The Monitor's Guide to Bestsellers

HARDCOVER FICTION

1. AIRFRAME, by Michael Crichton, Knopf, $26

Crichton couldn't have picked a better - or worse - time to write a thriller about an airline accident and how television covers it. An international flight has a few moments of terror 35,000 feet in the air over California. Three people die and several others are injured. An attractive, made-for-the-movies heroine figures out what happened. Coming on the heels of the ValuJet and TWA tragedies, it's a bit macabre. Another bestseller, this time with a clear message: re-regulate the air industry. By Faye Bowers

2. THE CHRISTMAS BOX, by Richard Paul Evans, Simon & Schuster, $12.95

A glorious weep! (A personal caveat: Sadness isn't really the pre-requisite to happiness.) A Victorian attic reveals an ornate box containing sorrowful letters to a lost, little angel. Night music, wafting mysteriously from the box, draws Richard to discover its secret. Once emptied of its sorrowful burden, the Christmas box epitomizes the empty tomb that could not hold Jesus. The joys of family love can conquer a materialistic sense of life and Christmas. Seasonal re-issue from last year. By Mari Murray

3. EXECUTIVE ORDERS, by Tom Clancy, Putnam, $27.95

What if a non-politician, cold-war warrior, average family man, and intelligence expert to boot became president? Clancy's latest and longest - 874 pp. - offers just such a scenario. Jack Ryan (however improbably) is in charge after almost the entire Congress and Cabinet are wiped out. An Iranian plot to create a single Islamic state, abetted by biological warfare and terrorism can't redeem frequent one-dimensional political tangents. Clancy has bitten off more than readers can chew. By Jim Bencivenga

4. SILENT HONOR, by Danielle Steel, Delacorte, $24.95

The latest from this mega-romance author is a cross-cultural tale of love during World War II. In presenting a young Japanese woman facing an internment camp in California after Pearl Harbor, it is more a tale of one woman facing prejudice and deprivation than a romance. As required in this genre, all ends well for our Japanese heroine. But what could have been a fascinating story with original insights is simply pleasant in a formulaic way. By Terri Theiss

5. THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN, by Jacquelyn Mitchard, Viking, $23.95

This is a straightforwardly written account of a bizarre misfortune that spawns countless complications. Beth Cappadora, mother of three, decides to take her children along with her for a short trip to her 15th high school reunion. Carrying her infant daughter as she registers at the front desk of a hotel filled with her former classmates, Beth tells seven-year-old Vincent to look after three-year-old Ben. Ben disappears. Mitchard's detailed and realistic portrait of the Cappadora family follows. By Merle Rubin

6. The FALLEN MAN, by Tony Hillerman, HarperCollins, $24

This is the 12th detective mystery in the Jim Chee, Joe Leaphorn series. All the components of a Hillerman novel are here: the desert-dry locale, flawed human nature, the patterns of lives that at first randomly, and then pointedly, intersect in a tiny, but intense drama played out in the vastness and beauty of the American Southwest. Skeletal remains of a mountain climber are found highup on a ledge on a sacred Navajo mountain. Time and memory weigh heavily on everyone. By Jim Bencivenga

7. THE NOTEBOOK, by Nicholas Sparks, Warner, $16.95

"The Notebook" proves that good things come in small packages and is all that "Love Story" wasn't. Sparks has a winning combination of style and story. It's a classic tale of love found, lost, and regained that maintains respect for the characters. Poetry and metaphoric description course through the book like the creek that runs alongside the couple's house. Prediction: It will be on this list for months not weeks. By Janet Moller

8. THE CHRISTMAS TREE, by Julie Salamon, Random House, $12.95

The surprise bestseller last year during the holidays was "The Christmas Box," by Richard Evans. This year it's Julie Salamon's, "The Christmas Tree." "Tree" features a young orphan girl who is placed in the Brush Creek, New Jersey convent. The lonely child recruits a Norway spruce - a sapling on the vast property - as her confidant, her best friend for life, which she calls 'Tree.' Based partly on an actual happening, this small story shines with a spiritual message that tugs at the heart. By Mari Murray

9. THE LAWS OF OUR FATHERS, by Scott Turow, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.95

This book is a memoir disguised as a court room drama. Turow creates a world of inner-city drug gangs, the law-enforcement officers who arrest them, the lawyers who prosecute and defend them, and the judges who sentence them. The characters have flash-backs to the '60s and Turow makes the reader wonder if the world changed at all. By confessing all their sins and misdemeanors, they seek meaning in their lives. Violence, profanity, and sex are elements in the story. By Janet Moller

10. "M" IS FOR MALICE, by Sue Grafton, Henry Holt, $25

This is the 13th in Sue Grafton's series starring private detective Kinsey Millhone and one of the best. In the latest, fast-paced installment, Millhone is retained to find Guy Malek, the prodigal son of recently deceased construction executive Bader Malek. Guy's three brothers want to find him but only to ensure he doesn't collect his $5 million share of the family fortune. In addition to the who-done-it, Grafton offers interesting insights on family life and a materialistic society. By David T. Cook

11. THE TAILOR OF PANAMA, by John le Carre, Putnam, $27.95

The master of spy fiction is as charmingly convoluted as ever. The tailor of Panama is Harry Pendal, suborned into a role as spy by a blackmailing British agent, who in turn is trying to bleed the intelligence service, which in turn has run out of reasons for its own existence. Tailor Harry dresses the rich and powerful in Panama listening for important information. There isn't much, but he dresses it up, and gossip turns into intelligence. The characters are all fabulists, vintage le Carre. By Jeff Danziger

12. THIS YEAR IT WILL BE DIFFERENT, by Maeve Binchy, Delacorte, $15.95

Roaring fires. Kisses under the mistletoe. Presents piled high by the tree. These are not to be found in Maeve Binchy's collection of short Christmas stories. Instead, there are cheating husbands, lonely widowers, and estranged children. Yet for each of the characters, Christmas becomes a turning point, and for each there is, if not a happy ending, at least a redemptive one. By Suzanne Maclachlan

13. THE THIRD TWIN, by Ken Follett, Crown, $25.95

The idea of diabolical genetic manipulation is not new to suspense, but Ken Follett has moved the idea from fantasy to possibility, and therein lies the appeal of this engaging thriller. Identical twins are born to different mothers at different times. Investigations uncover the "usual suspects": a racist US senator, an evil corporate entity, and a brilliant scientist gone bad. Follett's only mistake is an overemphasis on sexual violence, which taints an otherwise excellent book. By Tom Regan

14. DESPERATION, by Stephen King, Viking, $27.95

When an oversized cop brutally arrests several travelers driving down a lonely highway in Nevada, they are forced to battle an evil that has wiped out the entire town of Desperation. They face killer creature-inhabited humans and wild desert animals that appeared after an infamous mine shaft was rediscovered. Though the graphic depiction and suspense live up to King's fame, the novel becomes a weak theological contest between the devil and God, who is presumed to be cruel and evil. By Debbie Hodges

15. MY GAL SUNDAY, by Mary Higgins Clark, Simon & Schuster, $23

Henry and Sunday, Mary Higgins Clark's latest dynamic duo, have no less than the Secret Service by their side as they sleuth their way through four short stories. A well-connected husband-and-wife team, ex-President Henry and Congresswoman Sunday unravel mysteries ranging from a murder connected to their former secretary of State to the past of a Latin American dictator. The plots are predictable and their relationship is implausible but the short-story format keeps the pages turning. By Jennifer Green

Monitor's Pick

TOMORROW GOD WILLING: SELF-MADE DESTINIES IN CAIRO,

by Unni Wikan,

University of Chicago Press,

333 pp., $55 (cloth), $18.95 (paper)

Grinding poverty and inner city decay are the ugly face of urban culture.

But the back streets of Cairo offer a different view. In "Tomorrow, God Willing: Self-Made Destinies in Cairo," Unni Wikan takes us into the heart of the poor districts and shows that despite material deprivation, overcrowding, and pollution, Egyptians manage to persevere with "dignity and zest." Daily trials and defeats barely seem to scratch their robust sense of self-worth.

Readiness to forgive and to forge new beginnings allows them to cope - along with endless talking. "Self-made destinies" is how Wikan sums it up, for these Cairene poor have created a stable community for themselves where the streets are safe, violent crime is almost unheard of, and nearly all children are born in wedlock.

What Wikan says rather is that a relationship-driven society can survive even the severest material deprivations and still produce responsible, balanced adults.

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