Tara Road by Maeve Binchy

street of houses painted in bright daubs of color
Bright paint covers heartbreaks.

Maeve Binchy’s Tara Road begins in the 1980s as a chatter of Dublin teens take their first jobs.

Ria Johnson is a home-and-hearth, family-and-friends type. Like most of her girlfriends, she plans to work only until she lands a husband. Ria’s best friend, Rosemary Ryan, is a “career first, fellows later” type.

When slick salesman Danny Lynch is transferred to the real estate office in which Ria and Rosemary work, both are smitten. Danny has eyes only for Ria. When they marry, Rosemary is Ria’s maid of honor.

Danny helps a sleazy businessman unload an unsaleable property, acquiring a 1870’s home on Tara Road and the businessman’s mentorship in the process.

Thirteen years later, Ria is about to tell Danny she wants a third child, when Danny says he’s leaving her for his young, pregnant girlfriend.

While still reeling from the news, Ria accidentally picks up a phone call from a woman in America who wants a home for the summer. Impulsively, Ria and Marilyn decided to exchange houses for two months.

Each woman gets to see life—and herself—from a different perspective.

Sadly, although all Binchy’s female characters have life-shattering experiences, few learn from those experiences anything more than how to put a good face on a bad situation.

Tara Road by Maeve Binchy
Delacorte Press. ©1998. 502 p.
1999 bestseller #10; my grade: B

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Irresistible Forces

symbol for electrical attraction is dust jacket art elementIn Irresistible Forces, Danielle Steel revisits one of her familiar plot hooks: the difficulties created when one party in a marriage wants children and the other doesn’t.

Here the high-power, happily married couple are Steve and Meredith Whitman. Steven is a surgeon in a New York City trauma hospital; Meredith is a Wall Street investment banker. Both are dedicated to their jobs, work long hours, consider themselves happily married.

Steve wants kids. Meredith doesn’t.

Meredith is arranging an IPO for a California tech firm, which means spending a lot of time on the road in the US and Europe with Callan Dow, the firm’s founder and CEO.

Callan is attractive, rich, divorced, with two kids. He tells Meredith that her unwillingness to have a child means she isn’t committed to her marriage. That rattles her, but she ignores it.

After the IPO is a success, Callan offers Meredith a job. Steve urges her to take it; he’ll find a job in California and they can have a baby.

Steel pairs both Meredith and Steve off with new partners.

It’s left to some other novelist to write the story of how both Meredith’s and Steve’s second marriages fail, which they surely will.

Irresistible Forces by Danielle Steel
Delacorte Press. ©1999. 372 p.
1999 bestseller #9; my grade: C-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

back of figure with baseball cap and backpack in dark, wooded area
There’s a red B on Trisha’s cap.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is Trisha McFarland, 9, the daughter of divorced parents and sister to a 13-year-old brother who epitomizes everything that’s obnoxious about teenagers.

One Saturday, Trisha’s mother takes both children on hike along the Appalachian Trail. Near a fork in the trail, Trisha stops to pee while her mother and brother go ahead, arguing.

Afterward, instead of returning to the trail, Trisha cuts across the woods to join them. She has no watch, so she can’t tell how long she has walked before she realizes she’s lost.

Trisha’s parents never taught her that when you’re lost, you should behave like a good dog: Stay. Trisha keeps moving, making choices that lessen her chances of being found. She is followed by what might be a monster, or her vivid imagination.

Days, she carries on imaginary conversations with Tom Gordon to keep up her morale. Nights, she listens to the Boston Red Sox games on her Walkman until sleep comes.

Aside from the fact that Stephen King makes Trisha sound 19 instead of 9, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is a satisfying 20th century version of a fairy tale: A dark, harrowing experience that, despite its happy outcome, will induce nightmares.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
By Stephen King
Scribner. ©1999. 224 p.
1999 bestseller #8; my grade: A-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Apollyon: The Destroyer is Unleashed

fire bubbles like volcano against black night sky
1999 bestseller number 7

Apollyon: The Destroyer Is Unleashed found willing buyers among a certain segment of American evangelicals, who took a break from filling jugs with water in preparation for the year 2000, to read it.

