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Storytellers: New in April

Never mind what a young man’s fancy lightly turns to as the spring flowers nudge to the surface, the bumper crop this spring is not so much in affairs of the heart but in the many faces of the evil that surrounds them.

Catherine Gaskin’s brooding The Charmed Circle centers on the handsomely endowed Seymour sisters--Julia, Constance and Alex--the beautiful, talented offspring of renowned actor Sir Michael and concert pianist Ginette Maslova. The setting: wartime England and Scotland and the immediate postwar years. While this is overwhelmingly Julia’s story and a traditional one of her romance with--and marriage to--James Sinclair, a young flight lieutenant in the RAF, there is a sense of foreboding from the first moment the young lovers enter the gloomy, down-at-the-heels Scottish castle to which James is the heir.

In their disparate ways, however, the three Seymour sisters thrive--Julia following in her famous actor-father’s footsteps and progressing to Hollywood as a young widow, Alex cutting a journalistic swath in Washington, and Constance finding contentment closer to home with a somewhat lackluster, but loving, English civil servant with a bright future.

But the haunting and magnetic pull of the brooding Sinclair Castle that she and her young, now-fatherless, son have inherited is the albatross around Julia’s neck. Salvation in restoring the crumbling-apart castle seems to come in the unlikely form of Rod McCallum, the swashbuckling, popular Hollywood movie star who not only sweeps Julia off her feet but seems equally as dedicated as she in restoring the place.

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By the time the roots of McCallum’s twisted fascination with the restoration become apparent, though, any evil that the castle itself may have radiated has been dwarfed by his own. And the nightmare for Julia begins.

“The Charmed Circle” is peopled by characters directed by forces beyond their own control who are being drawn down a path of Stygian darkness. This novel by the best-selling author of “The Ambassador’s Women” is spellbinding, but it’s also as heavy as a double serving of haggis. “The Charmed Circle” is a Doubleday Book Club selection.

Considerably more upbeat is Coral Lansbury’s The Grotto, a sprawling novel that flits from Sicily to Australia and chronicles the adventures of Gwen Harcourt de Marineo in the years immediately preceding World War II. But, even though Gwen’s early indiscretions--including an unwanted pregnancy and being married off, by proxy, to a drunken lout in Australia (to save the honor of her Sicilian family)--end well when her natural talents bring her success down under, there’s an evil shadow hanging over this heroine as well. Much of it is in the centuries-old Sicilian obsession with honor and grim retribution, as personified by the grotto of the novel’s title--the dark place at the edge of the sea where Sicilian mothers took daughters who had dishonored them and quietly drowned them. Evil, too, in the form of a paternal grandfather with sinister Mafia connections and in the form of a fleeting fascination on Gwen’s part with Dolfi, the amoral “child of the devil,” who resurfaces in her life in Australia. Suddenly, World War II erupts and Gwen’s new, better life is on the line.

Lansbury, graduate dean at Rutgers who has published, in addition to three previous novels, a book on Victorian literature and history, has an imagination equipped with after-burners. This thoroughly engrossing and entertaining story should never have worked--the plot is too multilayered and involved. Instead, it works like a beautifully crafted watch, and Gwen Harcourt de Marineo emerges as the definitive “Unsinkable Molly Brown.”

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But are you ready for this? Not only does it work for a novel about UFOs staffed by funny-looking little people, but by funny-looking little people who realize that their own genetic makeup needs a bit of patchwork and, as a result, are engaged in the wholesale abduction of earthlings!

In Nighteyes, author Garfield Reeves-Stevens (he of “Children of the Shroud,” “Dreamland” and “Bloodshift”) advances the thesis that, for decades, UFOs have been quietly snatching innocent humans off the streets of the United States, running genetic experiments on them to iron out bugs in their own progeny and then--just as quietly--depositing their guinea pigs back on Earth. The few who recall, even vaguely, that they have been snatched are a figure of fun at the periodical rack of the supermarket check-out line. Until, of course, our friends from Outer Space get sloppy and stage one of their abductions right in the middle of an FBI surveillance of a Malibu fellow-agent suspected of a tie-in with Russian agents and which--on top of everything else--is also being photographed by an enterprising journalist. From superior intellects, we somehow expect tactics a little less reminiscent of a bunch of Army trainees staging their first night maneuver.

But the evil in “Nighteyes” is not so much with our visitors from space--who, actually, are pretty likable--but with the FBI and the CIA, both of whom see the Malibu fiasco as an interdepartmental double-cross. And the ensuing body count (awesome) is racked up not by the space visitor but by the two agencies, both trying to protect their respective turf.

It’s a credit to novelist Reeves-Stevens’ craftsmanship that all of this skulking about--this flitting back and forth from FBI “safe” houses in places such as Burbank to dreamlike sequences aboard the UFO--comes off quite plausibly and that we really care that the lovers, Beth and Merril, find the contentment for which they hunger, and that teen-ager Wendy Gilmour’s unborn baby isn’t really as unplanned as we had thought.

It’s the old power-struggle-among-the-rich-and-pretty that captivates British novelist Jilly Cooper in Players as a covey of television personalities jockey for dominance in a battle to strip a prosperous British television company of its franchise with the Independent Broadcasting Authority. Prosperous or not, Corinium Television is on shaky ground with the IBA, so management, in the form of ruthless Tony Bullingham, throws everything but the kitchen sink into the battle to retain the franchise--up to, and including, the recruitment of a beautiful, and equally ruthless, American network executive, Cameron Cook. It’s difficult to envision anyone in his right mind inviting any of the central characters in “Players” into his home if a minor child is within gunshot of the place because the name of the game here is s-e-x and the concern is not, as in “Nighteyes,” with body-count but with bed-count. Who’s doing what with whom for the glory of, or the destruction of, good old Corinium Television? Cooper, who hit the best-seller list with her previous “Riders,” has a deft touch with the heavy panting and artfully shedded negligee routine that is essential to this sort of plotting, and “Players” will undoubtedly do extremely well in the predictable libidinous circles. On a likability scale, however, the television types in this bodice-ripper fall somewhere between Gen. Grant in “Gone With the Wind” and the seed pods inhabiting “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

THE CHARMED CIRCLE

by Catherine Gaskin (Charles Scribner’s Sons: $19.95; 656 pp.) THE GROTTO

by Coral Lansbury (Alfred A. Knopf: $19.95; 544 pp.) NIGHTEYES

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by Garfield Reeves-Stevens (Doubleday: $18.95; 432 pp.) PLAYERS

by Jilly Cooper (Ballantine Books:

$8.95; 480 pp.)


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