1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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 continued 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 wonder-woman lesbian niece. By Jim Bencivenga.
4. 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.
5. 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.
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. 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.
8. 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 divorce 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.
9. EXCLUSIVE, by Sandra Brown, Warner, $22.95
The latest novel by this thriller/romance writer follows freelance journalist Barrie Travis as she uncovers scandal in the White House following the presumed crib death of the first child. While the characters are interesting and some nice plot twists keep the action compelling, the subject matter is somewhat unpleasant and the language can be less than polite. Mental illness, spousal abuse, and murder figure prominently in a story that could be more respectful of the presidency. By Terri Theiss.
10. GODS AND GENERALS, by Jeffrey M. Shaara, Ballantine, $25
This wonderfully engrossing book follows four Civil War personalities - Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and Union officers Winfield Scott Hancock and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain - in their transformation from prewar soldiers and scholars into wartime heroes. The characterization is fascinating and insightful. It's a novel, but one resting on events that surpassed anything anyone could have imagined - including the principals in this narrative. By Keith Henderson.
11. PRIMARY COLORS, by Anonymous, 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 mysterious author (who denies that the characters and events are real). 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.
12. CADILLAC JUKEBOX, by James Lee Burke, Hyperion $22.95
There are 49 states and Louisianna. Burke's vision of the new South, however well he crafts a metaphor, leaves one canceling plans for a trip to Mardi Gras. Deputy sheriff Dave Robicheaux lives in the Cajun wetlands of Iberia Parish where familiar, yet dangerous creatures slither, crawl, swim and stand up on two legs in a complicated, improbable plot - racist poor-white-trash, decadent scion of an old Southern family, Mafia princess, steamy sex, Mexican drugs, and violent murders. By Jim Bencivenga.
13. THE FOURTH ESTATE, by Jeffery Archer, HarperCollins, $26
Fast-paced, thinly disguised fictionalization of the rise and fall of media baron Robert Maxwell - intertwined with the rise and near fall of maxwell's successful global competitor, Rupert Murdoch. Seven decades of history, destructive chutzpah, clever business strategy, and outsized egos are on parade. Archer is a better story teller than his more famous British MP literary forebears, Disraeli and churchill. His hallmark: seamless interweaving of action and thinking, realistic characters. By Earl Foell.
14. PRAYERS FOR THE DEAD, by Faye Kellerman, William Morrow, $23
This murder mystery reads like a Religion 101 course - where no faith fares too well. While the writing is strong and somewhat stylish, the content is unpleasant and freighted with stereotypes against Christian fundamentalists. The plot expends itself on a tangle of religious fundamentalism, a son's conversion to the Roman Catholic priesthood, an investigating detective's Orthodox Jewish wife, a pack of bikers, and the bigoted, grisly murder of three homosexuals. The resolution is tawdry. By Terri Theiss.
15. A LITTLE YELLOW DOG, by Walter Mosley, W.W. Norton, $23
The time is 1963. The place is Los Angeles. Easy Rawlins has an honest, real-paying job for the first time in his life as a school custodial superintendent. His slide from conventional security begins with one quick, overpowering moment of sexual intimacy with a teacher at school. One minute he's holding her, the next minute he's holding her "little rat dog," and he's back in his former world of murder, lies, drugs and extortion. Moments of painful insight segue confidently into bits of dry humor. By Michelle Ross.
*Bestseller rankings from Publishers Weekly, August 12, 1996
COMMUNION, Edited by David Rosenberg, Anchor Books, 547pp., $30
In "Communion," the spiritual successor to "Congregation," an earlier volume in which Jewish authors wrote of their relationship to the Hebrew Bible, poet and editor David Rosenberg has gathered another series of essays on the Bible.
They are written not by Biblical commentators and scholars but by 36 living fiction authors, literary critics, and poets, mostly Americans, mostly raised Christian. "Communion," like its predecessor, strives for a new way of reading and writing about Bible stories and poetry.
Rosenberg asked writers to peel away the layers that religious authorities, churches, scholars, and translators impose on Biblical writings. What he wants readers to have is an "unmediated experience with the Bible " as a human text." Communion, here, has to do with writers getting in direct contact with their Biblical counterparts, listening to the ancient voices, then writing from their own life experiences with Bible texts.
Churches and theologies are important and influential to these writers as context for growing up. But whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, Hindu, or Mormon, they describe their religions (sometimes with disconcerting candor) as unchosen accidents of birth. No writer, however alienated from organized religion, speaks disrespectfully of the Bible. Many of the essays are intensely personal and resonate with all the vividness and subjectivity of remembered childhood. The best essays use memory to embrace ideas and spiritual themes that transcend the merely personal.