1. True Believer - Nicholas Sparks
Plot: Manhattan sophisticate with a bruised heart meets southern small town librarian with a bruised heart, and they fall in love. But is love enough to bridge the gap?
Gist: "All you need is love" is the worldview of this book, in which a rationalist reporter, whose professional life has been given over to exposing scientific fraud, visits a small town to investigate mysterious lights and falls in love with a woman whose grandmother is a psychic of sorts. Never mind: Love (demonstrated by the obligatory sex scene) conquers all.
2. The Mermaid Chair - Sue Monk Kidd
Plot: A late-night phone call beckons a middle-aged woman back to her childhood home, where she discovers long-buried secrets and succumbs to temptation.
Gist: Middle-aged Jessie Sullivan blames her 20-year marriage for squelching her creativity and narrowing her world. When she's called to take care of her mentally suffering mother, she takes the opportunity to shed her husband. The affair she begins with a soon-to-be-monk makes her feel alive, but can it satisfy her deepest longings?
3. In the Company of Cheerful Ladies - Alexander McCall Smith
Plot: Mma Ramotswe, the "traditionally built" lady detective and protagonist of six previous novels, continues to solve small mysteries and deal with troubles of the heart in her beloved Botswana.
Gist: Loss provides the backdrop for this wonderful series of novels. A mysterious illness is taking lives all across Africa. (We know it as AIDS, but it's left nameless.) Traditional ways are changing, and yet Ramotswe and her husband model the virtues of honesty and compassion.
4. The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
Plot: A curator at the Louvre is murdered; before dying he leaves clues that send his granddaughter and his colleague on a search for the killer.
Gist: After selling 25 million copies this gassy novel seems to be slowing down, but with a paperback and a movie in the works, it's too soon to declare the book dead. Meanwhile, a federal judge is reading the book alongside two novels by Lewis Perdue to determine if Dan Brown borrowed improperly from Mr. Perdue's work.
5. 4th of July - James Patterson & Maxine Paetr
Plot: While awaiting trial for police brutality, San Francisco cop Lindsay Boxer hides out at her sister's house in Half Moon Bay, where she stumbles upon a trio of vicious killers going after married couples, until they focus on her.
Gist: Part courtroom drama and part inept murder investigation. In typical Patterson fashion, the book has page-turning action, undeveloped characters, vicious murders, and a soupçon of sex all crammed into many short chapters.
In the spotlight
From its first paragraph Alexander McCall Smith's In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (Pantheon: 2004) creates a place removed. Botswana, as described by McCall Smith, is a beautiful and beloved country where people appreciate the simple things of life: a good pumpkin and a pot of bush tea. Precious Ramotswe and her husband, J. L. B. Matekoni, are decent people who regard wistfully a past that's fast disappearing when respect and honesty were not the exception but the rule.
The New York Times complains that in the book, "Reality intrudes only as the occasional stray pumpkin or minor transgression," but that's true only if you define reality as violent crime or explicit sex. McCall Smith keeps those things off stage, but their consequences are certainly present in the novels. The crimes may not be heart-stopping ones-an intruder loses his pants while getting away, a man steals a van-but they provide Mma Ramotswe a chance to right wrongs and mend torn social fabric with wry humor and grace.