Title: "Maestro"Editor: John GardnerPublisher: Otto...

BOOK BRIEFS

January 09, 1994|By BOB BAYLUS Title: "Family Blessings" Author: LaVyrle Spencer Publisher: Putnam Length, price: 384 pages, $22.95 | BOB BAYLUS Title: "Family Blessings" Author: LaVyrle Spencer Publisher: Putnam Length, price: 384 pages, $22.95,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Title: "Maestro"

Editor: John Gardner

Publisher: Otto Penzler/Macmillan

Length, price: 610 pages, $23 Who would want to kill the 91-year-old, internationally acclaimed conductor Louis Passau? After publication of a book detailing his espionage activity and other scandals, Passau becomes a target of various assassins. Two attempts on his life during a birthday celebration at the Lincoln Center prove the threat is quite real. A race ensues between the assassins and the CIA, FBI, and British Secret Service to protect the maestro.

Herbie Kruger, the hero of three prior John Gardner novels, comes out of retirement and spirits the maestro to a safe house. As assassins prowl the country, the two men dissect the maestro's life and times looking to the past for the secrets of the present. As the two try to get at the truth of Passau's life, there is an understanding that a tragedy can only be the final result.

John Gardner has written many espionage novels, ranging from the formulaic (his James Bond novels to the original (his Generations Trilogy). In "Maestro," Mr. Gardner has written a brilliant novel in which a young immigrant becomes an internationally renowned celebrity -- with a closet full of skeletons. The dialogue is crisp and the characters beautifully drawn. "The Maestro" is a masterpiece.

After being widowed at a young age, Lee Reston put her energy into raising her three children and making her florist business profitable. At 44, Lee has taken a great deal of satisfaction from her accomplishments. But then her oldest son, Greg, who is a policeman, is killed in a motorcycle accident. Again, Lee's world is smashed.

But fate is not finished with Lee. Greg's best friend, Chris, befriends Lee. Together, they grieve over their loss and nurture each other. During the healing process, the relationship between Lee and Chris, 30, takes some unexpected turns. Shock waves are set off within Lee's family.

LaVyrle Spencer has become noted for her realistic novels dealing with ordinary people going through traumatic experiences. "Family Blessings" is from that mold. So many novels today seem to use superficial characters in synthetic situations, but "Blessings" is a wonderful novel filled with complex characters in a riveting situation. Ms. Spencer has again woven a splendid tale of life and the ability of love and care to restore one's faith.

EILEEN POWER

Title: "Dreams of Exile: Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography"

Author: Ian Bell

Publisher: Henry Holt

Length, price: 296 pages, $25

Biographies run in cycles. Soon after the subject's death, authors rush to confer sainthood or genius. After an indecent interval the debunkers take over.

Thus Robert Louis Stevenson is declared a "parasitic buffoon," an "insane stork." It's the third wave of biographers that most often balances the boat. Ian Bell's Stevenson is exasperating, spoiled, arbitrary -- but above all courageous. Combating horrendous health throughout most of his short, crowded life, he perseveres to write prose and poetry that enchants even "functionally illiterate Hollywood executives."

Stevenson died in 1894, at the age of 44, while mixing mayonnaise in his house on Samoa, his masterpiece yet to be written. "Treasure Island" was composed during an illness (to amuse his stepson; it ran serially in Young Folks' Magazine). "Dr. Jekyll," his catapult to fame, was knocked off in three days in a Bournemouth cottage while the author, significantly, was "dosed tinctures, potions and draughts, some of them disorienting."

A proud Scotsman who loved everything about the hills of home except the "meteorological purgatory" the Scots call weather, Stevenson reluctantly kept on the move, "his career a paper chase that spanned the globe, illness dogging every page." Mr. Bell is with him step for step in an equitable biography animated enough to stir even a movie mogul.

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