Apollyon’s plot pits good guys versus bad guys at some “near future” time identifiable to readers by the characters’ use of computerized technology that was emerging, but not yet ubiquitous, in 1999. The authors speculate and elaborate on what that conflict will be like based on descriptions in the book of Revelation and elsewhere in the Bible.

Before they finished their “Left Behind” series, Tim LeHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins churned out 16 novels. The Left Behind novels developed a “cult following” in the same sense that Star Wars and Harry Potter have cult followers.

Left Behind’s cult followers no doubt know all the characters and all the story backgrounds and don’t need reminding. But for the uninitiated, reading any but the first Left Behind book is nearly impossible.

Apollyon begins with a dialogue between people who the reader doesn’t know about other people the reader has never heard of. The authors don’t even attempt to provide context.

If you don’t want to read all six earlier novels in the Left Behind series, give this novel a miss.

Apollyon: The Destroyer Is Unleashed
[Left Behind Series]
by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins
Tyndale House. ©1999. 399 p.
1999 bestseller #7; my grade: D

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Hearts in Atlantis

ost cat poster and peace sign on utility pole figure in the plot
Bad guys post “lost” messages.

Hearts in Atlantis is probably the best Stephen King bestseller people will never read. Its five interconnected stories probe 1960s history as experienced in small towns by baby boomer Americans who remember the draft.

“Low Men in Yellow Coats” is about Bobby Garfield, age 11 in 1960, being raised by his widowed mother in Harwich, Connecticut. A man who moves into the third-floor apartment introduces Bobby to The Lord of the Flies. His summer experiences teach him that evil isn’t confined to novels.

Next, the title story is about college kids—Bobby isn’t among them—who get hooked on playing the card game Hearts for a nickel-a-point, oblivious to the Vietnam War and how academic failure could kill them. The main character in this story straightens out only after watching—and laughing at—a disabled student who risked expulsion and possibly death from exposure to hang an antiwar message decorated with peace signs on a campus building.

A final three stories explore the post-war experiences of Bobby and other boys from Harwich.

Millennials and Generation Z readers, if they know what books are, won’t read Hearts in Atlantis: There’s no supernatural here. All the terrifying elements are expressions of human nature.

Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King
Scribner. ©1999. 523 p.
1999 bestseller #6; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Timeline by Michael Crichton

14th century metal helmet
Helmet topped a metal outfit.

In Michael Crichton’s Timeline, an American company has discovered how to exploit the properties of quantum physics to send people back in time to study history. ITC lures archeologists studying a 14th French century site to be time-travel guinea pigs.

When archeology project’s director disappears near where within days the French and English will fight an historic battle, four of his associates are zapped back in time to look for him. In France, the four young people get separated.

Preparing for battle, both armies are wary of strangers who may be spies for their opponents.

Back in the US, the transporter equipment is out of order. Even if it’s repaired quickly, the archeologists may not be saved: Sometimes transportation has nasty side effects.  ITC’s CEO is too busy practicing his spiel to attract new investors to worry about getting the researchers back to 20th century America.

Crichton keeps the American story in hand, but lets the story in France get hopelessly muddled. Besides the confusion of two armies in the field and the noncombatants scrambling to get out of the way, Crichton adds secret passages, coded messages, and deep dungeons until he turns his extensive research into farce.

Timeline by Michael Crichton
Alfred A. Knopf. ©1999. 450 p.
1999 bestseller #5; my grade: C-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Star Wars® The Phantom Menace (book)

a hooded, humanlike red face with black tiger markings and red eyes stares at readers The first Star Wars® film, written and directed by George Lucas, debuted in 1977 was a block buster hit. It spawned additional Star Wars® films, gave birth to a science fiction category called space operas, and made millionaires of Star Wars® merchandizers.

In 1999, 22 years and three Star Wars® films later, Lucas produced a fourth film that’s a prequel to the Star Wars® series. Terry Brooks made Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace into a novel of the same name.

The novel’s first chapter’s first paragraph is one word: Tatoonine.

The rest of chapter 1 is about a pod race. Pods are some kind of mechanical vehicles.  A nine-year-old slave boy named Anakin Skywalker, who hopes one day to fly with the Jedi Knights, is cheated out of winning the pod race. Anakin and his mother are slaves owned by Watto, a “pudgy, blue Toydarian” who speaks Huttese.

I have no idea what happens after that.

Reading The Phantom Menace without having seen the film is like trying to decipher King Lear by consulting a printed copy of the alphabet.

Readers, you have been warned.

Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace
by Terry Brooks
Ballentine Publishing. ©1999. 324 p.
1999 bestseller #4; my grade: D-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Assassins (Left Behind series)

Jerusalem in the cross hairs of rifle aimed at globeAssassins is the sixth novel in the “Left Behind” series based on the New Testament book of Revelation. It attempts to imagine what it will be like to live through events revealed to the Apostle John. The concept for the novel came from Tim LaHaye. Jerry B. Jenkins wrote the books.

In Assassins, the Global Community under the leadership of Nicolae Carpathia is preparing for a gala celebration three-and-a-half years after Christians were taken to heaven and the world plunged into chaos.

Carpathia announces he’ll deal with the “Jerusalem Twosome,” who preach to those left behind, the next day at a big rally.

Although millions treat Carpathia as a god, he has enemies, not all of them within the ranks of those who converted to Christianity after the rapture.

At the rally, Carpathia is assassinated.

Assassins provides almost no context for anyone who hasn’t read the previous volumes in the series. Besides that, the text is not a particularly well written. While buildings explode, people die, and corpses burn, writer Jerry B. Jenkins has one character tell another, “You’ve got a modicum of stress in your life.”

If you have even a modicum of stress in your life, find a different novel to read.

Assassins [Left Behind Series]
by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins
Tyndale House. ©1999. 416 p.
1999 bestseller #3; my grade: D

Note:  The prior book in the Left Behind series, Apollyon, appears in the 7th place in the 1999 bestseller list.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni


Hannibal by Thomas Harris

detail from ancient carving: dragon swallowing a man
The dragon has a mouthful.

Thomas Harris’s Hannibal is a Stephen King-like thriller without any supernatural effects.

The story opens with FBI agent Clarice Starling being suspended for an attempted drug arrest that resulted in five deaths, including that of a woman holding a baby, all captured by a TV crew tipped off by insiders.

While she’s suspended, Starling gets a letter from murderer Dr. Hannibal Leeter, who she interviewed in a hospital for the criminally insane before his escape seven years earlier. He’s never been found.

Starling begins looking for Hannibal, whose gruesome killings are at odd with his expensive tastes in food, wines, and the fine arts.

Unknown to her, Hannibal’s sixth victim, the only one who survived, is also looking for him. Mason Verger, head of a meatpacking empire, wants to see Hannibal suffer—literally—for turning him into an invalid. His body-builder sister has her own agenda that will require her brother’s presence for only a few minutes.

While Sterling’s investigation is being sabotaged by political considerations and male egos, Hannibal is pleasantly employed as a museum curator in Italy, under the name Dr. Fell.

Just when readers wonder how all these multiple threads will ever be resolved, Harris pulls out a surprising yet perfectly prepared final chapter.

Hannibal by Thomas Harris
Delacorte. ©1999. 486 p.
1999 bestseller #2; my grade: A-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Testament by John Grisham

riverboat looks black against the setting sun reflected in water
Boat goes where lawyer fears to go.

John Grisham 1999 best-seller The Testament is a courtroom drama with anacondas.

The novel opens with the dramatic suicide of  America’s 10th most wealthy man. While guys in suits line up to bicker and dicker to secure a chunk of Troy Phelan’s estate for—and from—Phelan’s obnoxious heirs, only Josh Stafford, who had drafted and shredded many wills for Phelan, knows none of Phelan’s ex-wives and their children will get a cent from his estate.

While stalling on reading Phalen’s last will as directed, Josh hauls soon-to-be-disbarred lawyer Nate O’Riley out of his fourth stay in an alcohol rehabilitation program and sends him to find the illegitimate daughter to whom Phelan left his fortune. She’s a missionary to primitive people in the Pantanal in western Brazil.

Before this trip, Nate’s idea of personal challenge was avoiding alcohol for 24 hours. Suddenly he has to cope with a plane crash in a thunderstorm, a boat trip up swollen rivers, and dengue fever.

As he so often does, in The Testament Grisham produces a surprise ending that’s so well prepared it shouldn’t be a surprise. And as always in a Grisham novel, there’s far more than just the story line to unpack.

The Testament by John Grisham
Doubleday. ©1999. 435 p.
1999 bestseller #1; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni