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

Shogun: Exotic, enlightening, entertaining

James Clavell’s 1966 bestseller, Tai-Pan, was a whopping novel.

a drawing of a samurai sword on the cover of Shogun
This often-read library copy of Shogun  is coming apart.

Shogun is monumental.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a ship has washes up in Japan. Her pilot, James Blackthorne, had hoped to be the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, wrest control of Oriental trade from the Spanish and Portuguese, and make himself very rich.

The Japanese think Blackthorne a barbarian; Catholic priests see him as a heretic.

Until the heir to the throne is old enough to assume his lawful position, Japan is being ruled by five feudal lords, none of whom trusts the others.

Only of the five,  only Toranaga sees any value in keeping Blackthorne alive.

Like the skilled falconer he is, Toranaga bends Blackthorne to his will: Blackthorne must learn to speak Japanese and become Japanese.

None of the Japanese characters is what he or he appears to be.

The plot twists and turns and stands on its head as the five lords, their wives, consorts, and relatives vie for control, always polite, always with a sharp knife within reach.

Readers who can bear up under the physical strain of reading Shogun—it’s 803 pages of small print and weighs 3.2 pounds—will find themselves fascinated, informed, and shocked by a surprise ending that, in retrospect, is perfect.

Shogun: A Novel of Japan by James Clavell
Atheneum [1975] 803 p.
1975 bestseller #9. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Lady of the Decoration finds healing in work

Postcard of street scene in Yokohama, Japan about 1900 shows cluttered sidewalks, rickshaws, telephone poles.
After her husband’s death in 1900, a Southern belle agrees to teach kindergarten in a mission school in Hiroshima.

She needs the money. She also needs to regain her equilibrium after a bad, seven-year marriage.


The Lady of the Decoration by Frances Little¹
1907 bestseller #1. Project Gutenberg ebook #7523. My grade: B.

The kindergartners salute her, thinking the enameled watch pinned to her bodice is a medal from the Emperor. They call her The Lady of the Decoration.

She, in turn, is fascinated by Japan’s scenery and people, especially the children. She longs to “take the whole lot of them to my heart and love them into an education.”

The Lady records her experiences in letters to her cousin back in Kentucky.

A vivacious blonde, the Lady causes a stir among the Japanese adults as well as the children.

When the Russo-Japanese War breaks out, she’s vocally pro-Japan, helping care for wounded soldiers.

Thanks to the Lady’s buoyant humor, despite the poverty and suffering she sees and the homesickness and unhappiness she often feels, the novel makes cheerful bedtime reading

Readers never learn the letter writer’s name, but they learn to know her. She sums up the years 1901–1905 in a letter:

I don’t care a rap for the struggle and the heart aches, if I have only made good. When I came out there were two kindergartens, now there are nine besides a big training class. Anybody else could have done as much for the work but one thing is certain, the work couldn’t have done for anyone else what it has done for me.


¹Frances Little is the pseudonym of American author Fannie Caldwell Macaulay. The Lady of the Decoration was her first, and most successful novel.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

007 Rates 000 in You Only Live Twice

Cover of Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice
Cover of You Only Live Twice

You Only Live Twice is next to last of the 12 James Bond novels Ian Fleming began publishing in 1953. Assuming readers are familiar with the names and personalities of the series’ characters, Fleming plunges into what passes for a plot.

Bond’s wife died in the previous novel; 007 has messed up two assignments since.

His supervisor, M, gives Bond the opportunity to redeem himself by persuading the Japanese to share radio transmissions captured from the Soviet Union. Japan’s price is the assassination of foreign “scientific researchers” living in a Japanese castle on a volcanic island.

Japanese wishing to commit suicide are drawn to the site’s geysers and fumaroles, as well as the researchers’ collection of toxic plants and carnivorous animals. The suicides are bad PR for Japan.

Bond infiltrates the castle, learns the researchers are the couple who killed his wife and blows the place up.

The explosion leaves him with amnesia.

A word in a news story triggers a faint memory, and Bond is off to a new adventure.

You Only Live Twice reads like a collaborative project by 13-year-old boys, with elements of every story they’ve ever seen or read from Random Harvest  to — I’m not making this up — Winnie the Pooh.

Unless you have a life to waste, read some other novel.

You Only Live Twice
by Ian Fleming
New American Library, 1964
240 pages
1964 bestseller #8
my grade D+
 

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Kingdom of Slender Swords Supersizes Suspense

cover of The Kingdom of Slender Swords

In a classic romance opening, Barbara Fairfax gets her first glimpse of Japan from the deck of an ocean liner. Japan is the land where here parents met, her father died, and where she hopes to escape from highly eligible suitor whom she doesn’t love.

As a house guest of the American ambassador’s daughter, Barbara has a front row seat to history in the making. She, however, is more interested in embassy staffer Duke Daunt than in political jockeying between superpowers.

Barbara Fairfax
Barbara Fairfax

Hallie Erminie Rives maintains a classic romance storyline for the remainder of The Kingdom of Slender Swords, but she embeds it within a thriller. Rives rounds out the novel with a bit of history, a chunk of local culture, and a sprinkle of religion.

Sounds like a recipe for literary hash, doesn’t it?

But Rives is no ordinary writer.

Her plotting is superb, her characters believable, her descriptions breathtaking.

Her predictions aren’t bad for 1910 either.

Rives anticipates Japan “will make some other nations get a move on” within the next half century. The novel’s bad guy, “the expert,” says it’s easier to dominate the the world by manipulating international financial markets than with weapons, though he has invented the ultimate weapon by harnessing atomic energy.

If that’s an ordinary romance novel, I’ll eat my Ramen Noodles.

The Kingdom of Slender Swords
by Hallie Erminie Rives 
Illus. A. B. Wenzell
1910 bestseller #5
Project Gutenberg EBook #42427

This review has been edited to correct the pronouns referring to the author from he/him to she/her.  Hallie Erminie Rives was also Mrs. Post Wheeler, wife of an American diplomat whose foreign service took the couple to posts in Europe, Asia and South America.

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Dragon Seed Eyes Killing in a Good Cause

Rice paddies and mountains near Yangshuo in Southern China

In Dragon Seed, Pearl S. Buck returns to her beloved China to explore an important question: does killing change people into killers?

Ling Tan is an illiterate farmer. He and his wife Lao San have three married children and a younger son and daughter.

When the Japanese invade China, Ling Tan and the other farmers hope that by being civil to the conquerors, they can lead fairly normal lives.

They are merely fooling themselves.

The invaders rape and pillage, then set up local puppet governments to systematically bleed the country.

Ling Tan and his family organizes a local resistance. But Ling Tan worries about whether the killing at which he and his family become adept will not fundamentally change them, dehumanize them. Secret radio broadcasts from the Allies give them courage to wait for the light for the invaders to be repelled.

With its secret rooms, guerrilla raids, and the constant threat of exposure hanging over the characters’ heads, Dragon Seed will attract more readers today than Buck’s better known novel The Good Earth.  Dragon Seed covers less time and has more action, much of it horrifying, though tastefully presented. It also has a vivid characterizations and a wealth of telling detail.

Above all it has that nagging question every thoughtful person must consider in an era of conflict: does killing change people into killers?

Dragon Seed
Pearl S. Buck
John Day, 1942
378 pages
1942 Bestseller #3
My Grade: A-

Photo credit: “Chinese Landscape” showing rice paddies and mountains near the town of Yangshuo in Southern China. Uploaded by bewinca http://www.sxc.hu/photo/905398

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni