The Monitor's Guide to Bestsellers: Hardcover Fiction

1. THE STREET LAWYER, by John Grisham, Doubleday, $27.95

John Grisham has done it again. This novel lends itself so well to visual images we can certainly expect to see it on the big screen. It all begins when a homeless person walks into a prestigious D.C. law office and threatens to blow himself up. Readers can almost smell the unwashed aroma of life on the streets. The hero, a high-powered attorney in the same law firm, takes up the cause for the homeless, eventually going up against his old employer. By Carol Hartman

2. PARADISE, by Toni Morrison, Alfred A. Knopf, $25

In her first novel since winning a Nobel Prize, Morrison tells the story of a remote, all-black town in Oklahoma founded in 1949 as a "paradise" of stability and safety. But the effects of racism on relationships among blacks warps values and stirs paranoia, leading to the grisly murder in 1976 of women in a commune on the outskirts of town - women believed responsible for the town's decay. The irony in the book's title finds expression in the complications of returning to paradise through a history of strife. By Ron Charles

3. COLD MOUNTAIN, by Charles Frazier, Atlantic Monthly Press, $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

4. BLACK AND BLUE, by Anna Quindlen, Random House, $22.50

Through the story of a courageous woman who flees her abusive husband, Quindlen deftly explores the rocky emotional terrain of love and marriage, choices and consequences. Fran Benedetto, a 38-year-old nurse, with the help of an underground network, secretly takes her 10-year-old son to a small Florida town where she gradually learns to overcome the isolation of her new fugitive life. The story carries the ring of truth. Its aching sadness is redeemed in part by its tender portrait of indomitable maternal love. By Marilyn Gardner

5. MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, by Arthur Golden, Alfred A. 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 Kristina Lanier

6. THRILL, by Jackie Collins, Simon & Schuster, $25

"Tedium" would be a better title for the latest book from romance and suspense author Jackie Collins. This story about actors and producers at work and play offers little beyond shallow observations. Hollywood gossip by movie insiders fails to carry the narrative. One or two interesting twists do not a book make. Readers should be warned of frequent crude, sexual material - including extramarital relations, prostitution, and incest. By Terri Theiss

7. BLOOD WORK, by Michael Connelly, Little Brown & Co. $23.95

Terry McCaleb once hunted serial killers as an FBI profiler. Now he's in early retirement after a heart transplant. When the sister of the murdered woman whose heart he received comes to him to ask for help, it starts him on a hunt for a truly terrifying killer. "Blood Work" is a convincing, hard-to-put-down thriller that relies on brain, not brawn, to drive its plot forward. There are several medical scenes, as well as some rough language and graphic depictions of crime. By Tom Regan

8. NUMBERED ACCOUNT, by Christopher Reich, Delacorte Press, $24.95

In his first novel, Christopher Reich explains why bankers need so many holidays: They're exhausted from the international espionage. Nick, an ex-marine, chucks everything to work for a Swiss bank in hopes of discovering his father's murderer. During his quest he runs into all the usual suspects: a Muslim fanatic, downsized Soviet soldiers, shady US spooks, and enough corpses to fill a morgue. In addition to the stereotypes, readers may be put off by the instances of nasty violence, torture, sex, and swearing. By Yvonne Zipp

9. THE CAT WHO SANG FOR THE BIRDS, by Lilian Jackson Braun, Putnam, $22.95

The fictional town Pickax, in Moose County, 400 miles north of everywhere, is the scene of the crime in Braun's 20th "Cat Who"... mystery book. The town's newspaper columnist, Jim Qwilleran, leads readers through this mostly unsuspenseful murder mystery. With the help of his psychic Siamese Koko, and various eccentric locals, Qwilleran pieces together the real story surrounding a suspicious fire, stolen artwork, and the disappearance of a young artist. Interesting characters, weak plot. By Kendra Nordin

10. A CERTAIN JUSTICE, by P.D. James, Alfred A. Knopf, $25

This is the doyen of British mystery writing's first look at crime in the Law Courts and London legal community. It is not convincing, at least for the high expectations one brings to anything written by James. An aggressive and highly successful woman barrister has made a career of defending some of the most heinous criminals in England. She is stabbed to death in chambers. Not even her daughter is sorry. Unrealistic motives and a contrived perpetrator undercut this Dalgliesh mystery. By Jim Bencivenga

11. FEAR NOTHING, by Dean Koontz, Bantam, $26.95

"Fear Nothing" is Koontz's third book in 18 months and has the feel of mass production. Christopher Snow can venture outside only at night because he has been diagnosed with a light-sensitive condition. He soon discovers a bizarre experiment involving his late mother. As he did in "Intensity," Koontz creates compelling characters. Unlike "Intensity," however, "Fear Nothing" features an inane plot. It's also too long. Some violent scenes, and lots of talk of rare diseases. By Tom Regan

12. THE WINNER, by David Baldacci, Warner, $25

Baldacci continues to come up with clever, thriller plots. In "The Winner," however, the violence is overdone and the descriptions of the main character are repetitive. The National Lottery is exploited by a smart, yet vicious psychopath who fixes the winning numbers and then selects the winners. He invests their money, creating billions for himself. His twisted plans are foiled by LuAnn Tyler (readers will not forget Tyler, she is smart, sexy, and strong) who enlists the help of a former FBI agent to expose the fraud. By Janet Moller

13. MIRACLE CURE, by Michael Palmer, Bantam Doubleday Dell, $23.95

Murder and money spin a wide web of business and political intrigue in this medical thriller. Palmer's engaging style is gripping. The twin evils - greed and the double cross - engage in a high-stakes ploy to foist a defective heart drug on the market. Palmer, himself trained in internal and emergency medicine, sets his latest bestseller in a fictitious Boston Heart Disease Institute. Graphic details of disease and dying. It is not entirely convincing that so many renowned medical researchers would be so dishonest. By Jim Bencivenga

14. GUILTY PLEASURES, by Lawrence Sanders, Putnam, $24.95

The first hundred pages were enough to convince me that reading farther was unwarranted. This story of sibling rivalry to obtain control of the family business is irredeemably tainted by repeated occurrences of incest and same-sex relationships. The fast-paced story is well constructed, for those who can get past the sordid situations. By Janet Moller

15. 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

Monitor's Pick


By Edward Ball

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

504 pp., $30

One-hundred-thirty years after slavery's abolition, its legacy remains one of America's thorniest issues.

Edward Ball, a scion of a Charleston dynasty that greatly prospered from the trade in human chattel, faces that legacy head on. "Slaves in the Family" is the moving and disarmingly frank story of his search for the descendants of his family's 4,000 enslaved workers. The idea of researching his family's past, however, alarmed some older Balls who feared retribution.

The English philosopher John Locke wrote that to absolutely control another human being is to be in a permanent state of war.

The Balls waged this "war" to great financial gain for 167 years. Over that time the outward violence of the master/slave relationship diminished, paternalism crept in and, in later years, even the label "slave" was dropped for the less jarring "servant." But it was still captive labor.

Edward Ball is no apologist for his family. He states bluntly that greed was the driving force of slavery. But he doesn't demonize his ancestors, either.

As a former columnist for the Village Voice, Ball knows how to tell a story and deftly segues between past events and present encounters.

His "reunion" with black relatives offers the most poignant passages in the book, reinforcing the great irony of "Slaves" that it should take the white descendant of slave owners to build bridges with a diverse community of blacks.

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