The Monitor's Guide to Bestsellers

Hardcover Fiction

1. PANDORA, by Anne Rice, Alfred A. Knopf, $19.95

This continuation of the vampire chronicles has some exemplary writing, but ultimately is uneven and hurried. The autobiography by a Roman noblewoman brought to the dark side is long on self-conscious description but short on story. Less gore, and more about her human choices and then observations as an immortal, would have made a better story.

By Terri Theiss

2. 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

3. THE LONG ROAD HOME, by Danielle Steel, Delacorte Press, $25.95

Prepare for a tedious message of woman as victim. Abused by wealthy and loveless parents, young Gabriella Harrison finds herself abandoned at a convent when her parents' marriage falls apart. Years pass and a scandalous affair with a priest forces her out of the cloister. Later, an abusive boyfriend nearly kills her. If you must, save this book for the beach. The distraction of surf and sand will be a welcome relief. By Kendra Nordin

4. 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

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. 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

7. TOXIN, by Robin Cook, Putnam, $24.95

If you had concerns about just how careful restaurants are in preparing beef, then this book is your worst nightmare. It's a gruesome tale of the ecoli virus. A heart surgeon's teenage daughter contracts the disease through eating a contaminated burger. The doctor, on many levels a distasteful and obnoxious human being, undertakes to discover who is responsible for the tainted meat his daughter consumed. The characters are shallow and the medical situations graphic. By Janet Moller

8. HOMEPORT, by Nora Roberts, Putnam, $23.95

After a couple of recent misses, the romance-suspense author has a hit in her latest book. Forgeries and family histories entangle a beautiful Renaissance art expert and a handsome thief who must work together to expose a somewhat-predictable killer. The writing is quite enjoyable, though readers should be prepared for "masterpiece theatre" type-details of murders and several steamy romance passages. By Terri Theiss

9. 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

10. SUDDEN MISCHIEF, by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, $22.95

The pick of the spring. Spenser, America's favorite sleuth, returns for the 25th time in this razor-sharp mystery. Sharp wit and stylish discourse run all along a trail of intrigue. Spenser's lady love, psychiatrist Susan Silverman, asks Spenser to rescue her ex-husband Brad Sterling from sexual harassment charges filed against him by four women. Spenser takes up the case but is advised to terminate his investigation. Wrong move. By Suman Bandrapalli

11. 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

12. THE MARK OF THE ASSASSIN, by Daniel Silva, Random House, Inc., $25

An attack on an American airliner by the world's "most deadly assassin" spurs a CIA agent to engage in a global game of cat and mouse to catch the terrorist. Head-spinning plot twists occur involving Middle Eastern extremist groups and the inner workings of Washington's political elite. On one level, the novel is a lesson in modern-day terrorism. On another, it captures the terrorists' milieu. There are several scenes of graphic sex and violence in this made-for-the-movies book. By Daniel T. Niederman

13. WITH THIS RING, by Amanda Quick, Bantam Doubleday Dell, $23.95

Assumptions about the romance genre may be shed after reading this novel, set in Regency-era England. The heroine, Beatrice Poole, is a strong-willed, widowed writer of 'horrid,' or gothic romantic fiction (such as Mary Shelley) popular in the early 19th century. A mystery involving missing rings brings Poole to investigate the death of an uncle, and introduces her to the solitary, sinister Earl of Monkcrest. The layering of the plot with suspense and mysticism makes the romance almost secondary. By Leigh Montgomery

14. 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

15. AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST, by Iain Pears, Putnam, $27

British writer Iain Pears gives readers the enjoyable task of sorting out just how far they can trust the testimony of four witnesses to a murder in 17th-century Restoration England. An Oxford professor has been poisoned. His servant (falsely rumored to have had an affair with her master) confesses to the crime. The underlying tangle involves conspiracies reaching back a decade to Cromwell. Unraveling the puzzle involves cryptography, rudimentary forensic science, obscure Christian theory, and a distinguished cast. By Yvonne Zipp

Monitor's Pick

The all-true travels and adventures of liDie newton

By Jane Smiley

Random House

452 pp., $26

Ernest Hemingway once said, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn,' " and since then a river of ink has flowed to justify that monumental claim.

Two years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley went against this current of praise. In Harper's magazine, she took the nation's school-teachers to task for excusing what she considers Twain's moral passivity in response to slavery.

Going further, Smiley has written an alternative to Twain's classic. "The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton" moves the political discussion of slavery onto center stage in a way that Huck and Jim never consider.

Lidie marries a deeply principled Unitarian, a gun-running activist in the radical abolition movement. From her boring home in Quincy, Lidie finds herself propelled into the volcanic Kansas Territory on the eve of the Civil War.

This picaresque tale presents a series of remarkable characters, particularly the inexperienced narrator, whose graphic descriptions of travel and domestic life before the Civil War strip away romantic notions of simpler times.

Smiley has produced a novel as engaging as any written about the "peculiar institution" that eventually tore the United States apart. He has also created an authentic voice in this struggle of a young women to live simply amid a swirl of deadly antagonism.

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