Cujo: A shaggy dog story gone bad

The front dust jacket of Stephen King’s Cujo puts the story in one image: It’s about a vicious dog.

Cujo cover features a snarling, slobbering rabid dog
Where’s Atticus Finch when you need him?

At nearly 200-pounds, Cujo, a Saint Bernard, is a gentle giant.

Out chasing a rabbit, Cujo is bitten by a rabid bat. The rabies virus turns Cujo into a killer.

King pads his page count with some subplots , all of which are resolved by the dog’s death.

King has one subplot about four-year-old boy who sees monsters in his closet. Tad’s terror is so real that his father starts imagining he see things in the closet, too.

That’s scary.

Tad’s mother, afraid of losing her youth in backwoods Maine, has had a brief fling with a transient poet/cabinet maker. When she breaks it off, he sends her husband a letter about her infidelity, then trashes her home.

The poet/cabinet maker is scary.

Cujo’s owner, 10-year-old Brett Chamber, and his mother are away visiting her sister. Charity Camber is debating whether to divorce her husband. Joe Chamber is as nasty a redneck as ever beat a wife.

Joe Chamber is scary.

On the whole, I found the men in the novel far more frightening than the dog.

Maybe you just had to be there.

Cujo by Stephen King
Viking Press. 1981. 319 p.
1981 bestseller #3. My grade: C+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

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Hotel New Hampshire: A family love story

Some novels create a fantasy world. John Irving’s novel The Hotel New Hampshire realistically depicts a family who live in one.

Dust jacket has light gray and white text on burgundy background, no art
No image could capture this novel.

John Berry, the third of Winslow and Mary Berry’s five children, tells the story.

Win and Mary grew up in Dairy, NH, but didn’t meet until both worked summer jobs in Maine after high school.

The Berry children’s favorite story was of their parent’s romance, 1939 marriage, and Win’s purchase of a bear, with which he paid for his Harvard education before coming back to Dairy.

When the private boy’s school at which Win teaches has to take girls, Win decides to buy the former girls’ school and turn it into a tourist destination the first Hotel New Hampshire.

He moves his family and their dog into the hotel.

It’s hardly an ideal place for children or dogs.

There will be two more Hotel New Hampshires, one in Vienna, Austria, the other at the hotel site where Win and Mary met.

Only the third one, the one that is a hotel in name only, is a success.

Irving reproduces the sibling interactions with perfect pitch. Their antics are laugh out loud funny at one minute and bring tears the next.

Visit The Hotel New Hampshire. You’ll be glad you did.

The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving
E. P. Dutton. © 1981.  401 p.
1981 bestseller #2. My grade A-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Noble House: Snapshot of an era

Cover shows disk that plays a key role in Noble House
Noble House is a BIG novel.

In Noble House, James Clavell updates the story of Straun’s Hong Kong trading company—the Noble House— whose 19th century founding was the topic of his earlier bestseller Tai-Pan.

Ian Dunross becomes tai-pan—head—of the company in 1960 determined to turn it into an international rather than an Asian company.

From the start, he’s hampered by bad decisions of former tai-pans and a century-old rivalry with another trading company run by Quillan Gornt.

Dunross hopes to repair his fortunes by a joint venture with an American company.

Par-Con Industries’ CEO, Lincoln Bartlett, arrives accompanied by his negotiator “Mr. K. C. Tcholok” who turns out to be a very attractive young woman whose expectation of being treated as a professional offends both men and women in Hong Kong.

Clavell keeps at least a half dozen different stories running at the same time, enabling him to show how people in various strata of Hong Kong society live.

Much of Noble House is very much a product of its time. There are many references to spies and scandals of the ’60s, French and American involvement in Vietnam, drug trafficking, and Russian-Chinese rivalries.

At 1,206 pages Noble House is not a novel for weaklings, but it’s well worth reading.

Noble House by James Clavell
A novel of contemporary Hong Kong
Delacorte Press. ©1981. 1206 p.
1981 bestseller #1. My grade: A-

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Spike: Covering the disinformation war

The descender on P in Spike plus hammer and sickle symbolsplits an American flag
Spiked stories about what’s going on in the world let Russia divide the US

The Spike is two international reporters’ attempt to make foreign policy relevant to a mass audience by borrowing  fictional techniques from John le Carré and Ken Follett.

Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss aren’t able to pull it off.

Their story is about Bob Hockney, whose experience at Berkeley during the Vietnam protests led him into journalism.

Hockney wants to investigate how media bias has lulled Americans into discounting Russian malice toward America. He reports from Vietnam, then returns to America to seek whoever is responsible for getting the President and Congress to turn a blind eye to Russian activities.

