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1. THE CHRISTMAS BOX, by Richard Paul Evans, Simon & Schuster, $12.95

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A glorious weep! ( A personal caveat: Sadness isn't really the prerequisite to happiness.) A Victorian attic reveals an ornate box containing sorrowful letters to a lost, little angel. Night music, wafting mysteriously from the box, draws Richard to discover its secret. Once emptied of its sorrowful burden, the Christmas box epitomizes the empty tomb that could not hold Jesus. The message is that the joys of family love can conquer a materialistic sense of life and Christmas. By Mari Murray

2. THE LOST WORLD, by Michael Crichton, Knopf, $25.95

This is mostly a shameless reprise of "Jurassic Park." Both T. Rex and the velociraptors are back, as bad as ever, chasing everyone and consuming all expendable characters. There is jungle, rain, lightning, and actual cliff hanging. And as usual, the author lectures during pauses in the action. He speculates on extinction. Dinosaurs died because they constantly developed, chancing dysfunction. The pace is relentless, and you never know just what will happen. By Ronald Preston

3. FIVE DAYS IN PARIS, by Danielle Steele, Delacorte Press, $15.95

This novella is an overall pleasant read, and an improvement over the author's previous bestseller. An American politician's lonely wife and a CEO who faces possible business ruin meet during a bomb scare at the Vendome. Interesting possibilities between them develop. The pace is uneven and descriptions of Paris's charm and the pitfalls of celebrity become self-conscious. Better editing would help. More focus on the book's later action could have turned a nice story into an excellent one. By Terry Theiss

4. THE HUNDRED SECRET SENSES, by Amy Tan, Putnam, $23.95

Fans of Amy Tan will be on familiar territory with her latest, and they won't be disappointed. The narrator is a Chinese-American girl from San Francisco whose world takes a turn for the worse when an older half sister arrives from China. Kwan speaks little English and talks to ghosts - a constant source of embarrassment for Olivia. Years later, when she travels to China with Kwan and her estranged husband, Simon, Olivia confronts ghosts of her own and learns the meaning of family. By Suzanne Maclachlan

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5. SILENT NIGHT, by Mary Higgins Clark, Simon & Schuster, $15

While an important part of the plot is a father recovering from cancer surgery, this little holiday heartwarmer is really about family and faith. When seven-year-old Brian chases down Fifth Avenue after the thief who unwittingly takes a St. Christopher medal meant for his father, along with his mother's wallet, he becomes a hostage in a prison break. A suspenseful turn of events makes it a compelling read, and its real appeal is how faith and love strengthen Brian and his family. By Terri Theiss

6. THE HORSE WHISPERER, by Nicholas Evans, Delacorte Press, $23.95

The storyline is formulaic, cliche laden, and noticeably influenced by "The Bridges of Madison County." It depicts a strong tight- lipped Montana rancher able to see into the "soul" of horses, and a British-cum-New York successful magazine editor who experiences a midlife crisis when her daughter-on-horseback collides with a semi-truck. The editor finds herself in an extramarital affair with the rancher. Parental guilt about putting career first emotionally tugs throughout this soap opera. By Jim Bencivenga

7. POLITICALLY CORRECT HOLIDAY STORIES, by James Finn Garner, Macmillan, $9.95

If you think Santa is the king of capitalism and believe Rudolph to be a crafty labor leader of the oppressed, then these PC holiday stories are for you. Garner revises five seasonal favorites by correcting plot, language, and character motivation for the '90s. For some, this book of satire may provide a short laugh or two. And they may see irony in a man who lives in a wood-heated home criticizing cutting down trees to decorate for Christmas. By Janet C. Moller

8. THE CELESTINE PROPHECY, by James Redfield, Warner, $17.95

Well-intended but poorly written, the plot is a cross between "Indiana Jones" and a self-help book. The hero is on a quest for a recently discovered Peruvian manuscript that details the progress of spirituality at the end of the 20th century. At different stages of the journey, he and his fellow searchers discover spiritual "insights," nine in total. Rather than profound, the book is awash in cliches such as the need to "become conscious of the coincidences in our lives." By Yvonne Zipp

9. SHOCK WAVE, by Clive Cussler, Simon & Schuster, $24

Dirk Pitt is back and as suave and daring as ever. This time he must race against both the clock and the elements to stop a diamond tycoon from plunging the world into economic and ecological disaster. It is standard adventure fare, with the obligatory bad guys but no shoot-em-up scenes, Cussler's usual attention to minute detail makes for a page-turning read, and it doesn't matter if this is the first time you've met Dirk Pitt or if you've followed him on all 13 adventures. By Marianne Le Pelley

