1. Trace -- Patricia Cornwell
Plot: Virginia's former chief medical examiner, Kay Scarpetta, returns to Richmond to help solve a murder that turns out to be connected to the person stalking her niece and a lunatic named Edgar Allen Pogue.
Gist: once upon a time Patricia Cornwell wrote solid mysteries. Then her plots became perverse, her characters caricatures, and her bad guys almost super-human cellar dwellers. This may not be her worst outing, but it's close.
2. The da Vinci 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 continues to sell its weird theories of biblical interpretation and a profane premise: that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and produced a daughter.
3. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell -- Susanna Clarke
Plot: Mr. Norrell is a British magician two centuries ago. His reputation grows, especially after he appears to raise a woman from the dead. He attracts a student whose power rivals his own: they learn that there is a dangerous magic greater than theirs.
Gist: Ms. Clarke's 782-page imaginative debut novel unfolds leisurely. The book's lovely writing, with its echoes of Jane Austen, gets bogged down in a tedious exploration of magic in all its permutations.
4. The 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. Rule of Four -- Ian Caldwell, Dustin Thomason
Plot: Two brilliant Princeton students unlock the secrets of the hypnerotomachia, a renaissance manuscript that has bewitched scholars for centuries, and unleash a killer.
Gist: The rule of four is both mystery and coming-of-age novel. The reader is thrust into a strange academic world where narrator tom is torn between solving the mysteries of a manuscript and meeting the demands of a budding (sexual) relationship.
In the spotlight
According to The New York Times, Christian romance novels are becoming a big business and major publishers are taking notice. It's a trend that WORLD noted last summer (see July 3, 2004).
So what is distinctive about Christian chick lit, according to the Times? In one sense nothing. The Times talked to Judy Baer, author of The Whitney Chronicles, the first book put out by Harlequin's new Steeple Hill Café imprint. "Ms. Baer is convinced her readers want everything devotees of secular chick lit want. They seek a focus on the heroine and her development, as well as strong female friendships and a voice, she said, 'that's witty and sarcastic and warm all at the same time.'"
But Christians don't want "the smutty stuff," according to a vice president of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, and they are less comfortable with the materialistic emphasis of books like The Devil Wears Prada. "'Chick lit can be all about me, me, me,' said Eileen Key, an aspiring author. 'The Prada bag, the Lexus, that has to be more balanced with a less materialistic Christ-conscious life'"
"So what's left without the sex and coveting of clothes?" the Times asks. "'There's a kind of deliciousness that comes with unfolding a relationship at a leisurely pace,' Ms. Baer said. 'You extend all the exuberance, the nervousness of folks falling in love.'"