1. UNNATURAL EXPOSURE, by Patricia Cornwell, Putnam, $25.95
The latest - and far from the best - installment in the adventures of Virginia medical examiner Kay Scarpetta. Here we find her coping with various bureaucratic obstacles while searching for a killer who is infecting victims with a deadly virus and taunting our heroine via e-mail. The plot lurches to an abrupt end, and the writing offers slim rewards for wading through horrific descriptions of disease and death.
By David Cook
2. COLD MOUNTAIN, by Charles Frazier, Atlantic Monthly, $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
3. PLUM ISLAND, by Nelson DeMille, Warner, $25
Suspense, love interest (no long-winded descriptions, albeit replete with sexual innuendo and profanity), great characters, and humor - a welcome touch when murder is the subject. John Corey, New York city cop and a male-chauvinist to his core, is convalescing from gunshot wounds on the far northeastern shore of Long Island. Two of his new acquaintances are found murdered and the local police chief asks him to be a consultant on the case. By Janet Moller
4. THE PARTNER, by John Grisham, Doubleday, $26.95
John Grisham's latest involves a young law partner who fakes his death in a car crash, then absconds with $90 million from his firm. This thriller-cum-morality-tale has the hard edge of a Raymond Chandler; the brilliant legal maneuvering of an Erle Stanley Gardner; the surprise ending of an O. Henry or an Agatha Christie. People pay for their deeds, and friendship counts for something. Fans and new readers won't be disappointed. By Lawrence J. Goodrich
5. SPECIAL DELIVERY, by Danielle Steel, Delacorte, $16.95
This novella from the prolific romance author has her trademark niceties but overall is unremarkable. The action considers the idea of unexpected love and some of the ancillary surprises that occur later in life. Basically a sweet little work, "Special Delivery" gets pretty darn funny near the end. Readers should be prepared for some sexually explicit subject matter. By Terri Theiss
6. THE NOTEBOOK, by Nicholas Sparks, Warner, $16.95
"The Notebook" proves that good things come in small packages. It is all that "Love Story" wasn't. Sparks has a winning combination of style and story. It's a classic tale of love found, lost, and regained that maintains respect for the characters. Poetry and metaphoric description course through the book like the creek that runs alongside the couple's house. Prediction: It will be on this list for months, not weeks.
By Janet Moller
7. UP ISLAND, by Anne Rivers Siddons, HarperCollins, $24
Molly Redwine is the perfect wife/mother until her husband's affair wreaks havoc. Efforts to piece together her life prompt an escape to Martha's Vineyard. There she takes a job and gains newfound perspective. "Up Island" shows initial promise with telling descriptions of Atlanta's executive social circle and how divorce can disrupt one's place in it. But this tale of a woman's rebirth trips over clichs and falls flat. Disappointingly predictable. By Joanna P. Angelides
8. CHASING CEZANNE, by Peter Mayle, Knopf, $23
Peter Mayle's latest, "Chasing Czanne," is an improbable mix - equal parts detective thriller, farce, romance, and love letter to France. The result is a wickedly funny romp through the high-stakes world of international art that makes for perfect summer reading. Mayle's women tend to be little more than decorative, but his finest creation might just be the hilariously shallow and venal magazine editor, Camilla Jameson Porter. Take this one to the beach. By Nicole Gaouette
9. FAT TUESDAY, by Sandra Brown, Warner, $24
The latest romance/thriller by this author takes readers to New Orleans where a good cop gets even with a bad lawyer. The action includes intricate plot twists and the writing is as stylish as one would expect from Brown. Unfortunately, the characters are a bit stilted and the predictable plot is ultimately unsatisfying. The book contains explicit sexual scenes as well as foul language and some violence. By Terri Theiss
10. DECEPTION ON HIS MIND, by Elizabeth George, Bantam, $24.95
George fans will like her latest. Detective Barbara Havers misleads her supervisior into thinking she is spending a much needed vacation at the shore when in fact she is helping two of her friends solve a murder. The week involves more crime, racial prejudice, and cultural conflicts than are anyone's idea of "lazy days" on the beach. Not as dark as her previous two novels, descriptions of murder and sexual situations are explicit. But the story is compelling. By Janet Moller
11. LONDON, by Edward Rutherford, Crown, $25.95
This Chaucerian romp follows successive generations of eight families whose destinies intertwine throughout London's history. The story line jumps abruptly from century to century, rather like watching television when someone else has the remote, skipping to a new program just when you're getting into the old one. The most intriguing character is the city itself, which molds its inhabitants even as they build it. Should be read with a map by your side. By Barbara Petzen
12. APACHES, by Lorenzo Carcaterra, Ballantine, $25
This is a book to avoid if you're troubled by violence and gore that go well beyond the pale. With sickening descriptions of rape and other violent acts, the story reads more like the script for a cheap-thrills movie than anything approaching literature. The plot is obvious and the characters far more unappealing and perverse than those typically found in thrillers and horror novels. Find something else for your day at the beach. By Jim Bencivenga
13. THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS, by Arundahti Roy, Random House, $23
It's easy to see why first-time author Arundhati Roy's novel has captured so much attention. This tale of a deeply troubled family in the south Indian state of Kerala is ambitious - shuttling between past and present and juggling a host of characters, from seven-year-old twins Rahel and Estha to their English cousin, Sophie Mol. But, in the end, despite the unfolding tragedies, the story may leave some readers feeling strangely empty. By Suzanne MacLachlan
14. POWER OF A WOMAN, by Barbara Taylor Bradford, HarperCollins, $25
This rather perfunctory effort from bestselling author Bradford stars Stevie Jardine, owner of the jewelry store that caters to London's royalty. High-power career aside, she's got some mundane problems: trying to keep her job (her oldest boy thinks it's time Mommy retired), her daughter in school, and her twins on an even keel. A slow-moving plot and lack of suspense bog the book down. On the plus side: the main character's strength and generosity. By Yvonne Zipp
15. IF THIS WORLD WERE MINE, by E. Lynn Harris, Doubleday, $23.95
This tale from the bestselling author of "And This Too Shall Pass" is about thirtysomething African-Americans who rekindle college ties by forming a journal-sharing group. Members read excerpts to each other on everything from their life goals to romantic fantasies. The characters - who include "Buppies," an "Angry Black Male," and a gay psychiatrist - often seem hollow, though the book does explore the unique challenges of being black in America. By Abraham McLaughlin
OLD BOOKS, RARE FRIENDS: TWO LITERARY SLEUTHS AND THEIR SHARED PASSIONS
By Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern Doubleday, 275 pp., $21.95
Nearly 55 years ago, Madeleine Stern gave her best friend a present that changed the course of both women's lives. Knowing that her friend dreamed of becoming an antiquarian book dealer, Stern ordered business stationery reading "Leona Rostenberg - Rare Books." The following year, Rostenberg opened her "shop" in a vacant third-floor bedroom in her family's Bronx home. As she explains, "I could not waste all this marvelously engraved stationery."
In this charming joint autobiography, the two draw on memories, diaries, and letters to describe their eventual partnership in business and life.
Both women reveled in intellectual independence. Sharing a sense of humor and a love of adventure, they traveled widely in search of Renaissance books and French philosophes of the 18th-century. Their careers have broadened their male-dominated field. Stern launched the first Antiquarian Book Fair in the United States in 1960. And 13 years later, Rostenberg became president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, one of only three women to hold that post.
The two scholarly sleuths no longer climb bookstore ladders to explore the highest shelves, but retirement? It's a word lost on "the book ladies of the Bronx," who still find pleasure in the thrill of the chase.