The Monitor's Guide to Bestsellers - Hardcover Fiction

1.VIOLIN, by Anne Rice, Knopf, $25.95

After her second husband dies, a New Orleans woman finds herself haunted by a ghostly violinist who uses her misery to feed his music. In retaliation, she steals his violin and the two set off on a time-traveling trip through 19th-century Russia, Austria, and present-day Brazil. The novel decomposes into a mishmash of overblown grief and self-indulgent prose that not even appearances by the ghosts of Beethoven and Paganini can save. Even die-hard Rice fans will want to wait for her next book. By Yvonne Zipp

2. 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

3. THE ANGEL OF DARKNESS, by Caleb Carr, Random House, $25.95

Maverick 19th-century psychologist Lazlo Kriezler, the intrepid feminist Sarah Howard, and the rest of the cast from Carr's acclaimed mystery "The Alienist" try to rescue a kidnapped baby from a nurse who may have a history of murdering children. The writing is first-rate, the research meticulous, and the villain malevolent. Historical figures, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Theodore Roosevelt, and lawyer Clarence Darrow, pepper the pages, but Carr raises this device beyond the level of a gimmick. By Yvonne Zipp

4. THE MATARESE COUNTDOWN, by Robert Ludlum, Bantam, $27.50

So the CIA has nothing left to do since the end of the cold war? Wrong! Now, in this era called the "cold peace," an organization known only as the Matarese seeks global domination. CIA top agent Cameron Pryce is assigned to stop them. He joins retired deep-cover agent Brandon Scofield (a.k.a. Beowulf Agate) and his lovely partner, Antonia, to find and destroy the Matarese leader. The story is violent and filled with strong language. There is little description of sexual situations. An up-all-night book. By Janet Moller

5.FLOOD TIDE, by Clive Cussler, Simon & Schuster, $26

Nearly done in by his previous caper, Dirk Pitt tries to get some badly needed R&R by the shores of a pristine lake in Washington State. Instead of finding peace and quiet, he finds a way station - and killing ground - for hapless Chinese immigrants illegally smuggled into the United States. Pitt must track down the ringleader, a powerful Chinese shipping magnate, by following a trail that leads from Hong Kong and the Mississippi River to the White House. "Flood Tide" is Cussler's best Dirk Pitt novel yet. By Peter N. Spotts

6. UNDERWORLD, by Don DeLillo, Scribner, $27.50

DeLillo's magisterial, yet at times tedious, book is a celebratory wake for nuclear weapons. The author looks back on the last half of the 20th century in the US. He sees a period of great denial; denial that nuclear Armageddon hung over the lives of everyone, every day, everywhere. But DeLillo finds much to celebrate from the national pastime, to growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s, to the advancement of civil rights. "Underworld" requires much effort to read. Its "bigness" makes it worthwhile. By Jim Bencivenga

7. 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

8. LUCKY YOU, by Carl Hiaasen, Knopf, $25

Hiaasen returns to the backwaters of Florida with his usual carnival of contemptible characters leading a larcenous chase after a $28 million Lotto jackpot. As usual, Hiassen laces his farcical mystery with megadoses of profanity and depravity, plus his own politically correct commentary about rednecks, militias, and small-town promoters. It gets extremely tedious, as do the shallow, unlikely characters. As a reader, you either enjoy this brand of exaggerated nonsense, or you don't. Most probably won't. By John Dillin

9. COMANCHE MOON, by Larry McMurtry, Simon & Schuster, $28.50

"Comanche Moon," by Larry McMurtry, is the prequel to "Lonsesome Dove," (made into the popular TV miniseries). Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae become captains in the Texas Rangers. They pursue the renegade villain Blue Duck and his father the great war chief Buffalo Hump. There is drinking, whoring, scalping, killing, and various methods of torture on all the pages of this book; it is not for the weak stomach. By Carol Hartman

10. 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

11. 10 LB. PENALTY, by Dick Francis, Putnam, $24.95

Dick Francis's latest thriller ventures into the hostile arena of British politics and muckraking tabloid journalism. This time, his trademark honorable hero is a horse-mad son, supporting a politically ambitious father through the challenges of a parliamentary by-election. Gentler than many previous works - it lacks the high-octane thrills and graphic violence of the genre - "10 Lb. Penalty" is a satisfying read with well-observed supporting characters lifted whole from the British countryside. By Melissa Bennetts

12. TEMPLE OF THE WINDS, by Terry Goodkind, Tor, $26.95

Richard (the new Lord Rahl) faces his toughest battle yet in the fourth of Goodwin's epic fantasy series. Richard must protect his lands and constituents from the evil Emperor Jajang of the Imperial Order and his demonic underlings. Good, of course, triumphs over evil. Goodwin is not a Tolkien. But his fanciful characters - especially the women with magic powers - and capricious action make the book come alive. By Faye Bowers

13. TIMEQUAKE, by Kurt Vonnegut, Putnam, $23.95

It is hard to decide whether to categorize this book as fiction or autobiography. "Timequake" mixes reminiscences of Vonnegut's childhood and working years with a fictional account of the years from 1997 to 2010. In 2001, time gets tired of moving forward, and skips everyone back to 1991. Forced to relive the last 10 years of their lives without the chance to change anything that has occurred, people forget how to exercise free will. Profanity and explicit imagery may not be to everyone's taste. By James Turner

14. THE LETTER, by Richard Paul Evans, Simon & Schuster, $15.95

Evans's final entry in the "Christmas Box" trilogy is a gentle tale of love, heartache, and hope as he revisits David and MaryAnne Parkin in the twilight of their lives. "The Letter" unravels the story of the Parkins' great love and the challenges that besiege it. Evans's latest effort won't join the annals of classic literature or be known for breaking new literary ground, but it transports one, if just for a while, to a world where good wins, compassion serves as a guide for action, and love is the most powerful force of all. By Kristi Lanier

15. MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, by Arthur Golden, Knopf, $25

Golden's debut novel unlocks the world of a traditional geisha. Told through the voice of Sayuri, a young girl sold into the near-slavery of a geisha house in the early 1930s, the story offers a historically enlightening glimpse of this age-old element of Japanese culture. Tracing Sayuri's emergence from lowly maid to geisha of renown, Golden shapes solid, but predictable, characters. Sexual situations are handled tastefully. By Kristi Lanier

Monitor's Pick

Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible

By Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

William Morrow & Co.

628 pp., $25

Joseph Telushkin's new book, "Biblical Literacy," might prompt the would-be reader to ask: Does such a book need to be written? Isn't there enough on the subject? In fact, "Biblical Literacy" says little that is new, but that is not its aim. For many, the book will be a first introduction to two millennia of Jewish biblical scholarship.

It is primarily intended as a reference work, to be used as an introduction to the weekly readings that are a part of Jewish Sabbath worship services. Jews and Christians alike will find themselves agreeing and disagreeing with Rabbi Telushkin and his sources.

The book is divided into three parts, each distinct and deeply intertwined. The first, titled "People and Events," takes up more than half the book. These are succinct, chapter by chapter summaries of the Old Testament, in order of their appearance in the Jewish canon.

Most of the summaries end with a short section titled "Reflections."

If there is a central theme to "Biblical Literacy," it is not ritualism but ethics. Ethics is central to Judaic thought and teaching, and the lessons of the Old Testament, from the disobedience in the Garden of Eden to the woes of Job and the bravery of Daniel, point toward an attainable morality, centered on mankind made in God's image and likeness.

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