1. SUMMER SISTERS, by Judy Bloom, Delacorte Press, $21.95
This novel, by the well-known young adult author Judy Bloom, is a tale of summer friendship. It strives to capture the innocence between best friends who can't imagine their friendship ever ending. The writing is at its best early in the story when Bloom defines the very different characters in their teen years. But the plot is drawn out and uneven. It has a swift, sad ending, as if it were time to end the book. Bloom is also preoccupied with sexual discovery and activity, the cause of rifts between the friends. By Terry Theiss
2. A WIDOW FOR A YEAR, by John Irving, Random House, $27.95
John Irving has returned with his best book since "A Prayer for Owen Meany." Told in three episodes, it's the story of Ruth Coles's struggle to grow out of an emotionally neglected childhood. Irving is a master at crafting convincing, complex, comic characters and turning them loose in outrageous and exhilarating situations. An additional treat is that all of the characters are writers, and Irving shares what are surely some of his own views on writing fiction. Sexual manners and some violence are integral to the story. By Tom Toth
3. Message in a Bottle, by Nicholas Sparks, Warner Books Inc., $20
A book for the beach. The ocean spray will obscure the salt tears dripping on the pages. And you can run your fingers into the sand to get back to reality when the mush is too much. Beautiful newspaper columnist, single mother, finds a passionate love letter in a bottle on the shore. She publishes the letter, then tracks down the writer, a man whose wife died. They have an affair and then fall in love - perhaps - before tragedy strikes.
By Ruth Wales
4. BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY, by Helen Fielding, Viking, $22.95
Thirstysomething Londoner Bridget Jones is desperate to lose weight, stop smoking, and "form [a] functional relationship with [a] responsible adult" (aka find a man). A year of dryly witty diary entries follow her through a series of disastrous dates, family crises, and work fiascos. This is light satire at its best, and lets us into the head of a self-obsessed yet appealing woman and her struggle to be self-confident and independent, while trying to be all things to all men. The result is very funny.
By Susan Llewelyn Leach
5.YOU BELONG TO ME, by Mary Higgins Clark, Simon & Schuster, $25
Dr. Susan Chandler tries to discover what happened to a highly respected stock research analyst, Regina Clausen, who disappeared three years ago after disembarking from a world cruise in Hong Kong. Using her position as host of a radio talk show, Chandler embarks on the trail that points to a serial killer. Several likely suspects turn up but the real culprit is cleverly concealed until the end. A good mystery with a touch of romance that produces a tale that is hard to lay aside until the end. By Jan Moller
6. SECRET PREY, by John Sandford, Putnam, $24.95
A good-old-boy murder mystery. The opening shots of Minnesota deer season fell a much hated bank CEO planning a very unpopular merger. The gutsy and lonely police detective, Lucas Davenport, chases down suspects with his aggressive female partner Marcy Sherrill. The killer surprises us all - only after nearly killing everyone in the book. Scenes laced heavily with profanity, alcohol, sex and violence fill up pages between murders. By Kendra Nordin.
7. COLD MOUNTAIN, by Charles Frazier, Atlantic Monthly Press, $24
The American Civil War is the shattering force that disrupts and rearranges the lives of the characters in this richly rewarding first novel. Inman, a wounded Confederate soldier, turns his back on a war that has robbed him of any illusions about military glory. He sets off to find his way home to Ada, the woman he hoped to marry. Frazier's writing style is aptly reminiscent of the mid-19th century but not distractingly antiquated. By Merle Rubin
8. THE STREET LAWYER, by John Grisham, Doubleday, $27.95
John Grisham has done it again. This novel lends itself so well to visual images we can certainly expect to see it on the big screen. It all begins when a homeless person walks into a prestigious DC law office and threatens to blow himself up. Readers can almost smell the unwashed aroma of life on the streets. The hero, a high-powered attorney in the same law firm, takes up the cause for the homeless, eventually going up against his old employer.
By Carol Hartman
9. A NIGHT WITHOUT ARMOR, Jewel Kilcher, Harper Collins, $15
This book sells because of who's on the cover. As one teenage boy told me, "Of course I'll buy it; Jewel's gorgeous." But being gorgeous doesn't make one a poet. The popular singer-songwriter does show promise in these poems about love, sex, childhood, and her travels. But most of the work contains just one good stanza or image. Her poetry is typical of beginning writers, and her young- angst wisdom will underwhelm most people over 23.
By Elizabeth Lund
10. UNSPEAKABLE, by Sandra Brown, Warner Books Inc., $25
This harsh tale of revenge and redemption involves Carl, an escaped convict, and his partner, Myron, who head to a small town in Texas to retaliate against those who put them in jail. These two are a study in amorality, and are never far from the thoughts of Ezzy, a retired sheriff, who suspects them of an unsolved murder 20 years earlier. Other characters include Anna, a deaf widow, and Jack, a ranch hand with a checkered past. Readers should be warned that this book contains graphic depictions of violence. By Leigh Montgomery
11. I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE, by Wally Lamb, HarperCollins, $28.50
Meet Dominick Birdsey, an emotionally troubled man, trying to save his paranoid-schizophrenic twin from both himself and the state. His family history is a catalog of every horror known to postwar America. While the sheer volume of catastrophes strains credibility, what raises this big, wrenching novel from "Jerry Springer Show" status is Wally Lamb's thoughtful, intelligent writing and the exploration of family and redemption. Contains much physical abuse, rape, and profanity.
By Yvonne Zipp
12. CITIES OF THE PLAIN, by Cormac McCarthy, Alfred A. Knopf, $25
Actions speak louder than words. McCarthy's protagonists, John Grady Cole and Billy Parham, heroes from the first two books of McCarthy's "Border Trilogy," do not talk much about friendship, honesty, love, and fate, but their actions show what those words mean as they work a ranch destined for nuclear testing. McCarthy's detailed descriptions of the world and what happens in it make this book and its predecessors so much more than just westerns. By Phelippe Salazar
13. THE LAST FULL MEASURE, by Jeffrey M. Shaara, Ballantine, $25
Shaara's fascinating novel about the Civil War tries to answer how the young country survived the conflict (see review, right). This is the final installment in a series begun by Shaara's father, Michael, with his bestseller about Gettysburg, "The Killer Angels." This new novel takes the story to its end: Lee's surrender at Appomattox. Shaara artfully blends novelistic license with a reverence for history. The chapters swing from gray to blue, with a strong concentration on the two giants: Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. By Keith Henderson
14. N IS FOR NOOSE, by Sue Grafton, Henry Holt & Co Inc, $25
Selma Newquist's husband has hired Kinsey Millhone, a private eye, to find out why her husband, Tom, had been depressed prior to his death. Millhone sets off for the town of Nota Lake where Tom had been on the police force. Sleepy Nota Lake has secrets to protect that the townsfolk are reluctant to give up. There is some crass language and graphic descriptions of violence. However Grafton's matter-of-fact style makes it inoffensive. This is a great summer read. By Jan Moller
15. BLACK AND BLUE, by Anna Quindlen, Random House, $22.50
Through the story of a courageous woman who flees her abusive husband, Quindlen deftly explores the rocky emotional terrain of love and marriage, choices and consequences. Fran Benedetto, a 38-year-old nurse, with the help of an underground network, secretly takes her 10-year-old son to a small Florida town where she gradually learns to overcome the isolation of her new fugitive life. The story carries the ring of truth. Its aching sadness is redeemed in part by its tender portrait of maternal love. By Marilyn Gardner
THE LAST FULL MEASURE
By Jeffrey Shaara
560 pp., $25.95
Americans may never stop peering back in wonder at their Civil War. How did the young country survive that terrible conflict? What did the men who shaped the conflict think as they led tens of thousands of their countrymen toward the carnage of the world's first modern war, with rifled guns, exploding shells, and rail transport vastly raising the toll in human lives?
Jeffrey Shaara's new novel tries to get at that last question. It's the final installment in a series of historical fiction begun by Shaara's father, Michael, with his bestseller about Gettysburg, "The Killer Angels." "The Last Full Measure" takes the story to its end: Lee's surrender at Appomattox.
Shaara artfully blends novelistic license with a deep reverence for history. The chapters swing from gray to blue, focusing on various battlefield leaders, with a strong concentration on the two giants: Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. Shaara draws Lee as a man convinced of the rightness of his cause, having had ample evidence early in the war that God was smiling on that cause.
A number of lesser characters get chapters as well. Foremost among these is Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a Maine religious professor turned general. Multiply wounded, Chamberlain rushes - despite a maddening tendency to stand back mentally and reflect on every thought and action - toward blood-stained, mud-caked heroism amid the chaos of battle.
Shaara's exploration of the thinking that shaped the war feeds our own thinking. This conflict still has something to teach us.