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

Debt of Honor

Mountainous island silhouetted by red sun inside final O of honor
Red sun symbolizes Japan.

Jack Ryan is introduced as National Security Advisor to the President in Tom Clancy’s 1994 bestseller Debt of Honor.

Even by Clancy’s standards, this tale of a third world war is complicated. One thread involves a computer program designed to cripple America economically by destroying records of transactions on the US-based stock exchanges.

A second thread concerns a wealthy Japanese man’s desire to revenge the deaths of his family when Americans invaded the Mariana Islands in World War II.

A third thread is about an attempt by India to invade Sri Lanka.

Clancy lays all three of these fictional threads out against the very real political-military situation in the 1990s: the mutual Soviet-US nuclear missile disarmament, the reduction of America’s naval capacity, the reliance on technology as a replacement for human observation and analysis.

About page 675, when American began fighting in the Pacific Ocean, I lost track of who was where—blame the fog of war—and picked up the story as diplomats arranged peace terms.

Readers who know military lingo will enjoy the story more than the rest of us, but no one can read Clancy’s novel without learning a great deal that’s worth knowing—and acknowledging.

Debt of Honor by Tom Clancy
G. P. Putnam’s Sons. ©1994. 766 p.
1994 bestseller #2; my grade: A-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Without Remorse by Tom Clancy

Missile shots light up night sky
Sky above the POW camp

In Without Remorse, Tom Clancy trots out the hero of several earlier novels, John Kelly, in a story that mixes military action with mafia action.

Kelly’s wife was accidentally killed in a previous novel and he is still numb when he gives young hitchhiker a lift. Pam restarts his sex drive, and Kelly helps her shake her drug habit. After Pam is brutally killed by drug dealers, Kelly goes ape, hunting the men responsible. He’s efficient and brutal.

Meanwhile the Pentagon is preparing to rescue prisoners in a POW camp in terrain Kelly knows well. They recruit him to lead the rescue.

An idealistic peacenik in a federal government position leaks the plans. As troops prepare to attack, Kelly has to abort the rescue. Although his mission failed, Kelly has caught the eye of powerful people the federal government who want to use his expertise.

Before he can decide whether to take them up on their offer, he has some more drug dealers he kills without remorse.

Clancy fills pages with caricatures and pushes them through the novel on an express train powered by hostility. The story is a page-turner without a hero. Clancy may be useful to the military, but he hasn’t the moral sense to be a role model.

Without Remorse by Tom Clancy
G. P. Putman. ©1993. 639 p.
1993 bestseller #4; my grade: B

©2020 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

Red Storm Rising

 tiny submarine is almost hidden by black and white type on red background
A submarine is under the title

In Red Storm Rising, Tom Clancy imagines a situation in which Cold War Era Russia finds itself an oil shortage for at least a couple years.

The Politboro sees its only option is to seize the oil in the Persian Gulf in such a way that the NATO alliance will be afraid to retaliate.

It devises an invasion of Europe in hopes that the military action will conceal their need for oil.

After setting up that scenario in about 30 pages, Clancy goes for nearly 600 more pages about a month of fighting—particularly the submarine warfare—between the Soviet and NATO Alliance members.

The novel repeatedly cycles through a huge, cast of predominantly male characters whose work is their lives.

They watch screens, listen to beeps, and say things like, “The sonobuoys have our torp but nothing else,” “Dead in the water,” and “Roger that.”

In the novel’s final post-war scene, the American General asks the Russian General, “Why didn’t you tell us you needed oil? … We would have demanded and gotten concessions of some kind—but don’t you think we would have tried to prevent all this?”

Similarly, Red Star Rising isn’t worth the effort expended by author and readers.

Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy
Putnam, © 1986. 652 p.
1986 bestseller #2; my grade: C

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Butter Battle Book

Yooks on the Butter Battle Book cover march for bread buttered side up
Which side are you on?

From its cover, The Butter Battle Book appears to be another Dr. Seuss picture book with rhymed text for children.

However, inside is an anti-war message for adults by the man behind the pseudonym, Theodor Seuss Geisel.

The Yooks and the Zooks live on opposite sides of The Wall. Zooks eat their bread butter side down while the Yooks eat theirs butter side up.

A young Yook, encouraged by his grandfather, begins throwing increasingly dangerous missiles across the wall at the Zooks, who retaliate with increasingly more lethal weapons of their own.

The Big War is inevitable.

The Yooks hide in a hole in the ground as the grandfather, leaps up on the wall to drop a bomb on the Zooks and finds himself eye-to-eye with a Zook with a bomb to drop.

Who will drop it first?

The book ends with the words, “We will see” opposite a blank page.

The last page of the story is followed by a blank page
The blank page at the right should be read as the end of the story.

The Library of Congress classified the book as (1) War-Fiction and (2) Stories in rhyme, both more fitting than the children’s collections where it tends to end up.

Today, 30 years after the Berlin Wall came down, The Butter Battle Book is a Cold War Era relic out of place among Dr. Seuss’s children’s books.