10. THE FINAL JUDGEMENT, by Richard North Patterson, Knopf, $25

Again Patterson has spun an intriguing whodunit filled with courtroom exchanges, investigations, and flashbacks. The story is complete with up-to-date references to the O.J. Simpson trial. The main character argues on behalf of the defendant, who may not have been read Miranda rights before talking. Also, the police investigative team may not have been as thorough as they claim. Sound familiar? Patterson's style is attention grabbing. Explicit sex and gruesome murders. By Janet C. Moller

11. SURFING THE HIMALAYAS, by Frederick Lenz, St. Martins's, $15.95

This book is a novel about the quest for spirituality. It presents Buddhism in an original way by comparing it to snowboarding. The book can best be appreciated as a hip, Western philosophical approach to the ancient Eastern religion. My favorite quote is, "...the universe is one big mind." The story compares the Buddhist concept of nirvana with the Christian ideal of heaven and contrasts the "circles" of Buddhism to the "straight lines" of Christianity. I'd rather not meditate on this one. By Mari Murray

12. Finding Moon, by Tony Hillerman, HarperCollins, $24

In "Finding Moon," journalist Moon Mathias enters the chaos of Vietnam during the fall of Saigon with the goal of finding his dead brother's child. Along the way, he's joined by two companions with their own missions. The three find themselves in some pretty tense dilemmas. While this new book departs from Hillerman's familiar Navajo territory, as always, the Southwestern author delivers likeable, contemplative protagonists, atmosphere-rich settings, and top-notch suspense. By Catherine Foster

13. MORNING, NOON, AND NIGHT, by Sidney Sheldon, Morrow, $24

Sheldon's latest McNovel follows the lives of a billionaire who drowns at sea and his three inheritance-hungry offspring. Controversy and mystery appear when an illegitimate daughter shows up in Boston to meet her long-lost siblings and claim her share of the empire. The book reads like a TV movie, hardly a surprise considering that Sheldon is also a screenwriter. The storyline is full of plot twists and red herrings, but most of the author's devices are borrowed or just plain predictable. By Kim Campbell

14. THE ISLAND OF THE DAY BEFORE, by Umberto Eco, Harcourt Brace, $25

Beautifully written and deftly translated by William Weaver, this work of fiction is a novel in the original sense of the term: a novelty, a new combination of elements. It opens with Roberto Della Griva, a young Italian of good family, shipwrecked somewhere in the South Pacific. His belief in a comprehensible universe is shattered by his exposure to the multiple, often contradictory interpretations of reality he encounters. Eco suggests that too many possible meanings add up to no meaning. By Merle Rubin

15. Coming Home, by Rosamunde Pilcher, St. Martin's, $25.95

A lovely, old-fashioned read set in Cornwall in the 1930's and'40s. Pilcher's smooth prose carries the reader effortlessly into the story of Judith Dunbar, an independent survivor who is left at school when her family moves to Singapore. She is soon swept up by the Carey-Lewises, a family whose prewar lives are as light and delicious as fizzy lemonade. Pilcher deftly recreates World War II England, chronicling the changes war brings to Judith and her adopted family. By Yvonne Zipp


Russian storyteller and playwright Anton Chekhov penned the short story "Kashtanka" about 100 years ago. It is a story for young readers (or for older readers to read aloud to young readers) by one of the greatest ironists in all of literature.

Chekhov is famous for exposing the thorn embedded in the rose. Known the world over for his often scathing insights on the vagaries of the human heart, here, the child in Chekhov speaks to the child in all of us. Fate is not master over good, and the desired happy ending is clear and unequivocal for all involved.

Kashtanka is a little chestnut-colored dog who gets lost when following her owner, a cabinetmaker. Lonely and scared, she goes home with a man who feeds her, treats her well, and trains her and other animals for a circus act. She is happy and content, but still dreams of the comforting smells of her cabinetmaker's home and the little boy who loved her there.

At Kashtanka's circus debut, she hears her name called from the audience. What will the little dog do? This tender story could be heartbreaking but is not. It is heartwarming.

Gennady Spirin, an illustrator born and trained in Moscow, brings the tale to life with remarkable images. Somber, muted shades and exquisite period and cultural detail evoke the Russia of a century ago.

Note: The next Monitor "Guide to Bestsellers" will be in the Jan. 10 issue.

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