1. FLOOD TIDE, by Clive Cussler, Simon & Schuster, $26
Nearly done in by his previous caper, Dirk Pitt tries to get some badly needed R&R by the shores of a pristine lake in Washington State. Instead of finding peace and quiet, he finds a way station - and killing ground - for hapless Chinese immigrants illegally smuggled into the United States. Pitt must track down the ringleader, a powerful Chinese shipping magnate, by following a trail that leads from Hong Kong and the Mississippi River to the White House. "Flood Tide" is Cussler's best Dirk Pitt novel yet. By Peter N. Spotts
2. THE ANGEL of darkness, by Caleb Carr, Random House, $25.95
Maverick 19th-century psychologist Lazlo Kriezler, the intrepid feminist Sarah Howard, and the rest of the cast from Carr's critically acclaimed mystery "The Alienist" try to rescue a kidnapped baby from a nurse who may have a history of murdering children. The writing is first-rate, the research meticulous, and the villain particularly malevolent. Historical figures, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Theodore Roosevelt, and lawyer Clarence Darrow, pepper the pages, but Carr raises this device beyond the level of a gimmick. By Yvonne Zipp
3. 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
4. UNDERWORLD, by Don DeLillo, Scribner, $27.50
DeLillo's magisterial, yet at times tedious, book is a celebratory wake for nuclear weapons. The author looks back on the last half of the 20th century in the US. He sees a period of great denial; denial that nuclear Armageddon hung over the lives of everyone, every day, everywhere. But DeLillo finds much to celebrate from the national pastime, to growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s, to the advancement of civil rights. "Underworld" requires much effort to read. Its "bigness" makes it worthwhile. By Jim Bencivenga
5. 10 LB. PENALTY, by Dick Francis, Putnam, $24.95
Dick Francis's latest thriller ventures into the hostile arena of British politics and muckraking tabloid journalism. This time, his trademark honorable hero is a horse-mad son, supporting a politically ambitious father through the challenges of a parliamentary by-election. Gentler than many previous works - it lacks the high-octane thrills and graphic violence of the genre - "10 Lb. Penalty" is a satisfying read with well-observed supporting characters lifted whole from the British countryside. By Melissa Bennetts
6. TIMEQUAKE, by Kurt Vonnegut, Putnam, $23.95
It is hard to decide whether to categorize this book as fiction or autobiography. "Timequake" mixes reminiscences of Vonnegut's childhood and working years with a fictional account of the years from 1997 to 2010. In 2001, time gets tired of moving forward, and skips everyone back to 1991. Forced to relive the last 10 years of their lives without the chance to change anything that has occurred, people forget how to exercise free will. Profanity and explicit imagery may not be to everyone's taste. By James Turner
7. NIGHT PASSAGE, by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, $21.95
Robert B. Parker has won a devoted following for his bestselling series featuring Spenser, the laconic Boston detective. "Night Passage" is an engaging start to a new series of Parker detective novels. Here the hero is Jesse Stone, a former Los Angeles cop. Stone moves to a small New England town and struggles to rebuild his life and beat an addiction to alcohol while coping with being the town's new police chief. Paramilitary machinations, Boston mob ties, and a local who wants to kill him drive the action in this debut. By David Cook
8.THE BEST LAID PLANS, by Sidney Sheldon, Morrow, $25
Leslie Stewart, who is madly in love with Oliver Russell, is publicly jilted by him. She sets out to destroy him. While he becomes governor and then president, she establishes a newspaper and television empire. She uses the power of the press for revenge. In the world of politics, it is easy to find or manufacture scandal, especially with evidence of womanizing, drugs, and untimely death thrown in. "The Best Laid Plans" has many allusions to recent news events, including the danger for journalists in Sarajevo. By Carol Hartman
9. THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS, by Arundhati 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
10. TEMPLE OF THE WINDS, by Terry Goodkind, Tor, $26.95
Richard (the new Lord Rahl) faces his toughest battle yet in the fourth of Goodwin's epic fantasy series. Richard must protect his lands and constituents from the evil Emperor Jajang of the Imperial Order and his demonic underlings. Good, of course, triumphs over evil. Goodwin is not a Tolkien. But his fanciful characters - especially the women with magic powers - and capricious action make the book come alive.
By Faye Bowers
11. 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
12. DEJA DEAD, by Kathy Reichs, Scribner, $24
A bright forensic anthropologist discovers that several female murder victims were brutally tortured in similar ways. Stepping on the toes of various Montreal policemen, she turns into the sleuth who proves there is a serial killer out there and almost single-handedly finds him. Intense, bone-chilling suspense, patterned after all those other bestsellers, provides intense, grisly forensic detail. A la the late Dorothy Parker: This isn't a book that should be tossed aside lightly; it should be thrown with great force. By Faye Bowers
13. MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, by Arthur Golden, Knopf, $25
Golden's debut novel unlocks the world of a traditional geisha. Told through the voice of Sayuri, a young girl sold into the near slavery of a geisha house in the early 1930s, the story offers a historically enlightening glimpse of this age-old element of Japanese culture. Tracing Sayuri's emergence from lowly maid to geisha of reknown, Golden shapes solid, but predictable, characters. Sexual situations handled tastefully.
By Kristi Lanier
14. 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
15. REIGN IN HELL, by William Diehl, Ballantine, $25
Taking a cue from Milton's "Paradise Lost," "Better to reign in hell, than serve in heav'n," Diehl's third book in the Martin Vail series finds the Illinois DA answering the president's call to bring racketeering charges against a militia leader and his group of white supremacists who have declared war on the US government. Vail also crosses paths with an ex-client, Aaron Stampler, who is now a radical Christian radio preacher. This is a well-researched glimpse into extremist groups and an engaging story. By Leigh Montgomery