Plot: A stranger comes to a small town to put to the test his ideas about good and evil.
Gist: Worldwide best-seller Paulo Coelho wrote and published this fable in 1992 that has just been published in the United States. A stranger, angry at God, enters a small town bearing temptation in the form of 11 bars of gold. The deal: The townspeople murder someone in the next seven days and they get the gold. Will good or evil prevail? The moral of this pretentious tale: Good and evil reside in each of us, with only self-control and choice determining which flourishes.
Plot: Eighty-something Elner Shimfissle gets knocked off of a ladder by a hive of wasps. The accident sets off a sometimes funny, sometimes poignant chain of events.
Gist: Fannie Flagg's Elmwood Springs, Mo., is a more comic and broadly drawn version of Mitford-without the central conviction that God gives purpose to life. Talk about God in Elmwood Springs is mostly silly. Even the town's Pentecostal Bible-thumper doesn't ring true: The elderly lady would probably be using a King James Version, but she purportedly reads in it verses about "humankind."
Plot: A Paris correspondent for Reuters in 1938 and 1939, who also edits an anti-Mussolini newspaper that is smuggled into Italy, is in love with a Berlin woman involved in anti-Hitler resistance.
Gist: Furst has perfect pitch in a novel that sings of tension on the brink of disaster and the heroism of some normal people pushed into abnormal situations. His sharp scene-setting brings the misty feel of Casablanca onto pages soaked with the mood of sad but necessary resistance to terror.
Caution: Sexual situations.
Plot: Ben and Claudia fall in love and marry-drawn to each other by the fact that neither of them wants children. But then Ben changes his mind and trouble enters their marital paradise.
Gist: Giffin turns a pretty neat trick with this book. She embraces the conventions of chicklit (great clothes, high-powered careers, glamorous vacations, easy sex) but also finds them wanting. Ultimately, Claudia finds that the life she thought she wanted, focused on self and pleasure, is empty and not worth having without love.
I picked up Elisabeth Hyde's The Abortionist's Daughter (Knopf, 2006) because of title-inspired curiosity: Would the abortionist be a hero or a goat? Turns out she's a murder victim and plenty of people have a motive to kill her, including her lawyer-husband, a pro-life minister, and her daughter (last words to her mother: "Have a good time killing babies"). This tautly written mystery explores well some issues surrounding abortion, but it also depicts a family in decay-and the language and graphic discussions of sex and drug use will put it off-limits for many.
Another novel that explores the long-lasting effects of sinful choices is James David Jordan's Something That Lasts (Integrity, 2006). A pastor and husband's capitulation to sexual temptation costs him his church, his marriage, and his relationship with a beloved son. The book at times resorts to melodrama, but it does show the price of sin-and the difficulty and absolute necessity of forgiveness.