THE TOP 15
1. 'L' Is For Lawless, by Sue Grafton, Holt, $24
The lastest Kinsey Millhone mystery, twelfth in Grafton's alphabet series, serves up a veritable stew of outrageous characters. The mystery is framed by the marriage of Millhone's octogenarian landlord's spry older brother to a maroon-haired Hungarian who runs a greasy spoon. Their impending nuptials and a nearsighted, gun-toting grandmother upstage the youngsters, who do nothing more original than look for stolen buried treasure. The ending is rather abrupt and unsatisfying. By Yvonne Zipp.
2. The Horse Whisperer, by Nicholas Evans, Delacorte Press, $23.95
The storyline is formulaic, cliche laden, and noticeably influenced by "The Bridges of Madison County." It depicts a strong tight- lipped Montana rancher able to see into the "soul" of horses, and a British cum New York successful magazine editor who experiences a midlife crisis when her daughter-on-horseback collides with a semi-truck. The editor finds herself in an extramarital affair with the rancher. Parental guilt about putting career first emotionally tugs throughout this soap-opera. By Jim Bencivenga.
3. COMING HOME, by Rosamunde Pilcher, St. Martin's Press, $25.95
A lovely, old-fashioned read set in Cornwall in the 1930s and '40s. Pilcher's smooth prose carries the reader effortlessly into the story of Judith Dunbar, an independent survivor who is left at school when her family moves to Singapore. She is soon swept up by the Carey-Lewises, a family whose prewar lives are as light and delicious as fizzy lemonade. Pilcher deftly recreates World War II England, chronicling the changes war brings to Judith and her adopted family with heartfelt insight. By Yvonne Zipp.
4. MORNING, NOON, AND NIGHT, by Sidney Sheldon, Morrow, $24
Sheldon's latest McNovel follows the lives of a billionaire who drowns at sea and his three inheritance-hungry offspring. Controversy and mystery appear when an illegitimate daughter shows up in Boston to meet her long-lost siblings and claim her share of the empire. The book reads like a TV movie, hardly a surprise considering that Sheldon is also a screenwriter. His page-turner is full of plot twists and red herrings, but most of the author's devices are borrowed or just plain predictable. By Kim Campbell.
5. BEACH MUSIC, by Pat Conroy, Doubleday/Talese, $27.50
Seemingly every memory, character, place, and event from not only Conroy's life, but also the lives of most of the people he's ever met are in this book. There is Conroy's own family, including abusive father, dying mother, and supportive siblings; the lush locations from Rome to South Carolina's coast; and defining moments in time, from high school to the Holocaust to Vietnam. "Beach Music" is told in elegant prose: lyrical, overblown, romantic. (Full review in Monitor, 6/29/95) By Michele Ross
6. FROM POTTER'S FIELD, by Patricia Cornwell, Scribner, $24
For first-time readers of Cornwell, this is not the best introduction to Richmond, Va.'s Kay Scarpetta, mistress of murder, autopsies, and the morgue. But Cornwell fans will love it. Much of the book takes place in the New York City subways, and the plot can be as difficult for readers to navigate as those subways are for out-of-towners. Two weaknesses are lack of credibility for the decidedly evil antagonist and Scarpetta's indecisiveness in her long-lasting affair with a married man. By Jim Bencivenga.
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 cliches such as the need to "become conscious of the coincidences in our lives." By Yvonne Zipp.
8. A PLACE CALLED FREEDOM, by Ken Follett, Crown, $25
Mack McAsh is a brawny and brilliant Scottish coal miner who smashes into the injustices of 18th century Britain and is almost smashed by them. He takes on greedy Highland mine owners and grimy London underworld bosses before emerging a free man on the far side of the Cumberland Gap in America's wilderness. The story is a breeze to read, heavily seasoned with tension, historical description, and occasional graphic sex. Characters are appealing, albeit a predictable plot. By Keith Henderson
9. Dead Man's Walk, by Larry McMurty, Simon & Schuster, $26
The author of "Lonesome Dove" digs deep into the heart of Texas to deliver his readers the formative years of the heroes of his earlier book, which was made into the TV series. Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call join the Texas Rangers - the good cowboys - for an adventurous ride to Santa Fe, N.M. Along the way, they must fight off Indians and Mexican bandits. Many of the tales are unbelievable and reflect a romanticized and extremely violent view of how the West was won. Stupid ending. By Faye Bowers.
10. MEMNOCH THE DEVIL, by Anne Rice, Knopf, $25
Well-written but with morbid overtones, Anne Rice's fifth book in her series of vampire chronicles questions the very essence of Judeo-Christian religion. Garishly painting the novel with her pallette of blood, Rice challenges perceptions of God and the devil, heaven and hell. The novel is definitely not for the pious (or squeamish), as it attempts to undermine traditional concepts of immortality. By Jim Bencivenga.
11. Stormy Weather by Carl Hiaasen, Knopf, $24
This "Pulp Fiction" like novel finds outsiders in Florida where they con profits from unfortunate residents after hurricane Andrew. The complex, well-developed plot revolves around the bizarre behavior of a grouping of profanity-sputtering misfits. The images of violence are vivid. Gruesome murders and sex-for-profit move the story along to an ending that rings true, given the characters Hiaasen creates. The author's love for Florida prior to its development shows throughout. By Janet C. Moller.
12. The Rainmaker, by John Grisham, Doubleday, $25.95
Grisham's characters have depth and complexity. Subplots complement but don't interfere with the main event, which is a first-person tale revolving around Rudy Baylor, a graduating law student from a Southern university. He stumbles onto his first clients at a senior-citizens center. From crossing the t's and dotting the i's on wills to major medical malpractice suits, this book offers a legal tour de force of litiginous American society. Grisham fully up to speed. By Lawrence J. Goodrich.
13. Lightning, by Danielle Steel, Delacorte, $24.95
The premise of a once-blissful married couple trying to survive her illness and his career implosion is interesting, but the story is unsatisfying to the point of irritating. Her illness, which Steel catalogs in graphic detail, is overwritten, while his troubles are treated perfunctorily. After the depiction of his horrible behavior toward her, the handling of her choice between her husband and another man is cliche-ridden and unrealistic. Better she walk from both of them and readers from this book. By Terri Theiss.
14. A Long Fatal Love Chase, by Louisa May Alcott, Random House, $21
This recently uncovered romantic thriller by the famous writer combines sometimes stilted Victorian language with a truly 20th century twist: a woman terrorized by a stalker who won't give up. After Rosamund, an innocent teenage beauty, marries a captivating cad, his true evil character emerges. She flees. And flees. She: resolute, spunky, and virtuous. He: a devil of a stalker. The helpers: a kind ex-wife, a loving priest. The chase: The title tells all. Swiftly paced, with lots of plot twists. By Catherine Foster.
15. The Bridges of Madison County, by Robert James Waller, Warner, $16.95
A love story by Robert James Waller that is not great literature. One popular response to the book is to sneer at it. Yet despite its obvious flaws, including florid and awkward writing, it is an affecting novel that has held on to a spot on the bestseller list for more than three years. It is the story of Robert Kincaid, a photographer on assignment in Iowa, and Francesca Johnson, an Italian-born farm wife. They meet, fall in love, have an adulterous affair, and are never the same again. By Suzanne MacLachlan.