"Until You're Mine" by Samantha Hayes

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With haunting and desperate inward dialogues, and frequent shifts in point of view, Samantha Hayes engages us in her clever thriller from the very outset. Until You’re Mine plunges us into the deep end of a thick emotional soup in which women unable to conceive a baby circle, vulture-like, around a clutch of expectant mothers. The lead-up and payoff of this creepy tale are rewarding and unexpected – congratulations to Ms. Hayes for a perfect and unerring job.

We meet the very appealing Claudia, who has married into the family of widowed Naval officer James, and his twin four-year old sons. Claudia is quite pregnant, and into this happy group comes Zoe, hired as a nanny to the twins, because Claudia’s due date is so soon and James will be leaving on a mission. And the creepiness starts – and then is really
revved up by a couple of gruesome murders of very pregnant women. Enter a husband-and-wife team of police detective inspectors, complete with their own baggage, and the twists and turns inevitably follow.

This is beautifully realized work. The denouement will please any fan of thriller crime fiction, and the portraits of our mostly female cast of characters only add to the value here. I raced through this book in a couple of days, even with my demanding work schedule, truly unable to put it down. I’m sure you will find it just as riveting, and be just as impressed with the clever Ms. Hayes. Take it up!

"The Bloodletter's Daughter" by Linda Lafferty

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With The Bloodletter’s Daughter Linda Lafferty retells the legend of mad Don Julius, illegitimate son of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, and his murder in 1608 of an innocent Bohemian bath maid. This telling takes the form of a thriller, but the author is too wise to think her readers are as much in the dark as the citizens of the time.

The story features a good many actors with axes to grind, maybe too many to do any single character the justice of a full fictional treatment. The king imprisons his schizophrenic bastard son Don Julius in a newly purchased castle and simultaneously awards him lordship and governance over the region. The bath maid catches his eye, and her ambitious mother engineers a near-fatal assignation for her and the prince. Death and destruction threatens the town unless the prince gets his way in the end. In addition, Catholics and Protestants in Hungary must unite to fight the infidel Ottomans who encroach ever farther into Europe. There’s a lot going on, and affairs of state, even when they involve mad murderous princes, take precedence over the most basic characterization and internal dialogue.
I found precious little to sympathize with along the way, and felt finishing the book was simply an exercise gratefully completed. I do appreciate the research
that went into this, and the honest attempt to capture Don Julius’s madness; these were effective and commend the book. Overall, however, it was time that could be better spent.

"Death in Venice, California" by Vinton Rafe McCabe

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Author Vinton Rafe McCabe retells the classic Thomas Mann story of misguided dotage, dazzled and weak, by placing it in sunny Southern California, and then quite openly acknowledging its profane nature. The symbol and thematic talisman of the Hanging Man Tarot card captures everything you need to know about this character and this novel.

The von Aschenbach character is named Jameson Frame in this entry, and the author portrays him as weak and corruptible, open to any and every suggestion, however unsound. Frame of course encounters an unbelievably beautiful youth, the most beautiful young man he’s ever seen, and the two have a tense, sometimes teasing, relationship, until its end in a seedy movie studio. Frame drinks excessively, takes drugs, has ill-advised cosmetic procedures done on his face and abdomen, all within just a few days, all the while panting after the youth, named Chase.

So Southern California serves as the inevitable backdrop for this distinguished man of letters’ pursuit; the “ideal” youth and longed-for instant gratification are achingly nigh. Mr. McCabe is very crafty about this: even the sand at Venice Beach threatens life and limb, with bicyclists and skaters speeding down the path one must cross, and the possibility of tainted needles beneath the sand itself. The parallels to the Mann novella make us reflect and consider:
the ideal youth has two older “sisters” who try to warn Frame to watch himself, even as they contribute to his demise. An epidemic is kept hush-hush in the original; here, the threat of hepatitis from a needle hangs in the air, but the tragic end of the protagonist is a highly individual demise.

I think it probable that Mr. McCabe focused so closely on his main character, almost in a stream-of-consciousness, intending to make us wince and look away. I felt the urge almost constantly, wondering about his ghastly choices, his destructive, will o’ the wisp willingness to do anything and everything with reckless disregard for his body. Apparently the pull of the dream, engendered in Southern California’s famous remove from reality, exerts just too strong a pull on our poor, diffident hero. On the other hand, I do consider it lovely, though – McCabe’s withering attack on the skin-deep culture so dominant there.

I’m glad I persevered; I did have the urge once or twice to toss it aside. The storytelling is consistently assured, the parallels to the sublime model serve Mr. McCabe’s ends admirably – nothing gratuitous about them – and the whole hangs together and delivers its punch squarely. This is a well-done piece.

"Circle of Friends" by Maeve Binchy

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It’s easy to see why Maeve Binchy sells books by the container-load. She features humor, believable motivation and action, and true insights into the human character. But mostly, of course, her characters are so sympathetic that readers come to love them. I assume that’s the case with her other best-sellers -I have to, because Circle of Friends is my only exposure to Ms. Binchy’s work, and is likely to remain so.

Circle of Friends recounts the trials and triumphs of Mary Bernadette (“Benny”) Hogan, and her best friend in life, Eve Malone. The two girls live near Dublin in 1957 and go through everything together – a strict Catholic upbringing setting the tone throughout. The narrative focuses very exactly on their last year of high school and first year of university. Conversations cover the gambit, and are uniformly well executed – witty, true to life, and quite character-specific. Benny’s relationship with her handsome and affable boyfriend cannot quite survive his indiscretions and bad decisions. However, the author very carefully maintains a nuanced and sympathetic portrait of Jack the boyfriend – there are no cardboard cutouts among the main characters, certainly. Minor ones, too, show understandable contours in personality and motivation.

We witness a great deal of detail about these young women and men; episodes parade by in their proper order, evoking the proper amount of anticipation, or catharsis, or vindication, or empathy … we await resolution on a series of issues and at length it comes.
As I said, these characters are highly sympathetic. We want for them the best possible outcomes, but while plenty seems to happen in the quotidian realm, important issues become resolved at a glacial pace. We anticipate them early on and wait and wait, and finally something surprising happens.

This author aims to treat us to two young women’s coming of age – well, maybe three – and she realizes this goal, or most of it. It’s the lack of ambition that prevents this book from having a higher score. Ms. Binchy’s readers obviously love her characters, and with good reason, but I need more from my time spent reading.