremlin

Star-Wars style laser weapon is centerpiece of “The Cardinal of the Kremlin” book jacket.
Lasers aim to destroy

The Cardinal of the Kremlin was Tom Clancy’s fourth bestseller in a row.

It follows what by 1988 had become Clancy’s signature blend of Cold War politics, espionage, military technology, and the presence of CIA analyst Jack Ryan.

The “Cardinal” of this novel is a Colonel Mikhail Filitov, thrice awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal for service in battle; unknown to Ryan, he’s been a CIA spy for 30 years.

Ryan is in Moscow as a technical advisor for arms negotiation. There he stumbles across information that the Soviets are very close to having a working, missile-based laser system.

Far to the east on the Afghanistan-Russia border, an Afghan freedom fighter glimpses a flash of green light that proves the Soviet technology works. He passes his observation along to the CIA along with documents taken from Russians he and his men slaughtered.

Clancy runs multiple story threads simultaneously, switching the scene from one continent to another, and the focus among dozens of characters.

You can read Cardinal for relaxation, but you can’t relax and read it. That is part of its attraction. Clancy expects each reader to do his/her duty.

You won’t want to disappoint him.

The Cardinal of the Kremlin by Tom Clancy
G. P. Putnam. ©1988. 543 p.
1988 bestseller #1; my grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni