1. THE BROKER - John Grisham
Plot: A convicted Washington, D.C., power broker gets a presidential pardon and a new identity in Italy, then discovers he's being used as bait to lure international bad guys who want him dead.
Gist: Mr. Grisham, while moving away from the legal thrillers, continues to write clean novels that entertain. This espionage thriller set in Italy allows him to combine leisurely travelogue, action, and an exploration of themes like family reconciliation and the nature of success.
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. 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.
4. STATE OF FEAR - Michael Crichton
Plot: Greedy environmentalists distort the evidence to push their global-warming theory. They kill people who get in the way.
Gist: One cheer for a book that fights the conventional wisdom of what Mr. Crichton calls the "politico-legal-media complex": PLM propaganda, he charges, leaves multitudes fearing the pseudo-threat of global warming. But this book would be warmer if it did not have one-dimensional characters and gratuitous foul words and sex scenes.
5. SURVIVOR IN DEATH - J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts)
Plot: Shadowy former military operatives execute a family, leaving a 9-year-old girl as the only survivor. She becomes a protected witness in the care of police detective Eve Dallas and her husband Roark.
Gist: As the 20th book in a series, Survivor in Death is not a good stepping-in point. Ms. Robb assumes readers know her characters, understand plot twists from previous books, and care about the space-age gadgets she uses to establish futuristic settings.
In the spotlight
Ruth Graham and Sara Dorman's I'm pregnant . . . now what? (Regal, 2004) grew out of the experience of Billy Graham's daughter with her own daughter Windsor's unwed pregnancy. Love, anger, fear, and shame all figure into the story, with Windsor providing her own perspective; Ms. Dorman, a professional maternity counselor, examines issues related to crisis pregnancy decision-making, including adoption. Their voices together make this a helpful book for counselors, friends, and relatives of those going through a similar crisis.
David Ellwand's Baby Unique (Candlewick, 2005), a wonderful book of black-and-white photographs of babies, brings to mind Whittaker Chambers's description of the moment he left atheism: "My eye came to rest on the delicate convolutions of [my daughter's] ear-those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed through my mind: 'No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature (the Communist view). They could have been created only by immense design.'" The pictures speak much louder than the text.