1. The DaVinci Code - Dan Brown
Plot: A curator at the Louvre is murdered, but before he dies leaves clues that send his granddaughter (a police cryptologist) and his colleague (a Harvard professor) on a search for the killer.
Gist: This goddess-worshipping conspiracy tale is still No. 1 with its weird theories of biblical interpretation and a profane premise: that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and produced a daughter.
2. Sam's Letters to Jennifer - James Patterson
Plot: Jennifer is a newspaper columnist and widow. When her grandmother goes into a coma, she moves to the old woman's lake house and finds a stack of revealing letters that her grandmother has left her.
Gist: James Patterson's bestsellers run on two tracks: fast-paced thrillers and mawkish romances. This book is the latter. But like his thrillers it features short chapters, large type, cartoonish characters, and some sex. Like a romance, it adds heart-tugging plot twists.
3. Rule of Four - Ian Caldwell, Dustin Thomason
Plot: Two Princeton students unlock the secrets of the Hypnerotomachia, a Renaissance manuscript that has bewitched scholars for centuries, and unleash a killer.
Gist: Critics compare this book to The Da Vinci Code, but The Rule of Four is better written and doesn't require the reader to accept the Gnostic heresy. Instead the reader is thrust into a strange academic world, where books are more important than people. The narrator Tom is torn between the mysteries of the manuscript and a budding (sexual) relationship.
4. Five People You Meet in Heaven - Mitch Albom
Plot: An old man dies and in heaven meets five people whose lives were intertwined with his.
Gist: The bestselling author of Tuesdays with Morrie has a knack for description, but his fable about what happens after death flows poorly and drips with clichés. Aphorisms like "in heaven you get to make sense of your yesterdays" compete with Jonathan Livingston Seagull's wisdom.
5. Ten Big Ones - Janet Evanovich
Plot: The tenth in a series of novels featuring Stephanie Plum, a New Jersey bounty hunter, with a wacky family, a live-in boyfriend/ cop, a former-hooker partner, and a Sopranos-like cast of characters. After witnessing a crime, she has to get away from a killer and his gang of thugs.
Gist: Ms. Evanovich's fans love her intrepid bounty hunter and the gutter-scraping characters. Though often described as "mad-cap," these comedies, unlike their 1930s movie counterparts, have bad language and sexual situations.
In the spotlight
Readers of children's fiction know that a Newbery prize is no longer synonymous with excellence. But last year's winner, The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick, 2003), is a wonderful fairy tale about a mouse who is a disappointment to his family (his ears are too big) and has the nerve to love music and a princess. Those crimes get him thrown into the dungeon, the domain of rats, who despise the light and thrive on evil. Ms. DiCamillo intertwines the stories of these rodents with the humans who live nearby, including a princess, a prisoner, and a peasant girl. Ms. DiCamillo's old-fashioned storytelling style and her biblical and chivalric imagery complement each other. Her humor and sometimes gruesome specific detail-"the floor of the dungeon was littered with tufts of fur, knots of red thread, and the skeletons of mice. Everywhere there were tiny white bones glowing in the darkness"-should make the book interesting for boys as well as girls.