1. 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 bestselling 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. I WAS AMELIA EARHART, by Jane Mendelsohn, Simon & Schuster, $18
The author has composeed this novel as a sequence of short, sparely written, almost visionary passages. Third-person descriptions of Earhart and Fred Noonan (her hapless navigatior) alternate with first-person accounts in Earhart's voice. They reflect the thoughts, memories, emotions, and longings that propelled this woman into a life of flight. The writing throughout is terse, austerely lyrical, and the emphasis is on the subjective and psychologocial. It is a paean to the ultimate escape. By Merle Rubin.
6. 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.
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. A CROWN OF SWORDS, by Robert Jordan, Tor, $27.95
To understand the mythical power struggles of this book, it is necessary to read the previous six books in the Wheel of Time series. Rand al'Thor - the Dragon Reborn - draws ever closer to the Last Battle as a killing heat grips the world. The scenes lack nuanced detail and fail to stimulate the imagination. There is a complex hierarchy of authority (the use of mental channeling by special classes of women to get what they desire and to destroy opponents) all in a fierce quest for power. By Jim Bencivenga.
9. 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.
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. 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.
12. ACCORDION CRIMES, by E. Annie Proulx, Scribner, $25
The design of this novel by a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer is grand: to paint a panorama of America's complex, often poignant, immigrant heritage, linking cameo portraits of Italians, Germans, French, Mexicans, Irish, Africans, Norwegians with the hand-me-down history of a small button accordion. But the execution, while elegantly written, is a catalog of gruesome death and meaningless doom, described in bizarre detail on almost every page; ultimately, it is both ludicrous and depressing. By Ruth Wales.
13. MOONLIGHT BECOMES YOU, by Mary Higgins Clark, Simon & Schuster, $24
The latest from Mary Higgins Clark is an eminently readable mystery, with an intelligent voice and an eye for detail. The protagonist is a gutsy photographer who must solve the tragic murder of her stepmother and sudden deaths of two of her stepmother's friends. Set in Newport, R.I., the action concerns romance and riches, both hidden and displayed. The ending is a bit predictable but does not detract from a stylish story.
By Terri Theiss.
14. 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, 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 distortion. Moments of painful insight segue confidently into bits of dry humor. By Michelle Ross.
15. 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.
BESTSELLER RANKING FROM PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, JULY 15, 1996