A Monitor Guide to 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. TARA ROAD, by Maeve Binchy, Delacorte Press, $24.95 Ria and Danny Lynch appear to lead a charmed life in Dublin with a big house on Tara Road, children, and lots of friends. Then Ria finds out Danny is leaving her for another woman. About halfway through the book, she gets an unexpected phone call from a woman who's also experienced tragedy, and the two decide to swap houses. Binchy neatly sorts out their lives and avoids a storybook ending. While the novel will likely please fans, some may miss the depth of Binchy's earlier work. (Full review on 3/11/99) (448 pp.) By Kim Campbell

3. RIVER'S END, by Nora Roberts, Putnam, $23.95 Olivia MacBride and her parents are living a Hollywood dream until Olivia finds her mother murdered and her father standing over the body. Still a child, Olivia is taken away by family to the Olympic Peninsula, where she tries to forget. Later, she falls in love with the son of the detective formerly assigned to her mother's murder case. She learns he's writing a tell-all book about the murder and is forced to confront her painful past. Roberts crafts an entertaining romance thriller, but it lacks distinction. (420 pp.) By Stephanie Cook

4. SINGLE & SINGLE, by John le Carr, Scribner, $26 Oliver Single spent a lonely childhood trying to make himself a worthy partner in his father's company - The House of Single - which is the venture-capital firm of the 1990s. The firm is tightly woven into the Hydra of international crime, and British intelligence is determined to chop off its heads. To complicate things, father and son don't see eye to eye on business ethics. This is what we want from le Carr: an exciting story that transcends the spy-novel genre. (Full review on 2/25/99) (347 pp.) By Ron Charles

5. ASHES TO ASHES, by Tami Hoag, Bantam Books, $24.95 Two women are already dead, and a third female victim turns up with similar, vicious injuries - but headless. Is it the same sadistic psychopathic killer? If so, why the departure from the usual MO? Tami Hoag's most recent thriller takes us into the world of the serial killer. The details of the crimes are grim, and there's quite a lot of sexual banter between the characters, but the book is terrifically exciting. I would read this author again. (496 pp.) By Lynne Osborn

6. HUSH MONEY, by Robert Parker, Putnam, $22.95 An instructor at a Boston-area university is denied tenure because of rumors of involvement in the death of a young gay activist. Once again, Parker takes us through the old streets of Boston with his famed Spenser character to find the truth behind corrupt university politics, blackmail, and murder. It's a gripping read in the classic "gumshoe" style. Profanity and sexual references appear throughout the book. (309 pp.) By Anne Toevs

7. 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 necessary for readers. The writing is choppy, and as the plot leaps from location to location, the reader is often left behind. (300 pp.) By Jan Moller

8. A SUDDEN CHANGE OF HEART, by Barbara Taylor Bradford, Doubleday, $24 The story of the Valliant family is a tale of perseverance. It recounts abuse, divorce, death, separation, and war. Bradford does not drag the reader through the misery of each tragic occurrence. Instead, she tells where the characters are today and then gradually fills in the pieces of information needed to show how they got to where they now stand. The novel suggests that people can either shut themselves off from the world, or remain open to the benefits of love; individuals can always make a choice. (350 pp.) By Christy Ellington

9. VECTOR, by Robin Cook, Putnam, $24.95 The prolific doctor/author's latest is yet another formulaic thriller involving the intrepid medical examiner Dr. Jack Stapleton. This time white supremacists join forces with a Russian microbiologist in a bio-terrorism plot to kill millions of New Yorkers. There is not much new here and not much for those who only dabble in the genre. Especially disappointing are the one- dimensional characters and the reliance on racial stereotypes in a book that is also too long. (404 pp.) By Phelippe Salazar

10. 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, flat characters. Coarse language is used throughout. (359 pp.) By Kristina Lanier

11. 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

12. 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

13. WHILE I WAS GONE, by Sue Miller, Knopf, $24 Jo Becker has it all: a beautiful farmhouse in Massachusetts, a career as a veterinarian, and an understanding husband. Yet she is haunted by a nagging sense of dissatisfaction. When a chance encounter puts Jo back in touch with an old friend, she's tempted to commit adultery. A moral struggle ensues, and Jo's husband withdraws when she needs him most. What's good about this book is remarkably good, but the conclusion doesn't satisfy the novel's high standards. (Full review on 2/11/99) (266 pp.) By Ron Charles

14. 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

15. MISTAKEN IDENTITY, by Lisa Scottoline, HarperCollins, $24 A six-foot redhead facing the death penalty for murdering her boyfriend cop talks Philadephia's ace criminal- defense attorney into taking her case, alleging she and the hotshot lawyer are twins who were cruelly separated at birth. The brilliant lawyer winds her way to the truth - through the jailed girl from the other side of the tracks, the crooked cops, and her fickle parents. The book is well-crafted and a suspenseful read, but leaves a cynical impression that there aren't many good guys out there. (480 pp.) By Faye Bowers

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