Jubal Sackett moves predictably

Jubal and Keokotah view an Indian camp across the river
Inspired by the Romantic artists

Jubal Sackett is Louis L’Amour’s 1985 offering in what it’s the dust jacket informs me is a series of 17 books about the Sacketts.

Jubal includes TV-guide sized summary of those volumes: Fugitive Barnabas Sackett immigrated from England to America, settling without official sanction in the Tennessee River Valley, where he raised three sons and a daughter.

In Jubal Sackett, anticipating his own death, Barnabas sends Jubal west to find a place where common people like the Sacketts can own land.

Jubal would probably have gone without his father’s commission:  He has the wanderlust.

Jubal is scarcely out of the yard when he falls in with a Kickapoo named Keokotah, who has west a smattering of English and a wanderlust equal to his own.

Together they meet an old Natchee Indian who asks Jubal to find the daughter of the Sun, their tribe’s ruling order, who has gone to find a less dangerous place for her people to live.

Jubal can’t refuse a request made in his father’s name.

The rest of the novel is predictable.

There are wild animals, wild Indians, wild Spanish, wild blizzards.

The intrepid hero and his equally intrepid sidekick end up happily in a place with lots to explore, at least until L’Amour’s next Sackett novel.

Jubal Sackett by Louis L’Amour
Bantam Books, ©1985. 375 p.
1985 bestseller #10; my grade: B-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Family Album

Front cover tells fans this is a Danielle Steel novel
A photo-less album

Danielle Steel’s Family Album is a 40-year dig into the personal lives of the Ward Thayer family.

As World War II draws to a close, silver screen sex pot Faye Price meets Ward Thayer while entertaining American troops at Guadalcanal.

The day he’s back in the U.S., Ward seeks her out.

People who don’t recognize Faye, know Ward. He’s the playboy heir to a vast fortune.

Despite the differences in their backgrounds and philosophies, they fall in love and marry. Within six years they have five children and a palatial lifestyle.

Unknown to Faye, they also have huge debts. Ward has kept spending while the family businesses went under.

Faye rolls up her sleeves and gets to work to cut their losses and start bringing income.

For 30 years, Faye is the real head of the family.

She becomes a film director and eventually persuades Ward to become a film producer.

While Faye and Ward repair the family fortunes, the trajectories of their children’s lives turn downward.

The characters in Family Album are like sock monkeys: They don’t develop in any noticeable way in 40 years.

Perhaps that’s why 15 hours after I finished reading it, I couldn’t remember what Family Album was about.

Family Album by Danielle Steel
Delacourt. 1985. 399 p.
1985 bestseller #9; my grade: C-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Jackie Collins’ Lucky is yucky

Lucky’s diamond necklace is centerpiece of front dust jacket
Lucky wore the necklace once.

If you took all the synopses from one issue of TV Guide, mixed them up, randomly drew 100 of them and merged them into a single narrative, you’d end up with something like Jackie Collins’ Lucky.

The dust jacket notes for  Lucky select the most positive points made in a New York Times review of the novel. The review cited the novel’s “frenetic” pace, its constantly shifting setting, and concluded that in Lucky, “Miss Collins is at her raunchy best.”

Frenetic, disjointed, and raunchy are not positive characteristics, no matter what a publicist thinks.

Lucky’s plot is absurd, its characters amoral.  There aren’t more than three  characters in the entire book that a moderately intelligent person would hire to collect the trash.

mustache added to photo of Collins
A decidedly sinister looking author.

The best part of the novel was the back cover of the library copy of Lucky that I read. It is a photo of Collins, all in black, against an ominous, gray-swirled background. Collins has wild hair and black-shadowed eyes, each of which appears to be looking in a different direction.

A previous reader had incised a handlebar mustache into the novel’s plastic protector.

The effect was highly amusing.

When a defaced photograph is a novel’s highlight, the book’s not worth reading.

Lucky by Jackie Collins
Simon and Schuster. 1985. 508 p.
1985 bestseller #8; my grade: D-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Contact by Carl Sagan

Earth is in the foreground, deep space in the background
Hello? Are you speaking to us?

Having become “the face of space science” in 1980 through his 13-week PBS series Cosmos, Carl Sagan exploited his fame with  a novel about the first contact between extraterrestrial beings and humans.

Contact‘s main character is scientist Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, who runs a network of radio telescopes listening for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

One night her team discovers what appears to be a numerical, coded message coming from the star Vega, 26 light-years away.

America’s scientists, politicians, and military scramble to respond.

They have to bring other nations in to help collect the message that’s being broadcast when America is turned away from Vega. They also need help to break the code.

Sagan uses the novel to talk about his hot-button issues: religious people who discount science, fellow scientists who grandstand, and politicians who don’t understand or adequately fund scientific research.

Sagan fails, as many science fiction writers do, to make his characters much more than personas invented by a marketing team intent on selling dish detergent.

As a result, his novel self-restricts to an audience of science fans, leaving novels fans wishing for some characters with human emotions.

Contact by Carl Sagan
Simon and Schuster. 1985. 432 p.
1985 bestseller #7 ; my grade: C

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Secrets, a Danielle Steel novel

Icon on cover represents tangled web
A very glossy cover

Secrets is by Danielle Steel, which means it’s a glimpse into the lives of rich, famous people who got rich and famous through hard work.

In Secrets, veteran Hollywood producer Mel Wechsler assembles a cast for a never-before-attempted type of television show: A prime-time serial.

Wechsler picks Sabrina Quarles to head the cast. At 45, she’s never been a Hollywood lead, but she’s sexy, recognizable, and a consummate professional.

Modest and nurturing Jane Adams, 39, worked in a daytime TV serial for 10 years without her husband or her kids knowing.

Leading man Zack Taylor is both a true professional and a nice guy.

Gabby Smith, a beautiful and wholesome 24, has a sketchy bio, little experience, but the right look and real potential.

Bill Warwick is a struggling actor tending bar when Wechsler picks him to be America’s next male superstar.

Each of the team has a secret that could threaten the entire production.

Secrets is basically confined to one television season, so, although the novel switches focus from character to character, the story feels more unified than Steel’s usual career-spanning novels.

Although the plot includes one character being arrested for murder on grounds that would be laughable in a mystery novel, the story generally plausible by the standards of romance fiction.

Secrets by Danielle Steel
Delacorte Press. ©1985. 336 p.
1985 bestseller #6; my grade: C

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni


Skeleton Crew: Strange Stories

Toy monkey refers to one of the stories in the book.
An unstoppable monkey

Skeleton Crew is a collection of 22 Stephen King short stories of varying lengths and varying degrees of weirdness.

The hefty volume rings all the bells King fans enjoy and adds a few notes about the creative process behind them.

King has a particularly good ear for children’s memories, which he demonstrates in “The Monkey,” a story about a toy that has the ability to kill, and “Gramma,” a story of an 11-year-old left to care for his senile grandmother when his mother must go to the hospital because his older brother has been injured at football practice.

My favorites stories from the collection are built around situations that would be unsettling even without any supernatural flounces, such as:

“Here There Be Tygers” in which a third grader has to go to the bathroom which is in the school basement, a very scary place.

“The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet,” in which a crazy writer feeds a creature called a fornit that lives in his typewriter and produces words for him: What else could explain them?

There may not be a story here for every reader’s taste, but there’s enough variety that most readers will find something intriguing.

Skeleton Crew by Stephen King
G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 1985. 512 p.
1985 bestseller #5; my grade: B+

©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

Lake Wobegon Days

Small strip of Lake Wobegon is at center of front cover
Not much going on.

Fans of Minnesota Public Radio’s long-running variety show Prairie Home Companion set in the fictional Lake Wobegon were no doubt responsible for making Lake Wobegon Days a 1985 bestseller.

The book by the show’s creator and monologist Garrison Keillor is a collection of stories about the small, rural Minnesota community told in the rambling, discursive style beloved by audiences for almost 40 years.

That audience would recognize the people Keillor talks about in the book: the Bunsens, Pastor Ingqvist, Father Emil, Dorothy of the Chatterbox Cafe, Ralph of Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, and Norwegian bachelor farmers.

Readers today are more likely to associate Keillor with an accusation of “inappropriate behavior” (a term unknown to Lake Wobegonians) and “The Lake Wobegon effect,” derived from the Keillor’s description of the town as a place “where all the children are above average.”

Close-up of picture of Lake Woebegon
In close-up, Lake Wobegon is a bland, mid-20th century prairie town.

Readers for whom the little town on the prairie would prompt recollections of their own experiences growing up are a dwindling group: Keillor’s 77th birthday is this year.

For today’s young Americans of child-rearing age, the world of Lake Wobegon will be about as familiar as life in a 14th century Italian monastery.

In 1985, Lake Wobegon Days was humor.

Today it’s historical fiction.

Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor
Viking. ©1985. 337 p.
1985 bestseller #3; my grade C+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Texas: 450 years of history

A single-star Texas battle flag decorates the front cover of "Texas"
That’s the Texas battle flag

In Texas, James A. Michener varies his usual format for place-based historical novels: He sets Texas within a context of an imaginary task force whose job it is to decide what the state’s students learn about Texas history and how they should they learn it.

The task force allows Michener to present the history of the lone star state beginning with Spanish explorations in the 1500s up to the 1980s and to also provide commentary and interpretations of that history.

Michener clearly likes Texans, even when he dislikes some of the things they do.

Readers get Michener’s familiar history-by-the-eras formula with a unique Texas twist: Michener presents Texas as a state composed of seven state-sized, unique areas.

What makes Texas a state seems to be those areas’ sense of their superiority to any place that’s not Texas.

Texas is pure Michener: meticulously research, lyrically written, and almost flawlessly edited.

I can’t say that I liked the Texans I encountered in the pages of Texas, but I’m glad I read the novel.

It’s good preparation for understanding issues America is wrestling with today on its Southern border and elsewhere across the country: lack of water, climatic changes, and the need for migrant workers and the desire to restrict immigration.

Texas by James A. Michener
Random House. ©1985. 1096 p.
1985 bestseller #2; my grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Mammoth Hunters

Hunters prepare to drive mammoths into an enclosure in the glacier
The prey is in sight

The Mammoth Hunters is about a couple who almost miss each other because of their failure to communicate.

What makes the novel unusual is that Jean M. Auel sets the story in Eurasia during the Ice Age.

The couple are Ayla, a huntress, healer, and animal trainer, and Jondalar, an explorer whom she nursed after he was injured near the valley where she lived alone.

Ayla is traveling with Jondalar to his home when a group of mammoth hunters invite them to spend the winter in their camp.

Seeing Ayla’s shyness with other people makes Jondalar worry that she would never fit in with his tribe back home.

By the time Ayla is accepted for her skills, Jondalar has withdrawn so that Ayla thinks he doesn’t love her anymore.

While readers wait for the totally predictable ending, Auel overwhelms them with descriptions of flora and fauna, instruction in making flint knives, and techniques for tanning hides.

Hunters is more interesting its immediate predecessor, The Valley of the Horses, because it has more people in it.

However, Auel’s descriptions of prehistoric politics and tribal prejudices have a 21st century vibe that feels out of place among the mammoth bones.

The mammoth hunters by Jean M. Auel
Crown Publishers. ©1985. 645 p.
1985 bestseller #1; my grade B-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni