The Monitor's Guide to Bestsellers - Hardcover Fiction

1. COLD MOUNTAIN, by Charles Frazier, Atlantic Monthly, $24

The American Civil War is the shattering force that disrupts and rearranges the lives of the characters in this richly rewarding first novel. Inman, a wounded Confederate soldier, turns his back on a war that has robbed him of any illusions about military glory. He sets off to find his way home to Ada, the woman he hoped to marry. Frazier's writing style is aptly reminiscent of the mid-19th century but not distractingly antiquated.

By Merle Rubin

2. THE BEST LAID PLANS, by Sidney Sheldon, Morrow, $25

Leslie Stewart, who is madly in love with Oliver Russell, is publicly jilted by him. She sets out to destroy him. While he becomes governor and then president, she establishes a newspaper and television empire. She uses the power of the press for revenge. In the world of politics, it is easy to find or manufacture scandal, especially with evidence of womanizing, drugs, and untimely death thrown in. "The Best Laid Plans" has many allusions to recent news events, including the danger for journalists in Sarajevo. By Carol Hartman

3. UNNATURAL EXPOSURE, by Patricia Cornwell, Putnam, $25.95

The latest - and far from the best - installment in the adventures of Virginia medical examiner Kay Scarpetta. Here we find her coping with various bureaucratic obstacles while searching for a killer who is infecting victims with a deadly virus and taunting our heroine via e-mail. The plot lurches to an abrupt end, and the writing offers slim rewards for wading through horrific descriptions of disease and death.

By David Cook

4. Plum Island, by Nelson DeMille, Warner, $25

Suspense, love interest (no long-winded descriptions, albeit replete with sexual innuendo and profanity), great characters, and humor - a welcome touch when murder is the subject. John Corey, New York city cop and a male-chauvinist to his core, is convalescing from gunshot wounds on the far northeastern shore of Long Island. Two of his new acquaintances are found murdered and the local police chief asks him to be a consultant on the case.

By Janet Moller

5. THE PARTNER, by John Grisham, Doubleday, $26.95

John Grisham's latest involves a young law partner who fakes his death in a car crash, then absconds with $90 million from his firm. This thriller-cum-morality-tale has the hard edge of a Raymond Chandler; the brilliant legal maneuvering of an Erle Stanley Gardner; the surprise ending of an O. Henry or an Agatha Christie. People pay for their deeds, and friendship counts for something. Fans and new readers won't be disappointed.

By Lawrence J. Goodrich

6. IF THIS WORLD WERE MINE, by E. Lynn Harris, Doubleday, $23.95

This tale from the bestselling author of "And This Too Shall Pass" is about thirtysomething African-Americans who rekindle college ties by forming a journal-sharing group. Members read excerpts to each other on everything from their life goals to romantic fantasies. The characters - who include "Buppies," an "Angry Black Male," and a gay psychiatrist - often seem hollow, though the book does explore the unique challenges of being black in America.

By Abraham McLaughlin

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

"The Notebook" proves that good things come in small packages. It 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. SPECIAL DELIVERY, by Danielle Steel, Delacorte, $16.95

This novella from the prolific romance author has her trademark niceties but overall is unremarkable. The action considers the idea of unexpected love and some of the ancillary surprises that occur later in life. Basically a sweet little work, "Special Delivery" gets pretty darn funny near the end. Readers should be prepared for some sexually explicit subject matter.

By Terri Theiss

9. LONDON, by Edward Rutherford, Crown, $25.95

This Chaucerian romp follows successive generations of eight families whose destinies intertwine throughout London's history. The story line jumps abruptly from century to century, rather like watching television when someone else has the remote, skipping to a new program just when you're getting into the old one. The most intriguing character is the city itself, which molds its inhabitants even as they build it. Should be read with a map by your side.

By Barbara Petzen

10. THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS, by Arundhati Roy, Random House, $23

It's easy to see why first-time author Arundhati Roy's novel has captured so much attention. This tale of a deeply troubled family in the south Indian state of Kerala is ambitious - shuttling between past and present and juggling a host of characters, from seven-year-old twins Rahel and Estha to their English cousin, Sophie Mol. But, in the end, despite the unfolding tragedies, the story may leave some readers feeling strangely empty.

By Suzanne MacLachlan

11. SERPENT'S TOOTH, by Faye Kellerman, Morrow, $24.50

Lt. Peter Decker, LAPD is just like us - busy balancing work and family. His work, however, is to discover why a gunman went on a killing spree in an upscale trendy restaurant and then killed himself. The story unfolds while Decker is trying to keep peace in his home, where the scenes are warm, tender, and realistic. It can be difficult keeping track of all the characters - victims, witnesses, and police officials. The writing reflects the complex logic of a murder investigation and on occasion is disjointed. By Janet Moller

12. DEJA DEAD, by Kathy Reichs, Scribner, $24

A bright forensic anthropologist discovers that several female murder victims were brutally tortured in similar ways. Stepping on the toes of various Montreal policemen, she turns into the sleuth who proves there is a serial killer out there and almost single-handedly finds him. Intense, bone-chilling suspense, patterned after all those other bestsellers, provides intense, grisly forensic detail. A la the late Dorothy Parker: This isn't a book that should be tossed aside lightly; it should be thrown with great force. By Faye Bowers

13. CHASING CZANNE, by Peter Mayle, Knopf, $23

Peter Mayle's latest, "Chasing Czanne," is an improbable mix - equal parts detective thriller, farce, romance, and love letter to France. The result is a wickedly funny romp through the high-stakes world of international art that makes for perfect summer reading. Mayle's women tend to be little more than decorative, but his finest creation might just be the hilariously shallow and venal magazine editor, Camilla Jameson Porter. Take this one to the beach.

By Nicole Gaouette

14. HERE ON EARTH, by Alice Hoffman, Putnam, $23.95

A funeral brings protagonist March Murray from California back home to the wilds of upper New England, teenage daughter in tow. There, March is drawn back into her complex past and toward a man she loved long ago. The writing is lushly descriptive and absorbing, but the story is not for everyone. The storyline includes obsessive sexual activity, references to domestic violence, and a strong theme of cruelty and the retribution such cruelty can beget.

By Terri Theiss5

15. UP ISLAND, by Anne Rivers Siddons, HarperCollins, $24

Molly Redwine is the perfect wife/mother until her husband's affair wreaks havoc. Efforts to piece together her life prompt an escape to Martha's Vineyard. There she takes a job and gains newfound perspective. "Up Island" shows initial promise with telling descriptions of Atlanta's executive social circle and how divorce can disrupt one's place in it. But this tale of a woman's rebirth trips over clichs and falls flat. Disappointingly predictable.

By Joanna P. Angelides

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