THE MORNING TIDE. By Audrey Howard. St. Martin's 444 pp. $17.95.

THE MORNING Tide is a fine book for the winter flu, an engrossing, untaxing saga of great joys and stupendous woes, guaranteed diversion from a bed of pain. This family chronicle centers on two sisters in lower-middle- class Liverpool and spans the years 1921-1943. It's a painless dose of history that leads Kate and Jenny through "the heady thrill of freedom" of the Jazz Age, through the multiple humiliations and privations of the Depression, to the catastrophes of the bombing of Liverpool in 1941. There is nothing original here; nor is there meant to be. This is straightforward historical fiction, great events as they touch private lives.

The novel opens with a loud dramatic confrontation between the selfish, tyrannical Henry Fowler and his beautiful, strong-willed daughter Kate who declares that now that their long-suffering mother is dead, she and Jenny will no longer work as "skivvies" in Henry's chip shop and will set out on their own.

There are other monstrous men in the novel -- Jenny's husband rapes her repeatedly -- but there are good, kind ones as well: Jenny's true love, Kate's husband Waggy, their employer and surrogate father. Howard has no feminist axe to grind.

The point here is a matter of genre. Howard has written a primitive novel: like Gone With the Wind or the novels of J.B. Priestley, The Morning Tide has a great deal of zest and is not afraid of the clich,e. The characters are exaggerated, overdrawn: docile, frail Jenny; robust, good-natured Kate; monstrous Henry; good, solid Charlie, etc. Our interest is less in their inner lives than in how they perform and display their natures. And above all in what happens to them -- for Morning Tide is unabashedly melodramatic, chock full of violent deaths, passionate loves and losses, miraculous coincidences, malicious twists of fate and human nature, which keep lovers apart. If there is a whiff of soap opera here, that too is perhaps good for flu. And, long as The Morning Tide is, one can find out what did become of them all, as one never can in The Guiding Light. THE MARKOFF WOMEN. By June Flaum Singer. Evans. 368 pp. $16.95.

THIS IS another historical family chronicle, the story of a family of Russian Jews in the late 19th century, and as the title suggests, this is a "woman's book." Eve, the heroine, is the young, beautiful, brilliant, educated, strong and initially unwilling bride of David Markoff. She quickly comes to love her husband but is determined to grant him his manhood by liberating the family, four brothers, their wives and children from Chaim the despotic patriarch who controls the purse and treats the women and children as slaves, forbidden to eat with the men.

Eve's clever and successful campaign makes compelling reading. She rallies the wives by appeals to their self respect, and they in turn rally the husbands to accomplish first the dining table revolution, then the more difficult move towards economic independence. But there is something chilling about this woman whom Singer plainly intends us to admire. She is too composed and strong to be true, a clockwork figure of strength without generosity (though, of course, we are told she is generous). The wives -- "the sisterhood" -- with their vacillations, doubts and ultimate strength are more real, more sympathetic characters.

The second half of the novel takes place under the shadow of Eve Markoff and her unwavering principles: "Be the best man you can, the best Jew." It is the story of Eve's son Yitzhak who accomplishes Eve's dream of emigrating to America. But he loses his Jewish identity in the process of assimilation -- loses it gradually, unthinkingly until suddenly he realizes it too late. Again there is something terribly harsh in this orthodoxy. A lonely, hungry, 18-year-old eats a sausage, is forced to accept a German name at Ellis Island, shaves his beard and suddenly recognizes he has lost his heritage and the woman he loves. He cannot bring himself even to approach his mother though she too has come to America. But Yitzhak is real and lovable because of his frailties. His is the plight of the immigrant who gains great material success at great spiritual cost -- an important, bittersweet theme in the American Dream. ELENA. By Thomas H. Cook. Houghton Mifflin. 435 pp. $18.95

ELENA is fiction disguised as biography, the story of a famous American intellectual and woman of letters. The narrator is William, Elena's brother, a devoted, if plodding, Horatio always awaiting his sister in the wings. There are also constant allusions to and quotations from Elena's own work, as well as to Elena's "official" biraphy now in progress. This makes an odd, multi-faceted trompe l'oeil effect. Initially one thinks perhaps this is about a real person, a roman in the right place at the right times with the right people: New York during the Depression and the Spanish Civil War, and an affair with a radical journalist; Paris in the early '50s, and an affair with a former leader of the Resistance; New York again in the '60s, now with a Southern writer; and at the last, Cape Cod alone. But it soon becomes clear that this is a fictional creation, that all the voices are Thomas Cook's and that not one of them, particularly Elena's, rings quite true.

Nevertheless, there is interesting stuff here. Elena is not a new kind of heroine: she is a glummer version of a type well- established in contemporary literature in the novels of Margaret Drabble and Doris Lessing; yet it is interesting to see this type pass into the mainstream. Elena is the woman who is distinguished not merely by her fame but by her authority, her moral force. Elena, we are told, has devoted herself to trying "to live the intelligent life." "She demanded two things from herself and others -- knowledge and goodness."

The problem is that we are told this; we are asked, in effect, to admire Elena and by extension the novel on the strength of her moral worth. There is a deep misconception here, a kind of reversal of art. Rather than presenting us with a vivid creation which compels our admiration, we are being instructed to admire. Elena remains a construct, a figure of dull worthiness who never comes to life. Elena relies on moral charge and good intentions, yet it lacks the tensions, the sense of necessary costs and choices, which are essential to the "serious" novel it purports to be. SKORPION'S DEATH. By David Brierly Summit. 256 pp. $12.95.

SKORPION'S DEATH, David Brierly's sixth espionage novel, is a tough, competent thriller. It is set in exotic places -- Paris, Corsica, Tunisia, with a long seige in the Sahara -- and contains Brierly's favorite ingredients: violence (too much for my taste), corruption, betrayal. It is a book about terrorism -- bombs in airports, bombs in hotels, a sinister Islamic terrorist organization that has managed to infiltrate the security systems of Tunisia and France. Stylistically the book is disjointed -- an intentional staccato designed to heighten, surprise, distort, as in the opening scene which seems to present a death chamber that turns out to be an elevator in the Eiffel Tower. There are frequent stabs of wit, though in fact the novel, and its central character, lack any true sense of humor.

The central character, however, is of real interest: this is another novel with a female heroine written by a man. Moreover, it is written in the first person, and that involves an interesting, complicated play of attitudes. Cody herself is tough and competent, trained by British intelligence and the CIA. But finally she ha turned her back on that world of masculine power and all its dirty tricks. "I could stomach no more." Yet she has remained in the trade, as a free lance living in Paris; she refuses to kill, but she is up to her ears in violence and death. Yet, though there are constant allusions to heads swivelling as she passes, to eyes wandering near her cleavage, it is difficult to feel that Cody is a woman. The proof of her femininity is the situations she is put into: she suffers over her lover's infidelity, she becomes caretaker of a blind journalist, she is tortured by having a scorpion placed on her bare buttocks. There is a sense of hostility here; the implication is that if a woman's going to do this sort of work she must suffer, and suffer like a woman as well as a man. Nevertheless, there are interesting identifications between author and heroine. Cody's bright driven strength is mined with a sullen, slowburning resentment, and that is the dominant emotion of the novel. THE BRASS BED. By Alexand Marshall. Doubleday. 275 pp. $16.95.

AT ITS BEST The Brass Bed is a book of scenes. It opens with a party at the Boston Aquarium -- elderly women dressed like mermaids, men in penguin suits milling in the dim light round the huge tanks. It is a picture that lingers, and there are others -- the exuberant Women's March for Peace to Boston Common on a glorious spring day; the heroine's missionary father waltzing with his illegitimate granddaughter while the missionary mother quizzes her daughter about the race problem in Boston.

There are some wonderful exchanges, and good descriptions of conversations, something few novelists do well. The problem is that between these vivid moments there is little to sustain the interest that the reader wants to give. This lack of continuity is ironic because the novel is all about characters coming to remake their futures. Duncan and Nina are clearly destined for each other, but first he must tell his parents about his divorce and have one more round with his ex-wife, while she must tell her parents about her child whose father was a Frenchman she loved but never married. Neither is sufficiently vivid to compel our attention; it is our wish to like them that gets us through the book.

Perhaps the most striking thing about The Brass Bed is demographic: in a nation where the bulk of the population is over 30, the love story is ever more often middle-aged. True love, according to this novel, is not first love, but second or even third.