The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss
Random House. 1984. Unpaginated
1984 bestseller # 5: My grade: C-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

An Indecent Obsession

Black and gold type on the cover are symbolic of the fight between good and evil in Colleen McCullough’s An Indecent Obsession
That’s the Australian Commonwealth Military Forces  badge  at the top

Colleen McCullough’s novel An Indecent Obsession is emotionally raw tale told with restraint and respect.
The story begins as World War II is about to end for men in Australian military hospital “troppo” ward who broke under the stresses of jungle warfare.

Nurse Honour Lantry has just five men left in ward X: Neil, their leader, whom Honour thinks she might like to know better post-war; blind Matt; hypochondriac Nugget; sadistic Luce Daggett, who scares her; and severely withdrawn Ben Maynard, the only one Honour thinks really belongs in a mental hospital.

The men call her “Sis.”

All except Luce respect and adore her.

The group’s dynamic is upset when Sergeant Michael Wilson appears at the ward.  Compared to the others, Mike is obviously normal.

Honour can’t figure him out. His paperwork says he had a violent crisis; he says he tried to kill a man.

Honour, having served in the field for the entire war, is emotionally exhausted. She allows herself to feel unprofessional interest in Mike, which provokes a crisis.

McCullough relates the story from Honour’s perspective but with a degree of distance that refuses to let Honour be exonerated when she misinterprets what her senses perceive.

Indecent Obsession is an unforgettable story.

An Indecent Obsession
by Colleen McCullough
Harper & Row. ©1981. 317 p.
1981 bestseller #4. My grade: A

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Key to Rebecca

 a woman's photo, swastika are opposite ends of a key
Photo within the key shows woman with mask over her mouth

You’ve seen the plot of The Key to Rebecca in a dozen movies. It’s a World War II thriller with the bad guys coming within a hair’s breadth of beating the good guys.

In Key, the really bad guy is Alex Wolff, an European-trained Egyptian returned home to spy for the Germans.

Wolff’s job is to provide Field Marshall Rommel with information that will allow him to destroy the British in Egypt once and for all.

The really good guy is Major Vandam, a British officer whose knee wound sidelined him to intelligence work.

Wolff slipped up returning to Cairo and killed a man; Vandam is after him.

Vandam meets a beautiful Egyptian Jew, Elene, whom he uses to lure Wolff out where he can grab him.

Wolff has a friend and sometime sex partner, Sonja, who is the most famous belly dancer in Cairo.

He cajoles her into helping him steal documents outlining the Brits’ plan to defend Cairo.

Once he has the documents, Wolff must encode the information and transmit it to the Germans using a code based on the novel Rebecca.

Instead of reading The Key to Rebecca, read Follett’s The Eye of the Needle. It’s a far more original work.

The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett
Morrow, 1st ed. 1980. 381 p.
1980 bestseller #6. My grade: B-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Bourne Identity: Gripping story, forgettable characters

A sea shell pierced by a nail against a black background on the dust jacket of “The Bourne Identity”
The Bourne Identity cover art symbolizes murder attempt at sea

As he did in his previous bestseller, The Matarese Circle, in The Bourne Identity novelist Robert Ludlum tells a story that will keep readers turning pages long past their bedtime.

Bourne is the identity assumed by a man pulled from the Mediterranean “more corpse than man,” unable to remember anything about his past, including why he has a piece of microfilm with a Swiss bank account number implanted in his hip.

In Zurich, the amnesiac takes a woman hostage—every spy story requires the hero have a woman to complicate the plot—and together in Paris they begin to piece together Jason Bourne’s origins in Southeast Asia.

Ludlum is a master storyteller. Plot is his forte. Ludnum gives his characters just enough depth to be recognizable. They learn what’s necessary to advance the plot, but they don’t grow.

A day after closing The Bourne Identity, readers may wonder how Bourne, even before being shot in the head multiple times, could have been expected to remember everything he was required to remember to implement the machination of the West’s intelligence services.

Two days later, readers may even be unable to recall the names of the main characters.

But while they’re reading, they will be totally immersed in this complex, fast-paced thriller.

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum
R. Marek Publishers, © 1980. 523 p.
1980 bestseller #2. My grade: B+

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Third World War: August 1985

The Third World War: August 1985 is not a real novel. It’s not about people; it’s about populations.

All-text cover in black and gray text on white background.
The text is as dull as the cover.

The book is classified as a fantasy: Tanks, submarines, and nuclear war heads take the place of wizards, elves, and magic wands.

Its authors are “General Sir John Hackett and Other Top-ranking NATO Generals and Advisors.”

They begin their book with three pages listing acronyms used in the text.

The text itself is written as a post-war analysis compiled at the conclusion of the war. It certainly sounds like a military analysis: Ponderous prose in passive voice.

Today’s readers will have difficulty getting past the first chapter.

The map of the world is very different today than it was in 1978 when the generals and advisors were concocting this tale: Germany, divided then, is once more reunited. The map of Africa has been redrawn, countries renamed.

What remains of interest are small bits, as, for example, the military men say socialist countries reject American-style democracy because they see it as substituting corporate rule for Soviet political rule or the assertion that Europeans distrust America’s judgment because it wasn’t invaded in WWI or WWII.

Skip this fantasy.

Read history instead.

There’s no humanity in this tale.

The Third World War: August 1985
by Gen. Sir John Hackett et al.
Macmillan, © 1978. 368 p.
1979 bestseller #09 My grade: C

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni