John Grisham 1999 best-seller The Testament is a courtroom drama with anacondas.
The novel opens with the dramatic suicide of America’s 10th most wealthy man. While guys in suits line up to bicker and dicker to secure a chunk of Troy Phelan’s estate for—and from—Phelan’s obnoxious heirs, only Josh Stafford, who had drafted and shredded many wills for Phelan, knows none of Phelan’s ex-wives and their children will get a cent from his estate.
While stalling on reading Phalen’s last will as directed, Josh hauls soon-to-be-disbarred lawyer Nate O’Riley out of his fourth stay in an alcohol rehabilitation program and sends him to find the illegitimate daughter to whom Phelan left his fortune. She’s a missionary to primitive people in the Pantanal in western Brazil.
Before this trip, Nate’s idea of personal challenge was avoiding alcohol for 24 hours. Suddenly he has to cope with a plane crash in a thunderstorm, a boat trip up swollen rivers, and dengue fever.
As he so often does, in The Testament Grisham produces a surprise ending that’s so well prepared it shouldn’t be a surprise. And as always in a Grisham novel, there’s far more than just the story line to unpack.
Like her 1995 bestseller Silent Night, Mary Higgins Clark’s All Through the Night is a mystery for the Christmas season. Both novels feature a child in a pivotal role, since threats to children are deemed particularly ugly in December.
All Through the Night opens on a cold December night as a young woman leaves her newborn baby in a secondhand stroller on St. Clement’s rectory steps just as a man inside empties the offering boxes and grabs a precious chalice, setting off the alarm system.
Seven years later, the woman, who has always regretted abandoning her infant, comes to play a concert in Carnegie Hall just as the thief, who grabbed what he thought was an empty stroller to deflect suspicion, makes plans to take “his” daughter to provide cover for his lucrative drug delivery business.
Meanwhile, amateur sleuth Alvirah Meehan and husband, Willy, are trying to prevent an after-school program for poor kids from being closed and to keep their Kate Durbin from losing her home because of what they believe to be a fraudulent will.
There’s little story and less suspense in this novel, but it has snow and lights and a happy ending, which may be enough for Christmas.
Toni Morrison’s Paradise is set in 1976 in, Ruby, Oklahoma, “a backward noplace ruled by men whose power to control was out of control and who had the nerve to say who could live and who not and where.”
Refused admission to other all-black communities because of their darker skins and threatened by white supremacists after WWII, a couple dozen families established Ruby 17 miles from the nearest building in which Catholic nuns ran a school for Indian children. Ruby’s settlers called it “the Convent.”
As Paradise opens, the school is closed and the sisters of working age reassigned elsewhere, but the Convent’s central-nowhere location on an East-West highway continues to make it a stopping place for young women running from something. The way they dress, their language, their music, their attitudes shock most of Ruby’s residents.
Before long rumors start to circulate that those strange women are doing evil things at the Convent.
Stephen King would have that into a terrifying tale with an unambiguous message. Instead of a story that readers can understand on one reading, Morrison tangled it into literary fiction suited to discussion by post-menopausal women in monthly book clubs.
Point of Origin is another of Patricia Cornwell’s complex crime novels solved by a complex crime investigator, Kay Scarpetta, Virginia’s medical examiner.
Point of Origin begins with two seemingly unrelated events. First, a threatening letter from psychopath Carrie Grethen at Ward’s Island, New York City, is delivered to Scarpetta, to remind her that Carrie isn’t finished ruining people’s lives. Second, Scarpetta is called to the scene of a fire in which the home and stables of media mogul Kenneth Sparkes were destroyed while he was away.
Before the fire investigation is a day old, Carrie Grethen escapes from Ward’s Island.
At the fire scene, Scarpetta discovers a corpse in the second-floor bathroom. It’s a woman, throat stabbed or cut, strange bits of what looks almost like neon-pink paper in her hair. Later, Sparkes tells Scarpetta he thinks the corpse is Claire Rawley, a former girlfriend who may have had a key to the house.
Forensic analysis can’t initially explain the amount of fire damage to the property or the corpse.
Scarpetta’s investigation of the cause of death requires her to shop for restaurant-sized pots, a camping supplies, and swimming caps.
Cornwell’s plots are interesting and re-readable, but her characters are recognizably human and unforgettable.
It’s possible that I’m reading The Klone and I all wrong, but I prefer to think Danielle Steel decided she couldn’t write another syrupy romance and decided to spoof the whole business. At any rate, her Klone is one of the funniest novels I’ve read in a long time.
The story is related by a woman named Stephanie whose husband tells her in the 13th year of their marriage that he wants out. She gets the kids, ages eight and 13. Roger gets alimony and quickly remarries.
Stephanie meets a lot of losers before she meets Peter Baker, an attractive divorce who runs a bionics company. Bionics is not a term Stephanie recognizes.
They slip into a relationship, though Stephanie’s kids think Peter is dull.
When Peter has to go to California on business, he promises her a surprise. The surprise is Paul Klone, a partially-cloned, partially bionic figure—read that as life-size sex doll—that looks exactly like Peter, only much, much flashier.
Stephanie’s kids think Paul is great.
And Steel gives him great lines like, “I love you Steph . . . you make my wires hurt,” and his whine, “In a few hours, I’ll have my head off again, and all my wires hanging out, and you’ll be back with [Peter].”
