The Pillars of the Earth

 interior drawings of a 12th century cathedral form dust jacket backgroundKen Follett, who set his three previous bestsellers during World War II, sets The Pillars of the Earth in medieval England.

The novel opens with the hanging of an innocent man. Watching in horror, a pregnant 15-year-old girl curses the monk, the priest, and the knights who hanged him.

Before Follett reveals the significance of that event, he spins a fascinating tale about centered around two men and two women.  One is master builder and an artist in stone; both want to build beautiful cathedrals.  One of the two women is a beautiful noblewoman, the other an outcast living in the forest.

Twelfth century England was not a pleasant place in which to live. For a half century, the country suffered as competitors vied for the throne.

Towns were burned, crops destroyed, women raped, people slaughtered, survivors forced into penury and starvation.

The clergy sought to protect their rights regardless of who won the throne, sometimes resorting to less than charitable means of promoting their claims.

The story is intricately plotted, fast-paced, and absolutely riveting.

Follet’s story ends with a king settled on the throne and the martyrdom of Thomas á Becket ensuring the church will remain a force in English politics for years to come.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
Morrow. ©1989. 973 p.
1989 bestseller #8; my grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Man from St. Petersburg

Dust jacket uses red type to suggest The Man from St. Petersburg is targeted for death.
Targeted man faces symbols of empires

In The Man from St. Petersburg, Ken Follett once again spins an imaginary tale around an actual attempt to win a war by misdirection. Here his focus is World War I.

All Europe knows war is inevitable: Germany has the continent’s strongest army and it wants Alsace and Lorraine back.

England is militarily weak. She and France will need a third ally against Germany.

The Czar wants an alliance with England; he’s sent Prince Orlov to London to seek one.

Winston Churchill taps the Earl of Walden to handle negotiations for England. Walden’s Russian wife is Orlov’s cousin.

Before their marriage, Lady Walden had a lover in St. Petersburg, a poor, militant radical; when her family found out, they had Feliks arrested and tortured. To save his life, she agreed to marry Lord Walden.

The couple have a daughter making her debut in society in 1914 just as Feliks, hardened by imprisonment in Siberia, has come to London to kill Orlov.

Compared to his ordinary blokes, Follett’s upper crust characters are two-dimensional, and unfortunately the focus in The Man is on the social and political elite.

Only Follett’s generous sprinkling of 1914 historical trivia raise the novel above the ordinary.

The Man from St. Petersburg by Ken Follett
W. Morrow. © 1982. 323 p.
1982 bestseller #10. My grade: B

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Last Enchantment

Merlin's harp is focus of front cover of the Mary Stewart novel The Last Enchantment.
Merlin plays his swan song on this harp.

The Last Enchantment is the final book in Mary Stewart’s trilogy about how Arthur became England’s king, subdued the Saxons, and ruled from Camelot.

As in The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, Stewart tells the story from the vantage point of Merlin, the prophet/wizard who is cousin to Arthur and his mentor.

Merlin has lost his youthful stamina and he’s losing his ability to foresee the future.

Having lived either alone or among men all his life, without his prophetic gift Merlin is at the mercy of women.

Arthur has just won the crown. He must fight to keep it and to beget a son to carry on his line.

Arthur also has to worry about his half-sisters, who have dynastic ambitions of their own, and about his bastard son by one of those half-sisters.

For the first 400 pages of the novel, Stewart spins a fascinating yarn.

She seems then to realize she has too much history still to cover, so she sidelines Merlin while she advances the story.

Then brings him back, gives him a “while you were out” message, wraps up the story, and closes the covers.

The result is 80 percent enchantment and 20 percent disappointment.

The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart
Morrow, 1979. 538 p.
1979 bestseller #07 My grade: B

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Weavers an unromantic tangle of plot threads

The Weavers is a romance, but it’s mostly about David Claridge.

David leaves his English village around 1850 for Egypt, where his good looks, Quaker habits, and scrupulous honesty are novelties.


The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
1907 bestseller #2, 1908 bestseller #10. Project Gutenberg ebook #6267. My grade: C+.

Book illustration, statuary, and photograph of Spinx and pyramids
Artifacts of travels to Egypt in 19th and 20th centuries.

Prince Kaid asks David to be his right-hand man to bring European-style prosperity to Egypt.

Within five years David is “a young Joseph” to the pharaoh and the darling of the British public.

David’s favored status is resented by Egyptians who prefer the old ways of bachshesh, bribery, and brutality.

Defending an English girl from an Egyptian, David kills him with a single punch. The dead man’s brother covers up the murder, planning to use it later to make himself ruler of Egypt.

The girl goes back to England and marries a rising young politician who takes a dim view of David’s uncredentialed foreign activities.

The Weavers is chock-a-block with plots and characters, but Gilbert Parker doesn’t make any one of them believable. David himself is hardly more than a coloring book outline.

Today, The Weavers is useful primarily as a reminder of how long England has been involved in Middle Eastern affairs.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

After Noon: A marriage saved, novel ruined

For the first 200 pages, Susan Ertz’s After Noon is an enjoyable, plausible story.

Then it becomes preposterous.


After Noon by Susan Ertz

A. L. Burt, 1926. 338 p. 1926 bestseller #9. My Grade: B-.


black and white sketch of forest scene is front cover of After NoonCharles Lester’s life had walked out on him in Italy, leaving behind a note, a check for a hundred pounds, and their twin baby daughters.

Almost 20 years later, a happily celibate Charles has paid the divorce costs, become a successful accountant, and is enjoying life with daughters Venetia and Caroline.

One evening a Mrs. Lydia Chalmers phones, having been told by one of his clients to look Charles up when she gets to England.

Charles extends appropriate courtesies.

Soon Lydia is a regular part of the Lesters’ lives.

Both daughters marry in haste, Venetia to accompany a soldier who’s posted to India and Caroline to assist a comrade in making war on capitalism.

With the girls gone, Charles and Lydia marry.

Tying the knot apparently shuts off the oxygen to Lydia’s brain.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, she convinces herself Charles regrets their marriage. To test him, she intends to leave him, hoping he’ll come after her.

Nothing in Lydia’s prior behavior prepares readers for such self-destructive stupidity.

Ertz rescues the marriage.

She can’t save the novel.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Silver Spoon untarnished by time

The Silver Spoon is an easy introduction to one of the most durable writers of the 20th century.

There’s no need to have read earlier books in John Galsworthy’s three-trilogy Forsyte Chronicles (Spoon is the fifth book of the nine) to follow the story.


The Silver Spoon by John Galsworthy

Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1926. 320 p. 1926 bestseller #6. My grade: A-.


1926-06_silverspoon2In 1924, Fleur and Michael Mont move in a London circle that prides itself on its lack of moral prejudices.

When Fleur’s father overhears a woman make disparaging remarks about Fleur at one of her parties, he makes a scene. Instead of protecting Fleur, his defense makes her social group snub her as ridiculously old-fashioned and hypocritical.

Fleur is determined not to be thwarted in her social ambitions as she was thwarted in love.

Michael knows Fleur is merely fond of him. He has thrown himself into politics in hopes of influencing England’s future since he cannot win his wife’s love.

Although usually described as a social satirist, Galsworthy writes with both realism and compassion.

He likes his characters, even though he sees their faults. He loves his country, too, though he sees its flaws.

Like Fleur, England has a silver spoon it’s unwilling to give up.

Contemporary readers may wonder if the same might be said of America.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Sorrell and Son has guts and grace

Sorrell and Son is a sweet tale of a decent English gentleman, weakened by war wounds, deserted by his wife, who makes raising his son his life’s work.

Down to nearly his last shilling, army veteran Stephen Sorrell takes a job as a hotel porter.


Sorrell and Son by Warwick Deeping

Alfred A. Knopf, 1926. 400 p. 1927 bestseller #3. My grade: B.


It’s an awful job, but Sorrell does his work to his own exacting standards.  Impressed, a hotel guest, Thomas Roland, taps Sorrell to be second porter at the new country hotel he is opening.

The head porter there makes Sorrell’s life miserable until Roland gets fed up with the man’s bullying and womanizing.

Sorrell takes over as head porter.

Sorrell turns out to have managerial ability, and works his way up to become manager of one of Roland’s chain of hotels.

Sorrell makes enough to live comfortably and also pay for son Christopher ‘s Cambridge education, medical schooling, and surgical practice.

Christopher grows into as fine a man as his father could wish.

Warwick Deeping makes Sorrell just stubborn and resentful enough to keep him from appearing a plaster saint. Christopher, too, has his flaws.

Readers will care what happens to them.

Sadly, American class distinctions are based on economics rather than on ethics: Today’s readers will view this only as a story of a determined man.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

One Increasing Purpose seeks answer to “Why me?”

In One Increasing Purpose, A. S. M. Hutchinson presents a nice guy, Simon “Sim” Paris, who survived World War I without a scratch.

Sim  wonders why he was spared.


One Increasing Purpose by A. S. M. Hutchinson

Little, Brown,and Company, 1925,  448 pp. 1925 bestseller #10. My grade: C+.


All his family call on Sim’s sympathy.

Andrew, Sim’s oldest brother, is married to a woman temperamentally her husband’s opposite; after 10 years of marriage they are finding passion a poor substitute for shared values.

Sim’s other brother, Charles, is fond of his wife and she of him, but their relationship ends with fondness.

Looking for a sympathetic ear for his own problems, Sims looks up girl he’d known before the war. When Sim tell Elizabeth he’s convinced he was spared for a purpose, she says the purpose “is of God.”

Sim spends the rest of the novel trying to find God’s purpose, while simultaneously trying to help his brothers and sisters-in-laws with their marital problems.

Sims is the sort of person you’d want as a friend, but he’s awfully dull as a male lead. Sim’s declaration of undying love is, “Elizabeth,” which is not a particularly memorable line.

To get the mess untangled, Hutchinson resorts to a deus ex machina, which perhaps is appropriate for a protagonist whose statement of faith is “Christ the Common Denominator.”

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Black Rose sheds light on three cultures

In The Black Rose novelist Thomas B. Costain takes readers back into the Dark Ages with a romantic tale that sweeps from England to China.

The bastard son of a Crusader, Walter of Gurnie hopes to make a fortune in the Far East so he can come back to England and be somebody.


The Black Rose by Thomas B. Costain

Doubleday, Doran, 1945. 403 pages. 1945 bestseller #5, 1946 bestseller  #8. My grade: B-.


 

Walter  gets caught up in the common people’s fight for justice against the nobles.

Dust Jacket of The Black Rose
This novel was on my parents’ bookshelves.

When their role becomes known, Walter and his sidekick, Tristram, skeedaddle.

Walter and Tristram hook up with a caravan led by Mongolian General Bayan of the Hundred Eyes. The party includes 81 girls being sent as a present to Kubla Khan.

Walter and Tristram help Maryam, a girl sired by a Crusader, to escape. Walter marries her.

The trio make a fortune in China.

Then the men get separated from Maryam and return without her to England.

The Black Rose would be worth reading just for its comparison of the cultures of West, Middle-East, and Far East in later 13th century.

Neither the characters nor the plot is believable, but Costain moves things along quickly so readers don’t have much time to notice. The result is an entertaining novel with some educational value slipped in.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Explore Time and Eternity in The Galaxy

Graphic image of galaxy

The Galaxy opens with the birth May 10, 1862, of Laura Alicia Deverell, Harry and Rosa Deverell’s first child, and ends with her death on a December evening in 1928.

Harry Deverell is a Pharisaical tyrant to his wife and their children.

The two elder children reject their parents’ religious and moral values. For his rebellion, James is turned out of his home.

Laura sees marriage as the only way a girl can get away from home; she marries sexy Horace Leighton, an armaments manufacturer 19 years her senior.

Five years, two children, and one mistress later, Laura realizes her mistake.

Laura meets a German writer she wants to marry.

Horace refuses to give her a divorce, and Laura refuses to become Arthur’s mistress until her son and daughter are grown.

Laura and Arthur have just moved in together when World War I begins. Arthur sits out the war in a concentration camp.

They have a few years together after the war.

Between the first and last pages of The Galaxy, Susan Ertz records four generations and distills monumental social changes. The incredibly complex characters direct attention to the world around them, allowing readers to reflect on age-old questions of time and eternity.

The Galaxy (published in the UK under the name The Milky Way)
By Susan Ertz
D. Appleton, 1929
397 pages
1929 bestseller #8
My grade: A-
 
Graphic credit: Galaxy by gilderm created in Photoshop®

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni