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Storytellers: New in May

Even the die-hard bibliophile will admit: It's tough to...

April 16, 1989|KAREN STABINER | Storytellers, a monthly feature, will next appear May 21. Next week's feature: Children's Bookshelf.

Even the die-hard bibliophile will admit: It's tough to read in April. The freesias are in bloom, the dormant vegetable garden is tapping its foot impatiently, wondering if this is the weekend you'll get around to planting the seedlings, and there's an hour more of daylight to distract you from settling down with a good read. Restaurateurs complain that April is, indeed, the cruelest month, because no one wants to come in from out of doors to eat dinner.

What you need is a novel that doesn't demand a lot, one that you can pick up any time without feeling lost. This batch of blockbusters are from the deja vu school of fiction: Even if you haven't read these particular books, you've undoubtedly read a lot of others just like them.

Take A Morning Affair by Janice Kaplan. Jackie Rogers is, Janet Malcolm be damned, an honorable, hard-working television journalist of tremendous integrity who happens to be a raving beauty, which makes for a lot of moral turmoil for our heroine. Will the folks at A.M. Reports, the national morning show, appreciate her for her mind, or will they attempt to turn Jackie into just another overpaid, oversprayed airhead? Will she keep dating Julian, the enigmatic silver baron, or will she recognize true love when she meets him in the editing room?

If her ethics wilt a bit in the process--Jackie finishes off the silver baron with a lover's sell-out disguised as a journalist's coup--this was never a novel about journalism, after all. Besides, the guy clearly asked for it. He had the audacity to make zillions of dollars without telling his reporter girlfriend how he did it. Ah, those secretive men.

Everybody's secretive in Stephen Birmingham's Shades of Fortune and with good cause: The members of the Myerson family, all beneficiaries of dear departed Dad's cosmetics empire, are master tacticians. Son Edwee and daughter Nonie are locked in a battle for tottering Mom's money and/or artwork, while their sister Mimi, the elegant, if superstitious, heroine of the tale, tries to salvage both the cosmetic company and her floundering marriage.

Because this is fiction, where life contradicts the nonfiction odds, she manages both: She comes up with a signature fragrance and fends off a hostile takeover from an ex-lover (just so we don't think her husband's the only one with middle-aged sex appeal), and she woos her man back from his affair with a younger woman. To his credit, social historian Birmingham manages to infuse this fantastic tale with just enough history to give it substance. Credible frippery: the perfect spring tonic.

Research is what sets Jacqueline Briskin's The Naked Heart apart from some World War II fiction. (There may be a million stories in the naked city, but there seems to be twice that many in World War II; has someone designed a computer software program where you just plug the details into the basic plot?) Briskin went to France to write the story of Gilberte de Permont and her American friend Ann Blakely, who meet as girls during the war and whose lives are forever intertwined. Gilberte's parents are horribly tortured and killed by the Germans, and she disappears, vowing revenge on their captors. Ann, determined to find her, enlists the aid of a De Permont family friend--Quent Dejoing, suitably handsome and rich, and destined to marry the wrong girl first.

And, of course, they all learn something about the betrayal of Gilberte's parents that they would rather not know--something that spans decades and countries before it's sorted out. "The Naked Heart" is a dream come true for some lucky miniseries location scout and costume designer.

Speaking of miniseries, Frederick Forsyth, that dependable purveyor of the international thriller, is back with The Negotiator, clearly a candidate for inter-media transmogrification. Quinn is an alienated hostage negotiations expert, in self-imposed exile in southern Spain after seeing one too many people die, who is called back to service to negotiate with the men who have kidnaped the President of the United States' son. The hapless kid, a student at Oxford, got yanked into a van on his morning run, a pawn in a plot to commandeer some of the Middle East's oil supply.

Still with me? There's also a good-looking lady named Sam, a bad-acting bunch of guys stateside, the requisite number of suspicious Russians, and enough fast turns to keep the story careening to the very last pages. You probably can't try Forsyth for the first time if you're suffering from spring fever; look up from the page for a moment to contemplate the greenery and you may have trouble finding your way back into his dark landscape. But the faithful can use "The Negotiator" as an antidote to horticulturally induced giddiness--and, with a 350,000 first printing, the publisher clearly anticipates a lot of repeat business.

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