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Book Report: There's some books you can't put down

Author Belva Plain died last year, just after completing her 22nd novel, all of them bestsellers.

The latest is "Heartwood," (Delacorte Press, $24.95).

I had never read a novel by this ubiquitous writer who was almost continuously on the bestseller lists ever since I began reviewing. So, in honor of her memory, I read this latest.

Turns out that Belva Plain was no prose stylist. Her sentences are short, choppy and often full of clichés. Her characters are pretty standard, usually dealing with the dynamics of family life.

So how did her books continue to top the bestseller lists?

She was obviously a masterful storyteller, that's how. Plain is like many popular writers who on the surface seem pretty pedestrian, but who can weave a tale and keep you reading.

Take Herman Wouk, author of big successes like "The Caine Mutiny," "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance." Wouk is no prose stylist and he never really plumbed the depths of World War II in the same way James Jones or Norman Mailer did.

But once you picked up a Wouk fiction, you probably couldn't put it down.

That's pretty much what happened to me when I entered the world of Belva Plain. She introduces us to her heroine Iris Stern, matron of her family, a special education teacher at the local colleges. She's Jewish, considers herself progressive, but holds on to many of the traditions forsaken by her grown children.

Thanksgiving is coming up and the family will gather at the elder Stern residence. Iris is worried about what they're all up to. And she carries the reader along as the story and the holiday unfolds.

Many years ago, I attended a board meeting of the National Book Critics Circle in New York City. It was my first such meeting and I'm afraid I was a bit out of step on a board made up mostly of easterners.

Everyone was excited about a new book by a fellow named Art Spiegelman. The book was "Maus." I hadn't heard of it so ordered it immediately from the publisher.

It turned out to be a comic book about mice and cats and pigs! But what a comic book it was.

The setting was Poland and New York City. The mice were Polish Jews. The cats were Nazis in charge of concentration camps and the pigs were Polish Christians.

It was a terrifying book about the Holocaust, recalled in tranquility by Spiegelman's Holocaust victim father years later in New York City.

I was simply blown away by the book and resolved never to make fun of graphic novels again. These days, graphic novels are a big item among publishers and even English teachers. Minneapolis-based Lerner Publications has jumped into the trend on all fours with a new imprint, Graphic Universe.

I've just finished one of its offerings, "My Boyfriend is a Monster," by Paul D. Storrie, illustrated by Eldon Cowgur ($9.95). Here's a synopsis of this dramatically illustrated book:

"Tom Stone stepped into Seward High and into Maria McBride's life like a bolt of lightning. He's the perfect guy for Maria -- nice, smart, and well-built. There's just one problem: His family. Tom's father is the town's new funeral director and business is booming. The bodies are piling up thick and fast in town, so Dr. Stone keeps Tom up late at night working at the funeral home. And it's clear that Dr. Stone and his creepy assistant, Graves, don't want Maria around...."

Turns out that Dr. Stone's name is Frank N. Stone. And he bears a startling resemblance to a character created by Mary Shelley in a story called "The Modern Prometheus."

Nay-sayers and opponents of the graphic novel would argue this story would be useless to kids between 12 and 18 years old, as the publisher recommends. But I learned something from this revolutionary new book about the Frankenstein legend and I just turned 75.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.