The story comes to a boil when, as troops invade North Yemen from Aden, the French report Soviet pilots using South Yemeni planes are bombing North Yemen.

Hockney is implausible as a journalist, unmemorable as a protagonist, and ludicrous as a leading man. The story is equally unmemorable.

Despite its  flaws, The Spike  reads like today’s news.

There’s  feuding among White House staff.

The president is alienating America’s allies.

And the premise of The Spike —that Russia is using disinformation to achieve its aim of global supremacy—may be an even more serious threat today than it was in 1980.

The Spike by Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss
Crown Publishers. 1st ed. ©1980. 374 p.
1980 bestseller #10. My grade: B

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Fifth Horseman: Bombs and bureaucrats

A nuclear explosion is background for type on cover of The Fifth Horseman
Nuclear bomb threat is central to this novel.

The Fifth Horseman is a thriller merging 1970s international news and hometown fears in a narrative that still feels contemporary.

Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has devised a plot to trigger a nuclear bomb hidden somewhere in New York City if the Americans don’t get Israel to abandon territories seized from Arabs.

Getting the bomb into New York and getting directions to the White House falls to Kamil and Whalid Dajani and their sister, Laila.

The trio had vowed vengeance for the loss of the family’s West Bank home.

Whalid studied nuclear physics and went to work for the French nuclear program.

Whalid’s political views softened; Kamil’s and Laila’s became harder.

Laila, disguised, delivers the terrorists’ threat.

Gaddafi gives the U.S. 36 hours to comply. Should the U.S. attempt to evacuate the city, Gaddafi will detonate the bomb immediately.

Americans scrambling to respond to the nuclear threat discover they have few options other than to find the bomb and disarm it without news of the crisis leaking out.

Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre had been news reporters before joining forces to write books.  Their first hand observation of political appointees shows in their depiction of inept bureaucrats trying to solve an immediate problem.

That in itself still renders The Fifth Horseman terrifying.

The Fifth Horseman
by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre
Simon and Schuster. ©1980. 478 p.
1980 bestseller #9. My grade: A-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Devil’s Alternative: Politics within politics

Black and red type, red eagle bearing hammer and sickle compose front dust jacket of “The Devils Alternative”
Russian symbols are fixed to the American eagle

As in his three earlier bestsellers, in The Devil’s Alternative Frederick Forsyth puts together a complicated plot against Western democracy.

Here that plot unfolds while the United States thinks it is pulling off a clever scheme to get the Russians to sign an arms deal.

A series of accidents have led to a failure of the Russian grain crop which, in a matter of months, will lead to widespread starvation.

Both the Politburo and the West are sure the Russian people will revolt rather than starve.

America’s intelligence man in Moscow is getting top-secret documents via his old lover, now a secretary to the Politburo.

The documents reveal a power struggle within the Russian leadership. So far, the minority, which has a plan to attack the West with nuclear armaments, is one vote from control.

Meanwhile, a small cell of Ukrainian nationalists are plotting to draw world attention to their demands with a threat to blow up the world’s largest oil tanker, dumping a million barrels of oil into the North Sea.

The tight schedule of events make the plot riveting but leaves no time for Forsyth’s characters to develop.

The result is good entertainment with a tacked-on ending.

The Devil’s Alternative by Frederick Forsyth
Viking Press. 1980, ©1979. 432 p.
1980 bestseller #8. My grade: B+

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Random Winds: Not the usual surgeon story

dust jacket art: Dr. Martin Farrell flanked by his lover in England and wife in New York
Lover and wife on opposite sides of the surgeon

Random Winds begins in the manner of an A. J. Cronin story of a poor boy who becomes a brilliant surgeon.

But nothing I’ve come across in the 20th century’s bestsellers is anything like Belva Plain’s Random Winds.

The liner notes describe the novel as a saga about three generations of doctors, but the story is really about just one of them, Martin Farrell.

There’s the usual faithful wife and alluring temptress, the surgeons clawing for preeminence, the wealth industrialist who comes comes to the rescue with funds for the surgeon’s pet project; those are required in novels about MDs.

Readers see everything in the novel through Martin’s eyes.

Martin is smart, hard-working, principled, essentially decent.

But he also takes everything he sees at face value.

Random Winds is compelling because Martin learns repeatedly that outside the operating room the evidence of his eyes and ears isn’t always true.

It’s not until his daughter, whom he thought would take over his scalpel, chooses a different specialty that Martin realizes what had actually happened in the episodes that were turning points in his life.

Plain’s characters learn and grow so that when they meet after a passage of time they can forgive what they cannot forget.

Random Winds by Belva Plain
Delacorte Press ©1980. 496 p.
1980 bestseller #8. My grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni