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

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The Parsifal Mosaic

Robert Ludlum’s The Parsifal Mosaic is aptly named: The novel seems composed of millions of bits of information.

front of “The Parsifal Mosaic” suggests gun pointed toward woman in the dark.
A woman on a beach in moonlight

The central story is rather simple. The White House has been infiltrated by a Russian mole who is not an ordinary KGB mole. This mole works for the VKR, the fanatical wing of the KGB.

This much information is suggested obliquely to Michael Havelock, an ex-field agent for a clandestine branch of the U.S. State Department, by his KGB counterpart, Peytor Rostov.

Rostov knows Havelock was in love with a woman who was murdered, accused of being a Soviet spy.

Rostov also knows the woman never had any KGB affiliation. He can’t understand why the kill was made to look like she did.

Havelock rejects the story until he spots his lover across the platform in a crowded Rome train station.

After that—which all happens in the first 40 pages—Havelock has to find Jenna and learn what happened that night on the beach and who is behind the deceptions.

Ludlum twists and turns and jackknifes his plot. He kept me turning pages, but I’m still not sure I got the entire story straight.

Perhaps The Parsifal Mosaic has just a few too many pieces.

The Parsifal Mosaic by Robert Ludlum
Random House © 1982. 630 p.
1981 bestseller #2. My grade B

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

No Time for Tears, only for business

No Time for Tears is Cynthia Freeman’s aptly named novel about a Jewish woman too busy keeping her family together to regret what she does to accomplish it.

Spine of No Time for Tears
No dust jacket on this library copy of No Time for Tears

Chavala Rabinsky becomes head of her family at 16 when her mother dies in childbirth. She promptly proposes to Dovid Landau, whom her parents have treated like family.

She knows Dovid will be the father to her five siblings that Avrum Rabinsky is too grief-stricken to be.

Chavala is surprised to find she loves him.

Realizing the Russian pograms are going to get worse, Chavala convinces Dovid the family must emigrate.

She wants to go to America, but the men are set on Palestine.

Chavala’s financial acumen gets them there.

Eretz Yisroel isn’t the promised land they expected.

After World War I, Chavala and Dovid separate.

Dovid remains to build the Jewish homeland.

Chavala goes to New York with two brothers and one sister for whom she makes a home. She builds a multimillion-dollar business to support them and the son conceived in Israel.

Freeman’s builds her story entirely of character sketches, sabotages what personalities survive by an unbelievable plot, and produces an entirely forgettable novel.

No Time for Tears by Cynthia Freeman
Arbor House. ©1981. 411 p.
1981 bestseller #10. My grade: C

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

 

Gorky Park: Chilling murder mystery

On dust jacket of Gorky Park, Russian fur hat with red star lies in bloody snow.
Snow, blood, fur… keys to the mystery in Gorky Park.

Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park is like no other murder mystery you’ve ever read.

By taking traditional murder mystery elements into unfamiliar settings, Cruz Smith creates a world that feels absolutely authentic.

The novel is set in Moscow, where three frozen corpses are found by accident in Gorky Park. When the Militia’s homicide detective, Arkady Renko, arrives on the scene, the KGB agent is already there, which means the murder is a political crime.

Major Priblula makes sure his men destroy as much potential evidence at the scene as possible, declares the murders aren’t a political security case, and turns the investigation over to Renko, stipulating that Renko send him regular, detailed reports.

Renko senses he’s being used. He tries to keep busy investigating without finding anything, but his instincts lead him to facts that his analytical mind pieces together.

The story gets more complicated when Renko finds one of the murdered men was an American who had the same last name as an American tourist who turns out to be a New York City policeman .

The plot is complicated by believably complex characters, many of whom are not what they appear to be and several of whom don’t even admit their motivations to themselves.

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
Random House. ©1981. 365 p.
1981 bestseller #5. 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

The Third World War: August 1985

The Third World War: August 1985 is not a real novel. It’s not about people; it’s about populations.

All-text cover in black and gray text on white background.
The text is as dull as the cover.

The book is classified as a fantasy: Tanks, submarines, and nuclear war heads take the place of wizards, elves, and magic wands.

Its authors are “General Sir John Hackett and Other Top-ranking NATO Generals and Advisors.”

They begin their book with three pages listing acronyms used in the text.

The text itself is written as a post-war analysis compiled at the conclusion of the war. It certainly sounds like a military analysis: Ponderous prose in passive voice.

Today’s readers will have difficulty getting past the first chapter.

The map of the world is very different today than it was in 1978 when the generals and advisors were concocting this tale: Germany, divided then, is once more reunited. The map of Africa has been redrawn, countries renamed.

What remains of interest are small bits, as, for example, the military men say socialist countries reject American-style democracy because they see it as substituting corporate rule for Soviet political rule or the assertion that Europeans distrust America’s judgment because it wasn’t invaded in WWI or WWII.

Skip this fantasy.

Read history instead.

There’s no humanity in this tale.

The Third World War: August 1985
by Gen. Sir John Hackett et al.
Macmillan, © 1978. 368 p.
1979 bestseller #09 My grade: C

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

August, 1914: Russia was doomed

Author's name and novel title set in yellow and orange respectively against camouflage backgound of dust jacket.
Author and title stand out against the camouflage.

August, 1914, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel about the first two weeks of World War I on the Eastern Front is not for the faint of heart.

Russian naming conventions are bewildering, the story jumps from one military unit to another, and the camouflage green liner-paper maps are hard to read.

Those who persevere will find the novel worth the effort.

The novel traces the events of the first two weeks of WWI. Russia had foolishly promised France they’d begin war operations 15 days after war was declared, long before the country was prepared to supply its front line troops.

Russia’s generals were mainly old duffers whose skills consisted mainly of “being able to compose the right sort of dispatches…which can make inaction sound like hard fighting.”

Up against a German army armed with tanks and connected by telephone, the Russian horse soldiers with 19th century weaponry and hand-delivered battle orders were out of their league.

Against this backdrop of incompetence on a monumental scale, Solzhenitsyn shows the rugged endurance and bravery of ordinary soldiers.

If you read nothing more of August 1914, read chapter 50 in which eight soldiers carry their regimental commander’s body home for burial. Even in translation, it’s a great piece of writing that can stand alone.

August, 1914 by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Trans. Michael Glenny
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ©1972, 622 p.
1972 bestseller #2. My grade: A-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni