A Monitor Guide to Bestsellers

1. STAR WARS: EPISODE I - THE PHANTOM MENACE, by Terry Brooks, Del Rey, $25 Brooks novelizes the movie script of Part 1 of the popular "Star Wars" series: a story of power struggles, epic space battles, and a young slave boy aspiring to become a Jedi knight. It takes about 100 pages for the narrative to stop sounding like a transcription and really take off. Several scenes aren't in the film, but this bonus material is the book's strength, especially the insights into Anakin (a.k.a. Darth Vader). The main weakness is that the special effects don't work as well in print. (352 pp.) By Kristen Broman-Worthington

2. WHITE OLEANDER, by Janet Fitch, Little, Brown & Co., $24 Fitch's vivid first novel, recently chosen for Oprah's book club, comes complete with conniving characters and dramatic twists. The heroine of this strangely enticing story is 13-year-old Astrid, the daughter of a beautiful Hollywood poet in prison for poisoning one of her boyfriends. Struggling to construct her own sense of identity and morality, Astrid often acts out her dreams, not realizing their harmful outcome. The high level of romance and hope makes the book an engaging read. (384 pp.) By Rebecca J. Davis

3. CERTAIN PREY, by John Sandford, Putnam, $24.95 Sandford's latest novel pits Minnesota police detective (and software millionaire) Lucas Davenport against a wily female Mafia assassin and her new accomplice, the cagey defense attorney who hired her. What starts as a simple hit gets out of hand as loose end after loose end unravels. The book is a good ride that isn't too predictable given the constraints of the genre. Unfortunately, none of the characters is likable enough to care about. (384 pp.) By Phelippe Salazar

4. WE'LL MEET AGAIN, by Mary Higgins Clark, Simon & Schuster, $25 After six years in prison for murdering her husband, Connecticut socialite Molly Lasch still has no memory of what really happened that night. With help from an old schoolmate, now an investigative reporter, she is committed to learning the truth. It's Molly's friend who is first convinced of her innocence when she starts to investigate a string of suspicious deaths at the local hospital managed by an HMO that Molly's husband started. Clark has woven together a mystery that's fun to the end. (314 pp.) By Anne Toevs

5. 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

6. THE GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON, by Stephen King, Simon & Schuster, $16.95 Being lost in the woods can scare the tar out of you. Just ask Trisha McFarland. The sweet nine-year-old gets separated from her family on a New England hiking trip. As she wanders and slips in and out of consciousness, the only thing that keeps her going is the vision of Tom Gordon, the Red Sox closer whom she idolizes. While King's writing is visceral - and at times gruesome - the story loses steam and could use more plot twists. (224 pp.) By Lane Hartill

7. A NEW SONG, by Jan Karon, Viking, $24.95 Soon after Episcopal priest Timothy Kavanagh retires from his North Carolina mountain parish, he's called to fill in at a tiny island church. This book is about little daily happenings and relationships. Father Tim and his wife Cynthia must separate from their old friends and ways, and adjust to new ones. The priest runs into countless people who need his tender touch. What this novel about faith and restoration lacks in action and suspense it makes up for in charm. (400 pp.) By Faye Bowers

8. EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS, by David Guterson, Harcourt Brace, $25 When Ben Givens is diagnosed with cancer, he packs for one last hunting trip and plans his suicide to look accidental. But his voyage is interrupted by strangers, whose kindness carries him from one crisis to the next. Through these interactions, he faces his condition and allows himself to be driven back home in the end. Guterson's novel is beautifully written, but provides no escape from descriptions of pain, hopelessness, and the end of human life. (Full review 5/6/99) (280 pp.) By Kendra Nordin

9. BITTERSWEET, by Danielle Steel, Delacorte Press, $26.95 Most wives occasionally think their husbands don't appreciate them. In India Taylor's case, it happens to be true. Will she defy her husband and return to work as a photojournalist? And will she trade in her lout of a mate for a recently widowed multimillionaire with a yacht called the Sea Star? Steel's latest novel, her 46th, offers few surprises and many clichs. (371 pp.) By Yvonne Zipp

10. 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 3/11/99) (448 pp.) By Kim Campbell

11. CRYPTONOMICON, by Neal Stephenson, Avon Books, $27.50 In his latest novel, Stephenson lays bare the inner lives of his characters, who happen to fit different archetypes of "geeks." The story slides between World War II and the present day, and cryptography (the science of codes) features largely in both plots. Stephenson gives copious details about the politics, economics, and lore of cryptography, and still makes it a great read. Alternating between a thrill-ride spy novel and an intellectual exercise, this book carries on the tradition of "Snow Crash." (928 pp.) By Ryan Day

12. JOINING, by Johanna Lindsey, Avon Books, $24 A wedding contract has been made by two royal families living in England in 1214. The union brings the lives of the headstrong bride and groom to a crossroads. The clash of egos flares from the first day Milisant and Wulfric meet. In the end, the fight of words and wills creates a charming, sometimes strongly seductive story of two individuals who share a partnership better than any journey they might have traveled apart. (377 pp.) By Christy Ellington

13. VITTORIO THE VAMPIRE, by Anne Rice, Random House, $19.95 Rice fans are a devoted lot, but even they will find themselves tested by this latest version of her fascination with "the creatures of the night." Vittorio is one of the "undead," born in 15th-century Tuscany, but talking to us from modern day. And he does talk. He whines a lot, as well. Not even close in quality to the original "Interview with a Vampire," this book lacks imagination and passion, the elements that fascinated people with her first story. There's lots of violence here, some gruesome. (292 pp.) By Tom Regan

14. THE WHITE HOUSE CONNECTION, by Jack Higgins, Putnam, $25.95 In Higgins's latest thriller, Lady Helen Lang, widow of an English nobleman, seeks revenge for the torture and murder of her son, a former intelligence agent. She learns that his killers are members of an IRA splinter group and starts gunning them down, one by one. British and American leaders fear the murders endanger the Irish peace process and dispatch their covert hotshots to quash the assassin. What unfolds is a riveting tale chock full of shoot-outs and chases, but with a predictable plot. (336 pp.) By Stephanie Cook

15. SOUL OF THE FIRE, By Terry Goodkind, Tor Books, $27.95 This fifth book in the Sword of Truth series opens with the marriage of Richard and Kahlan. Evil events start occurring sporadically, and our heroes realize the mysterious chimes - the destroyers of souls - have been unleashed from the underworld. Richard and Kahlan must find a way to send these dark creatures back. After slogging through 450 pages of secondary story lines, one begins to hope that things will speed up, only to be disappointed by the rushed and anticlimactic ending. (508 pp.) By Jenny Green

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