Paradise by Toni Morrison

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.

Black dust jacket calls attention to author, not the story

Paradise by Toni Morrison
Alfred A. Knopf. ©1998. 318 p.
1998 bestseller #9; my grade: B

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Pretend You Don’t See Her

Woman’s face is faintly visible through leaves of a tree
The woman isn’t quite hidden.

Pretend You Don’t See Her is scary thriller in which a hired killer stalks women who know too much about the mob connections of a reputable businessman.

Lacey Farrell, a made-for-Hollywood heroine, is young, sexy, New York City real estate agent on her way up when she makes a promise to a dying woman to turn over her later daughter’s journal to the police and encounters the woman’s fleeing murderer.

Lacey keeps her promise, but keeps a copy of the journal. The original disappears from police custody.

The murderer is wanted by the FBI.

The NYPD and the federal investigators quarrel over jurisdiction.

Someone tries to shoot Lacey and hits her 4-year-old niece instead.

Lacey is placed in the witness protection program, given a new identity, moved to Minneapolis, and cautioned not to let even her closest relatives have any clues to where she is. Lacey isn’t good at following orders, nor is she bright enough to realize that telling her mother anything is like taking out a front page ad in The New York Times.

A quarter of the way into Pretend You Don’t See Her, anyone who ever read a Mary Higgins Clark novel will know who the culprit is.

Pretend You Don’t See Her
by Mary Higgins Clark
Simon and Schuster. ©1997. 318 p.
1997 bestseller #8; my grade: C+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Unnatural Exposure

body part is missing from gaping blooding woundUnnatural Exposure is a medical mystery by Patricia Cornwell featuring Dr. Kay Scarpetta, Virginia’s medical examiner.

In this novel, Scarpetta has learned that five 10-year-old dismembered bodies found in Ireland, have the same MO as four found in Virginia. She fears that the same killer is responsible for both.

Her fear goes into overdrive when she receives a photo in her email that could only have come from the killer of a fifth recently found body in Sussex County.

The murders are not all totally consistent, however. The most recent victim was exposed to a smallpox-like virus. A woman on Tangier Island off Norfolk has apparently died from the virus and others on the island appear to be sick from it.  Scarpetta herself has been exposed to it.

To solve the mystery, Scarpetta calls on her niece Lucy, an FBI computer expert for help. Lucy enables her aunt to take a virtual tour of the room shown in the photograph from the killer.

Besides fighting to bring the killer to justice, Scarpetta has to fight for her budget, fight to keep the misinformation from the public, fight egocentric politicians, and fight her own nature when it threatens the relationships she holds most dear.

Unnatural Exposure by Patricia Cornwell
G. P. Putnam. ©1997. 338 p.
1997 bestseller #6; my grade: A-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Desperation by Stephen King

 child’s doll lies among rattlesnakes, coyotes, and vultures on the street of a desert town
Desperation, NV, is a spooky place.

In his 1996 bestseller Desperation, Stephen King delivers terror wrapped in religion.

The novel is about a handful of people who get stranded in Desperation, NV, a small, mining town totally off the grid in the middle of the desert.

The stranded travelers are the Jacksons, driving the husband’s sister’s car home to New York City; the Carver’s with their two children in an RV heading to Lake Tahoe; a has-been writer riding cross-country on a Harley looking for material for a new book; and the writer’s keeper, following in a truck with skinny, female hitchhiker.

All of the travelers get stopped by Collie Entragian, a supersized cop whose behavior is first odd, then threatening. Most of the residents of Desperation are already dead, murdered by Entragian.

Desperation’s plot mixes grisly details about the destruction caused by the mining industry and people’s natural stupidity with almost equally horrifying supernatural elements.

The only person who knows what how to respond to all the bad stuff is 11-year-old David Carver. He believes in praying to God and doing whatever God tells him. The adults look to David for direction.

King gets religion right: Having faith isn’t the same thing as having all the answers.

Desperation by Stephen King
Viking. ©1996. 690 p.
1996 bestseller #3; my grade: A-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Silent Night (novel)

broken Christmas ornament
A St. Christopher medal would be more fitting.

Mary Higgins Clark’s Silent Night is the sort of novel that used to be called a diversion.

A doctor with leukemia comes to New York for surgery, accompanied by his wife and two sons. While he’s in the recovery room, Mrs. Dornan takes the boys to Rockefeller Center to distract them and drops her wallet.

Although the wallet contains several hundred dollars in cash, it also contains a St. Christopher medal that the boys’ grandmother told them will keep their father safe. The younger boy, Brian, 7, sees a young woman snatch the wallet and follows her.

The woman, Cally Siddons, arrives home to find her brother, Jimmie, there. He has escaped from prison, shooting a guard in the process. Hot on her heels, Brian arrives demanding his mom’s wallet.

Jimmie appropriates the money and decides to take Brian hostage. He has a stolen car waiting near Cally’s apartment and a girlfriend waiting at the Canadian border. Jimmie bundles Brian into the car and they head north into a nasty winter storm.

If, in the spirit of Christmas, you can overlook the absurdities of the plot, the story will occupy you while you wait for Santa Claus, but Silent Night will never replace A Christmas Carol.

Silent Night by Mary Higgins Clark
Simon and Schuster. ©1995. 154 p.
1995 bestseller #8; my grade: C+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

All Around the Town

bloody handprint on a curtain on open sliding doorIf you’ve watched television in the last 50 years, you’ve seen pieces of the plot of All Around the Town many times in old movies.

The plot’s container is the tale of Laurie Kenyon, a college student accused of murdering her English professor. Her fingerprints are all over his bedroom.

Laurie was kidnapped at age 4 and sexually abused for two years before the kidnappers abandoned her. When she is arrested for murder, the four personalities she developed to cope with her trauma emerge.

Laurie’s sister, a lawyer, takes on her defense, aided by a handsome, unmarried psychiatrist.

When they abducted Laurie, Bic and Opal Hawkins were tavern entertainers. Laurie’s arrest coincides Bic hitting the big time as a TV evangelist. Using their TV names, Rev. Bobby and Carla Hawkins, they pose as buyers for the Kenyon sisters’ home, which allows them to wiretap it so the reverend can get rid of Laurie if one of her personalities names him as her kidnapper.

Mary Higgins Clark mashes all these implausible elements together, sweetening the mix with even more implausible elements.

In the end, the implausibilities don’t matter. No sensible reader could care about any of these characters. They’ll be relieved at the story’s end when Laurie goes off to play golf.

All Around the Town by Mary Higgins Clark
Simon & Schuster. ©1992. 302 p.
1992 bestseller #10; my grade: C-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Dolores Claiborne, the novel

Woman peers down into well as the sun goes into full eclipse above her
It’s a solar eclipse.

Dolores Claiborne is a Stephen King novel for people who think they don’t like Stephen King novels. Its horrors all have human origins and no good deed goes unpunished.

On page one, Dolores Claiborne has already been advised of her rights. Dolores is thought to have killed her wealthy employer, Vera Donovan, for whom Dolores had worked since her teens.

The rest of the novel is a transcript of what Dolores tells to  the police chief and his deputy at Little Tall Island, Maine, and their stenographer.

Dolores freely admits that she killed her husband 29 years earlier during a solar eclipse. Although most people suspected her, no one could prove she did it.

Dolores says she didn’t kill Vera, although sometimes she would have liked to. Vera was a bossy, nasty, bitchy woman. After Dolores’s husband’s death, even her children didn’t want to live at home.

Dolores put up with Vera because there were few jobs available and she was used to Vera’s habits.  Over the years, the women battled their own demons and each other, finally seeming to reach an armed truce.

When Vera died, she left her estate, valued at $30 million, to Dolores, which is why Dolores is being questioned.

Dolores says, “Most of what bein human’s about is makin choices and payin the bills when they come due.”

Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King
Bill Russell, illustrator
Viking, ©1992. 305 p.
1992 bestseller #1; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Star by Danielle Steel

all-silver book jacket of Star sparklesDanielle Steel’s Star is an inspiring story of how Crystal Wyatt, a teenager from a northern California ranch with nothing but a gorgeous body and incredible voice, becomes a Hollywood star by overcoming daunting obstacles such as her own ignorance and her reluctance to sleep with her agent.

Around that story, Danielle Steel wraps a love-at-first-glance story, in which Crystal at 14 falls hopelessly in love with ex-Army officer, Spencer Hill, age 27.

Although equally smitten, Spencer does the sensible thing. He goes to law school, and marries the daughter of a Supreme Court justice.

Within days of their wedding, Spencer is recalled to service in Korea. As he waits to deploy, he meets Crystal again.

When he leaves for Korea, she’s carrying his child.

Spencer spends three years in Korea. For the last year, he’s so miserable he doesn’t write to anyone stateside.

Finally home, Spencer becomes a political figure in Kennedy White House.

Kennedy has been shot and buried when Crystal calls saying she’s been arrested for the murder of her agent.

Spencer leaves Washington, wife, and career to go to Crystal’s defense.

The novel ends with the obligatory happy ending of all Danielle Steel novels.

Star by Danielle Steel
Delacorte Press. ©1989. 447 p.
1989 bestseller #4; my grade: C

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Presumed Innocent

A large red fingerprint is at center of “Presumed Innocent” book jacket
One bloody fingerprint

Scott Turow begins Presumed Innocent with Rusty Sabich, Kindle County’s chief deputy prosecutor, relating his usual opening speech to a jury in a criminal case.

It is their job, he always says, to determine “what actually occurred.”

When Carolyn Polhemus, another deputy prosecutor, is found raped and murdered, Randy’s boss, who is fighting for his job in a hot election, assigns the investigation to Randy.

The boss doesn’t know Randy had a brief affair with Carolyn, who dumped him a few months before.

When Raymond Horgan loses the election, the newly-elected prosecuting attorney acts swiftly to show voters they made the right choice.

Randy suddenly finds himself accused of Carolyn’s murder.

A lawyer himself, Turow uses his insider’s knowledge of the legal system to allow readers to get a close-up look through Randy’s eyes at the police, the prosecution, the defense team, and the judge.

We see even Randy’s most loyal supporters entertain suspicions about his guilt as as his case sometimes takes on the appearance of a political rivalry.

Readers, too, may wonder if Randy is guilty.

Turow gets details right without sacrificing a good story. He ends with Randy presenting his closing argument, not to a jury but to himself.

Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
Farrar, Straus, Giroux. ©1987. 431 p.
1987 bestseller #7; my grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

If Tomorrow Comes: A novel

An hour glass is art element on cover of “If Tomorrow Comes”
Carpe diem is thieves’ motto.

The dust jacket notes for Sidney Sheldon’s If Tomorrow Comes describe the book’s heroine as a “lovely” and “idealistic” young woman “framed” into a 15-year prison sentence.

Actually, Tracy Whitney buys a gun with deliberate intent to make New Orleans mob boss “pay for killing [her] mother,” who committed suicide.

Although her shot doesn’t kill the mobster, Tracy goes to jail, proving to her (and any mindless moron reading the novel) that the legal system is rigged against the innocent.

Moments before her carefully planned jail break, Tracy—who can’t swim—jumps into a lake to save a drowning child.

The publicity results in her being released before serving even a tenth of her sentence.

Once free, Tracy tries to go back to her old job in a bank. To her shock, the bank refuses to hire a convicted felon to work in its data processing department.

She does the only reasonable thing: She turns thief, using her “intelligence and beauty” to prey on bad, rich people.

Tracy meets a man her equal in intelligence, good looks, and pursuit of the thrill of profit-by-deception.

Sheldon manages to make this totally implausible story of a pair of amoral rascals as irresistible as a two-pound box of truffles.

If Tomorrow Comes by Sidney Sheldon
Morrow. ©1985. 403 p.
1985 bestseller #4; my grade: C

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni