The Horse Whisperer (novel)

dark horse runs in mountainsThe Horse Whisperer starts with a freak accident in which one teenage girl and her horse are killed, another girl and her horse both badly injured.

Grace Graves has to adjust to a prosthetic leg and fear of being different. Her horse, Pilgrim, is just as afraid, and he turns savage. The vet thinks Pilgrim’s injuries so severe he should be put down.

Annie Graves believes if Pilgrim dies, her daughter will never recover emotionally from the accident. Robert Graves fears Grace won’t recover if she’s coddled too much. Not a horse lover himself, he is not as keen on keeping Pilgrim alive.

When veterinarians can’t help Pilgrim, Annie casts a wider net, learning about a man said to be able to calm wild horses. She packs up Grace, has Pilgrim loaded into a horse trailer, and heads for Montana. Tom Booker, who has a ranch there, is said by some to be a horse whisperer, a magician with horses. Tom says what he does is train owners to listen to their horses.

A film industry veteran, Nicholas Evans projects his Rocky Mountain story onto readers’ imaginations. What he doesn’t do is tack a happy-ever-after on a deeply moving story about family dynamics.

The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans
Delacorte Press. ©1995. 323 p.
1995 bestseller #10; my grade: A-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Politically Correct Holiday Stories

Santa reads signs held by demonstrators
Signs say, Santa is a sell-out. Save the Elves. Free the reindeer now.

If you want to see how American society has changed in the 21st century, you need only to read Politically Correct Holiday Stories for an Enlightened Yuletide Season.

James Finn Garner’s slender bestseller updates classic Christmas tales for 1995 politically with-it readers, replacing terms that reinforce demeaning societal stereotypes with others deemed not sexist, ageist, racist, nationalist, or any other otherwise offensive-ist:

‘Twas the Night before Christmas becomes “‘Twas the Night before Solstice.” Frosty the Snowman becomes “Frosty the Persun of Snow.”

The story of a flying, horned quadruped becomes “Rudolph the Nasally Empowered Reindeer.”

The Nutcracker and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol retrain their titles, but get internal makeovers for the politically enlightened ‘90s.

Readers in 2020 will find Garner’s little book as quaint as Scrooge’s nightcap. America dumped political correctness when it emptied its Y2K jugs of stored water.

Demonstrators on the lawn.

Today in America it’s no longer politically correct, let alone socially correct, to attempt to avoid offending people unnecessarily. In 2020, vicious verbal attacks on anyone with whom one disagrees are considered normal.

Today’s readers won’t get it when Garner’s Santa says, “Happy Christmas to all, but get over yourselves!!”

America can no longer laugh at itself, and that’s a serious problem.

Politically Correct Holiday Stories:
For an Enlightened Yuletide Season
By James Finn Garner
Lisa Amoroso, inside illustrations.
Macmillan. ©1995. 99 p.
1995 bestseller #9; my grade: B-

©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

Rose Madder by Stephen King

An old oil painting wrapped in ripped brown paper.
A romance starts with an oil painting

Stephen King begins Rose Madder at the end of a marriage.

One day Rosie Daniels can’t take any more. She takes her husband’s debit card, painfully walks to the bus station, and rides away from the husband who repeatedly had put her in the hospital.

Her husband, Norman, is a cop. He’s really good at finding people.

Rosie gets off the bus in a city in the next time zone. She has no family, no friends, no job skills.

She has to find a way to survive until she can build a new life for herself.

Rosie finds friends, work, and a decent guy at supersonic speed.

That story alone would be enough for most novelists to tackle. As he did in his 1994 novel Gerald’s Game, King makes his heroine’s situation worse by bringing in a supernatural element. In Rose Madder, that element is a painting of another world into which Rosie is literally drawn.

Had King confined his tale to the real world, the story would have been terrifying.  The addition of the supernatural dilutes the story’s impact with fake gore and glosses over the long-term physical and psychological effects of abuse.

Rose Madder does no favors to readers or abused women.

Rose Madder by Stephen King
Viking. ©1995. 420 p.
1995 bestseller #7; my grade: B-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Lightning by Danielle Steel

 A red bolt of lightning divides cover into black and white areas.
Cancer strikes like lightning.

Lightning’s Alexandra and Sam Parker are a happily married couple in the typical Danielle Steel mold: Alex is a successful lawyer, Sam a venture capitalist. They are good looking, intelligent, hardworking, wealthy, with a delightful, brilliant child and a devoted housekeeper.

Then, like a bolt of lightning, a routine mammogram discovers a possibly malignant mass. Alex opts for breast removal when a biopsy confirms she has cancer.

