1. Hour Game - David Baldacci
Plot: A serial killer terrorizes a small Virginia town until former Secret Service agents, turned private investigators, track him down.
Gist: Too many thrillers have cartoonishly drawn bad guys. By avoiding that problem, Mr. Baldacci writes a page-turner, peopled with well-drawn secondary characters, that rises above the ordinary. He doesn't need or use graphic sex and language to propel the story.
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. Many new books expose this as nonsense.
3. Plot Against America - Philip Roth
Plot: A Nazi--influenced Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt by a landslide in the 1940 presidential election and begins persecuting American Jews.
Gist: At a time of unprecedented Jewish integration into American culture, it's sad that a distinguished author in his 70s-winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and many other honors-would devote what may be one of his last remaining books to . . . this paranoid project.
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. Metro Girl - Janet Evanovich
Plot: An insurance claims investigator teams up with a NASCAR driver to find her brother and his missing boat.
Gist: Ms. Evanovich's new series features a wisecracking heroine from Baltimore who is chased by bad guys in Miami's South Beach and the waters off Cuba. Don't worry much about the plot because it's an excuse for sexual sparks and dialogue larded with double-entendre and foul language.
In the spotlight
It's almost impossible to talk about the subject of work, family, and children's well-being without getting into a fight, but Mary Eberstadt tries in Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes (Sentinel, 2004). According to Ms. Eberstadt, Americans have emphasized the needs of adults more than those of children, resulting in plentiful signs that many American kids are not OK. She argues that obesity, anger, illness, poor school performance, use of behavioral drugs, sexual activity, and music that reflects rage at abandonment often have a common denominator: absent, too-busy parents.
Because it's politically incorrect to find fault with working moms, studies that carefully examine the relation of parental absence to children's problems are rare. Costs exist for society as well: Ms. Eberstadt argues that adults who try to justify why it's OK for sick, miserable infants to be in day care (they have to learn to cope sometime) become hardened to suffering. She doesn't offer policy prescriptions but urges all adults to think about the needs of children, and some to make drastic changes so they can be a positive force in families, neighborhoods, and communities.