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Storytellers: New in February

January 22, 1989|DON G. CAMPBELL

As the good St. Valentine himself would have been the first to admit: "The course of true love never did run smooth." And the popular fiction outpouring for February underlines it with affairs of the heart ranging from the merely turbulent to the erotic to the mismatched to the bizarre to the far-fetched.

In Michael Korda's The Fortune, for instance, we are faced with an ages-old conundrum: Can an attractive, savvy young New York art dealer find love in the arms of a man old enough to be her grandfather--and who also happens to control a family fortune running into the billions? So, hey! Why not? Bulging pecs aren't everything! Korda, the editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster and the author of four previous nonfiction books as well as two novels, "Worldly Goods" and "Queenie," has great fun with the affair between crazy-like-a-fox Elizabeth Alexandra Walden and the reclusive billionaire, Arthur Alden Bannerman.

Rightfully, Korda goes to considerable pain to probe the nature of the blossoming relationship between them. A casual roll in the hay between an opportunistic young woman and a slavering derriere-pincher, this is not. But, when Bannerman--defying his brooding and dangerous family and especially his mother, the steel-would-melt-in-her-mouth matriarch of the Bannerman clan, Eleanor--actually marries Alexa and wills her, not simply a few million in worldly goods for a job well done, but the whole kit and caboodle of the Bannerman fortune, there's unabashed heck to pay. And especially when Arthur has the bad form to die in his new bride's arms in the marriage bed.

Menacingly, the Bannermans and their attorneys begin circling the hapless Alexa like a covey of mating ospreys, and this would appear to be the biggest mismatch since Custer chose to take on the Sioux nation. But, stay tuned. Our girl has a keen instinct for the jugular, herself and a few knuckle-ball tricks as well. "The Fortune" is a main selection of the Literary Guild and has been sold to ABC-TV for a four-part miniseries.

Love, in the lexicon of martial-arts guru author, Eric Van Lustbader, is as physical as the lethal clashes between his protagonist and the black-hearted villains that populate the pages of French Kiss. The body count here is awesome, and, by Page 30, one has lost track of how many hapless players have succumbed to the deadly iron war fan, the gunsen , a sort of portable guillotine blade, and to other fatal variations of pentjak-silat , or anatomical weapons.

Here we have up-and-coming New York attorney, Chris Haye, seeking to unravel the murder, in southern France, of his brother, Terry--an early, gunsen decapitation victim--and Terry's obsession with obtaining a trio of jade weapons known as the Prey Dauw , or the Forest of Swords. Seemingly ugly truths about his dead brother begin emerging--notably, Chris learns, that whoever possesses the mystic Forest of Swords also controls all of the opium warlords operating out of Burma.

And who, exactly, is "The Magician," the evil engineer of all of the related murders? Van Lustbader has honed the brooding, goose-bumply sensation of sudden, violent death likely to burst out of the darkness at any moment into a unique art form. And in "French Kiss" he is in fine fettle with a suspense that is sustained to the final page.

Despite an old pledge to our mother that we would never read a novel populated by a heroine of heart-stopping beauty bearing a name like Flame, or a darkly handsome, charismatic, hero bearing a name like Chance, we did it, anyway. Mother had a good point. Janet Dailey's Rivals is a love story of the stripe where the lovers-to-be--catching sight of each other across a crowded room --exchange a look of such searing intensity that, along with their clothes, it also peels the lamination right off their respective driver's licenses.

Chance controls a global real estate empire. Flame is a dynamic advertising executive. Boy meets girl. Boy beds and marries girl. A shocking truth during their idyllic Mexican honeymoon--Flame is the sole heir to an Oklahoma ranch, the possession of which Chance desperately needs for a multi-million-dollar land deal. Worse yet, they are the surviving members of two feuding Oklahoma families--a bitter vendetta that goes back to the Oklahoma land rush of 1891.

Did Chance rush her into marriage simply to claim the land? Does Flame have the driving ambition, and finances, to beat her estranged lover at his own game? Are these feckless kids going to see the self-destructiveness of what they're doing? Is this an FHA-approved real estate development in the first place?

Not only have the first serial rights to "Rivals" been sold to Cosmopolitan magazine, but it is a Literary Guild Main Selection. So cool it, Mother.

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