Sam, whose mother died from cancer, tries to avoid acknowledging Alex’s illness. He doesn’t want to even hear about Alex’s fears or her pain. Alex’s cancer is her problem. Sam just wants her to behave as if nothing is wrong.

Meanwhile, Sam’s company takes in a new partner. Initially skeptical of Simon, Alex is quickly converted to his cheerleader when Simon introduces him to his sexy cousin.

While Sam enjoys a hot affair, Alex vomits into the toilet in her office, ministered to by a junior staffer who had done similar service when his older sister who is Alex’s age, had cancer.

Although Steel avoids her usual plot formula, she doesn’t manage to make the story believable or her major characters realistic.

Lightning turns out to be just a flash in the pan.

Lightning by Danielle Steel
Delacourt. ©1995. 396 p.
1995 bestseller #5; my grade: C

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Five Days in Paris

Nighttime photo of the Eiffel Tower
Icon and plot are predictable.

In Five Days in Paris, Danielle Steel puts a different spin on her usual romance formula.

The story is about Peter Haskell, marketing man for a major pharmaceutical company who is pushing development of what he hopes will be a break-through drug for cancer treatment.

Steel makes Peter rich, charming, virtuous, and emotionally obtuse. She also has him married to the devoted, only-child of company’s CEO. Peter spent his life trying to escape his farm-boy upbringing; he has maintained no family ties.

In Paris on a trip to meet with a scientist evaluating the new drug, Peter meets Olivia Thatcher, wife of a US senator whose presidential ambition has become all-consuming. Since their baby died, Olivia and Andy have scarcely spoken.

Olivia and Peter spend an entire night talking when the Ritz at which both are staying is evacuated because of a bomb threat. By morning they have become each other’s best friend.

The following day, Olivia “pulls an Agatha Christie,” and disappears. Peter finds her and for the next three days they lovers. Then they each go back to their own lives.

Steel contrives a happy ending, but Five Days feels as if the real story is Peter’s other, earlier days.

Five Days in Paris by Danielle Steel
Delacourt. ©1995. 269 p.
1995 bestseller #03; my grade: C+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Lost World (novel)

bones of dinosaur head look menacing
Something has survived.

In Michael Crichton’s novel The Lost World, scientists find genetically-cloned dinosaurs living on a small volcanic island.

Crichton made a name for himself by writing fiction that sounds like reportage, but The Lost World doesn’t even sound like reportage.

The story begins believably enough, with mathematician Ian Malcolm speculating at a seminar of scientists about why dinosaurs became extinct. The verisimilitude disappears when two middle school geniuses get involved.

Before you can say Jurassic Park, Malcolm, paleontologist Richard Levine, field biologist Sarah Harding, applied engineering professor “Doc” Thorne, and Thorne’s foreman Eddie Carr are on the southernmost of Costa Rica’s Five Deaths island.

And the middle-schoolers, who stowed away in the science team’s exploration vehicles, are there, too.

Although there’s plenty of believable detail, such as jargon-rich conversations between scientists, only the most gullible of readers would believe The Lost World is anything but fiction written with Hollywood in mind.  There are high-speed chases, literal cliff-hangers, and blood and gore enough to fill a giant popcorn box.

But for the less-gullible, Crichton includes musings about the history of science, the scientific process, why the dinosaurs disappeared, and the rise of mass culture signals the end of the human species. That material is better than the story.

The Lost World by Michael Crichton
Alfred A. Knopf. ©1955. 393 p.
1995 bestseller #02; my grade: B+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Rainmaker

business-like engraved plaque says “The Rainmaker”
Cover is a visual joke.

The rainmaker of John Grisham’s novel of that name is law student Rudy Baylor. Rudy’s first job disappears even before he’s taken the bar exam, leaving him broke, homeless, and jobless in an already-saturated job market.

Fortunately, Rudy is a guy people want to help.

The owner of the place where Rudy tends bar part-time knows a shady lawyer who’s hiring.

An elderly widow Rudy met while giving free legal advice to senior citizens has an apartment he can rent cheaply.

And a couple he also met through his pro bono work want to sue the insurance company for refusing to pay for the bone marrow transplant that could save their son’s life.

Rudy isn’t stupid.  His law school courses taught him theory, but not what he needs to know. He’s immature and unprepared to practice law.

While Rudy gets on-the-job training in law, Grisham has some laugh-out-loud lines at Rudy’s expense, but he lets the lad learn about how to be a decent human being.

Unfortunately, Grisham also has Rudy fall for a woman whose husband abuses her. The love interest isn’t necessary and nothing about Kelly’s behavior suggests a good outcome for the couple.

It’s a minor misstep in an overall fine novel.

The Rainmaker by John Grisham
Doubleday. ©1995. 434 p.
1995 bestseller #1; my grade: B+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni