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dark landscape of forbidding  rocky hills

The wilderness is a frightening place.

In the Wilderness is an antidote to salacious later twentieth century bestsellers.

But Robert Hichens’ novel is strong stuff that many readers may find hard to swallow.


In the Wilderness by Robert Hichens
1917 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg EBook #4603] My grade: A-

Dion Leith is passionately in love with Rosamund Everard, who finds him a nice, clean-living young man. Though trained as a singer, Rosamund feels her vocation is in a religious order, not marriage.

A sermon convinces her to accept Dion’s proposal. They marry, have a son.

Rosamund’s love is all for their son. She scarcely notices when the woman in a notorious divorce case pays attention to Dion.

When the Boer War breaks out, Dion volunteers. In his absence, Rosamund moves to an English cathedral village where her music and religious interests are welcome.

When he returns from South Africa, Dion accidentally shoots his son while the two shooting together at Rosamund’s suggestion.

Rosamund screams, “Murderer,” and locks the cottage door against Dion.

Repudiating the values that locked the door on him, Dion leaves England for non-Western, non-Christian places, for drugs, debauchery, and the Other Woman.

Hichens doesn’t deliver a tidy, happily-ever-after ending.

It’s more of a “we’re going to grow up together” ending, a glimmer of hope that two very dissimilar people can create more happiness than unhappiness for each other.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The Garden of Allah begins with the arrival in North Africa of  an  Englishwoman headed to Beni-Mora.

Robert Hichens makes the vast, unpopulated Sahara a vivid backdrop flooded with colors and  vibrating with tom-toms, cymbals, castanets, and the howls of dogs for a story as unexpected as the scene.


The Garden of Allah by Robert Hichens

Grosset & Dunlap, 1904. 1905 bestseller #3. Project Gutenberg ebook #3637   My grade: A.


Domini Enfilden’s father, an English Lord, has recently died leaving her at 32 single, wealthy, and spiritually shaken by the collapse of her parents’ marriage and their Catholicism.

Domini hopes to find herself in the solitude of the desert, the vast empty space the Arabs call “The Garden of Allah.”

What she finds immediately is an annoying man said to be English, who is barely civil, and seems repelled by religion of every sort.

Aside from Count Anteoni, an Italian who is Arab in all but his failure to adopt Islam, the pair are the only Europeans in Beni-Mora.

The story is riveting.

Domini’s thoughts and mental corrections, her mood swings, her snobbery and charity all are perfectly believable.

Robert Hichens fascinates readers as he does Domini with the mysterious behavior of the man whose name they eventually learn is Boris Androvsky.

Then Hichens pulls readers into biggest mystery of all: the mystery of God’s love and forgiveness.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Triple-masted pirate ship at sea with mountains in distance

Pirate Ship at Sea

In the first chapter of The Sea-Hawk, Rafael Sabatini whispers the broad outline of his plot just loudly enough that dedicated novel readers will catch it. Tte foreshadowing barely has time to register before Sabatini plunges his 16th century hero into an adventure that shows off his thoughtful, complicated personality as well as his biceps.

The story starts out in traditional romance fashion.

Sir Oliver Tressilian repaired his family’s fortune by preying on the Spanish Armada. Now he wants to marry  but Rosamond’s brother, Peter Godolphin, doesn’t want her to wed a pirate.

Oliver’s half-brother murders Peter Godolphin, then covers the murder by having  Oliver kidnapped and sold as a galley-slave. Oliver’s disappearance looks like an admission of guilt.

When fighters of the Basha of Algiers take the ship, Oliver turns Muslim. His prowess in attacking ships of Christian nations wins him the name Sakr-el-Bahr, Hawk of the Sea.

Learning Lionel is to marry Rosamond, Oliver seeks revenge. He makes a raid on Cornwall to abduct Lionel.

The raid raises questions about Oliver’s loyalty to Islam. The wrong answer would mean death.

The plot sounds rather Errol Flynn-ish, but there’s no hint of central casting in Sabatini’s characters. They react and develop in psychologically plausible ways.

You need not be fan of nautical thrillers, to enjoy The Sea-Hawk. It is worth reading just for its insights into Islamic culture.

The Sea-Hawk
by Rafael Sabatini
1923 bestseller #10
Project Gutenberg EBook #3294

Photo credit: Pirate Ship at Sea by KBlack

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Frank Yerby’s speciality is novels about men and women who rise from poverty to wealth, fame, and marital bliss through their brilliance, loyalty, and sexual prowess.

Yerby sets The Saracen Blade in the 13th century. Pietro di Donati, a blacksmith’s son, is born on the same day and in same town as the baby who will become Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire.

In that era, the aristocracy ruled by violence, usually having become aristocrats by violence. Though slightly built, inclined to intellectual rather than physical pursuits, Pietro becomes part of the violent world in which kingdoms clash, religions compete, and the poor suffer the consequences.

Pietro seeks his fortune in the only way boys of his era know: attaching himself to powerful knight and hoping to rise with him. For 30 years, he trudges around Europe, North Africa, and Asia as squire, knight, Crusader and trader. He pauses occasionally to admire the women and to retch when someone other than himself inflicts mayhem.

When Pietro finally gets back home, his childhood sweetheart is waiting. By that time, I was ready to retch.

I recommend reading the appendix. Yerby’s notes are better than his novel.

The Saracen Blade
Frank Yerby
Dial Press (book club edition), 1952
1952 Bestseller #9
295 pages + notes
My grade: C
©2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Michael Karvajalka  is a disillusioned Finn making a pilgrimage from Rome to the Holy Land in 1527.  Wimpy Michael and his muscle-bound half-brother, Andy, are born victims. Michael’s dog, Rael, is brighter than both of them together.

En route, Michael falls for Guila, a woman with one blue and one brown eye who tells fortunes. She says she’s an innocent virgin, and Michael believes everything he’s told.

When their ship is boarded by Turks,  Michael and Andy convert to Islam to save their necks.

Michael, Andy, and Guila end up as slaves in Algiers.

Michael, who is as honest as he is naive, becomes a yes-man the Grand Vizer Ibraheim of the Ottoman Empire. Andy capitalizes on his wrestling and artillery skills, while Guila, now Michael’s wife, schemes her way into the Seraglio.

All three are caught up in the European conflict that spilled over when the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope struggled for domination.

Mika Waltari muddles through which what could have been a Middle Eastern perspective on Renaissance history unaided by either a plausible plot or plausible characters. He seems to have just recycled his earlier bestseller The Egyptian by advancing the calendar a few centuries.

Don’t bother going after this wanderer.

The Wanderer
by Mika Waltari
Trans. Naomi Walford
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1951
438 ages
My grade: C-

© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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