1. DESPERATION, by Stephen King, Viking, $27.95
When an oversized cop brutally arrests several travelers driving down a lonely highway in Nevada, they are forced to battle an evil that has wiped out the entire town of Desperation. They face killer creature-inhabited humans and wild desert animals that appeared after an infamous mine shaft was rediscovered. Though the graphic depiction and suspense live up to King's fame, the novel becomes a weak theological contest between the devil and God, who is presumed to be cruel and evil. By Debbie Hodges.
2. THE 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.
3. THE REGULATORS, by Richard Bachman, Dutton, $24.95
Hyped as the last book written by Richard Bachman before his death in 1985 (Bachman actually is a pen name used by Stephen King), this is a deeply disturbing, unsatisfying book. It opens with a tranquil scene of suburban America, but quickly turns violent as innocent children are cold-bloodedly gunned down. It becomes the story of another young child whose supernatural powers must battle an evil entity known as the Regulators. This book lacks the subtlety to be truly horrifying. By Tom Regan.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. TO THE HILT, by Dick Francis, Putnam, $24.95
The hilt in question is the hilt of the sword used by Bonnie Prince Charlie himself, entrusted to the care of the family of our hero, Alexander Kinlock. Kinlock, a solitary soul who would rather spend his time on desolate moors painting, finds himself mixed up with a host of problems when he goes to help his mother and his stepfather save his business and protect the great sword. His 35th novel, this is one of Francis's best tales. And as always there are lots of horses thrown in. By Tom Regan
7. 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 searchers 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.
8. THE LAW OF LOVE, by Laura Esquivel, Crown, $25
The author, who charmed readers with her tale of love and cooking in "Like Water for Chocolate," disappoints with her second offering. Heralded as the first "multimedia" novel, the book uses words, music (it includes a CD), and illustrations to tell a convoluted story of how two soul mates travel through their past to be together. Everyone is capable of finding happiness if they let love motivate their actions. But an almost cartoonish plot and paper-thin characters ring hollow. By Christina Nifong
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. 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.
13. LEGEND, by Jude Deveraux, Pocket Books, $23.
This time-travel romp by the well-known romance author is her latest in a number of fantasies on this theme. The end is predictable, but the witty path is enjoyable, and the heroine proves that slightly frumpy is not forlorn. Gorgeous men and chances to change tragic history abound. The tale is peppered with details of culinary delights. The heroine creates great meals in each of the different eras to which she travels. A few mentions of sexual activity. Good lazy-day reading. By Terri Theiss.
14. DIRT: A NOVEL, by Stuart Woods, HarperCollins, $24
"Dirt." It's an apt title. When a mysterious series of faxes being sent to the media reveals the intimate details and sexual exploits of a prominent gossip columnist and her publisher, they put a dashing retired police detective on the case. Set in New York, amid philandering men clad in Ralph Lauren's finest and sultry women in Chanel suits, this book has little character development and none of the interesting details that might make its predictable plot more palatable. By Abraham Mclaughlin.
15. ICON, by Frederick Forsyth, Bantam, $24.95
It's 1999, and Russia is out of control. A popular ultra- right-wing demagogue is elected to be its next president. Ex-CIA operative Jason Monk and his British colleagues must expose his Hitler-esque manifesto for internal genocide. The first half of the book is dense, bouncing back and forth from present-day Russia to the 1980s. The second half of the novel is pure present day cloak and dagger. If you can make it through the first section, you'll probably enjoy the second. By Marianne Le Pelley.
Rankings from Publishers Weekly, October 14, 1996