Plot: A breakthrough scientific discovery comes at a fortuitous time for a prominent Cambridge, Mass., research lab that's desperately in need of funding. Were the results too good to be true?
Gist: Goodman takes characters who aren't immediately accessible to ordinary people-they're extremely smart, nerdy, focused on research, interested in chess, literature, and classical music-and makes them compelling. She shows from multiple points of view how ambition, love, jealousy, and passion drive them to pursue knowledge.
Plot: A dessert chef from Greenwich Village takes a job cooking for the governor of New Mexico. Her marriage is in a rut and she gambles that the change will help, even though it means leaving her husband behind, at least temporarily, and taking their son with her.
Gist: This 9/11 novel focuses on misguided and haphazard attempts to find and maintain love. Glass depicts her characters in nonjudgmental detail and suggests that bad choices have no real consequences. She writes explicitly about sex among homosexual and heterosexual couples.
Plot: Leo Gursky is an old man who escaped the holocaust as a teen. Now he's afraid he'll die without anyone noticing. A young girl mourns her dead father, tries to heal her mother's depression, and tries to rescue her brother from social suicide. Through a book called The History of Love, the lives of the old man and the girl intersect.
Gist: This book requires patience to follow all the threads, but it's worth the effort. Krauss writes well about loneliness, despair, significance, and love, although readers might object to Gursky's crude sense of humor.
Plot: A charismatic young minister takes a church in a small Maine town in 1959. Five years later his wife is dead from cancer, his 5-year-old daughter misbehaves at school, and the congregation is spreading rumors about him. Can his faith hold?
Gist: Like the villagers in The Scarlet Letter, Strout's characters backbite, gossip, and hide secret sins. By novel's end, however, some of those characters begin to understand grace. Several graphic sex scenes may keep some readers from wanting to read this otherwise noteworthy book.
A movie based on The Golden Compass, the first book in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" series, opens on Dec. 7 with exquisite timing. The past year has seen a glut of bestsellers arguing for the nonexistence of God. Now an advertising blitz will try to turn Pullman's anti-Christian vision into a blockbuster.
In 2001 WORLD summarized the novels: "His Dark Materials is a direct attack on Christianity, the church, and God Himself. Never has an overtly atheistic theme been so successfully peddled to young people. His Dark Materials (a title borrowed from Milton) purports to recast the story of Paradise Lost, but in this version Satan, with his principle of cosmic rebellion, is the hero. . . . The author's sledgehammer polemicism and simplistic conclusions reveal he doesn't know what he's talking about. But the readers most vulnerable are the target audience: adolescents and young adults with no particular worldview."
Parents who want to be prepared for the publicity barrage might view the trailer at goldencompassmovie.com, check out the books, and be prepared to discuss them with their kids.