In The Long Road Home, Danielle Steel tackles one of the least savory aspects of romantic relationships: child abuse.
Gabriella is a beautiful, blonde seven-year-old whose mother flies into rages and beats her, being careful the bruises don’t show.
Gabby’s father is too spineless to object.
When the Harrisons divorce, Eloise Harrison sends Gabriella to live in a convent, while she moves to California and a new husband. John Harrison moves to Boston. Gabbie never hears from either of her parents again. When Gabbie turns 18, her mother’s care of her—a monthly check to the sisters—ends.
Gabbie is safe and happy, a Columbia University graduate, planning to become a nun when she meets Father Joe Connors in the confessional.
They hit it off too well.
When Joe has to choose between his vocation and Gabbie, who is pregnant, his own unresolved childhood trauma leads a third, most unhappy choice.
Gabbie once again has to start rebuilding a life for herself.
The combination of early childhood abuse and her convent-sheltered teen years make her vulnerable. Gabbie gets into another abusive situation.
Steel provides an upbeat ending that’s more hopeful than likely, but her story is as realistic as Steel’s romance fans can tolerate.
By literary law, every prolific novelist is required to write about two look-a-like individuals who change places.
Danielle Steel fulfills her obligation with Mirror Image, a preposterous story about the Henderson twins, who come of age just as World War I erupts in Europe.
Olivia, the elder sister by 11 minutes, and Victoria are distinguishable only by a tiny mole that one sister has on her right hand, the other on the left. The sisters are very close, but very different.
Olivia is the dutiful, domestic daughter to their father, who turned elderly when his wife died birthing the twins.
Committed to women’s suffrage, smoking cigarettes, and driving motor cars, Victoria is sure of herself, naïve, and totally shocked when the man by whom she’s pregnant won’t divorce his wife for her.
To prevent a scandal, Mr. Henderson arranges a marriage for Victoria with his lawyer, a widower with a young son.
Victoria hates children, hates her boring husband, and wishes her father had pushed Olivia off on Charles Dawson instead of her.
You know what happens. The only open question for Steel to settle is which of the sisters gets killed off in order for the story to end happily.
After a slow start, Tom Wolfe builds A Man in Full into a riveting, multifaceted story that shatters into shards in the final chapter.
The central character is Charlie Crocker, a good ol’ boy who use his football prowess to get access to Atlanta’s wealthy elite where by salesmanship—which Charlie believes is synonymous with manhood—he built a commercial empire.
As the story opens, Charlie is in his sixties and in deep financial trouble.
Another story-line is about Conrad Hensley, an employee in one of Charlie’s warehouses, who is trying to raise himself by his bootstraps.
A third story-line is about Atlanta’s black mayor’s attempt to prevent racial incidents over rumors—no charges have been filed—that a black, Georgia Tech football player raped the daughter one of the city’s leading white establishment figures.
Wolfe is funny in an ugly, wise-cracking way. He ridicules Charlie for his lack of education and sophistication and mocks Charlie’s ex-wife for being hurt by people who cut her because she’s been replaced.
There’s no middle class in Wolfe’s picture. He contrasts blotches of poverty, prisons, and hopelessness with shimmering wealth, self-indulgence, and conspicuous consumption.
The world of A Man in Full is interesting to read but unpleasant to contemplate.
Bag of Bones is a Stephen King thriller in which, as in many of his other novels, layers supernatural horror over human horrors.
The story is narrated by Mike Noonan, a novelist who hasn’t put pixels on his word processor since his wife died four years before.
That would have been enough material for an Edith Wharton novel.
Mike goes to their summer home, Sara Laughs, on Dark Score Lake in Castle Rock, Maine, after a series of vivid nightmares convince him he has to come to grips with his loss.
He finds the village is under the thumb of ruthless millionaire who has returned to his roots. Max Devore’s aim is to wrest custody of his three-year-old granddaughter from her mother. Mike falls instantly in love with both Kyra and her sexy mother.
That would have been enough for a John Grisham novel.
Mike also picks up some bad vibes about local history from the jazz age that nobody will talk about.
That would have been enough for a Toni Morrison novel.
King takes what is at least three novels’ worth of material and adds supernatural elements to them. It’s overkill. People and history are sufficiently horrific. Readers don’t need ghosts, too.
In Rainbow Six, Tom Clancy features the character John Clark (a.k.a. John Kelly) who appears in several of his Jack Ryan novels and is the central character in Without Remorse.
Rainbow is a secret, six-nation task force created to combat terrorism led by Clark, who is “Six” to the military he commands.
Rainbow’s members have barely met each other when their services are required. First, former members of the Bader-Meinhoff gang take hostages in a Swiss bank in what appears to be a robbery.
Hard on the heels of that incident, Rainbow is called to Vienna when a financier’s home is seized by intruders who demand insider codes to international trading.
Next there’s an attack on a Spanish version of Disney World that was prepared to repel thieves, but not to deal with armed men demanding the release of political prisoners.
Meanwhile, some very influential Americans are developing a terrorist scheme designed to work without a public announcement of demands.
Normally, Clancy invents situations that are plausible. Here the ultimate terrorist scheme is so preposterous it wouldn’t attract adherents among residents in a mental institution. And the ending of Rainbow Six, is, as one character says, “like something from a bad movie.”