1. Five People . . . 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.
2. Night Fall - Nelson DeMille
Plot: At the urging of his FBI wife, a New York detective assigned to an anti-terrorism taskforce reinvestigates five years later the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island.
Gist: What really happened to TWA Flight 800? Mr. DeMille's detective finds evidence that challenges the official report. The investigation occurs during the months and weeks prior to 9/11, so readers' awareness of that event adds to the suspense. Warning: The book has a graphic opening sex scene and foul language.
3. 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.
4. London Bridges - James Patterson
Plot: The Wolf teams up with the Weasel in a plot to take over the world. The plot was more entertaining when featured on "Pinky and the Brain."
Gist: Mr. Patterson seems charmless but his books sell well. This one pits Alex Cross against two archcriminals who threaten terrorist attacks on major cities after demonstrating their power by destroying two small towns. As in most Patterson books, this one features short chapters, almost no characterization, and plenty of bad language.
5. Skeleton Man - Tony Hillerman
Plot: Mr. Hillerman's two Indian detectives reunite to track down a mysterious man with diamonds who lives at the base of the Grand Canyon.
Gist: A Hillerman mystery contains vivid descriptions of Navaho country, thoughtful handling of Indian religions, and characters you care about. The elderly author makes this one feel like a last hurrah, as he marries off detective Jim Chee and heads down memory lane by recalling Chee's previous brushes with matrimony.
In the spotlight
For late shoppers rushing to the bookstore on Christmas Eve, here are three last-minute ideas for children, all published this year by Candlewick.
For middle-graders: Egyptology, which is more a book product than a book, meaning the presentation is more notable than the prose-but it's a fascinating introduction to ancient Egypt and the early 20th-century age of discovery. It comes complete with scrolls, maps, diagrams, and other clever devices that will intrigue older elementary children.
For very young children: As a supplement to Goodnight Moon, try Our Nest by Reeve Lindbergh, a comfortable rhyming story that shows many creatures in their own unique nests and concludes with "we're here in the nest of creation," as the text spirals back to a boy in his bed. In another book, You're All My Favorites by Sam McBratney, three little bears worry about which one their father loves best. He finds multiple ways to assure them of their unique places in his heart.