1) EXECUTIVE ORDERS, by Tom Clancy, Putnam, $27.95
What if a non-politician, cold-war warrior, average family man, and intelligence expert to boot became president? Clancy's latest and longest - 874 pp. - offers just such a scenario. Jack Ryan (however improbably) is in charge after almost the entire Congress and Cabinet are wiped out. An Iranian plot to create a single Islamic state, abetted by biological warfare and terrorism can't redeem frequent one-dimensional political tangents. Clancy has bitten off more than readers can chew. By Jim Bencivenga
2) SERVANT OF THE BONES, by Anne Rice, Knopf, $26
Anne Rice moves out of the bloody world of vampires and witches into the equally macabre domain of demons with this dreary, dismal tale. Azriel, the titular character, was a Jewish man in ancient Babylon when family and priests conspired to turn him into a demon whose primary sin is boring readers to death. A ludicrous premise is compounded by lackluster writing and a ho-hum plot accented by bits of violence and perversity. Even those who enjoy Rice's usual creepfest will be disappointed. By Yvonne Zipp
3) JACK AND JILL, by James Patterson, Little, Brown, $24.95
Detective Cross is working out two serial murder plots. One is the killing of black children in southeastern Washington, D.C., the other high-profile celebrities inside the beltway. Engrossingly written, but with brutally violent descriptions and much foul language. The plot twists take him onto the mean streets and into the corridors of power. The ultimate target is the president. A racially charged subplot challenges different police and media attention to similar crimes with different victims. By Terri Theiss
4) THE LAST DON, by Mario Puzo, Random House, $25.95
After more than 20 years, Mario Puzo returns to the familiar territory of "The Godfather" and the mafiosi. He weaves an intricate and compelling plot, often told with humor, that involves some 35 characters crisscrossing each other's lives. Puzo underscores and foreshadows his theme: Don Clericuzio, the head of the most powerful Mafia family, plans to move into legitimate businesses. His path is strewn with corpses, sex, gambling, and betrayal. It is set largely in Las Vegas and Hollywood. By Suman Bandrapalli
5) THE RUNAWAY JURY, by John Grisham, Doubleday, $26.95
This book has it all: mystery, legal maneuvering, behind-the-scenes views of a trial, jury tampering, and plenty of other skullduggery. Taking a page from today's headlines, Grisham takes us to Biloxi, on Mississippi's Gulf Coast, and the latest tobacco trial. It is no civics-textbook trial. Both sides are trying to fix the jury, but that panel seems to have a mind of its own. Grisham draws a finely detailed, realistic picture of the action and the characters. By Lawrence J. Goodrich
6) THE CELESTINE PROPHECY, by James Redfield, Warner, $17.95
Well-intended but poorly written, the plot is a cross between "Indiana Jones" and a self-help book. The hero is on a quest for a recently discovered Peruvian manuscript that details the progress of spirituality at the end of the 20th century. At different stages of the journey, he and his fellow searches discover spiritual "insights," nine in total. Rather than profound, the book is awash in such clichs such as the need to "become conscious of the coincidences in our lives." By Yvonne Zipp
7) CAUSE OF DEATH, by Patricia Cornwell, Putnam, $25.95
Chalk up the weak story line of Cornwell's latest to multiple book contracts by a best-selling author. The takeover of a nuclear power plant by a religious cult and the hostage-rescue finale strain credulity. Cornwell's continue slide into blatant and trite political correctness dessicates character development and contorts the plot. Her trademark forensic scenes aren't enough to redeem cliche-riddled, male-chauvinist police and Scarpetta's wonderwoman lesbian niece. By Jim Bencivenga
8) THE TENTH INSIGHT, by James Redfield, Warner, $19.95
Redfield's sequel to his successful bestseller "Celestine Prophecy," is also a poorly written, thinly disguised allegory. The book centers around the discovery of a 10th Insight that he says is necessary for "implementing these Insights, living them,...fulfilling destiny" (and selling more books). Redfield dabbles in spiritual healing, reincarnation, energy levels, and dimensional travel. There are glimmers of - forgive the pun - insight, but the whole is a mishmash of religion and new-age thinking. By Yvonne Zipp
9) OUT OF SIGHT, by Elmore Leonard, Dell, $23.95
Leonard is a master story teller, but it's a while before he finds his rhythm in this off-beat romance between an attractive Deputy US marshall and an easy-going bank robber. As usual, Leonard populates "Out of Sight" with quirky, interesting characters, and his dialogue is so believable and smooth, that you occasionally find yourself thinking it's something you might have heard somewhere. It falls a notch or two below his best. Some profanity, violence, and sexual situations. By Tom Regan
10) HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK, by Terry McMillan, Viking, $23.95
People who enjoyed McMillan's 1992 bestseller "Waiting to Exhale" may want to skip this surprisingly uneven follow-up. Gone are the well-drawn characters and storylines from the previous book, the author's third. Instead, readers get a tensionless tale about a black divorcee in her 40s and her relationship with a Jamaican man half her age. Besides its weak plot (based on events in the author's life), the novel features one-dimensional characters and often wince-worthy dialogue. By Kim Campbell
11) LILY WHITE, by Susan Isaacs, HarperCollins $25
Susan Isaacs creates heroines who are tough, funny, and vulnerable, and so real that within a few pages of dialogue readers find themselves talking back. "Lily White" is a tough criminal defense lawyer in New York who now calls herself Lee White. She alternately tells her own life story and that of her current case, involving a love 'em and rob 'em con man accused of murdering his latest victim. Every social detail, every cultural nuance is exactly right, from this gifted and generous writer. By Michelle Ross
12) Primary Colors, by Joe Klein, Random House, $24
Scratch the surface of this novel about Southern governor Jack Stanton's campaign for president and you'll find Bill Clinton. And wife, Hillary. And a host of other political types who are cleverly fictionalized by the book's formerly mysterious author Joe Klein (who at first denied authorship). Deducing who's who and following the ins and outs of primaries make this an interesting read, but subplots and lengthiness weigh it down. It contains a good bit of swearing and some sexual situations. By Kim Campbell
13) BURNING MAN, by Philip Margolin, Doubleday, $23.95
The story of a young lawyer, Peter Hale, forced to leave a Portland law firm where his father is partner to rebuild his reputation in a small Oregon town as a public defender. Anonymity is short-lived as Hale takes on the case of a disabled man accused of murder and finds that a small town is not without serious crimes and large egos. The reader may find this drama surprisingly engaging and certainly learn a considerable amount about criminal law as well. By Leigh Montgomery
14) DEEP END OF THE OCEAN, by Jacquelyn Mitchard, Viking, $23.95
This is a straightforwardly written account of a bizarre misfortune that spawns countless complications. Beth Cappadora, mother of three, decides to take her children along with her for a short trip to her 15th high school reunion. Carrying her infant daughter as she registers at the front desk of a hotel filled with her former classmates, Beth tells seven-year-old Vincent to look after three-year-old Ben. Ben disappears. Mitchard's detailed and realistic portrait of the Cappadora family follows. By Merle Rubin
15) THE LAST THING HE WANTED, by Joan Didion, Knopf, $23
This first novel in 12 years is reminiscent of Didion's previous works in its gaunt prose and keen, jabbing detail. Elena McMahon has gone from Beverly Hills wife and mother to former L.A. Herald Examiner reporter in the '60s. We catch up with her in 1984 as she returns to the Washington Post after a 20-year hiatus from journalism. A sense of detachment from the news business parallels her estrangement from her former life. McMahon is the observer rather than participant. By Leigh Montgomery
THE MONITOR'S PICK
Paul Johnson makes encouraging leaps into the meaning of God and life. He sees belief in God continuing to be universal, despite materialism, hatred, and indifference.
For example, he writes, "If, as I have argued, God's motive in creating the universe was love, if love is the ultimate organizing and sustaining principle of the universe, if God himself, insofar as he has characteristics beyond his own self-sufficiency, is the very embodiment of love, then it is clear that, in his mind, one of the principal objects of the universe was the exploration of love to its ultimate possibilities."
He begins this highly personal and introspective book, "The Quest for God," with an examination of atheism. He considers the arguments for God's nonexistence in the writings of David Hume, Friedrich Hegel, T.H. Huxley, Charles Darwin, Adolph Hitler - all self-avowed atheists to one degree or another.
As with all thinkers and seekers, reason is one of Johnson's most effective tools for opening the way to truth. Also, just as any writer on so expansive a theme would find, Johnson relies on ideas of God acquired from his religious upbringing which is Roman Catholic.
"Why," Johnson asks, "has a belief in God - or a belief in something beyond us - endured in the twentieth century?"
People everywhere are on comparable quests for God. Paul Johnson is courageous enough to document his own quest in writing for all the world to see.