The Monitor Guide to The Bestsellers

1. THE TESTAMENT, by John Grisham, Doubleday, $27.95 After Troy Phelan throws himself from the 14th floor, the heirs of the world's 10th-richest man circle over his estate like vultures. Only one problem - the will. All the money is left to an unknown figure. Washington lawyer Nate O'Riley, who's lost just about everything to alcohol, travels the rain forests of Brazil to unravel the mystery of the missing heir and the tangles of his own tormented, faithless life. Grisham takes us through every emotion and around the world, but the book gradually loses its power. (435 pp.) By Anne Toevs

2. SOUTHERN CROSS, by Patricia Cornwell, Putnam, $25.95 "Southern Cross" boasts one consistent element - the characters are despicable. In the second book of her latest series, Cornwell sets police chief Judy Hammer and her two sidekicks down in crime-ridden Richmond, Va., to "clean house." One would guess it's intended as a portrait of Southern culture, urban decay, and a dysfunctional police force, but 200 pages in, the plot is still fogged. The big ideas are muffled by ridiculous and one-dimensional characters. Coarse language is used throughout. (359 pp.) By Kristina Lanier

3. A MAN IN FULL, by Tom Wolfe, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.50 Wolfe's panoramic study of Atlanta - from the ghettos to the corporate palaces - suggests the fundamental issue in America is the relationship between whites and blacks. Filled with memorable characters of Dickensian proportions, the story ingeniously brings the paths of divergent players together while wrestling with the challenges that modern life presents. Only a writer who can handle wit and cynicism as deftly as Wolfe could pull off such a daringly moral novel. (Full review 11/12/98) (742 pp.) By Ron Charles

4. THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, by Barbara Kingsolver, HarperCollins, $27.50 Kingsolver's story rotates through a series of haunting monologues by the wife and four daughters of a Baptist preacher who's determined to bring his version of salvation to the Congo in 1960. The Rev. Price fails to convert even one soul, but refuses to let his family leave. The daughters react in strikingly different ways, but Kingsolver's success at portraying them is uneven. Still, the strands of history and politics woven through will make for particularly good discussion. (Full review and interview 11/19/98) (546 pp.) By Ron Charles

5. IN DANGER'S PATH, by W.E.B. Griffin, Putnam, $24.95 In the eighth installment of his battle-happy "Corps" chronicle, Griffin intertwines the stories of US Marines and their commanders during World War II. With the Allies scrambling to dominate the Pacific, Brig. Gen. Fleming Pickering is singled out to lead reconnaissance missions in the Gobi Desert. As he implements air strikes against the Japanese, Pickering manipulates anyone in his way, including his own son. The writing tends to be prosaic - a boring paean to war. (549 pp.) By Elisabetta Coletti

6. SEIZE THE NIGHT, by Dean Koontz, Bantam, $26.95 Extremely sensitive to light because of an unusual genetic disorder, Christopher Snow has learned to live and thrive in a world of darkness. Armed with sharpened senses that compensate for his condition, the refreshingly insecure investigator leads the reader on a tense, first-person thrill ride in his search for a missing boy. With its tight, crisp descriptions of nocturnal nuances and deliciously dry dialogue, "Seize the Night" is gripping indeed. (384 pp.) By Carleton Cole

7. BE COOL, by Elmore Leonard, Delacorte Press, $24.95 Chili Palmer is back. Here, the loan shark turned film director of Leonard's "Get Shorty" makes yet another turn - right into the music industry. Tossing around ideas for his next film, Palmer gets involved with a struggling singer and wrests control of her from her crooked manager. A tug-of-war ensues along with all sorts of subplots - like Russian gangsters and a Samoan bodyguard with screen dreams. The bottom line? There are more insult-swapping and four-letter words here than plot. (292 pp.) By Kristina Lanier

8. A NIGHT WITHOUT ARMOR, by Jewel Kilcher, ReganBooks, $15 This book sells because of who's on the cover. As one teenage boy told me, "Of course I'll buy it; Jewel's gorgeous.' But being gorgeous doesn't make one a poet. The popular singer-songwriter does show promise in these poems about love, sex, childhood, and her travels. But most of the work contains just one good stanza or image. Her poetry is typical of beginning writers, and her young- angst wisdom will underwhelm most people over 23. (139 pp.) By Elizabeth Lund

9. RANSOM, by Julie Garwood, Pocket Books, $24 Garwood has released another medieval work of art. The highlands of Scotland and England are the story's backdrop and a natural complement to heroine Gillian's beauty. Exposed to terrible loss during girlhood, she courageously sets out to free her family from the evil Baron Alford. She seeks help from handsome Brodick Buchanan and dashing Ramsey Sinclair. As they face many dangers, Gillian and Brodick fall in love in this beautiful historic romance. (386 pp.) By Letitia Adu-Danso

10. APOLLYON, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Tyndale House, $19.97 As the Apocalypse lengthens, our friends from the Tribulation Force continue to battle the anti-Christ to bring souls to Jesus. The woes that John prophesized in Revelation continue to afflict the world and things worsen before they get better. The more I read of this series the more disappointed I get. The authors attempt too much by providing more background than is probably necessary for readers. Writing is choppy, and as the plot leaps from location to location the reader is often left behind. (300 pp.) By Jan Moller

11. BILLY STRAIGHT, by Jonathan Kellerman, Random House, $25.95 A 12-year-old survivor, Billy Straight, escapes an incredibly abusive home in a small California town and finds refuge in a Los Angeles park. But he witnesses a brutal murder, and his world becomes even more dangerous. After running and living through several more gruesome murders, Billy finds loving adults and lots of money, too. The author's abrupt changes of points of view and so many peripheral characters convolute the otherwise simple plot, making it a bumpy read. (400 pp.) By Faye Bowers

12. SEND NO FLOWERS, by Sandra Brown, Bantam Books, $18.95 Alicia Russell vowed to stay independent after losing her husband and struggling to raise her sons. But then she meets Pierce Reynolds on a family camping trip and, like a capricious teen, tosses her resolutions out the window. Their relationship evolves into a superficial, soap-opera romance that leaves the reader questioning its basis. Brown aims for light reading, but her book still fails to deliver. The plot is flimsy, the dialogue is plain, and the scenes are devoid of creative description. (211 pp.) By Stephanie Cook

13. A CLASH OF KINGS, by George R.R. Martin, Bantam Books, $25.95 Reviewer's Rule No. 1: If you're on page 189 of a 700+ page book, and not only don't care about any of the characters, but can't even keep them straight, put down the book and step carefully away from the chair. In this medieval tale, Arya Stark escapes from her dead father's capital city and takes the reader through many escapades that lead up to a revolt against castle Harrenhal. With too many characters and a plot mainly of people talking in discrete hideaways, I just couldn't make it to page 200. (728 pp.) By James Turner

14. THE CAT WHO SAW STARS, by Lilian Jackson Braun, Putnam, $22.95 Koko and Yum Yum - the feline heroes - as well as their "pet human," Qwill, become fascinated with UFOs when a backpacker mysteriously disappears near Mooseville. The cats have a hunch the guy was abducted by aliens. This is Braun's 21st addition to her "Cat Who" mystery series. As usual, her goofy, straightforward style creates light reading. The book doesn't build up the suspense one anticipates, but the story is good, clean fun. (240 pp.) By John Christian Hoyle

15. AMSTERDAM, by Ian McEwan, Doubleday, $21 Molly's former lovers are stunned by her death. It derails the sense of invulnerability that success has given them. In their grief, a famous composer and the editor of a venerable newspaper hope to cement their friendship and crush a political foe, but vanity thwarts them with deadly results. The relationship here between politicians and journalists is as damning as it is comic. McEwan's boiling wit won't be everyone's cup of tea, but those thirsty for satire will gulp down this little book. (Full review 12/17/98) (192 pp.) By Ron Charles

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