1. 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
2. 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
3. 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
4. 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
5. 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
6. 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
7. 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
8. THE LONG ROAD HOME, by Danielle Steel, Delacorte Press, $25.95
Prepare for a tedious message of woman as victim. Abused by wealthy and loveless parents, young Gabriella Harrison finds herself abandoned at a convent when her parents' marriage falls apart. Years pass and a scandalous affair with a priest forces her out of the cloister. Later, an abusive boyfriend nearly kills her. If you must, save this book for the beach. The distraction of surf and sand will be a welcome relief. By Kendra Nordin
9. 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
10. PANDORA, by Anne Rice, Alfred A. Knopf, $19.95
This continuation of the vampire chronicles has some exemplary writing, but ultimately is uneven and hurried. The autobiography by a Roman noblewoman brought to the dark side is long on self-conscious description but short on story. Less gore, and more about her human choices and then observations as an immortal, would have made a better story.
By Terri Theiss
11. 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
12. 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
13. MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, by Arthur Golden, Alfred A. 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 renown, Golden shapes solid but predictable characters. Sexual situations are handled tastefully. By Kristina Lanier
14. A PATCHWORK PLANET, by Anne Tyler, Alfred A. Knopf, $24.50
Barnaby Gaitlin, a rebellious and crime-ridden teenager, is now an adult working for "Rent-a-Back," doing chores for elderly and disabled clients. Despite the work's giving nature, Barnaby receives only criticism from his unforgiving parents who believe his employment should have more of a reputation and permanent significance. Tyler is a specialist at portraying the pain of middle-class misfits and a master at bitter-sweet comedy. This is a delightful book. By Ron Charles
15. DAMASCUS GATE, by Robert Stone, Houghton Mifflin Co., $26
Christopher Lucas is an American journalist on assignment in Jerusalem to investigate religious fanatics. The setting is the early 1990s. The city, replete with its ancient mysteries, engulfs him. He finds himself enmeshed in an intricate web of eclectic personalities, many of whom intersect as part of a plot to bomb the sacred Temple Mount. No light summer reading here. Be prepared to sift through pages of details. At times the plot becomes so dense as to lose its way. By Kerry A. Flatley
LETTERS OF A NATION: A COLLECTION OF EXTRAORDINARY AMERICAN LETTERS
446 pp., $27
While this richly rewarding anthology contains letters of historic import written by famous Americans, it also includes equally fascinating letters written by ordinary Americans on all kinds of topics, public and private, political and personal.
The editor, Andrew Carroll, who is executive director of the American Poetry & Literacy Project, has put together a collection of some 200 letters from Colonial times to the present.
The first part of the book is devoted to epistles of historical significance: impressions of early settlers and later immigrants, letters about slavery, war, and social problems. The second part of the book is more personal: exploring humor, love, friendship, family, faith, and consolation.
Many of the letters are classics, like Abigail Adams's to her husband, John, asking him and his fellow-patriots to "Remember the Ladies" when framing their code of laws.
Some letters offer moving insights into the personal lives of figures like Emily Dickinson, or Albert Einstein. Others, like Groucho Marx's hilarious screed to Warner Bros., are clearly designed to entertain.
Whether moved by righteous anger, compassion, sorrow, or gratitude, most of the voices we hear in these letters share a basic decency. And while Carroll has carefully chosen letters reflecting both the darker and brighter sides of the American experience, the overall mood is one of hope.